Chief Deputy Matt Cawthon left, arms crossed, Sheriff Parnell McNamara, right, white shirt, white hat
FIRST IN A SERIES…
Waco – Details are beginning to emerge of the schism that split what began as a stellar partnership between two lawmen of near legendary status, and ended in a squabble, shrouded in mystery.
Former Deputy U.S. Marshal Parnell McNamara and retired Texas Ranger Matt Cawthon took on the establishment, beat an opponent with many years on the job in the hotly contested Republican primary election of 2012, and as a team got themselves elected to the number one and two spots in the McLennan County Sheriff’s Office by a margin so wide – roughly 7 out of 10 votes cast – it was nearly out of sight.
In less than two years, the partnership unraveled, leaving both men silent and unwilling to talk about the fundamental disagreement in police administration that led to their sudden disaffection when Chief Deputy Cawthon abruptly resigned his post, effective Oct. 31. Six weeks later, Sheriff McNamara has announced no plans to replace him.
We at The Legendary received a copy of an internal investigation into the brutal abuse of a valuable K-9 unit, a drug detection dog named “Ace,” who became so confused and maddened by his treatment that he became unreasonably aggressive and injured at least one officer and attempted to bite others involved in his training.
Two ranking department heads of the rank of captain signed off on the investigation alleging “unacceptable conduct” and “dereliction of duty,” only after the company that originally sold Ace to the Sheriff’s Office for $15,000 recommended either his complete retraining at a cost of an additional $1,200, or that he be put down due to his ill behavior, the clear result of abuse by his handler, according to their investigation.
Prior to this, the dog handler had been allowed to make a lateral transfer, along with the promotion to the rank of Corporal, to another division that did not include working with K9s, according to a confidential informant, who mailed the material anonymously.
“The Sheriff will attempt to make one believe that he took steps against the deputy by removing him from the canine program as some sort of punishment. Quite to the contrary, it was the deputy leaving the canine program that brought to light the problems within the canine program…”
Sheriff McNamara received an official request for public information regarding the matter on Monday, December 8, and when he had not responded by Friday, December 12, we determined to publish this first article in a series devoted to similar conflicts that led to the resignation of Matt Cawthon. He declined a request to be interviewed for attribution for the material developed for this series.
After Corporal Joseph Ballew left the K9 unit, Deputy Esteban Bustillos reported with Ace to USK9, a Kaplan, Louisiana, training school for police dogs, where Ace became so aggressive and agitated that he tried to bite both he and members of the training staff. They sent him packing, back to Waco, and wrote Lt. Mike Gates an e-mail saying, “The training staff believes that these issues were developed by allowing people to pick on or constant teasing of the dog.” Bustillos informed Captain Shawn Lippe and Chief Deputy Matt Cawthon, who ordered a complete internal investigation into why Ace had become so aggressive.
At the time, Sheriff McNamara was on a three-week sabbatical to Switzerland. When he returned, the results of that investigation awaited his attention. So far, according to anonymous sources, he has taken no action.
Here is what was learned.
On August 8, 2014, Deputy James Wolfe was seated at a computer, typing a report, when Ballew and Bustillos brought Ace into the office. Ballew began to command Ace to jump on top of a filing cabinet, a perch so lofty and ungainly that, according to Wolfe, the dog opted instead to jump on the desk where he was at work. In reaction, he pushed his chair backward when Ace put his forepaws on him, which caused the dog’s rear paws to fall off the desk. “When I did so, Ace bit my forearm causing a small wound…While pulling him away from me, Ace nipped the backside of my left elbow leaving a small bruise.” Officers gave Wolfe first aid for the puncture wound he received; he declined hospital emergency care.
Sergeant Kevin Ferguson stated he once saw Ballew fire a child’s cap pistol at Ace while he was in a cage in his patrol unit, an action which caused the dog to bark loudly while he tried to escape from the cage. Ballew related he discovered Ace’s extreme reaction when his little girl shot her cap pistol at him while playing in the yard. Ferguson also told other deputies he saw Ballew kick Ace in the rear end. At times he fired the cap pistol at him to the extent that the began to shake the SUV patrol unit with his aggressive jumping and lunging inside his cage. Ferguson said he expressed his disapproval to Ballew.
Sergeant James Bradam of the Killeen P.D., who sometimes trained with Ballew, recalled similar inconsistencies and confusion caused by Ballew’s handling of another dog named Impulse. He concluded in a statement, “My observations of training tactics and inconsistent training have frustrated and confused Ace. Couple this with his traits and any other social factors Ballew threw at Ace, he is now aggressive.
Deputy Bustillos stated that Sergeant Chris Eubank and Ballew often agitated Ace by tapping on the glass of the patrol unit, making him bark, and had him jump up on the car, then on its roof before attempting to make him jump from one vehicle to the other. “I have no professional opinion or experience on the behavior of a dog or the required training, but I do not agree when a professional tool is treated like a toy. I do acknowledge that in this incidents I have stood by and did not attempt to stop the behavior.”
Lt. Michael Gates and Lt. Ben Toombs concluded that “There is no clear learning objective for randomly firing a toy cap gun near the canine…It was reported that Cpl. Ballew randomly fired the cap gun inside and outside of his patrol unit, while other deputies are present. The deputies reported that Ace would bark and get extremely agitated to the point that Cpl. Ballew’s patrol vehicle would shake. This is not appropriate and is consistent with the allegation from USK9 Unlimited.”
In a sad, final note, Matt Cawthon wrote that on a feral hog hunt attended by Department of Public Safety SWAT an SRT Team members, Ballew disapproved of the performance of a dog who either refused to attack or hunt a hog and “grabbed the dog by the hind legs and slammed the dog onto the ground as some form of punishment or correction.” Members of the hunting party expressed their disapproval at the time. He wrote that he and others are still looking for a report written to former Sheriff Larry Lynch, who promised them he would correct Ballew’s behavior.
Why did the confidential informant approach The Legendary? Here’s a clue.
“Local Waco media seems too weak to follow through with this type of revelation of truth. It is hoped that you will be able to expose this in a manner that it will garner attention from other media well outside the Waco market.”
In a preceding statement, the informant alleges a felony in the shredding of part of a personnel file of an employee who was allowed to resign rather than be terminated for misconduct.
“The ranking deputy ordered the documents to be shredded so that no other law enforcement agency attempting due diligence in a pre-employment background investigation would discover the documents and automatically disqualify the former jailer from the hiring process.”
“…This investigation will also be made available to you but only after it is determined what will become of the canine investigation…”
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