George Dismukes had no experience managing rhinos, but it didn't take an expert to see that the rhinos weren't the problem. Recruited as an animal specialist to work on location in Africa for the film Hatari, Dismukes understood that the script would never work as written. "The type of footage they were trying to get would have required that the rhino be able to read," he says.

His unlikely role was but the latest in a life filled with unusual turns. Given up for adoption in Brownsville by his Mexican mother when he was five years old, Dismukes left his adoptive family before high school and returned to Mexico in search of his parents. He worked on a farm and bull-raising ranch outside Monterrey for a handful of pesos a day. Familiar with the bull ring (his mother had been friends with the famed matador Manolete), he took up bullfighting at age 14 under the stage name Jorge Mejia.

While at a Madrid party four years later, Dismukes met a flamboyant, mustachioed Englishman who was having problems with a movie he was making. Did Dismukes think his knowledge of bulls would translate to rhinos? the Brit asked. The next day Dismukes and the Englishman were winging their way to Tanzania.

But the project was bogging down, so Dismukes offered his opinion to the film's star, John Wayne. "When I pointed out the problem to the Duke," Dismukes recalls, "he studied the script for a minute, then simply said, 'Go write it.' To which I replied I had never written a script. His next sentence: 'You'll learn.' It was clear there was no arguing with him."

Dismukes redrafted the scenes, and thus began a long association with Wayne that included eight films and the television series Gunsmoke, and he got to hobnob with a group of stars the likes of John Huston, Jimmy Stewart and Raquel Welch. His screenplay, Two Faces of the Jaguar, was optioned by Francis Ford Coppola (though never produced). Eventually he got out of the movie business and settled in Houston, shooting commercial films.

The lights, camera and action still dominate his life, because Dismukes is serving a 16-year sentence for murdering a total stranger on Christmas Eve, 1991. Now, the lights never go out, surveillance cameras watch every move, and the ceaseless din of prison penetrates to the bone. He just observed the passing of seven and a half years behind bars, a date easy to remember: May 5, Cinco de Mayo. "What a day for that anniversary," he comments dryly. "A celebration of freedom for many Mexicans, but for one half-breed Mexican, a highway marker to nowhere."

In January Dismukes came up for parole for the third time, having been rejected the first two. This time, though, he figured he had a good shot -- his behavior in prison had been model, he had a strong support network outside with gainful employment awaiting, and he had a psychologist's report that deemed the likelihood of his committing another crime as virtually zero. Except for the murder, he had no prior record or history of substance abuse. Even the conviction had a mitigating twist: Dismukes has always claimed his innocence, and a Houston Press review of the records indicates his case is strong, if not provable (see "Catch-22").

But in the Byzantine world of the parole system, none of that necessarily matters. A three-member panel of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles voted 2-1 against him, and Dismukes received an 18-month "set-off." That means he won't be up for another review until mid-2002. Set-offs can range from one to three years; last time, his set-off was for a year, and he's done nothing wrong in the interim. After the decision, he says, he was overwhelmed by "a depression so deep and profound that it has a death grip on me."

Since he became eligible for parole, Dismukes has watched dozens of others get their walking papers, which only compounds his anxiety. "I see people leave here whom guards and inmates predict will be back before their mattresses have cooled off," he says.

And while that may seem like a self-serving statement by someone with a vested interest, plenty of people on the other side of the fence agree with him. An administrator at the Ramsey complex in Rosharon (where Dismukes is incarcerated) who asked not to be identified puts it simply: "They let worse criminals out every single day."

How the 18 parole board members arrive at their decisions remains a mystery to those who deal with the system on a regular basis. By law, inmates can't see the files used in their reviews. Like other states, Texas has a set of guidelines that is supposed to objectively measure an inmate's chances for success or failure on parole, but the guidelines are almost never used. The legislature mandates what percentage of their sentences inmates must serve before they become eligible for parole, but many board members have their own, unwritten standards that are much stricter. The approval rates of individual board members vary dramatically, from 4 to 40 percent. "Texas parole has always been a dart throw," says Huntsville attorney Bill Habern, who knows the vagaries of the process as well as anyone in the state. "That's not the way to run a parole system."

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Bob Burtman