The last two episodes in this series have focused on bad actors in high places: Ken Paxton, the current Attorney General of Texas, Billy Sol Estes, the man who accused LBJ of murdering JFK, and John Paschall, the former District Attorney of Robertson County, Texas whose low-down behavior was chronicled in a feature film. These shocking tales of sin and sedition are recounted in the service of our main story. In 2009, Shaun Cooks was falsely accused of firing two shots at a sheriff’s deputy in the dead of night. (If you haven’t been following Shaun Cooks story, you can catch up here.)
At his trial in 2010, Shaun’s prior criminal record was used to enhance his sentence to life in prison. All the charges filed against Shaun were manufactured out of thin air by Mr. Paschall. All of them.
As you might have guessed from reading the last episode in this series, Paschall is a psychopath. In the popular mind, psychopaths are sadistic criminals, as in “psychopathic killer”. While it is certainly true that the perpetrators of the ritualistic murders featured on cop dramas fit the psychopathic job description, psychopaths are found on both sides of the law and in every conceivable profession. Some are sadistic; some aren’t. Some are drawn to the world of crime; others, like Mr. Paschall, gravitate to law enforcement.
There are over twenty traits in the psychopathic makeup, but, in the interest of brevity, I will focus on eight primary characteristics: lying and manipulation, lack of morality and a tendency to break rules, lack of empathy or cold heartedness), narcissism and a sense of personal superiority, psychological bullying, lack of contrition or remorse, poor impulse control, and superficial charisma.
Full-blown Psychopaths are primarily male (75%) and constitute between 1 and 4% of the general population (depending on which study you believe). Another 10% of the population display psychopathic tendencies. The earliest studies of psychopathy were conducted by Robert Hare, a Canadian who initially limited his attention to prison inmates, a group far more likely than the general population to fit the description. But Hare quickly realized that there were a lot of “successful psychopaths” who displayed the eight characteristics mentioned earlier while rising to the top of their professions.
I won’t give you the complete list of occupations that attract the highest percentage of psychopaths, but you will be interested to learn that preachers are in eighth place, police officers are seventh, lawyers come in second and first prize goes to CEOs of major corporations.
Pundits and psychotherapists often call Donald Trump a psychopath because he checks every single box. In fact, many regard Trump as a classic psychopath; and yet he is idolized by millions, including 80% of self-described evangelical Christians. Trump voters aren’t necessarily blind to his psychopathic tendencies. When Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, was asked why he supported a tough-talking man who was twice divorced, paid off porn stars, and refused to make good on his debts. Jeffress replied that Trump might not score that highly as a Christian, but that’s not what he looked for in a political leader. “I couldn’t care less about that leader’s temperament or his tone or his vocabulary,” he said. “Frankly, I want the meanest, toughest son of a gun I can find.”
In other words, psychopaths qualify as villains or heroes depending on the circumstances.
The citizens of Robertson County agreed with pastor Jeffress. Paschall might be a foul-mouthed, heavy-drinking politician with questionable business ethics, but crime-fighting isn’t for the faint-of-heart.
Paschall, as we have seen, was a district attorney famous for micromanaging the work of the local narcotics task force. He was part politician, part cop, and part lawyer. He was ruthless, comfortable with the chaos of police work, and heedless of consequence. Sure, he was cold-hearted and never apologized; but isn’t that the kind of man you want staring down the bad guys?
At times, Paschall tested his limits too vigorously. Twice, he was voted out of office and ultimately lost his law license after being convicted of defrauding a helpless widow of her life’s savings. Even then, he was let off with a slap on the wrist.
It is impossible to comprehend Shaun Cooks’ close encounters with the criminal justice system until it is understood that Robertson County was a police state in the iron grip of a full-blown psychopath. The same behavior patterns Paschall manifested in the highly-profile American Violet fiasco were on full display in the DA’s utterly anonymous interactions with Shaun Cooks.
Shaun Cooks is NOT a psychopath. If he was, I wouldn’t be telling his story. Psychopaths, as we have seen, paint a picture of reality that makes them look good. If you catch them in a lie, they will ignore you and keep talking about how wonderful they are. That’s John Paschall; that’s not Shaun Cooks.
Shaun admits, right up front, that he started running the streets in Junior High School. He dropped out of school and got kicked out of his mother’s home because of it. Most of his uncles (whom he greatly admired) were “in the life”. That is, there were a lot of drug dealers in their social circle and, slinging drugs being one of the few ways of making real money in little towns like Hearne, they succumbed to that lifestyle. So did Shaun.
By the time he was 16, Shaun had a reputation. The cops hadn’t charged him with any crimes. Not yet. But they knew his uncles, they knew his brothers, they knew his cousins. In the eyes of law enforcement, anyone in that social circle was suspect. No matter how hard they worked to stay straight, they were suspect. And Shaun wasn’t trying all that hard.
We have also seen that John Paschall’s daughters had a lot of black friends, including members of Shaun’s family. Being a self-confessed racist, the DA got sideways with his children over their choice of playmates. This, as we saw in the previous episode, came back to bite Paschall when his daughter, Amy, emerged as a star character witness. In short, by the time he hit 16, Shaun was on the radar or the local cops and, more to the point, had found a place on Paschall’s little list of society’s offenders.
There were two things voters expected of district attorneys in the 1990s: they had to “clean up the drug situation” and they had to ensure that ever crime had a criminal.
Finding a criminal for every crime was the stickiest proposition. If somebody breaks into your business and makes off with money and valuables, the last thing you want to hear is “sorry, there’s nothing we can do.” On the other hand, if the DA tells you they found the guy, you aren’t likely to ask too many questions.
In August of 1996, a sixteen-year-old Shaun Cooks was walking toward the Columbus Village Apartments, a low-rent housing development that Paschall said needed to be bombed to the ground. It was a blustery morning with steady rainfall. Shaun didn’t have any big plans for the day; as usual, he just looking to hang with his friends. Suddenly, he saw a handful of police officers exiting their vehicles and running in his direction. They drew their weapons as they approached, screaming at him to drop to his knees. He complied.
Gradually, Shaun pieced the story together. The owner of the local pawn shop, noticed that twenty-three handguns had gone missing overnight. The officers immediately drove to the Black side of town and Shaun was the first “usual suspect” they met. They drove Shaun to the pawnshop and tried to get him to confess to the crime. After confiscating a couple of cassette tapes from his jeans pocket, they hauled him off to the county jail in nearby Franklin.
Shaun could never understand why they wanted to pin the crime on him. The situation grew more desperate when he learned that a bank had also been robbed on the evening in question. As bank robberies go, it hadn’t amounted to much. Unable to lay his hands on anything of value, the burglar took down some framed bank notes in various denominations that were displayed on the wall. The broken frames were later discovered in a dumpster on the far side of the railway tracks. Whoever robbed the pawnshop, police assumed, must have done the bank job as well.
Shaun’s home was searched and no incriminating evidence was recovered. Paschall told Shaun’s attorney that Shaun would be charged with illegal possession of a fire arm, a serious enhancement.
Though still a minor, Shaun was placed in the adult population at the county jail. After a few days, an officer arrived with a subpoena and drew some blood—he didn’t say why. Eventually, Shaun was released on a personal recognizance bond. It was eventually revealed that a drop of Shaun’s blood had been found on a piece of broken glass from one of the picture frames discovered in the dumpster. At least that was the story.
Shaun’s first inclination was to take the case to trial. Since he hadn’t stolen anything, the blood on the glass in the dumpster must have been fabricated using the blood sample he had given. It had been raining hard all night, so, even if someone did cut their hand on the glass, the blood would have washed away. Besides, at the time of arrest there were no cuts on his hands or any other part of his body.
Fearful that a case this comically weak might be hard to win, Paschall told Shaun’s attorney that he was willing to settle for two years of probation on each charge. It is commonly assumed that innocent people don’t plead guilty. If you are of that persuasion, check out the earlier episode on “The Sorry Lawyer Syndrome.”
In Robertson County, hardly anyone took a chance with a jury. Juries often display a kind of situational psychopathy. Perfectly pleasant men and women, who love their dogs and dote on their families, can manifest a complete lack of empathy for criminal defendants. In earlier generations, kindly church people easily morphed into sadistic lynch mobs if the right situational cues were present. Prosecutors like John Paschall know how to nurture situational psychopathy in the courtroom.
Paschall was playing the long game. A young man like Shaun Cooks could be useful in a variety of ways. There was bound to be break-in sooner or later that Paschall couldn’t pin on anybody. Point the finger at Shaun, and with two prior convictions for a similar crime already on his record, evidence would be unnecessary. On the other hand, a clever kid like Shaun might resolve his legal problems by joining Paschall’s cadre of confidential informants.
Paschall didn’t lay awake at nights dreaming up ways of screwing Shaun Cooks. He was focused on the big picture: annual drug sweeps in the Black end of town, closing low-evidence burglary cases, and burnishing his tough-on-crime credentials. Paschall kept his eye out for promising talent in the same way a college coach keeps tabs on promising high school athletes.
The first two years of probation passed without incident. Shaun showed up for his monthly appointments with his probation officer and struggled to keep his fees up to date. Then two young men from his neighborhood held up a liquor store. Dwayne (“Half Dead”) Hendricks, a kid about Shaun’s age, was arrested for the crime, but his accomplice was still at large and Hendricks was refusing to name names.
Paschall saw his opportunity. He asked the probation officer if Shaun had any violations and, learning that his account was a couple of dollars in arrears, instructed the officer to revoke his probation. As a consequence, Shaun was looking at between two and four years of prison time.
Shaun insisted that he had nothing to do with the liquor store caper. The gun used in the robbery had been found at the home of T.D. Stancill, hidden in a dog house in his backyard. Shaun knew that Stancill was reputed to be one of Paschall’s snitches, so he feared the worst.
Locked up in the Robertson County Jail in Franklin, Shaun visited the facility’s meager law library on a daily basis. Paschall poked his head into the room, flashed a grin, and tell the guard, “Ain’t he something special!” When Shaun kept up his daily visits to the library, Paschall grew more direct. “Them books ain’t gonna save you,” he snarled.
It gradually dawned on Paschall’s prisoner that the orderly world depicted in the law books had no bearing in Robertson County. When he ended his excursions to the library, Shaun says, Paschall got up in his face in the hallway and said, “Now you ready to be my friend?” Shaun told the DA to go to hell and Paschall scheduled a probation revocation hearing. Shaun was sentenced to four years and shipped off to the State Jail in Jacksboro.
But Shaun’s refusal to snitch or plea only delayed Paschall’s plans. He placed T.D. Stancill in the same cell as Hendricks. Predictably, Stancill was soon swearing that Hendricks had named Shaun as his accomplice.
While he was still adjusting to prison life, Shaun struck up a conversation with Derrick “Little D” Megress. Paschall was planning the ill-fated 2000 drug sweep that would eventually be featured in the film American Violet and wanted to use Megress as his snitch du jour. Little D feared that if he worked as Paschall’s “friend” he wouldn’t have a friend left in Hearne. But he feared for his safety if he stayed in prison. He had been treated for mental illness from his earliest days and was always on the verge of panic. Shaun wasn’t much bigger than “Little D”, but he was willing to fight when the occasion demanded it. Megress wasn’t, and that made him uniquely vulnerable.
After spending thirteen months in State Jail, Shaun was called back to Robertson County on a bench warrant. Paschall claimed he could put Shaun away for 99 years if he didn’t cop to being an accomplice in the liquor store robbery. He also wanted Shaun to serve as a confidential informant while in custody.
Fortunately, Shaun’s defense attorney, though not eager to take the case to trial, didn’t roll over and play dead. Shaun had been placed on adult probation while still a minor, so that gave him some leverage. If he was willing to sign a statement releasing Robertson County from any wrongdoing in that matter, and plead guilty to robbing the liquor store, a single year would be added to his sentence.
Once again, Shaun was forced to confess to a crime he didn’t commit. With great reluctance, he took the deal and was shipped off to the Goodman Unit in Jasper, Texas.
It wasn’t long before Shaun ran across Derrick Megress once again. Little D had faked twenty cases for Paschall, carefully following Red Crowell’s instructions by crushing crack rocks into powder and mixing it with baking powder. Most of Derrick’s targets were people from the neighborhood who had bullied and disrespected him over the years. Running out of enemies, he started faking cases on his friends and family members. When, in a moment of confusion and despair, he told his sister what he was up to, the word spread like wildfire: watch out for Little D.
It would be another four years before Shaun Cook saw the free world, but at least he retained a shred of self-respect. But his decision to plead guilty to three crimes of which he was entirely guiltless would come back to haunt him a decade later. Shaun Cooks would be back in the free world by now if he had pled guilty to firing two shots at a sheriff’s deputy. But he wasn’t playing that game anymore. Can you blame him?