True Crime

Catfishing and Conspiracy in Groves

A young city councilman’s Grindr photos were leaked, and he now faces a recall election. Was there a conspiracy to oust him, and did it come from inside City Hall?

Cross Coburn
Cross Coburn. Photograph by Justin Calhoun

Cross Coburn was 19 years old and only four months into his political career when the envelope that threatened to destroy it arrived at Groves City Hall. A drama major at Lamar State-Port Arthur, Coburn had wanted to go into politics since he was a child. Sparked by the turbulent 2016 presidential election, in which he supported Bernie Sanders, Coburn filed for the city council election in his Ward 1, submitting his candidacy on August 18, just three days before the deadline expired.

Coburn is young, idealistic, progressive, and openly gay; Groves, a refinery town in the shadow of Beaumont and Port Arthur, skews older (the average age is 39, about four years older than the statewide average) and conservative (Donald Trump carried 75 percent of the vote here in 2016). Coburn didn’t know how the election would turn out, but he figured he’d get some good campaign experience either way. But then on August 21, the Ward 1 incumbent, Jim Rasa, unexpectedly announced he was stepping down, leaving the door wide open for Coburn, who, as it turned out, was the only person to file for Rasa’s seat. “I felt I had my shot and it’s time for a fresh face, new ideas and fresh perspective,” Rasa told the Port Arthur News. “I wish [Coburn] good fortune and great success.”

Never before in Groves had a 19-year-old progressive-minded gay man held a public position of power. Few of the city’s leaders knew what to think of Coburn. The same conservative, cliquey old guard had held a tight grip on the city’s political and social scene for nearly two decades. It had been ten years since Mayor Brad P. Bailey or any of the sitting council members had even drawn an election opponent. City manager D.E. Sosa told me he can remember only two or three city elections held in Groves since he entered office fifteen years ago. “There’s a dynastic approach to leadership in Groves,” one former resident told me. “It’s always been the same group of people.”

Residents apparently have not minded—most have been unconcerned with local politics, and city council meetings were usually held before empty chambers. Bailey, councilman Sidney Badon, and councilman Kyle Hollier would often vote as a bloc, with councilwoman Karen Theis (a close family friend of Coburn’s) occasionally deviating, which has put her at odds with a few of them, Hollier especially. In 2013, Hollier publicly accused Theis of getting preferential treatment from the city after she had fallen behind on her business’s water bill, and she is sure Hollier started a salacious rumor that spread around town this past spring, alleging that Theis, a 54-year-old single woman with short gray hair, is secretly a lesbian (she is not). Theis and Hollier no longer speak to each other. “He’s been very difficult to deal with,” Theis told me. “I don’t like him at all.”

Relations between Coburn and his elder council colleagues were cold, if uneventful, for his first few months in office. Then on February 27, Coburn received a text message from city manager D.E. Sosa. “The mayor asked that I contact you about meeting with him tomorrow at the police station,” Sosa wrote. Coburn found Sosa’s text unnerving, even more so because Sosa couldn’t tell him what the meeting was about. “All I know is that it is a personal matter,” Sosa texted Coburn. The next day, Coburn arrived at the police station with his attorney, Jill Swearingen Pierce, a friend of the family who had known Coburn since he was in middle school. They were led to one of the station’s interview rooms. Mayor Bailey sat at a table with a large manila envelope placed before him.

“This was sent to us anonymously,” Bailey said, according to Coburn. He slid the envelope over to Swearingen Pierce, and she took out the nine pages of paper that were inside. On the first page was a typed note that read, “Is this in any way proper behavior of a councilman to represent himself online or a ‘dating’ app? I felt the City Council should be made aware of the situation.” Along with the note were full-page printouts of cell phone screen captures showing Coburn’s profile on Grindr, a gay dating app. The screen captures showed a Grindr text conversation between Coburn and an unknown user, and the text conversation included several nude selfies that Coburn had sent.

On the first page was a typed note that read, “Is this in any way proper behavior of a councilman to represent himself online or a ‘dating’ app? I felt the City Council should be made aware of the situation.”

Anyone can make a profile on Grindr, a cell phone app aimed at adult gay men seeking relationships with other gay men, including casual sex and sexting, and users often know few details about the person on the other end of their conversations—only a first name, age, proximity, and a few photos that often do not include a face or any identifying features. (Coburn’s profile had shown his face and his first name.) Grindr’s safety guidelines discourage using identifying information: not everyone who uses the app is openly gay, and there are obvious risks of being outed, especially in more conservative communities like Groves. Though Grindr is considered by those in the LGBT community to be a safe way for gay and trans men to connect with each other, the risks beyond outing include being “catfished”—ensnared by a user who has created a fake or misleading profile, and then extorted or blackmailed over the compromising information that was shared.

Coburn is confident that he was catfished. He didn’t remember to whom he had sent those photos, and the printouts in the envelope were carefully edited so as not to reveal anything about the Grindr profile on the other end of the conversation. Coburn had deleted the app from his phone, which wiped his profile’s history and made it impossible to track down the remaining details of this interaction. While it was clear that the photos had been exchanged with consent and Coburn hadn’t done anything illegal, he felt like Mayor Bailey was interrogating him. Bailey told Coburn he intended to call the Texas Rangers or the FBI to investigate, but that he would not do so if Coburn simply resigned.

Swearingen Pierce, meanwhile, was unfazed. She quickly flipped through the pages of photos. Yeah, whatever, that’s a penis, she thought. Big deal. She told Mayor Bailey they would take some time to think things over. Coburn weighed whether to resign. He knew that if he stayed on the council, it would be difficult to work with Bailey and the others after they had seen these photos, and he apparently faced the possibility of an invasive city investigation into … well, what exactly, he was still unsure. He felt like he was being strong-armed into potentially giving up his council seat.

Jill Swearingen Pierce and Cross Coburn in Pierce’s office at Bradley & Steele on October 29, 2018.Photograph by Justin Calhoun

When Bailey called Coburn a few days later and told him he needed an answer or the city would open an investigation, Coburn again wondered what Bailey was planning to investigate—the person who apparently catfished him, or his private exchange of naked photos on a gay dating app? He asked Bailey what he was really being asked to decide on. “Now I’m getting pissed,” Bailey said, according to Coburn. He told Coburn that he needed to act like an adult and take responsibility for his actions, and that he could not run away from his past. “I just told him, ‘All right, well, you have a great day, Mayor. I’m not going to resign,’” Coburn told me later. “And that was the end of diplomatic relations.”

Mayor Bailey considered his options. City manager D.E. Sosa asked the city attorney what they could do to remove Coburn from the city council. On Monday, March 5, the city attorney emailed Sosa, informing him that they could not get rid of Coburn on their own—they would need a citizen-driven petition for a recall election. It appeared as though Bailey’s hands were tied; the public did not know about the nude photos, so they had no reason to circulate a petition against Coburn.

Then, later that week, an envelope containing Coburn’s nude photos was mailed to the Port Arthur News and the newsroom at KFDM, the local CBS affiliate, accompanied by the same typed note that was sent to the city. They ran stories about Coburn’s nude photos the following Tuesday.

Thus began the unraveling of Groves. Already wracked with post–Hurricane Harvey tensions—the city was hit with 60.54 inches of rain, the second highest amount in Texas—the Coburn controversy has clawed at the finely woven threads that keep a small community like this together. Coburn told the media that he believed himself to be the victim of a city government conspiracy to kick him out of office because he’s young and gay. Arguments broke out in the comment sections of the city’s several active neighborhood Facebook groups. Some defended Coburn and agreed that he had done nothing wrong but was instead a victim of bigotry. Others claimed his sexual preference was irrelevant, but said what he did was “immoral” and that as a councilman he is held to a higher standard than the average citizen. But unlike other politicians’ sexting scandals, such as that of former New York congressman Anthony Weiner or Texas congressman Joe Barton, which had involved adulterous, predatory, or even criminal acts, Coburn had legally exchanged his photos with a consenting adult under a reasonable expectation of privacy. There was confusion among commenters over what Grindr is, and some mistakenly believed Coburn had posted the photos in a public forum. Among Coburn’s supporters there was intense anger at the older guard; his detractors spread rumors about Coburn, alluding to a supposed sordid past and claiming that he and councilwoman Theis had been plotting to take over the city.

An administrator of the “Groves Texas Neighbors Helping Neighbors” Facebook group, which has nearly 2,800 members, had to ban all posts about Coburn because the conversations too frequently devolved into pools of vitriol. One Facebook commenter wrote that Coburn was “a self-entitled little faggot prick.” Swearingen Pierce had to send another commenter a cease-and-desist letter after he repeatedly posted unsubstantiated rumors about Coburn.

“It’s a very gossipy little town,” Kolby Duhon, a 27-year-old Groves native who moved to Austin six years ago, told me. “But I don’t ever recall it being divisive like this.” The weeks and months in Groves since Coburn’s photos were leaked have produced a nonstop airing of everybody’s dirty laundry. Many people who spoke to me requested anonymity out of fear that they would face retribution in town for speaking freely about what was happening. At the heart of all of this, of course, is Coburn, who refuses to back down amid what he feels is nothing more than an old-school public shaming driven by implicit homophobia.

The people of Groves packed into City Hall’s small council chambers for the next scheduled meeting after the nude photos were leaked to the media. Coburn sat stoically two seats to Mayor Bailey’s right as Bailey told the room that the city concluded Coburn had done nothing illegal, and that he could not do anything about Coburn himself. It was up to them, Bailey said, to put together a petition. Groves resident William Lane Howlett quickly took on that task, seeking a November election to recall Coburn. By May, it had garnered more than 1,000 signatures, including those of Mayor Bailey and Councilman Sidney Badon—each of whose wives circulated several of the petition’s signature pages—and Councilman Hollier, who circulated some pages himself.

Groves city council meeting
The city council meeting at Groves City Hall on Monday, October 29, 2018. Photograph by Justin Calhoun

The first time somebody called Coburn a faggot, he was in fifth grade. Every day, he’d walk home from Groves Elementary and pass the Stop-N-Drive corner store on 39th Street, a popular spot where kids often rode their bikes to hang out after school. Every day, the same boy would yell at him as he walked by. Coburn brushed it off at first. He was more effeminate than most boys his age, but he had not yet come to terms with his sexuality—he was too young, and he didn’t really understand why so many of his classmates thought he was gay. He was already confused and angry—earlier that year, Coburn’s father had killed himself after struggling with drug addiction. When Coburn’s bully found out about his father’s death, his taunts reached new levels of cruelty.

During the last week of school, Coburn again passed the corner store on his walk home, and again the other boy was there to call him a faggot. This time, Coburn could no longer keep his emotions in check. He knocked the boy to the ground and repeatedly punched and kicked him.

When middle school started next fall, the boy no longer called Coburn a faggot. But at that point, other kids started asking him questions—Are you gay? Do you like guys?—and pestering him about gay sex. Coburn didn’t make many friends and retreated into himself. He’d often come home from school, sit on his bed, and just stare at the wall to decompress. In eighth grade he started dating a girl, but soon realized it didn’t feel natural. He wrote the girl a note explaining why he wanted to break up with her, and she in turn outed him to the rest of the school. So Coburn wrote a long post on Facebook, officially coming out as bisexual—he did not necessarily think that he liked girls, but he figured it would be more socially palatable to be bisexual than to just come out as gay.

During the last week of fifth grade, Coburn again passed the corner store on his walk home, and again the other boy was there to call him a faggot.

As Coburn continued to grapple with his sexual identity and with the loss of his father, the bullying continued. Coburn turned to video games and online chatting for social interaction. “I endured years of just people questioning, [telling me] what they thought I should feel,” Coburn told me later. “When you have no other outlet, you burst at the seams sometimes.” In a Facebook chat with a few other kids from school, Coburn and his classmates joked about taking over the school and shooting the kids they didn’t like. “I was trying to make myself feel like I was actually in control of my life,” Coburn told me. “Subconsciously I knew that I wasn’t.”

His Facebook comments got back to school officials, and one day he was pulled out of gym class and told to go to the principal’s office, where two police officers were waiting for him. After hours of questioning, Coburn tearfully admitted to writing the Facebook messages. He was escorted out of the school in handcuffs, still wearing his gym clothes. “It was my lowest point,” Coburn told me.

A police car took him to Minnie Rogers Juvenile Justice Center, nestled between the county jail and a state prison. The police searched his home but found no weapons or plans for violence, according to Swearingen Pierce, who had been hired by Coburn’s family to represent him. But this was post–Sandy Hook—any perceived threat was taken seriously. Coburn was charged with a Class B misdemeanor and spent a month in juvenile detention.

For the first two weeks, he cried himself to sleep in his concrete cell. Out of boredom, he’d tear pieces of toilet paper and fashion them into small dolls. He checked out library books about drug addiction, hoping to find out more about what his dad had gone through. He kept to himself, though the other kids in juvie eventually assigned him a nickname: “Feminine.”

By the time Coburn had finished a required juvenile boot camp, summer had ended and he was about to start high school. Students from another middle school filtered into his class, and it was a chance for Coburn to start fresh. The bullying dissipated and he found a small group of friends he could confide in. Still, he was the only openly gay kid in his class. “All the girls would say that I was their gay best friend, which is just a stereotype,” he told me. “Then you have the jocks that couldn’t even look at you, which I always though was funny, because I dressed very nice.” There was no organized support system—Coburn said some upperclassmen had tried to start an LGBT club, but their efforts were shot down by school administrators.

Coburn got decent grades, became interested in history and politics, and stayed out of trouble. When he graduated and started college, he thought his middle school juvie stint was behind him. But it has resurfaced since his Grindr photos were leaked. Rumors spread that Coburn had been compiling a “hit list.” One Facebook commenter wrote that Coburn had “called in bomb threats.”

Oil refineries in Groves form a skyline of sorts for the city, on October 29, 2018. Photograph by Justin Calhoun
First Baptist Church in Groves
The front exterior of First Baptist Church in Groves on October 29, 2018. Photograph by Justin Calhoun
Left: Oil refineries in Groves form a skyline of sorts for the city, on October 29, 2018. Photograph by Justin Calhoun
Top: The front exterior of First Baptist Church in Groves on October 29, 2018. Photograph by Justin Calhoun

Like many refinery towns on the Gulf, Groves is devoutly religious. There are about fifteen churches in Groves, two and a half per square mile. Most of them are Baptist and lean fundamentalist. God is very much ingrained in society here—each city council meeting begins with a prayer—and Pastor Joe Worley’s First Baptist Church is perhaps the most influential of the city’s churches.

Swearingen Pierce, 51, attended First Baptist while growing up in Groves. When she was growing up, she says, it was impossible to be openly gay in Groves. Sexuality was not a permitted topic of discussion, and the oppressiveness could have devastating implications. “My sister killed herself when she was fifteen years old,” Swearingen Pierce said. “And I’m pretty sure it’s because she was gay and lived in Groves.”

As LGBT rights slowly rose to the forefront of the national consciousness, the issue became  particularly divisive in Groves. In 2006, as President George W. Bush pushed Congress to pass the ill-fated “Federal Marriage Amendment,” which would have officially defined marriage in the United States as a union between a man and a woman, a middle-aged elementary school principal in the Port Neches-Groves Independent School District was arrested in a sting operation at a park in Beaumont for allegedly soliciting sex in a men’s restroom. The man was also a deacon at First Baptist, and after his arrest and outing he was essentially banned from the church, a 27-year-old gay Groves man and former First Baptist member told me.

“He went down in flames,” he said. “He was ostracized by the community. That memory still sticks with me, and I find myself talking about it with people several times a year, just how salacious all the details were. It reminds me of what’s going on now.”

Before the recall petition picked up steam, Coburn heard that a group of local religious leaders had met to discuss the controversy over his nude photos. Worley reached out to Coburn, and they met in Worley’s office at First Baptist in March. Worley told Coburn that he had been in contact with Mayor Bailey and the author of the petition, William Lane Howlett, and Worley assured Coburn that if he made a public apology and promised to resign at the end of the year, then the petition would go away and the recall election would not happen.

Coburn again felt he was being pressured to step down. As he considered the possibility of resigning and putting an end to what was becoming an increasingly bitter battle, he wondered why a local pastor was inserting himself into what seemed to be first and foremost a matter of city politics.

“I hate to say this, but I think Worley got involved because they don’t like homosexuals,” another former church member told me. “I don’t know anybody gay that goes there. They don’t agree with that lifestyle. They probably think getting him off the council will save our community or something. They only see their way. They know the power they have over the community. If people see Worley’s name, they will side with him and follow his lead.”

On May 3, Worley texted Coburn, asking him if he’d had the chance to think about what they discussed during their meeting. Worley promised again that with a few quick phone calls to the mayor and Howlett, the petition would be dropped. “An apology and [a] … resignation date of the end of 2018 is all that is needed,” Worley wrote. “I promise my support for you throughout.” Coburn said he needed more time to pray about his decision, and the two spoke on the phone a few days later. The conversation did not last long. “I’m sorry I ended the call so abruptly,” Coburn wrote Worley in a text. “This is very upsetting to me.” He had decided again not to resign.

Around late August, a yellow envelope arrived for Coburn in the mail. “PRAYERGRAM,” it said on the front, and it was addressed from First Baptist.

Dear Cross-

As a group of women that pray we have you on our hearts and minds. We are so concerned about our city and want it to be a place where all people can be happy. We know Jesus is the answer for our city and for you. 

Prayer Warriors

We are all mothers and grandmothers and we love to see young people follow Jesus.

In a phone interview, Worley told me he became involved in Coburn’s recall out of concern for Coburn, who he said was made susceptible to blackmail because of the leaked nude photos. “My concern was that people would take advantage of him,” he said. “We were all very concerned about how this would affect his life going forward, and also how this impacts the community.” When I asked him about Coburn’s allegations that the leaking of the nude photos and the ensuing effort to recall him was driven by homophobia, Worley said, “That’s a non-issue. I’ve never discussed that with Cross, that’s not what this issue is about. My view on homosexuality, I’m clear with our church and with what the Bible teaches about it, but I never discussed it with Cross.”

He did not want to talk to me about his church’s views on LGBT people. “I’m just not going to comment,” he said. “There’s gonna be an effort to draw us into a conversation about that when that is not what this is about for me. If you want to have that discussion at another time, we could talk about that. I’m not embarrassed by it. But it’s not the reason for me to be involved and for us to take a stand as a community.”

people waiting at the Groves city council meeting
Jill Swearingen Pierce (far right) and other citizens attend Monday's city council meeting on October 29, 2018. According to Swearingen Pierce, meeting attendance has been higher since the controversy. Photograph by Justin Calhoun

It’s an unfortunate reality of living in a small community that everybody knows your past. The petition garnered more and more signatures, until they eventually surpassed a thousand. Swearingen Pierce filed an open records request and obtained a copy of the petition so she and Coburn could review it before the council voted to have it certified. Coburn recognized a lot of the names on the signature pages—former classmates and a former teacher, even some men that Coburn knew were gay. He and Swearingen Pierce noticed many signatures from members of First Baptist Church, too, though Worley’s was absent—it appeared he had kept his promise to Coburn that he would not sign the petition. He saw the signatures of Mayor Bailey, Councilmen Badon and Hollier, and saw the pages that had been circulated by Bailey’s wife and by Hollier himself.

There were some oddities throughout the petition. Some of those who signed had apparently written down an incorrect date of birth—Swearingen Pierce flagged one page in particular. After the city clerk had addressed a number of the errors, one birthdate was amended, rather impossibly, to January 1, 1900.

There were also some pages with similar-looking signatures. Swearingen Pierce had a handwriting expert take a preliminary look at the petition. One of the most problematic-looking pages was one that had been circulated by Mayor Bailey’s wife, Darla. In particular, the signatures of Jason and Jennifer Vandehoef looked nearly identical. It turns out that neither Vandehoef had ever even seen the petition. They signed affidavits for Swearingen Pierce stating that their signatures had been forged, and Jason later made a report with the Groves Police.

In particular, the signatures of Jason and Jennifer Vandehoef looked nearly identical. It turns out that neither Vandehoef had ever even seen the petition.

A detective told Jason that it was unlikely the culprit would be brought to justice—there just wasn’t enough evidence to know who had been behind the forgeries. The detective also told Vandehoef that Darla Bailey had been questioned, and that she said people had been coming in and out of the Baileys’ house to sign the petition, and that it was possible someone had pretended to be somebody else, though she didn’t know who might have done it.

Vandehoef was upset. He told me that he and his wife are progressive-minded people, and they never would have supported the petition. “I’m pretty pissed that someone would falsify our name on an election document,” he said. “It’s serious. I believe it was because they were running out of time and didn’t have enough signatures, so they just went ahead and made some up.”

The city clerk validated the petition on May 23. Even after some signatures were disqualified, 936 remained, which met the required minimum of 893 (10 percent of the number of voters who voted in the last election). The petition’s certification was placed on the agenda for the city council meeting on June 25.

The people of Groves flocked to City Hall for the meeting. The crowd was too large for the chambers and spilled into the hallway, and local news cameras were trained on Coburn, Bailey, Badon, Theis, and Hollier. The petition was quickly certified, meaning Coburn would officially face a recall election in November.

“Good,” said an older man standing in the back of the chambers after the certification was announced, according to two people who were at that meeting. “Get that faggot out of here.”

Groves councilman Kyle Hollier
Groves city councilman Kyle Hollier at the city council meeting on Monday, October 29, 2018. Photograph by Justin Calhoun
Groves mayor Brad P. Bailey
Groves mayor Brad P. Bailey at the city council meeting on Monday, October 29, 2018. Photograph by Justin Calhoun
Left: Groves city councilman Kyle Hollier at the city council meeting on Monday, October 29, 2018. Photograph by Justin Calhoun
Top: Groves mayor Brad P. Bailey at the city council meeting on Monday, October 29, 2018. Photograph by Justin Calhoun

After the meeting, Coburn held a press conference outside City Hall. “Make no mistake … this petition has been the personal vendetta of a select few in government,” he told reporters. “I was targeted.” He called out Mayor Bailey, Councilman Badon, Pastor Worley, and Councilman Hollier, accusing them of pushing the recall petition and pressuring him to resign. Swearingen Pierce said the “undeniable” conclusion was that the photos were leaked from within the city government. She had previously gone before the council to make that case, paying special attention to the timeline of events—the photos were leaked to the media only after Coburn’s refusal to resign and after the council’s realization that they could not remove him on their own—and to the envelopes sent to the media, which bore different labels and postage marks than the one received by the city.

Most people in Coburn’s camp seem to believe that Hollier is at the center of this alleged conspiracy to oust Coburn. In an interview with a local reporter, Hollier denied any involvement, instead insinuating that Coburn may have leaked the photos to “draw attention” to himself, and challenging his critics to show some hard evidence or “shut up.”

Swearingen Pierce has admitted that the evidence she presented to the city council is circumstantial. But another woman in town, Suzanne Williamson, had a series of interactions with Hollier that points to something more.

On February 7, two weeks before the envelope of pictures was mailed to City Hall, Hollier sent a Facebook message to Williamson, telling her to call him. Williamson, a Groves resident, had gone to her first city council meeting a few days earlier, to discuss the city’s drainage issues. She had been increasingly involved in local politics since Hurricane Harvey, and regularly posted videos on Facebook of minor flooding throughout the city during hard rains, which had earned her a large local following.

Their phone call at 4 p.m. that day lasted for 65 minutes, according to Williamson’s phone records. She told me Hollier talked to her about the city council, in particular Cross Coburn. “He said that Coburn hadn’t been in that position for six months yet, and how after a six-month period of time, according to our city charter, a person could be recalled if a petition of 10 percent of the registered voters was obtained,” Williamson told me. “So I was thinking to myself, well, who cares? Why is he telling me this?”

Williamson said Hollier claimed that Coburn was only on the council because of Theis, and that they were plotting to take control of the council. He told her that because she lived in the same ward as Coburn, she could potentially take his seat if there were to be a recall election. “I thought, well, that’s odd,” Williamson told me. “You’ve seen me one time at a city council meeting. You don’t know anything about me. I could be the worst. I could have terrible ethics, be dishonest. You don’t know anything about me. Why would you want to appoint me to the city council when you don’t even know if I’m a good person for the job?”

Williamson said she didn’t really know how to respond. Then, on February 26, the day before Sosa texted Coburn that Bailey wanted to meet him at the police station, Hollier called her again at 8:18 a.m. They talked for 46 minutes. “He begins to tell me that he has some disturbing news, that the city has received nude photos of Coburn that were anonymously sent, that he has seen them,” Williamson told me. “That’s when he started referring to them as, pardon my French, ‘dick pics.’ He goes into detail, telling me what they look like. Then he starts talking about a disgruntled lover of Coburn’s and he starts mentioning a substitute teacher from Coburn’s old high school. It was weird. And he again asks me, if there is a recall would I want to be appointed to Ward 1? He tells me that a petition would have to be circulated, but that I shouldn’t be the one to circulate it, that they’re working on getting other people involved to do that. And he says when this hits the media, it’s going to be bad news for Groves. So I remember thinking to myself, well, when is it going to hit the media?”

“And he asks me, if there is a recall would I want to be appointed to Ward 1? He tells me that a petition would have to be circulated, but that I shouldn't be the one to circulate it, that they're working on getting other people involved to do that.”

Williamson thought it was odd that Hollier was telling her this, and she didn’t tell anyone else about their discussion—she told me she’s not one for gossip.

At 1:54 p.m. on March 5, city manager Sosa received the city attorney’s email explaining that Coburn could only be removed from the council through a recall petition. At 3:30, Hollier again reached out to Williamson on Facebook and asked if she had time for a phone call. They spoke for 37 minutes. Again, Hollier told Williamson that the photos of Coburn were going to be a problem, and that there was going to be a recall petition, and he asked her if she would accept an appointment to replace Coburn if he were recalled.

The photos were sent to the media four days later, and after the story ran and Coburn and Swearingen Pierce began their public fight, Hollier called Williamson one last time. On May 3 they spoke for 85 minutes. “He says to me, ‘I’m begging you to agree to be appointed to Ward 1,’” Williamson told me. “He told me the petition is about to be filed.”

It appears Hollier had badly misread Williamson. She began to post on social media that “a certain councilman” had contacted her before the controversy over the photos became public. “Once Hollier realized I wasn’t on his side, he unfriended me and blocked me on Facebook,” she told me.

There were others I spoke to who found it easy to believe that Hollier was somehow involved. One of them is M.J. Ponsegrau, who writes a popular political gossip blog, Jefferson County Beer Party. Ponsegrau himself is a fairly divisive figure in Groves (one Facebook commenter described him as a “loud, obnoxious, know-it-all buttinksi,” a label that Ponsegrau may feel tempted to wear as a badge of honor), and Hollier has frequently been a target of his scathing blog posts.

Ponsegrau told me he would often talk with Hollier over coffee at a local café. “Hollier loves to call people faggots and lezzies and everything else under the sun,” Ponsegrau told me, adding that after the news ran stories about Coburn’s nude photos, Hollier began referring to Coburn as “Dick Pic.” According to Ponsegrau, Hollier stopped speaking to him after Ponsegrau started writing blog posts about Hollier’s homophobic comments. There was no love lost, and Ponsegrau is not one to mince words. “Kyle Hollier is a blowhard,” Ponsegrau told me. “Kyle Hollier thinks he’s something he’s not. Kyle Hollier is a leftover hippie with long hair who thinks he’s God.”

On another soaked September day in Groves, the City Hall chambers were once again packed for the city council meeting. The rain had stopped and the clouds were backlit by a sun desperate to shine, casting the city in a hazy golden glow. After the meeting ended, Mayor Bailey was surrounded by television cameras as reporters confronted him about the recent accusations that his wife had forged petition signatures. He declined to comment on the allegations. (Bailey also declined to comment on the record at all to Texas Monthly for this story.) Instead, he told reporters that he was glad the recall election was moving forward. “I think you should be held to a higher position up here and his track record speaks for itself,” he said.

Hollier, meanwhile, slinked past reporters and walked out of the chambers and through the glass doors at the back of City Hall. I had been trying to reach him for an interview, but he had not returned any of my messages from the week before. I was able to catch up to him outside. There was a hint of anger in his voice as he told me he had no comment. I wanted to ask him about the allegations that were made against him, and about his conversations with Williamson. When he began to walk away from me, an older man who was with him waved me away and shouted, “Go away, get out of here!”

Lawn signs on 39th Street promoting candidates for the upcoming election.
Lawn signs on 39th Street promoting candidates for the upcoming election. Photograph by Justin Calhoun
Local storefronts on 39th Street in Groves on October 29, 2018.
Local storefronts on 39th Street in Groves on October 29, 2018. Photograph by Justin Calhoun
Left: Lawn signs on 39th Street promoting candidates for the upcoming election. Photograph by Justin Calhoun
Top: Local storefronts on 39th Street in Groves on October 29, 2018. Photograph by Justin Calhoun

Coburn and Swearingen Pierce tried to fight the recall petition after it was certified, taking the case before a district judge, but the judge ruled that he was unable to interfere with what was at that point technically an active election.

The sides have more or less been cemented, and the divisiveness is tangible. One day Coburn’s mother, Angela Contreras, was in a corner store when she overheard several older men talking about Coburn after the petition was certified. “It’s good we got that faggot out of here,” they said, according to Contreras. She told me it’s been hard for her and her son since the photos were leaked. “I probably cry every day over this,” she said. “To be nineteen and have everyone hate you? And some of those people I’ve known all my life. It’s hurt him. He doesn’t know who he can trust anymore.”

Coburn himself told me it has made him more cynical and less naive. He’s lost a significant amount of weight from stress. He told me he wants to move to a bigger city someday, somewhere on the East Coast, where attitudes toward gay people are more friendly. And he hopes to continue his career in politics.

He’d also like to know who catfished him, even though it’s unlikely the person would ever be brought to justice. Grindr’s policy is to delete all user data when a profile is deleted, and a Texas appellate court recently struck down the state’s “revenge porn” law, meaning even if Coburn and Swearingen Pierce did somehow find out who was behind the other Grindr profile, they would have little recourse to pursue criminal action.

One tangible result of the controversy embroiling Groves is the newfound passion locals seem to have now for local politics. Coburn’s recall is far from the only item on the upcoming ballot—for the first time in at least two decades, nearly every city seat is up for election. Bailey, Hollier, and Theis are all being opposed. Bailey has two opponents: Kaelan Ramos, a 21-year-old whose candidacy has been relatively quiet, and Suzanne Williamson, who decided to throw her hat in the ring after learning more about the way the city was being run. Front lawns here, many still burdened by dumpsters filled with furniture and sheetrock damaged during Harvey, are covered in colorful candidate signs. Theis told me that it appears a changing of the guard is imminent, and for her part, she looks forward to working with new perspectives, regardless of whether she ends up keeping her seat. “I hope we have some new faces,” she told me. “It’s hard to buck the system when you’re the only one.”

Councilwoman Karen Theis
Councilwoman Karen Theis as she leaves Monday’s city council meeting.Photograph by Justin Calhoun

The caustic rhetoric in the controversy surrounding Coburn has infected the other campaigns. The mayoral election, for example, has already been marred by mudslinging and pettiness. While Williamson has focused her platform on drainage issues and financial responsibility, a Bailey supporter recently posted on Facebook a campaign meme listing the differences between the two candidates—the very first item on the list noted Williamson’s support for Coburn, while other bullet points claimed she harasses veterans, accused her of politicizing hurricanes for her own personal gain, and called her a “keyboard warrior.” Mayor Bailey himself filed an official complaint with the Texas Election Commission, alleging that the word “for” in Williamson’s “Suzanne Williamson for Mayor” lawn signs was too small.

Exactly how the voters of Groves will respond in November remains unclear. They will hold in their hands much more than voters typically do in a small-town election. Given the city’s political history, an opportunity for wholesale change such as this may not come around again.

It’s possible that the divisions caused by the controversy around Coburn may be too great to bridge. Just as the people of Groves came together during Hurricane Harvey, there was once the potential that this political storm could have made the community stronger. “I think it’s personally aspirational that a 19-year-old stepped up to lead, and I had hoped we would see Coburn as a model for his generation,” Duhon, the former Groves resident, told me. “That’s the Groves I hoped to see throughout this scenario, and certainly as we’ve seen now that’s just not the case. Instead we’ve decided to attack him and out him publicly and we are seeking to remove him from office. I just hoped that we would be better, and unfortunately, it appears that we’re not.


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