Teamwork takes down a sexual predator

By Amanda Navarette
District Attorney in Crane and Winkler Counties, and

Kortney Williams
Assistant District Attorney in Ector County

Helen Keller once said, “Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much.” Never was this more apparent to us than in a recent case we tried in Ector County.

By way of introduction, Amanda is the 109th District Attorney for Crane and Winkler Counties, and Kortney is an Assistant District Attorney in Ector County handling sex cases. We have been acquainted for a few years, as Amanda previously worked as both a prosecutor and a defense attorney in Ector County and even bequeathed to ­Kortney her very comfortable office chair when she left to become DA in a neighboring jurisdiction. But we had never worked a case together until we had the unfortunate luck of coming across a defendant named Vernon Lloyd Ritchey.

Background

When we met Mary (not her real name), the victim in this case, she was a hesitant, withdrawn, and sarcastic 16-year-old. When Ritchey met Mary, she was a happy, athletic, high-achieving elementary school student living in the small town of Wink (population less than 1,000). Ritchey and Mary’s families were friends, and they regularly saw each other at family functions, holidays, and barbecues. The two families became even closer when Mary’s mom became best friends with Ritchey’s wife.

            Around the time that Mary turned 12, Ritchey began to take a special interest in her. Mary and her younger brother would often spend the night at Ritchey’s home in Odessa (in Ector County), and he began to touch her inappropriately in the middle of the night while everyone else was asleep. This inappropriate touching soon progressed into a full-blown sexual relationship. Ritchey knew exactly what to do and say to make Mary essentially “fall in love” with him. He complimented her, often calling her “goddess,” and played on her very normal preteen insecurities.

            The first time Ritchey and Mary had sex was at Ritchey’s house in Ector County when Mary was 13. Ritchey gave a cell phone to her, and the two began communicating as if they were a couple. Ritchey became even bolder in his pursuit of the girl when he accepted a job in Wink—Mary lived with her family just a mile from his job site. Ritchey began to pick Mary up—in his GPS-equipped work vehicle—during lunch and after school shortly after she turned 14. Mary told her family she was a manager of the basketball team and needed to stay after school, but in reality, Ritchey was taking her down an oilfield dirt road to have sex with her in his truck.

            The last time Ritchey sexually assaulted Mary was at her house on a day she was home sick from school. He parked his truck across the street and walked to her house, and they proceeded to have sex on the couch. They were interrupted by Mary’s stepdad who randomly stopped by the house for lunch. Believing she was in love with him, Mary attempted to cover for Ritchey, and Ritchey pretended to be stopping by the house for a “bathroom emergency” and to take photographs of the collectibles that Mary’s dad kept in a back room. As often happens in sexual assault cases involving family friends, Ritchey was able to talk himself out of a sticky situation. Mary finally outcried to her parents about the abuse a few months later when her mom found the cell phone that Ritchey had given her.

An agreement to work together

This case was originally investigated by the Wink Police Department, consisting of the Chief of Police and one other officer, in May 2018. After they realized that Ritchey’s crimes encompassed two counties, Winkler and Ector, the Wink Chief of Police reached out to the Texas Rangers for assistance. The Rangers, in turn, contacted Amanda Navarrete and then-first assistant in Ector County, Justin Cunningham, who assigned the case to Kortney Williams. Texas law has flexible jurisdictional rules for sexual assaults and other cases involving children that allow cases to be prosecuted in multiple jurisdictions. Because some of these sexual offenses happened in Winkler County where Mary lived and some of them happened in Ector County where Ritchey lived, they could all could be prosecuted together in either county or separately in each county.

            Both offices decided that the best place to try these cases was in Ector County because of the resources available, the fact that the offense with a higher charge (Continuous Sexual Abuse) occurred in Ector County, and the better sentencing climate. We also agreed that Mary should have to testify only once against her abuser. Ritchey was arrested and indicted in Ector County on the Continuous Sexual Abuse and Sexual Assault of a Child charges committed in Ector County and two counts of Sexual Assault of a Child committed in Winkler County.

            The Ector County half of our team (Kortney) immediately contacted the Winkler County half (Amanda), and it was agreed, mostly at Kortney’s insistence, that not only would these cases be prosecuted together, but also we would both participate in any potential jury trial. Almost immediately, it became apparent that due to a lack of resources and training on these particular cases, we had a lot of work ahead of us to put this case together in a cohesive and prosecutable format.

Difficulties in joint prosecution

What should have been an easily prosecutable case, especially given the GPS record from Ritchey’s truck that corroborated Mary’s story, turned out to be anything but. Due to both of our trial schedules and the schedule of the courts in our jurisdictions, Mary’s case was pending after indictment for about a year and a half before we had a realistic trial date. One of our main difficulties was juggling the schedule of our Winkler County half due to her prosecuting cases in multiple counties mixed with our Ector County half’s caseload. Amanda agreed to do all of the travelling—Kortney was very grateful!—and all of our meetings about this case happened either at the Ector County Courthouse or at local restaurants during lunch. We agreed pretty early on that Vernon Ritchey was a dangerous predator and needed to spend a significant amount time in prison. It became apparent that Ritchey was not willing to take any plea offer that resulted in prison time, so we began to prepare for the trial in earnest about two months before our scheduled trial date of January 29, 2020. We agreed to start the trial on a Friday to accommodate Amanda’s hectic schedule, as she is the sole prosecutor in both of her counties.

            In addition to scheduling issues, this case presented unique challenges when it came to the actual evidence. First, there were a ton of reports, videos, and photographs missing from our files. We didn’t discover these were missing, because they weren’t documented anywhere, until we started doing pretrial interviews. It seemed as though every potential witness we talked to said something like, “Didn’t you get that?” Our answer was most often a resounding “No.” These pretrial interviews provided numerous new pieces of evidence, including school records showing Mary was tardy to her after-lunch class one day, which corroborated her statement that Ritchey had sex with her during lunch that day and dropped her off late.

            Second was the issue of the physical evidence, including a vitally important pair of handcuffs that the defendant had bought and used on Mary. This physical evidence was being kept in multiple locations in Winkler County. Luckily, with the Rangers’ assistance, the unfailing efforts of Ector County DA Investigator Roland Cobos, some very helpful administrators at the Odessa Police Department, and much wrangling, we were able to transport the physical evidence to Ector County.

            Third, we discovered that only one of the four cell phones collected from Mary and Ritchey was ever searched. Each of the agencies involved in this case assumed that the other agencies had done the phone dumps, but nobody had. Again, luckily for us, the Odessa Police Department, which was never even contacted during the initial investigation, was happy to help.

            Fourth and perhaps most importantly was our ongoing fight about the GPS records. We knew from Mary’s original Children’s Advocacy Center (CAC) interview that multiple sexual assaults occurred in Ritchey’s work truck. We also found out shortly before trial that the Wink Police Department had not only requested the GPS records from Ritchey’s work truck but had also received and reviewed these records, which was a complete surprise to us. After attempting unsuccessfully to reach the company that possessed these records and after Kortney had angered the company’s corporate counsel in Ohio by refusing to let her be involved in pretrial interviews, Amanda stepped up and used not only her “District Attorney” title but also her calm demeanor to convince the company to resend us all of the GPS records. Our teamwork here was crucial and provided us with “slam dunk” corroboration to use at trial.

            In addition to the pretrial issues we had to address, we had to figure out who would handle which responsibilities during the trial. Kortney had home-court advantage, but Amanda had more experience. Kortney is more passionate and gets easily fired up about cases, while Amanda is more deliberate and steady. Amanda handled the “Winkler County” witnesses, including the police officers, Texas Ranger, and family members, all of whom she had a rapport with. ­Kortney handled Mary, the outcry witness (our CAC interviewer), the GPS witness and information, cross examination, and the sometimes hostile questioning of Ritchey’s wife. We also spent quite a bit of time considering our strengths and what would work for this trial. As a result of that deliberation, Amanda was put in charge of opening statement and first close, and Kortney handled voir dire and second close. Our strengths and weaknesses balanced each other out and the trial flowed exceptionally well.

Going to trial

We selected a jury on Friday, January 29. Our goal was to select jurors who would not be afraid of a big sentence but at the same time could relate to a teenage girl who at one time believed she was in love with her abuser.

            Mary’s mom testified first. She talked about the behavioral changes leading up to her daughter’s outcry. She had an extreme amount of guilt about not seeing Ritchey for the monster that he was, and that guilt was both extremely hard to witness and very relatable for the jury.

            Mary testified next. She was brave and tough. As with most victims in sexual assault cases, Mary was complicated. She was cold and analytical when talking about her abuse, and then she would burst into tears when she left our office or the witness stand. She had trouble going into detail about each instance of abuse but was rock-solid on the facts she was willing and able to talk about. She never wavered in her testimony, and the details she provided when she described how Ritchey coached her through her first time having sex were chilling for the jury and for us.

            After calling our CAC interviewer and law enforcement officers, we made the decision to call Ritchey’s wife to the stand. We debated whether or not to call her because she was still actively involved with the defendant, speaking to him on the phone several times a day and visiting him often. We did get her to corroborate small details about the Mary’s story, including several times Mary spent the night at their house or was with Ritchey alone. She also corroborated that the phone found in Mary’s possession belonged to her husband, though she claimed Mary must have stolen it. The most helpful thing Ritchey’s wife said was that she was glad we couldn’t access the text messages on Ritchey’s phone because it was “less evidence” for us, though she later attempted to backtrack on this statement.

            Following her testimony, we called Ritchey’s boss to the stand to explain the GPS records. We both spent numerous hours poring over the GPS data and came to the realization that we could line up Ritchey’s movements on multiple occasions that he had sex with Mary. On each of these instances, we tracked Ritchey to a church a block from her school where he picked her up each time, his drive out to that oil field road, and his return trip to the church to drop her off. We tracked two instances where he picked her up during lunch, one of which coincided with her being tardy, and seven times after school. We were also able to track Ritchey as he picked Mary and her brother up for a weekend at his house and even his trip to the mall to buy the handcuffs. Finally, we were able to trace Ritchey’s trip to Mary’s house, the one when her stepdad walked in on them, and could pull up a map that showed his truck parked down the block.

            Ritchey testified in his own defense, denied everything, and said Mary was a liar. Fortunately for us and unfortunately for him, his argument that all of our GPS evidence was a mere coincidence did not sway the jury. In fact, the jury convicted Ritchey of each count (Amanda helped Kortney not be too nervous while waiting what seemed like an eternity for a verdict) and sentenced him to 75 years on the Continuous charge and 20 years on each of the Sexual Assault charges. The judge stacked his sentences and he will serve 135 years in prison; it’ll be 105 years before he is eligible for parole.

Lessons learned

Our teamwork on this case resulted in a life sentence for a sexual predator, and we learned from each other throughout the process. First of all, we learned that when prosecuting cases with multiple jurisdictions, you have to be very effective communicators. When multiple law enforcement agencies work on a case, there can often be a lot of miscommunication. Looking back, we should have initially sat down with everyone involved and had serious conversations about where evidence should go and who should be the point person. Folks at the Odessa Police Department were supremely helpful, and we should have looped them in sooner.

            Second, even more so than in a normal case, we learned to plan for things to go wrong. When multiple agencies and jurisdictions are involved, things are bound to go sideways, and if you are prepared for that, you can do something about it. Third, we learned to prepare early. As prosecutors, we often find ourselves prepping witnesses for trial right until the moment we pick a jury and sometimes even during trial. When prosecuting a multi-jurisdictional case, though, these pre-trial meetings and preparation need to happen sooner. We found out extra information, which we were then able to pursue further, because we prepped early.

            Finally, we learned to remember that we are all in this together. Amanda’s steadiness and ­Kortney’s passion combined perfectly in this case—but only because we allowed each other to operate in our own areas of strength. It helped that we already knew each other, but our respect for one another and our friendship grew throughout the trial process.

            Each joint-county prosecution presents its own unique challenges and rewards, but when we remember that we really are better together, we can accomplish so much more than we ever could alone.