Deputies accused a Texas sheriff of corruption and dysfunction. Then came the mass shooting
Jul 8, 2023, 9:26 PM
(AP Photo/David J. Phillip, File)
COLDSPRING, Texas (AP) — Sheriff Greg Capers was the classic picture of a Texas lawman as he announced the capture of a suspected mass killer: white cowboy hat on his head, gold star pinned to his chest, white cross on his belt and a large pistol emblazoned with his name on his hip.
For four days, 11 minutes, but Oropeza was gone. With the search over, Capers had a message for the victims’ families.
“They can rest easy now,” Capers told a row of television cameras in May. The burly sheriff later personally hauled the “coward” across a town square into court.
But an Associated Press investigation led the sheriff’s office to disclose that deputies took nearly four times as long as Capers initially said to arrive at the mass shooting.
The AP also found Capers’ turn in the national spotlight belied years of complaints about corruption and dysfunction that were previously unknown outside the piney woods of San Jacinto County.
Capers did not directly respond to requests for comment.
What has played out under his watch is indicative of challenges police face across rural America, where small staffs must patrol vast jurisdictions. It also reveals the difficulty in holding powerful law enforcement officials accountable in isolated areas with little outside oversight.
Former deputies said Capers’ office has long neglected basic police work while pursuing asset seizures that boost its $3.5 million budget but don’t always hold up in court.
Deputies did not arrest Oropeza last year after he was reported for domestic violence and never contacted federal authorities to check his immigration status, although immigration officials say he was in the country illegally. Capers’ department also appears to have done little to investigate after another family’s call to 911 reporting a different man’s backyard gunfire nearly struck their young daughter.
The county paid $240,000 in 2020 to settle a whistleblower’s lawsuit accusing Capers of wide-ranging misconduct. Last year, county leaders hired a police consulting firm to examine the sheriff’s office but disregarded its recommendation to have the Texas Rangers’ public corruption squad investigate.
The LION Institute found evidence that Capers fostered a “fear-based” culture and oversaw the improper seizure of tens of thousands of dollars of property. The group’s report, obtained by the AP, also alleges deputies failed to follow up on reports of 4,000 crimes, including sexual and child abuse.
“The sheriff and his inner circle do whatever they want, regardless of law, with no consequence,” said Michael Voytko, who spent nearly five years as a San Jacinto County deputy before leaving in 2020 for another law enforcement job. “There was no accountability there for any of the deputies.”
After the April 28 mass shooting outside Cleveland, 46 miles (74 kilometers) northwest of Houston, Capers’ second-in-command said the sheriff initially gave his “best guestimation” about the response time. Chief Deputy Tim Kean added that low pay has left the office short of deputies to patrol the county, where 27,000 people live scattered along dirt roads through thick forest.
Kean also dismissed the consultant’s accusations as “straight-up lies” drummed up by the sheriff’s political opponents and said the county settled the whistleblower lawsuit to avoid a costly trial.
“This place is open any time to the Texas Rangers,” Kean said in an interview. “Any day they can come in here and go through this whole building top to bottom.”
In April, as Wilson Garcia and his wife tried to calm their crying baby boy, gunfire from the lot next door echoed off the pines around their house.
Garcia said he walked over and asked Oropeza to take his target practice farther from their home. When Oropeza refused, Garcia and his wife made their first of many 911 calls at 11:34 p.m.
By that point, Oropeza was already on the sheriff’s radar.
Deputies were called to Oropeza’s home at least three times in the prior two years, according to call logs. One came last June, when his wife reported he punched and kicked her, “pounded” her head on the “driveway gravel” and threatened to kill her, court records said. The logs show a deputy arrived 46 minutes later; Oropeza was gone.
An arrest warrant for Oropeza was dropped late the next month after his wife said she didn’t want to press charges, according to Kean. She is accused of hindering his apprehension in the mass shooting.
Experts say Oropeza’s immigration record barred him from having a firearm. The 38-year-old Mexican national was deported four times before 2016 and illegally reentered the county, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. His lawyer, Anthony Osso, declined to comment on his client’s immigration status and said Oropeza will plead not guilty to capital murder.
Kean said deputies can’t check immigration records themselves and did not contact ICE because they don’t find the agency responsive.
The logs do not clarify the nature of all the calls to Oropeza’s home, but Capers has said his office previously received complaints about the man’s gunfire.
Garcia recalled telling his wife to “get inside” that April night as he watched their neighbor run toward their home, reloading his rifle. At 12:11 a.m., a dispatcher heard gunfire over the open phone line, according to a detailed timeline that the sheriff’s office provided to the AP in response to questions.
Deputies arrived on the street five minutes later, which was 42 minutes after the first 911 call, according to the timeline. Garcia’s wife, his 9-year-old son and three others were dead.
Kean and another sheriff’s official said the initial calls came in as harassment complaints about Oropeza shooting on his own property and that some calls required a Spanish translator. They said the three deputies on duty were working on an aggravated robbery and the time it took them to respond was “average” given the county’s size and the area’s rough roads.
The next day, when Keith and Tiffany Pinkston heard about the shooting, their first thought was, “That could have been us.”
In January, the family was enjoying a backyard campfire with friends when they said their neighbor began shooting. Bullets blew holes through their fence and one sprayed sandy soil up at their 8-year-old daughter as she ran, screaming, they recalled.
The group scrambled for cover and called 911. When deputies arrived nearly 40 minutes later, the Pinkstons said, they did not ask for the neighbor’s identification.
Two months later, state police arrested the neighbor on a manslaughter charge in a deadly car crash. Court documents show he was a convicted sex offender who had failed to register with Houston police the year before. His felony record prohibited him from possessing a firearm.
Kean said deputies “routinely” identify callers and anyone they are calling about, make sure no one is wanted, and look for evidence of gunfire, although he could not say whether they did so at the Pinkstons’ home. In logs, deputies wrote that the callers were “heavily intoxicated” and their neighbor denied having a weapon. The deputies suggested the gunfire was fireworks.
Keith Pinkston, a self-described “country boy” who often carries a handgun and generally supports police, showed the AP round holes in his fence that he said were from shooting by the neighbor. He called Capers and his deputies “worthless.”
Capers spent decades as a deputy in the Houston-area before being elected sheriff in 2014. He took over a 32-officer force with a history of corruption chronicled in a 1984 book, “Terror on Highway 59,” and inspired a made-for-TV movie. The book documented how Sheriff James ‘Humpy’ Parker ran roughshod over the rights of motorists, particularly those of color, in the 1970s. Parker eventually pleaded guilty to federal civil rights charges and resigned.
“We thought we’d gotten over that,” County Commissioner David Brandon said. “But obviously we haven’t.”
By last year, county commissioners were concerned enough about staff turnover that they paid the LION Institute, the police consulting firm, nearly $50,000 to review the sheriff’s office and suggest improvements.
The group’s report lays out evidence that the sheriff’s staff falsified training records and failed to pursue 4,000 reported crimes over the years, including 106 alleged sexual assaults. The report said Capers dismissed concerns about an affair between a deputy and an informant and brushed aside reports that the same deputy leaked investigative information to suspects.
When LION CEO Mike Alexander tried to present the findings to commissioners in a closed-door meeting in August, he was surprised to find the sheriff there. Alexander, a former police chief, wrote in his subsequent report that Capers’ presence was “analogous to allowing a possible organized crime suspect to be present during a briefing between the investigating detective and prosecuting attorney.”
Kean denied deputies neglected investigations, largely blaming an “admin screw-up” in the department’s computer system and saying some victims couldn’t identify their attackers. He also said Alexander never interviewed Capers, him or other deputies.
Two commissioners told the AP they deferred to the district attorney, rather than referring the matter to the Texas Rangers. The other two dismissed the inquiry as “a witch hunt” that rehashed a disgruntled former deputy’s lawsuit.
That lawsuit, brought by Michael Flynt, accused the sheriff’s office of retaliating after he raised concerns about Capers’ conduct. Flynt was a retired Houston-area officer whom Capers recruited to run an undercover drug unit in early 2017. The sheriff’s office had fired him by June 2018, charging Flynt with forging government documents by allegedly lying on his job application.
Judges eventually dismissed and expunged the charges. Flynt, 57, unsuccessfully ran for sheriff against Capers in 2020.
That year, Capers acknowledged in a deposition that he told a former deputy to scrub Facebook of information about the deputy’s romantic relationship with a confidential informant in a series of gambling cases. The county settled Flynt’s lawsuit two months later.
After less than two years working amid Capers’ “corruption,” Flynt said he understands “why people hate cops.”
One local whose life was upended by the gambling busts is Rickie Wood. Even after all charges against him were dropped, Wood said he was unable to recover much of the property deputies seized when they raided his used car dealership in 2015. The items included titles to more than 25 vehicles and his pickup truck, he said.
“They took everything that I owned to where I couldn’t even operate my business,” the 68-year-old said. “It was devastating.”
Wood presented a list of more than two dozen items to the sheriff’s office in 2017 describing some, including his truck, as badly damaged. Others, including two laptops and a Smith & Wesson revolver, were missing.
Kean said the sheriff’s office had warrants for the seizures and he wasn’t aware of anything being broken or lost, noting that the office keeps a careful inventory of property.
Former deputies said questionable seizures were common, and Capers conceded in his deposition to paying one person $2,815 for missing property, including diamond earrings.
He also said under oath that he may have used seized funds to attend a sheriffs conference in Reno, Nevada, after the commissioners refused to foot the bill.
The sheriff said the trip was for training but acknowledged he also spent some of it gambling. ___
Associated Press videojournalist Lekan Oyekanmi contributed to this report.