Shortly after Tara Sganga met and fell in love with Shawn Roberts, she became aware of the helicopters.
She had never seen them before. Once Roberts pointed them out to her, and once she started on the crystal meth, she finally understood why Roberts had been so frightened. They hovered outside Sganga's apartment, and they followed on the freeway. Secret agents.
On Roberts's behalf, she approached strangers in public and demanded to know why they were following the couple. Roberts was mixed up with something, but whenever friends and family asked Sganga what she was talking about, she would say something like, "I can't tell you. I'm in too deep."
They met at a party at a mutual friend's house on New Year's Eve 2005. That Roberts was attracted to Sganga was no surprise. A slim, 5'2" brunette, the 31-year-old Sganga had an outgoing, vibrant personality that masked a chronic insecurity.
Battle of the Piney Woods: SFA vs. SHSU
TicketsSat., Oct. 1, 3:00pm
University of Houston Cougars Football vs. Tulsa Golden Hurricane Football
TicketsSat., Oct. 15, 11:00am
Rice University Owls Football vs. UTSA Roadrunners Football
TicketsSat., Oct. 15, 6:00pm
Rice University Owls Football vs. Prairie View A&M University Football
TicketsSat., Oct. 22, 2:30pm
At some point that night, the solidly built, 6'1" Roberts found Sganga and laid down the Shawn Roberts Story: He was a hotshot criminal defense attorney. He was a protégé of the legendary Racehorse Haynes. He'd also been a successful sports agent, representing San Diego Chargers cornerback Quentin Jammer. At just 35, he had a gorgeous townhome near the Galleria and a $98,000 Mercedes Roadster. He let Sganga drive it, and was nice enough not to tell her that was only because he had stopped paying the note. The creditors wanted it back, so he couldn't be seen driving it. Still, it was important he had it in his possession.
Possessions were important to Roberts, because he was wrestling with a serious drug problem, and as more money went in his arm, the possessions became fewer and fewer. He always seemed to hold onto his guns, though. He had a passion for firearms. Knives, too. On the rare occasion one of Sganga's girlfriends visited, Roberts would proudly display a knife or gun. The women weren't sure what message, if any, he was trying to send, but it gave them the chills.
Sganga's good friend Maha, who asked that her last name not be used for this story, didn't like Roberts from the start. Maha didn't like the strange calls she'd receive from Sganga, full of panic that Maha chalked up to crystal meth: "He's planning on killing me, Maha," Tara would say. Maha would just respond, "Tara, stop the drugs. You're hallucinating."
Sganga's mother and sister had bad feelings about Roberts as well, although they bit their lips at first. And that was hard to do, because sometimes Roberts would be so out of it that he would pass out during meals, face-down in his food.
Eventually, Sganga let Roberts move in. He was a wounded little bird, and Sganga was going to nurse him back to health, because that's the kind of thing she always did.
Soon, Sganga was hard to get ahold of. Her cell phone's voice mail was always full. Roberts would steal her phone and hold onto it for days, and when Sganga was finally able to call friends or family, it would be a rushed call, as if she were using a jailhouse phone. Roberts didn't want her seeing her friends. On the rare times Sganga made an appearance, her friends and family noted how gaunt she'd become. Her hair had grown brittle. She'd talk about the helicopters, or, at her worst, would say that she'd overheard Roberts on the phone, plotting her death. She told people that, scrolling through her cell phone one day, she found out Roberts had taken a picture of her while she slept and sent it to a mysterious third party.
Before Sganga met Roberts, her family and friends could never picture her coming to such an undignified end, being found in a bathtub with heroin in her system. But when they looked back on it, they wondered if, from the moment Roberts entered her life, such a thing was inevitable.
And over the next three years, other families whose loved ones entered Roberts's orbit might wonder the same thing.
The first to go was Roberts's own mother, in August 2008, 17 months after Sganga died. By this time, Roberts was living with a woman named Amanda Linscomb, whom he would marry in Las Vegas in September 2008. Roberts's mother slept on a cot in their Manvel home. Her life ended with a bullet to the brain in that home's backyard. The death was ruled a suicide. Roberts told authorities she did it right in front of him. Linscomb was allegedly inside at the time.
March 2009: A man Roberts met in rehab moved into that same home and overdosed four days later.
April 2010: Linscomb overdosed in a friend's Willis apartment, while the friend and Roberts were present. The case is still under investigation by the Texas Rangers.
August 2010: The wife's friend, who was not diabetic, overdosed on Glyburide, a pill used to control type II diabetes, and slipped into a coma.
September 2010: Roberts was acquitted in Harris County on a felony charge of delivery of a controlled substance in the death of Sganga. The case was immediately expunged, and there is no public record of the trial. Prosecutors and investigators are not able to discuss the trial because, in a sense, it is like it never happened. (Roberts denies any responsibility for any of these deaths and the non-fatal overdose.)
But there was a mysterious death. And there was evidence that disappeared. And then there was another death. And another. And another. And the only thing they have in common is Shawn Roland Roberts.
It's not clear who pulled Tara Ann Sganga out of the bathtub on March 19, 2007.
A report filed by medical unit 78 of the Houston Fire Department states that when the crew arrived on the scene, Sganga was "in care of A86," and that she was "found in a tub of water by A86 and moved to floor."
According to the Houston Fire Department's open records division, "A86" means "Ambulance Crew 86," Station 86 being the station closest to Sganga's apartment complex. The medics had arrived at 12:26 p.m.
Sganga's family says the prosecutor in Roberts's 2010 trial believed "A86" was EMS code for "third party" — meaning Roberts. However, Roberts is referred to elsewhere in the report as "the boyfriend." It's unclear why he would alternately be identified as "A86" and "the boyfriend."
If the fire department's report is accurate, then Roberts allowed his dead or dying girlfriend to remain submerged in the bathtub, not bothering to pull her out and administer CPR.
But if what Sganga's family recounts about the trial is true, it means the prosecutor believed Roberts over the fire department, and bought what he told the police when they arrived on the scene: that he was the one who pulled her from the tub and tried to save her life.
Either way, Sganga was laid on the floor, wet from the bath and warm to the touch. Blood trickled from her nose and from a hematoma on the back of her head. She had a bleeding laceration on her right elbow, and the floor was littered with the broken glass of a candlestick. There was a knife in the sink and blood on the lip of the tub. An open tube of black hair dye lay on the tub as well; Sganga's wet hair was coated with the coloring. Although it wasn't noted in the HFD report, the medical examiner would later catalog a series of blunt force injuries to Sganga's head and face, including a three-by-two-inch contusion to the front of her left ear and a "cluster of red-blue contusions" along her jawline.
Roberts told paramedics that Sganga had taken some Vicodin and Xanax that morning, and he hadn't seen her in the last half hour because he'd been asleep. No, there was no fight or argument that morning.
The paramedic who filed the report called it a "possible crime scene" and summoned the police. Roberts told the detectives that he had pulled Sganga from the tub. Years later, at the trial that never happened, the prosecutor would tell the jury that the police observed that Roberts's shirt was dry. Although it's not reflected in the public portion of the police report, according to sources Roberts told police that someone else had been in the apartment. Sganga's family wouldn't know this person's identity for another three years.
Roberts didn't follow the ambulance that carried his girlfriend to West Houston Medical Center. After the police left, he had the apartment to himself for hours. No one from Sganga's family saw him after that day. He didn't attend Sganga's funeral. The Sganga family would not see him again until the trial three years later.
Because Roberts never notified Sganga's family of her death, her sister Maria didn't find out until she was notified by police at seven that evening. She rushed to her sister's apartment. Her description of what happened next has not wavered in the three and a half years she's been demanding an explanation for it.
When she knocked on the locked door, she was surprised to be greeted by Roberts's mother, Sandra Roberts. Maria didn't know what to think. Once she stepped inside, she could hear the rumble of the washing machine. After a moment, she asked, "Where's your son?"
Sandra said he'd gone to see Sganga in the hospital, which, as far as lies go, was terrible. Maria asked Sandra what she was doing there and warned that she was going to call the police. She peeked inside the bathroom and the bedroom, only to see that Sganga's bed had been stripped. That's when everything seemed to hit her, and she crumpled to the floor, sobbing. Then Roberts offered another story: Now, instead of being at the hospital, her son had gone to retrieve his car.
Sandra said there was no need to call the cops, that her son had just wanted his suits. He needed his suits for work. Maria collected herself and followed Sandra to the guest bedroom closet, where she pulled two suits from the rack.
"Your son did something to my sister," Maria said. "This isn't going to end."
But Sandra simply walked out of the apartment, her parting words like a blow to Maria's gut: "Everyone does their own drugs."
Sad, confused, furious, Maria stood at the entrance of her dead sister's bedroom. The apartment was a mess, so she proceeded to clean. Going through Sganga's stuff, Maria realized something strange: Her sister's jewelry, wallet, cell phone and car keys were nowhere to be found. But after a while, she was too drained to wonder about any of the previous few hours anymore. She collapsed, exhausted, on the couch and slept until 2 a.m.
She left and returned later that morning, going straight to the laundry room. The comforter from Sganga's bed was bunched up on the floor, spotted with what looked like blood. When Maria picked it up, she found a bloody pillowcase and a man's white T-shirt stuffed inside.
In her sister's bedroom, Maria found a bloody blue camisole, balled up and thrown in the corner, behind a dresser. She photographed these items, and decided to do the same with the bathroom and the bathroom door, which was smeared and streaked with blood and black dye. Two thick horizontal and parallel streaks, situated about six inches apart, ran from the center of the door and onto the frame.
Bewildered, she called the detective she had spoken with the day before and asked why police never found any of these things. According to Maria, the investigator said, "We only focused our investigation in the bathroom where the incident took place."
Police retrieved the items, but they subsequently disappeared. Like Roberts's expunged trial record, it was as if the bloody clothes had never existed.
Roberts proved to be a difficult interview for this story.
Via Facebook, he accused the Houston Press of waiting until the last minute to contact him for comment, and threatened to sue unless this story was held. But in addition to accusing the Press of sinister motives, Roberts promised that this was "a story of injustices, oppression, retaliation." He claimed that "I am a goldmine of information. You have the courage to print what I tell you, and I'll make you famous."
Based on this response, the Press asked for an immediate phone interview, although Roberts insisted on meeting in person. When asked, at one point, if the interview process could at least begin over the phone, Roberts said he was too busy watching football games. He said he would call later to schedule a face-to-face meeting. Over lunch. What remains a mystery is why he wanted to discuss things like his mother shooting herself in the head directly in front of him — and the deaths of his girlfriend and his wife at tragically young ages — over crawfish.
When Roberts never called, the Press followed up. Roberts insisted the Press pick him up and drive him to a nearby crawfish joint. Ultimately, Roberts was able to find his own transportation, and when the Press met him at the restaurant, he expressed dismay that he was not being treated to lunch.
He would later explain that he insisted on a personal meeting in order to better gauge the Press's motivation. But a personal meeting, as opposed to a phone call, also allowed the Press to observe Roberts's blank expression, glassy eyes, greasy hair and rambling tangents utterly devoid of emotion.
Roberts never delivered on that gold mine. He would only speak off the record. The Press cut the interview short, but gave him another opportunity to answer questions on the record via Facebook the next day. After what seemed like an endless series of stall tactics, Roberts finally agreed to answer questions. But the answers did not seem complete, or sensible.
When asked if Sandra ever went to Sganga's apartment on the day of her death, and, if so, for what purpose, he wrote, "Yes, my mother came up to console me and be with the family (Tara's family). However, before I got back to our apartment, my mother told me she was threatened, ordered out of the apartment, and was told by Tara's sister and mother that someone would pay for this. I believe the quote was 'There will be blood on the streets.'" The problem with this is that no one in Sganga's family was even notified of her death until the evening, and there is no record of Roberts, Sandra and anyone from Sganga's family all being in the apartment at the same time.
When asked if he called Sganga's family to tell them of Sganga's death, or if he attended Sganga's funeral, he wrote that he "tried calling the family members, of which the numbers were changed or not answered." Again, this violates logic, because Roberts was in possession of Sganga's cell phone after her death, and as such, had all of her family's and friends' current contact numbers.
Maria returned a week after her sister died to pack up her belongings.
Pulling up in her car, Maria found it odd that Sganga's Dodge Durango was no longer there. The weird feeling was compounded when, from the hallway outside her sister's apartment, she noticed that the door frame was cracked and the door was slightly ajar. She called out and identified herself to see if anyone was inside. When no one responded, she carefully stepped inside and saw right away that the apartment had been cleaned out. The TV was gone. Sganga's laptop was gone. Sganga's clothes were gone.
The apartment was wiped out. Now it made sense that Sganga's Durango had disappeared. Maria called the police and filed a stolen-vehicle report.
Meanwhile, the Sganga family became aware of how Roberts was mourning his loss. Ten days after his bloody and battered girlfriend was pulled from a bathtub, he went into a cell phone store, identified himself as Sganga's common-law husband and asked that her phone account be reactivated and switched to his name.
The Durango was spotted a few weeks later, parked on a street in the Fifth Ward. Inside were Sganga's tote bag, her case of CDs, a black folder stuffed with papers, a laptop with Sganga's silver ring wedged inside, and a 32-year-old white male passed out in the back. When police were able to rouse him from his slumber, the man explained that a guy he knew from a certain social circle, a Shawn Roberts, gave him $50 to clean out the apartment. (The Durango had not been hotwired; the man had Sganga's keys, which he said he got from Roberts.)
The thief would serve three years in prison; no charges were filed against Roberts.
Harris County Assistant District Attorney Maritza Antu explained in a June 2007 letter to Sganga's mother why no burglary charges would be filed against Roberts. The letter refers to two drug charges filed against Roberts in May 2007, when he was allegedly found in possession of cocaine and heroin.
"I have reviewed your case and concluded that criminal charges should not be filed," Antu wrote. She explained that Roberts was a murder suspect who already had two drug charges pending, and they weren't going to pursue a burglary charge. There was also not enough evidence.
The man who served three years for taking Sganga's possessions is now out of prison. Asking not to be named, he told the Press that back in 2007, he was a speed-freak who nonetheless had an excellent heroin connection, which is how he came to know Roberts. He said Roberts explained one day that his wife had just died, and he couldn't bear to return to their apartment to collect "their" things. If the guy would help him move, Roberts would even sign over his late wife's Dodge Durango to him.
According to the recently paroled man, he had no idea he was committing a burglary, much less for someone who was the subject of a homicide investigation.
But when Roberts finally agreed to talk to the Press, he denied having anything to do with the burglary. He told the Press that "I hardly know" the ex-thief, and "I never paid him to take anything out of our apartment. I know later he was arrested and convicted of taking Tara's vehicle."
Strangely, Sganga's laptop, TV, ring and CDs — the things the unwitting burglar was locked away for stealing — would go missing from the HPD evidence room some time in 2008. An HPD official would later say that it appeared they were mistakenly auctioned off.
There was now almost nothing of Sganga's left. But in a purse, the family found an undated letter she had written to Roberts. From some of the references, it appears that the letter was written very close to the time of her death.
If she was as depressed, paranoid and pilled up as friends and family said she'd been acting, she apparently still had moments of lucidity, because the letter was clear and positive. It was full of nothing but love and support for Roberts, whose drug use was ruining his career.
"Too much time & too many things have been let go and you are really cutting it close to losing the last and only chance to come back. I know you do not feel soo well right now, but I will do everything in my power...to help your pain, make your misfortunes get fixed as siin as possible and painless!....You know that saying - 'when it rains - it pours'!? Well baby, It is hailing on you and the clock is ticking. No more talking - this time I, your family, your friends who love you - need to see the walk!....I know your a bad ass - so prove it. --To yourself and the ones you love. I hope this letter (with the intent to motivate) will motivate you....Please! You will pass Gods test with FLYING COLORS! I beg." [sic] The last sentence was followed by a heart and the letter "T."
And, typical of Sganga, after more than three pages of trying to pump Roberts up, of promising to stand by him if he was thrown in jail for one of his no-shows in court, she relegated her own happiness to a meek postscript.
"If you would respect me a little bit more, I would be happy — well, happier...I want my life back and I am sure you do too. Remember we cannot waste anymore time Shawn. We are missing out on so many opportunities..."
Sganga was at least half-right about that last part. Her opportunities would end at age 32. Roberts had his future, and his dead girlfriend's cell phone, in his hands.
Shawn Roland Roberts graduated from the South Texas College of Law in May 1995 and was licensed six months later.
He gradually built a reputation in Brazoria County as a solid criminal defense attorney. And then his peers noticed that the young counselor was more than just good, that his type of talent in the courtroom was special. He had a bright future; there was no doubt his name was going to be known.
But not long after his marriage in 2000, he and his wife separated. His daughter remained with her mother. (The couple would divorce in 2003.) This seemed to send Roberts off the rails. The extended family split into bitter divisions over who should have the girl. Emotions ran high.
In November 2002, an angry Roberts called his father and left a message venting his feelings about another family member who had taken his soon-to-be ex-wife's side.
According to an affidavit from an Angleton detective who listened to the voice mail, Roberts said he was going to rip the woman's "fucking head off," blow her "fucking brains out" and, in case the point was lost, "fucking beat the fuck out" of her.
Roberts was arrested and charged with making a terroristic threat, although family members persuaded the woman to drop the charges.
Fellow attorney and onetime close friend Steve Gonzalez told the Press that, around this time, he became increasingly worried about Roberts's well-being.
"I loved him as a friend," Gonzalez said. "He was a great guy...I was very hurt that he went down that path, because he was a very talented lawyer, and he was funny, and in my whole life that's the only friend I've ever had that's kinda gone by the wayside."
Gonzalez said that Roberts's drug use and self-destructive behavior had spiraled to the point where Gonzalez told his friend, "I think you need to either fix your problem or end your life. One or the other. And I remember he said to me at that point, 'You don't think I've thought of that many times?'"
Upset at how the strife was tearing her beloved boy apart, Sandra Roberts wrote in her journal, provided to the Press by a confidential source, about the abuse and deception waged upon her and her son by other family members. (The journal entries appear to have been written years before Roberts met Sganga.)
Sandra had been a beautiful, bright, free spirit. Perhaps a bit too free; in 1969, she divorced the father of her two sons and one daughter, a decision she soon regretted. But she was extremely successful in the mortgage industry, which allowed her to be a human ATM for Roberts for much of her life. And when both her son Shawn and his brother succumbed to drugs, a problem that never plagued her daughter, she was always there to clean things up. Or at least try.
What some family members once considered slight eccentricities in Sandra seemed to swell into outright mental illness. (Family members interviewed for this story asked that their names not be used.)
Her thoughts, at least those she wrote down, leaned toward the erratic, paranoid and depressive. Much in the same way Roberts would allegedly claim to be trailed by helicopters full of secret agents, Sandra was aware of the myriad ways the world conspired against her. She was certain her phones were tapped and her computer hacked into. And when Roberts started his relationship with Sganga, Sandra would accuse her of being a CIA informant.
In a section titled "Messages to Me," Sandra wrote phrases and statements in quotations, attributing the sayings to people in her life: family, lawyers, Brazoria County judges, a boyfriend, men she casually dated.
According to Sandra Roberts's journal, her son's ex-wife called her "a psychotic whore" and accused her of ruining "all your children's lives."
In a heartbreaking section that consisted of single-sentence apologies, she wrote, "I apologize that God doesn't love the little children." And, "I apologize for believing I — one disenfranchised, single, alone woman — could help other people." And, "I apologize for living."
As mother crumbled, so did son.
The once-promising Shawn Roberts began to falter at work. He sometimes missed hearings, winding up with contempt citations from Brazoria County judges. At one of his lowest points, Roberts caused a mistrial during the 2005 capital case of accused murderer Jamarcus Warren in Tyler.
Although Roberts was apparently representing a man on trial for his life, he decided not to show up to court for a scheduled hearing, instead checking himself into an Austin rehab center, according to the Tyler Morning Telegraph. Smith County District Judge Jack Skeen Jr. had a "disheveled and unshaven" Roberts hauled from Austin to Tyler, where he appeared in court in shackles.
"Roberts, his hair askew, appeared in court early Friday wearing a crinkled suit, tennis shoes and a light beard...A court bailiff occasionally poked the man for leaning on the judge's bench for stability," according to the paper.
Roberts gave a variety of reasons for why he checked into rehab, according to the paper, including problems stemming from a gunshot wound, "use of prescription pills," "ballooning weight-gain" and stress associated with the Warren case. But "other stresses included reports that a female officer of the court was 'gunning for' his law license and other attorneys were ridiculing his performance."
Then, a short while after claiming he was completely sober and willing to defend his client "until hell freezes over," he asked to be withdrawn as counsel because his client still owed him money. The judge declared a mistrial, and Jamarcus Warren was subsequently appointed new counsel.
With the Warren case, Roberts had dealt his reputation in Brazoria County a fatal blow. He had become a sore subject among his extended family and had alienated most of his close friends. He had burned through most of his money and was close to being kicked out of his townhome. He still had good-time friends, though. People who liked to party. And so he wound up with that crowd on New Year's Eve 2005, when he met the only person besides his mother who would give him unconditional love. The only person who would believe he could still be saved. And within a year and a half, that person would be found dead in her bathtub with a battered face and blood pouring from the back of her head.
In 2008, while Sganga's family members were still seeking answers for how she died, Roberts started a relationship with a 28-year-old woman whom his younger brother met in an Austin rehab center.
Amanda Linscomb and her parents knew about Sganga's death, which they understood to be a terrible tragedy. Whatever reservations Linscomb's parents may have had were brushed aside out of respect for the love their daughter showed for Roberts. (The Linscombs declined to comment for this story.)
They must have believed this was a solid, grounded relationship, because they bought the couple a gorgeous two-story home in Manvel. After all, their daughter's new boyfriend had no money and had been driving his career into the ditch. Although he had succeeded in getting two drug possession charges dismissed, he was still facing disbarment proceedings in Harris County over the charges.
And soon, Linscomb's parents realized they were housing Roberts's mother as well.
It's unclear why Sandra, a mentally ill woman who wrote, "I apologize for living" in her journal, went to live in a house where there was at least one loaded gun, instead of living on her own or with a daughter with no history of drug problems.
Around 2:30 on the morning of August 16, police dispatch in Brazoria County received a 911 call from 42 Atascadero Drive. A woman had shot herself.
A copper-jacketed bullet entered the right side of Sandra's head and proceeded up and to the left, exiting through her forehead. She arrived at Memorial Hermann Hospital at 3:05 a.m. and was pronounced dead 40 minutes later. Her death was ruled a suicide.
Manvel Police Captain Duke Adkisson, who investigated the death, did not return numerous messages left by the Press. According to the Alvin Sun-Advertiser, police reports indicated that "Sandra walked into the couple's bedroom and asked for Roberts' 9 mm pistol, which was in the nightstand, saying she needed it. [Roberts] later told police that his mother went out onto their back porch, took a few steps into the yard, and shot herself in the head. [Linscomb] reportedly had stayed in bed when [Roberts] followed his mother outside."
But the version Roberts gave the Press is slightly different: In a Facebook message, Roberts stated that he and Linscomb had just returned from playing cards at a friend's home and retired to the bedroom. They were "watching a movie on the laptop and dozing off" when Sandra came into the bedroom. Roberts "figured she couldn't sleep and had come in to get some cigarettes, which wasn't unusual." But then he noticed "she had Amanda's pistol in her hand," and then she walked "rapidly" out of the room.
"I got out of bed as quickly as possible, began chasing her down, all the while pleading for her to give me the gun, [because] I am proficient with a firearm and didn't want her in harm's way. By the time I caught up to her, she was opening the back door. By the time I got there, she closed the door, and as soon as I opened it, the gun went off and she fell straight back. Amanda arrived at almost the same time and we were both in shock traumatized. It was all horrible, but the worst part was that the trigger must have been jerked, so it wasn't instant. I will never forget the sound of her trying to breathe..."
He also wrote about "the humiliation of having to have our hands checked for gunshot residue [and] being questioned by the Manvel PD like suspects..."
When the Press asked Roberts to estimate the distance between the couple's bedroom and the back door, Roberts wrote, "it seemed like a long way [because] I didn't get the computer off my lap and get out of bed till she was out of the master bedroom...."
Adkisson would later tell the Alvin Sun-Advertiser that Roberts asked for the gun back.
Thirty-six days after Sandra allegedly shot herself in the head directly in front of her son, Roberts and Linscomb were married in Las Vegas.
By November 2008, Maria Sganga was so frustrated at what she believed was an inept investigation of her sister's death, and so shocked that another person had died in Roberts's presence, that she sent a letter to then-Houston City Councilwoman Pam Holm, begging for her help.
"We are continuously told HPD Homicide...believe Shawn is guilty of wrong-doing in this case, but pretty much need a confession at this point to pursue charges," Maria wrote. "We, as her family, are convinced and believe we can prove negligence by [HPD] as well as the Harris County District Attorney's Office. During a conversation with Officer Chavez, my mother...expressed resentment for [HPD's] shotty work in this case [sic]. Mr. Chavez did not deny these allegations, stating, 'Yeah, maybe we did screw this case up'...My mother and [I] are welcoming any assistance at this point to be sure our beloved sister and daughter did not die in vain."
Maria Sganga sent Harris County prosecutor Connie Spence a similar letter in January 2009. She said she never heard back from Holm or Spence.
Sganga's close friend Maha also got the impression that HPD wasn't taking the case seriously. When Maha was told of Sganga's death, she flashed on all the things she had attributed to crystal meth, and her sadness was compounded by a wave of guilt. That's the mind-set she was in, she told the Press, when she got a call from an HPD investigator who "was very rude, crass and he told me, 'Anyways, this is a drug murder situation. And usually when we do [a] drug murder situation like that, we just write it off as a drug case...If there's a murder involving drugs...it's obvious that it's because they were all on drugs..."
According to Maha, the officer believed that the presence of sex toys found on the bed — as opposed to a knife in the bathroom sink, shattered glass on the floor, a blood-smeared bathroom door and bloody clothing — was the real key to the case.
"He didn't care about it," Maha said. "He's like, 'Yeah, well, you should've seen all the sex toys and all that'....He told me, 'Did you see the size of the vibrator she had on her bed?'"
Maha wondered if this wasn't due, in some part, to the sway that Roberts seemed to have over some people; a conniving charm that, she said, never worked on her. After all, one of her first thoughts upon meeting Roberts was, "Oh my God, this guy's a master manipulator. He's a piece of shit."
The only person Sganga's family believed was in their corner was Jim Carroll, a researcher for private investigators, who had been handed a copy of Sganga's autopsy report in early 2009. The private investigator who gave him the report said the Sgangas couldn't afford his services, but he figured Carroll might find it interesting. And Carroll did. What jumped out at him was the conflicting statements over who pulled Sganga from the tub. To him, the HFD account was plain as day: Roberts didn't even bother to take his girlfriend out of the water and administer CPR. What kind of person does that?
That's when, Carroll said, he "decided to open up a can of worms that ended up getting the case reopened."
While Brazoria County reporters had been aware of Roberts for some time, Carroll reached out to Houston media, and Fox's Randy Wallace was the first journalist to put Roberts under a microscope.
Meanwhile, Roberts was cracking. Although he had managed to get the State Bar to drop the Harris County disbarment proceedings, he was not doing well in Brazoria County.
On March 7, 2009, four days after moving into Roberts's Manvel home, a recovering alcoholic named Steven Blake Blackshear died of a drug overdose.
Blackshear had met Roberts during one of the latter's failed rehab stints; he'd been kicked out of his home, and Roberts invited him to move in.
Although Adkisson told the Alvin Sun-Advertiser that "things looked suspicious," the death had been ruled accidental, and "he had no evidence of anything more sinister." However, Adkisson had been bothered by Linscomb's statement, in which she "contradicted herself and appeared to be on drugs."
Three weeks later, an Angleton police officer, responding to a call about a man passed out in a vehicle, found Roberts in a Walgreens parking lot, slumped over the wheel of a black Jeep Wrangler borrowed from a local dealership. The officer discovered that Roberts was in possession of Soma and OxyContin, although he had prescriptions for neither.
According to the officer's report, "Defendant was having trouble speaking; slurred speech. He was having trouble getting his words out. Defendant could not stand straight up; he swayed and could not walk normally."
Roberts was charged with public intoxication and possession of a dangerous drug.
Three days later, Brazoria County DA Jeri Yenne sent a letter to the State Bar of Texas.
"I am close to begging, pleading and imploring you...to address the situation with Shawn Roland Roberts for the safety of other human beings," she wrote. "He is not a competent lawyer at the present time and cannot perform his functions due to substance abuse. He should not be driving back and forth to any courthouse on the road due to substance abuse....There have been efforts to address this with rehabilitation. Now, however, it is [as] bad as it has ever been. I am asking you to prioritize this and expedite this situation for the safety of Shawn Roberts' clients, and society, or there will be a death which could have been prevented."
Six days later, Yenne ordered her prosecutors not to make any deals with any attorney they believed to be impaired, specifically naming Roberts. (Roberts was disbarred in May 2009 but successfully appealed the ruling and may resume practicing law — on an initial probationary basis — in January 2012.)
To Yenne, it didn't help matters at all that Roberts was trying to defend Linscomb, who was on her way to rehab, on an old DWI charge when he was found passed out at Walgreens. Yenne said she discussed this with Roberts's old friend Steve Gonzalez, who had taken over Linscomb's DWI case.
"Basically, I said she was going to be dead if she didn't get away from Shawn Roberts, you know that," Yenne told the Press. "It's going to happen, because the substance abuse that's around there is going to get out of control again, and somebody's going to die."
Unfortunately, Yenne would turn out to be right.
In August 2009, more than two years after Sganga's death, the Harris County District Attorney's Office sought to indict Roberts for her murder.
It was a curious move, seeing as how the bloody clothes, and the rest of Sganga's property, were long gone. The lack of existing physical evidence may have been one of the reasons the grand jury declined an indictment. They did, however, hand up an indictment on a lesser felony charge of "delivery of a controlled substance." The prosecution would now attempt to prove that Roberts injected Sganga with a fatal dose of heroin. This would become the Trial That Never Happened; the trial that would reveal the identity of the state's only witness — the third person in Sganga's apartment at the time of her death.
But before that would take place, Roberts wanted to do more partying.
In April 2010, while Roberts was out on bond for the Harris County charge, he and Linscomb wound up in the Willis apartment of a mutual friend. (Because this woman's family asked that she not be identified by her real name, we're calling her Jenny.) Jenny had had a hard life, leaving home at age 14 and living on her own ever since, drinking heavily, running away from God knows what, but always supporting herself. She married young, became a widow young and wound up a single, alcoholic mother. Before long, her two children were in the care of Children's Protective Services.
In Linscomb, Jenny found a drinking buddy, but of course Linscomb and Roberts were a package deal. So he was with Jenny when, shortly after midnight on April 15, Linscomb fell unconscious. She was pronounced dead 13 hours later, the cause being "complications of combined drug toxicity." A toxicology report revealed traces of amphetamines, Xanax, codeine and morphine (heroin) in her system, among other substances.
"The manner of death is undetermined at this time, as the overdose cannot be determined as intentional, accidental or an assisted overdose," the medical examiner's report stated.
Among Linscomb's possessions, Willis police found Sganga's driver's license. Also found was a notebook — not belonging to Linscomb — with an unsigned, undated list titled "Top 10 Secrets." These included "I am addicted to gambling, sex, alcohol, drugs, entertainment, adrenaline, money and power" and "I have provided drugs to other addicts, helping them to stay in their habit."
Given Roberts's history, Willis Police were suspicious of the circumstances surrounding Linscomb's death. And so were the Texas Rangers.
With more authorities looking into his actions, and with the Harris County trial set for May 10, Roberts may have felt his luck was running out. By the end of April, he skipped bond and disappeared.
Acting on a tip on May 7, three days before the trial was to begin, authorities found him in the small town of Lytton Springs, north of Austin. He was brought back to Harris County, where, in order to make sure he didn't go anywhere before the trial could be reset, Jenny testified in a bond hearing that she witnessed Roberts using drugs, a violation of his bond. It was enough to hold him. Three months later, Jenny, who did not suffer from diabetes, overdosed on a medication used to treat the condition, and slipped into a coma. Worried for her safety, her family moved her out of Texas.
In late August, Roberts went to trial on the felony drug delivery charges. The state called its only witness, thus revealing the identity of the third person in Sganga's apartment at the time of her death. A career criminal, Floyd Mann Hayes had to be transferred to Houston from his prison cell in Huntsville. The jury was less than impressed. Roberts's attorney, Mark Bennett, was more than able to attack Hayes's credibility when he testified that Roberts injected Sganga with heroin.
The odd thing was that prosecutor Connie Spence was apparently unable to get the jury to ask themselves why Hayes was any less credible than Roberts. After all, it wasn't like the two men had never met before. Their relationship appears to date back to at least 2006, when Roberts represented Hayes's girlfriend in a drug possession case.
And, of course, by the time of the trial, Roberts's drug abuse was such that the Brazoria County District Attorney had warned the State Bar of Texas that Roberts was a threat to "the safety of other human beings." Of course, the big difference was that Hayes was the one behind bars. Therefore, he was not credible.
After a strange closing argument in which prosecutor Spence, according to spectators, wrote on a dry-erase board that lawyers have a tendency to lie, it didn't take the jury long to acquit. And, before long, the entire record of the case was expunged. Like Tara Sganga, Amanda Linscomb, Steven Blake Blackshear and Sandra Roberts — wiped from the face of the Earth.
During his recent interview with the Press, Roberts explained that he at one point wished to die, but was too scared to follow through.
Describing why he violated bond and fled to the Lytton Springs area, he stated that he was with friends, and was "so distraught, I was suicidal, I prayed for death. I was too much of a coward to go through with it. It was there that I went to get my mind right. To recover mentally before my trial. I was arrested the Friday before. After having my bond revoked, I met with a psychiatrist in the Harris County Jail and made the comment that if I could trade places with Amanda, I would. The comment landed me on suicide watch for almost a month. It was a terrible time."
Regarding Sganga, he wrote, "I loved Tara. It was tragic, but I had no idea she had so many drugs in her system." This, too, is odd, seeing as how Roberts told police that she had taken Vicodin and Xanax the morning of her death; that she had prescriptions for multiple painkillers; that her friends were concerned about her increasing use of crystal meth; and that Roberts lived with her for more than a year.
However, one thing told to the Press appears to be reflected in Roberts's Facebook messages. When the Press first sought an interview with Roberts through his attorney, Mark Bennett, Bennett said Roberts wanted to put the trial behind him and move on. Roberts's last Facebook message to the Press, clearly meant for someone else and sent accidentally, seems to indicate he's doing just that:
"Hey, what's up, muy bonita muchacha? How's Cabo? How's your Spanish? Sorry about your Jets, but I think GB and Pitt will be a great one. I'm planning on going. So have u found me a chic yet? U think [woman's name] is too much of a bitch for me (I always thought she might make a good dominatrix) :) or won't date me bc I'm not a millionaire anymore?...BTW, I did an interview with the Houston Press today, so I'm sure another slam article is coming, but this time I fired back, so we will see. If u come to the SuperBowl, lmk, and I will get u in the best parties.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.