By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
By Angelica Leicht
By Jeff Balke
By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Jeff Balke
By Ben DuBose
Three days after Christmas, 1998, Judy Ann LaVergne Walker visited her son Reginald at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's Michael Unit. For his 18th birthday she bought him an orange soda and a book from the Left Behindseries. He proudly flexed his muscles, bragging that he was doing 500 sit-ups and push-ups every day. She says he told her the guards had been harassing him, bringing in newspaper clippings about his twin brother's trial for allegedly shooting a cop. Judy says she told him to ignore them.
His parole review was a week away, and Reginald said he couldn't wait to get out that summer so they could go to Louisiana and visit his grandmother. Judy told him she loved him, and before she said good-bye, she had the guard take two Polaroid pictures of Reginald in his prison whites.
The next time she saw him was on a cloudy April afternoon in Opelousas, Louisiana. Reginald had gotten out of prison early, but no one was rejoicing. He was dead, and as his family looked at the emaciated corpse in the funeral home, they could not believe it was really Reginald. His aunt, Janet Talton, bought a disposable camera and called the police.
"That's not my boy," his mother said looking at the bruised, battered body. He had lost more than 60 pounds in four months; his sunken eyes were blackened and his muscles had withered, leaving a skeleton draped in stretched skin.
"That's not him," she said. But her mother insisted that it was Reginald, because she recognized the shape of his skull. "He's just in bad shape," she said. He was covered in fresh cuts and had a huge red-purple burn covering his chest. There were holes both in Reginald's shoulder and in the heels of his feet that looked like they had been made by nails. Her boy had been crucified, Judy thought. Murdered.
TDCJ had offered to bury Reginald, but Janet said they wanted him to rest near his grandfather; Judy didn't have insurance, so Janet borrowed a check to pay for the funeral. It bounced. The family canceled the wake scheduled for Friday evening, postponed the funeral and hired a private pathologist to conduct a second autopsy. The doctor demanded $1,700 in cash. "We scraped," Janet says emphatically. No one in their family has that kind of money.
When the coroner cut into Reginald's body, he found that Reginald's heart, stomach, kidneys, bladder, brain, spinal cord and other organs were missing. "And he wasn't an organ donor," says Reginald's older brother Kevin LaVergne. What was TDCJ hiding? Judy wondered. That kicked off her crusade to find out who killed her son, and why.
Reginald LaMond LaVergne was serving a five-year sentence for stealing a kid's sneakers at gunpoint. On December 3, 1998, his twin brother, Robert DaMond LaVergne, was convicted of aggravated assault on a police officer, sentenced to 24 years in prison and was awaiting a second trial for attempted capital murder of a public servant. The family thinks Reginald's death was retaliation.
"I feel it in my heart," his mother says.
"We have to have facts," her sister, Janet, tells her. "We have to know exactly what happened."
This spring Judy filed a federal lawsuit saying that TDCJ violated Reginald's Eighth Amendment rights and alleging that prison guards purposely put Reginald in a cell with an older, stronger homosexual male, allowed Reginald to be raped, didn't report the rape, starved him, gassed him and beat him until his mind broke. Prison reports show that in the month before he died, Reginald started throwing his urine out of the cell and eating his own feces; he was referred to the psychiatric department but never given counseling before he died. "It made me physically ill to read the records, and I've read an awful lot of prison records and never one so bad," says Houston ACLU attorney Robert Rosenberg, asked to consult on the case because of his past success representing clients whose children died in prison. (See "Making a Point," by Wendy Grossman, June 3, 1999.) "It just appears to be typical TDCJ deliberate indifference to his health and welfare. It's just how they deal with mentally ill people."
Because of the pending litigation, TDCJ officials refused to comment on the case or Reginald's treatment in their care. The attorney general's office said it had not yet received the suit from TDCJ and knew nothing about it at this time. Instead of getting Reginald the mental and medical help he needed, prison officials let him die, says Judy's Houston-based attorney Amanda Martin.
"He just got beat down, plain and simple," Martin says. "They took him to a slow death, but he went pretty quick."
Reginald died on April 17, 1999, and on May 17, 1999, his twin was sentenced to life in prison. In one month, Judy says, she lost both boys.
It's a standard urban story of a kid getting his sneakers stolen. According to HPD reports, on February 19, 1996, a 15-year-old was riding his bike down Cinnamon Lane in southwest Houston when three guys he knew waved him over. One pulled a gun and said, "Bitch, give up your motherfucking shoes." The teens took the Air Jordans off his feet and threatened to kill him if he called the cops.