The family court hearing was quick. The child's mother wasn't even there, and her ex-boyfriend swore up and down that she was no good: She was a druggie who'd lost her license for driving under the influence. She left their five-year-old girl with a child molester and failed to enroll her in school. As an upstanding citizen, he wanted custody for the sake of the child.
State District Judge Linda Motheral listened to him and was suitably distraught. The little girl had to be saved, she decreed. The father would have sole custody. If the mother wanted to see her baby, she'd have to do it under the watchful eye of court supervisors. Case closed.
There was only one problem: Everything the ex-boyfriend had said was a lie. Even, perhaps, the fact that he was the child's father.
And Judge Motheral never even bothered to check.
Brandy Zackery has raised her two girls with little money. She's close to her own mother and her two sisters; they're not a big family, she says, but they take care of one another.
There's no indication that anyone complained about her parenting prior to the custody hearing. Her daughters, now eight and six years old, are well dressed and happy. They've tacked a picture of their family on their bedroom wall. Zackery smiles serenely; the girls in their summer blouses hug her side.
Outside, the Villa Americana apartments simmer in a sea of blacktop. This is public housing, and the ugly orange buildings have been given no more attention than is absolutely necessary. Landscaping is nonexistent; paint spatters mar the bricks around the door frames.
But inside, Zackery has nested with care. Round red candles, chosen to match the love seats, perch on wall sconces; Zackery's daughters beam from big frames on the mantel.
The older daughter, Chyna, sidles in to say she's walking to the store with her friends. She wants money for juice. "Don't you be buying things for everyone," Zackery says, smoothing the eight-year-old's braids and giving her a few bills. "This is for you."
Zackery was 16 when Chyna was born, and she got pregnant with Lauren just a year later. Chyna suffered from hydrocephalus, a congenital spinal fluid disorder that can cause learning disabilities, headaches and bad vision. Lauren, who weighed just four pounds at birth, has asthma.
"Two with health problems; I had to grow up fast," Zackery says. Stylish and poised, with short red-streaked hair and a perfect manicure, she seems older than her 25 years.
When she got pregnant with Lauren, Zackery was seeing two men. Around the time she detected her pregnancy, she and the more serious boyfriend broke up. She found herself depending on the other guy, a wheeler-dealer two years her senior. Lloyd Tyrone Robinson already had been in trouble for forging checks, stealing a TV and smashing a friend's windshield. He went by Tyrone.
They never lived together, never planned a future. "It was basically a friendship," Zackery says. "It never was 'I love you' or nothing like that." Today, six years after they split up, she tersely dismisses the notion of a love match: "He had money. That was about it."
Zackery wasn't sure which guy was Lauren's father. Robinson was at St. Joseph for her delivery, and Zackery gave Lauren his last name. But the birth certificate lists no father. Zackery says Robinson insisted on that: He'd failed to show up in court after a forgery arrest, and he was facing up to ten years in prison for a burglary conviction, according to court records. He had good reason to lay low.
Custody arrangements were informal at best. Robinson's mother, Lisa, frequently baby-sat, sometimes for days on end. But Robinson "never gave me any money or anything for her," Zackery says. When Lauren was just four months old, Robinson was picked up on the forgery warrant. By the time he was released from jail, Lauren was two, according to sheriff's records.
Even after that, and after Robinson's relationship with Zackery deteriorated badly, they managed to keep the peace. Lisa Robinson remained a strong presence in Lauren's life. And Tyrone Robinson tried to be a father. "He'd comb her hair, and he'd do it all wrong, but it was so nice to see," Lisa Robinson says. "He didn't meet his dad until he was 16, so to see him try to be a father, it just touches me."
But in 2002, Zackery's mother, Jacqueline King, was transferred to California. And the casual arrangement disintegrated into a bitter battle.
Zackery and her daughters had lived with King, an Aetna Insurance consultant, since Lauren's birth. So King's cross-country move threw the family into upheaval. By Zackery's account, she and her daughters moved seven times that year, staying with relatives in Texas, Louisiana and California.
Chatty and outgoing, Lauren seemed to roll with it. But the turbulence upset the child's father. Robinson later told Judge Motheral that he was concerned about "this movement, constant movement, no stability, no schooling." In October 2002, he filed to establish his paternity.
The suit languished until the next year, mostly because Robinson didn't know where Zackery was. Then, that February, Zackery visited her sister in Houston. She called Robinson.
He picked up his daughter, but he refused to give Zackery his phone number or address. When he didn't bring Lauren back, she grew frantic. She found Lisa Robinson's address on the Internet and burst in to reclaim her baby.
Within weeks, she was served with court papers. Tyrone Robinson wanted joint custody, along with the right to decide where Lauren stayed and when.
Zackery was unconcerned; she believed she'd been a good mother, and she knew Robinson had a lengthy criminal record. So she filed a boilerplate response on her own, rejecting his claims. Then she left with her daughters to visit her mother in California.
She didn't return to Houston for good until August, when she settled her small family at the Villa Americana. Lauren had turned five that summer, and she started kindergarten at Frost Elementary in the fall. Her class picture shows an impish girl in a pink sweatshirt, middle row. She and Chyna shared a room, but every night Lauren would crawl into her mother's bed. "She's a mama's baby," Zackery says fondly.
It wasn't until the next March that Zackery had any idea that something was wrong. That day, she got a call from the school district police. Robinson had arrived on campus with a court order. He'd come for his daughter.
Three months later, Zackery recounts the story with tears and disbelief. She recalls rushing to the school and reading the order: "The papers said he was the custodial parent! And she was hollering and kicking and fighting. He had to tear her away from me. She didn't want to go." While Lauren had been close to her grandmother, she hardly knew her father. After all, she'd spent a year on the road, then another six months in Houston without Robinson knowing her whereabouts.
Zackery remembers watching Robinson put Lauren in the car. As he drove away, the child pressed her hand up against the window, reaching desperately toward her mother. "Like this," Zackery says, holding out her hand.
"I was crying so hard I started throwing up," she says softly.
Zackery went to the district clerk's office the next day. "He's so crooked, we didn't know if the papers were real or not," she says.
They were all too real. The file contained some notes: Judge Linda Motheral had held two hearings, in October and November 2003. Robinson originally asked for joint custody, but changed his request to sole custody. Motheral granted it, according to the file, "based on testimony of respondent's serious lack of care for the child, including leaving the child for long periods of time without appropriate care."
It took a moment for Zackery to understand that "respondent" was she. Without asking Children's Protective Services to investigate, without verifying any one of her ex-boyfriend's claims, the judge had decided that she'd neglected Lauren. And then she'd taken away her parental rights.
Motheral's ruling was worse than she'd ever imagined. Zackery was allowed to see Lauren only two Saturdays each month, and only then through the SAFE program. Run by the nonprofit Victim Assistance Centre, SAFE is designed to protect kids from "physical or emotional harm," says director Jamie Frank.
The environment is sterile: Local churches open their fellowship halls to as many as 25 children and their parents. Parents pay $30 a session for the privilege of visiting their kids, monitored by supervisors of the center.
For a good mother, a mother who had never neglected her kids, it was the ultimate indignity.
At first glance, Bobby Caldwell would have a hard time intimidating anyone. Seventy years old, he is tiny and stooped, with a shuffling walk and a raspy voice. Even in his navy suit, he looks more like someone's grandpa than a hard-charging attorney. But despite his frail appearance, Caldwell took on Zackery's case like an avenging angel.
Transcripts from the hearings made Caldwell realize what he was dealing with. Attorneys hear sob stories all the time: I did nothing wrong, but they took my baby. This time, the complaint seemed true. "This guy went into court and lied," he says.
In the October hearing, Robinson had given Judge Motheral a host of reasons why he should get sole custody -- and child support. Under questioning by his attorney, Johnna Teal, Robinson said he and his mother had "primary care" of Lauren from two weeks after her birth until she was about three years old. After Zackery took over, she failed to enroll Lauren in school. Zackery had "dibble-dabbled" with the drug ecstasy and had been "transported to the hospital because of her drug overdose." She was using an aunt as a baby-sitter, even though that woman's child had sexually assaulted another family member, Robinson said.
He must have seemed credible, because Motheral decided that Zackery should be consigned to the SAFE program solely on the strength of those allegations. She checked just one fact. "What evidence do you actually have to show that you, sir, that you are the biological father?"
Robinson said he didn't understand.
Rather than order a blood test to establish paternity, the judge relied on the witness to be truthful. "Well, sir, you're coming to this court telling this court that you are actually the biological father of this child, and I don't think anybody is contesting that, but I also usually have a little more information," Motheral said.
Robinson seemed confused. So Motheral asked if he'd been sleeping with Zackery when Lauren was conceived. Yes, he said. Had they been living together, she asked. Again, he said yes -- never mentioning that he'd been engaged to someone else at the time.
Then she asked if he'd signed the birth certificate.
He said yes.
She asked again. "You signed the birth certificate?"
"Yes," Robinson said.
That was enough for Motheral. She decreed that Robinson would get custody.
But Motheral noted that her order was temporary. Since Robinson had previously asked only for joint custody, Motheral ordered him to notify Zackery of the new request. Another hearing, in November, was scheduled to give Zackery a chance to respond.
Two days before the second hearing, a process server visited the apartment where Zackery's sister used to live. He left the papers with a neighbor, a woman who insisted that Zackery didn't live there, according to court records.
Then the server filed papers with the court saying that the woman and whoever else shared her apartment "could be or may lead someone" to Zackery. "Could be" was, at minimum, disingenuous: The woman was white, while Zackery is African-American. But it was good enough.
In the second hearing, Robinson swore that he believed the apartment was Zackery's permanent address in Houston. Then he repeated his claims about her parenting. "The child is not -- still not in school at all," he said. He'd seen Zackery use illegal drugs. "She wrecked two vehicles under the influence of alcohol. Her driver's license was recently suspended for the alcoholism."
They spent most of the hearing discussing how much child support Zackery should pay Robinson. They never discussed how much Robinson made, just that Zackery wasn't working and could afford only the minimum. They settled on $140 a month.
Then Motheral was ready to wrap up. "You have not had any of the same problems that she has, specifically nothing about family violence, nothing about drugs, illegal drugs, nothing about alcohol abuse or neglect?"
"No, ma'am," Robinson said.
"All right," Motheral said. "Done."
That April, Zackery's newly hired attorney showed her the transcripts. Indignant, she denied Robinson's allegations: She doesn't abuse drugs or even "dibble-dabble" in them. She'd never left Lauren with anyone accused of molesting children.
It would be easy to dismiss her statements. But as her lawyer soon realized, public records contradicted many of Robinson's statements.
Those three years that the child supposedly lived with Robinson? A sworn statement Robinson had filed previously in the same case states that Lauren lived with Zackery for seven months of that time. Which stands to reason: Sheriff's records show that Robinson spent two of the three years in the Harris County Jail.
As for Lauren's birth certificate, his name was nowhere on it.
Robinson told the judge that Zackery's license was suspended after substance abuse charges. Not true. Texas Department of Public Safety records show that she had just one accident, four years ago. She's never been charged with driving under the influence. Her license was never revoked.
And as far as Lauren's schooling, Zackery enrolled her at Frost Elementary last September. Lauren had just turned five; Texas won't enroll kids any younger.
Records also showed that, two months before the custody hearing, Robinson stood before another judge, this one in Harris County criminal court. Still under court supervision for his burglary conviction, he pleaded no contest to marijuana possession.
The judge fined him $500. She sentenced him to two days in jail. And she suspended his driver's license.
Among lawyers, the Harris County Family Law Center has a definite rap. "People say, 'You're a lawyer in family court?' That's Perjury Palace,' " says Dennis Kelly, a Houston family attorney.
Former Harris County district attorney Johnny Holmes even once acknowledged the moniker in a speech to family lawyers. He read them a definition of perjury and said he was interested in prosecuting it, Kelly recalls.
Still, attorneys struggle to name a colleague who accepted the D.A.'s offer to indict perjurers. Attorney Tom Conner cites a few cases where he's been "confident" that one party was lying. "But I've never tried to take it to the D.A. because we're always told they're not interested. That's a family law case."
Lynne Parsons, the intake division chief for District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal, says her office receives numerous perjury complaints from family cases. "The lies are outrageous over there," she says.
But prosecutors rarely act, she admits, mostly because they can't. Aggravated perjury must be material, or key to the case. Also necessary is proof: Just because one witness claims another is lying doesn't mean the district attorney can jump in, or that police have the time and inclination to launch an investigation. As family attorney Roy W. Moore explains, "proof" often requires hiring a private detective, which can be expensive.
Robinson's statements seemed an exception. After all, they contradicted court records, public safety records and Lauren's birth certificate. And they seemed only too important to the custody case. Motheral tends to err, if at all, by being too protective of children, three family lawyers told the Houston Press. It's hard to imagine she would have acted so hastily had she known of Robinson's criminal record, let alone his lies about Zackery.
(Motheral declined comment, saying judicial ethics bar her from talking. Through an aide, she noted that she can rule on only the evidence before her.)
By the time Robinson arrived at Lauren's school and Zackery realized what had happened, four months had passed since Motheral's ruling. It was three months too late to appeal the case on its merits. So attorney Caldwell filed a bill of review, which allows the judge to reopen a closed case to hear new information.
Caldwell raised allegations of perjury. He also noted that, despite Motheral's order that Zackery must be served with new papers, they'd never found her. Convinced the case was tainted, he wanted to give Motheral a legal reason to revisit it.
But Motheral would have none of it. In June she denied the claim without even a hearing.
Court procedure had made Robinson's deceit irrelevant. A bill of review requires a lawyer to show that the original decision didn't result from his client's negligence. Robinson's attorney, Teal, pointed out that Zackery had filed a rebuttal in March 2003. She obviously knew the case existed. "A simple phone call to the district clerk's office or to respondent's attorney would have informed her of the state of the case or any pending court dates," Teal wrote.
"As far as the law is concerned, if she's not there to prove her case, he wins," attorney Conner says. "She screwed up."
While Zackery could file a new suit requesting custody, her arguments would be limited to developments occurring after the first case, attorney Kelly says. Robinson's drug conviction, though never disclosed in the first case, is old news.
Kelly notes that one thing could change the situation: a perjury indictment. That would certainly be a new development.
But when Caldwell went to the district attorney, arguing that Robinson broke the law by committing perjury, he was told to go the Houston Police Department. (Parsons confirms this is standard procedure.) Caldwell filed a report with the cops; when he called to check back, he says, he was told the report was with the homicide division.
When he called homicide, Caldwell says, they said it was a "federal matter." They weren't interested.
Despite Motheral's order, and despite Robinson's stated conviction that Zackery was an unfit mother, he didn't mind using Zackery as a baby-sitter even after taking the child. A log kept by Zackery shows Robinson called frequently, asking her to meet him at a Chevron or Subway and take Lauren for the day or the weekend.
That stopped abruptly after Zackery's attorney asked the district clerk's office for a copy of Robinson's criminal record. The next day, Robinson asked Zackery why her lawyer was poking around in his background.
Then -- in apparent retaliation by Robinson -- she didn't see Lauren for weeks.
Eight-year-old Chyna didn't understand where her little sister had gone. She wrote Lauren daily letters; she stopped sleeping in their shared bedroom. Zackery didn't know how to explain what had happened in the courtroom.
"The life in here is just dead because she's not here," Zackery says.
Sometimes Lauren would call, whispering that she missed her mother. She was bored, she would say. She'd been spending her days with Robinson's mother.
"I want to come home," she'd say. "I want to come home." Zackery told her to keep praying. "Something's wrong," Lauren reported. "I've been praying and praying every night, and I still don't get to come home."
Family law attorneys note that Texas law bars lawyers from encouraging clients to lie or assisting them in erroneous testimony. That raises the question of how well Robinson's attorney verified her client's version of events.
"She probably should have checked out her client's story," says family attorney Ellen A. Yarrell. Lawyers have an ethical duty to report clients they know to be lying, attorney Moore says.
Motheral, too, could have taken a simple step to verify Robinson's claims: appointing an attorney to represent Lauren. Judges commonly appoint ad litem lawyers in custody cases to investigate a family situation and determine what's best for the child.
Moore estimates that judges appoint ad litems in 80 to 90 percent of custody cases. But it's up to the judge, and Yarrell notes that their use "varies as much as the personalities of the judge involved."
An ad litem certainly would have detected Robinson's criminal record, examined Zackery's driving history and investigated whether Lauren was in school, Yarrell says. "That's one of the purposes behind the ad litem concept."
But judges are increasingly limiting their use. As Teal points out, they're rarely appointed in cases where one party has failed to respond. "Why should my client pay $3,500 for an ad litem to investigate her side of the story when she won't even show up to court?"
Last year, the Texas legislature passed new guidelines for appointments, requiring judges to consider the parents' ability to pay for them. Under the new law, an ad litem should be appointed "only if the court finds that the appointment is necessary to ensure the determination of the best interests of the child."
The legislature meant to protect poor parents, but in cases like Lauren's, the rule seems to have accomplished just the opposite.
Russell Verney, director of Judicial Watch's southwestern region, says his organization has noted disturbing trends in family court. He wants to do a comprehensive study, but wealthy donors aren't exactly beating down his door.
"I've sat in hours of family court hearings around the state, and more than 90 percent of the people you see being targeted are single young females who don't have the best of educations and absolutely no money," he says. "You can't raise money for that."
By all appearances, Robinson has a charmed life. Cheerful and confident, he arrives 35 minutes late to his lawyer's office for an interview; it doesn't occur to him to apologize. He's taking his family to the All-Star Game tonight, he says. He took them to the Super Bowl last winter.
The source of his wealth is unclear. He has stated in court filings that he works at a liquor store on Cullen, but he says he's only a "consultant," and his attorney, Teal, apologizes for listing that as his business. He runs a firm called LTR Investments. He says he's chiefly concerned with investing his own money; he once claimed in court filings that LTR netted him a $44,000 salary. For a business contact, he listed his mother. (Harris County records show he has listed himself as the owner of six other enterprises, including a car detailing business and Big Texans Café.)
He tells his story easily: After Zackery gave birth, she immediately gave him Lauren. He and his mother raised the girl with no involvement from Zackery, until Zackery snatched her away and began jetting all over the country. Then he filed suit and hired a fleet of private detectives, saying he was desperate to reclaim Lauren from the woman who'd never been interested in caring for her -- who, in fact, routinely left her with a molester.
But if he didn't know where Zackery was, how could he know that Lauren wasn't in school? Or that Zackery was using a molester as a baby-sitter? When pressed, he admits that he doesn't know the molester's name or address. And though he told the court that he was living with Zackery at the time of Lauren's birth, he volunteers freely in the interview that he was engaged to someone else at the time.
He has an answer for everything. The sheriff's records are wrong. And he insists he signed the birth certificate. He offers a copy as proof. On close scrutiny, it's a revision, dated May 2004; only after he's questioned does he admit he filed for a new birth certificate after the lawsuit ended.
As for Zackery's supposedly driving drunk, he says a private detective discovered that in Louisiana. He rifles through some paperwork but can't find supporting documentation. Still, his lawyer notes, he had no reason not to run with the claim: "If you hire a private investigator, you assume their report is true, especially if you paid good money for it," Teal says.
He can't recall the court suspending his own license. No, he didn't drive during the six months in question, but he doesn't drive much in general. Anyway, he certainly doesn't remember telling Judge Motheral that he never had problems with drugs -- though, of course, he doesn't.
Teal breaks in. Robinson's criminal record isn't the issue, she says. "He could have been in jail up until the day we went to court. She didn't respond to the lawsuit. That's why we got custody."
Still, even Teal admits they had great incentive not to find Zackery. "We're not going to search her out so we can have a big fight on our hands," she says. "As a lawyer, sure, we'd prefer to avoid that."
They have one more trump card. Zackery claimed in her affidavit that she and Lauren long resided with her mother, Jacqueline King. But King, Robinson says, was actually in jail during that time. He produces a printout, listing convictions for theft and crack use. There was no move to California, he says; King was in the slam.
And so they have no fear of perjury charges, he says. If Zackery comes after them, they'll fire right back. "Her affidavit contradicts these records," Teal says confidently. "If they want to go there, we'll go there."
A simple check reveals a problem with that strategy: They've got the wrong Jacqueline King. Wrong date of birth, wrong middle name. The real Jacqueline King wasn't in jail. As her employment records prove, she was in California.
Tyrone Robinson's mother, Lisa, got pregnant with him when she was 13. She had four more babies in short order, a burden for even a woman with good finances and a man in the picture. Lisa Robinson had neither.
At one point, Lisa Robinson says, she got into some trouble and asked her sister to take the kids. Her sister was willing, but when she applied to the state for benefits, they ordered Children's Protective Services to get involved. The agency put all five kids in foster care, including six-year-old Tyrone. It took Lisa Robinson years to get her babies back.
"What they did to me, I will never get over it," Lisa Robinson says simply.
Today, Lisa Robinson takes care of Lauren while her son Tyrone manages his business. The same court system that took away all five of her natural children has, in effect, handed the 42-year-old woman a granddaughter without so much as a cursory background check.
Lisa Robinson freely contradicts parts of her son's story. By her account, she took care of Lauren on weekdays while she was young and her son was in jail, but Zackery always took her on weekends. She thinks Zackery is a devoted mother.
She admits that she's not even sure Robinson is Lauren's father. She has urged him to take a paternity test, something Caldwell and Zackery requested in their bill of review. But her son wouldn't listen: "I think he's scared of knowing the truth."
In her view, Judge Motheral overreacted badly. Zackery might benefit from parenting classes, she says, nothing more. "I've said to Tyrone, 'Do you remember how you felt when they took you away from me? Think about how Lauren feels.' "
She says she's not taking sides. But she loves her son, and she's proud that he takes such interest in his daughter. "It's not too many young black men who set out to do for their child. You see so many walking away."
He was angry at Zackery for leaving Houston, she says. "I think he brought that lawsuit in part to show her how it feels to have her baby taken away. And part because he loves that child."
The court battle depresses her: "If I could get those kids to grow up and quit bickering over her, I'd be the happiest person in the world."
In June, Caldwell and Zackery visited Robinson's parole officer. They pointed out his drug conviction, of which the officer claimed to be unaware. (The officer said he couldn't discuss the case with the Press.) They also claimed that Robinson was behind in making payments on his court-ordered fine.
Later that week, Robinson brought Lauren to Zackery's house. He said he wanted to work something out. Since then, Zackery has gotten to see her daughter -- and even though it's always on Robinson's timing, she's grateful.
But Caldwell won't drop the case. "An injustice has been done," he says. "And I plan on doing anything I can do to rectify that injustice."
He admits it won't be easy. "Somebody may need to be hit on the back of the head with a two-by-four to see that something's done about it -- but I don't intend to rest until someone does." For Caldwell, Zackery's getting to see her child is not enough: "I think he lied under oath, and I want to see his ass locked up in jail."
Police and prosecutors have been reluctant to act. HPD spokesman John Cannon told the Press that the police would be unlikely to get involved in a civil case. "It's her word against his," he said.
After several conversations, that position changed. A homicide investigator -- strangely enough, that is the HPD division assigned to perjury cases -- contacted Zackery in July, and Caldwell provided the officer with transcripts.
The police apparently referred the matter to Assistant District Attorney Bill Moore. He wrote Caldwell that he found insufficient evidence. He, too, seemed to believe that the only evidence against Robinson was Zackery's testimony. And, he noted, she'd once done 20 days in jail for theft; she was hardly a credible witness.
Caldwell submitted a more detailed analysis with eight instances where he thought Robinson had lied, and he pointed to public documents that contradicted Robinson. Moore responded with a one-page letter that dealt with just two of the allegations. He found the record muddled on both, and he refused to take the case to a grand jury. Caldwell fired off a response on August 17 but has heard nothing more from the prosecutor.
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Robinson, sitting in Teal's office later in the summer, professes not to worry. He knows he didn't do anything wrong. Anyway, he's already called the Texas Attorney General's Office about forcing Zackery to pay the child support. "The money isn't a big thing," he says. It's the principle.
He can't seem to understand that there might be other principles involved. He's convinced that his story is true and his victory is already in the bag. To him, little old Bobby Caldwell is a joke. "Anytime he's at the courthouse, my friends there call me," Robinson says. "They say, 'He's here again!' " He rolls his eyes.
Robinson doesn't understand why Caldwell would fight so hard. He doesn't understand that the lawyer, too, sees a bigger principle at stake. He sits back in his chair, shaking his head. "He's really taken this case personally, hasn't he?" he says.
And then he laughs.