By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
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By Sean Pendergast
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Flanked by attorneys, Michael Serges sat nervously at the defendant's table while the jury deliberated, his life and career as a peace officer hanging in the balance. He knew he was innocent, that he didn't rape anyone, but he also knew you can never predict what a jury is going to do. It had been an emotional three-day trial, filled with heinous accusations designed to pull at the jurors' heartstrings, but it was also light on facts.
Serges had been a guard at a Harris County juvenile detention center in 2000, and now, eight years later, while he was employed as a deputy for the Precinct 4 Constable's Office, a woman was accusing him of raping her in the juvenile hall's shower. She was 12 when this supposedly happened. When she testified, she showed up in a wheelchair, weak from kidney failure and sick with lupus. Very sympathetic. Yet despite all of the heart-wrenching theatrics, Serges's lawyers were able to poke enormous holes in her story, and Serges was hopeful when the jury announced it had reached its decision a little before 4:30 p.m. on October 1, 2008.
The courtroom, which was packed with Serges's family, fellow church members, news media and other lawyers and prosecutors who had come to check out the high-profile case, drew silent as the judge read the verdict aloud.
The gallery leapt to its feet, roaring, cheering, hooting and clapping. Serges and his attorneys embraced, tears rolling down their cheeks. The bailiff even had to step in to calm Serges's family down.
Four months later, nearly the exact same scene played out again. A second girl accused Serges of raping her while he was working at the juvenile detention center, this time while he supposedly drove her to a doctor's appointment. Once again, the case went to trial, and once again, the jury found Serges not guilty.
"The first time I was elated, overjoyed," says Serges. "After the second acquittal, though, I was upset. Angry that they put me through all of this again."
In all, prosecutors lined up four women who claimed that Serges had sexually assaulted them in separate incidents during his time as a detention officer from 1996 to 2001. But there was never enough evidence for a jury to convict. He was charged with seven counts, tried twice and acquitted twice. The Harris County District Attorney's Office eventually dismissed the other charges following the two unsuccessful trials.
Serges had spent more than a year defending himself in the media and the courts, where he was painted as a kiddie-rapist, and now that it was all over, job No. 1 was to restore his reputation and get his life back on track. That meant getting his career going again, and getting his job back at Precinct 4.
When Serges was initially arrested for aggravated sexual assault of a child in March 2008, Precinct 4 Constable Ron Hickman fired him, putting Serges's lifelong dream of being a lawman on hold. In the past, other deputies in his and other precincts had been charged, fired and then exonerated, and were rehired. Serges didn't see why he couldn't do the same. So, in April 2009, after all the charges had finally been cleared, Serges called up the constable's office and asked for his job back.
It was, however, not that easy. For starters, they told him he needed to take all of the written, oral and physical agility tests again, as if he had never worked there. No problem. Serges took and passed them all. He says that when he received his test results, someone at the constable's human resources department told him there shouldn't be any problems with him returning to work.
Two weeks later, Serges got a letter in the mail from Precinct 4 saying he did not meet the employment standards.
"It doesn't make any sense," says Serges. "Nothing is any different now from when I was working there before."
Serges is particularly frustrated because not only won't the constable's office rehire him, no one there will tell him why.
To make ends meet, Serges is now a security guard, working the 1 a.m. to 6 a.m. shift at CVS, the only job he can find.
Growing up, a poor, black kid from Houston's Sunnyside neighborhood, Serges says the cops were always around. And more often than not, he thought, they were up to no damn good.
"They'd pull you over, call you derogatory names, harass you when you're going somewhere," says Serges. "It was common in my neighborhood in the early '80s. I always thought people should be treated better than that and that I could really help."
Today, Serges says his early experiences with police made him want to be one. It was that, plus his grandparents' addiction to cop shows on TV, that practically ensured one day he'd be a lawman.
"I lived with my grandparents, and they were always watching those police shows," Serges remembers. "Kojak, Columbo, Starsky and Hutch, all of them. And we were not rich; they were retired blue-collar workers, and we only had one TV, so we had to watch everything all together. It was our only real family time. So I always wanted to be a police officer ever since I was a kid."
Serges kept out of trouble throughout high school and graduated from the University of Houston-Downtown in 1995 with a degree in criminal justice. He wanted to apply immediately for the police force, but instead he took a job as an officer at a Harris County juvenile detention center. Serges says he put his dream on hold to appease his mother, who was terrified her son would get shot if he joined the police.
Serges worked there for five years, but the desire to be a street cop still burned inside him. Again, to satisfy his mother, Serges decided take it slowly. First, he took a job as an officer for the University of Texas at the Medical Center, and then, five years later, was hired as a deputy to patrol the streets of Precinct 4 in north Harris County.
When Serges signed on with the constable, he had a friend already there. Deputy Kendall Guillory had worked with Serges at the juvenile detention center and was excited that his buddy had been hired.
"He's a great guy to work with," says Guillory. "He's a hard worker and you want him in your corner. He's honest, respectful, churchgoing and he'll tell it like it is. Plus he really knows the law. Whenever I get to work with someone, I always chose him."
Serges says he loved his job and that he did it well. He claims the only blemish on his record during his time at Precinct 4 was a reprimand for working an off-duty security job without authorization. He says he was suspended for one day.
Serges remembers that he had the day off when he was arrested. He says he was relaxing at home when the phone rang and a superior told him there was a complaint against him and another officer concerning a domestic dispute they attended to a few nights earlier. Apparently, Serges needed to come to the office. Serges called the other officer to see what this was all about, but he told Serges that he hadn't received any phone call and had no idea what was going on. Confused, Serges drove to work.
When he arrived, his fellow deputies were waiting for him with handcuffs. A grand jury had just indicted Serges, and he was going to jail.
The allegations that Serges sexually assaulted a girl in the county detention center's shower came on the heels of a nationally televised newscast that juvenile inmates were being sexually abused throughout the state-run juvenile prison system, the Texas Youth Commission. Serges's accuser was claiming that Serges, a male guard, was assigned to her female unit in the county detention center, and that he worked the morning shift. She claimed that Serges raped her late one morning in the shower and then afterwards watched several other girls take showers.
During the trial, Serges says, his attorney tore apart the girl's story. He says he never worked in the morning, only the night shift from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m., and that male guards were never assigned to watch over women. Serges maintains he had never seen or even heard the name of his accuser before being indicted.
The attack in the shower was just as implausible, says Serges. The showers are wide open and located in the hallways, so there is never any privacy. And the time of day the supposed rape took place didn't make any sense; the girls never showered before noon, as Serges's accuser claimed. It came out in court, Serges says, that the girl admitted that her father pressured her to make the complaint.
"When the prosecution laid out the specific mechanics of what was supposed to have happened at the detention center," says Talley, "it was improbable to the extreme and borderline impossible. We're not talking, 'Did he do it?' We're talking about whether it's physically possible within that facility to do what he was accused of. It would have required multiple people being proactively complicit for the scenario to even be possible. Some of the accusations were demonstrably false. It was obscene."
Talley says the jury deliberated for close to six hours, but that was because two jurors, who were mothers, wanted to go through all the evidence several times before casting their final vote.
"The entire prosecution was designed to be completely emotional," says Talley. "It was based on, 'Let's discuss how horrible a crime child rape is,' and then point the finger at this guy. There was nothing in terms of, 'Here is the evidence that this person did this.' A few of us talked after the fact how it was literally scary that you could get indicted on no more than what they showed us."
Serges says the second trial went very much the same way, leading to another acquittal.
"Before I went through all of this," he says, "I was like everybody else, and as soon as you hear the phrase 'sexual assault,' you go, 'Oh my God!' It doesn't sound good. That's human nature. But what about the victims of false allegations? The girl was never prosecuted. But I lost my reputation and my job and can't get them back."
Deputy Guillory doesn't know why the constable decided not to rehire his friend. "They never should have let him go," he says, "and they should have rehired him after the trials. Anyone who knows him at the station thinks so. I have no idea why they haven't, but all I know is that other folks here have had similar type things occur and they got their job back."
Four months after Serges was arrested, a different member of Precinct 4 was standing trial in Harris County District Court. Then-Captain Tim Cannon was accused of hiding photographs of a crime scene that were evidence against a friend of his boss, Constable Rob Hickman. The DA was prosecuting him for tampering with evidence, a felony.
The trial lasted several days, but in the end, the jury found Cannon not guilty. Immediately afterwards, according to the Houston Chronicle, he vowed to get his job back at Precinct 4.
And he did. Today, Cannon is the Assistant Chief Deputy, third in command under Hickman, according to the Precinct 4 Web site. Cannon failed to respond to numerous requests for comment.
Then there was Deputy Richard Delgado, also at Precinct 4. Two months after Serges was indicted, Delgado was rung up on charges that he was running an off-duty security company without a license. He pled guilty to the charge and was sentenced to a one-year deferred sentence and a $500 fine.
Today, Delgado is back working for Precinct 4. When contacted by the Houston Press, Delgado said he had to get permission to discuss his case and his subsequent rehiring. He never called back.
The only difference that Serges can see between those officers and himself is that Serges is black. In a lawsuit filed against Harris County in state district court, Serges claims that the county won't rehire him because of his race.
"White officers with criminal charges and ones who plead guilty are rehired," says Serges's attorney, Andre Ligon, "and the only difference is that Mr. Serges is black and the others were not. That is the only difference."
Like his subordinates, Constable Hickman didn't want to talk, either. When asked about his general policies regarding rehiring, Hickman said, "Each case is unique," followed up by, "I don't really have any comment."
Serges says one of the reasons hardly anyone from Precinct 4 will talk is that they are afraid of being fired. Under the law, according to the Harris County Attorney's Office, constables can hire and fire at their pleasure. Serges claims that Hickman fires any deputy who's been charged with a crime.
"In the constable's office," says Ray Hunt, vice-president of the Houston Police Officers' Union, "you can show up one day as a deputy and the next day he can make you a captain. They have a lot of latitude with hiring and firing."
Victor Trevino is the constable for Precinct 6, covering central Harris County. He doesn't think it's fair to fire someone just because they've been charged with a crime.
"Maybe I'm too idealistic," he says, "but I believe that someone is innocent until proven guilty. I don't know where I got that from. You have to let due process take its course, and then you can make a decision."
That doesn't mean Trevino lets deputies who could be guilty of crimes freely patrol the streets. When one of his officers is indicted, Trevino puts him behind a desk, or sometimes doesn't let him work at all. But the officer is still employed. If the employee is found guilty, he's gone. If not, Trevino says, he'll more than likely take the officer back with open arms.
"I've even rehired people from other departments who have been terminated and then acquitted," he says, "and I've been criticized for that. But I follow the law, and the law allows me to hire them. Why would you fire someone just because they've been charged, without any other policy violations or anything else? It just doesn't make any sense."
"If someone is acquitted," says Robert Goerlitz, president of the Harris County Deputies Organization, "I don't see why he shouldn't be hired somewhere. Perception is everything with the public, and if the perception is that someone is guilty, then people hang onto that. And it affects your career because you carry that baggage even if you are innocent. Departments have to look at each case, and if there's some evidence, but not enough to convict, then just don't make him a school resource officer, but you shouldn't be denied completely."
Hunt says that HPD's policy is to relieve any officer charged with a crime pending the outcome of the trial. If the officer is found guilty, he is terminated. If not, and Internal Affairs doesn't uncover a fireable offense during its investigation, then the officer is reinstated.
For Harris County sheriff's deputies and Houston police officers, the matter is fairly cut and dried, as their departments are subject to a civil service board. This is a quasi-judicial agency that hears and decides appeals filed by officers concerning terminations, disciplinary actions and other such matters. Its goal is to ensure that employees receive fair and impartial treatment.
"Most departments that don't have civil service fire the officer," says Hunt. "But we have it, which means the department has to relieve them of duty pending the outcome. Civil service is huge for us because they can't arbitrarily fire you. Other agencies can say, 'We don't even want the stigma of an officer who's been charged,' and just fire you. It prevents the 'good ol' boy' system, where if someone doesn't like you they can get rid of you. Especially with the constables, who are political."
A Precinct 4 deputy, who would only speak on condition of anonymity, says that Hickman fires anyone who is charged with a crime. Hickman does that, the deputy claims, because the constable has a small staff and can't afford to hold onto employees who are unable to perform their full range of duties because they're under indictment.
The deputy says that over the years, Hickman has hired some people back after they've been acquitted, and there are others who were cleared whom he hasn't rehired. If the constable's office had a civil service system, he says, Serges would likely have already gotten his job back.
Enter Stan Jolly, who could end up being a shining knight for Serges and others who face his situation at the constable's office. As vice-president of the Coalition Of Police and Sheriffs, or C.O.P.S., Jolly is helping spearhead a drive to get a civil service board in place for the constables' employees. His group is collecting signatures from county law enforcement officers who don't have civil service, and he says that if he can get roughly half of county workers to sign, he can present it to Commissioners Court for consideration.
Jolly, who also happens to work at Precinct 4, says, "We want to have the same rights and privileges that the sheriff's department has when it comes to hiring, firing and procedures. In Harris County, there are nine different law enforcement agencies with nine different policies and regulations, and it's not fair. We should all be hired and fired and punished the same."
Once Commissioners Court has the required signatures, Jolly says, it can either grant the request for a civil service board or put the question on a ballot and let county voters decide.
"It's important," says Jolly. "This way you can appeal a firing, and a hearing board can decide if it's just or not, and people don't get fired or not rehired just because someone doesn't like you, or whatever reason."
When Serges received a certified letter in the mail last May notifying him that the constable was not going to hire him again because he didn't meet the "standards for employment," with no further explanation, Serges immediately wrote back, asking why he wasn't being considered. But he never got a response.
Determined not to let a rash of unsubstantiated allegations ruin his career, Serges decided to fight back.
First, he filed a complaint with the Texas Workforce Commission, which tried to get Serges and the constable to mediate. Serges says he agreed, but Hickman and the county did not. However, because Hickman's office refused to tell Serges why he was no longer qualified for employment, the commission gave Serges permission to sue.
It took several months, but Serges eventually did just that, filing a lawsuit on March 1 against Harris County in Harris County District Court, demanding back pay and his old job at Precinct 4.
"I did not commit these crimes," says Serges, "and for me to throw in the towel, that's admitting defeat, that I'll let these false allegations destroy me. And I refuse to do that."
In addition to claims made in Serges's lawsuit that the county will not rehire him because he is black, Serges also believes that the prosecutor has been proactively working to keep him from getting rehired.
"During the rehiring process," says Serges, "I got a call from a captain at Precinct 4 telling me the reason the process had been taking so long was because the DA called his office saying there were pending charges against me. So my lawyer and I called the DA, and we found out that there were no pending charges, meaning to me that the prosecutor had meddled and lied."
The Harris County District Attorney's Office did not respond to questions concerning the allegations.
Serges believes that race, or perhaps the DA, could be the reason the constable won't give him his job back, but truthfully, he says, he filed the lawsuit in part to find out why.
"Is it because I'm a black male?" says Serges. "Or is it because I don't, according to their letter, meet the standards? Well, I met the standards at one time. And the only difference now is the allegations, and I was exonerated at trial. So I don't know. I have nothing against Ron Hickman or the constable's office, no animosity; I just want to know why I can't have my old job back."
Many law enforcement agencies, including the Harris County Sheriff's Office and Constable Trevino's Precinct 6, say they terminate officers for violating internal policies or regulations and not solely because of pending criminal charges. One time, says Trevino, he fired a deputy, who had been indicted on a murder charge, for refusing to make a statement following the deadly shooting.
"If you refuse," he says, "according to our policy that is insubordination, and that officer was fired because he did not follow the guidelines, not because of the criminal charge."
Serges maintains that his record has no such stain.
"There was no dereliction of duty, no insubordination, nothing," he says. "I obeyed when they called me in, they took my badge and my gun and I complied. There were no policy violations that came to light during the whole ordeal."
Then there is the liability argument, the one that keeps fretful mothers awake as their daughters roam the suburbs at dusk and that gives nightmares to administrators scared of making the wrong rehiring decision.
Patrick Judge, executive director of the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training, an organization made up of state law enforcement training boards, cautions agencies on the risk of rehiring someone who's been charged.
"Any administrator worth their salt wouldn't touch anyone who's had their credibility challenged," he says. "The liability is just horrendous. In some cases you can defend the position that the officer was truly innocent, but...the hiring agency would have to explain itself and any future conduct by the officer."
A cursory Internet search, however, found more articles about agencies across the country rehiring officers who had been acquitted than stories about exonerated officers who had been rehired and then ran amok.
Serges dismisses the liability argument. After all, he says, he didn't do anything wrong in the first place.
"Why are the other officers who were accused and then rehired now okay? They had 'integrity' issues, too. In my case, there was no 'maybe,' no wiggle room, like there was some evidence, just not enough. I didn't do it and it was obvious in court. This was not an O.J. Simpson case where the glove shrank. There was no glove. I didn't do it, period."
These days, Serges is living back at home with his grandmother in Sunnyside and working the overnight shift at CVS for a private security company. More than $60,000 in court costs and legal fees, he says, have left him broke, and this is the only way he can make a buck. No one else, he claims, will hire him.
After learning that the constable's office would not take him back, Serges says, he applied for work with a host of smaller agencies, including Texas Southern University, University of Houston and North Forest Independent School District. Apparently no one was interested.
"When I tell other agencies that I don't know why Precinct 4 won't rehire me, that ends the application process," says Serges. "They say, 'If Precinct 4 won't touch him, maybe we shouldn't either.'"
Patrolling a pharmacy parking lot at night, thwarting would-be shoplifters, is not what Serges imagined as a kid when he'd watch T.J. Hooker on the tube and dream of being a peace officer.
"I used to tease security officers, calling them flashlight cops," says Serges. "Now I am a flashlight cop. It's not what I envisioned. I don't want large sums of money or anything like that; I just want answers. I want to know why this is such a nightmare when I haven't done anything wrong. I don't deserve this. I just want my life back."