The Long Afterlife of a Terrible Crime

Read the story here in The New Yorker.


Regina Alexander does not remember anyone telling her how her mother died; she has always known when and where it happened, and who did it. For years, though, a lot of the details remained mysterious to her. They weren’t the sort of details that everyone would want to have, but she wanted them, at least some of the time. “I don’t even know what the truth is,” she told me, during one of our first conversations. “That’s part of why it’s so hard to let go.”

Regina’s mother was born Elizabeth Steffens, in 1945, in Texas. Elizabeth’s father worked as a carpenter, electrician, and plumber, and her mother stayed home, raising the couple’s five children. The family moved to Levelland, a small town outside Lubbock, when Elizabeth was two. As she got older, she became known as the fun one in the family. People told her that she looked like Elizabeth Taylor. (Later, Regina would watch Elizabeth Taylor movies and pretend that it was her mother onscreen.) A relative once saw her without makeup and joked, “You look just like the rest of us,” to which Elizabeth quipped, “When I die, be sure I have on eyeshadow.” Her family says that they never saw her without makeup again. She got married, for the first time, when she was seventeen, to a man from New York. They had a daughter, Tonette, and divorced soon afterward. She married again, but that one didn’t last either. Then a co-worker introduced Elizabeth to her son, Van Perryman, who drove a taxi. Elizabeth and Van married and had a son, Bobby, in 1969, and then Regina, in July, 1971. One night that September, Elizabeth disappeared.

Her remains were found three months later, eight miles west of Amarillo. The police called the family, and Elizabeth’s brother Billy drove her dental records up the highway to confirm her identity. News of the discovery aired on the radio before he’d made it to the family home; later, there was a report on TV, with footage of law enforcement at the crime scene. Two of Elizabeth’s siblings recall seeing a police officer pick up her skull with a stick and set it on a squad car.

The family did not yet know that, during the previous several months, a number of women had been killed under similar circumstances in Texas and states farther west. Someone was robbing convenience stores and cafés late at night, when there was often just one waitress or clerk working a shift, and then, sometimes, raping and killing the only apparent witness. Local and federal law enforcement convened a task force in Dallas, in February, 1972, to investigate a possible connection among the crimes; comparing ballistics tests, the F.B.I. discovered that the same firearm had been used in four separate murders. The following June, a man named Carl Taylor, who also went by Raymond, wounded a cop after a botched robbery attempt at a grocery store in Santa Barbara. Police caught up with him—plus his wife, Ginger McCrary, and their kids—in Texas, three weeks later. Ginger’s parents, Sherman and Carolyn, and her brother Danny were also arrested. During questioning, police connected the members of the McCrary-Taylor family to at least ten murders.

The national press quickly picked up on the story, fascinated by a family who appeared to be robbing and murdering together. “For most of their lives, the men aimlessly wandered the American southwest, scratching for jobs as ranch hands, carnies, and fry cooks,” the Los Angeles Times reported. “Sherman McCrary drank a quart of liquor a day. Raymond Taylor was mean and dangerous. Danny McCrary was raised to believe crime was a business. Carolyn McCrary is almost illiterate. Ginger McCrary is sickly and compliant.” The articles largely failed to mention the perpetrators’ children, all of them under twelve. Some papers referred to the killings as the Full Moon Murders because they supposedly occurred by the light of the moon; police in Colorado called them the Donut Shop Murders. In November, 1972, a Colorado grand jury indicted Sherman McCrary and Carl Taylor for the murder of Leeora Looney, who worked at a doughnut shop in Lakewood, near Denver. Ginger coöperated with law enforcement, and she and Carolyn were each sentenced to just a few years in prison. Sherman was convicted by a jury, and Taylor pled guilty; both received life sentences. Danny was tried, alone, for another of the family’s murders, in Texas, and also received a life sentence.

By then, Van Perryman and his kids were bouncing around small towns in north Texas, not staying in any one place too long. Soon, both Sherman and Taylor would separately confess to killing Elizabeth, but Van did not find out right away. He didn’t like to talk about what had happened; Regina probably gleaned what she knew from talk among her mom’s sisters. When the TV series “Police Story” aired a two-part episode based on the McCrarys, in 1976, Van didn’t notice, as far as anyone is aware. But, in 1981, he picked up a copy of “Death Roads: The Story of the Donut Shop Murders,” a slipshod account of the killings that had been published two years before. He learned from the book that a rambling family had probably killed his wife. Her case had never been officially solved, though Van didn’t realize this at first. Six years later, after he had discovered as much, he wrote to the special-crimes unit of the Amarillo Police Department, urging them to take up her case again. “I do not mean to be a bore or a bother,” he wrote. “I only ask that you just take into consideration that if this were your wife how you would feel.” The police began investigating Sherman for the crime, but he died by suicide in prison in 1988, and Elizabeth’s case was closed with no final disposition. No law-enforcement agency ever notified the family.

Regina, at that point, had left high school early to marry her sweetheart. They had three kids before the relationship crumbled. She worked odd jobs until her late thirties, and then she joined the Army. On a tour of duty in Iraq, in 2011, she injured her back, and returned home to north Texas. She had time to sit with her thoughts and to wonder about her mother again. She began visiting Elizabeth’s grave regularly. “I just sit there and talk to her like a weirdo,” she told me. “It’s the only thing I have connecting me with my mom.” Regina didn’t want her mother’s life to be defined by her death, but she couldn’t help fixating on Elizabeth’s last moments. It was as though each detail were a cell in her mother’s body; assembling them all together might make her reappear. Regina had often been told how much she was like her mom; knowing more about Elizabeth felt necessary to get a better understanding of herself. She figured that one of the McCrarys could answer her questions, if only she could get ahold of any of them. It bothered her that the McCrary women were not in prison, and, for a long time, she mistakenly believed that Danny was free, too. It wasn’t easy to find information about the crimes online: after the early years of press fascination, the murders faded from notoriety. “Death Roads” went out of print. Many of the original news stories have not been digitized. Much of what can be found online is not accurate.

Regina’s renewed fixation coincided with a swell of interest in true-crime stories. One day, she turned to Google, and searched the Web for the names of her mother and her mother’s murderers. One of the top results was the site for something called the “Serial Killers Podcast.” The show was already defunct, but it had a blog, and there was a post that listed the victims of the McCrarys, along with their ages and dates of disappearance. There was also a comments section. The post had gone up a couple years before, and no one had ever commented. Even so, Regina decided to fill out a comment form, and ask a question: “Does anyone know what happened to these two women and the son who got off scott free?”


The site was set up so that if anyone replied, Regina would get an e-mail. Five months later, someone left a response. The commenter, who later identified himself as the brother of Leeora Looney, informed Regina that the McCrary son she’d asked about, Danny, was in prison. (In fact, Danny McCrary died in 2007.) Soon afterward, another commenter, named Alice, explained that she was working on a book about the case and seeking more information. A few weeks later, one of Regina’s cousins visited the site, and volunteered that, as of 2009, Danny and Taylor were still in prison, in California, but that Carolyn and Ginger had both died, in prison, of cancer. (None of this was correct.) Another commenter wrote that Leeora Looney was her aunt, adding, “She was taken from us before I was born but my mom told me all the time when I was growing up how much she would have loved me and how much I was like her.”

More replies began to arrive. Many people, like Regina, were going online looking for answers, and were being directed by search engines to this obscure corner of the Web. To date, Regina’s message has generated a hundred and fifty-seven replies, many from people with direct connections to the McCrarys or their victims. A woman wrote to say that one of the victims was her half sister, whom she had never gotten the chance to know. A friend of the half sister replied, describing a necklace the victim was wearing around her neck the day she died—a gift the friend had given her. Friends and family members of victims exchanged memories and e-mail addresses, trying to fill in their pictures of departed relatives and loved ones. In August, 2014, a woman with the username Jenny wrote, “I know that some of these people may not like me because of who I am. I am the daughter of Sherman McCrary the serial killer, I was with them through the whole ordeal, and I like some of them want answers.”

This was Tammy, the youngest child of Sherman and Carolyn McCrary. She was ten when her parents and other relatives were arrested, and she was reunited with Carolyn and Ginger after they were released from prison. Tammy believed that her mom and sister had known what was going on but had feared for their own lives. What mattered to her, she wrote, was how the existing family members would rise above it to raise the next generation right: “Live life happy and with pride.” Regina replied that she wished the adult McCrary women had nightmares every night. But she knew that Tammy had just been a kid, she added, and that her parents’ actions did not define her as a person. Tammy didn’t respond.

The following month, a producer with the Investigation Discovery show “Evil Kin” wrote to ask whether any of the board’s commenters would like to participate in an episode devoted to the McCrary-Taylors. It aired in August, 2015, and included an interview with Tammy. The episode seemed to draw more interest to the crimes: people who had watched it showed up on the message board to join the back-and-forth. Regina’s son Nathan, then twenty-six, logged in to note that he was now the same age as his grandmother when she was killed. He wondered what would happen if he died at this age. “It’s still haunting people today people who weren’t even alive when it happened,” he wrote. His aunt Tonette, Regina’s sister, replied to her nephew: “But you will survive kiddo!” She and Nathan rarely talked about Elizabeth’s murder in person.

In March, 2017, a woman logged on to say that she had only just learned, from the blog post, who had killed her aunt and uncle. She was trying to write a book “about the ripple effect of traumatic events in families,” she went on. The murder had wrecked her father’s life, and then hers, and it was hurting her children’s lives, too, she added. “Regardless of what could have been in a world where the McCrarys just stayed home that year and grew weed or started a band or something, we live in the reality where their actions echo in the lives of so many of us, every, single, day. I want to know why. I need to understand. If I’m being completely honest, I need someone to blame.”

That same month, a man named Jerry Nations found the site. He saw the post from Regina’s cousin saying that Ginger had died, and he logged in to correct the record. Ginger was still alive, he wrote. He knew, he explained, because she was his mother. He appended his e-mail address, and added that anyone who wanted to know more could send him a note.


I sent Jerry an e-mail shortly afterward. I had happened upon the message board and become fascinated less by the crimes than by their reverberations across generations, and by the ways that those affected had tried to understand the truth and come to terms with it. The defunct podcast forum had enabled new connections among the victims’ loved ones, but it was replete with misinformation and rumors. In many instances, “true crime” had become the truth.

I spoke with a number of people who posted on the message board. Jerry and I began chatting every few weeks. In April, 2018, almost a year after we began corresponding, we met in person, in Carthage, Texas, at a golf course where Jerry worked as a landscaper. He wore a straw cowboy hat and sported a graying goatee. Among his many tattoos were various symbols of Texas: a yellow rose, a Lone Star, pictographs of the state. He got a Big Gulp-size Styrofoam cup with rum and Coke from the bartender, then popped open a worn briefcase and pulled out a jumble of papers.

Jerry was about five years old when all the adults in the McCrary-Taylor family were detained by law enforcement. He began cycling through foster families; according to his adoption records, he was afraid of dogs, the dark, and the police. Jerry and his brother Glenn were adopted in 1976, by the Nations family, who lived near Carthage. Jerry managed to graduate from high school, and began hopping between oil and gas jobs. At twenty, he was arrested for the first time, for “making alcohol available to a minor.” At twenty-two, he got his first felony conviction, for assaulting a cop.

He requested his adoption records from the state of Texas in 1995, and received them a year later. He was twenty-nine. That’s when he learned that his biological family were murderers. As he read the file, he told me, single images, out of focus, flooded his mind. He remembered finding a severed human hand, dirty and gnarled, while playing in the back yard with Glenn. (It was the devil’s hand, he told a social worker in 1972, soon after he entered foster care.) He recalled a moment, sitting in the front seat of an unfamiliar car, counting the stitches in the seat’s upholstery while a woman in the back seat screamed. On his first time through the file, he stopped, threw up, and then smoked a joint.

Soon afterward, he called Ginger, his biological mother, for the first time. She was headed to Dallas, and he and Glenn arranged to meet her and Tammy there. Jerry spotted them in the airport right away. “I told Glenn, ‘That’s your momma right there, boy,’ ” he said. “I just knew her. They walked right by us. She didn’t know us shit from Shinola.” The reunited family headed to a motel, where they hung out and swam and reminisced about road-tripping around the country. That night, after having a bit to drink, Jerry recalled aloud the time they all spent in a motel room in Cheyenne, Wyoming, with an orange curtain and an orange bedspread, when he was a child. Cheyenne is about a two hours’ drive from Lakewood, Colorado; the family killed Leeora Looney not far from the room that he remembered. Ginger cried and refused to speak, Jerry told me. They didn’t talk after that.

Over the next several years, he tried to escape his own mind. He got hooked on bull-riding, then methamphetamine. To avoid unremitting nightmares, he slept less and less. In April, 2010, he was arrested for manufacturing meth, and spent the next five years incarcerated. When he was paroled, he settled in a shotgun trailer in East Texas and tried to move on with his life. But, every once in a while, he would get to thinking about his childhood. He Googled his family name, found the Web site for the “Serial Killers” podcast, and logged in to correct a comment claiming that his mother had died. He got e-mails from a few people besides me—including Regina, who wrote to him in July, 2017. “My name is Regina,” she began. “I am interested in you because ur family killed my mother, Elizabeth Perryman.”


I had written to Regina a few weeks before she sent Jerry that e-mail. By the time he and I met, I knew that the two were interested in speaking with each other, though neither had taken the next step. Sitting in the clubhouse at the golf course with Jerry, I offered to connect them. Jerry dialed Regina’s number.

Their conversation was slow and awkward at first, but they gradually found that they had much in common. Both had been married several times. One of Regina’s brothers went to prison for meth, as Jerry had. “That stuff will steal your soul,” Jerry said. Regina told Jerry that he was a victim, too. “All the children and all the children of their victims, we’re all in the same boat,” she said. “We all grew up with this over our heads.”

Somewhat hesitantly, Regina asked Jerry whether he’d met her mother before she died. He told her that he could not remember any of the victims’ faces; only little flashes from that time remain. Regina wanted to talk to Ginger, but Jerry seemed reluctant to give her Ginger’s number.

Regina and Jerry marvelled at the longevity of the suffering: their parents, them, their kids, probably even their grandkids. “It’s just crazy how many people your parents have affected down the generations,” Regina said. “Yeah,” Jerry replied, “it’s like a domino effect.” He told Regina that he now counted only his son and brother as kin. Regina said that she clings to family as much as she can. She has her sister and father, who understand what she’s been through, plus her entire extended family. The Steffenses hold a reunion every other year.

Still, Jerry was mostly struck by how alike he and Regina were. “She’s like the female version of me,” he said, after hanging up. “Damn skippy.” For a while after the phone call, he slept better. He stopped obsessing about his parents quite so much. He added Regina as a Facebook friend, and they “liked” each others’ posts on occasion. Jerry went through a bad breakup, and Regina sent him love advice.

Regina still felt restless and haunted. Her father, Van, who’d been diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis a few years before, wasn’t doing well. In July, 2018, with a mind to arrange his affairs, he gave Regina the purse that her mother had with her on the night that she died. It was a red clutch with copper clips at the top. Inside were a pink billfold, stamps, fifty-year-old toothpaste, eye makeup. There was also a banana-pudding recipe, handwritten by Elizabeth’s mother. Regina studied the items like an archeologist, trying to understand what they might tell her about whom she came from.


I tried to dig up more records and information for Regina. I wrote to Carl Taylor, in a Colorado prison; he sent a polite letter refusing to comment. I called and wrote to Ginger McCrary, but she did not respond. I interviewed former law-enforcement officials and relatives of other victims, and I requested publicly available information in the case of Elizabeth Perryman. These requests were met, initially, with what struck me as bureaucratic stonewalling. But then, in June, 2019, the records arrived in the mail. I sent word to Regina. The Steffens reunion was happening the next month, during the July 4th holiday. She suggested that I come.

I met Regina, surrounded by her family, at a motel in Lubbock, a five-hour drive from her home in Oklahoma. Deeply tanned, with platinum-blond hair and dense eyeliner, she helped her grandkids into their bathing suits with the ease of a parent who’s raised two generations, and escorted them all to the pool. Then she and her son Nathan, her sister Tonette, and Tonette’s daughter Kelsea sat on the motel suite’s fraying sofa to read, on my laptop, the official record of what happened to Elizabeth. The police file contained crime-scene reports, interviews with suspects, newspaper clippings, court transcripts, even poetry that Taylor wrote in prison. I noted that law-enforcement records weren’t the gospel truth. Still, after so much misinformation, Regina was eager for something authoritative. She began clicking through PDFs.

The documents provided a detailed account of what happened the night her mother disappeared. Around 9:20 p.m., Elizabeth called the taxi company where Van worked as a driver. She asked the dispatcher to relay a message to her husband to pick her up at a Toddle House coffee shop, where she had been waitressing to save money to attend Texas Tech, up the street. When Van arrived, half an hour later, the place was locked. He searched for his wife all night. The next morning, restaurant staff discovered that $86.25 was missing from the cash register and that Elizabeth’s purse was still in the restaurant. The grill had been scrubbed, but the coffee urn hadn’t been cleaned and the floor was only partially mopped. Van filed a missing-persons report.

A separate file contained a copy of Taylor’s videotaped confession. Regina and Tonette decided that they wanted to watch it. Taylor, who frequently lied to law enforcement, made the sordid claim that Elizabeth went along with her own kidnapping, even welcomed it. “You lying motherfucker,” Regina said.

The next day, the Steffens family gathered at a pavilion by a lake. Elizabeth’s siblings Billy, Irene, Dorothy, and Sharon decorated the walls with patriotic streamers and flags. Sharon, now retired and in her sixties, is red-haired and gregarious. In 2003, she went to work as a receptionist at the Lubbock County District Attorney’s office. When a victim or a victim’s family came in, Sharon told me, she would sit with them while they waited to see a prosecutor. “No matter what you do to a criminal, the victim is never the same,” she said. I offered that, in other circumstances, criminals can be victims, too, but Sharon was having none of it. She showed me old photographs of Elizabeth, whom they called Betty Jo. She told me that Regina reminded her a lot of Betty Jo. Her sister Dorothy chimed in, from across the room, to say that mother and daughter shared the same mannerisms, the same hands, the same lips. “It’s been fifty years,” Dorothy said. “So it’s hard for me to remember her unless I look at Regina.” They began to reminisce about their sister, the pranks she liked to play, the things she liked to cook, a wig she sometimes wore. They also talked about the people who killed her, repeating some of the myths promulgated by “Death Roads” and the docudramas on TV.

After a potluck dinner, the youngest Steffens generation staged a talent show. Elizabeth’s great-granddaughter Vanessa—the child of Regina’s daughter Liz, whom Regina named after her mother—wrapped it up with a song. Vanessa’s bleached-blond hair dripped lake water onto the ground as she mumble-sang a ballad by Halsey, closing with the lines “Someone will love you / someone will love you.” When she finished, the family burst into applause.


After the pandemic hit Oklahoma, Regina worked as a nurse on a covid floor at a local V.A. hospital. She contracted covid but recovered, then decided that she needed to quit her job to take care of her ill father. We fell out of touch for the most part, and I also didn’t hear from Jerry for a while. I became worried and texted his childhood best friend, who informed me that he hadn’t been able to get a hold of Jerry since September, 2020. “I just hope he’s alive,” the friend wrote. Later, a local sheriff’s deputy explained that he had spoken to Jerry, who was doing fine, he said. Jerry said that he had decided to move away and cut ties with his previous life.

In June, Regina called to tell me that someone was working on a podcast about the McCrary murders—a Hollywood producer, she said, who was hoping that she’d participate. In exchange, she told me, the producer would try to connect her to Taylor, through a detective in the Denver case, whom he’d interviewed. The producer, Alan Wieder, later told me that the podcast was for Wondery, the network behind “Dirty John” and “Dr. Death,” which was sold to Amazon for a reported three hundred million dollars. Wieder has worked on the development side of reality TV for decades. His credits include “The Apprentice” and “My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiancé.” He told me that he wanted the podcast to address classic true-crime subjects, such as what drives serial killers—the “why” question, as he put it—and that he hoped it would be entertaining. (The podcast, which becomes widely available this month, is called “Families Who Kill: The Donut Shop Murders.”)

In July, the Steffens family got together again, this time at a resort and R.V. park just off the interstate north of San Antonio. I stopped by to chat with Regina. She was still weighing whether or not to participate in the podcast. Over barbecue, she asked Sharon for her opinion. Sharon harrumphed and turned back to her plate. Later, Regina told me that she had turned the podcast down. For a long time, she said, she had dreamed about her mother, an idealized woman she would never know. Some of the details she’d been able to learn within the past few years were upsetting, but they filled in the picture. “She’s more real to me,” she said. “She wasn’t just who I made up.” Regina felt, for the moment, like she knew enough.

Play to Stay

Carlos faces a choice: become an informant for ICE or be deported.

In this investigative report for The Intercept, I dive into how Immigration and Customs Enforcement uses undocumented immigrants as snitches to find others. For the first time, the deportation arm of ICE admitted to me they use this tactic.


IMMIGRATION AND CUSTOMS Enforcement, like nearly all post-9/11 federal law enforcement agencies, has evolved into a de facto intelligence-gathering organization, in addition to its immigration and customs work. ICE is split into two main sub-agencies: one that focuses on the migration of people and another that targets the migration of crime.

Homeland Security Investigations polices cross-border criminal activity, which mostly includes human trafficking, drug cartels, money laundering, even fraud schemes meant to entrap immigrants. HSI is the country’s second-largest investigative agency, with more than 6,000 special agents in 47 countries around the world.

HSI works closely with confidential informants. An HSI agent will develop a source with useful information as a means of investigating criminal activity. In exchange, the informant receives compensation in the form of cash, a work permit, and, in some cases, immigration benefits. Some of the money HSI seizes — we don’t know how much — is used to pay the agency’s informants.

The world of ICE-informant relationships is necessarily murky, according to former HSI agent Jerry Robinette. “You’re picking at a very sensitive topic that can be damaged by the light,” Robinette told me. “But at the same time, people need to understand this is not a haphazard program.”

Working with confidential informants is a controlled process with oversight from HSI management, Robinette said. Informants are registered and receive identification numbers. Background checks are conducted. Supervisors must approve the agreements. Indeed, ICE dedicates an entire handbook solely to informants, though its contents have not been made public. A separate HSI handbook on asset forfeiture, leaked to The Intercept and also published by the independent media organization Unicorn Riot, says that ICE should “identify, cultivate, and retain assistance” from so-called confidential informants “who are intimately involved with targeted criminal organizations.” According to the handbook, employing an informant should be a last resort, and the decision to do so should be made only after weighing the informant’s reliability against other factors. Every dollar paid to informants should be carefully considered and documented.

However, several news stories have highlighted the pitfalls of ICE-informant relationships. Agents have fostered improper liaisons with informants. In one case, ICE knew an informant participated in killings yet continued working with him anyway (the agent was later fired). ICE, along with the FBI, uses informants and then works to deport them. ICE defenders like Robinette paint these as isolated incidents, and, of course, most ICE informants don’t make the news.

CARLOS SAYS HE entered the U.S. seeking asylum three times, starting in 2012. The exact circumstances of those entries remain in dispute; he was deported each time. Finally, in 2014, he entered illegally. Because of those prior deportations, ICE could have removed him immediately when it encountered him in March 2017.

Instead, beginning in April 2017, Carlos would show up every month at the ICE office in downtown Sacramento. He’d enter the stone and glass office building, pass through the metal detector, and sit in the foyer, waiting for his name to be called. Legos and other toys sat in a corner to keep children occupied.

ICE released Carlos on an order of supervision, an arrangement in which the agency temporarily agrees not to deport an undocumented person. Under the order, the immigrant must meet certain conditions, such as showing up for monthly or annual check-ins, wearing an ankle monitor, and obtaining permission from ICE before traveling out of state.

On Carlos’s order of supervision, agents checked a box marked “Other,” and added the words: “Terms discussed in person.” Those terms, according to Carlos and his attorney, were the following: In exchange for his liberty, Carlos would report names of other undocumented individuals to ICE. He was required to provide at least three names over a three-month period. A separate document later written by his ICE handler confirmed that Carlos was released “with the agreement the SUBJECT would report monthly and provide leads on criminal aliens.” The officers in Carlos’s case did not expressly state their plans, but deportation would have been one potential outcome for any individuals Carlos named.

However, Carlos did not have a criminal history, and he was not aware of any acquaintances with convictions. He agonized over what to do. His wife, Heidi, was experiencing complications with her pregnancy. At one point he got so desperate that, at an ICE agent’s suggestion, he considered approaching a random group of men at the neighborhood park where he played pickup soccer to ask if they knew anyone with a criminal past, but he chickened out. He found it troubling that immigration officials were conscripting him to do their job for them and wondered what would stop ICE from simply deporting him when they were done using him.

So, Carlos did the only thing he could think to do: At his check-ins month after month, he refused to provide names. He’d simply sign the form indicating that he hadn’t absconded, answer basic questions about his livelihood, and head home.  The allotted three months passed. At first, Carlos says, ICE officials seemed agitated by his refusal to provide leads, but each time, they released him.

Four months into this experiment, as Carlos sat in the waiting room, he saw a man enter the ICE office holding a scrap of paper. Carlos was called in 10 minutes later. When he sat down, Carlos noticed the same paper on a desk. An agent asked him if he had brought the paper, which Carlos saw had a Mexican name on it. Carlos said no. The agent warned him that the agent’s boss would get angry if Carlos didn’t supply any names. It didn’t matter to ICE whether Carlos knew the person had been arrested or convicted of a crime, the agent told him; as long as Carlos simply suspected an undocumented person of criminal activity, that was enough. The alternative, the agent reminded Carlos, was that he would be deported. Still, ICE permitted Carlos to leave. Two months later, he wouldn’t be so lucky.

THE OTHER MAIN ICE sub-agency, Enforcement and Removal Operations, “enforces the nation’s immigration laws in a fair and effective manner,” according to its website. ERO detains and deports undocumented immigrants; it has no formal role in gathering intelligence or battling criminal activity.

According to conversations with five former ICE employees, ERO is not structured to work with confidential informants. Mostly, it facilitates the benefits needed for HSI to do its job. For example, it can delay deportation of an informant or release the informant from detention on supervision. Unlike their counterparts at HSI, ERO officers do not have a specific mandate to conduct undercover operations. They do not dedicate units to handling confidential informants, nor are they given special guidance in finding, training, and monitoring informants.

Yet ERO was the sub-agency that negotiated the agreement with Carlos, and four of the former ICE employees revealed that ERO does, at times, use informants. “ICE ERO does not utilize a confidential informant program,” ICE spokesperson Richard Rocha said. “However, when appropriate, ERO may consider available discretionary options in furtherance of an individual’s continued cooperation with ongoing investigative matters.”

In the eyes of the former ICE employees, a crucial line distinguishes a formal, confidential informant from an informal source of information. ERO interviews many individuals while searching for an undocumented immigrant to remove. If ERO knocks on the door of an individual who has disappeared, for instance, agents could ask their apartment manager if the person left a forwarding address. The apartment manager is not a registered “confidential informant,” but simply the kind of data source used in any law enforcement investigation.

A recently retired ERO field office director in Texas dealt with a handful of confidential informants during his career. In an interview, he downplayed ERO’s use of informants in comparison with HSI and would not provide details on any specific relationships he developed with informants. The former field office director, who asked not to be identified because he is engaged in litigation against the agency, also said he had never received formal training on informants — he’d simply learned “on the job” from a colleague who had worked with informants in the past. While he had always registered informants, he said he had never paid any of them. That was HSI’s thing. Instead, he would reward informants by getting them out of detention or agreeing not to deport them. Informants were always used to target a specific individual for removal, rather than in an open-ended search, as in Carlos’s case, he added. At times, a source would approach ICE and ask to help, rather than the other way around.

However, for the immigrant, any relief from deportation is temporary. “A case can be prolonged as long as he’s cooperating and everybody’s happy,” said Robinette, the former HSI agent. “When the music stops and you can’t or won’t deliver, what’s next? What’s next is you’re put in deportation proceedings.”

A more permanent solution is called an S visa, often nicknamed a “snitch visa.” The government allots 250 of these per year, across federal law enforcement agencies, to immigrants who help officials in criminal and terrorism investigations. However, the agency itself has to apply and push for an informant to receive an S-visa, not the immigrant or their attorney. Rarely do risk-averse senior bureaucrats seek responsibility for sponsoring a visa for an informant. The State Department, for example, has awarded only six S visas since the category was established in 1994. Immigration attorneys frequently refer to the S visa as a unicorn.

Mike Magee, another former ERO agent, said he never employed informants but wished he had. When told about ERO’s handling of Carlos, Magee called it a “novel” tactic. Ostensibly, he said, many immigrants live in the same community and would be well positioned to find others for ERO.

“It’s something, as a manager, I would have tried. Maybe I’d do it for four months or so and see how it turned out,” Magee said. According to Magee, senior ICE bureaucrats in Washington, D.C., often judge local ERO field agents based on statistics: The more undocumented individuals they arrest, the more favorably their performance is viewed. But Magee also noted that using informants to report other undocumented folks could catch people ICE wasn’t interested in, and those arrests wouldn’t boost the numbers. “If it’s just plain Jose worker, it’s a waste of time.” Magee said. “It’s not the mission.”

Both Magee and the former Texas field office director said they’d try a new policy only after running it by ICE attorneys and supervisors in Washington, D.C., to establish its legality. Javad Khazaeli, who spent six years as an ICE attorney, said he couldn’t think of any law the practice violated. “I don’t know whether this is illegal,” he said. “It is for sure abnormal, and in my view, very problematic. I have a hard time seeing how any supervisor could approve a wild goose chase like this with a person’s freedom in the balance.”

Michael Kohler, who was an ICE lawyer from 2003 to 2008, said that when he was at the agency, ERO started working with informants more regularly. But while HSI carefully controlled their use, ERO was not exactly a well-oiled machine. ERO “tried to piggy-back off of what HSI did,” Kohler wrote in an email.

Carlos Rueda Cruz, 28, second from right, poses for a portrait with his family outside their home in Sacramento, Calif., Monday, Sept. 10, 2018. (Joel Angel Juárez for The Intercept)

 

CARLOS, NOW 28, lives in a studio apartment in north Sacramento with Heidi and their three young children, ages 9, 6, and 8 months. When I visited one early morning in June, I passed through a corrugated metal fence painted with the Mexican flag. Carlos and his family were just waking up. Sitting in his kitchen as Heidi prepared café con canela and their kids watched a Spanish cartoon version of “Wheels on the Bus,” Carlos told me why he is speaking publicly about his encounter with ICE.

At around 11 a.m. on September 26, 2017, he checked in at the Sacramento ICE field office for a sixth time. After waiting for 20 minutes, an agent told him that he would be arrested for failing to cooperate.

A narrative of the arrest, written later by one of the ICE agents, confirmed that they planned to detain Carlos expressly because of his refusal to cooperate: “Due to SUBJECT’s inability to provide any assistance to ICE the decision was made that SUBJECT would be taken into custody on his next reporting date as of 09/26/2017.”

They fingerprinted Carlos and stashed him in a cell. Several hours later, the agents sat him down at a desk and ordered him to sign a form. Since Carlos could not read or understand English, he refused. He asked what the document said. Carlos said an agent started screaming at him in Spanish, calling him “pendejo,” or “idiot.” The agent ranted about how Carlos was squandering an opportunity and was being deported because he wouldn’t help ICE.

Suddenly, Carlos alleges, two agents jumped on top of him. Each yanked one of Carlos’s arms behind him, and one of them slammed Carlos’s head against the desk. A third agent walked behind him with the document and an ink pad in an attempt to get Carlos’s fingerprints as a form of signature. Carlos started screaming and crying uncontrollably. The excruciating pain in his shoulders and neck made it feel as if he were being tortured. He pleaded with them to stop. They didn’t. Carlos said he asked to see a lawyer. “An attorney won’t save you now,” Carlos recalled one of the agents telling him in Spanish.

Eventually, Carlos said, the agents stopped trying to force him to sign the papers and bussed him to a nearby detention center, where they kept him overnight. The next day, back in the office, Carlos was questioned by a supervisor. When he again refused to sign a document he did not understand, agents slammed him against the table and repeatedly kneed him in the ribs and sides, Carlos said. This time, other detainees in the holding area who heard Carlos’s screams banged on the bars of their cells and pleaded for the agents to stop. In letters written afterward, which were obtained by Carlos’s attorneys and reviewed by The Intercept, two detainees confirmed the basic details of Carlos’s account. “I only hope that this note is read so they don’t abuse more people,” a detainee named Juan wrote.

After being assaulted for several minutes, Carlos could no longer withstand the pain, he told me. He agreed to sign the paper. The officers pressed his fingers onto the ink pad and then onto the document. Then they returned him to detention. While there, Carlos repeatedly sought medical attention but was denied access to pain relievers for nearly three weeks, he said. With Heidi’s help, he found a lawyer who petitioned ICE for his release. He was freed from detention two months later.

ICE did not respond to requests for comment on Carlos’s allegations. But Luis Angel Reyes Savalza, Carlos’s attorney, shared an email in which his firm had asked ICE to conduct an inquiry into the incident. Dana L. Fishburn, then acting deputy field office director in ERO’s San Francisco office, responded that she had done so and found no evidence to support Carlos’s claims of physical assault. “As you are aware, this is a serious allegation, the safety and welfare of all aliens in custody is of the upmost importance to ICE,” Fishburn wrote. “We do not and would not force anyone to sign a document.”

Rocha, the ICE spokesperson, added: “Allegations of abuse and employee misconduct are taken seriously by ICE and referred to the Office of Professional Responsibility.” Neither Carlos nor Reyes Savalza filed a complaint with the Office of Professional Responsibility, which is responsible for handling cases of employee misconduct for the agency. Instead, Reyes Savalza said, Carlos is considering other legal avenues.

Reyes Savalza asserted that the alleged assault was retaliation for refusing to snitch. “We’re obviously concerned that there are more of these cases happening out in the community, that there [are] more people like Carlos who are forced to make up allegations against other people to save themselves,” Reyes Savalza told me.

I spoke with 10 immigration attorneys who have represented clients who worked as informants for ICE. All said they were not surprised by Carlos’s story, but none had heard of anything exactly like it before.

ICE and other federal law enforcement agencies have been intensely monitoring American Muslim communities for decades, said Ramzi Kassem, a law professor at City University of New York who also directs its Immigrant & Non-Citizen Rights Clinic. Kassem shared the story of one client in the greater New York City area who was approached by HSI to provide the names and license plate numbers of undocumented members of his mosque. “Names of other undocumented people was the ask,” Kassem said. “I call it a fishing expedition, because [they’re not looking for] one specific person.”

Like Carlos, Kassem’s client received a warning from ICE: If you don’t give us what we want, we’ll make sure you’re deported.

“This idea [that] you’re trying to get immigrants to turn on each other — it’s a secret police mentality,” said Zac Sanders, an immigration attorney in New York City. Since most immigrants are law abiding, it’s likely that people with no criminal history would be caught in the dragnet, he said. “You can watch cop shows on TV and know it’s ridiculous.”

In his kitchen, Carlos said he still suffers from shoulder pain. He is sharing his story in the hope that the agency won’t repeat the same tactic with others. “They shouldn’t treat people that way. It was totally illegal, what they did to me.”

Carlos is no longer eligible for asylum. In his telling, after years of threats from cartels in Michoacán, he presented himself at the border in 2013 to seek asylum. Normally, Carlos would have been allowed into the country while pursuing that claim. Instead, Carlos said the border patrol agent was in a “bad mood” and his Spanish was poor. In an order dated March 23, 2013, an agent wrote that Carlos was a citizen of Mexico and was inadmissible to the United States. Nothing about asylum is listed on the document, and Carlos was quickly deported. He was removed twice more, three weeks later and almost a year after that, according to an ICE document; Carlos says he tried unsuccessfully to make an asylum claim both times. In 2014, he crossed undetected, and was living in Sacramento until ICE arrested him in 2017. In those three years, despite the fact that an immigrant has 12 months after arriving in the U.S. to apply for asylum, he did not try again.

After Carlos hired an attorney following the alleged assault in October 2017, he formally asserted a fear of returning to Mexico, which entitled him to an interview with an asylum officer. However, since the one-year window has closed, Carlos is now asking for protection from deportation under the United Nations Convention Against Torture. His next court hearing is scheduled for September 2019.

About an hour and a half into our conversation, Carlos’s 93-year-old grandfather, Pedro Rueda, who had been smoking a cigarette outside, ambled into the kitchen. Rueda had raised Carlos since he was 10. Now, he was visiting Carlos and his family in Sacramento for two weeks on a tourist visa. He spread butter on a roll while wistfully describing his ranch back in Michoacán. He missed his cows.

Rueda is the family patriarch and its most outspoken opposition activist. Carlos had followed him into political organizing. When the family was threatened, Carlos and several other relatives sought asylum in the United States, while Rueda stayed to fight for what he believed in.

Yet when I mentioned that I was writing an article about his grandson’s experience with ICE, Pedro’s face darkened. He said he always tells Carlos: “Do whatever the government tells you to do, and everything will be fine.”

Punking a Punk Rock Church “Cult”

It eats at you, I know, so hard to let it go
Let yourself go, yeah, just let yourself go …
The sugarcoated poisoned apple tastes so good,
how could you know
Its deceitful lies, and where you’re gonna go?
—MxPx, “Sugarcoated Poison Apple”

In this article for Topic, I dive into the ups and downs of #apostatelyfe.

—–

One day in May 1999, Cleetus Adrian was watching The Apostle, the 1997 film starring Robert Duvall, when—as he tells it—he heard God tell him to become a pastor. Adrian’s father was a Nazarene pastor, and he already attended his father’s church. But when God calls, you answer.

That weekend, as on most weekends, Adrian went to a punk show in the Dallas-Fort Worth area where he lived. Looking around at the concertgoers, Adrian thought, They’re sheep without a shepherd. The following Sunday, Adrian opened a punk-rock church where outcast kids could go to worship: Deliverance Bible Church.

Adrian’s best friend Jeff Davis was the first to show up at DBC’s inaugural service. DBC wasn’t much of a church at first: ten friends met at the YMCA gym in Fort Worth and read a few Bible verses. But, unlike at other churches, they could pray however they wanted: sing, dance, run around, shoot hoops. Adrian, Davis, and others started handing out DBC flyers at concerts. About a year later, the DIY young church moved from the YMCA to its current location in Hurst, Texas, a small, mall-dominated suburb nearby. Hundreds of people started showing up every Sunday: punk rockers with ten-inch blue mohawks, heavily pierced goths, hardcore kids. Word spread that even if you couldn’t wear a spiky collar to your mother’s church, you would be welcomed at DBC.

“We thought God was working through us, and we didn’t need the world’s approval,” says Davis now.

Within a few years, the Deliverance Bible Church had ushers and a full praise band, with Adrian still installed as pastor. He doesn’t look anything like a typical pastor: At six-foot-five, Adrian has a shaved head and is tatted up with Jesus imagery, with large gauges in his ears and a lip ring. He’s media-savvy, and has been profiled by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and Inked magazine, as well as being featured on the world’s largest Christian TV network, TBN, and the reality TV show Miami Ink.

As DBC expanded, it developed a brand. Instead of having a standard baptismal scene behind the stage, the backdrop at DBC was a tattoo-style banner, with “Jesus” in the middle. Polaroids covered the walls, memorializing those baptized by gallon-water jugs in the parking lot. The church’s leadership marketed it like an exclusive club, a “subculture church”; the name of its ministry was the Nation of the Underground. Its T-shirts had an antiauthoritarian bent, reading, “Religion Destroys, Christ Saves.” Hour-long jam sessions energized the crowd preceding sermons, which mixed Bible verses with lyrics from Adrian’s encyclopedic knowledge of punk bands such as MxPx or the Descendents. Church felt like a fun hang sesh, or a concert with free merch. “When he got off the stage, I was like, Oh my God, I’m with a rock star. I’m not worthy of talking with him,” says Lydia Chong, who attended DBC from 2000 to 2006.

More than 200 members united around one core belief: that DBC is not a church, but, rather, a cult.

Everyone who spent time at DBC says a certain energy ran through the place. It was imbued with a Christianity that didn’t sit still. Miracles became rote: in one famous rumor, Adrian’s young son was said to have accidentally pinned his foot under a dresser. It turned black and gnarly. Adrian touched his hands to his son’s foot and prayed; when he lifted his hands, the foot was cured. In another story, the congregation prayed over a member who had walked with a terrible limp his entire life. All of a sudden, there was a loud pop, like a firecracker going off. The churchgoer straightened up. “Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God,” he screamed, jumping up and down. He tore out of the door, raced around the parking lot. After that, he would supposedly run to church every day. In yet another tale, Adrian allegedly prayed that congregants would find gold teeth, and an associate pastor discovered that his fillings had turned gold. (There’s video evidence of that one, but the picture quality is fuzzy).

The punk-rock church, with its charming leader and its willingness to accept outcasts, became an obsession for some followers, many of whom were looking for guidance. Daniel Cathey started attending DBC while couch-surfing with friends in high school. “I was just a poor kid with a skateboard and a mohawk,” he says. Another former member, Clay Warren, had battled a predilection for angel dust until he found DBC. For years he crashed with four DBC dudes in a hideous, neon-pink one-bedroom apartment a mile from the church. Warren ate, slept, and breathed DBC. “I would have done anything for Cleetus,” Warren says. “And I mean anything.”

As a teenager in Arlington, Texas, Austin Williams fell in love with anarchism and punk—specifically, the band Jeff Davis played in, Shmunks For You. So when Williams learned that he could see his favorite band at a Saturday night show, then again the next day at worship, he was intrigued. The first time he showed up at DBC, Williams says, it was “like clean, pure water for my filthy, filthy soul.”

For these kids and others at DBC, Cleetus Adrian was a hero, a father figure, and a prophet. But not everyone feels so reverent today.

—-

Mike Holmesmith was once an associate pastor at DBC. He had first learned about the church through an article in a Christian punk zine called Flame Resistant, when he was a 23-year-old with green dreadlocks living in Washington State. He hitchhiked to Texas to meet Adrian, and for nine years, he was all in. But after being fired from that role in 2015, he was, suddenly, all out. He found himself staring at an email Adrian sent him, a loaded shotgun by his side, ready to end his pain.

In both the email and a later tweetstorm, Adrian called Holmesmith’s wife Jewel a “jezebel” who had “spiritually castrated” Holmesmith. Adrian’s influence on Holmesmith at the time was such that the latter wondered whether his wife was actually a demon. Holmesmith felt betrayed, robbed, abandoned.

It took the next year and a half for Holmesmith to work things out with his wife; then, in November 2016, he wrote his first public statement on his time in the church on Facebook. “I’ve wrestled with this post for a while, but I keep seeing things which have confirmed its necessity,” he posted. “I have come to realize Deliverance Bible Church is an unhealthy and abusive environment.”

The post generated dozens of comments within hours: Other former members railed against DBC, current DBCers quoted Scripture in defense, and acquaintances chimed in with messages of support for Holmesmith.

A few weeks prior, Holmesmith had found out that several former members had started a group called DBC Survivors, with a website and a private Facebook group to swap stories. Leaders of the group say they now have more than 200 members united around one core belief: that DBC is not a church, but, rather, a cult.

—–

The argument over what exactly defines a cult is more than half a century old. The International Cultic Studies Association calls it “an ideological organization held together by charismatic relations and demanding total commitment.” (Most sociologists of religion and First-Amendment-rights advocates now reject that as overly broad.) Anti-cult hysteria reached a fever pitch in the 1980s, with story after story damning cultic abuse. Some activists threatened to “deprogram” cult members against their wishes; in one 1980 incident, infamous deprogrammer Ted Patrick was sentenced to a year in jail after kidnapping a Tucson woman who he thought needed to be “saved.” Nowadays the anti-cult movement is more subdued, planning conferences dedicated to “cultic studies.” Instead of deprogrammers, they’re therapists. Even brainwashing theory is out of fashion, as some scholars doubt its scientific basis. The au courant term is, instead, “thought reform.”
Each DBC “survivor” has their own story of how they came to realize this, but they generally agree that DBC was humming along until the mid-aughts. Around that time, the Christian punk rock movement faded. What had started as radical rebellion against the mind-numbing tedium of mainstream American society became passé; raging against the non-Christian machine got old. Popular bands such as Ninety Pound Wuss and MxPx broke up or left Christianity altogether.

Then Adrian’s father Cycil died in 2004. Three former church members who claim to have been close to him say Adrian mimicked his father’s ministerial style; when Adrian’s father died, they claim that Adrian started idolizing the televangelists on TBN instead, preaching fire and brimstone.

In interviews I conducted, as well as in other interviews and on social media, more than two dozen former members have alleged that Adrian changed DBC from a church to a cult around this time. After his father’s death, Adrian is said by former church members to have begun asking members to choose new names for themselves—Jeff Meaningless, April Purity, Josh Hope—and demanding that congregants give all their money to DBC. That could mean their entire paychecks, even their life savings.
Beyond emptying their bank accounts, Adrian allegedly encouraged church members to spend all their time at the church; some claim to have even slept there on occasion. A regular Sunday meeting might be followed by Monday band practice, Tuesday Bible study, Wednesday Bible study, Thursday band practice, Friday evangelism, and a Saturday meeting. Several former members say that in order to access the inner circle of DBC, they even attended a boot camp called the “School of All or Nothing”—a weeks-long training session about the church’s theology.

“We thought God was working through us, and we didn’t need the world’s approval.”

Former members also say that Adrian told them to cut off family and friends outside the church because those people lived in sin. They claim he dictated when members should date, marry, or have babies, and men were expected to control their wives. According to six former DBC staff, Adrian also dispatched them to plant satellite churches in cities across the world, then cut them off financially and ignored their repeated pleas for advice.

If you questioned any of his actions or preaching, former members claim, Adrian would tell you that you were questioning God. He would single out specific members for rebuke from the pulpit. At times members had to petition the pastor’s so-called “armor bearer”—a personal assistant whose title is modeled after that of the person who would carry King David’s armor—to even speak with him.

Holmesmith claims that, in the months he called out DBC on Facebook, five families stopped attending the church. Starting in January 2017, the two sides entered an all-out social-media slugfest—with Adrian, two DBC associate pastors, and a dozen current members on one side, and the DBC Survivors on the other.

Adrian and DBC associate pastors declined my repeated requests for interviews. But the online spat, which continued on Facebook and Twitter through 2017 and into this year, leaves clues as to their perspective. In July 2017, current associate pastor Andrew Weatherford made light of the situation, tweeting, “Dang, people be mean with them #cult #tweets. #Ouch #bro. #Gumption. *face with tears of joy emoji*” In November, Adrian himself tweeted, “The best way to get back at your old #church isn’t calling them a cult. It’s being more in love with #Jesus now, than when you were there!!”

—–

Misty and Angel Rodriguez met in 2007 at the hair salon where they both worked—Angel as a stylist, and Misty at the register. Though her friends told her that Angel looked creepy with his long hair and goth makeup, Misty thought he was “kinda cute.” They started dating five months later.

At the time, Angel was training to become a pastor at DBC. If Misty wanted to date him, she had to go to the church. She says now that only two weeks in, she could tell something was off, but she held her tongue. “You’re stuck before you realize you got stuck,” she says now. Despite Misty’s attendance, her relationship with Angel quickly caused problems between Angel and church leaders: when he confessed he and Misty had been fooling around, Angel says, DBC leaders pressured them to get married. They did, and soon had their first child. Since she was spending all of her time at DBC, Misty’s parents and siblings started going, too.

Even so, Misty says that Adrian could tell she wasn’t all in. On occasion she refused to attend church and, when she did go, she simply sat there instead of laughing, crying or speaking in tongues. Whenever she wasn’t with Angel, DBC pastors were constantly berating her for sinning. To prove herself, Misty attended the School of All or Nothing; this meant five weeks of training in a hotel, away from her one-year-old son. She says she even donated $14,000—money she inherited from her grandmother—to fund an international mission trip to Brazil, only to be told by an associate pastor that because they suspected she wasn’t born again, she herself would not be allowed to go. (Misty showed me the check stubs for that donation.)

Misty got a tattoo of 1 Peter 3: “Wives be submissive to your own husbands.” Her marriage suffered. Angel constantly questioned Misty’s loyalty to DBC. In turn, she self-medicated with alcohol and weed. In 2013, after six years of incessant pressure, Misty admitted herself to a psych ward, where she stayed for a week.

Angel responded by further dedicating himself to DBC; if they just prayed more, perhaps God would solve their problems. Misty continued to go, too. Her whole circle of family and friends now went to the church—where else was she going to go? They didn’t leave DBC until the following year, when, defending Misty from yet another accusation of sin, Angel had an explosive argument with an associate pastor.

Each former DBC member seems to feel mixed about their time there. If it wasn’t for the church, they wouldn’t be who they are today. But, if given the chance of a do-over, they wouldn’t go again.

They cut off all contact with outside family and friends. When they left, they had nowhere to go and no one to turn to.

After his departure, Davis inhaled every -ism he could get his hands on, the kinds of spiritual teachings that Adrian referred to as “the Devil’s playbook”: Satanism, Occultism, Wicca, Buddhism, Islam, Jainism, even atheism. It’s all the same fucking thing as church, he realized. Mostly, he’s frustrated Adrian tricked him.

If Davis is still angry, Katie McDonald has made it to acceptance. “My entire core of who I was got completely ripped out of me overnight,” says McDonald, 27, of leaving the church. McDonald attended DBC from ages 15 to 20. After she left in 2010 following Adrian publicly chastising her for visiting another church, members still there—some of her best friends just weeks ago—started harassing her in person and online. McDonald moved back in with her mother in Hurst and barely left her room for a year, scared she’d run into DBC staff around the neighborhood. Two years later, after nearly throwing herself off a parking garage in downtown Fort Worth, McDonald started daily outpatient therapy and the counselor diagnosed her with post-traumatic stress disorder. That helped her get back on track, and eventually go to college.

But, for McDonald, what ultimately led to healing was the DBC Survivors Facebook group. At first, she was nervous to share her story, worried that others would call bullshit. After she worked up the courage, she says, “it was like this weight got lifted off my entire life because I finally got to be heard.”

Many former DBC members say they cut off all contact with outside family and friends while they were involved with the church. When they left, they had nowhere to go and no one to turn to. The DBC Survivors Facebook group helps them cope with loneliness. It’s their support group, helping them recover from shared trauma only they understand. “It’s like AA for DBC,” one person told me.

Several members say that, over the past two years, they’ve frequently discussed strategies around how to fell the “false prophet.” (The Facebook group is private.) Should they confront current members directly? Bash Adrian in the media? Report to the IRS the persistent rumor that DBC is behind on its taxes?

The group members eventually agreed that any aggressive action would be seen as persecution by current DBC congregants, potentially entrenching those people even further into the church; warning potential worshippers would be more effective. Former church members tend to stay as far away from DBC as possible. Some say they moved across the country just to avoid the temptation of returning. “I’d rather burn in hell for all of eternity than go back to DBC,” says Clay Warren.

The group did, however, start trolling Adrian and DBC online. The memes ran rampant.

—–

In January of this year, Adrian flipped the cult accusation back at the DBC Survivors: on Twitter, he accused Holmesmith of engaging in cultish behavior himself when he was part of DBC, by allegedly pressuring others to join the church.

Andrew Weatherford backed up his pastor in a recent tweet. “People accuse you of being in an isolating, insular cult,” he wrote of the DBC Survivors. “So they cut you off, ignore you, and slander you behind your back. First of all, y’all acting like the cult.”

These dueling cult accusations are enough to make one’s head spin. Leaving a cult is notoriously hard—but what if, in leaving one cult, former DBC members merely formed another?

For members of the DBC Survivors Facebook group, identifying as former cult members and spreading anti-cult dogma seems to be all-consuming. They read books, listen to podcasts, and devour articles on the subject, sharing everything on Facebook. The anti-cult content they devour is the work of a hodgepodge of academics, health professionals, and apostates—former cult members—who combat cults worldwide. The anti-cult movement soapboxes against the dangers of brainwashing, which is when a charismatic leader controls the minds of followers, changing their beliefs and limiting their critical thinking.

Three former DBC members told me that they realized they had been brainwashed and sought deprogramming after consuming anti-cult literature. The DBC Survivors group refers former members to a website called Dallas Cult Resource, maintained by Doug and Wendy Duncan, counselors who are self-identified former members of the Trinity Foundation – an organization the Duncans now allege is cult.

When I reach Doug Duncan on the phone, he has just cracked a beer and is about to put two steaks on the grill before settling into an evening watching Netflix with his wife. He says in the immediate years after leaving Trinity Foundation, he couldn’t enjoy such simple pleasures. An insurance case manager by day, Duncan presents at cultic-studies conferences and says he has found purpose in helping others in cult recovery.

Satanism, Occultism, Wicca, Buddhism, Islam, Jainism, even atheism. It’s all the same fucking thing as church.

It’s not an easy task to convince people that their basic understanding of the world has been flawed. Duncan says the first therapeutic strategy he employs with a former cult member is basic education: how did the leader get inside their head and make them do things they wouldn’t otherwise? Often Duncan’s clients will “cult hop,” going from one cult to another. When you’re in a cult, he explains, it’s intoxicating, and coming out of a cult is akin to addiction recovery: it’s easy to relapse. The ultimate irony in the DBC case, Duncan points out, is that the DBCers are into punk rock, the emblem of rebellion. But slowly, over time, they have completely submitted.

Given their fixation on their identity as survivors, I ask Duncan if the DBC Survivors group could itself be called a cult. I think he would know: he and others have alleged to the Dallas Observer that the group he and his wife left, the Trinity Foundation, cast itself as a “religious watchdog” that criticized televangelists before starting to act cultish itself.

Duncan says the DBC Survivors group doesn’t seem like a cult. But, he points out, “Whether or not they’re exactly a cult, they’re kind of still doing the same thing with the same intensity to keep the high going.”

The group could be compared to DBC in another way, too: according to a handful of former DBC members, if you’re not all in with the DBC Survivors worldview, you’re out. According to these sources, they weren’t considered gung-ho enough to be part of the Survivors group, and they were ostracized. One said that because he would still consider socializing with Adrian, the other Survivors wouldn’t talk to him any more. When another former member defended Adrian in the comments on Holmesmith’s Facebook post, the Survivors attacked him as judgmental and untrustworthy.

Lorne Dawson, professor of sociology and religious studies at Canada’s University of Waterloo, agrees that apostates often seek an equally intense alternative. However, Dawson dislikes the term “cults,” preferring the less judgmental term “new religious movements.” He says anti-cult crusaders tend to use apostate testimony as evidence that cults are destructive; in turn, apostates use the veneer of the movement’s academics to legitimize their claims. For Dawson, the word “cult” prevents us from truly understanding these fringe religious groups: how they operate, and why they might disintegrate.

Former members, Dawson says, have incentives to exaggerate. He advises me to check out DBC for myself. “Take apostate testimony with a grain of salt,” he warns.

When I tell Jeff Davis I’m going to DBC, he acts casual (“I think you’ll be fine”), but doesn’t seem to mean it. “Be careful,” he says.

—–

The day I attend DBC, it’s Christmas Eve 2017, and more people are finding God at the bingo parlor down the street than in this particular house of prayer. Hurst, Texas (population: 40,000) is home to Bell Helicopter, an aircraft manufacturer. I hear buzzing as I get out of my car outside DBC and wonder whether drones are watching me. The paranoia has already set in.

The church is sandwiched between a fabric shop and another church, in a strip mall called White Plaza. Almost all of the 40 or so people inside are white themselves. I sit down in the back row in a futile attempt to attract the least amount of attention possible, but an usher smiles at me and rushes over with a Bible. Adrian is preaching in front of the stage, which is fronted by Jerusalem stone and boasts a full band setup.

The first thing I hear Adrian say is a joke about church donations: “I don’t want your scratched lottery tickets,” he says. “Maybe we should start accepting Bitcoin.”

This evening’s sermon centers on Genesis 22:1–19, in which Abraham is asked to sacrifice his son Isaac. Adrian explains that the point is to submit wholly to the Lord, and he illustrates this with a story of his own: the other day, he says, he was reviewing a tape of his sermon, which usually just makes him think about what he could’ve done better. But, he says, this particular tape didn’t show what had happened in the church right after the recording had stopped. Apparently, a man had jumped onstage and threatened Adrian with a knife, claiming he would “slit his throat” because he was so “irritated” by Adrian’s sermon.

Then, Adrian claims, the Holy Spirit dropped an idea into his head, and he said to the man, “Say, ‘Jesus is Lord.’” Apparently, the man reacted as if he had been smacked. So Adrian repeated this command. But the man refused to say it, Adrian says, “schized out,” and bolted from the room. The audience member next to me gasps. Adrian assures us that the incident had nothing to do with him, and entirely to do with this person’s failure to submit to God. It all seems too convenient: in one succinct story, Adrian is able to play both victim of circumstance and messenger of God.

When you’re in a cult, it’s intoxicating, and coming out of a cult is akin to addiction recovery: it’s easy to relapse.

The sermon ends with a request for an offering; I’m surprised at how explicit Adrian is about asking for money. This is prosperity gospel: the blessings you receive equal the cash you bequeath. Adrian urges everyone to give everything they’ve made this year in a single offering. The ushers leap out of their chairs and rush to the front, flanking the pulpit. DBC might not accept Bitcoin, but it definitely accepts Square Cash. Congregants dig into their pockets and amble up to the stage, where everyone can see what everyone else donates. However, when I go up to look at what people have tithed, only a few singles and loose change sprinkle the stage.

Once that’s out of the way, Adrian asks us to reach out to the people around us. I lay my hands on a man with a nose piercing and close my eyes, trying to focus.

“We’re not good people. We’re wretched, evil people,” Adrian says.

“Yes!” crows the man, clutching my arm.

“We’re liars. We’re thieves. We’re adulterers. We’re hateful,” Adrian continues.

“Yes! More! More!”

“Whether people realize it or not, the inner man is so selfish.”

The man grasping me begins to cackle. I, too, start laughing—not in ridicule, but in contagion. Feeling self-conscious, I open my eyes. One guy is rolling around on the floor. Another man raises his right hand up to receive the call, while his son makes karate moves in the air next to him.

I let go. I can feel my endorphins firing. I flash back to prayer-rocking in synagogue as a kid: the potent combination of positive neurochemicals and childhood nostalgia drives me on. Adrian starts speaking in tongues. The fervor crescendos; what people are shouting, God only knows. Then Adrian says, “Come back to me,” and the cacophony halts at once.

After the service, I see Nichole Adrian, Adrian’s wife and fellow pastor, in the hallway near the bathrooms. I introduce myself and tell her I loved the service. For an alleged cult leader, she seems disinterested. I get in a couple of questions about the church’s next meeting before she says she needs to find her kids.

I leave to a torrent of anxious texts from former DBC members: had I survived? What did I think?

Yes, I survived. No, I did not think.

—–

During the service, I couldn’t help but notice how charming Adrian was. He didn’t seem like the monster he’d been made out to be. At the same time, I saw hints of the worrying behavior, including in myself, described by the Survivors. In the weeks afterward, I obsessively follow the ongoing Twitter war between current and former DBCers. I screenshot every relevant tweet, paranoid someone will block me.

An account titled Cleet Tweets is dedicated to satirizing Adrian: “Don’t listen to anyone who disagrees with me or you’re going to hell. #subtlebrainwashing #themaster #cultleadership101.” Meanwhile, Adrian’s followers rally behind him, using the hashtag #beblessed. DBC pastor Weatherford calls the Survivors entitled internet trolls. Tweeting a link to Phil Collin’s song “I Don’t Care Anymore,” he writes, “This classic pretty much sums up how I feel about all the criticism of my church and my pastor. The ridicule and attack will never change my course.”

I request an interview from several current members over Twitter, and one agrees, but only on the basis of anonymity. He insists Adrian is a man of God—and no, DBC is not a cult: you have the right to stay or go as you please. Those former members? They’re just jealous because they couldn’t run the church.

Adrian constantly quotes biblical passages and invites followers to meetings on Twitter. In January, Adrian tweets exactly 295 times, but he never responds to any of my requests for an interview.

The pastor, it seems, would rather speak from a pulpit, digital and otherwise. It makes sense. He’s a compelling leader, even if he commands his followers to go in directions that make them ever more dependent on the church. “It’s funny,” Davis says to me after I describe my confusing Christmas Eve, “What you experienced in one day was my life for a decade and I still have no idea of what to make of it.”

A Culinary Cultural Appropriation

Texas: the land of BBQ, breakfast tacos… and of course Tex-Mex. But what if we told you Tex-Mex wasn’t created by a Texan or Mexican, but a German immigrant?

On this episode of Gravy, we tell you the story of William Gebhardt, the inventor of chili powder.

Gebhardt loved the chili con carne of the streetfood sold in the plazas of San Antonio. He adapted it back at his café, but quickly ran into a problem: chili peppers proved expensive and difficult to import. So he devised a solution. Gebhardt dried the peppers in an oven and used a hand-cranked coffee mill to grind them into a dust. He then mixed together the ground peppers with cumin seeds, oregano and some black pepper until he reached the right flavor. The end result? Gebhardt’s Eagle Chili Powder.

As it spread, chili powder came to define the taste of Tex-Mex. Chili, enchiladas, fajitas, nachos are all dishes built on the spice. And today, Tex-Mex dominates; traditional cuisines of the region are less popular.

Gebhardt’s history is a typical inventor tale. But he essentially took what poor Mexican-American streetfood vendors made, changed it and sold it for wider consumption. And boy, did Gebhardt market the heck out of it. Gebhardt’s slogan was “that real Mexican tang.”

College Behind Bars

To get to the 99A college prep English class at California’s San Quentin State Prison, you pass through two security checks, two gates and a very thick, very old metal door that looks medieval. You walk into a courtyard surrounded by guard towers. Inmates in pale blue scrubs with the word “PRISONER” printed on the back in bright yellow are hanging around, playing baseball and chatting.

Across the yard sits a cluster of portable trailers. These are the education buildings, and they’re where the Prison University Project holds its classes.

One evening early this year about a dozen men sat at tables in one of the trailers, notebooks and pencils spread before them beneath the fluorescent lights. A guard supervised from a corner of the windowless room.

Once this was a not uncommon sight in an American prison, inmates doing hard time but working on a college degree that might help them get a job or otherwise adjust on the outside.

Every year 700,000 inmates leave prison, and there is ample evidence that those who have a college degree are less likely to come back. But, as the nation prepares an increase in the number of released prisoners, as reforms to sentencing guidelines for some drug offenses kick in, programs like San Quentin’s have become a rarity.

In this documentary I helped produce for APM Reports, lead producer Samara Freemark looks at college education in prisons across the United States.

 

Alex Jones Is His Own Worst Enemy

Original story, published in Esquire, here.

AUSTIN, TEXAS—Alex Jones sat alone in the courtroom, preparing for the stage. He ran his fingers through his dirty blonde hair, staring at his reflection in the computer screen in front of him. Most people know Jones as the InfoWars host who shouts, takes off his shirt, and peddles conspiracy theories—like his belief that the Sandy Hook massacre could have been a hoax, which has prompted listeners to send death threats to parents of the victims for more than four years. Last week, Jones implied that former President Obama’s daughters aren’t his own children.

“I believe in the overall political program I am promoting of Americana and freedom,” he growled to a packed courtroom when he took the stand late Wednesday afternoon.

Jones is locked in a heated custody battle with his ex-wife, Kelly. Since their divorce in 2015, their three children have lived primarily with their father after Kelly agreed to limited—and sometimes supervised—visits. She is now seeking sole or joint custody, arguing that her ex-husband is an unfit parent. But the stakes are far higher than which parent will get summer vacations with their kids. Jones’ attorney maintains that Jones is “playing a character” on his show, and should not lose custody of his children simply because he is a “performance artist.”

On Wednesday, Jones characterized his InfoWars show as 90 percent hard news and punditry, with satirical comedy bits filling in the rest. To capitalize, InfoWars even published a listicle under the headline “Top Ten Alex Jones Performance Art Characters.” On his show the night before, Jones appeared to contradict himself, portraying himself as out of control.

“I’m an actor supposedly. I don’t have any original thoughts. They tell me what to say. I’ve got teleprompters in here. No I don’t. I can’t even read off a teleprompter. I can’t even control myself. Everybody knows it around here.” He continued: “We’re the most bona fide, hard-core, Real McCoy thing there is.”

At one point on the stand, while the lawyers and the judge conferred in private, Jones sighed deeply and stared at the ceiling. It was a look of boredom, rather than pain. He did not want to be there.

Wednesday’s legal proceedings began at 9 AM local time. Twenty-three minutes later, Jones (or one of his InfoWars staffers) sent out a tweet from his account lambasting a Guardian article about him.

The entire morning and most of the afternoon was taken up by testimony from the case manager for the Jones’ divorce and Kelly’s former therapist. The competing legal teams sparred on more fundamental issues, like the personalities of their clients, and more specific ones—like whether their child’s injured toe was evidence of medical neglect.

Jones’ legal team portrayed his ex-wife as manipulative, splitting the family apart by pitting various members against each other. Her attorneys countered by asking the witness to explain her ex-husband’s diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder, and whether it could impact his parenting. Later, the former therapist revealed in a deposition that Kelly accused Alex of being “verbally, emotionally and sexually abusive,” which the therapist believed to be true.

All the while, Jones sat and watched. Opposing lawyers asked Judge Orlinda Naranjo to admonish him for repeatedly shaking his head during testimony, which she did.

During the lunch break, Jones could be overheard revealing a Trumpian love-hate relationship with media attention, likening coverage of his trial to that of O.J. Simpson’s.

After lunch, Jones sat with his hands in a triangle—almost like he was praying—and grumbled about unwanted attention from Good Morning America. An assistant delivered a freshly laundered white shirt. Jones spent the afternoon wiping the sweat off his brow with a napkin.

Finally, at 4:15 PM, Alex Jones, the man or the character, took the stand.

His attorney Randall Wilhite led him through a series of questions and pictures, all designed to show—sometimes physically—Jones holds his children dear. In the opening photo, Jones clutched his 14-year-old son on his lap. Others showed him hiking with his children, or at birthday parties.

“I didn’t pick these, these are funny,” Jones chuckled.

As a witness, Jones switched topics frequently, with rants on U.S. industry sprinkled in with his descriptions of his children. Every three to four minutes, his ex-wife’s lead attorney Bobby Newman would object to Jones’ soliloquies. To be fair, Jones also managed to play family man.

“All three kids are next level compared to me or anyone else I know,” he boasted.

His face remained expressive throughout. He squinted and nodded like George W. Bush. His eyes widened again like Peter Lorre. He pursed his lips like Donald Trump, who was a guest on his show in December 2015, an appearance brokered through mutual friend Roger Stone. Trump called Jones’ reputation “amazing” and promised not to let him down once elected. (Stone is in Austin this week, filling in for Jones as Jones spends time at the custody trial.)

Jones claimed he gets up at four in the morning to do research, with a Trumpian statement: “You wouldn’t believe how complicated it is.”

He spoke for a while about his son appearing on InfoWars. “He’s always saying that’s what he wants to do professionally.” He added that “It’s just the PG stuff, not the serious stuff.”

Asked by his own attorney if he had any security concerns about his son being on the show, Jones responded, “Not according to our law enforcement sources.”

At one point, one audience member muttered to another: “Did you see how he stared down the jury?”

A note, scrawled in black marker on the door of a men’s bathroom stall fifty feet away from the courtroom, read “Alex Jones is a racist piece of s*&$.”

 

Original story, published in Esquire, here.

A Lack of Hate Crime Prosecutions

Read the investigation for ProPublica here.


Lance Reyna was assaulted in a school bathroom in 2010. Reyna — who is transgender and gay — was a student at Houston Community College when an attacker held a knife to his throat, called him a ‘queer’ in a falsetto voice, then kicked and beat him and left him on the bathroom floor.

In Austin the following year, it didn’t take long for Akbar Amin-Akbari to sense that the man who climbed into his cab shortly after midnight was drunk and angry. But Amin-Akbari drove on, and minutes later, with the cab going 65 mph on I-35, the man suddenly grabbed him by the hair, yanking out a fistful and violently pulling his head toward the backseat. “I’m a white boy. I’m going to kill you sand nigger,” the passenger yelled.

More recently, John Gaspari was walking home from a bar in Houston at around 3 a.m. on Valentine’s Day 2015. He was three blocks from home when a car suddenly swerved onto the sidewalk, trying to run him over. Three men jumped out of the car and shouted, “Get the fag!” They tackled, punched and kicked Gaspari. Then one of them pumped two bullets into him and left him unconscious on the side of the road.

Each of the incidents were recorded by Texas police as potential hate crimes. Since 2001, Texas has had the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act on the books, named after a black man who’d been killed by white supremacists in 1998. The law allows prosecutors to attach what’s known as a sentencing enhancement to alleged hate crime cases, adding time behind bars if authorities prove the perpetrator intentionally acted out of bias toward the victim’s perceived race, color, disability, religion, national origin or ancestry, age, gender or sexual preference.

The bill’s sponsor, then-state Sen. Rodney Ellis, declared at the time that Texas had “sent a message that our state is not a safe haven for hate.”

But neither Reyna’s assault, nor Amin-Akbari’s beating nor Gaspari’s shooting were successfully prosecuted as hate crimes. Indeed, a ProPublica analysis shows that such cases in Texas almost never are.

From 2010 through 2015, there were 981 cases reported to police in Texas as potential hate crimes. ProPublica examined the records kept by the Texas Judicial Branch and confirmed just five hate crime convictions. In the course of reviewing dozens of other individual case files for potential convictions, we found another three. How many additional cases were missed by the state agency is unclear.

To be sure, the 981 cases varied widely, as did the reasons for their outcomes comprise a wide variety of reports. Interviews with law enforcement make clear that some number of the reports wind up dismissed because of too little evidence — or evidence that suggests that the alleged crimes didn’t happen at all. Another considerable number are cases that fail to produce an arrest and thus go unsolved. But while ProPublica could not comprehensively break down the universe of 981 cases — the two separate state agencies that track incident reports and convictions do not track what happens in between — there is widespread agreement among prosecutors, legislators and others in Texas about why there have been so few successful convictions under the hate crime statute:

  • It is extremely hard for prosecutors to prove the intent of the accused.
  • Individual prosecutors either lack the will to pursue the enhancement or make the calculation that it’s more advantageous to seek significant sentences but without the hate crime allegation.
  • Police officials often do not have the training to help build successful hate crime cases.
  • In some very violent cases that carry the most severe sentences — murder or rape, for instance — prosecutors opt to drop the hate element because there is no additional punishment available.

In Reyna’s case, his attacker was convicted of aggravated robbery with a deadly weapon, but the hate crime element was dropped during prosecution.

In Austin, prosecutors brought a hate crime enhancement but the trial of Amin-Akbari’s assailant on an aggravated assault charge ended with a hung jury.

The men who beat and shot John Gaspari have yet to be apprehended.

“In most hate crimes, no suspect is ever identified, arrested or charged,” said Shannon Edmonds, director of governmental relations with the Texas District and County Attorneys Association. Edmonds pointed to cases of vandalism, like a swastika painted on a synagogue, in which law enforcement rarely finds a suspect.

“Usually it’s done in the dead of night. Nobody knows who did it,” he said.

Data from Travis County offers support to the claim. Out of the 71 potential hate crime offenses identified by law enforcement in the county from 2010 to 2015, police did not identify a suspect in more than half.

Not surprisingly, the eight cases ProPublica found that were successfully prosecuted with a hate crime element involved cases with convincing evidence of intent.

On June 29, 2014, for instance, a onetime Dallas City Council candidate spray-painted “666” on a prominent gay monument and the Cathedral of Hope, a predominantly LGBT church. In a Facebook post, Richard Sheridan said the vandalism, aimed at “strongholds of the Gay community,” was “both an act of love and a warning.” That warning? “THE SODOMITES ARE COMING!!!”

Another case involved a prison inmate in Lamar County using a crude shank to stab a prison guard because he was black. The inmate was allegedly a member of the Aryan Circle, a white supremacist group.

Kim Ogg, the district attorney in Harris County, said Texas has lacked statewide leadership for seeing that the hate crime statute lives up to its promise.

“Lawyers like clean cases they can prove and win,” Ogg said. “That’s understandable. But the community needs reassurance.”


Texas first passed a version of hate crime legislation in 1993. But the language in the original law was widely recognized as general and vague. Subsequent efforts to bolster the law were stymied by conservative concerns about extending hate crime protections to gays and lesbians.

James Byrd Jr.’s death changed all that. In 1998, Byrd was dragged by a pickup truck for miles in the town of Jasper and died after his head and right arm were severed. His murderers left what remained of his body in front of an African-American church and cemetery. Two of the three men charged were avowed white supremacists, and all three were either sentenced to death or life in prison.

The Texas statute bearing Byrd Jr.’s name was enacted three years later, signed by then-Gov. Rick Perry.

“Texas has always been a tough-on-crime state,” Perry said at the time. “With my signature today, Texas now has stronger criminal penalties against crime motivated by hate.”

Royce West, a state senator who worked to pass the legislation, announced in a release afterward, “Finally, it’s done.”

“The governor’s signature on that bill culminated efforts that have been in progress since my first Legislative Session back in 1993. Its signing brought forth both a sense of accomplishment and relief for many, but surely none more than the family of James Byrd Jr. The dignity that they have exhibited throughout the three years since their very personal tragedy is commendable.”

Now in Texas, frequently police officers filing a crime report can check off a box indicating the possibility it had been motivated by bias. The case can then be referred to prosecutors, who decide if a crime occurred and, if so, whether to attach a hate crime enhancement. There is no separate offense category of hate crime. If the accused winds up convicted of the crime with the hate enhancement — through a plea or at trial — the sentence gets bumped up a level, allowing for more time behind bars.

But as in other places that debated adopting hate crime laws, there has been worry in Texas about the appropriateness and the usefulness of the measures. Did sentencing enhancements such as the one enacted in Texas improperly punish people for their beliefs, as well as their actions? Was it wise to have police and prosecutors worried about proving not only guilt, but intent? Is a hate crime characterized by an epithet used during the commission of the crime? A background of questionable ideology? Neither or both?

ProPublica spoke with 15 current or former prosecutors in Texas about the statute. Virtually all said proving intent beyond a reasonable doubt is challenging.

“Now you have to crawl into somebody’s head,” said Andrea Austin, an assistant district attorney in Travis County, who tried the Amin-Akbari case.

In most criminal cases, prosecutors simply need to show the defendant committed the alleged act intentionally, knowingly, recklessly or with criminal negligence. The case does not require proving motivation. But pursuing a hate crime allegation inherently does.

“It definitely raises the burden on a prosecutor,” said Nathan Hennigan, a former assistant district attorney in Harris County.

But to Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization that has tracked hate crimes for years, that argument is not always convincing.

“In many cases it’s obvious,” Cohen said in a telephone interview. “Many times there’s circumstantial evidence in connection with a crime that demonstrates that hate was the reason the victim was selected.”

Cohen’s point of view is one of many concerning the purpose of the state’s hate crime statute and its enforcement. Some say the mere existence of the statute is an important declaration to the residents of the state that expressions of hate will not be tolerated.

“In this community it’s an important issue to say this place is no place for hate,” said David Escamilla, the misdemeanor prosecutor in Travis County. “I’m sure there’s a number of cases that don’t get reported. That’s why the message is more important. For those people that are suffering to understand this is unacceptable and they should come forward.”

For some people, Escamilla added, the threat of added jail time “works.”

Assistant Special Agent in Charge of the El Paso FBI Keith Byers supervises federal hate crime case investigations. He said that, while zealots won’t be deterred by the specter of added prison time, “other folks that may not be in that category, they may make the mental decision, ‘I saw what happened to someone else so I’m not going to repeat the same type of behavior.’”

But others, especially defense attorneys who work most closely with alleged criminals, disagreed.

“I always roll my eyes when people talk about the deterrence effect,” said Mick Mickelsen, a prominent Dallas defense attorney who represented a client convicted of a vicious anti-gay hate crime attack in 2008.

“When you’re talking about heinous crimes, the people committing them are so disordered. I don’t think they respond in a logical fashion,” he said.

Several prosecutors said that, given the challenge in proving intent, they had chiefly come to use the prospect of a hate crime enhancement as a bargaining tool in plea negotiations.

Some law enforcement officials said the limited number of successful hate crime prosecutions owed at least in part to the nature of the initial police work in the cases. In at least a dozen other states, there is required training for police officers in how to investigate and document potential hate crimes. But Texas does not mandate such training and provides no funding for departments that might want to offer it.

Stephen Hughes, a detective in Rusk, a small town in east Texas, said he hasn’t been trained on hate crimes since he attended the police academy in 1998.

“To be honest with you, it was so long ago,” Hughes said. “For the most part, it’s basic common sense. You have to go on a case-by-case basis and hopefully would recognize it.”

Larger jurisdictions with more resources, such as the Houston Police Department, dedicate personnel specifically to review prospective hate crimes. An intake officer with the department pointed to the HPD’s hate crimes hotline, cultural diversity classes for officers and meetings with community groups as evidence the department prioritizes investigating such cases.

For all that, however, records show very few completed hate crime prosecutions in Harris County. Indeed, there have been none since 2007.

“It’s been terrible,” Ogg, the new district attorney who took office in Harris County at the start of 2017, said of her office’s record on hate crimes.

She said the small numbers — in her county and statewide — meant Texas was failing its minority residents.


The State of Texas v. Drew Anthony Nickason offers a look into how the hate crime statute is applied and the difficulty of making it pay off.

In 2011, Nickason was charged in an attack on a black man, Levi Drone, in Midland. Drone, who grew up in Midland, went to the Buffalo Wild Wings in town to catch up with a few friends. While leaving, they encountered a group of white men hanging out in the parking lot.

According to court documents, the white men shouted slurs at Drone and his friends, including “freaking n—-rs.” One lifted up his shirt to show a Confederate flag tattoo. Another pulled out a handgun. Drone and his friends tried to escape, heading to the alley beside the restaurant. A fight broke out. The man with the gun pistol-whipped Drone’s friend, Marcus Davis, who started vomiting blood. While Drone was attending to his friend, the attackers scattered.

But two returned with knives, including Nickason. They shouted, “We’ll beat you n—-rs up,” “N—-r f–k you” and “Heil Hitler!” Drone removed his belt to defend himself but stumbled and fell. Nickason stabbed him in the arm before fleeing with his friend.

Nickason was initially charged with aggravated assault. But in the course of preparing for trial, Rebecca Patterson, the local prosecutor on the case, concluded she needed to add a hate crime enhancement. The crime, she said, made more sense when seen that way. In fact, she thought, it could be a strategic advantage.

“Every jury wants to know why,” Patterson said. “If you can give them that missing puzzle piece and show them why someone would do something as heinous as this, now it makes sense, now it’s logical, and now they feel better about being able to convict.”

Although she hadn’t handled a hate crime case before — or since — Patterson said she felt confident going into the trial. She introduced the racist statements by Nickason. An expert testified that Nickason’s tattoos of swastikas, Hitler and two lightning bolts indicated his membership in the Aryan Brotherhood, a white supremacist gang.

But Mark Dettman, Nickason’s attorney, countered by moving to exclude evidence of his gang membership, claiming it would overly prejudice the jury against him and violate his free speech rights.

Patterson said she worried briefly as the judge considered the defense argument. The defense also argued that Nickason acted in self-defense, fearing for his life because Drone was wielding his belt.

“We said our prayers and crossed our fingers,” Patterson said.

“If we hadn’t been able to bring up the fact he was in the Aryan Brotherhood, it would have made our argument a lot weaker,” she added. “Just using the n-word during the incident itself alone might not have been enough.”

The judge rejected both defense arguments. The jury found Nickason guilty of aggravated assault and the hate crime enhancement, bumping his charge to a first-degree felony. In the end, Nickason received 25 years in prison.

Dettman, the defense attorney, said he’d tried his best.

“You defend the case,” said Dettman. “If you get down to it, every case is a hate crime.”


For decades, victims of hate crimes in Texas have had the added protection of a federal hate crime statute, one expanded in 2009 to cover victims targeted for their gender or sexual orientation.

But in Texas, as in the 49 other states, the number of federal hate crime convictions has been modest. ProPublica could find four in Texas, and just 45 nationwide since the 2009 expansion.

Current and former federal officials said it was up to U.S. attorneys whether to take on a local case, and that they surfaced through a mix of FBI investigations, media reports and direct complaints from victims. The four cases in Texas all involved serious assaults.

In one of the four cases, a suburban Houston man driving his car in November 2013 made a video of himself in which he made clear he intended to hit a black person. He did, striking a 79-year-old, and emerging from his car to declare, “Knockout!”

“We had evidence from the guy’s own mouth,” said former Assistant U.S. Attorney Ruben Perez.

The defendant was sentenced to nearly six years in prison under federal law.

The continuing federal interest in hate crime prosecutions, like so many others things involving the new administration in Washington, remains to be seen. But a 2009 U.S. Senate floor speech might offer a clue.

Jeff Sessions, the then-Alabama senator who is now the country’s attorney general, mounted an hourlong attack on the idea of a federal hate crime statute. Sessions argued that these “despicable” incidents had been successfully prosecuted locally, and that a national law was both unnecessary and unconstitutional.

Still, asked about the hate crime statute during his confirmation hearings, Sessions said, “The law has been passed. Congress has spoken; you can be sure that I will enforce it.”

This month, the U.S. Department of Justice unveiled a new task force, including a subcommittee to “appropriately address hate crimes to better protect the rights of all Americans.”

“The department’s Civil Rights Division will be reaching out to affected communities to hear directly what strategies and support are most needed to help reduce this particularly pernicious crime,” the department added.

In Texas, advocates have called on Gov. Greg Abbott to extend the state’s hate crime protections to transgender individuals. Instead, Abbott has so far trained his efforts on seeking to have law enforcement officers covered following the shooting of five Dallas police officers last year. A bill introduced in the Texas legislature would do just that. Its author, Jason Villalba, R-Dallas, declined to comment for this article but recently told Fox News he hoped it would deter attacks on police.

Former state Sen. Ellis, when asked whether the law he pushed has been fully enforced, wrote in an email:

“The heinous murder of James Byrd put an important spotlight on hate crimes in Texas and across the nation. Hate crimes have existed for centuries, particularly in the South,” he said.

“I certainly hope that any case that falls under the law will be prosecuted,” Ellis added. I do hope that prosecutors will aggressively pursue these charges where there is evidence of a hate crime, rather than allow a defendant to plea to a lesser crime. While I imagine some cases do go unreported, I think we are moving in the right direction.”