You Be the Judge
Sex, lies, and politics in the 331st District Court
This year's primary race for the 331st District Court has been as much about dishing dirt as it has been about judicial issues. And the dirt hasn't exactly been distributed evenly across the race.
Incumbent Judge David Crain and indigent defense attorney Chantal Eldridge are both Democrats, though they are far apart in their status within the Travis County party establishment, and in their opinions of the responsibilities of a felony judge. Eldridge has spent her campaign arguing for a heightened focus on mental health dockets in the felony court, has lobbied for indigent rights, and attacked Crain for resting on his laurels after 35 years of experience on three benches, an accusation Crain rejects. Austinites saw these arguments play out on television over the past few weeks; Eldridge invested big money into 30-second spots during Olympic broadcasts.
Concurrently, in the Statesman, Eldridge got hit with two pieces alleging serious problems with her character, one of them criminal in nature. Last Thursday, the daily reported details of a suspended Austin Police Department investigation, dating from 2006, into accusations by a 16-year-old Brazilian foreign exchange student that Eldridge seduced him while he was living with her and her 8-year-old son. According to the boy's account, Eldridge asked the boy to teach her how to play poker. After 30 minutes she asked to play strip poker, and after she'd stripped naked, the two moved to the boy's bedroom, where they continued to play until he was also naked, then began to have sex. Reached in Brazil, the man, now 27, told the Statesman that he and Eldridge got into an argument after he expressed "discomfort" with what had happened.
The story is the fourth in a string of negative reports against Eldridge that began in 2016 during her campaign for judge of the 450th District Court. (She lost to Brad Urrutia.) The first was a news story on the Chronicle site, on Feb. 15, 2016, one day before early voting began, including details of her representation in the late Nineties of Byron (Low Tax) Looper, who was running at the time for a seat on the Tennessee state senate, and stood accused (and was eventually convicted) of murdering his opponent during the campaign. Fliers distributed during the course of the 2016 campaign dogged Eldridge for briefly representing Looper in a civil suit he'd filed before his trial. ("Low Tax, High Cost," Feb. 15, 2016.)
Five days after our story went online, the Statesman in a race preview teased news of a 1995 arrest Eldridge incurred for obstructing her mother's arrest – a case that was dismissed and has since been expunged. Urrutia campaigned hard on both events, referring to them regularly at campaign forums. He ended up winning the race by six points.
Now Eldridge is back, trying to beat Crain in his first contested election since he became a district judge in 2010. And for the first time Crain has retained noted political consultants GNI Strategies, the same group that worked on Urrutia's campaign. The group, led today by Katie Naranjo, has enjoyed an illustrious run in local politics, having recently managed successful campaigns for officials like Urrutia, Mayor Steve Adler, Sheriff Sally Hernandez, state Rep. Gina Hinojosa, and state Senator Kirk Watson. But GNI also has a reputation within the local campaign community for utilizing tough tactics, and is currently facing a pending complaint from fellow politico Mike Lewis, who believes GNI sabotaged his campaign for chair of the Travis County Democratic Party by registering three attack websites (www.therealmikelewis.com, www.lewis4chair.com, and www.mikelewisscrewedthedemocrats.com) under the guise of an unregistered political action committee so it could install Anne Wynne into the role. (She's currently entangled in a race with Dyana Limon-Mercado.) Lewis pulled out, making him the second potential candidate to withdraw from the race for chair. Naranjo's longtime friend and ally Rick Cofer was the first; the former assistant county and district attorney withdrew in late October after word got out about a history of chauvinistic behavior in his past. (He currently runs a criminal defense practice.)
And with the 331st District Court race have come two new attacks on Eldridge's history. In a race preview published two days before early voting began, the Statesman reported that Eldridge retains, both at her legal practice and on her campaign, a man named John Zamarripa, who in 1990 pleaded guilty to the sexual assault of a 14-year-old relative. That was followed within five days by news of the alleged 2006 sexual assault.
Where There's Smoke ...
Negative news is common in local elections, but there's been more to these stories than what has been presented, and we've been privy to tips about each one. In 2016, the obstruction charge was the most salacious, and Urrutia clung to it through his campaign: Eldridge was arrested for obstructing the arrest of her mother. But her mother, 62 at the time, was herself arrested because her dogs had gotten outside the yard ("dogs at large" was the official charge), and Eldridge says her mother emerged from the arrest with a pair of broken glasses and bruises on her back and arms. Eldridge said she called the Cookeville (Tenn.) Police Department the next day to ask how to file a complaint of excessive force against the arresting officer, and was told to come in at a certain time. She did, and upon her exit was met by the same officer who had arrested her mother; he told her that she too would be arrested. A grand jury indicted Eldridge, but the state dismissed the case, and she said the officer was assigned to desk duty. "I don't feel bad about that," she said in January. "I feel like I did the right thing" by filing the complaint.
The Zamarripa story came, to us at least, on Thursday, Feb. 15, from an "off the record" source with connections to the Crain campaign, but who insisted on remaining anonymous. Eldridge's camp had known it was coming, and on Monday, Feb. 12, sent an email to supporters confirming Zamarripa's crime – yet describing it as one for which he had served his time, and from which Eldridge believes he deserves to re-enter productive society. Zamarripa has completed 10 years of deferred adjudication, she said, and "met every condition required of him for the last 27 years." He worked on her campaign in 2016 and also on Mike Martinez's run for mayor. (Martinez told us Zamarripa had disclosed his history and provided countless hours of volunteer time doing data entry and blockwalking. He never had a problem with Zamarripa during that time.) Eldridge said that to deny Zamarripa another chance would be contrary to the principles of her campaign.
But that was only a prelude; Zamarripa currently faces a class C misdemeanor charge for assault by physical contact, for interactions he had with two female inmates at the county jail (while working for Eldridge). The circumstances are somewhat complex: Last August, a women we'll identify as R.R. told Travis County deputies that Zamarripa during the course of his official visit "made numerous inappropriate remarks of a sexual nature," asked about a tattoo on her breast, and at one point placed business cards in her breast pocket, only to reach back into the pocket and remove the cards to write something on them, then place them back. A report notes R.R. "said that each time he was touching her breast ... he knew what he was doing." The report continues, later introducing a jailhouse acquaintance of R.R.'s we will call A.J. She told deputies that at one point during an official visit Zamarripa touched her hands and arms to inspect for cuts.
Eldridge told us that she hired defense attorney Charlie Baird to look into the allegations to recommend whether she should terminate Zamarripa's employment, and that Baird currently represents Zamarripa on the misdemeanor charge. (A pretrial hearing is currently set for March 29.) Baird told us on Tuesday that the R.R. incident was "not filed or pursued because the complainant was not credible." He forwarded a statement from the second woman, A.J., that reads: "I feel as though I was put under much pressure to write a statement in regards to a conversation I had with an inmate. My encounter with [Zamarripa] was definitely exaggerated. I do not agree to any allegations against him. Due to the my [sic] mental state at the time I was susceptible and wrongfully convinced to act on something I did not want to do."
A court coordinator said on Tuesday that the TCSO detective who filed the original complaint against Zamarripa filed a new complaint in the same case on Monday. The coordinator could not confirm Baird's assessment of the case's circumstances, or provide details of the new complaint, but said it's possible that charges have been brought for both incidents, and also possible that charges have only been brought for one. The court's records on the case are not subject to the Public Information Act.
Just as the dust was settling on the Zamarripa story, the Statesman reported on the exchange student's allegations. The boy said he alerted the organization that placed him at Eldridge's house after the two had sex, and was promptly moved to a new home in Cedar Park. The organization, which is not named in the Statesman's report, also alerted APD, which launched a three-month investigation that brought no case to a grand jury – a conclusion both the Statesman and current District Attorney Margaret Moore (reviewing the case file) attributed to the boy's returning to Brazil and concerns over a physical abnormality on Eldridge's body that Moore said "could not be resolved."
Eldridge denied the story, calling it "BS," and citing "independent medical proof." She said the boy's accusation followed a "temper tantrum" over house rules, and that he at one point told police she threatened to report him for drinking alcohol. She elaborated on Facebook the next day, calling the story "false" and "debunked by a doctor who documented 'a very readily noticeable' feature on my body which my accuser could not identify." She called "the legality and authenticity" of the reports used by the Statesman "questionable," and recommended they be "turned over for scrutiny."
Eldridge did not know how the police report became public. She filed an open records request on Feb. 23, but was told it is not accessible because it names a child victim. Reached by phone on Friday, Moore cited two provisions of state law that would prevent the report's release, unless the alleged victim in the case approved having them unsealed after he turned 18.
The Statesman does not reveal their source for the police report, but two people have confirmed to the Chronicle that it came to them through Mark Walters. Walters, a former personal trainer and currently a law student, is a peripheral member of the Austin political scene. (He's the guy who filed those ethics complaints against former City Council Member Don Zimmerman.) He told the Chronicle he's been trying to place the story in a local outlet since Eldridge campaigned against Urrutia. He claims his reasons are apolitical, and that he's known of the allegations against Eldridge since they were first raised; Jodie Goldberg, a former workout client, was a host mother in the program, and took the boy into her home after he left Eldridge. (He stayed there for two weeks before moving on to another family.)
Walters would not explain how he came into possession of the report, but he too carries a legal history. He spent five years in prison for violating a probation sentence stemming from a 2005 obstruction or retaliation felony conviction; he took a woman's camera and threatened to share nude photos stored on it. (He was also indicted for credit card fraud in the same case.) He was charged with criminal mischief and making abusive calls to 911 in two separate incidents in 2009, and is currently facing indictment for tampering with or fabricating physical evidence, a third degree felony, stemming from a 2016 incident. He showed up at APD headquarters with what police believed to be a doctored medical report, wearing a neck brace, medical boot, and plastic cast, and signed an affidavit alleging he was the victim of an assault, despite the fact that residents at the apartment complex where he lived told investigators that he had been seen "without crutches or braces."
Goldberg acknowledged Walters' criminal history to us, but said she reached out to him because she hoped he could bring the story to light while allowing her to still maintain anonymity. She also denied using the information specifically to help Crain; her motives were personal. "I couldn't pick him out of a lineup," she said of Crain, "but her I sure could." As host to another Brazilian teenager in 2006, Goldberg and her husband Mike saw Eldridge and the student regularly. Both contest Eldridge's characterization of the boy as being resistant to authority. "He was very mature," said Goldberg. "He did not throw temper tantrums."
The Goldbergs had been working with APD, but said they left the situation alone after the boy's father made it clear that he no longer wanted his son involved with the police. It wasn't until Eldridge ran against Urrutia and Goldberg drove past a campaign sign that she contacted Walters and asked if he knew how to get word out about the suspended investigation. Walters dropped those efforts when Urrutia won the primary, but after seeing a new sign this year, Goldberg again contacted Walters, who this time had more success placing the story. "Make no mistake," he wrote to Eldridge in an email titled "Karma" three hours before the Statesman story landed, "The shit storm that you are entering comes directly from me." Eldridge's campaign has circulated that email and Walters' criminal history in an effort to sow doubt into the story's veracity.
Walters insists he does not work for any political group, but he is at least tangentially related to GNI Strategies. He's rumored to have been in contact with political strategist Patrick McDonald (indeed, they're friends on Facebook), who dates GNI COO Jovita Pardo, who's managing Crain's campaign. And on Sunday when we spoke, Goldberg mentioned that Walters has been in communication with Rick Cofer. Goldberg said Cofer helped get the police report into the Statesman's hands; he met Goldberg through Walters, and used his new acquaintance to get in touch with the boy, who consented to have Cofer represent him – thereby gaining access to the otherwise sealed report.
Naranjo said on Friday that Cofer has never been an employee or contract worker of GNI or Crain's campaign. Responding to a call asking him to confirm Goldberg's assessment, Cofer emailed: "It is my hope that the law and the facts will matter most, not the personality or the politics.
"The law and the facts are as follows:
"1. The juvenile victim in this case requested the relevant offense report, as the law allows.
"2. The statute of limitations on the offense has not expired.
"3. The victim is willing to cooperate with the Travis County District Attorney's Office.
"As this is an open matter, please refer questions to the Travis County District Attorney."
Just the Facts
Cofer's client consented to release the police report to us this Tuesday, Feb. 27. The 22-page document details Det. Clifford Rogers' three-month investigation into claims made on Oct. 20, 2006, that Eldridge seduced the boy over a game of strip poker on either Oct. 10 or 11 of that year. The boy told the program that placed him with Eldridge, which placed a call to APD. After Rogers and the boy met to go over cursory details (including any abnormalities or skin markings on Eldridge, which the boy could not recall), Rogers recommended that they plan a pretext phone call (a recorded phone conversation between the victim and the suspect) involving him and Eldridge. The boy agreed, but when they called Eldridge she did not pick up. Rogers and the boy made plans to try again on Nov. 4, but that morning the program's area director relayed an email from the boy's father indicating that he "did not want his son to have any further contact with Chantal Eldridge."
The boy had provided APD with a phone number for his father, but when Rogers called to explain to him what a pretext phone call was, there was no answer. He made multiple calls yet never established contact, and through an intermediary double-checked with the boy to ensure that the number was correct. On Nov. 20, following a court subpoena for the father's contact information, Rogers received a fax from the exchange program that included a different phone number than the one the boy had provided.
Rogers staffed the case with Assistant District Attorney Dayna Blazey, who advised not to follow through with a pretext call. Rogers made an appointment, and met with Eldridge on Dec. 21. She told him that she and the boy did play poker, but never strip poker, and she denied having an intimate relationship with him. She said that one time while vacationing in South Padre Island she got out of the shower and looked in the mirror to see the boy "standing behind her with a cup of coffee," and that he left the room when she turned around. Rogers asked if she would take a polygraph and she consented, if Blazey would put "in writing that no charges would be filed if she passed." (Rogers said that would not be possible.) The report notes discrepancies between Eldridge's description of the size of her bodily abnormality and what a doctor observed (it "may not be as noticeable as she described," wrote Rogers), but that the boy also "indicated" that he "observed" the area where the abnormality was located "for some time before he became naked and they had sex."
The case remains open. There is no statute of limitations to the prosecution of such a case. Cofer says the boy, now 27, has expressed a willingness to come back. He passed along a statement, which reads in part that the boy reported Eldridge's "sexual conduct because I needed help, I was sixteen and couldn't deal with the situation." He said he had no other motive "than allow the truth to be known about her. ... If she is prosecuted I will provide truthful information that I personally witnessed because she is not suited for such a powerful position."
It's unlikely at this point that there will be a resolution. John Zamarripa will continue to work for Chantal Eldridge, barring a ruling in JP court; he embodies what she believes rehabilitation from crimes should be. The 1995 case remains expunged; much ado about nothing, should you ask us. As for Low Tax, he died in prison; 20 years later, Eldridge believes she was right to represent him before his trial.
Today through Tuesday Austinites will go to the polls and vote. They won't know for sure what happened with that boy. They'll just know the law and the facts, and what has happened with this race.