Gayland's Choice

The evening of January 12, 1994, was not the first time Nancy Rodriguez and Gayland Randle faced each other in the courtroom of state District Judge Brian Rains, and it wouldn't be the last.

The occasion was certainly the most unusual, however, and one they each remember with particular clarity.

Just 48 hours before, Rains had sentenced Paul Chance Dillon to 20 years in the state prison system for the murder of a gay man, Paul Broussard, Nancy Rodriguez's 27-year-old son. Four other young men from Montgomery County had already pleaded guilty to the crime and been sent to prison, including Jon Buice, a 17-year-old delinquent who was tripping on LSD when he stabbed Broussard during a fight in the early morning hours of July 4, 1991.

Prosecutors had determined that five others, including 17-year-old Gayland Randle, accompanied Broussard's attackers to the scene of the crime near the corner of Montrose and West Drew, but had not participated in the assault. Nonetheless, on June 1, 1993, all five waived a jury trial and possible imprisonment by pleading guilty to murder in exchange for reduced sentences; Rains gave each of them 90 days in the county boot camp for young offenders and a ten-year deferred adjudication of the charges -- a form of probation that required, among other things, a public session with Rodriguez.

Narrowly considered, the court-ordered encounter was extraneous to the criminal justice process that had already put five men behind bars and subjected five others to a decade of state oversight. But, as anyone involved will tell you, the murder of Paul Broussard never confined itself to the boundaries of the normal judicial pitch. Since shortly after Broussard's death, the case has been subjected to a series of extraordinary influences that lent considerable urgency to the pursuit of justice and which continue to exert pressure -- even though it's been almost three years since Brian Rains officially closed the criminal proceedings.

No one knows that more than Gayland Randle, who, two years after he was sentenced to deferred adjudication, was arrested for probation violations, found guilty of murder and sentenced to 15 years and one day in prison. The sentence could have been much harsher: Rains had the discretion to send Randle up for as many as 99 years. Still, the circumstances that led to Randle's adjudication hearing beg the question of whether he deserves to be in prison at all.

The motion to revoke the youth's deferred adjudication was filed on February 24, 1995, by Melinda Biersdorfer. At the time, Biersdorfer had been Randle's probation officer for exactly one month. According to her testimony at the May 31 adjudication hearing, Randle ignored two phone calls she made to him. Biersdorfer testified that she paged him from her office on January 24, the day she took over his case, but received no response. On February 13, she says she called Randle at 10:02 p.m. -- two minutes after his curfew -- and left a message on his answering machine, but he never returned the call. (Gayland says he did not respond to Biersdorfer's page because he did not recognize the return number; he says he did return her second call, but no one answered the phone at the probation office.)

Gayland was arrested March 2, when he showed up at the probation office for a meeting with Biersdorfer. It was the first time they'd met.

According to other probation officers who handled his case, it was very unlike Gayland Randle to ignore such important phone calls. He wasn't a troublesome probationer, they testified, but was rather conscientious about his responsibilities. He was always employed, sometimes at two jobs, and had been attending classes at Montgomery County Community College. Gayland also proved himself to be a hard worker while serving his 90 days at the county boot camp. He impressed drill instructors as one of the camp's best guides. "I saw a few that were of equal caliber, but not of higher," testified Christopher Scott Mann, one of three instructors who appeared at the adjudication hearing on Gayland's behalf.

Rains, who admitted during the hearing that, "yes, Mr. Randle was being watched especially close by the court," was unimpressed, and refused to hear testimony from the other two drill instructors and Gayland's mother before sentencing Randle to 15 years plus one day -- the extra day to ensure that he served his time pending an appeal.

It's hard not to believe that some people draw a certain satisfaction from the fact that one more defendant in the Broussard case is serving time. From the moment the young banker died, who actually committed the crime was never really as important as how it would be redeemed.

At no time was that more evident than the night, two winters ago, when Gayland Randle, Brian Spake, Derrick Attard and Ralph Gonzalez (the fifth probationer, Jeffrey Valentine, failed to attend) filed into Rains's courtroom to meet Nancy Rodriguez.  

The meeting was moderated by Andy Kahan, the city's victims' assistance liaison. Kahan had become involved in the Broussard murder a year after it occurred and immediately marshaled support for Broussard's mother from Houston's burgeoning victims' rights movement. From that point on, Kahan never seemed to leave the side of Rodriguez, who lost her job back home in Warner Robins, Georgia, because she was determined to appear at each court appearance by the defendants.

Before allowing her to probe the probationers' consciences, Kahan turned the floor over to about 40 members of Parents of Murdered Children, who had lobbied Rains to make the five attend POMC meetings for a year. Outside, in a narrow hallway, television cameramen jostled each other for a shot through a small window in the door, hoping to capture the fireworks -- or maybe some gesture of reconciliation or closure -- for posterity.

What followed was later described by Kahan, who has since attended many similar gatherings, as "something I'll never forget."

Harboring perspectives skewed by an inconsolable grief, most of the Parents of Murdered Children seemed unwilling, or unable, to make the distinction between three separate entities: the killers of their own offspring, the five imprisoned men who actually murdered Nancy Rodriguez's son and the probationers who, by virtue of their limited culpability in Broussard's death, were free to appear before them that night. The most openly hostile POMC members addressed the five young men with a rage that pushed the envelope of healthy reason.

"As far as I'm concerned, you're all nothing but a bunch of animals," shouted a man named Randy Ertman, "and you deserve to die like animals."

Ertman has been a ubiquitous presence in the victims' rights movement since his 14-year-old daughter and a 16-year-old friend were raped and strangled in a teenage gang ritual in June 1993. His outburst seemed to surprise no one, and it set the general tone of the POMC meeting -- which is to say that, from then on, any comfort that may have been offered or exchanged that evening was chased deeper into the sodden teens by a barrage of accumulated grief and misdirected hatred. When addressed specifically, most of the probationers retreated behind an almost robotic stoicism, characterized by an aversion to Nancy Rodriguez's steely glances.

The perceived evasiveness clearly rankled the POMC members, but Rodriguez had come to expect it. She lamented often in front of reporters that none of the men indicted for her son's murder showed much remorse. She even condemned the defendants' parents following one court hearing for treating the crime as if it were a traffic offense.

Under the circumstances, which already seemed to symbolize the irresolvable struggle between different perceptions of right and wrong, it seems entirely appropriate that one of the final exchanges of the evening took place between Nancy Rodriguez and Gayland Randle.

In statements and sworn depositions taken following the Broussard murder, Randle's name is mentioned only in answer to the question, "Who was there?" Even then, those who placed him at the scene were the other nine defendants. Broussard's companions, Cary Anderson and Rick Delaunay, told police they were attacked by eight to ten "clean-cut" Hispanic and white males -- Randle is black -- and later they couldn't pick him out of a lineup. Many accounts given of that night seem to conflict, but there is nothing in anyone's recollection of the crime that suggests Gayland Randle was a party to the assault or did anything to encourage the mayhem the morning of July 4, 1991.

Though obviously distraught and very angry, Nancy Rodriguez knew this on January 12, 1994, just as she knew that two of the other probationers had admitted to punching or kicking her son before he was stabbed. Yet Rodriguez leveled her eyes on a thin, nervous African-American man and asked a series of questions that Gayland Randle has never pretended he could answer.

"What happened that night? How did you feel when you watched my son die? How could you be involved in something so terrible?"

It is a clear, pleasant day in the Panhandle, and Gayland Randle, now 22, is recalling his January 1994 encounter with Nancy Rodriguez and the Parents of Murdered Children. It's been almost three years, but Randle's memory of that evening is as clear as the quarter-inch of Plexiglas that, at about noon this day, separates him from the world outside the Preston E. Smith Unit, a Texas Department of Criminal Justice facility near Lamesa, 50 miles south of Lubbock.  

"I thought that one guy was going to come over the railing," Randle recalls, referring to Randy Ertman. "Some of the things he said really messed me up."

He was scared, he says. He's felt a little like that every day since Ralph Gonzalez told him to check out the news reports about the pre-dawn stabbing death of a gay man on Fourth of July morning. At first, Randle didn't believe the brawl his companions had engaged in at Montrose and West Gray had anything to do with murder. "A fight's a fight, man," he says. "I seen it happen lots of times, but, you know, nobody really gets hurt."

Then Derrick Attard, whom Gayland has known since the third grade, was arrested while visiting his father's house in Flushing, New York, on July 11. By then, homicide detectives from the Houston Police Department knew the names of every one of the young men who confronted Paul Broussard and his companions on a sidewalk near a gay nightclub called Heaven.

Randle makes no excuses, or apologies, for being 17 years old and in Montrose, 50 miles away from home, at three in the morning. Frustrated by a midnight curfew laid down by his parents, he had run away from home about a week before, and, in a game of revolving sleepover, was spending nights with different friends.

None of the 12 eyewitness accounts of the hours leading up to the attack on Broussard are without inconsistencies, contradictions and half-truths. But, unlike some of the others, Randle's has remained consistent.

At roughly 10 p.m. the evening of July 3, Randle was with Derrick Attard and Leo Ramirez in Attard's white Mitsubishi Mirage. They drove to the Panther Creek Randalls to pick up Ralph Gonzalez, who was finishing work. There, they met up with another group that included Jon Buice and Brian Spake, both 17, who had spent much of the day together.

For Buice, at least, it had been quite an afternoon. He would later admit to having consumed more than 20 beers before dark, smoking some pot and then ingesting a half a hit of LSD. Buice and Spake were with Chance Dillon, 22, the Aguirre brothers -- Jaime, 18, and Javier, 17 -- and 17-year-old Jeffrey Valentine, who was officially grounded by his parents but had sneaked out to go clubbing in Houston with his friends.

Spake and Valentine rode in Attard's car, along with Randle and Gonzalez, to an alternative-rock club called Numbers on lower Westheimer, where they met up with the others. Only Buice and Dillon went into the club; the rest, who either had no money or no interest in paying the cover, stayed outside. Randle can't remember the reason he didn't go inside, but recalls that he and the others amused themselves in the parking lot by watching Leo Ramirez intervene in an argument between a skinhead and a Mexican man. After about an hour, everyone went to the abandoned rice towers on Studemont. They were there more than two hours, he says, shooting off fireworks and watching Buice, Dillon and Gonzalez climb the highest tower.

"I was sitting there watching them, wondering if anybody would fall," Randle said in one deposition. "Jaime was running around with a piece of PVC pipe and bottle rockets, shooting those off. Everybody else was just scattered around. I mean, we all go play on whatever."

At about 3 a.m., everyone climbed into the two cars for what Randle says he assumed would be the trip home. They drove south on Montrose and stopped at a convenience store; Gayland says he remembers one of the vehicles needed gas. Heading north, back toward Allen Parkway, Attard was following Buice, Dillon and the others when the first car made a right turn onto West Drew, where Dillon got out to urinate against a tree or a post.

Attard turned the corner and pulled in front of the first car to wait for Dillon to finish. Meanwhile, Paul Broussard, Cary Anderson and Rick Delaunay were walking toward them from Heaven, where they'd stayed for last call. The radio in the car was on, so Randle says he didn't hear the conversation between Dillon and the three men. When the boys in the first car started to get out, he recalls, "that's when I realized something was fixing to happen."

Dillon took the first swing, by which time nearly everyone was out of their cars. Randle says the fight was already in full swing when he climbed out and began chasing one of Broussard's fleeing companions. He hadn't run very far when he turned around and saw that the others were getting back into the cars. He doesn't remember seeing the injured Broussard, who died about eight hours later of stab wounds to the abdomen and chest.  

After Attard was arrested on July 13, the investigation by the Houston Police Department moved swiftly. One by one, the others gave statements. Randle says he voluntarily went to the police at one point, gave an account of what happened and was told he could leave. (The HPD file on the case, which the Press obtained through an Open Records Act request, makes no reference to any statement or meeting with homicide detectives by Gayland Randle.)

A few of the men, including Buice, were already in custody when the grand jury handed down indictments on August 1, 1991. Randle was arrested that day while on his way to a friend's house. He was charged with murder and aggravated assault before being released on $10,000 bond.

His defense attorney, Gerald Bourque, says that Gayland began rubbing people the wrong way from the moment he appeared before the grand jury.

"Gayland's biggest problem was that he went to the grand jury and gave testimony, without a lawyer," Bourque says. "No one had identified him, no one picked him out of the lineups and no one had even said that a black guy was there that night. But his statement was that he talked about having chased some guy off, one of the other three guys. And that's what got Gayland in trouble. The next question is, 'What would you have done if you caught him?' He said, 'I'd have probably beat the shit out of him.'

"He was shooting his mouth off, that's all he was doing. If Gayland had caught the guy, and the guy would have turned around, Gayland would have probably started running the other way. But that's not what he said."

Certainly, there are moments when Gayland Randle blames himself for what happened that morning; or for not figuring out a way to stop the assault; or for being there at all. But those doubts rarely see the light of day, and when they do, an almost shocking self-righteousness emerges to sweep the guilt away. Indeed, since he was indicted, Randle has never publicly acknowledged any responsibility for the fatal attack on Broussard -- even when Nancy Rodriguez confronted him at the POMC meeting, six months after he pleaded guilty to the crime.

"I have constantly said that I am sorry about her loss," Randle says now from behind the glass at the Preston E. Smith Unit. "That's all I can do. What's she want me to do? I'm paying the restitution, I'm giving her the money she asked for. I couldn't see sending her flowers or a letter. To me, that's disrespectful."

This, no doubt, is what seems to bother so many people about Gayland Randle. Mike Anderson, the Harris County assistant district attorney who prosecuted the murder, says, "I have never seen anyone facing that kind of charge act like that. He was completely cocky. He just never got it." When asked how he might account for such behavior, Anderson responds with an observation: "I don't think even his parents know what they've got in Gayland. There's a lot of hate in Gayland Randle."

Maybe. But though Randle believes he's doing time for a crime he didn't commit, hate is not a motivation easily attributed to him, at least not yet. He's not screaming for the warden, complaining that he's been framed. He seems to understand the significance of his being at the corner of West Drew and Montrose at the time, and he hasn't made any public plea to be released from prison.

But he has stubbornly, and somewhat crudely, refused to concede the moral high ground to Mike Anderson and Nancy Rodriguez.

"It's not the fact of 'no remorse,' " he explains, "it's the fact that I didn't see what went on. It's like you hear about something that happened on TV. You didn't see it, and there's nothing you can do about it. I can't really relate, because I didn't do nothing. In my eyes, I did not do anything."

By the end of the night, Ruby Randle had disassembled her family photo album and covered her sofa from one end to the other with pictures of her second oldest son. There were photographs of Gayland, age four, crying in the lap of a shopping-mall Santa; Gayland, age five, same pose, but smiling broadly; Gayland with his grandparents, with his three brothers, with his Little League team; and, presented in chronological order, Gayland at more of his own birthday parties than most people could modestly accommodate in a lifetime.

It's only in the context of the picture show -- two solid, hard-working parents reminiscing about their son -- that two things are obvious: First, aside from the pictures of Gayland with relatives, he is surrounded by white faces; and second, right down to the settings -- a beach, a back yard, a ball field, someone's lap -- this could be any family, and Gayland Randle could be anyone's child.  

Thomas and Ruby Randle have been married for almost 25 years, and in that time they have built a life that is, in every trite but true sense of the term, traditionally middle class. He is a public school administrator; she is a housewife who still has three children living in the family's tidy townhouse in Texas City, where they migrated from The Woodlands when Thomas was named superintendent of the La Marque Independent School District.

Thomas Randle has the physicality of an athlete and the serious emotional manner of a soldier. He is not a man who allows what he calls "foolishness" to persist without a response.

About a year before Paul Broussard's murder, Gayland's parents became concerned over a decline in their son's classroom performance. Hoping that a change of scenery might help -- preferably someplace outside the Conroe district, where his father was the assistant superintendent -- they sent Gayland to live with Ruby's mother in Sweeney, a small Brazoria County town of about 3,500 people. Gayland went quite willingly, according to his parents, and worked a little harder at school. At the end of the term, he was back on track academically, and he returned home looking forward to spending the summer of 1991 earning a little money and skateboarding with his friends.

Gayland began skating when he was ten or 11, after Ruby bought him his first board. But the ragged aesthetic and slacker mentality of "skate-rats" never seemed to capture him completely. He liked to dress nicely, was quiet but self-assured -- definitely not a follower -- and, by the time he entered McCullough High School, he seemed to be developing into a quintessential jock. His favorite sport was baseball. Gayland often played on teams coached by Thomas, until the elder Randle moved his young family to Stillwater, Oklahoma, where he pursued a doctorate in public school administration at Oklahoma State University.

Later on, after the family settled in The Woodlands, Gayland also played football. In the fall of his sophomore year at McCullough, he suffered a serious back injury during a junior varsity game. Unable to practice or play, his relationship with friends on the team suffered. After he healed, Gayland started spending more and more time skating. "It was something I could do," he explains," and I was good at it."

Ruby and Thomas say that in retrospect they realize their son was different without organized sports in his life. But they won't go so far as to say that the change had anything to do with his new companions.

"I knew a lot of these kids from school," Thomas Randle recalls. "People would characterize skaters a lot of ways -- they were smokers, whatever, but I was as concerned with his safety as anything else. They were doing some weird things on those boards."

Gayland admits that hanging out with a different group of people "probably" changed him, but not necessarily for the worse.

"We were club kids, going to different clubs in Houston." he says. "Every club that opens. That's the main thing I'd do. I could go to hear anything and listen to it and be all right."

The Houston club scene, with its underage admission policies at many venues, was a perfect outlet for Gayland's restless nature. But it contributed nothing to the peace around the Randle household. Concerts and shows start late in the big city, and Thomas Randle's mandate that Gayland be in the house at midnight was becoming more than a mere annoyance. Gayland had already run away a couple of times, though he always came back two or three days later. But the conflict reached a new level one afternoon in late June 1991, when Thomas came home to confront his son about being out late the previous evening. There was an argument, and Gayland grabbed a few clothes and took off on his skateboard.

"I wanted to do what I wanted to do," Gayland says now. "I mean, I love them; they're my family. But I'm my own person. I'm pretty much going to do what I want to do, or at least I'm going to try to. If you sit there and try to back me into a corner, I'll take off."

Such blatant disrespect for his authority could not have made it easy for Thomas Randle when he found out his son had been indicted for murder. But ever the pragmatist, Thomas figured out that he only needed to know one thing.  

"When he came home, we sat down the first chance we got, and I asked him what was going on," Thomas remembers, "and when he said, 'Dad, I did not touch that man,' my response was, 'Again, did you touch him?' He said, 'Dad, I did not touch him.'

"Our emotions were running all over the place. This was not some simple little thing that happened. But my approach has always been to try and determine exactly what went on. After we dealt with all that, that's when we went out and started trying to find an attorney."

The Randles say the phone "was ringing off the hook" with calls from friends and acquaintances offering support to the family. But the case had already begun to take on a life of its own, and there was no shortage of people who thought they knew everything they needed to know about what happened. Thomas lost a job interview when, according to his "headhunter," a prospective employer balked at hiring a man whose son had been involved in a murder.

The worst, however, was when Thomas opened the Chronicle one day and saw his picture in the upper-left hand corner of the front page. It was a file photograph from someplace, and Thomas was smiling. The story next to the photo was built around a single question: What if your son is found guilty of killing Paul Broussard?

There was never much doubt that Broussard was stabbed to death by Jon Buice, but distinctions in the culpability of each defendant were difficult to make with all the talk of gangs and gay bashers and pockets full of "queer stones" swirling about. Just as often, there were elements left out of the many news stories and broadcasts about that night that helped color the facts that were disclosed.

For example, most press accounts repeated the state's assertion that two carloads of youths drove to the city just to harass gays. Some made mention of the trip to Numbers, but few stories included the two or three hours they spent goofing at the rice towers on Studemont.

Moreover, in Thomas and Ruby Randle's already troubled minds is the fear that, though their son never threw a punch that night, Gayland will forever be remembered as one of the people who killed Paul Broussard. Ruby, in particular, is indignant over how often Gayland's image accompanied a story about the case -- more often, she says, then any of the other defendants, including Jon Buice. And, as a mother, she is offended by the repeated assertions by Mike Anderson and others that their son doesn't care that Paul Broussard is dead.

"I personally don't know how he can say that because he doesn't know these things," Ruby Randle says. "How can you make a judgment when you don't know what somebody's going through? Gayland struggled with what happened, Gayland said he was sorry .... He said he wished he had done things differently."

After Rains sentenced Gayland to 15 years and a day last May, the Randles petitioned various authorities to investigate the treatment of their son. In letters to the state board of judicial conduct, the U.S. Justice Department, their elected representatives and the NAACP, they have suggested Gayland drew an undue amount of negative attention because he was the only black man indicted for the murder.

Racism is a more or less a standard allegation in cases such as Randle's, but clearly neither Gayland nor his parents feel comfortable using it. Gayland says his upbringing in The Woodlands, which is overwhelmingly white, was "very cool." And Thomas and Ruby, who were both raised poor in rural Brenham, seem like the kind of parents who have no time or patience for excuses of any kind. Still, they have yet to come up with an alternative explanation for why Gayland is now imprisoned for murder.

"We come from a background where we just believe in doing what's right," Thomas Randle says. "And I get very emotional about that, because I'm a little bit tired of people trying to get inside the minds of these young folks and twist these things. Because there's no doubt in my mind that if Gayland had put his hand on, kicked that young man, touched him in any way, there is no way that we would have been even seeking an attorney to help him.

"What they want us to do is stand up and apologize for our son taking that young man's life, when that's not true. That's what some of these folks are having a problem with. Gayland knows that he did not take the life of that young man, and he is going to stand on that until the day he dies. And we're going to stand behind him on that until the day he dies."  

By midmorning of Independence Day 1991, Ray Hill knew what had happened to Paul Broussard. In fact, Hill, a prominent gay activist who hosts a call-in program called The Prison Show on KPFT, knew more than police at that point.

An HPD incident report shows that police called the Medical Examiner's Office that morning, only to discover Hill had already contacted the morgue seeking information about the cause of Broussard's death. Homicide detectives then called Hill, who told them that, according to an eyewitness account he'd received from one of Broussard's companions, "the suspects were all in their late teens, clean-cut, white and Hispanic males."

Less than a week after Broussard was killed, Hill had roused gay activists, who staged a midnight protest in front of then-mayor Kathy Whitmire's home to bring attention to their pleas for a so-called "hate-crimes" bill from the Legislature. Based on statements by Broussard's companions, Cary Anderson and Rick Delaunay, as well as other gay men who said they may have been harassed by the group that night, assistant D.A. Mike Anderson labeled the fatal assault a "gay-bashing."

But, in a recent interview, Hill says police were stymied by the murder, and other than the sketchy accounts offered by a handful of people, detectives had very little information to go on. The activist then made a suggestion that, in his opinion, broke the case.

"I said, 'What about the media?' Hill recalls. "And [a homicide detective] said, 'If you crank the media and get somebody to come forward, then maybe we got someplace to go.'

"The first day, we were in the crime section, buried back in the paper. The second day, we were on the front of Metro. And the third day we were on the front page."

The news reports paid off when Crime Stoppers received an anonymous tip from a woman who said she'd heard several young men at a party talking about the assault. Her information sent two HPD officers to New York, where they arrested Derrick Attard, who then gave police everyone else's name and revealed that Jon Buice had brandished a Buck knife later that night at a Denny's and announced, "I cut him."

One by one, following Attard's apprehension, they came to 61 Riesner, and police were able to begin piecing together what happened. Buice was arrested, and with the help of another Woodlands youth not involved, detectives were led to the murder weapon, which had been stuffed into a paper sack and buried beneath some leaves behind the Randalls at Panther Creek.

Considering the increasing number of sensational elements, it's no surprise that, before long, the Broussard case had become one of the most closely watched and highly publicized murders in recent Houston history. Ray Hill recalls one particular news conference by HPD detectives and assistant district attorneys that, he says, is indicative of the pressure police and prosecutors were feeling. At the news conference, it was suggested that one motivation for the killing may have been robbery. Police reported that Nancy Rodriguez had confirmed that a ring was taken from her son's hand after the assault.

"They said, 'We can go for capital murder if this is a robbery,' " Hill said, "and to a person, every gay person in the room said, 'This was not a robbery, this was a hate crime.' Their response was, 'You understand, if we get it as a robbery, we can go for capital punishment.' And to a person every gay person in that room said, 'We're not interested in killing these kids.'

"We wanted them apprehended, tried and, if the evidence suits, then sentence them appropriately. The cops and Nancy Rodriguez were interested in the capital punishment possibilities, but we weren't."

The capital charges never materialized, but following the indictments handed down by the grand jury on August 1, 1991, Anderson vowed that under no circumstances would he consider reducing the charges against any of the defendants, but would, in fact, prosecute each of them for the crime of murder. To be successful, the state needed to prove the deadly assault was the result of a conspiracy, so the prosecutor set about building the case that Broussard's attackers constituted a multiethnic gang of suburban homophobes who, wearing colors and swinging nail-studded two-by-fours, descended on Montrose in two automobiles at 3 a.m. with a unanimously evil intent.

How much of that is true is, even now, uncertain. Statements made by some of the defendants, particularly Attard, indicate that Broussard's attackers knew he and his companions were gay. The HPD investigation turned up evidence that the youths may have been involved in two, possibly three separate incidents involving gay men. Those complainants, however, were unable to positively identify anyone from the group; none said they recall a black man among the hostile men they had confronted; and no charges were ever filed. (One defendant, Leo Ramirez, told police that a little while after they had arrived at Numbers, Buice, Dillon and Attard left the club to meet some friends at the rice towers.)  

By the end of July, the investigation was proceeding smoothly. But after a dozen or so statements and several lineups, no evidence had emerged to implicate Gayland Randle in Broussard's death or the other alleged encounters. Even as the seriousness of the situation became clear, Randle did not consider himself anything more than along for the ride that night, and that's what he told police when he gave a statement in mid-July. "They just said, 'Thank you,' and I was out of there," says Randle.

Since his statement was not part of the HPD file given to the Press, one can only presume that one of the more damaging allegations made by prosecutors -- that these same kids from The Woodlands had a habit of making sorties into Montrose to harass gay men -- did not originate with Randle.

The aggressive nature of the pursuit for proof of a gang scenario is best illustrated by Mike Anderson's questioning of Jaime Aguirre at the January 12, 1993 punishment hearing. The assistant D.A. -- with Rains overruling defense attorney objections, as well as trying to gather information that would likely be inadmissible in front of a jury -- hammered the defendant for any shard of information he had about something called the Latino Boys, which, if it did indeed exist, had no apparent connection with the Broussard case.

Anderson: "To the best of your knowledge, who are members of the Latino Boys?"

Aguirre: "I do not know who exactly is a member of the Latino Boys."
Rains: "Who do you think is a member of the Latino Boys?"
Aguirre: "Who do I think?"

Rains: "That's the question he keeps trying to ask .... Who do you think, if you had to guess, is a member of the Latino Boys?"

Anderson: "It's a simple question."
But not so simple, really. It was clear, as the questioning continued, that Anderson and Rains were trying to get Aguirre to name his brother, Javier, as a member and then admit that the Latino Boys did a lot more with their time than skateboarding.

Anderson: "And it's true, is it not, that you got together on several occasions to come down to Montrose to go to the rice dryers and then go, however you put it, 'beat up some fags' or 'mess with some queers?' "

Aguirre: "I did not say anything like that."
Anderson: "But it's true that that has happened in the past?
Aguirre: "No, it hadn't."

Apparently, about a year after the murder, the prosecution's contention that Paul Broussard was killed by an organized gang of gay-bashers began to wilt. Defense attorneys say that there was never any compelling evidence, other than bits of sketchy information from other Woodlands teenagers, that anything like Anderson's scenario had taken place. Not that they fault the prosecutor for trying.

"I believe that, if Mr. Anderson had a theory to go after these guys, he would have," says Tim Gavrel, Jon Buice's attorney. "Because if there was really strong evidence of being a gang, I think they could have tried the case on the theory that they went out that day to hurt somebody. But to only get deferred adjudication on a plea, I think that tells you how weak the case really was."

In July 1992, six months after Buice pleaded guilty, Nancy Rodriguez gave reporters the story of the day. Angry and emotional, she asked Rains to recuse himself for approving Anderson's offer of probation or deferred adjudication to the least culpable defendants, including Gayland Randle, in exchange for their guilty pleas.

The charge that Rains had gone soft attracted the attention of Andy Kahan, a former probation officer who had recently been appointed by Mayor Bob Lanier to be the city's victims' assistance liaison. Kahan works closely with Parents of Murdered Children and other victims advocates, and he helped Rodriguez find a much-needed support system. He also helped explain the realities of the criminal justice system.

"It is a criminal justice system -- that is, it is for the criminal and not for the victim and not for the survivors of the victims," Rodriguez says by phone from her home in Georgia. "I really did not understand. I just got angry out of ignorance. Until I cooled off and actually sat down and talked to Mike Anderson and talked to Andy Kahan and had them explain to me in terms that I could really understand, then I understood the system. In some cases, you just have to plea bargain. It just has to be done. You have to give in order to get."  

Gerald Bourque, for one, was certainly willing to deal. After all, Paul Broussard was dead; a jury would be shown some rather gruesome photographs; and, while the prosecution didn't have any evidence that Gayland had participated in the attack, the young man had told the grand jury that he chased one of Broussard's companions. Bourque figures that if he went ahead and tried the case, Anderson might have reduced the charge to, say, assault. But that would have solved only half the problem.

"Do you really think a jury's going to buy that, in light of the amount of publicity that's flying out here in these halls and all over the city?" Bourque says now.

If he had it to do over again, Thomas Randle would urge his son to take his chances with a jury. But at the time, he feared a trial would end badly. As Bourque repeatedly reminded him, the media was all over the case. Nancy Rodriguez was in court constantly, accompanied by a representative of the city, Andy Kahan, and usually a dozen or so members of Parents of Murdered Children and Justice for All.

That kind of support, along with Nancy Rodriguez's obvious pain and suffering, could move any jury to convict Gayland Randle and sway Rains, an elected official, to impose the harshest sentence he could. Moreover, Gayland was among the last group of five defendants scheduled for trial, and there was much speculation about what deals had been struck with the other defendants.

For example, all of the defense attorneys suspected that Brian Spake intended to testify against his companions. Indeed, Spake was the first defendant to be offered deferred adjudication by the prosecution, although he had admitted to kicking Broussard before he was stabbed. That deal followed a two-hour meeting between Nancy Rodriguez and Spake in Kahan's office.

Meanwhile, attorneys for the other defendants were getting entirely different signals from Paul Broussard's mother. Terry Gaiser, who represented Jeffrey Valentine, said that Rodriguez "had the approval or veto power over all the plea bargaining aspects of the case" -- a level of involvement he called "extraordinarily outrageous." Others, including Bourque, were disturbed by the prosecution's decision to grant Rodriguez a face-to-face meeting with each defendant before he was sentenced.

"This wasn't a situation where we were trying to heal broken wounds," Bourque says. "It was an opportunity for her to take my boy and call him every name in the book, and he has to sit there and take it. This was a discussion about what a despicable human being my client was, and that's inappropriate."

Rodriguez seems surprised to hear the complaints of the defense attorneys. She downplays the significance of her presence, saying that she was merely "at the table" while Anderson did all the negotiating.

"I don't have that kind of power," says Rodriguez, who keeps meticulous records of which of the defendants are imprisoned, when they are up for parole and what rehabilitation and counseling programs they participate in while incarcerated. "We made suggestions. That didn't mean he had to take 'em, but it wasn't like I was in complete control. Certainly, I didn't feel that way."

Mike Anderson doesn't say it in so many words, but he clearly suggests that Rodriguez's meeting with Spake resulted in some kind of an agreement. He won't acknowledge what it was that Spake might have offered in return, but he knows this particular defendant was given something the others weren't.

"She asked the judge to give this guy a second chance," Anderson says, "and he did."

Bourque says he had already decided "to go ahead and pick a jury" and proceed to trial when Anderson offered the deferred sentences to the others. The Randles and Gayland talked it over with Bourque, who indicated it was probably the best he could do under the circumstances. Gayland and the others pleaded guilty on June 1, 1993, and Rains doled out the deferred adjudication, as well as 90 days at the boot camp, 500 hours of community service and about $4,000 in restitution.

"It seemed the best way to bring some closure, and if he makes the ten years, the books are closed," says Thomas Randle. "That's what led us to accept that direction. But, then again, we believed in the system."  

But closure, as much as it's ever been possible in the murder of Paul Broussard, was still some time away. A month after Randle, Spake, Attard, Gonzalez and Valentine pleaded guilty, Nancy Rodriguez filed a wrongful death lawsuit against eight of the defendants and their families. Oddly enough, her attorney, Larry Lee, employed the trial strategy that Mike Anderson never got the chance to use. Lee argued that Broussard was killed by ten hopped-up, out-of-control teenagers from the suburbs, and if not for the discriminating fury of "the gang, so to speak," Buice would not have carried out the fatal stabbing.

The suit alleged that the parents of the ten defendants were equally responsible for what happened to Broussard and asked for the awarding of substantial damages to Rodriguez. Rodriguez also named Numbers as a defendant, claiming that the youths had gotten drunk there before assaulting Broussard. That claim was dropped before trial.

In his April 4, 1994, deposition testimony for the civil case, Spake confirmed the earlier suspicions of defense attorneys -- and contradicted statements he had made to the police -- by implicating almost everyone, directly and indirectly, in Broussard's death. After a day of drinking with Buice, he said, they had gone to meet Ralph Gonzalez and Derrick Attard "to go gay-bashing." Spake also said he'd taken similar excursions before, though he insisted that he hadn't participated. Others, however, had thrown rocks at people they suspected were gay, he said, and on one occasion Chance Dillon swung open a car door and hit a gay man walking along a Montrose street.

One can assume that Spake didn't plan on having to testify at the civil trial, but by the time it rolled around on May 8, 1995, almost all of the other defendants and their families had either been dismissed from the lawsuit or had settled out of court with Rodriguez. The case against Thomas and Ruby Randle was dismissed by summary judgment after state District Judge Harriet O'Neill determined that Gayland's parents had done everything they could to control their willful son.

Spake was noticeably uncomfortable on the witness stand. He admitted he got his licks in that morning by kicking Broussard. He also fingered Leo Ramirez -- who had already been sentenced to prison -- as an assailant, saying that he saw Ramirez punch Broussard in the face.

But Spake and Rodriguez's attorney, Larry Lee, proceeded with much less assurance on the issue of who among his companions had actually done this sort of thing before. Spake did not name names, as he had in his deposition testimony. Instead, looking almost ill, he said he knew "certain people" who cruised Montrose looking to hassle homosexuals, but that he was never of the opinion that they constituted "a group."

Lee never pushed for a positive identification of those "certain people," and, in fact, Spake fell far short of naming his co-defendants as partners in those previous forays into Montrose.

"Was it the intent of the group on July 3 [to harass gay men]?" Lee asked him at one point.

Spake responded, "Of our group?" His eyes moved up, then down, then all around, and after moistening his lips, Spake replied, "Uh ... uh ... yeah."

"I have nothing to go on but an educated guess after 24 years of practicing law," says Terry Gaiser, who represented Jeffrey Valentine in both the criminal and civil proceedings, "but I think Brian probably cut a deal with the D.A., that if the criminal cases went to trial, he was going to testify, and that's why he ended up getting the deferred.

"When it came to civil trial he had to eat those words, because it was already known that he had told the D.A. that he would testify and probably give the D.A. a story that the D.A. wanted to hear."

Jon Buice's testimony at the civil trial suggested that he had given prosecutors some not altogether reliable testimony as well. The most damaging statements came in January 1993, at the punishment phase for Leo Ramirez and Jaime and Javier Aguirre. That day, Buice lent credence to the notion of a conspiracy by telling Rains that all ten defendants knew before they left The Woodlands that night that they would eventually be harassing gays.

At the civil proceeding, however, Buice destroyed that earlier testimony by saying that he remembered "very, very little" of July 3 and 4, 1991, stoned as he was on pot, three and a half six-packs of beer and a half-tab of acid. "I don't even remember the parking lot," he said, referring to the place near West Drew and Montrose where Paul Broussard died.  

By the time the First Court of Appeals rejected Rodriguez's appeal of the summary judgment awarded to Thomas Randle, the Randles' insurance carrier had already agreed to pay her $50,000.

It was not a settlement the Randles wanted to make. In December 1994, their civil attorney, John Venzke, rejected offers by Larry Lee to settle the case or agree to mediation.

Apparently, the Randles' insurer was prepared to take on Rodriguez's appeal of the summary judgment at trial. Then Gayland was arrested for failing to return two phone calls to Melinda Biersdorfer, and the company reconsidered Lee's offer. Following a two-day mediation, the civil case against the Randles was settled with a check to Rodriguez.

The Randles acknowledge that sum of money will never begin to compensate Broussard's mother for her loss. But to Ruby and Thomas, $50,000, plus Gayland's incarceration, is too high a price for their son's culpability.

"We do not minimize Nancy Rodriguez's loss at all. I think anyone who knows us would say that something like this happening is no cause for rejoicing around here," says Thomas Randle. "But we empathize with Mrs. Rodriguez, because we lost our child. He's alive and we can visit him, but I can tell you, we lost our son, too."

It's difficult to tell how Nancy Rodriguez truly feels about Gayland Randle's prison sentence. She says she's not sure what Gayland did wrong, which seems odd since she traveled from Georgia to be in the courtroom when Rains found Gayland guilty of murder (Andy Kahan was there, too). But she exudes no sense of satisfaction with it, nor is she the least bit dismayed that he failed to complete his deferred adjudication. And she won't take credit or blame. "He put himself in prison, no one but him," she says. "He made that choice."

Rodriguez no longer sells tires. She uses words like "choice" and "personal responsibility" frequently these days while volunteering her time at the victims' assistance center in Warner Robins. In the next year, she hopes to complete a degree in criminal justice, and make that unpaid work a new career. She says she's learned a lot, although, of course, she wishes she didn't have to learn it the way she did.

One doesn't have to know Nancy Rodriguez to realize that she's a woman who's been hardened, as opposed to broken, by misfortune. When asked what purpose is served by Gayland Randle's imprisonment, Rodriguez sounds like she just keeps getting tougher the more she studies the criminal justice system.

"The purpose, hopefully, is rehabilitation and then reintegration back into society," she says, speaking in a slow monotone. "He made, like I said -- and I keep repeating this -- he made his choice. He made the choice to go out that night. He made the choice to stay there and do what he did .... He could have said 'stop' at any time.

"Nobody put him in the place where he's at but himself. He's responsible for his own actions. Nobody else did this for him; he put himself in there. Like I said, rehabilitation and reintegration back into society is the purpose of prison."

Thomas and Ruby Randle don't understand why their son needs rehabilitation. But they do know Gayland took his original punishment seriously and did not choose to go to jail. They don't know if they should blame Nancy Rodriguez, or Mike Anderson, or Andy Kahan, or the gay community, or Brian Rains. But, because of what's usually called The Boot Camp Incident, they know enough to suspect that Gayland's not in jail because of a probation violation.

Ask Rodriguez or Kahan about Gayland's probation violation, and they answer with one form or another of their own question: "Well, you do know about The Boot Camp Incident, don't you?"

In August 1993, about 60 days into their 90-day stints at the county boot camp, Randle and Ralph Gonzalez were pulled into Brian Rains's court. They had been accused of threatening guards. Gonzalez allegedly warned a guard that he was going to end up like Paul Broussard. Rains chewed him out good, and after toying with the idea of giving him 60 days in the county jail, sentenced Gonzalez to another 90 days at the boot camp.

When Gayland came before the judge, two drill instructors told Rains that Randle was not supposed to be there, that the whole thing was a big misunderstanding. The judge accepted that -- he even refused to hear testimony about it later -- but, nonetheless, Gayland too was recycled back to the beginning of his boot camp sentence.

Still, Nancy Rodriguez, Mike Anderson and even Ray Hill -- who reminds everyone every week on the radio that he's anguished when anyone goes to prison -- invariably say that Gayland Randle has had his fair allotment of chances, and that they just ran out when Brian Rains revoked his deferred adjudication and sent him to a prison unit a ten-hour drive from his family.  

"This was not the case for anyone to be violating their probation," says Andy Kahan, "because the eyes of Harris County were upon them."

The record will read that Gayland Randle was found guilty of the murder of Paul Broussard. His case is on appeal in court, as well as to any person, agency or organization that has heard the Randles' plea for help. If something -- or nothing -- should happen, Ruby and Thomas won't make excuses for their son. But they won't apologize for him, either.

"What all of them have to realize is our approach to life is one of Gayland did not, in his mind, take the life of that young man," says Thomas Randle. "Gayland's sorry he was there, there's no doubt in my mind about that. I believe him, I really and truly believe him.

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