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Staff photo — Ernesto Garcia 

Baylor forward Lauren Cox looks to evade Texas forward Charli Collier in the first half.

Judge's recusal sidelines sex assault trial of ex-Baylor football player Oakman
 Tommy Witherspoon  / 

The sexual assault trial of former Baylor University football player Shawn Oakman, set to begin Monday, was postponed after the judge in the case recused himself in the face of complaints by the defense, allowing a new judge to take his place.

Judge Ralph Strother of Waco’s 19th State District Court removed himself from the case after Oakman’s attorneys filed a recusal motion Monday, alleging that Strother met improperly last week with prosecutors and unsealed records without consulting the defense. Strother had met with defense attorneys in August and agreed to seal the records in question, which include medical information from Baylor Scott & White Medical Center.

“These improper actions have operated to deny the defendant’s rights to due process and due course of law, his right to counsel, his right to effective assistance of counsel, his right to present a defense and his right of confrontation,” states the motion from defense attorneys Alan Bennett and Jessi Freud. Oakman’s attorneys also filed a motion Monday to disqualify the prosecutors in the case, Robert Moody and Gabe Price, who met with Strother on Feb. 20.

Strother’s recusal came just before jury selection was to begin in the trial at 10:30 a.m. Monday. Jurors were told late Monday morning to report back at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday in hopes that the trial can proceed.

Strother sent notification of his recusal to Judge Billy Ray Stubblefield, presiding judge of the Third Administrative Judicial Region, who late Monday appointed Retired State District Judge Mike Snipes of Dallas to preside over the case. Snipes is scheduled to hold a hearing at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday to consider the motion to disqualify the prosecutors.

If Snipes denies the motion, jury selection in Oakman’s case likely will begin later in the day, court officials said.

Strother, who declined comment on his recusal, was subpoenaed by the defense to testify at Tuesday morning’s hearing. Two of Strother’s staff members were subpoenaed by the state.

Oakman’s attorneys on Monday also filed a motion to dismiss the charges against Oakman, who is accused of sexually assaulting a Baylor student at his apartment in April 2016, after his record-setting football career at Baylor was over. He has said he and the woman previously dated and that they had a consensual sexual encounter.

The motion to dismiss alleges that the defense’s right to prepare for trial without state intrusion and the attorney-work product doctrine have been violated.

Later Monday, prosecutors filed an answer to the defense motion to disqualify Moody and Price, along with prosecutor Hilary LaBorde, who was not in the alleged ex parte meeting with Strother.

Price alleges in the motion that he and Moody never spoke to the judge about the facts of the case, only that they brought what they perceived to be “an irregularity” to the judge’s attention for his review. They said the decision to unseal the records “was made solely by the judge.”

The state’s answer said that on Feb. 20, defense attorneys filed several subpoena requests for custodians of records seeking their testimony in court.

“Those subpoenas did not correspond with any subpoenas duces tecum (document-based subpoenas) that were in the clerk’s records and therefore they were unusual,” Price wrote in the answer. “The state contacted subpoenaed custodians and inquired why they were subpoenaed witnesses in the case. The custodians of record informed the state that they were served with sealed subpoenas duces tecum from the defense for medical records and psychological records of the victim in the case.”

Prosecutors noticed a number of other sealed motions in the file and told Strother, the answer says. Strother looked at the file and determined that “all of the sealed orders were done in error, as he did not think a subpoena should be sealed,” the answer states, adding that prosecutors never requested the judge to unseal the documents.

The next day, prosecutors subpoenaed the same records requested by the defense subpoenas.

“Additionally, the records that have been received by the state have no relevant information to the case,” prosecutors wrote in the state’s answer.

About 140 prospective jurors in the case filled out questionnaires to assist in jury selection on Feb. 15. Since then, the defense and state have agreed to release about 45 potential jurors, leaving about 95 who showed up Monday morning for what they thought would be the start of the trial. By the time the panel returns Tuesday morning, the county will have spent almost $9,400 on jury pay alone for the Oakman case.

Any jurors or alternates chosen will be paid $40 a day, and the trial is expected to last at least five days.

editor's pick
Waco family heads to Austin to advocate for disability services

A Waco family plans to stand with hundreds Tuesday at the Texas Capitol to ask legislators to strengthen state services crucial for children with disabilities.

Melissa and Jody Copp hope that sharing their experience with their two children will encourage area representatives to make the state’s Medicaid managed care system more effective and accessible.

The Copp family will join the nonprofit Protect TX Fragile Kids at a press conference and rally Tuesday, as legislators announce legislation to improve services to medically fragile children and protect their families from the risk of medical bankruptcy.

“We need to emphasize why it’s important not to cut funding in these programs that we know first-hand will improve the quality of life for these children,” said Copp, who with her husband founded the Raising Wheels Foundation.

Their boys — Calan, 10; and Lawson, 6 — have been diagnosed with a rare genetic condition and use wheelchairs. But the family has struggled to get them signed up for Medicaid help.

Over the past five years, the state has cut services for children with disabilities, disrupting medically necessary care for those who rely on the system, advocates with Protect TX Fragile Kids say.

Texas privatized its traditional Medicaid program in 2016, creating the “STAR Kids Medicaid Managed Care Program,” and by 2019, a survey of participating families showed more than 55 percent of the children had experienced denials for medically necessary services, durable medical equipment or medications ordered by their physicians. Thirty four percent of families reported their health providers were no longer in-network, according to a statement from the nonprofit.

The nonprofit was founded in 2016 in direct response to the changes made by the state of Texas Waiver Programs. Texas is ranked 49th in the country for supports and services which allow people with disabilities to live at home and remain in the community, according to the nonprofit.

Lawmakers from both parties are expected to roll out bills this month to fix widespread problems exposed in 2018 via an eight-part Dallas Morning News investigation that led to legislative hearings and inquiries regarding the STAR Kids program.

Melissa Copp said she hopes Tuesday to meet with State Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury; and Rep. Charles “Doc” Anderson, R-Waco, who in the past has advocated better funding for Medicaid therapy for disabled children.

Copp said that in her family’s case, insurance hasn’t covered all the testing, medical equipment and resources for her children, making it increasingly difficult to juggle spending, she said.

“We have waited a decade, which has caused them to be not properly cared for because they’ve been chronically ill the entire time and we haven’t been able to afford certain medications, certain equipment, certain therapy, that could have improved their quality of life,” she said.

The Copp family was featured in a Season 5 episode of HGTV’s “Fixer Upper” in which Chip and Joanna Gaines and Tim Tebow renovated their home to meet accommodations for the children. They now use the education, resources and connections made throughout their journey to help others raise children with disabilities.

Copp said she has what is considered a “gap family,” or one that doesn’t qualify for Medicaid coverage, due to medical or income requirements.

“We were completely out of luck,” she said. “We were stuck.”

Two weeks ago, the family received the first level of approval to get on Medicaid for her oldest son, who is now almost 11, she said.

Copp said the family only qualified because it recently dropped to one income as Jody Copp left his job to run Raising Wheels.

“Just to get qualified, we had to make a drastic change,” Melissa Copp said.

The recent qualifications have allowed them to receive a respiratory vest that will help prevent respiratory illnesses, she said.

“It’s opened up a lot of quality of care and health needs for us,” she said.

editor's pick
Sheehy wraps up 25 years on MCC board but remains an educator
 Carl Hoover  / 

Bob Sheehy Jr. is in his final weeks of his 25 years on the McLennan Community College board, but the La Vega High School math teacher is far from ending his time as an educator invested in his students.

Sheehy, 63, who represents District 5, chose not to seek re-election to a fifth six-year term in the May 4 elections and will attend one of his final board meetings Tuesday. He will be replaced by Liz Palacios, a Baylor University dean for student development who is running unopposed.

“I never intended to serve 25 years, but it seems like every time an election came up, there was something I needed to do or wanted to be a part of,” Sheehy said in a recent interview sandwiched between his classroom time and his after-school hours spent as the school’s girls soccer coach. “After 25 years, it’s time to go. It’s not a lifetime appointment.”

Sheehy, who underwent quadruple bypass surgery last fall, admitted he was “on the fence” about filing for re-election this spring. When Palacios, a friend, contacted him about her interest in running, that helped him make up his mind.

Those who’ve worked with Sheehy over the years praised his heart for students, his eye for financial details and an even-keeled personality that steered board discussion into helpful directions.

MCC president Johnette McKown noted Sheehy’s advocacy for students, his thoughtfulness and his willingness to serve.

“He has been a student advocate for us in a positive way,” she said, adding that Sheehy periodically called her on behalf of students. “He has their best interest in mind, and it really warms my heart.”

Current board chairman K. Paul Holt recalled that Sheehy, a former board chair himself, eased his transition to the leadership position. Sheehy brought to the board his financial insight, concern for students and a tradition of allowing board members to openly share opinions and questions in roundtable discussions, Holt said.

“Being an accountant, he brought a sharp financial eye, which was very helpful,” he said. “We’re not a political board. We’re an education board and our passions are for seeing the best for our students. That leads us to take great care of our faculty and administrators.”

Staff photo — Jerry Larson 

McLennan Community College board member and La Vega High School math teacher Bob Sheehy works with soccer players Cyndee Ruiz (left) and Alejandra Montelongo in organizing team T-shirts after school.

Randy Cox, who left the board in 2015 after an equally long 25 years, found Sheehy not only a helpful ex-chairman when Cox needed advice during his time as board chair, but also a calm, steadying influence at crucial times.

One was the failure of a $74.5 million bond election in 2005, when voters said no to a package that called for a new science building, the Michaelis Academic Center and the Emergency Services Education Center and other building renovations. Cox recalled that in the aftermath of that defeat, Sheehy, then board chairman, calmly encouraged an emotionally jangled board to start work on a new bond proposal.

A slimmer package won voter approval in November 2006, securing new buildings, more space and improved facilities for MCC students, faculty and staff.

“I never saw him get ruffled,” Cox said. “He is really just an all-around great guy.”

Sheehy’s heart for the community college started early. His father, Bob Sheehy Sr., was a founding board member, and the younger Sheehy recalled Sunday afternoons after church spent walking the grounds where the college was being built.

Sheehy attended MCC for two years after high school graduation, on his way to earning a business degree at Sam Houston State University that eventually led to a career as a CPA. His father’s example of public service, though, steered him toward running for the board in 1994. At the time, Bob Sheehy Sr. was mayor and had just led the city through the media maelstrom surrounding the Branch Davidian tragedy.

Bob Sheehy Jr. was a 38-year-old CPA when elected and the college’s enrollment was slightly more than half of today’s enrollment of 8,555 students. Sheehy took advantage of MCC’s educational resources in 2005 when, prompted by years of coaching Reicher Catholic High School and Select soccer teams, he felt moved to help students as a classroom teacher, earning his alternative teaching certification through MCC.

Sheehy now is in his 15th year as a classroom teacher, currently teaching algebra II, statistics, business management and college preparatory math. His wife, Kay, recently returned to teaching and is on the La Vega High School faculty.

Sheehy said he sees community college as a crucial part of public education and a key for many in moving out of poverty.

In addition to facility and educational improvements that the MCC board has enabled over the years, Sheehy is proud of a shift in perspective, prompted by faculty initiatives, from growing student enrollment to improving student graduation.

Characteristically, Sheehy is looking past his last board meeting in April to MCC’s graduation ceremony in May, when as a departing board member, he’ll help pass out diplomas.

Among the students on the receiving end will be some of his La Vega High School students, the first enrolled in La Vega’s Early College High School.

editor's pick
More Twin Peaks cases dismissed by special prosecutors
 Tommy Witherspoon  / 

One of four Houston attorneys assigned to handle four Twin Peaks biker cases as special prosecutors dismissed the remaining three cases Monday and called the way the McLennan County District Attorney’s Office handled the 2015 deadly shootout a “harebrained scheme” that was “patently offensive” to him.

Special prosecutors Brian Roberts, Brian Benken, Feroz Merchant and Mandy Miller filed motions Monday to dismiss the first-degree felony engaging in organized criminal activity charges against bikers William Chance Aikin, Billy McCree and Ray Nelson. The motions to dismiss said, “Upon reviewing all the facts, circumstances and evidence, it is the state’s position that no probable cause exists to believe the defendant committed the offense.”

The team of special prosecutors dismissed the case against Hewitt resident Matthew Clendennen in April 2018.

“I think, unfortunately, — and this is probably a poor choice of words — but it was simply a shoot-first-ask-questions-later mentality,” Roberts said. “I can’t imagine what (former McLennan County DA) Abel Reyna was thinking other than this was a big case and it was somehow going to be beneficial for him or his office.”

Roberts, a former prosecutor who served in the special crimes bureau of the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, said he had no problem with the first part of the process, which was to round up more than 200 bikers, identify and photograph them. He said the process was necessary to try to see who was involved and who were merely witnesses.

“I do have a very serious problem as a lawyer with the wholesale charging of people without an investigation,” he said. “They had plenty of time to conduct an investigation. They had plenty of time to do what they needed to do to find out who the parties needed to be in this harebrained scheme. It is just patently offensive to me. Justice is the sword and the shield. You had a number of folks who never should have been charged and whose lives have been turned upside down unnecessarily, and that is something you can’t change. You can’t take back what has happened over the last four years.”

In the months after his defeat in the March 2018 Republican primary, Reyna dismissed the vast majority of the 154 pending indictments his office sought in the Twin Peaks shootout, which left nine dead and 20 injured. Reyna’s office re-indicted 25 Twin Peaks defendants on different charges in May, with most being charged with riot and three being charged with murder and riot. District Attorney Barry Johnson, who took office in January, has said he and his staff are reviewing those cases to determine how to proceed.

Houston attorney Paul Looney, who represents Ray Nelson, said he agrees with Roberts.

“What Brian said is long overdue. The defense bar has been saying the same thing for nearly four years. This gives a lot of credibility to what we have been saying, and I am very appreciative of them to go through all of the evidence thoroughly and to have the courage of their convictions when it came time to announce it. These people deserve vindication. It is long overdue. They have been treated horribly.”

Roberts, who made it clear that he was speaking only about the four cases he and the others were appointed to handle, said that prosecutors bear a greater responsibility to ensure that justice is done.

“Whatever justice means. Whether that means pursuing a prosecution, whether that means reducing a case, whether than means getting rid of a case, whether than means never charging a case,” Roberts said. “A prosecutor’s job is not to put people in prison. It is to do justice. I don’t think anybody can say that was done here back in 2015.”

Waco attorney Robert Callahan, who represents Aikin, said his client is “very relieved and extremely grateful.”

“This case revealed numerous breakdowns in the justice system, which increased at compound interest. It’s heartbreaking that one man’s ambition had such far-reaching effects for so many. We are thankful for the wisdom Mr. Roberts showed in reviewing the facts objectively, without political ambition,” Callahan said.