Senior editor Nate Blakeslee on breaking the Texas Youth Commission scandal.
texasmonthly.com: How did you originally come across this story for the Texas Observer?
Nate Blakeslee: I got a tip from Isela Gutierrez, who is an advocate for juvenile corrections reform here in Austin. She had heard from a source at the Capitol that there was a Texas Rangers report containing some stunning allegations about two TYC officials at a facility in the West Texas town of Pyote, who, for some reason, had never been indicted. If the allegations were true, it was clearly a story that needed to be turned around fast, so after conferring with my editor here at Texas Monthly, I decided to do it for the Texas Observer, which comes out twice as often. At that time, very few people had seen the report, but the executive editor of the Observer, Jake Bernstein, managed to get me in touch with somebody who had a copy. I spent an afternoon reading what was in it and collecting other key documents in the story, including evidence that higher-ups at TYC had taken steps to cover for one another in the wake of the Rangers’ investigation. Then I spent a few days doing interviews in West Texas, came back, and filed the story.
texasmonthly.com: What were the most important interviews you got for this story?
NB: One of the most troubling was an interview with Randy Reynolds, the district attorney who failed to prosecute Ray Brookins and John Paul Hernandez, the two targets of the Rangers’ investigation. Reynolds maintains a law practice on the side, which I knew was not unusual in rural areas, but he seemed uncommonly hard to find for a public official. When I pulled up at the Ward County Courthouse in Monahans, I asked three sheriff’s deputies standing outside if they could direct me to Reynolds’s office. They all scratched their heads. It turned out that Reynolds didn’t have an office in the courthouse, which seemed strange to me. I found out later that he didn’t have an office in the courthouses in the other two counties in which he was the chief prosecutor. I had heard that Reynolds was unpopular with local law enforcement because he was so reluctant to prosecute cases they made. It hadn’t occurred to me that these two alleged perpetrators might have walked free and, in the case of Hernandez, begun working with kids again simply because somebody couldn’t be bothered to do his job. Yet when I finally caught up with Reynolds at his law office in Pecos, he didn’t really have any good reason for not having moved forward with the cases, and beyond that, he seemed strangely uninformed about the allegations against Hernandez and Brookins. As it turned out, the fate of these two cases was not an aberration. After the Pyote story broke, the Associated Press reported that Reynolds had declined to prosecute 90 percent of the felony cases brought to him by Ward County police in recent years.
texasmonthly.com: How did you manage to get John Paul Hernandez to talk?
NB: I had heard that Hernandez was the principal of a charter school for high school age students in Midland. This was amazing to me, given the allegations in the Rangers report and the fact that he could not possibly have gotten a good reference from the Texas Youth Commission. The school was in a strip mall in Midland, and I just walked in and asked for him at the end of a school day as the kids were leaving. He agreed to sit down with me in his office. He was genuinely surprised to hear that I had come to ask him about the Pyote investigation. He had not heard from authorities about the case in at least eighteen months, and he assumed, reasonably enough, that he would never be prosecuted.
texasmonthly.com: What do you think will happen next? Will this force Texas to move toward the Missouri model of youth corrections you described in your story?
NB: I think we will see the system continue to shrink as reforms are put into place, provided the backlash from prosecutors and judges does not get too much heavier. The key seems to be getting the right personnel in place at agency headquarters and at the facilities themselves. Mark Steward, who developed the Missouri model, said that there were never any mass firings of staff in Missouri. He said once they started moving to a therapeutic model and away from a punitive, prison-style system, the people who didn’t “get it” just kind of drifted away and moved on to other careers.