District Attorney Rod Ponton gets a failing grade

I'm writing this letter to share my personal experiences with Rod Ponton as it relates to his conduct as District Attorney.

As many people in South Brewster County know, I was the victim of a violent robbery at my place of business in Study Butte in late January of 2013. Deputy Patrick Hardin quickly arrested the two perpetrators, Doug Scharnberg and Cassady Douglas, and the BCSO performed their duties admirably. Unfortunately, as soon as the case went to the DA's office, it quickly started to go downhill. As I was determined to see these criminals brought to justice, I followed up regularly with the DA's office at the advice of my attorney. I also documented my encounters with Rod Ponton's office, as I wanted to keep track of the case.

 At the time, I had never met Mr. Ponton, so I dropped by his Alpine office on 3/4/13 to check on my case and meet with him personally. While Della was quite helpful, Rod Ponton seemed entirely uninterested in my case, and expressed ambivalence about getting a guilty conviction. At the time it seemed strange, as I've never seen a DA act so uninterested about an open and shut case. I advised him that my attackers had repeatedly stated on social media and around Terlingua that they were planning on leaving the area, and did not intend to stand trial. He did not ask for an increase in bail, and did not convene a Grand Jury until May, almost 5 months after the crime. They were both indicted by the Grand Jury, and despite calling his office every two weeks or so, I did not receive any new information until 1/28/14, almost exactly a year after the crime. At that time, my case was assigned to Assistant DA Christa Morrow. Christa was fantastic, met with me several times, and expressed great interest in vigorously prosecuting the case. We had a trial set for July of 2014, and I was looking forward to my day in court.

 As many people in the area are familiar with, on 5/7/14, I photographed a DEA raid orchestrated by Rod Ponton on the Purple Zone e-cigarette store, including the aftermath of the beating of Arielle Lipsen by a male DEA agent. Since nothing illegal was seized and the owner was forced to illegally sign a confession as a condition of her bail, this quickly became a national news story (all charges stemming from that raid were eventually dropped). Despite strong efforts to suppress them, including personal threats and harassment, my photographs were featured in many national news outlets, and Fox News flew me up to New York for a live interview. It was also covered extensively in Reason Magazine's award-nominated documentary “Sex, Spice, and Small-Town Texas Justice.” This led to widespread criticism of Rod Ponton's poor handling of the affair. Mr. Ponton released several statements attacking me personally in the Alpine Avalanche, and used his personal connections to get the owners of the paper to strong-arm the managing editor at the time, Scot Erin Briggs, into publishing an article that she did not write and was forced to put her name on. I know this because she came by my store to personally apologize and tell me she didn't write a word of it. This is not acceptable conduct for any public official, especially one who holds the reigns of public order as closely as the District Attorney.

 I contacted Krista Morrow via Facebook about my case on 6/27/14, as I heard she was leaving Ponton's office for a job in Santa Fe. Remember that this trial had been set for July. In Krista's own words “Regarding your case - I am no longer handling it--Rod took it over about a month ago. I'm surprised he hasn't contacted you. It's a policy of this office to inform the victim of all status changes…” later in the conversation she said “re: your case - the trial was set for July but Rod filed a motion for continuance. That's all I know at this point.” 

 I ran into Ponton around town several times around this time period, and he was verbally combative with me, and refused to answer any questions about my case. I might note that while I am critical of his actions, I was polite and professional in my dealings with him, a courtesy which was not returned – he even blocked me on Facebook after I asked him for a status update. Later, I found out from my attorney he tried to have the charges dismissed, as I was “not a reliable witness” because of my photojournalism that had painted him in a negative light. 

 Let me reiterate – immediately after I became Rod Ponton's enemy, he decided to not prosecute two violent criminals to the full extent of the law.  He ignored his duties as a public official in order to pursue a vendetta against me for bringing attention to his poor performance as prosecutor. This put the community in danger because his ego is larger than his commitment to public service.

 Luckily for everyone in the district, Judge Roy Ferguson is a man of unquestionable integrity and denied his motion for dismissal. The Judge assigned Sandy Wilson as a special prosecutor, and she was able to easily gain two guilty verdicts – one felony robbery conviction for Cassady Douglas, and an assault charge for Doug Scharnberg. They both openly admitted their guilt and plead guilty to the charges. Ponton's victim coordinator came to Doug Scharnberg's trial but refused to speak with me, at Rod's direction – another dereliction of his public duties.  She handed me a folder with some pamphlets in it, said she couldn’t answer any questions, and walked away.

 He also bungled the murder trial of Tony Flint, and let a slick Odessa lawyer steamroll him because of his inability to put together a competent case despite a preponderance of evidence and an admission of guilt from the perpetrator. Ponton has an extensive criminal record, including multiple drug, DWI, and ethics charges, ranging from 1972 to 2012 (Alpine Daily Planet, 7/18/12). After I became the public face of Ponton's opposition, four women in Alpine and Marfa approached me privately and told me he had sexually assaulted them, in one case trading legal fees for sexual favors, but they were too afraid of him to come forward as he had threatened them and their families.

 If your family is attacked, robbed, or otherwise harmed, is this the man you want defending you? 

 On the other hand, I have known his opponent, Jaime Escuder, since he moved to Alpine and joined Kirk Meade's Law Office. Jaime is an excellent attorney, and a decent and honorable man. I have gone to him for legal advice on several occasions, and he has always been measured, knowledgeable, and passionate about the law. He studied at one of the top law schools in the nation, and has built a successful private practice. The citizens of Brewster County would do well with someone of Jaime's caliber protecting them. He will fight for justice and use his position for the public good, not personal gain. I urge everyone voting in the Democratic primary on March 1st to please cast your ballot for Jaime Escuder, and show Rod Ponton the door – the citizens of the 83rd District deserve better, and you have a chance to make that happen.



Tom Cochran

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