Gabrielle A. Massey
How one night changed this McLennan County prosecutor’s perception of property crimes
As a prosecutor assigned to the Crimes Against Children Division I am constantly in contact with survivors of sexual or physical abuse and their families. Helping these survivors of heinous crimes navigate the legal system is one of the things I enjoy most about my job; it gives me great satisfaction and joy to see the result of my cases for them and their families, and it is truly rewarding to be a part of their healing from the trauma of the offense and the process of bringing their cases to trial.
However, I never imagined I would find myself the victim of any crime and on the other side of one of the desks in our office: nervous, scared, and impatiently waiting to find out what would happen to the man who walked off the street, into my home and forever changed my view of what was “just a property crime.”
I live not far from the McLennan County Courthouse in a neighborhood made up of homes mostly built in the early 1900s. My small bungalow is actually one of the newest houses, having been built in 1932. The neighborhood is “transitional,” with the well-maintained Castle Heights neighborhood (yes, there is an actual castle) two blocks to the south and a shady “pay by the week” motel two blocks north. With the combination of my job, the rougher streets in the neighborhood, and my general love of animals, I am the proud owner of six dogs: four sweet and silly pit bulls, an American Staffordshire terrier rescue, and a very intimidating 18-pound cocker spaniel. As if six dogs is not enough protection—and as a single female prosecutor and Texan—I also have three handguns in my house and a small, wooden, lead-filled bat by my front door. My mother lives six doors down from me in a turn-of-the-century Victorian, and I have always felt safe walking to her house. That all changed on Thursday, June 27, 2013.
It had been a typical Texas summer day with the temperature reaching a sweltering 105 degrees. Late that evening, after it had finally cooled off enough to water my vegetable garden, I was out in my oversized backyard (it encompasses two lots). The garden is in the back corner, far from my house and back door, and I had all six of my dogs outside with me. About 10:00 p.m., the dogs started to bark and took off towards the neighbor’s side of my yard. I try to be considerate of my neighbor’s young children, and I do not let the dogs bark late into the night. Therefore, I called my dogs back so they wouldn’t disturb the kids’ sleeping.
Little did I know that at this exact time, Jonique Ramon Webster, a five-time convicted felon who had gotten out of the Hutchins Unit just that morning having served a 10-year sentence for burglary of a habitation out of Dallas County, was walking into my front door. I would later find out that Mr. Webster had been walking down my street and saw my next-door neighbor smoking a cigar on his porch; Webster had walked up and asked for a “hit.” My neighbor promptly gave him the cigar but was so uneasy at Mr. Webster’s strange demeanor and seeming intoxication that he immediately called 911.
After Mr. Webster left my neighbor’s porch with cigar in hand, he apparently walked straight up to my door and tried the door handle. Evidently (and embarrassingly), after arriving home from dinner that night either myself or the friend I was with had failed to lock the door behind us as we entered the house. My friend ended up leaving from the gate in my backyard, so neither of us had returned to the front door by the time Mr. Webster had discovered our error.
About 30 minutes later, I went inside with two of the dogs to feed them. I got their food ready and went to the front porch to feed my outside cat when I discovered I had unknowingly had a visitor.
I will never forget opening my front door and seeing a gray bicycle leaned against my porch. Although the bike looked familiar, I was very confused as to why someone would leave his bike outside my door. It did not occur to me that this bike had in fact come from my own home. Looking back, my confusion is laughable. However, in that moment my mind was racing, trying to make sense of the scene in front of me. I looked to the left, where two doors down is a doctor’s office and parking lot, and saw three police cars and a man wearing nothing but oversized shorts. At this time, I still had no idea what was going on or what had happened. I actually had the thought that this man might have accidentally left his bike on my front steps, as crazy as that sounds.
I then looked down and saw my driver’s license, concealed handgun license, and a credit card on the floor right inside the door. I looked at the table just inside my front door where I always set my purse and saw that my bag was lying on its side with my wallet open beside it and my badge partially visible. My brain was searching for some way to put what I was seeing together and make sense of it, yet the thought still had not occurred to me that someone could have been in my house. I actually thought, “Hmm, how did my purse fall open and all of its contents fall out?” I picked up my wallet and looked in it and saw that there was no cash. All the pieces came crashing together in my head as I was certain there should have been a small amount of cash in my wallet. When I looked in my wallet at dinner earlier in the evening, I had cash, so I knew there was something wrong—it was not just a strange series of events, such as my dogs knocking my purse over and causing its contents to spill in my living room. Someone had been in my home.
I immediately grabbed my wallet and driver’s license from the floor and headed out the front door towards the officers outside. As I was walking up to the parking lot where they were speaking with the half-dressed man, I realized I knew one of the officers. I actually had him subpoenaed for trial two weeks later. After a brief quizzical hello, I told them that I thought someone had been in my house and explained the scene inside my front door and on my porch.
At this point Mr. Webster (the half-dressed man) started yelling that he had done nothing wrong and had no idea what I was talking about. One of the officers handed me a small wireless receiver that looked like a flip cell phone and asked if it was mine. It was, and then one of the officers detained Mr. Webster, which prompted him to start screaming that he wasn’t going “back.” Officer Roy with the Waco Police Department pulled me aside and had me start writing a statement. If the last few minutes hadn’t been strange enough already, now I was staring at this blank “Statement of Witnessed Actions,” and I started shaking. I could barely think straight.
As I wrote my statement I kept thinking about how I was living one of the reports I read daily, and the experience was surreal. It is one thing to read the flat words of a witness statement in a sterile government office, but it’s an entirely different situation to have to put into words what I was experiencing while having the lights of the police vehicles flashing, officers spread out through my home and yard, and the man who had been in my home taking my belongings just feet from me. When reading the statement later it was hard to not find the statement humorous and embarrassing. I used the words alarm, alarming, or alarmed at least five times in a two-page statement, but in that moment my heart was pounding, my hands were shaking, I could barely think straight, and evidently I was very alarmed.
While I was writing my statement a gold, four-door car pulled up. It was Mr. Webster’s grandfather. When he was informed why Mr. Webster was being detained, he threw up his hands, scoffed, got back in the car, and left. Officer Roy explained to me that when my next-door neighbor had called 911 on the suspicious person, he gave a description of a man wearing a dark-colored Hawaiian shirt and tan shorts. When the officers were out looking for the suspicious person, they saw Mr. Webster who, at the time, was wearing only white boxer shorts and gray socks. Upon speaking with him, there was no crime that they were aware of and Mr. Webster had no warrants, so they allowed him to call his family to come pick him up. I realized then that if I had been just 10 minutes longer in the garden or inside my house, he would have been able to go home with his family, and who knows if he would have been found again.
After Mr. Webster was placed in the patrol vehicle, the officers searched around my house and Crime Scenes came out and started taking pictures. In the front yard and driveway they found three $1 bills folded up just as I keep them in my wallet. Also, on the side of my porch, tucked beside a step, one officer found a dark Hawaiian shirt, tan pants, and black boots. After the Crime Scene technician, Ashley Young, photographed the folded and hidden clothes, she emptied the pants pockets. Mr. Webster had $129 in cash, lottery tickets, a bus pass, his Social Security card, and his Texas Offender card in his pockets. Additionally, my car keys and house keys were found in the grass in my front yard. My next-door neighbor who called the police and his wife came outside and gave statements as well. We talked at length, and they agreed that I should never call my dogs off for barking again, as they also feel safer with my built-in, four-legged “alarms.”
Throughout the hour or so that the police were at my house photographing, collecting evidence, and fingerprinting, I had the recurring realization that I was in a police report. I probably said it out loud at least six or seven times that I just could not believe this was happening to me and that I was going to be in a report sent to my office. I was mortified at the fact that photos were being taken in which my colleagues could see just how messy my house became the week of a trial, and I had the urge to go around picking up the random shoes and books lying around the living room. Also, I was experiencing the common victim reaction of blaming myself for the crime. I thought if only I had checked the door or left a dog inside, this would not be happening. As the officers were packing up, Mr. Webster kept knocking around in the back of the patrol car and yelling, “Just take me home!” I still am not sure if he was referring to his grandmother’s house or to jail.
As I began to collect the items strewn around the table inside my front door, I saw a small brown cigar, matching the description my neighbor gave of the cigar he gave Mr. Webster shortly before he called the police. I ran out and caught CST Young, and she came in, photographed it, and collected it for evidence as well. Possible DNA from Mr. Webster in my home! My prosecutor brain was ecstatic: This was shaping up to be a great burglary of a habitation case. But the rest of me, the crime victim, was still on edge, uncomfortable with the reality of what had just occurred beginning to set in.
That night with every bump, creak, passing car, or dog barking down the street, I was up, wide awake, with a gun in one hand and a dog beside me, scoping my house and yard. To say I did not sleep well would be a great understatement. I did not sleep at all.
Back at the office
I went into work the next morning with frazzled nerves and a feeling of dread at the thought of having to explain the burglary to all of my peers. I knew they would all be concerned for me and glad that I was unharmed, but I also knew that the jokes would follow. As our office is small, about 25 attorneys, we are truly more like a family than a group of coworkers. So I knew my “brothers and sisters” would surely heckle me for the fact that Mr. Webster did not even have to “break” in but instead the door was left unlocked to welcome him into my home.
I was not disappointed on either front. Everyone in my office was genuinely concerned for me, and there were even jokes about making the crime scene photos into a slide show and having popcorn to watch. I also had countless staff members and prosecutors stopped by my office to check on me, offer their guns, suggest to have friends in law enforcement come by my house to check on me, and even ask me to spend the night in their homes if I wasn’t comfortable in mine. I have always considered myself a strong and independent person, but in this situation I gladly accepted one of our felony prosecutor’s offer to stay at her house. As her husband is a U.S. Marshal, I was certain I would be well-protected and feel safe there.
After that first night away from my house, I went back to my place, but I still did not feel comfortable or as at peace as I had been before the burglary. My mother had just left for a two-week trip and I was to be looking after her dogs for her. So I packed up a few things, took a couple of my own dogs with me, and went to her house for the night. For the next two weeks I stayed at my mom’s house, only staying in my home during the day. As soon as evening was approaching, I would walk, with at least one pit bull (generally my largest, an 80-pound male), back to my mother’s for the night.
Upon her return, I knew it was time for me to swallow my fear and sleep in my own bed again. The first night home was much like the night Jonique Webster broke in; I hardly slept. With each passing night it did become easier. Still, there were countless nights I would bolt out of bed because of a noise, or wake out of a dead sleep convinced my front door was not locked and go check (with a gun and dog, of course). With time these habits have lessened, but on occasion I still wake up to a sound in the night or to double-check the door.
Within a couple of weeks of the burglary, our office received the report from the Waco Police Department. I had informed our elected District Attorney, Abel Reyna, about the burglary as I knew I would be disqualified from working on the case—I was clearly not a disinterested party. However, our entire office would not have to abstain from prosecuting so long as measures were put in place to ensure Mr. Webster’s rights would not be violated. The Court of Criminal Appeals’ unpublished opinion Ex Parte Reposa1 relied on that court’s earlier Marshall v. Jerrico findings, which concluded that a prosecutor may be disqualified due to lack of disinterest only if the defendant can show an actual conflict of interest exists that makes the prosecutor prejudiced “in such a manner as to rise to the level of a due process violation.”2 Texas’ Disciplinary Rules do not require a prosecutor’s office to be recused from every case where a prosecutor or prosecutor’s family is involved, but the rules suggest the prosecutor be screened from participation to the extent feasible. As I could be sectioned off from touching the case, it was not required that we turn it over to a special prosecutor. To add extra separation from me having anything to do with the prosecution of the case, Mr. Reyna assigned the case to Robbie Moody, a felony prosecutor who had been assigned to Intake at the time, which is located on an entirely different floor from my office and with whom I have very little interaction. Because I am in Crimes Against Children, I indict my own cases.
Although it was probably easier on Robbie as far as contacting the victim (all he had to do was dial my extension or go down two flights of stairs), I am sure I was a high maintenance victim at the same time. One of the first things I wanted to know was Mr. Webster’s criminal history. Robbie informed me he was a five-time convicted felon (mainly for state jail property crimes), and he had one trip to the penitentiary as well as numerous misdemeanors. The most disturbing thing on his criminal history (to me as a prosecutor of sex crimes) was that two of his misdemeanors were for indecent exposure. One of those was during the time frame of his penitentiary trip from Dallas on his first conviction for burglary of a habitation. He had paroled out of prison, come back to Waco, violated parole by committing an indecent exposure, and got sent back to prison to complete his sentence of 10 years. Sounded like a familiar story, and I was so thankful I didn’t walk in while he was in my home.
Mr. Webster was indicted for burglary of a habitation (enhanced) and therefore faced a punishment range of five to 99 years or life in prison. Robbie and I discussed what I would be happy with as a sentence, as well as the potential that I would have to testify if there was a trial. Part of me was terrified at the thought of a trial, and part of me was excited to see the court experience from another viewpoint. Robbie decided a 45-year offer was reasonable given the facts, how quickly Mr. Webster had returned to committing burglary after his release from prison, and his extensive criminal history. The defense attorney considered the offer for about a month before countering first with 20 years in TDCJ, which Robbie promptly rejected, and finally with 40 years. Robbie contacted me and after discussing it, we both thought that was reasonable, and he accepted the counter-offer.
To me the most important thing was that Jonique Webster be removed from society long enough that he will not pose a threat to anyone else’s peace of mind for the foreseeable future. As this offense was not a 3g, Mr. Webster will be eligible for parole after serving a quarter of his sentence, and he is eligible for good time as well, so he could be out in as little as five years. Given his extensive criminal history and the remarkably short time he was out of prison before reoffending, I feel strongly that Mr. Webster will be a continued threat to society. I have registered for Texas Victim Information and Notification Everyday, commonly called VINE, so that I will be made aware of his potential parole date when it arises, and at the appropriate time I will protest his parole and try to ensure that he serve as much of his sentence as possible. My goal in doing so is that no one else will endure countless sleepless nights because of this man.
Maybe it was fate that my front door was open that night (which I check and double-check still to this day). As strange as it may sound, I am actually glad that he chose my home to walk into as I have learned so much from this experience as to what a victim of crime actually goes through: confusion, shock, fear, anger, and finally the ability to regain some of what was lost with the conclusion of the case. I am also painfully aware of how fortunate I was to be outside that night. Who knows what would have happened if I had been in my living room watching television or in the kitchen making food? Jonique Webster is obviously a career criminal who cannot refrain from committing crimes. Even when he had a pocket full of cash, a supportive family, and every reason to want to stay out of prison, he could not even make it one day without violating someone’s privacy and sense of security.
I never envisioned myself as having to make a statement to the police about a crime I was personally involved in or how “just a property crime” would really affect me. As a prosecutor it is easy to emotionally connect with and have empathy for my girls and boys who have been sexually abused or physically hurt or with the adult victim of a sexual assault, an aggravated assault, or murder. However, sometimes I would forget the emotional damage caused by the violation of a person’s property.
The greatest lesson I have learned through this experience is that every crime committed against a victim, even those with no physical harm, can be emotionally scarring and cause them fear and trauma. Additionally, no matter who you are, what you do, or how safe you may feel, crime surrounds each of us everyday. Not just in the papers of the reports we read and pictures of the scenes, but the very real people on the other side of those papers and pictures. Every file that crosses each of our desks is about real people and we, as prosecutors and employees of district and county attorneys’ offices of Texas, have the most unique and amazing jobs in the world. We have the opportunity every day to help people to heal and move past traumatic events, and I cannot thank enough the responding officers, prosecutors, and staff in my office for helping me do just that.
1 See Ex parte Reposa, No. AP-75,965, slip. op. at 9-10, 2009 WL 3478455, at *10-11 (Tex. Crim . App. 2009) (not design. for pub.).
2 Id. Slip op. at 9-10, 2009 WL 3478455, at *10.