An Open But Shut Case

Paul Beauchamp's death was ruled a homicide. So why isn't the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office investigating?

At the end of the two-week trial, the jury ordered Klonaris to pay his victim $830,000 in damages. The jury did not find the county liable. However, the panel did issue a written statement advising the sheriff's department to "clean up its act."

Indeed, over the years, Montgomery County has developed a reputation as a place where law-enforcement officials carry out their own brand of law and order, and where justice is sometimes executed with a knowing wink and a nod. No case better exemplifies that attitude than does that of Clarence Brandley, who spent nearly ten years on death row for the rape and strangulation of 16-year-old Cheryl Fergeson at Conroe High School in Montgomery County. In January 1990, a state court overturned Brandley's conviction. Specially appointed to review the Brandley case, retired Judge Perry Pickett declared that he had never come across "a more shocking scenario of the effects of racial prejudice, perjured testimony, witness intimidation, the investigation the outcome of which was predetermined, and public officials who, for whatever motives, lost sight of what is right and just."

Conroe police -- not the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office -- investigated the Brandley case. But it was the Montgomery County District Attorney's Office -- and a Montgomery County jury -- that convicted him.

When Williams was elected as sheriff five years ago, he promised change. Williams had attended the sexual-harassment trial that year, and he pledged to clean up the image of the office. But according to members of a Montgomery County grand jury, Williams had contributed to the mess.

Before his election as sheriff, Williams served as head of the narcotics task force for the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office. On September 27, 1993, 12 members of a Montgomery County grand jury sent a letter criticizing the performance of the task force to Judge Lee Alworth. In the letter, the grand jurors accused the task force of a "lack of professionalism." The jurors also accused the task force of having "no firmly established guidelines to provide appropriate safeguards regarding the handling of funds and narcotics."

"We feel that the Narcotics Task Force," wrote the grand jury, "will continue to perform with questionable effectiveness if significantly constructive policy and procedure changes are not implemented immediately. Otherwise our recommendation is to disband the Narcotics Task Force as it now exists."

More recently, however, the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office has been under fire for giving homicide investigations short shrift.

In 1978, Janice Sager's father and one of her brothers were shot to death in an altercation at the Sundown Lounge in Porter, in east Montgomery County.

"I was very dumb and ignorant in how the system operated," says Sager. "I assumed that if somebody commits this type of crime, they're going to be punished." Instead, for several years, she found herself on the losing end of what she calls "the Montgomery County runaround."

Sager says no one with the Montgomery County law-enforcement machine ever bothered to let her know how the case was proceeding or how it was finally resolved. Several years later, she decided to find out for herself. After getting some instructions from a private investigator, Sager went to the district clerk's office and started searching the files for records of the investigation. All she could find was a charge against the shooter for unlawfully carrying a weapon and an 18-month probated sentence.

"It was very, very frustrating," says Sager, "and I became very angry at this system of official apathy, and it made me question how they were handling other unsolved homicides. But who are you going to turn to? What you have here in Montgomery County is basically a network of bubbas."

What Sager did was create her own watchdog organization. In 1993, Sager announced the formation of Texans For Equal Justice, and she began compiling a list of unsolved homicides in Montgomery County, with a population of approximately 200,000. Two years ago, Sager published her findings, which showed that, since 1978, 37 homicides had gone unsolved. She says that total is now at 44, but admits it would be unfair to expect the sheriff's office to solve all of them.

"But you have to set priorities," says Sager, "and solving murders ought to be a priority."

The Texas Department of Public Safety reports that between 1993 and 1997, the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office cleared 33 of 43 homicides. However, at the time of Sager's report, Sheriff Guy Williams did not dispute Sager's findings, telling the Houston Chronicle simply that "when you don't have new leads in old cases, you're kind of at a standstill."

On the other hand, if you don't look for them, leads can be hard to come by.

As a cigarette-smoke haze hovers in the room, Alfred Beauchamp sits behind his desk and ponders information and possible scenarios that may reveal how his son was killed. A few days after Paul's death, while searching for clues in Paul's cabin, Alfred found a hand-drawn map of an area, including a pond, resembling the Minnich property. Instead of driving there by mistake, getting stuck in a ditch and then stumbling into the water in a drunken stupor, maybe Paul took the undercover assignment. Maybe he saw something he shouldn't have. Maybe someone forced him to consume a large amount of alcohol in a short amount of time to make his death look like an accident. There were also rumors that the first deputies on the scene initially thought the body in the pond was that of an undercover narcotics officer. Maybe someone mistook Paul for the officer and killed the wrong guy. Alfred Beauchamp has stacks of paper to support each theory -- and more.

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