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Saturday, May 31, 2014

Anatomy of a Wrongful Conviction – Day Three

By Thomas Bartlett Whitaker

To read Day Two click here

The murders of Steve Herrera, Nilda Tirado, and their three children were discovered shortly after 6 a.m. on the 24th of April 1999.  By 2 p.m., the police had invited Jeff Prible in for a “chat,” though in reality they had already determined that he was the killer.  This conclusion was reached, it should be noted, in a total absence of forensic evidence and amidst an entire neighborhood of suspects.  If Jeff had possessed any doubts about their suspicions, they were obliterated shortly after volunteering a DNA sample and posing for full-body photographs.

The police told Jeff that they needed him to make a formal statement, and tried to place him at ease by telling him that they knew about the fight Steve had had a month before with Pete. They also admitted that given Steve’s participation in the world of narcotics, they had a list of suspects a mile long.  Jeff agreed to give them a statement, and proceeded to tell them about the previous evening’s festivities.  A detective named Tabor typed this statement up as Jeff spoke.  Once finished, they presented it to him to sign, and alarm bells started going off as soon as he read it.  Quite simply, the statement bore little resemblance to Jeff’s actual comments.  He refused to sign it, and, of course, “Prible refused to sign statement” has been logged into the report attached to the interview.  After revisions were made, the statement was still not anywhere close to being accurate, so Jeff made them continually edit it until he was satisfied with the final product.  He knew that the detectives were trying to twist his words, but he still hadn’t clued in to why exactly they wanted to accomplish this.

Immediately after signing, the detectives began to ask questions about the rumored relationship Jeff was having with Nilda. How they knew about it is an interestingly open question, so forgive me a brief tangent. The police investigated a frighteningly small pool of people for a quintuple homicide, yet at least one of them knew about an affair, which, by definition, was secret.  The police did speak to Nilda’s sister-in-law – with whom she was very close – as well as to two of Nilda’s friends, Angela Serna Alvarez and Cynthia Garcia Flores.  At trial, these last two gave eerily identical testimony, even using the same diction and turns of phrases.  Both claimed, for instance, to be Nilda’s best friend, and both claimed to have known nothing about the affair between Nilda and Jeff.  Mrs. Serna Alvarez went so far as to claim that Nilda had once confessed to her that she did not like Jeff, and that he gave her the “creeps”.  Mrs. Flores would mirror this statement word for word, despite the fact that these supposed conversations took place at totally different times.  Neither was able to explain why Nilda was seen to hang out with and accept gifts from a man she seemed to think was “creepy.” My suspicion is that the two did in fact know about the relationship, and agreed to testify in order to neutralize testimony sponsored by the defense from the sister-in-law that Nilda really liked Jeff because he was kind and dependable.  Why would these two commit perjury, you ask?  Though this was most decidedly not told to the jury, both Mike Serna (Angela’s husband) and Vincent Flores (Cynthia’s husband) were heavily involved in Steve’s drug business.  Mike Serna was, as it happens, Steve’s chief enforcer and someone Steve would have definitely used in the sale of six stolen kilos of cocaine.  Despite these connections having been known to the police (but not to defense counsel, obviously), neither Mike Serna nor Vincent Flores were questioned, and I suspect that this was due to a quid pro quo arranged between the state and the two wives to give testimony that took the sister-in-law out of the picture.  There would be plenty of wheeling and dealing behind the scenes, as you will see, as well as outright fabrication of testimony, so such would be par for the course.  At this point the HCSD still did not know about the bank robberies, but once the full details of the intended sale of six kilos of cocaine was brought to light, everyone involved in Steve’s narcotics activities should have been questioned.  This was never done simply because the tunnel vision of the HCSD had already selected its target.

Enough speculation.  However the police knew about the relationship between Jeff and Nilda, it is sufficient to say that they did know about it within eight hours of the murders.  After signing the first statement, the detectives took out a second and began asking questions about their relationship, with the focus on why Jeff had “lied” about it in the first statement.  Jeff tried to point out that they had never asked about it and believed it to be irrelevant, but it was far too late for all that.  In the second statement Jeff spoke about his brief encounter with Nilda the night before.  When he was asked if his semen would be found on her body, he said he doubted it because the act was so brief.  Though the results had not come back from the lab and would not for many months, trace amounts of his semen were detected in Nilda’s mouth, while Steve’s was detected in her anus and vagina.

After signing this second statement, Detective Tabor told Jeff he could leave, but he first needed to go into another room and answer a few more questions.  I believe that this second room was wired for video (otherwise, why move at all?), but if so, these tapes were not made available to the defense and I can find no record of their existence in the police files.  Once inside this new room, Detective Tabor took off his mask and began shouting that he was “tired of the bullshit” and that he knew Jeff had committed the crime.  He screamed for a few minutes, telling Jeff that they had a melted gasoline container at the scene with his fingerprints all over it.  This would turn out to be utter fabrication, but the police can basically say whatever they want during an interrogation.  The law is actually very clear on this matter, so you may as well keep that in mind should you ever find yourself in police custody:  they can and will lie to you in order to procure a confession.  By this point, Jeff had had enough and said he was leaving.  As soon as he stood up, Tabor’s eyes flicked to Jeff’s shoes and he screamed: “We got him! There’s nowhere else to look!  We got him! He has a bloodstain on his shoe.  We got him!”  He ordered Jeff to remove his shoes, and told him that he was under arrest for capital murder.  At this point Jeff clammed up and didn’t tell them about the ketchup stain, as the writing was pretty clear on the wall.  I can only imagine the faces of the various detectives when the lab report came back showing trace amounts of tomato sauce.  Needless to say, this “damning” proof never made it into the evidence at trial.

Jeff was formally arrested and taken to the Harris County Jail.  He was placed in a cell and told that “shit gets tough right here, boy” and then taunted by needle jokes.  While there, he overheard two jailers talking about how “someone was going to get their ass in big trouble” for something.  That something turned out to be him: Jeff Prible had actually not been charged with anything, and he wasn’t even officially booked into the jail.  You should think about what that means for a second because illegal, chargeless detentions are not supposed to take place in the first world.  How often this happens I do not know, but even once is chilling.

Jeff’s family eventually found out what had happened and hired an attorney.  This lawyer threatened everyone he could find, and eventually Jeff was released without charge.  Over the course of the next month, he and his family would be continually hounded by the police.  Several months prior to the murders, Jeff had attended a social event at a friend’s house.  During the party, one of the other guests got violent and began smashing to pieces some outdoor furniture.  Jeff, in possession of both a concealed handgun license and a pistol, drew the latter and pointed it at the ground while ordering the man to leave.  He did.  The police were called by the homeowner to report the damaged property, and statements were given.  After hearing witnesses, Jeff was clapped on the back by one of the officers and told that he was a “good citizen and Marine.”  Despite this, Jeff was charged with “deadly aggravated assault with a firearm” several weeks after the murders, months after the event in question.  What the police really wanted was a search warrant for Jeff’s room, which they were unable to get for the murders due to a complete and total lack of evidence against him.  Deadly aggravated assault with a firearm is a very serious charge, the sort of thing that in Texas will get you locked up for most of the rest of your life.  Despite this, after he posted bond, the charges were mysteriously dropped.

As it happened, he met his father in jail.  When the police had gone to search Jeff’s room at his father’s residence using the bogus deadly assault charge, Jeff’s father asked to see the warrant.  When he raised his arm, the police noticed a “bulge” in his pants, and asked what it was.  The elder Prible also had a concealed handgun license, and regularly carried a pistol with him about his own neighborhood.  When asked, he handed the gun over for inspection.  He was then arrested for “brandishing a firearm to a law enforcement agent” as a pretext to expand the search warrant from Jeff’s room to the entire home.  The elder Prible’s charge was also soon dropped, equally mysteriously.  These instances of manipulating the grand jury to return indictments solely for the purpose of obtaining search warrants unavailable to the police otherwise never made it into the media.  I can only wonder how many wrongful convictions might have been averted if Houston was monitored by a newspaper with a real journalistic mission instead of the pathetic and docile Houston Chronicle.  I won’t even comment on the local television news sources, because they make the Chronicle look like the New York Times by comparison.  

While all of this was going on, the FBI was quietly investigating the bank robberies attributed to the still as yet unidentified “15 Minute Bandit”.  The break came when Sheriff Shane McCoy received a phone call at his office at the multi-agency Houston Area Bank Robbery Task Force.  One of the detectives involved in the Herrera murders had come across a woman named Jamie Lyons, who was having an affair with Steve.  Ms. Lyons claimed that there were rumors floating about that one of Herrera’s buddies had been robbing banks.  That friend turned out to be Jeff Prible.  The investigation was short and swift.  Once the FBI had a photograph to compare to the surveillance video recorded in the banks, the match was hard to miss.  On 21 May, nearly a month after the murders, a SWAT team arrested Jeff while he was in the house with his girlfriend Charlotte.  His daughter Kathleen and son Jeff were home also.  In less than an hour a confession had been signed.

There was no trial, but many of Jeff’s family members showed up at his sentencing hearing to offer support.  “Jeff has always been affectionate, loving, hugging, kissing all kin,” said his grandmother at the hearing.  “I know he has been a troubled boy for awhile. I begged him to go to the VA hospital, but he told me he was not crazy.”  By September of that same year, he was off to the federal prison complex in Beaumont, TX, set to serve a 64 month sentence for the robberies.  Initially placed in the medium security prison, he became a model prisoner and was sent to the low security unit after 18 months.  His cellie at the low knew that Jeff had been interviewed by the FBI several times, and he asked if Jeff could give him the name and phone number of one of the agents.  Based off of the information his neighbor provided to the FBI, a federal prosecutor was so pleased with Jeff for facilitating the connection that his sentence was reduced by nearly 36 months. Jeff’s cellie, Cliff Gardner, told one of the FBI agents that visited with Jeff about a ranch where he (Gardner) had cooked meth.  The result was a sixty-nine pound bust (the biggest of that FBI agent’s career at the time).  Gardner told Jeff he needed to talk with the FBI personally because the owner of the ranch was his attorney on the federal case he was serving time for.  This attorney never told Gardner he was offered a plea bargain for a short amount of time because he did not want Gardner talking to the FBI. Gardner therefore went to trial and ended up with a much longer sentence. When Gardner found out he had not been told about the plea bargain and the attorney was no longer sending his mom money, he sought vengence.

These periodic investigations by the FBI are rather interesting.  The head investigator was a man named Efrain Gutierrez, and we know from his notes that the FBI was not interested in Jeff as a suspect in the Herrera killings.  Instead, they were investigating the jacker responsible for the stolen cocaine.  Their reasoning was that if someone was willing to rob a cartel for six kilos of product, they might also be willing to rob and kill the sucker wanting to buy the stolen goods.  That the jacker is of Mexican nationality is the one piece of information that they were certain of.  When Jeff wanted to subpoena these agents to help him at trial, his attorneys specifically selected veniremen who would respond to the authoritative, professional presence of federal law enforcement agents.  When Gutierrez failed to show at trial, this awful trial decision left him with a jury open only to the prosecutor’s authority.  The results were not pretty.

Shortly before Jeff was released to a halfway house to complete his sentence, the Houston Chronicle published an article on 15 April 2001 regarding the Herrera murders.  The article explained the facts of the cold case and stated that the police had no leads.  Shortly after this article was published, Jeff received a visit by two people.  The first identified himself as an HPD detective named Johnny Bonds.  Part of that story was true – his name.  Although he had once been a police officer, Mr. Bonds had for the past 17 years been an investigator for the Harris County DA’s office.  With him was a female prosecutor by the name of Kelly Siegler.  If there was ever an instance of a man not knowing with whom he was messing, this was it.  The memory of this meeting haunts Jeff still, plagued by the idea that had he handled himself differently, thirteen years of misery might have been avoided.  I disagree.  I doubt that even a superhuman display of tact could have derailed the train heading his way, but we will never really know.

Almost from the start, their chat was drenched in acrimony.  Much like his experience with Detective Tabor (who would mysteriously vanish from the HCSD before this case went to trial), Siegler kept twisting Jeff’s comments for the audiocassette recorder she brought with her; these tapes, naturally, were not made available to the defense and have since disappeared.  Siegler knew nothing about the visits paid to Jeff by the FBI, but seemed skeptical about even the existence of the stolen cocaine and the jacker connected to it.  At one point, she openly mocked one of Jeff’s references to Agent Gutierrez, and Jeff decided that he didn’t owe this woman anything, that he had already cooperated with the feds, and that he hadn’t called this woman to talk anyways.  When she immediately threatened to charge him with the murders unless he changed his attitude, he was shocked.  He lost his cool, got angry, and started to walk off, and the meeting ended with her shouting that she promised to convict him and “push the plunger on him” herself.

Jeff went several months without hearing from the state, and he began to believe that her threat had been an empty one.  Had he known Siegler better, he would not have made this mistake.  To say that Kelly Siegler is the apotheosis of the ultra-conservative, hang-em-high spirit of Texas-style justice is to understate the reality by miles.  She is a throwback to an earlier era, a retrograde, antediluvian tyrant dressed in a short skirt and stilettos. Her father was a Justice of the Peace in Blessing, Texas, and he still operates a barbershop-cum-liquor store there.  Her cold case file is labeled the “waiting on God” file, a title I hope you will recall two days from now when her tactics will be laid bare to you.  Though you might not know her name, you might have heard or even seen some of her courtroom tactics on the news.  The examples I could give are numerous, but the one that sticks in my mind most concretely involves the case of Susan Wright.

Wright murdered her husband by tying him up in bed and then stabbing him 193 times.  If I recall correctly, he had been abusive and she finally snapped.  At trial, Siegler had the bed assembled in court.  While the jury looked on, she had a colleague named Paul Doyle lie down on the bloody mattress.  Hitching her skirt up, she straddled him and then proceeded to reenact the murder, all 193 stabs.  This may seem like a calculated risk to you.  After all, 193 thrusts of a knife is one attack per second for more than three minutes.  A reasonable juror might perceive this degree of overkill to be reminiscent of a human being no longer mentally present.  This in turn might have bolstered the defense’s claims that Wright was pushed to her breaking point by physical abuse.  Siegler knows her craft well, however, and she knew that this simple act of theater was enough to wipe logical thought from the minds of the jury, leaving only their emotional brains active. These sorts of manipulations are one of the reasons why a “jury of one’s peers” was a bad idea at conception and an even worse idea today, but try selling the idea of professional jurors to this state and see how far you get.  Trials are supposed to be about facts, but when objective truth is missing or runs contrary to the government’s narrative, prosecutors happily supply enough drama and folksy wisdom to emotionally sandblast jurors; this is such a common tactic it’s now taken for granted.  Still, few do it to the degree of Kelly Siegler.  She has, by my count, sent 19 men to death row.  For this grisly record, deeply Republican Texas has showered her with honors.

For instance, Siegler ran for and nearly won the head DA’s office in Harris County in 2008.  Had it not been for the massive dissatisfaction felt by the electorate for all things ultra-conservative which resulted from eight years of George W. Bush’s Reign of Error, she probably would have won easily.  Had that taken place, had she won, this article would never have been written because the truth about Jeff’s case would have been buried.  As it was, when the moderate Republican Pat Lycos bested Siegler at the polls, the friction which developed between their personalities and styles of seeking justice made it necessary for Siegler and her cadre of loyalists to leave the office.  This allowed certain facts to come to light, which will be discussed shortly.  In the intervening years, Siegler has passed the time in private practice, apparently suing “criminals” on the behalf of victims in civil court.  She occasionally comes out of retirement every blue moon to act as a hitman for underfunded counties in need of special prosecutors to handle death penalty cases.  For instance, several years back Wharton County had an iffy capital case, and they weren’t sure that they had the money or the experience to push a death sentence across the goal line.  Siegler stepped in and secured the conviction.  She simply cannot keep her hands off of the medicalized gibbet.  You can currently witness her smug superiority on the TNT program Cold Justice, a title, which, I think, conveys a bit more information than Siegler intended.  The entire show is a public relations blitz designed to insulate her from the huge number of rotten cases that have sailed through the reliably pro-prosecution Texas state courts but which are now cracking open under the scrutiny of federal judges.  She is immensely clever.  I will grant the woman that.

Jeff was scheduled to be released to a halfway house on 30 August 2001.  On 5 July, the state charged him with capital murder for the deaths of Steve Herrera and Nilda Tirado (the children were left off of the indictment; in case the state lost, this would give them a second bite at the apple without violating the principle of double jeopardy).  The probable cause warrant prepared by Detective Brown makes for some very interesting reading.  Prible’s sexual relationship with Nilda is mentioned, as is the fact that he was the last person seen with the victims prior to their murders.  Entirely fictitious ballistics “evidence” was submitted claiming that the slug recovered next to Nilda’s body was “consistent with a .38 caliber pistol.”  I say that this data is a fabrication because it is clear from documents later submitted at trial that the weapon used was actually a 9 mm.  In addition, by 11 October 2002 – two days before trial – the State was still claiming that its firearms examiner had not completed his report.  If the report was incomplete, how did they use the report a year before to indict?  (It should also be noted that it is a common tactic down here in Yee-Haw Land to delay final submission of reports to the defense, as it prevents them from being able to complete preparations until the day of the trial.)  The State’s reason for conjuring up fake ballistics evidence is very simple:  Jeff had once purchased a .38 caliber pistol from Carter’s Country gun store which the police could not locate when they searched his residence.  Therefore, according to their narrative, he simply must have used it to kill his friend and lover and then ditched it, right?  Right.  The simple truth is that the State never once asked Jeff or his father about the whereabouts of the pistol. In any case, Jeff had sold the gun to a friend named Christine Bartola, who later told defense counsel that she had bought the gun legally because she had been repeatedly threatened by a stalker.  Jeff had documentation of this sale, and thus the State was forced to switch its story at trial regarding the very evidence it had used to convince a judge to arraign him.

Upon being arraigned, Jeff was placed in isolation at FCI Beaumont Low for approximately three weeks, upon which he was transferred to population at the Beaumont Medium facility.  This was a very odd turn of events.  He should have been taken to the Harris County Jail to await trial.  If for some odd reason the feds desired to hold him, he should have been kept in solitary confinement at the very least, being the suspected killer of five people.  The fact that he instead ended up in a regular tank with full privileges should have been a warning sign to Jeff, but he didn’t know better.  Had he known that Kelly Siegler had placed him exactly where she wanted him, he probably would have been more careful.  Instead, he was a sitting duck.

To read Day Four, click here

Ronald Jeffrey Prible 999433
Polunsky Unit
3872 FM 350 South
Livingston, TX 77351

Thomas Whitaker 999522
Polunsky Unit
3872 FM 350 South
Livingston, TX 77351

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