Pain for the Prosecution
Were it not for the tequila haze, Kristen Pain might have realized she was about to be busted. During her five years in the Harris County District Attorney's office, she'd learned to look for lies and little inconsistencies. She knew how criminals got caught, and she knew the penalties they paid. But on that Saturday night in late November, she was thinking not as Kristen Pain, prosecutor, but as Kristen Pain, hard-partying civilian.
Pain and her boyfriend, Scott Langham, arrived at Churrasco's around 9 p.m. The Montrose restaurant was jammed with its usual upscale crowd, but even amid that stiff competition, Pain and Langham made a striking couple. Pain, 31, is athletic and has long blond hair; Langham, 33, was born with dark good looks and has achieved the sculpted physique of a personal trainer. A few months before, he'd abandoned a job as a stockbroker to become, as he liked to describe himself, "a performance facilitator."
The couple waited to meet a new client of Langham's, a man who called himself Mauricio Espindola and claimed to be a native of Bogota, Colombia. Among Langham's clients, Espindola stood out. He'd told Langham he was in the exotic automobile business, but he also occasionally alluded to his involvement in money laundering and spoke vaguely of corrupt judges both in Houston and his homeland. He also seemed more interested in socializing with Langham than in developing a workout regime or exploring the power of positive thinking.
Espindola had frequently mentioned that he and his girlfriend, Jennifer, liked to "party"; he begged Langham and Pain to join them some evening, saying that he'd turn them on to some of the best cocaine around. But then Espindola said something had happened to his coke connection, and he asked whether Langham knew where to find some coke. After Espindola pleaded for a couple of weeks, Langham finally made a buy, and agreed to meet Espindola and his girlfriend at Churrasco's.
Despite the crowd, the foursome was seated within five minutes of their arrival; Pain thought their good luck was a bit odd, but didn't question it. She was already busy drinking.
The usually easygoing Espindola hurried through his meal. After the check was paid, Pain and Langham followed Espindola and his girlfriend to an apartment complex on Bering Drive, in the Galleria area. Espindola had often spoken of his house in River Oaks; he explained to Pain and Langham that he'd leased the apartment because he had many girlfriends, and didn't want them showing up at his house unexpectedly. Again, Pain didn't question the strangeness.
Langham had left the coke at his townhouse on Briar Forest, a few miles away. As he and Espindola left to retrieve the three and a half grams, he cautioned Pain to stay out of the apartment's back rooms; he said they were a mess. Pain in turn cautioned the men to put the coke in the trunk of the car in case they were stopped by police.
The two women talked as they waited impatiently at Espindola's sparsely furnished apartment. Pain had met Jennifer once a few weeks earlier over dinner and drinks at Cabo's, a trendy spot in Shepherd Plaza. Jennifer had spent much of that evening whining that she wanted "nose candy"; she and Espindola had seemed quite deflated when Langham said he couldn't provide them any that night.
Now, in Espindola's apartment, Pain began to tell Jennifer how she'd started using drugs while a student at Texas A&M. She volunteered the details of a weekend trip to South Padre Island, when she and some college friends had each smuggled a small amount of cocaine across the border into Matamoros. On the way back into Texas, Pain said, her friends dumped whatever they hadn't used, but she made it back through customs with the remainder of her stash hidden in her dress.
At last Langham and Espindola returned. Pain took the bag of powder from Langham and ordered that a framed picture be removed from the apartment's wall and placed on the table in front of her. The picture showed the spines of several books, including The Interpretation of Dreams. Pain joked that she wanted to do some coke with Freud.
She poured a portion of the bag's contents onto the glass covering the picture, then used a credit card to shape the powder into several small straight lines. She rolled a dollar bill into a straw and quickly inhaled some of the coke. "That's good shit," she said.
As the words were leaving her mouth, about a dozen officers from the Houston Police Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation burst out of the back bedroom and ordered Pain and Langham onto the floor. They were handcuffed and read their rights.
Suddenly, the evening's minor oddities made sense. Through her tequila-and-coke fog, Kristen Pain realized that nothing was what it had seemed. "Espindola" was not an exotic car dealer, but an FBI informant. "Jennifer" was not his girlfriend, but an undercover agent.
And suddenly, Pain herself was not a prosecutor, but a criminal.
"I led a double life, and it wasn't any good," admits Kristen Irene Pain. She speaks rapid-fire, in a high-pitched voice, and runs her hands through her hair. Fresh from the tanning salon, wearing a jeans skirt and a black leotard top, she hardly looks like someone who's just spent 45 days behind bars. She's also a far cry from the stereotypical hard-driving, hang-'em-high assistant D.A.
Maybe, she concedes, she was never cut out to be a prosecutor. Langham, now her husband, agrees.
"She was living in constant negativity," he says. He reaches over to push her bare feet off the glass-brick coffee table. Their living room, with its bleached oak floor and a view of a creek, has a West Coast feel that meshes with Langham's vocabulary. "The negativity was wearing on her psyche, and Kristen is usually a very upbeat kind of person."
She had a very upbeat kind of childhood, growing up in Spring Branch. Her mother and father, an attorney, still live in the house where they raised Kristen and her two older brothers. (One of them is now an agent for the Secret Service.) But at Texas A&M, Kristen discovered drugs and her wild side.
She also first met Scott Langham at A&M. Their relationship was platonic: They had an accounting class together, and saw each other in the gym. After Pain graduated in '88, their friendship lapsed.
A psychology major, she decided to go to law school -- chiefly, she says, because school was easy for her and she didn't want to get a job. During her third year at the University of Houston Law Center, Pain worked as an intern in the D.A.'s office. She enjoyed the fraternal atmosphere and developed a taste for what she and others in the office sometimes call "the Lord's work" -- putting criminals in jail.
"It seemed like a fun thing to do," she says.
Like most other "baby D.A.s," Pain began by prosecuting straightforward DWI cases that do not involve an accident or a breath test. Her very first day on the job, Pain found herself before a jury, and came away with a conviction.
From DWI court, she followed the usual prosecutor's career path. In felony court, she tried low-level drug and assault cases. She says she still used cocaine occasionally, maybe three times a year, and admits that made her a hypocrite of the first order. "But when people say I violated a public trust, I have a problem with that," she says. "I did my job and I did it well."
After her stint in felony court, she spent a short time in a justice of the peace court, where she dealt mainly with traffic offenses. After that, she returned to felony trial court, this time to deal with murderers, child molesters and, of course, drug dealers -- all but the most serious felony cases.
For the most part, she did a respectable job. Although she wasn't one of the office's stars, her supervisors viewed her work as solid, and a few of her trials made headlines. In July 1994, she successfully prosecuted Harris County Deputy Sheriff Ronald Wayne Ackerman for raping a woman. She also won a conviction in the case of Carlos Benitez, who was sentenced to 99 years for soliciting an attempt on his wife's life.
Pain's private life, though, seemed far less solid. "Every time I saw her socially, she was plastered," says one professional acquaintance. "She would just go sit in a corner and drink to the point where she could hardly hold her head up."
Office gossip also touched on her taste in men. She was known as someone who liked guys who were "on the edge," and who was greatly influenced by whoever she dated. (Pain says that the influence worked both ways: "Sometimes my boyfriends were influenced by me and began drinking heavily.")
In the fall of '95, she ran into Langham at a mall. He was newly divorced, and the two began seeing each other off and on. By the summer of '96, they were dating steadily.
Around the same time, felony court began to lose its luster for Pain. Despite her successes, what had once seemed "fun" quickly lost its appeal. "It got to where I would read the files and see the pictures about children and murders," she remembers, "and I felt like I was getting cynical and hard. I started questioning if that was what I wanted to deal with every day."
She considered resigning at the end of the year to pursue a career as a personal trainer. In the meantime, she asked to transfer to the office's consumer fraud division -- the Siberia of the D.A.'s office, but also a less stressful division. Russel Turberville, the head of that office, considered himself fortunate that an experienced prosecutor had volunteered to transfer, and was also impressed by Pain herself.
"Her reputation was that she would take any case to court," he says. "She'd try a case that had problems and not shy away. She'd tee up and get after it."
On Pain's first day in consumer fraud, a police officer came to the division seeking a search warrant. Usually, Turberville had to train new people to prepare warrants, but Pain simply sat down and banged one out. "I thought, 'God, this is great,'" he says. "I was real pleased to have her over here."
He stayed pleased for a couple of months. Then, he says, Pain began to seem distracted and distant. Her productivity declined. She avoided him by coming in through a back entrance and spending the day with her office door closed. When he asked what was going on, she mentioned personal problems having to do with her mother's health. Turberville cut her some slack.
But Pain's performance didn't improve, and by October, Turberville planned to move her into an office next to his, where he could keep an eye on her. He never got the chance.
Around the time that Turberville was losing patience, Harris County District Attorney Johnny Holmes received a disturbing call. He says he can't remember who called, but he was told that an FBI informant claimed an assistant D.A. was using dope. Holmes -- as famous for his hard-nosed attitude as for his handlebar mustache -- advised the caller that if the feds could make a case, they should do it and do it fast.
"I told them I didn't even want to know who it was," he says. "Because if the investigation turned to shit, I didn't want anyone suggesting that we were protecting somebody. But if we had someone here engaging in that kind of conduct, I wanted them out of here, and I wanted them out of here yesterday."
Roughly two months later, Holmes received a second call. He was spending that Saturday night at his farm in Austin County. When the phone rang after midnight, it woke him.
"They told me that Kristen Pain and her boyfriend were in jail," remembers Holmes, "and they had them by the short hairs."
Holmes felt mixed emotions. He was glad that the perp was not one of his senior attorneys -- in fact, that it was someone he didn't even know. But he was also furious.
"Something like that has never happened here," he says. "I mean never. And the fact that it happened on my watch was personally upsetting. It was like a kick in the nuts to me."
The following morning, Holmes went to his office and viewed the FBI's videotape. A few minutes later, Kristen Pain was out of a job.
After her arrest, Pain's courthouse friends soon distanced themselves from her. She believes they were worried that they'd be thought guilty by association -- and guilty of more than just friendship.
Rumors circulated that Pain had not only used drugs, but had sold them as well, and that some of her cases had been compromised as a result. Pain says that immediately after her arrest, the FBI questioned her about those allegations -- allegations she adamantly denies.
"You know that they went over every case I ever handled," she says. "If they had found something improper, I'm sure they would have let me know."
Pain believes those rumors may have been due to attempts by the FBI's informant to make his information sound more important. The Press was unable to reach Espindola. But lawyer Kent Schaffer, who represented Pain's husband, thinks Pain may be right. "I've been doing drug cases for 16 years,"he says, "and I've never seen the federal government go to such lengths in such a trivial case."
The case was not trivial to Pain's boss. Immediately after firing Pain, Johnny Holmes asked the judge in the case to assign a special prosecutor, someone outside the Harris County D.A.'s office. The judge appointed Jerry Guerinot, a criminal defense attorney.
Guerinot says that when the case was handed to him, he was told that the investigation centered around allegations that Pain had sold favors to defendants in exchange for cocaine. "That turned out to be absolutely, positively untrue," says Guerinot, who hired an investigator to check the allegations. "Kristen Pain never did anything like that at all. Never. It was totally unfounded."
Guerinot is less certain about other aspects of Pain's truthfulness. For instance, he doesn't believe that her drug use was infrequent. "The videotape would tell you that she is a seasoned veteran of coke snorting," Guerinot says. "That tape didn't indicate to me somebody who snorted coke three times a year. More like three times a week."
Pain explains away her facility in chopping and snorting, saying it's left over from her college days. It's like riding a bicycle, she says: "You never forget how to do coke."
In April, both Pain and Langham pleaded guilty to possession of a controlled substance, and each was sentenced to eight years deferred adjudication, 45 days in jail and 600 hours of community service. Pain also had to write an open letter of apology, which was published in the Houston Chronicle.
Originally, the plea arrangement also contained a "no-contact provision," which stipulated that Pain and Langham couldn't see each other. Guerinot is unapologetic: "I didn't think they needed to see each other."
He was eventually persuaded to drop the provision on the condition that the couple get married immediately. To meet Guerinot's deadline, they convinced a judge to waive the usual three-day waiting period.
Though they admit their guilt, Pain and Langham believe they were treated unfairly. They point out that, more often than not, first offenders in simple possession cases rarely serve jail time. But because of Pain's position as a prosecutor, they believe Guerinot felt pressure to be extra tough.
Of course, in the opinion of the district attorney, Guerinot wasn't tough enough. Holmes is still irritated that Guerinot allowed the couple to enter a plea bargain instead of taking the case to trial, where a jury would determine their fate. "Some cases just need to be tried," says Holmes.
Guerinot disagrees, pointing out that Pain has apologized, been jailed and publicly humiliated. "What more do they want?" he asks. "She never denied responsibility. She's done everything that she ought to do, and I think that should be the end of it. For god's sake, if you make a mistake and you can't come back from it, I think we're all doomed."
Shortly after their arrest, Pain and Langham checked into separate drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers. They say they've been clean and sober for the past seven months.ooooooo Pain says she's glad the hypocrisy of prosecuting drug users is behind her. And though she misses her former colleagues, she's happy to no longer be involved in the drinking life that was so much a part of her time as a prosecutor.
"The law-enforcement culture is a drinking culture," she says. "I think that has something to do with what you have to deal with every day. It's a release. You celebrate a win, and you drown your sorrow in a loss."
She recalls that she and her friends used to meet almost every day after work at a bar on Market Square, and that they'd joke they were alcoholics. She says she's lucky she never killed anyone while driving home. And -- though she knows it sounds like self-serving pathos -- she says she's glad her darker side was finally revealed.
Jail, says Pain, was educational: "It was interesting for me to see the other side."
Like other female inmates who have been in law enforcement or have family members in law enforcement, Pain was placed in a protective-custody cellblock. Rather than risk her safety by mingling with the jail's general population in the law library or during recreation time, Pain remained in her cellblock, leaving only for daily visits with Langham.
To compensate for her lack of physical activity, she ran in place for 45 minutes twice a day and used the cell bars and her bunk to do basic floor exercises. "It was funny because some of the other girls started working out with me," she remembers. "I started getting everybody in shape and telling them what they could and couldn't eat. It was kind of neat."
Now that Pain is out, Langham is due to begin serving his own 45-day sentence. While he's behind bars, Pain will handle his performance-enhancement clients.
The couple is full of plans for their life after his release. They hope to fulfill their community-service requirement by speaking to at-risk groups, such as teenagers, about the low side of the high life. They want to write a "physique transformation system and success guide," which they hope to market through the Internet. And they'd like to write another book about their run-in with the law.
Pain is uncertain about her future as a lawyer. According to the Texas State Bar, serving any time in jail is grounds for disbarment. But so far, Pain has heard nothing from the Bar, and she hopes she'll keep her license.
She says she has no plans to practice law again, though in a strange way, her drug conviction has opened up a new career possibility. "All the defense attorneys I've talked to," she says, "say I'd make a great defense attorney now.
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.
- Texans-Saints: Four Things to Watch For
Sat., Sep. 5, 12:00am
Sat., Sep. 5, 12:00pm
Sat., Sep. 5, 2:30pm
Sat., Sep. 5, 6:00pm
- 5 New Laws That Go Into Effect Next Week
- Finally — Documented Proof of the Homosexual Agenda!