Timeline of Corruption in Swisher County, Texas

The Dishonorable Judge Harold Keeter
The Dishonorable Judge Harold Keeter

I was recently contacted by former and current employees of the Swisher County legal system, including deputies, secretaries and other functionaries regarding over a decade of corruption. This corruption seemingly centers around a single individual, Judge Harold Keeter, who has used his position of authority and influence to protect abusive and neglectful law enforcement officers and to bury their many civil rights abuses against citizens and honest LEOs. Keeter is also the county manager and is de facto  supervisor of other departments, including the sheriff. The following article contains a lot of information, some of it verifiable and some of it in the form of as yet unproven accusations I received from those involved. The accusers hope bringing this to national attention will highlight the issues so that Keeter and his cronies can fight these claims in a court of law and be brought to justice. Because my sources fear retaliation or are involved in ongoing legal issues, they have asked not to be named.

The Tulia Travesty is one of the most shocking cases of racism and corruption in recent times.
The Tulia Travesty is one of the most shocking cases of racism and corruption in recent times.

July 23, 1999- The Swisher County Sheriff’s Department arrested 43 people in Tulia on suspicion of dealing drugs. Of those arrested, thirty nine were black (12% of the entire 10% population of blacks in Tulia), leading many to believe that the operation was motivated by racism and the personal bigotries and agendas of law enforcement officers, county prosecutors and the court. Some of the accused are still in prison while others had their lives ruined in the process. The lead investigating officer was later brought to court to face charges of perjury, which resulted in a six million dollar loss to taxpayers. Yet consequences for those involved were either minute or non-existent. The department itself has yet to be investigated by state officials who tend to cite the issue only when it becomes politically expedient. This incident is said to have begun an era of local corruption which continues to this day.

August 7, 2000- Under the threat of lawsuit by local mental health authorities a 21-year old man with a severe mental handicap was released from jail after thirteen months. Felipe Rodriguez was held in general jail population after committing two acts of arson and stealing a neighbor’s toy box, even long after officials had declared him unfit to face these charges due to mental incompetence. As part of his release, all charges were dropped, thanks to efforts of mental health officials.

[Although there appears to be a large gap incidents, many incidents occurred during this time as a result of the 1999 Tulia Travesty. Also, many incidents during this time would not be investigated, officially reported or brought to trial until later. When I received all of this information from my sources, I decided that a timeline was the best way to make sense of it, but the web is indeed tangled beyond any such simple reporting formats.]

May 14, 2011- Louis A. Garcia Jr. hangs himself in the Swisher County jail. A later lawsuit alleges that improper surveillance equipment and protocols prevented responsible officials from preventing the suicide. This is part of a problem the Swisher Jail has faced for years and continues to this day. Improper facilities, equipment and staffing have been longstanding problems and various agencies have threatened to shut down the jail.

February 2013- Terry Borum was arrested on an outstanding warrant. Borum, who attempted suicide in 2010, required special feeding devices due to injuries sustained in said attempt. Judge Keeter, who did not want to spend $80 per day for proper care and treatment of the inmate, recommended jailers feed him honey and lemon juice. Jailers who reported that the judge’s methods were insufficient were ignored and after three days, as a result of starvation, Borum lost consciousness and fell. Head injuries sustained during the fall led to his death two days later. His family has filed a lawsuit against Swisher County.

August 2013- Not long after having been appointed by Judge Keeter to replace Sheriff Benavidez, Sheriff Cody Grubb decides to retire after staffing and other health and safety issues in the Swisher County Jail are ignored by county officials. Feeling that he was unable to do his job properly or ethically without local support, Grubb decides to move on. The jail issues are nothing new. Health and safety officials have been letting conditions slide by, yet the problems are known to the local justice system and amongst residents.

Emmett Benavidez- Fastest Grope in Texas
Emmett Benavidez- Fastest Grope in Texas

October 2013- Two female employees of Swisher County sued Judge Keeter and former Sheriff Benavidez for claims of sexual misconduct based on incidents going back to 2008. The women claimed they had repeatedly informed Judge Keeter of Benavidez’s unwanted advances and sexually-natured misconduct. Keeter threatened punishments if the story were leave his office. He responded by circumventing the proper legal channels and allowed the sheriff to resign his post favorably. Others continued to speak out and Benavidez was eventually convicted of Official Oppression in a neighboring county where one of the crimes took place, and given a feeble sentence. Accusations have also been made by a former inmate. A woman who spoke to my sources claims she was also harassed by the sheriff during a drug arrest in 2011. As a result, county prosecutors offered her a plea deal to keep the sexual harassment from surfacing, as the woman claims to have pictures the officer sent of his genitals.

September 2013- After the resignation of sheriff elect Benavides and then his appointed replacement Grubbs, Judge Keeter appoints long time friend and Swisher County Emergency Manager to the position of sheriff. Sheriff Burnie Wells was formerly a peace officer in Happy, Texas. After an incident of misconduct in which Well’s allowed an unlicensed teenager to drive and then violated the same teen’s civil rights, the City of Happy allowed him to quietly resign in order to keep the incident out of the public spotlight. At the time of his appointment in Swisher County, Wells was not in possession of his Texas Peace Officer License, which is required of all policing agents in Texas. Exceptions were made and Wells was allowed to circumvent the legal requirements to continue working in a field he was not licensed to. He was also allowed to skip much of the process required by Texas State Law in order to be re-certified.

November 2013- Former Swisher County Justice of the Peace Priscilla Sanders is convicted of tampering with government records. The conviction comes from an incident in which Sanders illegally signed documents favoring her cousin in a child custody case against the child’s mother. Sanders later won an appeal in the case based on her supposed ignorance of the laws which she had broken while serving as the ultimate arbiter of local law. Local skeptics are concerned that her appeal was carried out by those wishing to keep the corruption buried.

December 21, 2013- Burnie Wells responds to a hit and run in which a young man is killed by a passing motorist while dealing with automotive troubles. A DWI suspect not far from the scene is allowed to leave, even though there is a possible connection. The crime scene, according to other law enforcement officials, is completely botched, and Tulia police are refused assistance and asked to leave. As a result the death of the young man goes unsolved and the victim’s mother is told she will have no recompense nor any avenue of legal recourse in the matters. To make matters far worse, the girlfriend of the man who was killed was at the scene and who not only had to watch the events and bungling of the crime scene, but also watched Sheriff Wells urinate in proximity to the body of the now lifeless young man she loved.

December 30, 2013- Ramiro Rutiaga Junior rolled his car on a highway early in the morning. Tulia police attempted to alert Sheriff Wells to the accident in his jurisdiction, but were unable to reach him for forty-five minutes, as he had left his department entirely unstaffed and did not reroute calls to his home in another county miles away, in dereliction of his duties. Forty-five minutes after the original call, a Fed Ex Truck collides with Ramiro, killing him. Stranded at the scene of the accident while responders were unavailable, many felt that the death was the result of dereliction by Wells and his department. The ‘official’ story was later changed for consumption by media in order to cover up the infraction of Swisher County officials.

Sheriff Burnie Wells, comic book vision of corruption come to life.
Sheriff Burnie Wells, comic book vision of corruption come to life.

June 2014- A black family from Tulia were driving around looking to purchase junk cars for projects. Billy Britten, a white man who was also a personal friend of Sheriff Wells, began following the family in an aggressive manner. When the family pulled over to ask Billy why he was following them, he pulled a shotgun on the family. Moments later, Sheriff Wells pulled up to the scene. The family then pleaded for his assistance with the shotgun-wielding stranger. Wells’ response was to tell his friend to leave the scene and to immediately begin brutalizing the father, while threatening the mother with further violence for recording the entire scene. He then arrested the father for driving without a license and placed him in jail. Although investigations have all pointed to wrongdoing, no further action has been taken against Swisher County or Sheriff Wells, who did not win a re-election in 2014 and was honorably discharged.

October 1, 2014- Sheriff Wells hires a new deputy and immediately attempts to recruit her to conspire against the county worker who is involved in the sexual harassment suit against Benevidez, as well as those in county employment who have agreed to testify on her behalf. The deputy was hired under the auspice of creating a K9 unit, but when she refused to conspire against her fellow employees, she became a target of Wells’ harassment. Within a month, the harassment becomes so bad that she intends to resign but is fired while trying to do so. The K9 unit is disbanded. One of the employees who had agreed to take the stand on behalf of the plaintiff in the sexual harassment suit against the county are also fired, while one is offered an honorable discharge for her resignation. The plaintiff is also fired. She later wins a settlement in the sexual harassment suit. Two of the fired employees are now in a legal battle with Swisher County over the retaliation Wells engaged in.

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The Corruption That Keeps On Giving

November 2014- My sources allege that somewhere during this time, Sheriff Wells hired a young woman who bore no qualifications as a patrol officer. When this was reported to the Texas Commission of Law Enforcement, Wells was forced to remove the employee from the streets and place her at a desk job. Wells claimed ignorance of the job requirements of a patrol officer and was not reprimanded for his behavior. — At this point I would like to mention that many of the infractions committed by Keeter and the menagerie of corrupt Sheriffs under his supervision were reported to the TCoLE, yet the agency has repeatedly failed to uphold any accountability.

 

Further accusations made by my sources-
Mike Chriswell, Swisher County DA, kept his mouth shut and allowed the many injustices that Swisher County Citizens have endured but It was only to be ignored. Criswell has followed Judge Keeter’s orders over and over again and swept so much under the rug.

Swisher County Texas
Swisher County Texas

I find it funny that the evidence locker in Swisher County is missing evidence on active cases. I worked in the evidence room…Wells ordered me to go organize it. How regulates how evidence rooms are kept? There was missing evidence, stuff that wasn’t tagged. The chain of custody is missing on most items. I don’t know if all the drugs that have been collected over the years are even there?. There are several firearms that weren’t tagged or labeled. Some had been reported missing and never returned to the rightful owners. There was no inventory list. No one can be held accountable. Swisher County cases depend on a well-organized evidence room. Some people have been convicted for breaking the law and the evidence is missing. There are no destruction orders anywhere to be found anywhere. I KNOW FOR A FACT that the DEA issued drugs to the Sheriff’s office and some of them are still there. No one at the DEA even cares that Cocaine, Heroin, and Marijuana in large quantities are locked in a safe that every Sherriff has had access to. I contacted the DEA…  No one at Swisher County has a DEA license now. The DEA didn’t want to drive down to pick up the drugs so they remain in a safe. The Ex Sheriffs like Larry Stewart still does the firearms training and takes care of the Computers for Swisher County. I have seen Stewart open that safe as well as been given use of a key to the evidence room to remove weapons for training.

It is the duty of the County Judge to look out for the best interest of Swisher County. Judge Keeter has not been accountable for any decision that he has made for entire term of 20 years. There has been one lawsuit after another since 2000. Keeter overrules the Commissioners court and is the final say in what happens in Swisher County. This needs to be looked into and proper measures to insure that justice is served to all affected by this corrupt county. Someone has to stand up for Justice System and help make a change. Removing Keeter from his position would be a good start. Fifteen years of law suits and victims, isn’t that enough. I don’t understand why Keeter didn’t make a change after the Tulia Travesty. The Honorable Judge Harold Keeter is the common link in every single incident that has occurred in Swisher County. I hope this helps you to understand the severity of this chain of events.

Judge Keeter has been acting County Judge for over twenty years, a time during which numerous criminal acts, corruption and other abuses occurred by county employees under his supervision. He was responsible for the appointment of his personal friend Sheriff Burns, who seems like something out of a comic book which is attempting to mock the Texas Justice System. In fact, the entire Swisher County apparatus seems to have degenerated into some kind of half-century old stereotype under the supervision and direction of Judge Harold Keeter. His removal will be a great first step in bringing the people of Swisher County, Texas a fair and just system and will relieve the tax-payers of the burden of an unending string of lawsuits that will cost them millions of dollars.

However, I would like to point out, it does not end there. All of this was also happening under the knowledge of the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, who turned a blind eye to incident after incident of corruption and allowed honest LEOs and citizens to become victims of institutionalized corruption. And what of the state of Texas itself, which allowed that Commission to act in derelict of its duties? And what of federal investigators and court systems whose job it is to route out and prosecute such blatant corruption? Where does the chain of accountability end and begin?

And the biggest question of all, despite the events in Swisher County seeming like some Hollywood thriller about corruption and injustice: has this sort of hyperbolistic vision of law enforcement become more normal than not? Is Swisher County an isolated pocket of cartoonish evil, or is this becoming more common than we would like to admit?

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Alia Atreides

Hi, my name is Trevor. Thanks for reading!