It's strange to jump-start an airplane off the battery in a pickup truck, but that's exactly what Joshua Paul Calhoun attempted to do on March 4 of this year when he couldn't start the engine on a plane he was trying to steal.
Hours earlier, just after sunrise, 28-year-old Calhoun had driven out to the tiny municipal airport in Athens, basically a runway and a couple hangars on the outskirts of town. The plane, a single-prop Beechcraft Bonanza, was tied down with three ropes on a slab of asphalt not far from the barbed-wire fence around the airport. Calhoun got into the cockpit, but the battery was dead. He left the airport for about 30 minutes and returned, parking his truck next to the plane and hooking up the jumper cables. The engine still wouldn't crank.
Carroll Dyson, a 65-year-old retired pilot, watched the whole thing unfold from the opposite end of the runway, through the window of his shop where he runs a small repair, flight training and charter service. Dyson, a large, white-haired man, had never seen Calhoun before but thought he looked young and athletic, and even though Dyson didn't know the plane's owner well, he knew it was Todd Pearah, the son of a former professional football player. Calhoun could've been Pearah's nephew or son, Dyson thought, but he decided to drive out to the plane and check it out.
"Hello," Dyson said as he approached the plane. "Do you know the Pearah family?"
Rice Owls Mens Basketball vs. St. Thomas University Men's Basketball
TicketsWed., Dec. 21, 7:00pm
Advocare V100 Texas Bowl
TicketsWed., Dec. 28, 8:00pm
Rice Owls Mens Basketball vs. Middle Tennessee State Univ Blue Raiders Mens Basketball
TicketsThu., Jan. 5, 7:00pm
PRCA XTreme Bulls
TicketsFri., Jan. 6, 7:30pm
"Yes sir," Calhoun said, smiling. "Good friends. Mr. Pearah needs me to go down to South Texas and check out a ranch for him."
With that, Dyson showed Calhoun how to jump-start an airplane.
Dyson realized something was wrong driving back to his shop when he saw the Bonanza scream past him along the runway, taking off with the cockpit door still swinging open. He called Pearah, realized he'd been had and called the police.
Meanwhile, Calhoun flew the plane about two miles east, according to Dyson, then reversed course west for another three miles before crashing into a strand of trees. Uninjured, Calhoun could've simply escaped like he'd done for years, except his truck was still at the airport.
The police were at the far end of the runway talking to Dyson when Calhoun showed up to retrieve his truck. Dyson says that all of a sudden, they looked down the runway and saw Calhoun's truck moving real slow. The police sped down the runway, and according to an account in the Tyler Morning Telegraph, Calhoun "saw the officers, stepped out of the truck, which was still in gear, and kept going, and walked toward the officers. The officers had to run after the truck to stop it."
The arrest of a rural plane thief made headlines at newspapers across the state, including the Tyler paper — the New York Times of East Texas — and as far west as Lubbock. A reporter from the Athens Review got a jailhouse interview and Calhoun told him, "I've always been fascinated with flying."
"When I found out who it was, that he had stole the airplane and supposedly didn't know how to fly it, me knowing Josh, it didn't surprise me one bit," says Dan Parker, the chief deputy at the Henderson County Sheriff's Department.
Calhoun was already known to law enforcement in rural counties all over East Texas for stealing trucks, horse trailers, tractors and cattle, but the local cops never could keep Calhoun behind bars for long.
But now he's in federal custody. His court-appointed attorney, Norman McGinnis, wouldn't allow Calhoun to speak with the Houston Press for this story, but through police records, court documents and interviews, the Press has pieced together Calhoun's tale, including the five months that followed the arrest, in which Calhoun escaped to Mexico, eluded federal agents at the border re-entering the country, dragged a border agent 40 feet down the road when the agent tried to stop him, stole a drilling rig from a commercial construction company, and delivered meth to an undercover cop at a liquor store but escaped again by going off-road in a 4x4 truck.
"Country boys are ballsy," laughed Ray Nutt, the Henderson County sheriff who had been chasing Calhoun for years.
This is the story of a transformation, as Parker puts it, from "just an average teenager" to an East Texas Superthief.
Towns in East Texas along crumbling blacktop highways are full of boarded-up gas stations and cafes, some replaced with cash loan and pawn shops, as once thriving communities continue a post-oil boom decay. In the last couple decades, crude oil production from the East Texas Oil Field, the largest oil field in the country, has decreased, and so have the jobs — high-paying jobs for workers without much education. At the same time methamphetamine use has exploded through the region, creating a lush breeding ground for thieves.
Some people blame the development of man-made Cedar Creek Lake and the surrounding area for the original influx of crime and drugs in East Texas. According to Dyson, who has lived in Henderson County all his life except during his service in Vietnam, the lake, which opened in 1965, has drawn a steady stream of "white flight" from metropolitan areas.
"When all your rich people from Dallas and Houston move out here, the thieves are just drawn to them. Thieves are just wired that way," Dyson says. "You used to not have to lock your door in Henderson County."
Nutt has a different explanation for the troubles at Cedar Creek Lake. When it first opened, he says, it wasn't zoned and "a lot of elderly people bought a mobile home and moved in; it was nice. Then they passed away and family members sold them off or just let them go down."
"If you really want an adventure sometime, just take you a ride around Cedar Creek Lake," Nutt says. "There are a lot of good people over there, don't get me wrong, but that's where a lot of criminals tend to flow."
In the last year, newspapers including The New York Times and Los Angeles Times have run stories about the sharp rise in cattle rustling, and, according to an article in The Dallas Morning News, more livestock is stolen in East Texas than anywhere else in the state. The News article profiled Andy Wilkins, who grew up in Blossom, Texas, about 100 miles north of Calhoun's stomping grounds. Wilkins stole about 400 cattle before he was arrested, and now he's serving two concurrent ten-year prison terms at a maximum-security prison in East Texas, sharing a cell with a convicted killer.
Theft from oil drilling sites has been another problem, and in July of this year, authorities made one of the biggest oil theft busts in the state. Grand juries returned 67 felony indictments for members of a theft ring who were stealing natural gas — which some say has surpassed crude as king in East Texas — from wells in seven counties, according to a press release from the Panola County District Attorney.
Perhaps the most famous thief from East Texas in recent times is Danny Seeders, who ran a golf ball recovery business in the 1990s but also, along with his son and several family friends, burglarized businesses throughout East Texas, mainly targeting Polk County, according to an article in D Magazine. The men would scout a grocery store, focusing on the security system, and then use an electric saw to cut a hole in the building's roof. Once inside, they'd disable the security system and crack the store's safe.
The Seeders crew was eventually arrested, after a "wild chase through the woods," the article says, and each of the men was sentenced to prison. When Danny was released seven years later, he went right back to stealing from stores. The article says that meth use by one of the thieves led to sloppy work that eventually got the crew busted again in 2005. Police estimate that before they were arrested again, the crew stole about $750,000 in four years, making them one of the biggest "business burglary rings" in the state's history.
A detective who worked the case told the magazine, "That's what's so sad about this; they could have made a good enough living [with the golf ball business], but it just wasn't in them."
Calhoun wasn't born in East Texas, but he moved there from the Dallas area when he was ten years old, after his parents split. His dad stayed in Dallas, his mom moved to Colorado and the young Calhoun was sent to live with his grandparents in Brownsboro, Texas.
The town is barely a map dot, with a population of just under 800 people today, located on the north end of Henderson County — bordered by Cedar Creek Lake to the west and Lake Palestine to the east. The oil money left Brownsboro long ago, if there ever was any, and the town is surrounded by small, decaying, clapboard houses alongside tracts of grazing cattle and horses. Cutting the town in half is a single highway, lined with a couple schools, some gas stations and a pizza parlor where you can rent videos and buy antiques.
A popular FM radio station hosts the "world famous" KMOO General Store, basically a country Craigslist with callers wanting to buy, sell or trade items that range from dump trucks to tubs of lard. One recent caller wanted to find someone to trade roosters for bunk beds.
Calhoun had troubles early on in Brownsboro, getting diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and as bipolar. "We took him to get some help," his grandfather Linnie Calhoun says. He says they put Calhoun through a lot of tests, and "they still couldn't help him."
Calhoun's name first appeared on the cops' radar in Brownsboro not long after he turned 16, with "rumblings of him wanting to fight kids" floating through the city, says Parker, who served as Brownsboro's chief of police before switching to Henderson County. The real problem, though, was Calhoun speeding along the narrow, winding back roads that surround the town in his one-ton Ford truck, "terrorizing the quiet folks." Parker or another officer would set up stings for Calhoun on the highway outside the high school, waiting for him to tear out of the parking lot.
"We'd stop him, and he'd never want to get a ticket," Parker says. "He never caused any problems."
During his senior year at Brownsboro High School, Calhoun got married — for the first time — a few weeks after his 18th birthday, but the union didn't last long. During an argument one evening in February of 1999, about five months into the marriage, Calhoun tried to strangle his wife. He was arrested by the sheriff, pled guilty, spent a couple days in the county jail and had to pay a $100 fine and make a $50 donation to the East Texas Crisis Center. Calhoun was divorced and married again by the end of the year.
Calhoun's first arrest for theft came a little later. On June 29, 2000, a few weeks before his 20th birthday, Calhoun stole a backhoe, according to court documents. Sixteen days later, he stole a $5,000 trailer that belonged to Wayne Toliver, a defense attorney from Gilmer, Texas, who has since surrendered his law license amid allegations of stealing money from a client.
"I guess he needed a trailer for the backhoe," Toliver says. "I'm sure he just hitched it to his truck and took off." Calhoun registered the trailer in Brownsboro and sold it to someone in Tyler for $500, according to Toliver, who eventually got back his trailer.
Calhoun was arrested for both thefts on September 18 of that year, pled guilty to two felony thefts and received four years of "community supervision" and a $500 fine. The arrests caused only a minor pause in his activities.
In August of 2003, Calhoun was locked up in the Upshur County jail for a probation violation, and he let a woman "take care of his Dodge Ram 350." The woman, who later told police she was Calhoun's girlfriend, slammed into the back of a Volkswagen a little after 1 o'clock in the morning in Athens, sending the other driver to the emergency room, according to a police report. When Athens police officers ran the truck's license plate, it came back registered to Calhoun.
The truck's vehicle identification number had been pried off the dashboard, though, and the sticker information had been removed. Investigators found a registration renewal receipt shoved under the seat that showed the owner to be Steele Feed & Seed in nearby Troup, Texas. The truck didn't show up as stolen, but according to an investigative report, the Troup Police Department verified that the truck had in fact been boosted, and had dropped out of the system after its registration expired.
The Henderson County District Attorney has no record of the case even reaching his office, and no charges were ever filed against Calhoun.
When he wasn't stealing, Calhoun also liked to get drunk.
He was arrested for driving while intoxicated for the first time in March of 2006 — after he'd married his third wife — and Calhoun spent a weekend in the Henderson County jail. He got out and headed to Frankston, about 20 miles east of Athens, and got his truck out of impound, but somewhere on his trip home, Calhoun got drunk again and crashed his black Dodge truck, wrapping it around a light pole across the street from the Walmart in Athens. Wearing jeans and a blue shirt, Calhoun ran to the Walmart parking lot and, according to the police report, encountered a man who told police Calhoun had blood pouring from his face and told him, "I got to get out of here."
While the officer was still taking that report, the police department received a complaint about a man wearing jeans and a blue shirt at the intersection of a state highway and the Loop — about three miles from the Walmart — trying to wave down cars. Police looked for him in the area, but couldn't find Calhoun. After speaking with Calhoun's grandfather, the police stopped the search.
At about 3 o'clock the following morning, the police department got a phone call from the East Texas Medical Center emergency room, from, surprisingly, Calhoun. An officer went to the hospital to talk to him, and Calhoun said he'd been sitting in his truck in the parking lot of the Athens VFW when a white Chevy truck driven by two Mexican men pulled up next to him. One of the Mexicans asked him a question, Calhoun told police, and the other man got out of the truck, stuck a revolver in Calhoun's face and forced him into the Chevy.
His story continued, "Calhoun then stated that he was driven to a county road in Baxter, Texas, where he was hit in the head by a revolver, knocking him unconscious," the police report says. "Joshua advised that after he had awaken several hours later he found that his vehicle and wallet was missing. Calhoun then stated that he walked a couple hundred yards down the road and found unknown persons working to remodel a house, which then gave him a ride to the East Texas Medical Center Emergency Room."
The officer turned off his tape recorder and arrested Calhoun.
"Calhoun stated that he had been having some family problems at the time," the police report says, "and went to the VFW to have some drinks and did not know the cause or the reason why he had wrecked out."
A judge sentenced Calhoun to 180 days in county jail, but he never served a day because the sentence was suspended for 15 months of probation. That should have kept Calhoun in Henderson County, but instead he went for a change, moving to tiny Westminster, Maryland — about 35 miles west of Baltimore — for work at the Lehigh Cement plant.
"Your guess is as good as mine," Linnie Calhoun says about Joshua's decision to head north. He had a good job in Brownsboro driving a service truck, Linnie says, repairing bulldozers and other heavy equipment. He drove that truck to Maryland, and the owner eventually had to send someone to retrieve it.
Calhoun stayed in Maryland, and his drinking led him straight back to trouble.
It started on September 7, 2007, when an officer in a squad car tried to pull Calhoun over, not long after 7 p.m., for speeding. According to a police report, Calhoun accelerated away, turning down a dirt road that was a dead end. Calhoun stopped at the end of the road and got out, and the officer told him to get back into the truck. Calhoun didn't stop, and the cop pulled his pistol and pointed it at Calhoun, causing him to turn around and put his hands on the roof of his truck. He was arrested for drunk driving.
Twenty-two days later, the same cop was responding to a disorderly conduct complaint, and as he drove up to the address, a white truck, driven by Calhoun, pulled onto the road followed by a car flashing its high beams. The officer turned on his service lights and crossed the road, driving straight towards Calhoun, who simply steered the truck off the road and pulled up next to the cop car, asking what was wrong. After failing a sobriety test, Calhoun was arrested on another drunk driving charge.
"I don't know what his deal was; he was kind of a loner," says a corporal with the Carroll County Sheriff's Office. "Needless to say, Mr. Calhoun got to become very popular with some officers around here."
Calhoun bailed out of jail on that last charge, but a couple months later, he spent a night drinking at the bar in the New Windsor Inn in Westminster until almost 2 o'clock in the morning, according to a police report. He left the bar in his Ford truck, immediately smashed into a guard rail and continued driving home.
A woman watched the whole thing from the New Windsor Inn parking lot, where moments before he drove away, Calhoun had mistakenly dropped his wallet. The woman called the sheriff's office, and a deputy picked up the wallet and drove out to Calhoun's house, where he found the Ford truck with "obvious fresh damage."
The registration sticker on the truck was altered and "fraudulently affixed to elude law enforcement into believing that the registration is valid." Calhoun was arrested again for drunk driving, along with several other charges, but after he made bail again he didn't stick around Maryland to face the judge. He still has active warrants in the state.
Calhoun headed back to Henderson County, and, according to court documents, he had to serve 90 days in jail for six probation violations, including leaving the county without permission.
He was in jail until January of this year, and about a month after his release and three days before he stole the airplane, Calhoun attempted another surprisingly bold theft. He tried to steal a truck and trailer and bulls from Stace Smith, who lives on a ranch outside of Athens and is one of the biggest rodeo producers in the country. His company, Smith Pro Rodeos, produces the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas, known as the Super Bowl of rodeo.
Calhoun went out to Smith's ranch and stole a truck and trailer and found a couple ranch hands, telling them that Smith needed him to take some bulls to a rodeo in Oklahoma. Before they loaded up the bulls, however, they realized the truck was Smith's and held Calhoun down until the sheriff's deputies got there. No charges were filed in the case.
"Stace Smith is just that kind of guy," says Nutt, the Henderson County sheriff.
In the case of his most ambitious attempted theft — the plane at the Athens airport — Calhoun tried to talk his way out of another arrest.
When police busted him getting out of his truck, Calhoun said he had recently purchased the plane for $52,000 on the Internet with money he made working in the oil fields. He was shocked the plane was crashed, he told police, because he had landed it successfully at his grandparents' property in Echo Creek, a community south of Athens, and gave the keys to a friend who took off in the plane again. Problem was, the officers knew that the "friend" had died more than a year earlier. Calhoun was arrested and taken to the medical center for scratches on his face.
"I got those scratches feeding the cows there at Echo Creek," Calhoun told the reporter from the Athens Review.
Back in the Henderson County jail, Calhoun's bond was set at $50,000. He started calling all his old contacts who had bailed him out before, and one bondsman, who bailed him out on the DWI charge (he asked that his name not be used for the story), told Calhoun he would post bond if Calhoun's father would co-sign for it, as he'd done the last time, driving in from Dallas, paying off warrants in several counties, according to the bondsman. But Calhoun's dad wouldn't co-sign for the plane theft.
His next call was to 1 Bail Bonding, a small bond company run by Barbara Bowman out of her house in an affluent neighborhood in Athens. (The Press spoke with Bowman, but she decided not to talk for the story.) Somehow he persuaded Bowman to post his bond, and Calhoun was set free again.
"I sat right here and saw him walk out of the jail," says the bondsman who wouldn't post Calhoun's bond, who has an office across from the county jail. "Then I saw him take off running down the street."
That was the last anyone heard from Calhoun until more than five months later, when he appeared on the Mexico side of the Falcon Dam, a border crossing in Roma. Calhoun was driving a 1993 Ford F-250, the same kind of truck he had crashed into the guardrail in Maryland. According to a federal complaint, a border agent asked him why he had been in Mexico, and Calhoun claimed to be a doctor scouting locations for a new office. The agent told Calhoun to shut off the truck, and when the agent ran Calhoun's license, he "received an alert for Calhoun to be considered armed and dangerous," the complaint says.
Agents ordered Calhoun to exit the vehicle, but instead he started the engine. A woman agent tried to open the truck's door and reach for the keys, but Calhoun sped off "at a high rate of speed." The agent was dragged about 40 feet down the road, hanging on to Calhoun's truck before falling off. She later reported bruising, a scratched right elbow and back pain, the complaint says. Other border agents chased him but couldn't catch up to Calhoun.
Not a week later, the Henderson County sheriff received a call from a woman complaining that Calhoun was calling her with "terrorist threats," according to the sheriff. Lieutenant Botie Hillhouse says a deputy got Calhoun's number from the woman, then convinced Calhoun that he was a long-lost friend and wanted Calhoun to bring him some meth at a liquor store about 20 miles north of Athens in Gun Barrel City. Calhoun agreed.
A buddy drove Calhoun to the liquor store in a Dodge 4x4 truck, but, the sheriff says, Calhoun and his friend sniffed out the set-up and sped off. A deputy shot out two tires on the Dodge, but according to the sheriff, the driver "run across a ditch, then across [a state highway], and he had a pickup with four-wheel-drive, and he got away from us."
Calhoun had escaped again, but he couldn't resist another score. A day after he evaded the meth bust, Calhoun jacked a truck equipped with well-drilling equipment from a construction site in Big Sandy, a town about 50 miles northeast of Athens. The owner of the truck, David Bates, was driving down the highway when he saw his rig headed in the opposite direction. Bates turned around, called the sheriff and chased down the truck. Calhoun pulled to the side of the road, politely telling Bates, "Sir, this truck belongs to my partner, and I'm taking it up to his oilfield."
Before Bates could explain that he owned the truck and his only partner was his wife, Wood County deputies arrived to arrest Calhoun. After a six-month hunt, the Superthief was finally in custody.
Calhoun's rap sheet, even before the airplane theft and federal charges from the border incident, was lengthy: two felony thefts, an assault, two DWIs in Henderson County and three DWIs in Maryland, along with several probation revocations. It's almost impossible to believe that the longest stretch Calhoun was locked up was 241 days in the Upshur County jail in 2004 after he tested positive for marijuana and had his probation revoked.
The only other extended jail stay was the 90 days after Maryland. All told, he hasn't spent a year of his life locked up, but now he's facing serious time, sitting in a federal detention center in South Texas waiting for his trial. Of course, it's not the first time a Calhoun man has squared off against the federal government.
There's an old family legend, Linnie Calhoun says, about one of the Calhoun clan who owned a big tobacco plantation in Tennessee in the 1800s. That Calhoun got in some trouble with the federal government for not paying taxes, and one day, the government tax man came to take away his land. He was forced to move to Texas, to present-day Henderson County, to live with family. He died shortly thereafter. The government, however, sent word months later that it was wrong, owing that Calhoun a large sum of money. The cash, legend has it, is still unclaimed.
Linnie Calhoun thinks the government is wrong again on its charges against Joshua, and he says, "It's all hearsay."
And maybe it is, because a mention of his name from Athens to Brownsboro to Frankston, to court clerks or bondsmen or teenagers with fountain drinks outside gas stations, usually gets the same reaction: a smile, a head shake and, "Yes, I've heard of him, but I don't know him as a friend."
Ray Nutt, the Henderson County sheriff, a former Texas Ranger who keeps a can of dip in his front pocket and picks at his fingernails with a pocket knife when he talks, says of Calhoun, "He's not retarded, but there's definitely something wrong with him."
Or maybe Joshua Paul Calhoun is the next legend of East Texas.
Over the July 4 weekend, while Calhoun was allegedly in Mexico, a wealthy couple flew into the Athens airport in a single-prop Cessna to stay the weekend at Cedar Creek Lake. Someone tried to steal their plane.
The unknown thief got away before anyone found the plane crashed into a ditch at the end of the runway. But in the rumor mill around the airport and the Athens courthouse, the escapade has grown into another tale of the Superthief. Even if he wasn't there.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Houston, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.