by Hank Murphy
A pre-trial hearing on April 25 offered revelations as to why former Wood County Criminal District Attorney Jim Wheeler stepped aside last year from the Jason Walters murder case.
Walters is scheduled for trial July 8, and 15 days are set aside. He stands accused of shooting to death Christopher James Griffin, 18, the night of June 15, 2014, behind the EZ-Mart on North Pacific Street in Mineola. Beset with delays, continuances and recusals, the case, now on its third judge and second set of prosecutors, has gone on for nearly five years without a trial. Presiding over the case now is Judge Joe D. Clayton of Tyler.
The aim of last week’s hearing was to ensure that Walters’ defense has access to any evidentiary material to which it is entitled. Questioning by defense attorneys Cynthia Stevens Kent and F.R. “Buck” Files Jr. focused on whether potential eyewitnesses received favorable treatment in criminal matters brought before the Wood County District Attorney’s Office. Another line of inquiry centered on Wheeler’s recusal from the Walters case. Of keen interest to the defense is a dash cam video produced by a highway patrolman. The video, which the defense said it still wants to see, supposedly references a methamphetamine operation with connections to the town of Hoard. Named in the video is Mineola police Capt. Joyce Box, testimony revealed.
Prosecuting the case are Attorney General’s Office attorneys Steven Todd and Tom Cloudt. Late in the proceeding, Cloudt characterized material concerning Box as nothing more than hearsay, innuendo and false conclusions. Is the defense “dragging this out to impugn your character?” Cloudt asked Box, who appeared as a witness.
“Yes,” replied the 29-year police veteran.
Among other witnesses, Files and Kent aimed questioning at Wheeler and State Trooper Steven Nichols, whose dash cam video played a crucial role in Wheeler’s recusal in April 2018, just weeks before the trial was to begin.
In his testimony, Wheeler, who left office in October amid a Texas Rangers investigation, implied that he’d been bugged while acting as district attorney. He rattled off a list of county officials and investigators who potentially had knowledge of secret recordings. Time and again, he replied to questions with a caveat: any “recording” of him trumped his recollection in terms of accuracy. At one point, Wheeler testified that Texas Ranger Richard Henderson informed him “he had hours of recordings of me” from multiple devices at multiple locations.
Under questioning from Kent, Wheeler recalled the day Nichols came to him with a video. He described the encounter as “weird.” The video showed three people: a Hawkins police officer, Nichols and a confidential informant. Wheeler said he vaguely recalled hearing words such as “meth oil,” “cartel,” and “protection.” He also heard the name Joyce Box, the police captain who supervised the Walters case and whose affidavit supported Walters’ arrest warrant.
Upon hearing her name, Wheeler immediately stopped the video, he testified.
Wheeler said he neither wanted to compromise a potential DPS investigation nor harm an officer’s reputation. Still, he knew he had been exposed to information that must be turned over to the defense under the 2016 Michael Morton Act, which guards against prosecutors withholding potentially exculpatory evidence. He sought a copy of the video from DPS, but the agency refused, he testified.
“I wrestled with it hard,” he said, before deciding he had to notify the defense.
“I tried to do the right thing; that’s why I brought y’all in,” he told Kent.
Nevertheless, seeing the video made him a potential defense witness, so he decided the proper course of action was to get off the case, he testified.
For his part, Nichols had no recollection of showing the video to Wheeler. On the witness stand, he couldn’t remember why he went to see Wheeler in the first place. He said he eventually turned the video over to a DPS narcotics unit. He did recall, however, having a subsequent conservation with Wheeler about complaints allegedly made against Box by members of law enforcement (he named three peace officers) and “citizens.” One such citizen was a known drug dealer who spoke to Nichols in his patrol car, the trooper testified. A video was made of that encounter as well, Nichols testified.
Box testified that in March of 2018, she learned from Wheeler of the allegations surrounding her. She engaged the service of the Texas Municipal Police Association. No internal police department investigation was ever done, and Box said she received a letter from the DPS stating that she had never been under investigation. The District Attorney’s Office, too, eventually was informed that Box had never been under investigation for behavior brought up Nichols, according to testimony.