Humpy Parker’s Hwy. 59 terrorism put lasting stain on San Jacinto County
By Valerie Reddell
A story by a young reporter for the Austin American-Statesman and published across the nation on May 16, 1982, started wheels in motion that landed San Jacinto County Sheriff James C. “Humpy” Parker and his son in federal prison, and several law enforcement officers and county officials out of a job.
In 1982, one of the many motorists who were stopped on Hwy. 59 wrote a letter about irregular procedures to the Statesman and it was directed to Steve Sellers.
“Nothing seemed to be quite right,” Sellers said in a recent telephone interview.
Sellers grew up at the Fort Worth Press, a Scripps Howard newspaper where his dad was editor.
The third-generation journalist researched the complaints made in the letter and tracked down about two dozen people who had horror stories about being stopped without probable cause. Their cars were towed and the experience “scared them to death,” Sellers said.
In each of those cases, they were miraculously set free if they paid cash.
Sellers took his questions to Sheriff Parker, who claimed that all those incidents were drug-related and anything the letter-writer said couldn’t be trusted.
A short time later, Sellers said he was contacted by Deputy Greg Magee. They met at the Holiday Inn in Huntsville, Sellers said. “He confirmed that everything was the truth.”
“Magee wouldn’t have anything to do with Hwy. 59,” Sellers said. “I reconfirmed through reserve deputies, a constable and a justice of the peace that the department was out of control.”
When the first story came out, it got a lot of attention elsewhere, Sellers recalled. Thinking back, he estimates that he wrote 13 to 15 stories on Humpy Parker and the related conspiracies.
“That was the last work I did in the newspaper business,” Sellers said.
In September 1982, he entered the Seminary of the Southwest in Austin. While studying to become an Episcopal priest, he returned to the stack of notebooks he amassed during his investigation and wrote a book about the roadside shakedown operation, “Terror on Hwy. 59.”
Sellers said while he was working on those stories, he made it a point to never spend the night in San Jacinto County.
“I didn’t worry about my safety then, but looking back I should have,” Sellers said. “There were some seedy people attached to the sheriff’s department.”
Sellers said he received a number of threatening phone calls at the newspaper and at home.
“Now that I’m older and wiser, I should have been more afraid,” he added. “I don’t think I got any (threats) in writing.”
Sellers’ investigation showed that the five deputies with SJCSO stopped and searched enough vehicles traveling along Hwy. 59 to make them the No. 2 agency in the state of Texas for drug arrests. Only Harris County (with 706 deputies and 2.4 million residents) had filed more cases, made more arrests and seized more property.
Drivers with out-of-state license plates, vehicles with bumper stickers from rock radio stations and young male drivers with long hair were targeted by deputies — on Sheriff Parker’s instructions.
Although Parker strongly denied it, Sellers reported that having long hair was often the probable cause given to drivers for the stop and search, according to numerous victims as well as former deputies.
One of those deputies — later revealed to be Greg Magee — said he saw 69 drivers sent to the county jail in a single night.
Those bogus arrests worked an economic miracle for San Jacinto County.
Fines and fees collected subsequent to those arrests pumped $300,000 into county coffers — providing 21 percent of the total county budget.
Parker responded to the allegations by claiming he just wanted to keep marijuana out of the county. He was first elected sheriff in 1969.
“We’ve got a real big problem here,” Parker said. “It’s a matter of whether we’re going to look the other way or not.”
Sellers’ reporting prompted investigations by the FBI and the Texas Department of Public Safety into the methods used by SJCSO. Their efforts became public when editor Martha Charrey of the San Jacinto News-Times reported that the task force had set up shop in the Bank of San Jacinto County.
Officing at that particular location likely hampered their efforts. Not only was the bank president profiting off Parker’s exploits, but anyone visiting the task force in person could be seen entering the bank from the courthouse.
Earlier complaints promoted a lawsuit by the ACLU, but it was ultimately settled out of court with all four plaintiffs receiving $1,000 each.
In many of the “arrests” made along Hwy. 59, Sellers said there were no court records generated. Many motorists just paid a bond fee, towing bill and a fine. Then they were released.
In addition to the “Houston hippies” Parker targeted, deputies and unpaid reserves stopped anyone with a Louisiana license plates with a G in them. They claimed that’s the area that was controlled by the “Dixie Mafia.”
Tow truck drivers sometimes hauled away 45 to 50 cars — all of who paid a $47 fee to get their vehicle back.
In 1981, San Jacinto County had 1,124 drug arrests. Eighty percent of them were for marijuana. By comparison, Travis County (with 46 deputies) made 315 drug arrests in 1981.
The vast majority of those San Jac cases were filed as misdemeanors — which kept them away from District Attorney James Keeshan, who served San Jacinto County and two others.
Keeshan told Sellers that he had received some complaints about irregular arrests, but has not presented any cases to the grand jury.
Sellers also learned that one of the bail bondsmen, Jim Browder, made more than$50,000 in 1981 from his bail bond business. Browder was also president of The Bank of San Jacinto County at the time and had once served as the state representative for much of the area around Lake Livingston.
After the investigation by outside law enforcement agencies determined that formal charges had never been filed following many of the arrests, the June 10, 1981 edition of the SJ News-Times reported that 33 cases of possession of marijuana had been filed in the preceding two weeks. Many of the files were related to incidents that occurred more than 90 days earlier — a deadline set under the Speedy Trials Act at that time.
An item in the June 17, 1981 edition also noted that James Browder was serving as foreman of the Grand Jury for the 258th Judicial District.
Phantom deputy draws attention
Another case that drew attention to the questionable policies followed by Parker and his deputies relates to a shooting incident in early February 1982.
Murray Chreene of Shepherd (who was 22 years old at that time) was sitting in his truck at a car wash when Ronnie Greer approached him and displayed a .38 caliber revolver. The victim said Greer was driving a black Camaro with a female passenger.
Reportedly Greer had been at the scene of a burglary that occurred earlier in the evening when deputies described the burglary suspect’s vehicle — which generally matched the victim’s.
Chreene said Greer put the gun to his back and ordered him to put his hands on the truck.
When Greer went back to his car, Chreene ran.
Chreene said Greer fired three shots over his head before he was able to find safety in a relative’s home.
DPS Trooper Van Loggins was assisting with the burglary investigation when he heard of the shooting involving Greer.
Loggins interviewed Chreene at the relative’s home, then arrested Greer when he drove up.
During the arrest, Greer admitted he was not a police officer, but claimed to work as an undercover agent for Sheriff J.C. “Humpy” Parker.
Greer didn’t appear on the list of reserve officers and Parker later said Greer never worked for him as an undercover agent.
Two county officials told the News-Times that a reserve deputy took Greer to the sheriff’s office for booking, but he was released before Loggins could question Greer.
The next day, Pct. 1 Justice of the Peace Mike Jeffrey accepted charges filed by Chreene for aggravated assault.
“I took the charges and issued a warrant for Greer’s arrest but Parker said he would take care of it, so I gave him the warrant,” Jeffrey said.
The next day Parker told Jeffrey it was taken care of and Greer was out on $5,000 bond.
“I never saw a bond or where aggravated charges were filed against Greer,” Jeffrey said.
The reserve deputy who transported Greer said he filed charges against Greer at the sheriff’s department but has no knowledge of the disposition of the charges.
The victim and the state trooper said they were concerned Greer was not prosecuted.
A few days after his arrest, an unnamed deputy stopped Greer for speeding. Greer flashed a badge at the deputy that indicated he was a captain with the department. That was the first time the deputy had met Greer.
JP Mike Jeffrey says the badges handed out to “honorary” deputies during the 10 years Parker has been sheriff would “fill the courthouse.”
Former deputies and Charles Clark, a constable at that time reported instances where Greer performed law enforcement duties.
“I’ll swear I saw him with a gun and a badge right there in the sheriff’s office,” Clark said.
Reports in the San Jacinto News-Times say Greer first arrived in San Jacinto County in 1981 when the sheriff arrested him on a Brazos County arrest warrant. Greer had been convicted of felony theft in 1978 and was sentenced to two years of probation. He also had convictions for theft and misdemeanor marijuana possession that year. Liberty County had prior arrests for assault, disorderly conduct and shoplifting.
His stepfather and grandfather were deputies, his mother worked as a dispatcher.
Despite seven arrests in six years, he was issued a San Jacinto County radio number (115) along with other deputies and he was listed on internal rosters for the department.
Parker denied that Greer was a deputy in a July 15, 1982 story published by the News-Times.
Parker described him as an informant, correctly stating that Greer was ineligible to be a commissioned peace officer because of his felony conviction. Parker speculated that the badge and gun had been taken from Greer’s stepfather.
Unauthorized bank accounts
A news story published July 6, 1982, showed that investigators were looking into a separate checking account apparently set up by the sheriff’s department in a Coldspring bank.
On Nov. 29, 1982, a deputy U.S. Marshal and a Texas Ranger served subpoenas to 22 people ordering them to appear before a federal grand jury in Houston.
The grand jury was looking into accusations of civil rights violations by the San Jacinto County Sheriff’s Office, according to assistant U.S. Attorney Scott Woodward.
A county official said subpoenas were served to three bail bond companies, local wrecker services, State Rep. Larry Browder, all four justices of the peace, County Judge K.P. Bryant, the county auditor, county clerk, Jim Browder and Livingston attorney Clayton Malone.
Those hearings were set for Dec. 13 and 14.
“We went up (to Coldspring) in a caravan with U-Haul trucks,” Woodward said. “We took every single record out of the sheriff’s office and analyzed how many arrest reports linked up with court records.”
Sheriff Parker resigned from office on Friday, March 18, 1983, late in the afternoon after negotiating an agreement with federal prosecutors to plead guilty to civil rights and extortion charges.
Parker had held the office since 1969. Robert E. “Bob” Brumley of Coldspring immediately replaced him. Brumley was a 22-year veteran of the Houston Police Department.
Parker pleaded two charges of civil rights violations, at least one of which involved the use of “water torture” to force confessions from subjects in custody.
On taking office, Brumley dismissed 23 deputies, many of whom worked as reserve officers. State police and constables handled calls while Brumley reorganized. Some former deputies were rehired after being vetted.
Second case opened
Woodward recalled the methods used in the water torture this month when he was reached at the Office of the U.S. Attorney in Tulsa, Okla.
Woodward said his investigation began by looking into profiling by San Jacinto County deputies and the Civil Rights violations against motorists driving along Hwy. 59.
“We kept hearing about water torture,” Woodward said. “I got the sense that they were using that technique to get confessions from people. That wouldn’t have been part of what was going on out on the highway.”
Woodward said the torture was used in other felony investigations.
He sent FBI agents to prison units located around Huntsville to interview all inmates charged in San Jacinto County cases in the last 10 or 15 years.
The agents conducted blind interviews, so the inmates were
not aware what information the FBI was looking for,” Woodward said.
“They identified something like 18 different people who described the same technique,” he added.
The victims were handcuffed to a chair and often their feet were shackled. A towel was placed over the victim’s nose and mouth as the chair was tilted back. Water was poured onto the towel until the victim began to jerk about, as if drowning.
Prosecutors alleged that Parker participated in, or directed this water torture on as many as 15 detainees.
Woodward still recalls details of one of torture incidents.
“Outside the old jail is the hanging tree. One of the guys that had been water tortured was wrapped to the hanging tree with barbed wire,” Woodward said. “They poured kerosene on him and started flicking lighters.”
The victim was then taken to a nearby pond where deputies took him out in a boat. “They put him over the side of the boat and pulled him up and down by his hair. They also stuck a .45 in his mouth,” Woodward said.
That guy was a child abuser, so he was not used at trial, Woodward said.
“There was a very interesting dynamic there … all the girlfriends and secretaries — all the people that had information,” he added.
Woodward also recalled that the task force did not go after the wrecker drivers. “We used them as witnesses,” he said.
Parker also pleaded guilty to the charge that he extorted money from Jim Browder.
Bondsmen who participated in the shake down of motorists on Hwy. 59 would then kick-back a third of the bond revenue to Parker.
Those kickbacks reportedly occurred between September 1980 and December 1981.
Just prior to appearing in federal court, Parker backed up a trailer to the San Jacinto County Public Safety Building and emptied out the entire sheriff’s department.
A crowd of about 30 local residents gathered outside the building and watched the sheriff move out.
U.S. Attorneys had notified County Judge Kent Morrison earlier in the week that Parker might resign within 72 hours. Morrison and county commissioners gathered in the courthouse Friday to await notification that Parker had resigned. They were joined by District Attorney Joe Price, his criminal investigator Ronnie Donahoe, a highway patrol sergeant based in Liberty, three Texas Rangers and a number of local citizens.
With the announcement of Parker’s resignation, Price added that there are “some investigations” that could result in state charges against Humpy Parker or other members of the department.
The News-Times printed a special edition to announce Parker’s resignation.
The text of the indictments was printed on the front page of the March 24, 1983.
Some San Jacinto County residents sought leniency for the deposed sheriff.
Elmore and Clara Marrs circulated a petition asking for leniency and possible probation beginning two days after Parker stepped down.
Clara Marrs said she had known Parker for 45 years and believed he was taking the blame for someone else.
While Brumley restructured the department, constables, highway patrol officers and Texas Rangers helped answer calls for service.
On April 14, 1983, the News-Times reported that Parker’s
plea deal had been rejected by U.S. District Judge Gabrielle McDonale. Parker’s
guilty plea was withdrawn and he pleaded innocent to the charges.
Parker faced a maximum sentence of 40 years in prison and a $30,000 fine.
Days later, the U.S. Attorney’s office dismissed charges against Parker but expected to refile them. The dismissal was requested to prevent the case being derailed by the Speedy Trials Act. The rejection of Parker’s plea deal meant that he would no longer serve as a prosecution witness.
On May 4, 258th District Attorney Joe Price presented the case against Parker and other former employees of SJCSO to a San Jacinto County Grand Jury, who handed down five separate indictments on 13 felony charges.
Floyd Baker, Carl Lee and Aaron Edwards were also charged in the indictments.
Parker is accused of official misconduct and misapplication of public funds in four of the indictments. There are also 11 felony theft charges. The fifth charges Parker, Baker, Lee and Edwards of two counts of violating the civil rights of a prisoner.
Price told the News-Times the charges related to the water torture and slapping an inmate in the face with a slapjack. A slapjack is a flat, lead object wrapped with leather.
In addition to his work in San Jacinto County, Baker previously worked for the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, the Livingston Police Department and the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office.
A federal indictment accused Parker with civil rights violations for indiscriminately stopping motorists, planting drugs on them, extorting fines from those detainees, then never reporting the district court. Those monies were split between Parker and his deputies.
Parker is also charged with selling personal property taken from motorists during these stops.
On May 9, a federal grand jury re-indicted Parker and former deputies Carl Lee, John Glover and Floyd Baker, which includes charges of a conspiracy over a four-year period to deprive individuals of their civil rights.
On June 13, 1982, Ronnie Greer entered a guilty plea to the burglary of a Shepherd pharmacy on Jan. 6, 1982, and impersonating a peace officer. Those charges result from an incident during which Greer “arrested” a subject for burglary, filled out an arrest report and placed the individual in the San Jacinto County jail. His co-defendant in the pharmacy burglary was Gary Parker. When officers went to arrest Gary, Woodward recalls that Parker hid under the bed.
“That’s a very dangerous situation,” Woodward said. “Gary was on drugs back then. We just didn’t know how he would react, but they drug him out of there.”
District Judge Joe Ned Dean sentenced Greer to a 15-year probated sentence on the two charges. Gary Parker had been indicted March 2, 1982 for his role in the burglary. Two 100-tablet bottles of Demerol were never recovered after the burglary, but Gary Parker handed Greg Magee a garbage sack containing many of the other drugs taken. He told Magee that he had found the sack in the street near the pharmacy.
He resigned from the sheriff’s department in May 1982.
The trial on federal charges against Parker and former deputies got underway Aug. 31, 1983, in Houston.
A Houston construction worker, Gerald Casey, testified that he spent three years in prison for a burglary he did not commit because two SJCSO deputies water-boarded him until he confessed.
In addition, the man said he was roughed up by Glover because the deputy Casey using an epithet describing the officers during a phone call to his father.
Casey’s father also testified that his son told him about the water torture a few days after it happened. Casey’s father also picked up his son’s wet clothes from the jail.
The elder Casey said he told Montgomery County District Attorney Jim Keeshan about the water torture at that time, hoping to get the burglary charge dropped.
Travis Johnson, a Katy attorney who represented Casey, said his client told him about the incident, and he filed a motion to suppress Casey’s coerced confession.
In the meantime, Casey accepted a plea agreement to a 10-year sentence.
Casey faced 15 to 99 years and the attorney and client both had concerns whether he would be believed over a couple of deputies and the sheriff.
After the defense held a lengthy cross-examination of Casey, the judge cited one of the defense attorneys for shifting focus from the civil rights issues to the criminal record of the witness.
After Floyd Baker testified that he had participated in the water torture because “his supervisors told him to,” Baker’s case was severed from the trial and his case reset for the following month.
Earlier in the trial, Sheriff Ted Everitt gave testimony that mirrored Baker’s. The two were then Polk County deputies and they spoke to Archie Holbrook about it — who was Polk County’s elected sheriff at that time.
Baker said the sheriff told them to forget about it and go about their business.
Everitt added that he saw two inmates water-tortured while Parker watched in 1976.
Parker, Lee and Glover were found guilty of conspiring to violate the civil rights of six prisoners between 1976 and 1980.
A separate trial for the charges related to the “marijuana trap” on Hwy. 59 were expected to be tried separately. In addition to Humpy Parker, and his son, Gary Parker, former deputy Robert Rice, bail bondsmen Jim Browder and Herbert Atwood face 10 years in federal prison for their roles in the conspiracy.
In the meantime, the San Jacinto County Jail failed an inspection by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards for an insufficient number of jailers.
Despite an order from the commission to hire jailers or close the facility and a plea from Sheriff Bob Brumley that the county jail is a confinement facility for those awaiting trial, not a punishment facility, commissioners took no action to remedy the situation.
During a sentencing hearing on Oct.25, 1983, U.S. District Judge James DeAnda referred to the three former law enforcement officers as “a bunch of thugs.”
Parker was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison and a $12,000 fine.
Parker’s Chief Deputy, John Glover, was sentenced to two years in prison and five years’ probation.
Lee received a four-year prison sentence and five years’ probation.
A trial on additional federal charges was set for Nov. 28, 1983. The father and son are also charged with six counts of falsifying arrest reports and presenting those tampered documents to FBI agents. More than 100 subpoenas were served for the upcoming trail, according to Woodward.
Also in early November 1983, County Auditor Jo Landrum resigned and was cited by the grand jury for gross incompetence for failing to properly audit financial records prepared by the sheriff’s office during Parker’s tenure.
While stopping short of an indictment, the report severely chastised Landrum for not detecting the financial irregularities.
“Some of the abuses we have seen were so flagrant that it is hard to believe that they did in fact go undetected by the auditor,” the report said.
The grand jury also criticized Justice of the Peace Arnett Lilley and former JP Lucille Wolfe for keeping about $600 in death certificate fees paid to their offices.
On Nov. 10, 1983, the News-Times reported that former sheriff Humpy Parker’s trial was being postponed, “due to his present situation.
When asked to confirm unsubstantiated reports that Parker had attempted suicide, Woodward declined to comment.
Parker had begun his 10-year sentence for violating the civil rights of six former inmates, and have been transferred to a Springfield, Mo., facility for psychiatric evaluation.
Meanwhile, back in Coldspring, County Attorney Robert Atkins tendered his resignation effective Dec. 31, 1983, ending a 20-year stint as county prosecutor. Robert Hill Trapp (the current criminal district attorney for San Jacinto County) was appointed to replace Atkins. Trapp received his law license on Nov. 4, 1983, after serving an internship in the county attorney’s office with Atkins.
On. Nov. 29, Gary Parker, James L. Browder, and Herbert R. Atwood pleaded guilty in federal court to reduced charges on the sixth day of their trial. Browder, Atwood and former deputy Robert Rice all received probated sentences. Sheriff Parker received two additional one-year sentences for the water torture that would run concurrently with the 10-year sentence.
Atwood pleaded guilty to misprision for knowing about the highway conspiracy and not reporting it. That felony charge carries a maximum sentence of three years in prison and a $500 fine.
Atwood told the News-Times he wanted out of the situation,
but was afraid.
“Who was I going to talk to about it? It was a very scary situation. … I just cut everyone loose I could and didn’t charge them anything for bonding them,” he said.
In proceedings that began Dec. 7, 1983, witnesses testified that deputies searched inside women’s bras and forced motorists to take down their pants during roadside searches in a scheme to plunder drugs, money and weapons.
Older, beat up vehicles were targeted, as were vans, any vehicle with mag wheels or bearing a bumper sticker supporting Houston radio station KLOL, according to Woodward.
Drivers who had a beard, moustache or hair that touched their collar were also targeted.
George Parnham — a Houston defense attorney who later gained famed for his role in a number of high profile criminal trial including Andrea Yates — defended Atwood, claiming he was forced into participating in the water torture by “acts of intimidation, threats, and extortion.”
Parnham said the conspiracy was led by “The reigning czar of San Jacinto County,” meaning Humpy Parker.
At trial, Woodward claimed the bondsmen were willing participants in the scheme.
They “sat down and put the money in three piles, one for Browder, one for Atwood and one for Sheriff Parker and his son,” Woodward said.
Pretexts for the traffic stops including faulty equipment — often license plate lights.
The deputies would confiscate personal items — especially drugs and guns — and they were rarely returned.
The drivers were given tickets and shuttled to the county jail in Coldspring where bail bondsmen told them they would sit and rot until they paid bail and “escrow fees”.
Those efforts extracted, on average, $400 per person, Woodward said.
The prosecutor said Gary Parker and younger deputies would compete to see who could stop the most people along Hwy. 59. The deputies and bondsmen destroyed records — if any were created — of these arrests.
Greg Magee served as a deputy for a short period of time and later became an attorney and now serves as San Jacinto County Justice of the Peace.
He testified that an average of 30 people a night were arrested on Hwy. 59 every weekend.
“One night when there was a rock concert in Houston, 68 people were arrested,” Magee said.
The stain on the public image of law enforcement in San Jacinto County remained when Parker and others were in prison.
“I’m just sick of it,” said Trooper Van Loggins with the Texas Highway Patrol in a June 1984 story. “You stop somebody on 59 now and they don’t even look at the uniform you’re wearing. They equate you with what’s gone on here. You start writing and they say, ‘Oh, this is San Jacinto County.’”
Even 34 years later, Scott Woodward says he’s never handled another case that involved such an egregious breach of the public trust.