Donald Robertson was blindsided. He was stopped at a red light on the North Sam Houston Parkway East frontage road on June 24, 2006, his patrol car next to a big white van sitting in the inside lane. The light turned green. As Robertson entered the intersection, a blue 2006 Pontiac Grand Prix sped through the stoplight — then brakes squealed and screeched as the Pontiac slammed into the patrol car’s front passenger side, throwing Robertson and his white Chevrolet Impala into a concrete barrier 15 yards away.
It was the worst jolt Robertson had ever felt in his life, and the first accident he’d ever had while on patrol in his 17 years working as a Harris County Sheriff’s deputy. His neck hurt like hell; his right leg was pinned by a toppled computer console. A plume of smoke rose from his battered car. He wanted to turn his head, but his body wasn’t responding to what his brain was telling it to do. He tried to lift himself, gripping the steering wheel and hoisting himself up using his upper-body strength, but every time he tried, he could feel his torso separating from his head, causing him to lose his breath and slip in and out of consciousness. It didn’t take him long to realize his neck was badly broken.
The crash gave Robertson a type II Odontoid fracture, left a four-inch laceration on his right knee and temporarily blurred his vision with floaters. Doctors at the hospital told him he needed emergency surgery to realign his neck with the rest of his body. It was a dangerous procedure. Paraplegia or quadriplegia: Those were two possible outcomes. A third was death. Robertson had no choice. Miraculously, he survived the surgery. But he was hardly made whole again.
Hurt and unable to work, Robertson was immediately placed on worker’s compensation. His supervisors repeatedly assured him he would have a place one day again with the sheriff’s office. His time working as a patrol deputy — his dream job — was almost certainly over, but many injured deputies return to work simple desk jobs. Whenever Robertson would call the county or the sheriff’s office, worried he would lose his job while he recovered, he was always told not to worry, to just focus on getting better. Law enforcement takes care of its own.
In 2012, Robertson was blindsided again. Two weeks before Christmas, he received a letter from the sheriff’s office in the mail. “An administrative review reveals you have been absent from duty since June 24, 2006, after having been placed on Worker’s Compensation due to an injury,” the letter said. “As of the date of this letter, the Harris County Sheriff’s Office has not received any correspondence from you or Worker’s Compensation concerning your ability to return to active duty at this time. Unfortunately, the Sheriff’s Office is left with no other recourse but to grant you an administrative dismissal, effective the date of this letter.” The letter instructed Robertson to turn in his badge. After more than two decades of serving in the Harris County Sheriff’s Office and nearly losing his life on the job, Robertson was suddenly kicked to the curb.
He quickly appealed the dismissal, which prompted a serpentine and ferociously fought legal battle that has snaked its way from the civil service commission to county court to, now, the federal level, with long delays and appeals marring the case’s stay in each jurisdiction. “This ended my life,” Robertson said in an interview in his modest Spring home. “I had always wanted to be a police officer. It was who I was. I got up every morning wanting to go to work. I still want to go back on patrol, but I know that’ll never happen. I just want to be reinstated. I’m tired of being treated like this.”
Robertson’s attorney, Nathan Beedle, claims decision-makers at the sheriff’s office under Adrian Garcia, sheriff at the time of Robertson’s dismissal, acted without oversight and violated the office’s policies and procedures in an effort to shed Robertson’s dead weight after a budget crisis that Garcia encountered soon after he came into office in 2008.
Harris County is vigorously defending those allegations in court, contending that Robertson’s dismissal was justified simply because he didn’t notify the office that he planned to return to work, and pointing to a note from Robertson’s former pain management doctor that the county says shows Robertson would not have been able to return to work in any capacity.
Meanwhile, Robertson continues to struggle. He says he needs surgery on his knee, but since being stripped of his salary and benefits, he can no longer afford treatment. He says his injuries have left him $140,000 in debt. Bill collectors harass him daily. His physical injuries have left him a shell of the man he once was, and he struggles to find a new identity. The long ordeal has shattered his once-idyllic life at home.
“It’s been a long, never-ending nightmare,” Robertson’s wife, Rose, said. “They discarded him like yesterday’s trash.”
Robertson was born and raised in Aldine. His mother died when he was two months old, so he was raised by his father and, later, his stepmother. They taught him right from wrong, good from bad. Robertson always wanted to be one of the good guys, so he always wanted to be a police officer. As he got older, he met a few people in law enforcement who encouraged him to pursue it as a career. In 1987, Robertson applied for a job in the Harris County Sheriff’s Office. Two years later, he was offered a position. “It took off from there,” Robertson said. “It became my life.”
Shortly before Robertson joined the sheriff’s office, he met Rose at a country-and-western club. Rose was struck by his beau-tiful blue eyes and his physically strong build. He seemed to her so full of life. They married and had three children together; Robertson was always proud to support his family. They were careful planners and responsible spenders.
In 1995, Robertson was transferred to the Patrol Bureau, where he thrived in the field. “Donnie was an above-average patrolman,” Robertson’s former bureau major, Captain Ronnie Silvio, said. “He always took care of his business, never had problems. He was a hard worker, a real go-getter. He probably worked in one of the roughest districts in Harris County. He had to have a good understanding of the community and a high level of tolerance. He was a good patrolman.”
In his first two years on patrol, Robertson said, he attended the funerals of three fellow officers who died in the line of duty, including one he was particularly close with. Their deaths at first left him hollow, then inspired him to become a training officer. He hoped to teach young deputies not to make the same mistakes his friends had fallen victim to.
Robertson loved his job, loved waking up every day to put on his uniform and badge and provide for his wife and children. “It was his passion,” Rose, who also worked full-time, said. “Sometimes it felt like the sheriff’s office was his mistress. We were busy, but we were happy. We were looking forward to the future. Sometimes I wonder how it got all messed up.”
When Robertson applied for a job with the sheriff’s office, Rose was initially worried. The wives orientation mentioned the high divorce rate and hammered home the stressors of being married to a deputy. The orientation lesson did not include what might happen should her husband get into a car accident. It never taught her how to stick a needle attached to an intravenous bag into her husband’s forearm. It never said she might have to quit her job to teach him how to talk again, never prepared her for the indignity of bathing Robertson and helping him use the restroom, never prepared her for the moment when a car pulls up in front of her home and a man steps out to tell her that her husband is severely injured, or worse.
On the day of Robertson’s accident, Rose was at her neighbor’s house when a black car slowed down and parked outside. She watched as one of Robertson’s friends at the sheriff’s office stepped out of the car. Her stomach dropped. She didn’t know whether to scream or cry, so she just stood there, frozen. She expected to hear that her husband was dead.
Rose, Don’s been in an accident, the man said. It felt like an eternity before the next words came from the man’s mouth. But he’s okay.
When she arrived at the hospital, the doctors advised Rose to get her husband’s affairs in order before he underwent surgery to reattach his broken neck, because he might not wake up. The next morning, surgeons took a piece of Robertson’s hip, sliced open the back of his neck, inserted the hip fragment against his first and second vertebrae and strapped it together using titanium bands.
Two days later, Robertson went home in a soft neck collar. He couldn’t turn his neck and had trouble sleeping. Not long after he left the hospital, Robertson awoke in the middle of the night and felt something dripping down the back of his neck — his surgery incision was oozing blood. X-rays showed the surgery had failed. The hardware in his vertebrae had slipped out of place, and Robertson now had a staph infection.
When Robertson was in the hospital receiving treatment for the staph infection, he suffered a stroke and lost his motor skills. Again, the doctors told Rose to prepare for her husband’s death. Robertson underwent surgery for a second time so his doctors could remove the hardware and clean out the infection. After another surgery to clean out more of the infection, they placed Robertson in a halo brace, with screws attaching his skull to a metal frame, in order to keep his neck still.
The doctors hoped the halo would help align his neck so it could graft together on its own, and opted to keep him in that contraption rather than put him under the knife again. But it didn’t work, and Robertson was soon back to square one. Back in the intensive care unit, he missed his son’s 18th birthday. “There was a time in the hospital when I just hoped it would all end,” Robertson said later.
Meanwhile, his medical expenses were adding up. Robertson’s worker’s compensation expired a few years after the accident because he won a large settlement for an undisclosed amount against the driver who struck him. After paying his attorneys and medical liens, Robertson said, the amount of money left in the settlement was hardly enough to cover the cost of his surgeries. But when his worker’s compensation ran out, the sheriff’s office continued to pay Robertson his full salary and benefits until he could return to work.
Robertson sought out a different doctor and again underwent the same procedure that he had undergone after the accident; another hip fragment to secure his vertebra — another set of titanium bands to keep it all together. Within a week, Robertson was out of the hospital. He still had to wear a halo, required a wheelchair and stayed in a hospital bed at home. Rose quit her job to take care of him. He could still barely walk or talk, and couldn’t feed himself. But the surgery was a success, allowing Robertson to finally focus on recovering.
While Robertson worked to relearn the most basic human functions during the years after his surgeries, he said, he did everything he was supposed to do to keep his job. His wife drove him to sign payroll every two weeks until Robertson was well enough to drive himself. Around January 2007, when the halo finally came off and he could speak clearly again, Robertson said, he began calling his supervisors at the sheriff’s department — everyone from his bureau majors to the human resources department — and the county attorney’s office.
“I’d tell them I’m coming back as soon as I can, and I asked them if there was anything else I needed to do,” Robertson said. “Everything they told me was the same. ‘Don’t worry about coming back; just worry about getting well. The guys are going to take care of you.’ I was assured I wasn’t going to lose my job.”
In February 2009, Robertson’s primary care doctor wrote in a progress report that Robertson would likely never be able to work as a patrol deputy again, but said, “He should be able to work at some level certainly,” adding that “retraining would be appropriate.”
Robertson had four more surgeries, on his leg and both hips. He battled through an addiction to painkillers. Unable to provide for his family, Robertson felt useless. His relationship with his wife withered, and his once tight-knit family slowly unwound. Still, by 2012, Robertson was doing okay, all things considered. Then he got the letter.
When Adrian Garcia was elected Harris County sheriff in 2008, the whole country was in the worst of an economic downturn, and the sheriff’s office was no exception. In a retrospective 2012 press release, the sheriff’s office said Garcia “inherited spending that was $56 million” over budget. In 2010, the Harris County Commissioners Court had enacted a hiring freeze.
In 2011, Garcia testified before the U.S. House Homeland Security Committee in an effort to get more federal funding. “I have lost several hundred employees as a result [of financial problems] since October 2009, with more than 125 just from our Patrol Bureau,” Garcia testified. “All of my crime-fighting programs are strained; I have had to pay an exorbitant amount of overtime just to staff my jail at required state standards.”
As Garcia explained in a March 2012 press conference, upon coming into office he had sought out business professionals and given them key positions in the sheriff’s office — positions that had historically been held by law enforcement officers. Among these “executives from the business world” were Mottie Cato, who was given the office’s top human resources position, and Garcia’s second-in-command, chief administrative officer John Dyess. Garcia challenged these new additions to correct the budget crisis.
In 2011, Cato began searching for deputies who had been out of work and receiving worker’s compensation for long periods of time. She later testified that she did this with the intent to bring them back to work. Robertson was included on the list of deputies. A year later, he was fired.
Robertson said no one from the sheriff’s office, including Cato or Dyess, who signed off on the dismissal letter, contacted him before he received the letter. Robertson’s own bureau major, Ronnie Silvio, wasn’t even aware Robertson had been terminated until Robertson called and told him. Silvio, who has since moved to the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office (he said he left Harris County on good terms), said the county’s dismissal of Robertson violated department policies and procedures.
According to Silvio, when the sheriff’s office either suspended or terminated an employee, the action was investigated by a review committee made up of bureau majors who would then determine what action would be taken. The sheriff would approve the decision and send it to the county attorney’s office. A bureau major would ultimately issue the order to the employee, either terminating or suspending him. Silvio said that in Robertson’s case, as well as with others who had been on worker’s compensation and were terminated by Cato and Dyess, that process was ignored.
“This whole system was bypassed,” Silvio said. “Bureau majors had no say on who was being let go. The employees just received a letter in the mail saying that they were terminated.”
Silvio was one of the supervisors Robertson continually kept in touch with throughout his recovery, and he said Robertson made it clear to him that he wanted to come back to work. “He wasn’t one of those people who used his injury just to get worker’s compensation,” Silvio said, adding that it was common for people who were injured to come back and work transitional duty positions, such as answering phones, until they were fit enough to go back on patrol. If they couldn’t go back on patrol, he said, they’d usually get a conditional job offer to come back to work in another capacity as a civilian.
Silvio said he remembered one officer who was shot in the head and lost his eye, but who still came back and worked in the records division for years. “There were always opportunities to create jobs to take care of our people,” Silvio said. “A deputy lays his life on the line; they should be taken care of. It’s like family.”
Cato testified in Robertson’s court case that she didn’t talk to a single sergeant, lieutenant, captain or major in charge of Robertson about whether he was fulfilling his requirements to return to work. She also testified that she didn’t talk to Robertson’s primary care physician, and admitted that the department violated its own policy because it was not checking in on Robertson every 60 days since the date of his injury to fill out a supplemental injury report. Cato did contact worker’s compensation, which she testified was her only burden in deciding Robertson’s fate.
Nestled in the nearly 3,000 documents that made up Robertson’s worker’s compensation file was a May 2011 letter from Robertson’s pain management doctor, whom Robertson stopped seeing after he weened himself off of the addictive painkillers the doctor had been prescribing. The letter said Robertson “cannot work.” Cato apparently interpreted that as meaning Robertson would never be able to return to work.
However, in the same file, there were also progress reports from Robertson’s primary care physician stating Robertson could eventually return to work. During her deposition in June of this year, Cato was asked whether she reviewed the letters saying Robertson could return to work. She said she couldn’t remember.
Garcia resigned from the sheriff’s position in 2015 in favor of an ill-fated attempt to run for mayor. After the defeat, he ran for Congress, and lost again. Garcia declined to comment to us, instead directing our inquiries to the sheriff’s office’s media relations department. John Dyess also left the office, in May 2015. He did not respond to requests for comment. Cato remains employed in the human resources department. We called her office daily for nearly a week — each day, we were told she was absent from work.
Whatever methods Garcia and Co. used to correct the budget deficit, they must have worked. In his March 2012 press conference, Garcia proudly announced that the hiring freeze was over, and that his department was actually under its budget for the first time in years. “The budget was out of control,” Garcia said at the conference. “I brought in executives from the business world and told them it was irresponsible to allow this to happen. I challenged them to fix it, and they did.”
At the time Garcia made those comments, the department had $2.8 million available in the budget. Robertson’s dismissal letter arrived in the mail nearly nine months later.
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Robertson doesn’t do much these days. His kids are grown and have families of their own, giving Robertson grandchildren and even a great-grandchild. Robertson is healthy enough to be on his own during the day, so Rose is working again, as an administrative assistant. She doesn’t make much money. His Social Security pension helps a little.
Robertson has a list of ten pills he’s supposed to take. Twice a day, once a day, once a day, every two days, every six hours. He can only afford to fill seven of his prescriptions. He has no life insurance. He worries what will happen to Rose if he dies.
Rose worries what will happen to Robertson the longer he lives. At 53, Robertson is physically and mentally broken. The strong, vivacious man he once was is now nothing but a shadow. “I just want him to be happy again,” Rose said. “He was a dedicated officer, and he didn’t ask for this. I want the county to stand by their officer, by the men who run to danger, not away, who sacrifice their lives every day. He deserves to be treated with the same respect and dedication that he gave them.”
Robertson said the best-case scenario is that he is reinstated with no time lost, so he can return to work and retire soon. Whether he wins his court case or not, he won’t get back everything the accident took from him. “The life we had, we’ll never have again,” Robertson said. “We’ll never be the same. The way we’ve been treated by the sheriff’s department has just made it ten times worse.” For Robertson, his fight is not about making himself whole again. It’s about what he’s known since he was just a kid, dreaming of being a police officer: the difference between good and bad, right and wrong. “I just want them to do what’s right.”