Last August, Nancy Rodriguez held a letter in her hand that she believed, if true, would shatter the carefully crafted image of her son's murderer as a man who'd been rehabilitated in prison and deserved early parole.
Rodriguez had the misfortune to be the mother of the victim of one of the most heinous hate crimes in Texas history. In 1991, Jon Buice had stabbed her son, Paul Broussard, to death outside a Montrose bar while Buice's friends beat the 27-year-old gay man with a board and kicked him with steel-toed boots.
The murder made national headlines and galvanized Texans across the state, sparking a demand for hate-crime legislation. Houston Crime Victims Advocate Andy Kahan, who became Rodriguez's most fervid ally, later coined the phrase, "Before there was Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr., there was Paul Broussard."
Ever since, Nancy Rodriguez has been fighting to keep her son's killer from getting paroled and was always hunting for fresh ammo. And last August, she thought she had it: A prisoner had written claiming that Buice was not the poster child for the redemptive powers of prison but was instead engaged in an inappropriate relationship with a prison employee.
The letter had been forwarded to Rodriguez through a Houston attorney, and included names and dates, and spoke of sex orgies and secret videotapes, all allegedly involving Buice and a female chaplain named Linda Hill, who worked for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
"The tales of the group sex and perversions...were so sickening I thought they were being made up," the letter stated. "Spy cameras and microphones were planted in Hill's office in the chapel...Staff at the unit are still remarking that the film, 'Debbie Does Dallas' ain't got nothing on the [surveillance] film 'Linda Does Dorm 5.'"
Rodriguez also received a phone call from a former inmate who claimed to have been incarcerated with Buice. He corroborated the letter, telling Rodriguez that TDCJ had disciplined Buice and the chaplain over their relationship.
"I did some time for theft," says the former prisoner, who did not want his name used, saying he feared retribution, "and I know there is a stigma attached to me. But I also believe that I went to prison to make sure that Jon Buice does not get out too quick, because when I lived with him he was extremely malicious. And I believe in my heart that if he comes out too soon, he is going to hurt somebody."
Rodriguez knew that the letter and phone call were just rumors, of course, but she couldn't help thinking this might be the smoking gun she'd been looking for all these years. For though Buice had never won any of his parole hearings, he was gaining ground.
While in prison, Buice had earned a bachelor's degree in psychology and two associates degrees in accounting and business. He had kept out of trouble and was allowed to participate in a prison program run by Microsoft in which he learned to refurbish computers for Texas schools. Buice was even quoted in a Microsoft promotional packet extolling the virtues of the program and the benefits to inmates who, like him, yearned to help the community and learn a marketable skill.
Buice became friends with radio show host Ray Hill (no relation to Linda Hill), who had originally been outraged by Broussard's murder and helped police catch the killer. Years later, though, Ray Hill had a change of heart and poured his time and resources as a public figure and advocate into helping Buice get free on parole, claiming Buice was high on drugs and alcohol at the time and that he didn't believe Buice killed Broussard because Broussard was gay. Hill has even named Buice as his successor on The Prison Show, which airs weekly on KPFT.
In addition to Ray Hill's efforts, Buice's family reportedly hired a parole consultant to strategize and represent Buice at parole hearings.
To Rodriguez, the pressure seemed to be working. At Buice's last parole hearing in 2009, the parole board reduced the amount of time between his parole hearings from two years to one, a typical sign, says Kahan, that the parole board is getting closer to freeing an offender. Rodriguez says that as the years passed, Buice was painted more and more as the perfect picture of prison rehabilitation.
"Routinely we are told that Buice is a model inmate," says Kahan, who has attended all of Buice's parole hearings with Rodriguez. "We're told that he has achieved numerous degrees in prison and it's almost like, 'What more can he do?' It's almost like he's a wonder boy."
Under state law, an inmate's disciplinary record is kept private. Rodriguez, however, has long believed that victims should have the right to it so they can be fully informed and prepared for parole hearings.
TDCJ "isn't going to tell you anything Buice does wrong," says Rodriguez. "Anything against him is confidential. But in this case, things just started falling into place. If it hadn't been for the letter and the phone call, we would never have found out about anything. I said, 'Somebody is looking out.'"
Or, as Kahan puts it, "It was like the parole gods were smiling upon us."
First, however, Rodriguez had to make sure that the allegations were not the stuff of fiction. So, with the help of Kahan, Rodriguez filed an open records request with TDCJ seeking to find out what happened with Buice.
She was not happy, or surprised, when TDCJ rejected most of her requests, claiming the information was confidential. However, Rodriguez was given a few documents, and it appeared that the rumors were not entirely false.
One report stated that the warden at Huntsville's Wynne Unit, where both Buice and Hill were located, had requested to use "covert surveillance equipment" in the chaplain's office. Another document stated that Hill had gone to visit Buice's father "during a non-job related matter." Rodriguez also confirmed that Buice had been disciplined, lost 30 days of good time and was transferred to a prison 410 miles away in Colorado City. As for Linda Hill, she had been disciplined at almost exactly the same time, and was later fired.
"We were able to confirm that a video was made and that TDCJ was concerned enough to set up a so-called 'nanny-cam,'" says Kahan. "It's hard to determine from the little tidbits we were given what the extent of the relationship was, but it was obviously inappropriate."
Through a series of Texas Public Information Act requests, the Houston Press obtained documents from TDCJ's Security Threat Group Office which describe the video footage used as evidence against Linda Hill.
The documents do suggest a possible emotional relationship between Buice and Linda Hill, as well as several TDCJ rules violations committed by the chaplain which included allowing unsupervised phone calls by other inmates.
Buice and Linda Hill have declined to comment, but their supporters say that there was no sex scandal and believe that the two were unfairly disciplined and are unfortunate casualties of TDCJ's unforgiving rules in what amounts to nothing more than another strange chapter in the ongoing saga of Jon Buice.
Seventeen-year-old Jon Buice had a belly full of beer and a head full of LSD by the time he and nine buddies, a mix of current and former high school students from The Woodlands, crossed paths with Paul Broussard at about 2:30 a.m. on July 4, 1991.
The crew of mostly teenagers, according to previously published reports, had been partying hard during the day and decided to make the drive down to Houston. They tried unsuccessfully to get into a club on Westheimer, before heading over to some abandoned rice towers on Studemont, where they shot off fireworks. From there, the guys — later dubbed "The Woodlands 10" — piled into two cars and headed for home, driving up Montrose Boulevard.
The lead car made a quick right onto West Drew, where it stopped and one of the guys hopped out to pee. The other car parked nearby. Around the corner, Broussard and two friends were walking toward them, having just left the gay club Heaven following last call.
All of a sudden, Buice told a Houston Chronicle reporter in 2003, "Some of the guys hollered at some homosexuals on the street. Then everybody started getting out and started fighting."
Buice claimed he was the last one out of the car, while his friends kicked Broussard with steel-toed boots and beat Broussard with a nail studded two-by-four. But Buice was the only one to pull out a knife and use it, plunging the blade into Broussard's chest and stomach. Broussard died hours later at St. Joseph Hospital. His attackers had broken one of his ribs and crushed his testicles. But it was a stab wound, according to the Harris County medical examiner, that proved fatal.
Less than an hour later, gay activist Ray Hill received a phone call about the attack. Within a week, he had energized the gay community, organized a protest outside the mayor's house demanding hate-crime legislation, and helped raise reward money to find Broussard's killer.
It was also Hill's idea to get the media involved, making sure the gay-slaying stayed on the front pages of newspapers and was aired before the first commercial break on newscasts. It was a matter of days until Crime Stoppers received an anonymous tip, which led police directly to one of the attackers, who was then in New York City. After being arrested, he gave up the names of the other nine, and reportedly said that Buice had bragged about cutting Broussard with a knife.
Soon after, Buice turned himself over to the police, and in 1992 was convicted and sentenced to 45 years in prison. Of the other attackers, five were sentenced to probation, three received 15-year sentences and one was ordered to 20 years in prison.
As of now, only Buice remains behind bars.
Ray Hill says he's always believed that 45 years was too harsh a sentence, and over time he formed the most unlikely friendship with Buice. They wrote letters back and forth, and Hill encouraged Buice to get his college degrees. In turn, Buice appears to have forgiven Hill for trying to capture him in the first place and helping ramp up the publicity and media attention.
"I have looked at this case from every angle," says Hill. "I've examined it every way you can, and I have never found intent. It's not there, and legally that makes a big fucking difference. They were drunk and stoned and stupid. They were looking for trouble, and they found it, but there was no intent to kill that man. I wrestle with that, but at this stage of the game, I put my emphasis on helping Jon get out."
Ray Hill is credited with supporting Buice when the prisoner wrote an apology letter addressed to the gay and lesbian community of Houston. Written in 1999, four years before Buice was first eligible for parole, the letter also served as a warning shot to Rodriguez and Kahan, who suspected the letter was nothing more than an attempt to manipulate the parole board.
"Jon Buice never apologized directly to [Rodriguez]," says Kahan, "and his letter appeared to be more self-serving than anything. But that kind of let us know that we were in for a bigger battle, because that's also when we found out that Ray Hill was involved in attempting to get him out, along with other notable individuals who had signed on as well."
Buice's family reportedly paid former state representative Allen Place $6,000 to represent Buice at parole hearings and help get him out of prison. Place had been chairman of the House Criminal Jurisprudence committee.
Likewise, Rodriguez and Kahan dug in their heels, revving up their campaign to keep Buice in prison, garnering support, says Kahan, from human rights organizations and politicians such as then-Houston councilwoman Annise Parker and State Representative Garnett Coleman.
"We remind the parole board," says Kahan, "that if Mr. Buice had not stabbed Paul multiple times, he would have been severely injured, but he would have lived. It was a conscious decision that Jon Buice made. And the only recourse that we have is to deprive him of his liberty."
Says Rodriguez, "I know there's no such thing as truth in sentencing, but he should stay in there for at least 27 years, which is how long Paul had on this earth. I keep on going because it's something I chose to do and because I believe in justice. I do it for Paul. And this was malicious."
The two sides have butted heads at four parole hearings thus far, and Rodriguez really didn't have anything new to say — that is, until she received the letter alleging that Buice was in a spot of trouble with a female chaplain.
Linda Hill was born behind bars. Literally.
Her mother, according to the Abilene Reporter-News, was serving a two-year stretch for possessing a forged instrument when in 1964 she gave birth inside prison walls. Three weeks later, a Louisiana couple adopted the baby girl through Catholic Charities. Neither Linda Hill nor her new parents knew until years later that she had TDCJ running through her veins.
As the story went on to say, Linda Hill eventually married a correctional officer and decided to work as a chaplain for the prison system. In 1993, she took a job in Abilene coordinating religious programs and recruiting and training volunteers, and was promoted to a full chaplain in 1997. Today, she lives in Huntsville, where she has earned national recognition as a volunteer for the Girl Scouts, according to a Girl Scouts press release.
Her last assignment for TDCJ was overseeing the faith-based dorm at the Wynne Unit in Huntsville, where Buice was imprisoned. According to Richard Lopez, director of Chaplaincy Support at TDCJ, inmates can volunteer to enroll in the dorm if they have a clean disciplinary record and are willing to accept faith-based programs. Lopez says there are no special perks to joining the religious dorm and that there had never been any problems with the program at the Wynne Unit prior to the incidents involving Linda Hill.
Ray Hill defends Buice and the chaplain, saying TDCJ has no proof of anything scandalous and that the two were unfairly disciplined for sharing an emotional embrace after an intensive counseling session, and not for having sex.
"If you're in prison," he says, "allowing an inmate to touch you as an employee is taboo. So you're dealing with a taboo action. Jon has told me there wasn't anything wrong or going on and that shit like this happens all the time in prison. If you are looking for fairness in prison, there is none. Prisons are about power, and only one colored uniform has it. So what they say, is. However, I think he got royally fucked."
So what really happened? What did the secret video camera actually capture in Linda Hill's office?
The investigation was launched after rumors of an inappropriate relationship between an inmate and Linda Hill surfaced, says TDCJ spokeswoman Michelle Lyons.
According to the TDCJ documents obtained by the Press, Buice walked into Linda Hill's office on February 21 at about 1:55 p.m. Soon, they began discussing a visit Linda Hill had made to Buice's father at his home. Linda Hill's voice cracked and she began to cry, telling Buice that his father "has never, ever in his life, ever and even now, experienced unconditional love." She told Buice that she and his father discussed several topics, including parole, her family and about her birth.
Approximately 20 minutes later, Buice asked, "So where does this lead to? I see you on the outside. I'm gonna see you on the outside...But where does it go from here?"
Linda Hill responded, "Where do you want it to go? I know exactly what you mean."
Moments later, Linda Hill began crying again and said, "God puts people in our life for a reason. I don't know. My life is always full of stress and anxiety. But I sit down with you and I am just calm. I can be stressed out here, and you could walk in the door and I'm calm. Why have we both been here for the last ten years? And I'm close to retirement, and you're close to going home. I think it's funny. Is that coincidence? Is that God's plan? I don't know."
Soon after, according to the report, the two parted ways.
Additional evidence included statements from corrections officers who claimed to have seen Linda Hill and Buice hug, as well as Buice's own admission that his "intentions with her is to see her once he is released," that he "thinks that she truly cares and loves him" and that he "cares deeply for her."
Ray Hill believes, however, that TDCJ has twisted Buice's meaning.
"That can be interpreted a lot of different ways," he says. "[TDCJ] interpreted it in the most harmful way to Jon. Their interpretation was something other than caring for a friend or counselor."
Nevertheless, says Lyons, prison officials decided there was enough proof to discipline Buice and Linda Hill.
"Certainly the fact that [Linda Hill] visited the offender's father's home was something outside the scope of her responsibilities and was inappropriate," said Lyons. "She also admitted hugging the offender. Chaplains and religious volunteers are allowed to do that, but there were a number of employees who submitted eyewitness statements that they saw her doing so at various times and felt that the interaction between the two was inappropriate. In the video, the way he talks to her is very personal and not the typical way an offender talks to an employee. There is nothing that specifically speaks of there being a sexual relationship, but it was an inappropriate relationship based on the evidence presented at the disciplinary hearing."
In addition, the hidden surveillance camera captured Linda Hill apparently violating other TDCJ rules. Prison documents state that she was recorded allowing inmates to make unsupervised phone calls from her office on different occasions, bringing in outside food for inmates during a Super Bowl party, and telling a prisoner that a fellow inmate was taking psychological medications and where that inmate was going to be housed.
Hill strongly contested the allegations, but to no avail.
"She allowed offenders to make phone calls directly from her office, which is a big no-no," said Lyons. "Her argument was that she was standing there monitoring the call, but our stance is that this is a penal institution and there are rules. She was also telling inmates where other inmates were being housed, and securitywise, that's not allowed. It was not her right to decide which rules to adhere to with certain offenders."
On March 25, the warden of the Wynne Unit recommended terminating Linda Hill's employment. Buice was transferred to a prison in Colorado City, two hours southeast of Lubbock, one day earlier. Linda Hill later engaged in third-party mediation concerning her firing, said Lyons, but the result remained the same.
Looking forward, Ray Hill says he will keep the pressure on, so that when Buice is eligible for parole again, possibly in March, he has a strong chance of being released. Ray Hill plans to take several days off from work in the coming months and visit Colorado City, where he'll speak with the head of the parole board there. Buice has a new panel of parole hearing officers now because of his transfer.
"The good thing to come out of this," says Ray Hill, "is that Jon is out of the Huntsville office. I don't know if [certain board members there] would ever have the gonads to vote to cut him loose. I think in the long run this is going to get him out sooner."
Many, however, are not as convinced.
"A disciplinary infraction is always in the eye of the beholder," says Troy Fox, the state parole board administrator, "but it's not a positive factor. It's a negative factor. And since his last parole hearing, [Buice] has had a major rule violation, and that's probably not going to be helpful to him."
This kind of talk is music to Rodriguez and Kahan's ears.
"Needless to say," says Kahan, "I think we have a lot more ammunition for the next hearing. I firmly believe we'll get a denial."
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There is no love lost between the two sides, and Ray Hill says he will keep fighting for Buice's freedom.
"If you don't think that me and [Buice's] parole counselors are computing and triangulating around this obstacle, then you don't understand Ray Hill. We know that this is there, we know that it's an issue and I will do everything I can to help him."
Armed with the latest disciplinary infraction, regardless of what happened, Rodriguez and Kahan say they'll be ready.