The Special Needs of Frank Gonzales Jr.
Frank Gonzales Jr. is someone that Governor George W. Bush would prefer that you didn't know about. Because if members of the governor's parole board had not approved of Gonzales's release from prison last year -- nine months before he'd normally have come up for parole -- cabdriver Debra Jarrell might still be alive today.
Late one night last September, Jarrell picked up three men -- including Gonzales -- at a Pasadena phone booth. Those passengers directed her to a rural area of Brazoria County, south of Houston, and attempted to rob her. As she tried to flee, Jarrell was shot once in the head and once in the body, then left to die on the side of the road. Gonzales and his companions were arrested the next day and charged with capital murder.
Seven months before Jarrell's death, Gonzales had been freed from prison after the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles granted him something called a Special Needs Parole -- a little-known type of parole theoretically reserved for Texas inmates who are critically ill, or otherwise impaired, and need medical treatment that they can't obtain inside a state prison. And it is a parole that is granted -- supposedly -- only after the close scrutiny of each individual case by both prison officials and parole board members.
The parole board's members are appointed by, and serve at the pleasure of, the governor of Texas. Governor Bush was elected in 1994 on a tough law-and-order platform. In the Gonzales case, some of the governor's critics see parallels to the case of Willie Horton -- a case very familiar to the Bush family.
"Absolutely," says Billy Rogers, chairman of the campaign of Bush's Democratic gubernatorial challenger.
After being paroled from the Massachusetts state prison system, Horton raped and killed a woman. During the 1988 presidential campaign, lurid TV ads for candidate George Bush, Governor Bush's father, highlighted the Horton tale relentlessly and repeatedly, offering it as proof that the Democratic nominee, Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis, was soft on crime. The commercials were criticized as being racist, but they were effective in tarring Dukakis; and the elder Bush, of course, won the presidency.
Ten years later, the younger Bush has apparently set his sights on the same goal, and is hailed as the leading contender for the Republican nomination in 2000. The last thing George W. wants right now is to be criticized as soft on crime. And the last person he wants you to know about is Frank Gonzales.
For a three-time loser now charged with capital murder, Gonzales doesn't cut an impressive figure. Wearing a white prison hospital gown, he sits in a wheelchair. He's confined to the medical center of the Estelle Unit, northeast of Huntsville, and talks via a phone to his visitor on the other side of a glass partition. His complexion is pale, and his eyes are narrow and puffy.
At the time he was granted parole in February 1997, Gonzales was working on his second stint in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice system. By his own admission, it wasn't for lack of a proper upbringing.
"I was raised perfectly," says Gonzales. "Life was perfect." Adopted by his grandparents, he grew up near the Johnson Space Center. In high school, he played sax and was, literally, a choirboy.
But shortly after his 15th birthday, Gonzales says, he "just went crazy" and began joy-riding in stolen cars. In 1990, the then 18-year-old received a five-year sentence for a Harris County auto theft. A couple of years later, he was released on parole.
Court records show that in April 1993, Gonzales and another man broke into a home and business in rural Brazoria County. They stole two 14-inch automobile tires worth about $40, a $50 portable radio and three personal checks -- one of which Gonzales allegedly cashed after making it payable to himself for $60.
He was sentenced to serve ten years for that burglary, and was shipped to the Belo I Unit, near Palestine in east Texas. There, he joined a prison gang, the Mexican Mafia.
In '95, Gonzales says, he noticed a bad rash on one of his arms. Prison medical personnel told him it was dermatomyositis, an autoimmune muscle disease. Gonzales also says he was told the disease is fatal and that he will eventually die from it. However, Dr. Frank C. Arnett, with UT Medical School in Houston, says, if treated, the condition can be controlled. Dr. Sylvia Hsu says the disease can also indicate the presence of an internal malignancy. Nevertheless, Gonzales says that later, as the ailment left him in constant pain and confined to a wheelchair, the doctors recommended him for a Special Needs Parole -- something that Gonzales had never heard of.
And so in February 1997, nine months ahead of Gonzales's scheduled parole date, members of Governor Bush's parole board agreed to release him -- not to a supervised medical facility, but instead to his uncle's home in Dickinson, Texas. Seven months later, Debra Jarrell was dead.
On Wednesday, September 16, around 4 p.m., 38-year-old Jarrell prepared to begin her usual 12-hour shift with the Pasadena Taxi Company. She'd driven for the cab service for the past four years, and had spent the entire time working nights, which she preferred. During the day, she slept in the un-air-conditioned two-bedroom trailer that she shared with four other people: her boyfriend, her 13-year-old son, her pregnant 17-year-old daughter and her daughter's 17-year-old husband.
Before leaving for work that morning, Jarrell gave her daughter some unsolicited advice. "She told me to lose my attitude," says Jennifer Winsletz, "because I was pissed at my school because they wouldn't let me use my married name."
It was the last time Winsletz talked with her mother.
Shortly after 11 p.m., Jarrell was dispatched to a pay phone near a car lot on Southmore Street in Pasadena. There, she picked up Gonzales, 17-year-old Eluid Salazar and 15-year-old Mark Cavazos.
When Gonzales was released from prison in February 1997, the terms of his Special Needs Parole called for him to reside with his uncle in Dickinson. And he did -- for a while. But somewhere along the way, the supposedly critically ill Gonzales became romantically involved with a woman who also moved in with his uncle. Gonzales says the living arrangement soon became uncomfortable, and he and his girlfriend relocated to her sister's apartment in Pasadena.
Also residing at the apartment was the sister's son, Mark Cavazos. According to investigators, Cavazos was a member of a Pasadena gang known as the Ruthless Assassins. And, says Gonzales, the teenager looked up to him because of his affiliation with the Mexican Mafia. "He wanted to be a little gangster," says Gonzales.
That Wednesday evening, according to Gonzales, Cavazos and his mother had had one of their increasingly frequent fights. Cavazos's mom told Gonzales -- who was still living at the apartment, though his girlfriend had moved out -- to get her son out of the house and away from her.
So, Gonzales, Cavazos and a third man, 17-year-old Eluid Salazar, headed off down the street -- Cavazos and Salazar on foot, Gonzales in his wheelchair. Along the way, says Gonzales, they decided to call a cab to take them to Gonzales's father's home in nearby Alvin, about ten miles southwest of Pasadena. Investigators dispute that part of the story, maintaining that the trio had planned to rob Jarrell from the beginning.
"It was a straight-up robbery from the get-go," says Lieutenant Stephen Ricks with the Brazoria County Sheriff's Office.
Jarrell radioed back to the dispatcher that she was taking her passengers to Alvin. But instead, Gonzales directed her toward County Road 99 in rural Brazoria County. Gonzales claims he decided to go by a cousin's house to borrow money; investigators believe the detour was made to facilitate the holdup.
As they drove through the darkness, Gonzales says he and Jarrell struck up a conversation. Jarrell, he says, began telling him about her life -- about growing up in Pennsylvania, about driving 18-wheelers across the western portion of the United States. She also talked about her children and how she was looking forward to being a grandmother.
The conversation was interrupted when the cab stopped to wait for a freight train to pass. It was then that all hell broke loose.
Gonzales says Cavazos suddenly jumped into the front passenger seat next to Jarrell, stuck a pistol in her neck and began screaming for her to give him her money. When Jarrell told him that she didn't have any money, the 15-year-old allegedly ordered her to get out and run. As she did, Cavazos emptied his automatic pistol, striking Jarrell twice, once in the head and once in the back. They left her body where it fell.
As Salazar drove the cab back to Pasadena, Cavazos and Gonzales went through the dead woman's purse but found little of value. Although he claims to have been horrified by the shooting, Gonzales nonetheless kept Jarrell's checkbook.
Back in Pasadena, Salazar and Gonzales dropped Cavazos off at his mother's, ditched the fluorescent yellow cab in the parking lot of an apartment complex and made their way to Salazar's apartment, where they crashed for a few hours.
Meanwhile, investigators from the Brazoria County Sheriff's Office and the Pasadena Police Department were already on the case. Shortly after midnight, a passing motorist had discovered Jarrell's body on the side of the road, and crime scene investigators had begun trying to identify her. They found the $40 she always kept tucked inside her bra, but no identification such as a driver's license or checkbook; those things had been in her purse. But the authorities entered her fingerprints into a computerized identification service, and by 4:30 a.m., detectives were reasonably sure that the victim was Jarrell. They were even more certain after learning that Pasadena police were investigating her disappearance.
When Jarrell failed to check in with the cab company around midnight, the dispatcher became concerned. After several hours went by without Jarrell's surfacing, the dispatcher contacted a supervisor, and police were notified. By 9 a.m., Brazoria County investigators -- headed by Lieutenant Stephen Ricks, a mustached lawman given to wearing a white cowboy hat -- were in Pasadena. They searched for evidence at the phone booth where Jarrell picked up her last fare.
Around that time, Gonzales and Salazar were on the move again. Gonzales called a friend for a ride.
According to investigators, around 9:30, three men in a pickup truck pulled into one of the drive-through lanes at Pasadena State Bank and handed the teller a $130 check. It was drawn on the account of Debra Jarrell, and made payable to Frank Gonzales Jr.
As a matter of policy, the bank verifies signatures on checks of more than $100. Besides, says Lieutenant Ricks, the teller was suspicious something wasn't right.
"She had some concerns, especially after the guy handed her an inmate ID card to cash the check," drawls Ricks. "She snapped to the fact that there very well could be a problem,"
The teller decided to call Jarrell's home. Jarrell's boyfriend answered the phone, and told the teller that Jarrell had just been murdered. The teller immediately called the Pasadena police, stalling for time by telling Gonzales that the bank was experiencing computer difficulties.
Pasadena patrol officers converged on the scene and arrested the three men. After questioning the suspects, police concluded that the driver had not been involved in the murder; he was released, and Salazar was arrested. Shortly thereafter, so was Cavazos, who was later certified to stand trial as an adult, and -- like Gonzales and Salazar -- has been charged with capital murder.
"It was so needless," says Ricks. "There was no sense in killing that woman. None. They didn't have to do that."
During the interrogation, Ricks was also surprised to learn that Gonzales had been released from prison on a Special Needs Parole -- something Ricks had never heard of. Not many people had.
Since the Texas Legislature created Special Needs Parole in 1991, the program has released more than 460 Texas inmates from prison. More than half of those paroles have been granted in the last two years -- during the administration of Governor George W. Bush. Ironically, during his 1994 campaign to unseat incumbent governor Ann Richards, Bush often criticized her for the early release of inmates. But despite Bush's criticism of Richards, mandatory releases have not only continued but increased during Bush's tenure. Bush administration officials explain that the number of mandatory releases has increased during their watch due to a cutback in discretionary releases. Those inmates previously denied parole are now becoming eligible for mandatory release -- thus the increase. However, one area where discretionary releases have not been reduced during Bush's time as governor is in the area of Special Needs Paroles, which are not automatically awarded, but are supposed to be granted only after state officials have taken a long, hard look at each case and determined that an inmate is too sick to be in prison.
According to House Bill 93, which created the program, an inmate can qualify for one of the special paroles if parole and prison officials determine that "based on an inmate's condition and a medical evaluation, the inmate does not constitute a threat to public safety or a threat to commit an offense." An inmate may also be granted one of the paroles if the institutional division of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice "identifies the inmate as being elderly, physically handicapped, mentally ill, or mentally retarded."
Of the 462 Special Needs Paroles granted as of May 1998, approximately 10 percent were revoked due to crimes committed by the parolee following his release. On one hand, that recidivism rate is significantly lower than for regular parole (between 40 and 50 percent of the state's parolees return to prison within five years of their release). But on the other, it seems high given that Special Needs parolees have been deemed too feeble to stay in a prison, much less to commit new crimes.
"Ten percent is a high number for people who are supposed to have one foot in the grave," says an outraged Diane Clements, president of the criminal justice system group Justice For All.
Special Needs Parole is so obscure that many law-enforcement authorities -- including even Harris County District Attorney Johnny Holmes -- learned only recently of its existence.
"State agencies often play these sort of things real close to the vest," says Holmes, adding that he became aware of Special Need Parole a couple of months ago, after escape artist Steven Russell slyly managed to flee from prison for the second time in just over a year (see "The Further Adventures of King Con," Houston Press, May 14, 1998). Russell had received a Special Needs Parole after convincing prison and parole officials that he was dying of AIDS -- even though he was never tested for the disease by anyone in the state correctional system. Sent to a nursing home, and under no special security measures, Russell simply walked out of the facility a free man.
Indeed, it was only after the Russell incident came to light that parole board officials learned that another Special Needs Parole recipient -- Gonzales -- had been involved in a homicide at a time when he was supposedly too ill to be in prison.
All requests by the Press to interview Russell have, thus far, been denied by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Some prison officials concede that the pressure to keep the lid on the Russell case originated from the governor's office out of fear that the Gonzales story might also leak out. "The governor's office is now notified of every media request we get," says a prison official who asked not to be identified.
The governor's office refers all questions about Special Needs Parole to Victor Rodrigues, who has served as Bush's chairman of the state parole board since December 1995. According to Rodrigues, Special Needs Paroles are granted after review by two parole board members, which Rodrigues appoints to a special panel to oversee those requests. If a vote on a request is split, Rodrigues casts the deciding vote. In Gonzales's case, the Special Needs Parole was approved by Irma Caulley and Donna Gilbert, both of whom are no longer on the parole board.
"It appears that we may not be getting the most accurate appraisals of these folks," Rodrigues admits. He also adds that he is concerned that news of Special Needs Parole is rapidly making its way across the state's inmate grapevine, gaining a reputation as a loophole to be exploited. Because of those concerns, Rodrigues says he has ordered Dee Kifowit, the director of the agency that oversees the program, to overhaul the Special Needs Parole system. In the meantime, says Rodrigues, the parole panel that gives final approval to requests for Special Needs Parole is taking nothing for granted.
"For example, if someone says he has AIDS, we think they should be tested," says Rodrigues, referring to the Russell case. "You would think that should have already been in place," says the parole board chairman, "but it wasn't."
Frank Gonzales Jr. says he doesn't want to die in prison. But these days, the chance of that happening seem doubly good. If his muscle disease doesn't do him in first, the state of Texas might. In August, Gonzales -- along with Eluid Salazar and Mark Cavazos -- will go on trial for murder in the death of Debra Jarrell. Because Cavazos was a minor at the time of the killing, he cannot be put to death for the crime. But Gonzales and Salazar are eligible for the death penalty, and Brazoria County prosecutors plan to seek it.
Gonzales says he thinks about Debra Jarrell and her family every day. He wishes that by giving up his life, he could bring hers back.
Jarrell's daughter, Jennifer Winsletz, wishes that were the case as well. "It hurts," she says, "that my son will never know how sweet his grandmother was.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
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.