SOMERVILLE, Tex. — Joshua Aaron Hall had been a resident of the Burleson County Jail for about a week when he requested a meeting with Gene Hermes, the sheriff’s investigator who had locked him up for violating probation. The stocky lawman arrived in the featureless interview room on the morning of Dec. 13, 2013, placed his soda cup on the table and apologized for not getting there sooner. He asked in his gravelly drawl if they would be talking about Mr. Hall’s own case.
“No,” said Mr. Hall, a methamphetamine user and petty criminal who was facing his most serious jail time. “I want to give you something else.”
Mr. Hall reminded the investigator that they had spoken previously about the narcotics trade in the vast flatlands of central Texas. “Gene, you said you wanted to eradicate the problem,” Mr. Hall said. “And I’ve been thinking for the past couple of days that, you know, maybe I’m put in this position to help you do this.”
“All right,” the investigator said.
“I know of an illegal grow operation,” Mr. Hall volunteered.
Investigator Hermes nodded. “Big grow, small grow?”
“It’s kind of small,” Mr. Hall said, before catching himself. “But that ain’t the point. It’s illegal. Weapons are involved.”
The scruffy informant, outfitted in black-and-white stripes, told the investigator that he had a friend named Henry Magee who lived in a double-wide trailer off Deer Running Road in Somerville. Mr. Magee, he said, had been cultivating marijuana hydroponically in the front left bedroom. When Mr. Hall had last been there, not long before his arrest, he had seen a dozen six-foot stalks ready for harvest.
“I mean, you open the door and it reeks like weed,” he said.
He told the investigator that Mr. Magee went by Hank, and that he was white and close to 30 years old. He had a girlfriend and worked intermittently as a roughneck in the oil fields. When off the rigs, he liked to ride dirt bikes and shoot guns out behind his trailer.
Mr. Hall skirted any direct negotiation for leniency until the end of the conversation. “I don’t need prison,” he suggested, scratching his scalp. “I need rehab, man.”
“That’s going to be up to the courts; you know that,” Investigator Hermes replied.
Articles in this series examine the toll of forcible-entry search warrant raids.
He tapped his pen on his notepad. Had Mr. Magee ever said what he would do if law enforcement showed up?
“He’s a laid-back guy, he really is,” Mr. Hall answered. Then again, he said, he had seen two rifles and three handguns at Mr. Magee’s place: “I mean, the boy is ready for war — with who I don’t know. I’m just giving you that information because if the boy does grab a hold of a gun, try not to shoot him.”
The investigator answered dryly, “Yeah, I don’t wake up every day wanting to shoot somebody.”
“But I can understand if y’all’s life is put in danger,” Mr. Hall said.
“Right,” the deputy said, “well, that’s a bad thing when somebody grabs a gun when we walk up.”
ALREADY SADDLED WITH A HEAVY CASELOAD, Investigator Hermes shared a video of the interview with a colleague, Fredrich Adam Sowders.
Burly and bearish, with a close-cropped sponge of ginger hair, Investigator Sowders (pronounced SO-durs) had spent all of his 31 years kicking about the prairie dust of Burleson County (population 17,000, and 53,000 cattle). His family was well known in Somerville, where his grandfather had owned the Gulf station and his mother managed the Wine & Roses florist shop.
Investigator Sowders had been drawn to law enforcement since at least age 16, when he followed his father and grandfather into volunteer firefighting. While other boys studied baseball cards, young Adam memorized police scanner codes. He had joined the Sheriff’s Office in 2006, after a stint as a town police officer. The sheriff named him officer of the year in 2011 and promoted him to sergeant investigator in 2013. Friends and fellow officers called him Big A.
The investigators knew Mr. Hall was untested as an informant. But there is nothing in court documents to suggest that they took steps to corroborate his story, or even to pull his criminal record. Nor did they arrange for a “controlled buy” through an undercover agent. Their sleuthing, it seems, consisted largely of driving past Mr. Magee’s trailer to take photographs.
Nonetheless, five days after getting the tip, Investigator Sowders consulted the district attorney’s office and typed an application for a search warrant. In a three-page affidavit, he summarized Mr. Hall’s allegations and described the trailer’s location. He closed by asking for authority to raid the residence without first knocking on the door, a tactic allowed by the Supreme Court when the police demonstrate a “reasonable suspicion” that announcing themselves beforehand would be dangerous or risk destruction of evidence.
The deputy omitted Mr. Hall’s description of his “laid-back” friend, and wrote,“Hall advised that Magee has made the statement that he is not afraid to use the weapons that he has.”
The affidavit also did not disclose that Mr. Hall was trying to cut a deal from jail. Instead, Investigator Sowders wrote that the interview took place “at the Sheriff’s Office” (which is in the same building). He did not mention that Mr. Magee had no record of violence, only misdemeanor convictions for marijuana possession and intoxicated driving. The affidavit also did not disclose, because the investigators did not know, that Mr. Magee’s girlfriend, Kori White, was four months pregnant.
That afternoon, the deputy had the warrant signed by a district judge, Reva L. Towslee Corbett. It authorized him “to dispense with the usual requirement that you will knock and announce your purpose before entering.”