Longform

Friends with Benefits

Last week in "The Unexpected Guest," we told you the story of Dennis Shaw, a fortysomething man who suddenly insinuated himself into the life of Kenneth Jackson and how Jackson's daughter Jennifer Estopinal discovered his real identity as Dinesh Shah. Even before she learned the truth, Estopinal had grown increasingly concerned with the growing influence Shah was having on her elderly father, a retired FBI agent living in the Old Braeswood neighborhood near the Medical Center. Her investigation uncovered the facts that Shah had been convicted in criminal court of abusing one of the children of Exxon heiress Joan Blaffer Johnson and a civil court jury found that he'd beaten two of the Johnson children and sexually molested one of them — and assessed Shah $20 million in damages.

In Part Two, we pick up the story as Shah, on probation, continues his activities, exerting influence over Jackson and involving himself in other people's lives, to their detriment.

In July of 2009, Henry Dyches passed away at the age of 79. Dinesh Shah had known Dyches — an old-school, South Carolinian Southern gentleman who spent his twilight years tutoring River Oaks children in Spanish and swimming — since the mid-1990s. In fact, it was Dyches — whom Shah met at the Museum District apartment complex where they were neighbors — who unwittingly orchestrated Shah's initial meeting of Joan Blaffer Johnson.

Shah took charge of Dyches's funeral arrangements and even claimed to be his nephew on his death certificate. In the obituary that ran in Dyches's hometown paper in South Carolina, "Dennis Shaw" is quoted at length and described as Dyches's "long-time" friend.

Houston Police Department Sergeant Reginore Anderson says that shortly after Dyches's burial, what appears to have been Dyches's entire estate cycled through Shah's bank account and vanished to shelters unknown. Rumor had it that Harris County Assistant District Attorney Kelli Johnson, the prosecutor in two cases Shah would eventually be charged with, wanted to have Dyches's body exhumed and tested for poison. When asked if this was true, after a long and very pregnant pause, Johnson said that she would neither confirm nor deny the rumor. An exhumation warrant was never issued.

Days after the death of one elderly buddy, Shah turned his attention to another: Kenneth Jackson, who was almost 90 years old and bedridden because of a hip injury. At the time, Jackson was still sharing a home with his much-younger wife Ginger Jackson, though the couple had been estranged since 1995.

Jackson had been on Shah's radar for years, and now, in the summer of 2009, Shah apparently deemed it the time to strike. He spent many long nights at the Jackson home, speaking to Kenneth Jackson until the old man finally fell asleep, and then going downstairs for some quality time with Ginger, who was growing increasingly concerned with her financial future.

"At any given moment he might have had one prime target, but I think he was constantly working other angles, other people," says Heath Bounds, a cop with HPD's Central Patrol who worked officially on the Joan Johnson case and served as an informal consultant on another.

Before July was out, Kenneth Jackson's daughter Jennifer Estopinal (Ginger Jackson's stepdaughter) was increasingly concerned with her dad's declining health. In her words, he was going down fast and it seemed like something far more serious than his hip fracture. 

"Once the pieces of the puzzle started to come together, I started to think that he was poisoning this guy," says Anderson. "Because the guy was in pretty decent shape, then all of a sudden, right after he met him, things started to deteriorate. He couldn't stand; he was throwing up, lost a lot of weight, and he was a little man to begin with. And then both the wife and the daughter told me he was feeding him all the time. Who wants to feed an eightysomething-year-old man, when you're not even really around the guy, you're not really anything to him?"

Even as his health continued to fail, Jackson steadfastly refused to see a doctor. Estopinal was very busy — she had just returned from a two-week trip to the Caribbean and one of her children had become sick and required hospitalization — she took the time to call Adult Protective Services and ask them to check in on her dad. On July 31, a caseworker visited Jackson and talked him into going to see a doctor. It was his buddy "Dennis" who actually made the appointment with Dr. Sam Siegler for August 6.

Since he declined to comment for this article, one can only guess at what Dr. Siegler thought when he saw the curious entourage in his waiting room. There was Kenneth Jackson in his wheelchair, along with his caretakers Julio and Mercedes Mendoza. Estopinal was there too, meeting Shah for the very first time. Estopinal says that Shah was "all self-important," and that he was "ordering Julio and Mercedes around like they [were] ninnies, and my dad just didn't treat them that way."