HOUSTON – The kidnapping of Leah Henry and the murder of Good Samaritan Sam Irick were both crimes that shocked the Houston area.
But both cases have something else in common.
The men accused of both violent crimes had walked away from halfway houses they were ordered to as part of their parole from prison.
Now the KHOU 11 News I-Team has learned, it’s something that happens a lot more than most people ever imagined.
“Brings back lots of memories,” said David Billeiter as he flipped through the pages of a scrapbook of memories of the day that changed his life. “I told my wife before I left that morning, I said ‘I’m going to get this guy today.”
Hours later, Billeiter’s premonition became a reality in the woods near Kerrville.
“I’m telling, ordering him, put the gun down,” recalled Billeiter. “Put down the gun. He doesn’t comply. So I made up my mind, when he gets to the rear quarter-panel, I’m going to start shooting.”
The former Kerr County Sheriff’s Department sergeant never had that chance.
“I see this little girl,” Billeiter said. “I grabbed her; put her in the backseat of my car. I said, ‘are you the little girl?’ And she said, ‘Yes sir, I am.”
Leah Henry, who was 11 years old at the time, had become the focus of a three-day search after she was kidnapped while walking home from school near her Houston home.
Now, she was safe.
Her kidnapper, Gary Dale Cox, a paroled sex offender, was also suspected of kidnapping at least two other girls.
Investigators say minutes after Henry’s rescue, Cox shot himself in the head and died.
Yet 12 years after he rescued Henry, Billeiter is furious.
“It’s hard for me to understand how this is still happening,” he told the I-Team, “when we know what's occurring, and know that children are being murdered, lives are being destroyed.”
The problem, Billeiter says, are Texas halfway houses.
They’re supposed to be secure facilities where parolees are only allowed to leave for pre-approved trips like job searches or doctors’ appointments.
But the 11 News I-Team discovered that convicted criminals, including killers and sex offenders, can easily walk away from these facilities and disappear into our communities.
“We’ve got a serious absconder problem,” said state Senator John Whitmire.
He chairs the Senate’s Criminal Justice Committee.
Whitmire calls “walkaways” a real problem.
“Sometimes they disappear,” said Whitmire. “Sometimes forever. And that’s unacceptable.”
The I-Team found in 2009 there were 1,009 cases involving an offender walking away from a halfway house.
Since then, the numbers have steadily risen.
In 2010, records obtained from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice show there were 1,361 halfway house walkaways.
By 2011, the number rose to 1,476.
In 2012, halfway houses in Texas reported 1,544 walkaways.
That’s a 53% increase in walkaways, outpacing the 43% increase in the number of offenders the state sent to halfway houses during the same period.
Whitmire says it’s a dangerous situation.
“One absconder, one failure is too many because we’re talking about public safety,” the Senator told the I-Team.
It’s a danger Jeb Wait knows.
“It could be anybody on any street, any time of day or night, anyplace,” Wait said.
Wait’s wife, Amberly, was in line at a Houston gas station when police say Anthony Ferrell pulled a gun on her.
Investigators say when 24-year old Sam Irick tried to stop the robbery, Ferrell shot Irick dead.
Records show Ferrell walked away from a Houston halfway house a month before the attack.
It’s the same facility that kidnapper Gary Cox walked away from before kidnapping Leah Henry.
“I don’t know you could ever say absconding is acceptable,” said Bryan Collier, Deputy Executive Director of TDCJ when asked about the 6,333 convicted criminals who walked away from halfway houses between January 1, 2009 and August 12, 2013.
“I don’t think it’s a problem getting worse,” said Collier. “I think it’s a problem we have to deal with when you have offenders who are out on supervision.”
But the I-Team found walking away doesn’t guarantee a trip back to prison.
Records show of the 6,333 walkaways, 1,456 cases involved a repeat absconder. In short, an offender who walked away from a halfway house and got caught, was likely to be sent back to a halfway house that he would then abscond from again.
That includes Gordon Smith.
Smith is a convicted robber, who, records show, walked away from the same halfway house 13 times in the last five years.
So what’s going on?
Senator Whitmire focuses on the fact Texas doesn’t run its own halfway houses.
Instead, they’re operated by for-profit corporations who contract with the state.
Yet, not one halfway house operator has lost a contract or been penalized because of its number of walkaways.
“Contractually, are they (the state) doing enough to hold these providers accountable?” The I-Team asked Whitmire.
“Well, obviously not,” he replied.
But TDCJ disagrees.
“Offenders may not learn from consequences the first time,” said Collier. “But eventually, hopefully they will learn.”
The I-Team asked how offenders who served their sentences could get out of prison, get sent to a halfway house and still not understand there are consequences to their behavior.
“I wish I could answer that question,” replied Collier.
But back in Kerr County, Billeiter says the answer is simple.
The former sergeant, who now serves as a justice of the peace, says it’s time the state fix the system that Gary Cox and thousands have walked away from.
“I’m not satisfied just to go and pick up dead bodies and rescue abducted children,” said Billeiter. “We need to do something to prevent it.”
At last check, more than 200 halfway house walkaways were still unaccounted for.
A spokesman for The GEO Group, Inc., the Florida-based operator of halfway houses in Houston and Beaumont, told us the company could not accommodate our request for an on-camera interview, but issued this statement:
“The Southeast Texas Transitional Center and the Beaumont Transitional Treatment Center are residential re-entry centers that provide temporary housing and transitional services for parolees, who have already completed their criminal sentence with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Without the services provided at the Centers, parolees would most likely otherwise be released directly into the community without any temporary housing and transitional services. Parolees who are assigned to the Centers may receive authorization from their respective state parole officers to conduct community activities during the day, such as job searches and other community programs. These authorizations are reviewed and approved by individual state parole officers. The Centers provide temporary housing and transitional services and does not determine which parolees are assigned to the Centers. When parolees abscond from the Centers, authorities are immediately notified pursuant to the Centers’ contractual requirements.”
A review of TDCJ’s contracts with halfway house operators shows in the event an offender absconds, the only requirement of halfway houses is that staff notifies the state within an hour of learning of the walkaway.