By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
Frank Gonzales Jr. is someone that Governor George W. Bush would prefer that you didn't know about. Because if members of the governor's parole board had not approved of Gonzales's release from prison last year -- nine months before he'd normally have come up for parole -- cabdriver Debra Jarrell might still be alive today.
Late one night last September, Jarrell picked up three men -- including Gonzales -- at a Pasadena phone booth. Those passengers directed her to a rural area of Brazoria County, south of Houston, and attempted to rob her. As she tried to flee, Jarrell was shot once in the head and once in the body, then left to die on the side of the road. Gonzales and his companions were arrested the next day and charged with capital murder.
Seven months before Jarrell's death, Gonzales had been freed from prison after the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles granted him something called a Special Needs Parole -- a little-known type of parole theoretically reserved for Texas inmates who are critically ill, or otherwise impaired, and need medical treatment that they can't obtain inside a state prison. And it is a parole that is granted -- supposedly -- only after the close scrutiny of each individual case by both prison officials and parole board members.
The parole board's members are appointed by, and serve at the pleasure of, the governor of Texas. Governor Bush was elected in 1994 on a tough law-and-order platform. In the Gonzales case, some of the governor's critics see parallels to the case of Willie Horton -- a case very familiar to the Bush family.
"Absolutely," says Billy Rogers, chairman of the campaign of Bush's Democratic gubernatorial challenger.
After being paroled from the Massachusetts state prison system, Horton raped and killed a woman. During the 1988 presidential campaign, lurid TV ads for candidate George Bush, Governor Bush's father, highlighted the Horton tale relentlessly and repeatedly, offering it as proof that the Democratic nominee, Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis, was soft on crime. The commercials were criticized as being racist, but they were effective in tarring Dukakis; and the elder Bush, of course, won the presidency.
Ten years later, the younger Bush has apparently set his sights on the same goal, and is hailed as the leading contender for the Republican nomination in 2000. The last thing George W. wants right now is to be criticized as soft on crime. And the last person he wants you to know about is Frank Gonzales.
For a three-time loser now charged with capital murder, Gonzales doesn't cut an impressive figure. Wearing a white prison hospital gown, he sits in a wheelchair. He's confined to the medical center of the Estelle Unit, northeast of Huntsville, and talks via a phone to his visitor on the other side of a glass partition. His complexion is pale, and his eyes are narrow and puffy.
At the time he was granted parole in February 1997, Gonzales was working on his second stint in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice system. By his own admission, it wasn't for lack of a proper upbringing.
"I was raised perfectly," says Gonzales. "Life was perfect." Adopted by his grandparents, he grew up near the Johnson Space Center. In high school, he played sax and was, literally, a choirboy.
But shortly after his 15th birthday, Gonzales says, he "just went crazy" and began joy-riding in stolen cars. In 1990, the then 18-year-old received a five-year sentence for a Harris County auto theft. A couple of years later, he was released on parole.
Court records show that in April 1993, Gonzales and another man broke into a home and business in rural Brazoria County. They stole two 14-inch automobile tires worth about $40, a $50 portable radio and three personal checks -- one of which Gonzales allegedly cashed after making it payable to himself for $60.
In '95, Gonzales says, he noticed a bad rash on one of his arms. Prison medical personnel told him it was dermatomyositis, an autoimmune muscle disease. Gonzales also says he was told the disease is fatal and that he will eventually die from it. However, Dr. Frank C. Arnett, with UT Medical School in Houston, says, if treated, the condition can be controlled. Dr. Sylvia Hsu says the disease can also indicate the presence of an internal malignancy. Nevertheless, Gonzales says that later, as the ailment left him in constant pain and confined to a wheelchair, the doctors recommended him for a Special Needs Parole -- something that Gonzales had never heard of.
And so in February 1997, nine months ahead of Gonzales's scheduled parole date, members of Governor Bush's parole board agreed to release him -- not to a supervised medical facility, but instead to his uncle's home in Dickinson, Texas. Seven months later, Debra Jarrell was dead.
On Wednesday, September 16, around 4 p.m., 38-year-old Jarrell prepared to begin her usual 12-hour shift with the Pasadena Taxi Company. She'd driven for the cab service for the past four years, and had spent the entire time working nights, which she preferred. During the day, she slept in the un-air-conditioned two-bedroom trailer that she shared with four other people: her boyfriend, her 13-year-old son, her pregnant 17-year-old daughter and her daughter's 17-year-old husband.