Gregory Ott, Texas Department of Criminal Justice #282372, is the pluperfect inmate, the poster boy for the way a parole system ought to work. For more than two decades the TDCJ has repeatedly taken note of his cooperation, work ethic, initiative, upbeat attitude, and selflessness. As one corrections officer noted in a letter to the Board of Pardons and Paroles, Ott “is almost an alien in this environment, portraying characteristics that would qualify him as a model citizen.” In 1982 Ott risked his life to save a guard who was being attacked by another inmate. “He put his life on the line for that officer,” recalled David Christian, who was the warden of the Darrington Unit at the time. In 1994 he probably saved an entire wing of inmates and guards at Darrington. Ott was the boiler room attendant one night when three prisoners who were staging a breakout beat him and bound him with tape, then killed the power to the boiler despite Ott’s warning that they were about to blow up the whole building. Ott somehow wormed his way out the door and alerted the guards minutes before the boiler would have exploded. His only infraction in all that time was ordering forms from the Internal Revenue Service to pay tax on money he’d made handcrafting leather goods: IRS tax forms are considered contraband by the TDCJ. Since he first became eligible for parole, in 1990, dozens of guards and wardens—and even Jerry Cobb, the Denton County district attorney who sent him to prison with a life sentence in 1978—have written letters urging his parole. Yet Ott remains incarcerated; only .02 percent of TDCJ’s 153,000 prisoners have been inside longer than Greg Ott.
So why is he still behind bars? Because Ott was convicted of killing a Texas Ranger, and the Rangers are not about to let the parole board forget it—even though this was far from a case of cold-blooded murder. Ranger Bobby Paul Doherty was shot during a poorly planned, sloppily executed drug raid that Ott, then a 27-year-old graduate student at North Texas State, mistook for a robbery attempt. Twice the parole board has been agreeable to Ott’s release, but each time he got the necessary two votes from a three-member panel, the Rangers flooded the board with angry protests and somebody backed down. The Rangers are effectively exercising veto power over Greg Ott’s freedom, and the Board of Pardons and Paroles—the same agency that has come under a national spotlight this year as the last resort before Death Row inmates are executed—is letting the Rangers get away with it.
For 22 years I have thought about what happened that night in February 1978 at the farmhouse outside of Denton where Ott lived. I wrote about the improbable series of events that inextricably linked the fate of the student and the Ranger in a cover story for the August 1978 issue of Texas Monthly titled “ The Death of a Texas Ranger.” In less time than it takes to read this paragraph, the lives of two men and their families were destroyed over a few pounds of weed. The raid was one of the most tragic, senseless, and shameful episodes in our endless war on drugs, which began as the Nixon administration’s response to the excesses and political chaos of the sixties. We can see now that it was a cultural and generational war as much as it was a crusade against illicit substances, that it was too often directed at harmless people like Greg Ott, and that it was intrinsically unwinnable. But that wasn’t so clear back then.
In the seventies cops made no differentiation—or didn’t know enough to differentiate—between professional dealers and little guys like Ott. In the confusion that February night, Doherty never saw the man who shot him: The bullet passed through a closed door maybe two seconds after an undercover agent inside the house fired at Ott. Nor did Ott see Bob Doherty. I don’t think Ott even knew this was a drug raid, or that his house was surrounded by police officers. He did know that he had been robbed on two previous occasions; in one a woman friend was beaten with a shotgun. I am certain that Ott didn’t knowingly, willfully shoot a police officer, and so was the jury at his trial, otherwise the sentence would have been death and this story would have been buried years ago.
Still haunted by the memory, still trying to sort through the events and assess the blame, I returned this spring to the scene and talked again to the people involved. A lot of mistakes were made, I know now, some of them by me. I had assumed all these years, just as the cops had assumed that night, that Ott was a major drug dealer. My recent investigation convinces me otherwise. Ott smoked a lot of marijuana and sold lids to friends—usually at cost—but he wasn’t a dealer except in the narrowest sense. This whole tragic affair began with a big lie, and the lies and distortions have escalated through the years. Some of them were inadvertent, people careless with what they reported or bending to preconceptions, but together they have greatly enhanced the campaign to ensure that Ott remains behind bars. The campaign has likewise benefited from a change in our attitudes about crime. Once we used to talk about rehabilitating criminals, but our failed drug policy and failed parole policy have hardened us. Now we think mainly of retribution.
We’ll never know exactly what happened the night Ranger Doherty was killed, but one thing is clear: Greg Ott wasn’t a threat to society until the cops invaded his home, and he hasn’t been a threat since. It’s time to parole him.
Ott lived alone in 1978. he had graduated summa cum laude in psychology from North Texas State and worked five nights a week on his master’s thesis in philosophy, an effort to compare Heidegger’s phenomenology with Zen haiku poetry.