But others who were there on Nov. 10 say the locked courtroom door was a simple matter of security and no one was either locked out of the room or assaulted.
Erskin Hill, a representative of All People for Justice, said he was in Beeville to witness a hearing for David Eugene Rentz, a William G. McConnell Unit inmate serving a 65-year prison sentence for an armed robbery conviction resulting from an incident that occurred on Jan. 8, 2001. He had been convicted of that offense in May of the following year in DeWitt County.
The Nov. 10 hearing before District Judge Ronald Yeager was for pretrial motions related to an indictment on a charge of possession of a prohibited item in a correctional facility.
According to the indictment, Rentz had a cellular phone in his possession on July 1, 2008, while serving a sentence at the McConnell Unit.
The offense was enhanced to a third degree felony, meaning Rentz could be sentenced to an additional 10 years in prison, if convicted.
In a related indictment, a county grand jury also indicted Tracy Richardson, also known as Tracy L. Isenhart, on a charge of providing a cellular phone to Rentz on July 1, 2008.
Richardson, who was apparently visiting Rentz from Colorado at the McConnell Unit when the alleged offense took place, also faces a possible 10-year prison sentence and a $10,000 fine.
Richardson has turned down a plea bargain offer and has offered an “open plea” to the court.
That means that a district judge will decide her fate at a hearing on Jan. 18, 2011, when the presiding judge will review a pre-sentencing investigation related to her case.
Hill said he and two men were in town with Rentz’s mother, Helen Wilson, to offer support for Rentz. He said he had been told that state prosecutors had been trying to get Rentz to turn state’s evidence against corrupt correctional officers and wardens working within the Texas Department of Criminal Justice who have been providing cellular phones to inmates.
Hill said the practice is big business within the Texas prison system because correctional officers can get anywhere from $800 to $1,000 for each cell phone they get into the state’s prisons.
Hill said Rentz has a right to refuse to testify against TDCJ employees suspected of smuggling cell phones into prisons. He said Rentz has already had his life threatened in the event that he does provide information about the smuggling of cell phones.
However, Mark Edwards, a Bee County assistant district attorney working as a special prosecutor for the state, denies that there has been any attempt to get Rentz to testify against anyone.
“Not once have I ever spoken to Rentz’s attorney (state’s counsel) about him testifying against anyone else,” Edward said Monday.
But Hill believes that was exactly what was happening when he and two members of his organization walked into Yeager’s courtroom a week ago.
“I’ve been doing this (protecting defendants’ rights) for over 25 years,” Hill said. “We’re not going to do anything out of line.”
Hill claimed he got up, walked out of the courtroom to go to the restroom, was confronted by bailiff and courthouse security officer Bill Lazenby and was told he could not go back into the courtroom.
Hill claimed that Lazenby had locked the door to the courtroom and then said he had done so for security purposes.
Hill also said that Lazenby pushed one of his members, Brother Kenneth, and told Kenneth that it was his courtroom and he could do anything he wants.
Hill described Kenneth as the head of security for his organization.
Kenneth confirmed that Lazenby had put his hand on him and had pushed him.
Mrs. Wilson said that her son had told her that his life had been threatened over the cell phone charge.
“He was scared,” Wilson said. Hill then said that Rentz’s father had been killed in prison.
Wilson said her son had been held in both administrative segregation and solitary confinement at McConnell for his protection after the cell phone charge was filed.
Courthouse employees have a different version of the events on Nov. 10 and at a previous hearing regarding the charge against Richardson.
Employees in the office of District Clerk Anna Marie Silvas said Hill and others from his organization have been to the courthouse several times in recent weeks, always interested in the Rentz and Richardson cases.
Jay Brionez, an investigator for Edwards’ office, said he witnessed one of the alleged assault incidents in which Lazenby was supposed to have put his hand on one of the APFJ members. He said the man actually walked into Lazenby’s hand after the bailiff raised his hand to stop the man at the door to the courtroom, Brionez said there was no assault.
Brionez said each of the incidents took place during pre-trial hearings in which several prison inmates were in the courthouse. He said it is rare that anyone is ever in the courtroom during those hearings.
The investigator said Hill and the other two men kept getting up and walking in and out of the courtroom, a claim that Hill denied.
During one of the hearings, local attorney Rick Vestal, who was representing Richardson, complained that members of APFJ were talking to his client and interfering with his ability to confer with her.
Edwards said that the presiding judge in that hearing, Joel Johnson, ordered the activity to stop.
“Johnson sets the tone up there,” Edwards said. It is his court.
Lazenby said he never locked the courtroom door on Nov. 10. The door was locked by a TDCJ correctional officer who was standing inside the courtroom near the door when Hill tried to re-enter the courtroom.
Hill had left the courtroom during Rentz’s hearing to go to the restroom. But Lazenby told him he would have to go to the restroom downstairs because the facilities on the second floor of the building had been secured because inmates were using them.
There were 11 inmates on the second floor at the time, Lazenby explained, and each one was being kept in a different area of that floor. Nine correctional officers were there to assist Lazenby and bailiff Clifford Bagwell.
The inmates were all security risks, many of whom are serving long prison sentences. The inmates are also shackled while they are in the courthouse and are unable to defend themselves. Lazenby said the correctional officers and bailiffs have to assure their safety.
The bailiff said Hill objected to having to go to the first floor to use the restroom. Then he walked toward the small courtroom on the second floor where an inmate was being held and he was stopped by a correctional officer.
Then Hill approached a witness room where another inmate was being held and he was stopped again.
“To be honest, I was trying to avoid a confrontation,” Lazenby said. He said he approached Hill and said, “Sir, you need to go back into the courtroom and sit down.”
The bailiff said Hill raised his voice at that point and that prompted the correctional officer inside the courtroom door to lock it.
“Those were his orders,” Lazenby said of the officer who locked the door. Any time there is a disturbance outside the courtroom, the door must be locked immediately.
“Nobody was forbidden entrance to the courtroom,” Lazenby said. He added that once the commotion outside the door settled down, he (Lazenby) unlocked the door and told Hill he could re-enter the courtroom. But Hill refused.
Lazenby said Rent’s initial hearing took no more than 15-20 minutes and half that time Hill was inside the courtroom.
Hill apparently left the courthouse, Lazenby said, and when he returned he opened the courtroom door and looked inside. But Hill did not go inside. He apparently turned around and left the courthouse at that time.
Hill still claimed that he was kept out of the courtroom and that Kenneth was assaulted by the bailiff. He said he plans to have assault charges filed against Lazenby.