'Tire Slasher' Suspect Gets Day in Court
Is this the man who slashed a thousand tires?
Next Wednesday, Tommy Joe Kelley – aka Tommy Joe Adams – will appear at yet another pretrial hearing to help determine if he is in fact the Hyde Park Tire Slasher, or at least the most likely possessor of the tools of the trade. Hyde Park residents say Kelley, a 56-year-old homeless man with a white, fire-and-brimstone beard and an uncanny gift for getting himself arrested, is the man responsible for some 1,000 tire slashings, puncturings, and slicings in their neighborhood over the last 16 years. Travis County prosecutors, meanwhile, are sticking with what think they can prove, charging Kelley with five felony counts of unlawful use of a criminal instrument.
The instrument, or rather instruments, in question – handmade 4-inch pieces of metal sharpened at one end and bent into a "U" shape at the other – were found on Kelley's person during several different arrests since March 8, 2009, when he was arrested for using the tool to puncture tires on two vehicles. In February 2010 and September 2010, Kelley was arrested for possession of marijuana, and during incidental searches, he was found to be in possession of similar tools. Finally, on Dec. 31, 2010, Kelley was spotted sitting on a curb in Hyde Park fashioning a metal tool. According to an affidavit filed by APD Detective Eric Hoduski on Feb. 17, "This tool appeared to be incomplete and Kelley was in the process of sharpening the pointed end and bending the flat end."
Hoduski's affidavit claims that Kelley's possession of those instruments on those occasions – along with his "past arrests for tire slashings and/or puncturings, his total disregard for property rights and his consistent and repetitive course of action over the past 16 years" – shows his intent to use those tools to carry out acts of criminal mischief, "his crime of choice."
In other words, and to the dismay of many Hyde Park residents, Kelley isn't being tried for the acts of criminal mischief themselves – which, taken together, could add up to decades in prison – but rather for having on his person an instrument police say was intended for acts of criminal mischief similar to those perpetrated on the tires of Hyde Park. Unlawful use of a criminal instrument is punishable by up to two years in prison or five years' probation.
Hoduski says that using the criminal instrument law is the most effective tool law enforcement has to deal with a suspect who has never actually been spotted perpetrating a felony act of criminal mischief – misdemeanor yes, but not felony. In order to be a felony, an act of criminal mischief must result in $1,500 worth of damage or more, and there just simply isn't enough evidence to prove with certainty that Kelley was the man behind all of those thousands of dollars worth of damage.
And this despite the fact that Hoduski, during the month he spent investigating the case, discovered 18 tire-spiking incidents between Jan. 1, 2008, and Jan. 1, 2011, that corresponded with the release dates of Kelley from jail – and 13 periods with few or no reports correlating to times Kelley was in jail. That kind of circumstantial evidence may sound compelling, Hoduski says, but it won't prove in a court of law the kind of felonious criminal mischief some victims would like to see.
What the detective does feel confident about, however, is that the District Attorney's Office can prove with certainty that Kelley had criminal instruments in his possession on several different occasions and had the intent to use them for criminal purposes, which is all the Texas Penal Code requires.
"On several occasions over the years, he was charged with criminal mischief for tire slashing, but they were always misdemeanors," Hoduski says. "If we were charging him with mischief, [our evidence] would be circumstantial, but he was caught red-handed. It's not circumstantial. We have the tool, we have him with the tool, and we have him possessing, using, or manufacturing the tool." And while trying Kelley for holding an instrument might feel like trying Al Capone for tax evasion, when it comes to the law, all you've got is what you can prove.
As it turns out, in order to prove anything, Travis County prosecutor Jason English will have to match wits with Kelley himself when the trial starts June 15. After he was charged, Kelley – who many in Hyde Park say they've seen speed-walking through their neighborhood, yelling incoherently, and throwing rocks at buildings, and who has had 500 separate run-ins with APD – was determined by a court-appointed psychiatrist to be mentally competent to stand trial – although presumably, Kelley's mental state might well be a central question at issue. But since the law states that if you're mentally able to stand trial, you're legally allowed to represent yourself in that trial, 390th Criminal District Court Judge Julie Kocurek has no choice but to allow Kelley to act as his own legal counsel – just what the accused Hyde Park Tire Slasher was hoping for.