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Last August, Nancy Rodriguez held a letter in her hand that she believed, if true, would shatter the carefully crafted image of her son's murderer as a man who'd been rehabilitated in prison and deserved early parole.
Rodriguez had the misfortune to be the mother of the victim of one of the most heinous hate crimes in Texas history. In 1991, Jon Buice had stabbed her son, Paul Broussard, to death outside a Montrose bar while Buice's friends beat the 27-year-old gay man with a board and kicked him with steel-toed boots.
The murder made national headlines and galvanized Texans across the state, sparking a demand for hate-crime legislation. Houston Crime Victims Advocate Andy Kahan, who became Rodriguez's most fervid ally, later coined the phrase, "Before there was Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr., there was Paul Broussard."
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Ever since, Nancy Rodriguez has been fighting to keep her son's killer from getting paroled and was always hunting for fresh ammo. And last August, she thought she had it: A prisoner had written claiming that Buice was not the poster child for the redemptive powers of prison but was instead engaged in an inappropriate relationship with a prison employee.
The letter had been forwarded to Rodriguez through a Houston attorney, and included names and dates, and spoke of sex orgies and secret videotapes, all allegedly involving Buice and a female chaplain named Linda Hill, who worked for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
"The tales of the group sex and perversions...were so sickening I thought they were being made up," the letter stated. "Spy cameras and microphones were planted in Hill's office in the chapel...Staff at the unit are still remarking that the film, 'Debbie Does Dallas' ain't got nothing on the [surveillance] film 'Linda Does Dorm 5.'"
Rodriguez also received a phone call from a former inmate who claimed to have been incarcerated with Buice. He corroborated the letter, telling Rodriguez that TDCJ had disciplined Buice and the chaplain over their relationship.
"I did some time for theft," says the former prisoner, who did not want his name used, saying he feared retribution, "and I know there is a stigma attached to me. But I also believe that I went to prison to make sure that Jon Buice does not get out too quick, because when I lived with him he was extremely malicious. And I believe in my heart that if he comes out too soon, he is going to hurt somebody."
Rodriguez knew that the letter and phone call were just rumors, of course, but she couldn't help thinking this might be the smoking gun she'd been looking for all these years. For though Buice had never won any of his parole hearings, he was gaining ground.
While in prison, Buice had earned a bachelor's degree in psychology and two associates degrees in accounting and business. He had kept out of trouble and was allowed to participate in a prison program run by Microsoft in which he learned to refurbish computers for Texas schools. Buice was even quoted in a Microsoft promotional packet extolling the virtues of the program and the benefits to inmates who, like him, yearned to help the community and learn a marketable skill.
Buice became friends with radio show host Ray Hill (no relation to Linda Hill), who had originally been outraged by Broussard's murder and helped police catch the killer. Years later, though, Ray Hill had a change of heart and poured his time and resources as a public figure and advocate into helping Buice get free on parole, claiming Buice was high on drugs and alcohol at the time and that he didn't believe Buice killed Broussard because Broussard was gay. Hill has even named Buice as his successor on The Prison Show, which airs weekly on KPFT.
In addition to Ray Hill's efforts, Buice's family reportedly hired a parole consultant to strategize and represent Buice at parole hearings.
To Rodriguez, the pressure seemed to be working. At Buice's last parole hearing in 2009, the parole board reduced the amount of time between his parole hearings from two years to one, a typical sign, says Kahan, that the parole board is getting closer to freeing an offender. Rodriguez says that as the years passed, Buice was painted more and more as the perfect picture of prison rehabilitation.
"Routinely we are told that Buice is a model inmate," says Kahan, who has attended all of Buice's parole hearings with Rodriguez. "We're told that he has achieved numerous degrees in prison and it's almost like, 'What more can he do?' It's almost like he's a wonder boy."
Under state law, an inmate's disciplinary record is kept private. Rodriguez, however, has long believed that victims should have the right to it so they can be fully informed and prepared for parole hearings.
TDCJ "isn't going to tell you anything Buice does wrong," says Rodriguez. "Anything against him is confidential. But in this case, things just started falling into place. If it hadn't been for the letter and the phone call, we would never have found out about anything. I said, 'Somebody is looking out.'"