The Death Row Inmate and His Cunning Bride
How lax security and the marvels of modern technology allowed Crystal Wilson and Randy Halprin to spend some quality time together.
The bride wore white. The groom wore prison whites.
The wedding took place in Houston, although the 32-year-old groom, Randy Halprin, was 76 miles away in West Livingston at the Allan B. Polunsky Unit, which houses Texas’ death row inmates. Randy had been held there since 2003, when he was convicted—along with the rest of the surviving Texas Seven prison escapees—of murdering an Irving police officer on Christmas Eve 2000.
Crystal Wilson, the 36-year-old bride, went before the justice of the peace with a friend standing in for Randy, a lawful procedure in Texas called marriage by proxy. The couple faced hurdles on their path to matrimonial bliss. Barring a reversal of Randy’s conviction, or a loosening of Texas prison rules, man and wife in this marriage would never be allowed to touch. They wouldn’t be able to talk as much as they wanted to, either; on death row, there are no phone privileges. To have anything resembling even a normal prison marriage would take a miracle.
And then something close to that happens. Eleven months after the wedding, in August 2010, Randy is transferred to Dallas for some hearings. Thanks to Crystal, who puts about $4,000 on a pay-as-you-go phone, Randy’s 50-day stay at the Lew Sterrett Justice Center will be something special.
With Randy on a land line attached to a phone cart parked outside his one-man cell, and Crystal on a cell phone at her house, or in her car, or at the supermarket, they talk eight or nine hours a day. Randy guesses it has been more than a decade since he’s been able to talk so leisurely on the telephone. In all, they make nearly 2,000 calls—each one limited to 15 minutes by the jail phone service. It is their longest time in each other’s company since the wedding, a sort of jailhouse honeymoon.
Over the endless hours on the phone, the couple makes silly small talk and Randy sings, or raps, or does his imitation of a man speaking in a thick Indian accent. Like any couple still getting to know each other, they tell stories from their lives, express hopes and regrets, and give countless assurances of their affection for one another. Their most interesting days, such as Saturday, August 28, begin with Crystal asking Randy, “Where do you want to go?”
“Babe, you know, when I was talking about nature, I was thinking about a place where we could hear birds, or water, or a waterfall,” Randy says.
In a marriage carried out behind the Plexiglas barriers of the visiting room, everything from sex to the Sunday drive requires imagination. Crystal, who has family in Plano but lives now in Manchaca, a suburb south of Austin, first considers “taking” Randy to the Barton Springs Pool in Zilker Park. On second thought, she picks the San Antonio River Walk, a 45-minute drive from her house.
“I just like hearing the sounds around you, babe,” Halprin says about the day’s destination. “I like when you go in a store, your interactions with people. Things like that are really cool to me, babe. I just like hearing the things around you.”
They visit other attractions: Austin’s Congress Avenue Bridge to hear the bats take wing at sunset; to a dirt bike track; to Randy’s childhood home in Tarrant County; fishing at a Central Texas lake. With Crystal giving a running narrative of what she sees and what she’s doing, and Randy having at least some familiarity with places he visited as a kid, the patter during these simulated outings is transporting. That is, until a recorded voice cuts in to remind them they are talking on a monitored line at a Dallas jail.
All the while, Crystal takes digital photos, which she later posts to Randy’s Facebook page or prints for him to see when the mail goes through.
And then it all came to an end.
Every one of the couple’s calls was recorded and reviewed by Dallas County investigators for security or possible use against Randy as he fights his conviction through an appeal. A number of things on the recordings caused Dallas County prosecutors to worry that security around Randy was too loose. For instance, Randy told Crystal it was “insane” how casually the bailiffs treated his first appeals hearing. Then Dallas County District Attorney’s Office investigators discovered that Randy was using PIN numbers registered to other inmates to make some of his calls. How was he bypassing the monitoring system?
On September 30, after a second court hearing that ended Randy’s business in Dallas, he called Crystal and she was whining.
Brauce Anton, one of Randy’s appeals lawyers, had told Crystal at the hearing, “I got a call yesterday that Randy was planning an escape.” It turned out to be more rumor than truth, but that was the story being passed around among the lawyers and the judge in the case. Anton also told her their phone calls—and Randy’s website, with his voluminous journal entries that Crystal was regularly posting—were being used against him.
“Randy, we’re going to have to shut everything down. You need to listen,” she said. “Randy, we can’t talk on the phone no more.”
“I hate to say it, but, Crystal, I would rather die than be cut off from everything,” Randy replied, his voice low and breaking. “I would rather die, Crys.”
The question “what do women want?” can bring surprising answers. “Marriage to a death row inmate” is one of the more confounding ones, although girl-meets-condemned-boy stories turn out to be commonplace.
Scott Peterson, who was convicted in California of murdering his wife and unborn child, had dozens of women pleading for his mailing address the first day he arrived in prison. “The more notorious, the stronger the allure,” says Jack Levin, a criminologist at Northeastern University who has studied what he calls “death row groupies.” “These are usually women who would love to date a rock star or rap idol, but if they wrote to a musician, they might get a letter. Here they could get a marriage proposal.” At the same time, he says, “The inmate is seen as evil by society, but only these women see the gentle side of their man. That makes them feel important.” The husband’s legal case adds purpose to her life.
Few Texas inmates can begin to claim the notoriety of the Texas Seven, whose elaborately planned escape from the Connally Unit in Southeast Texas on December 13, 2000, touched off one of the biggest manhunts in state history. Led by convicted robber George Rivas, the men took over the prison maintenance department at lunchtime, overpowered and locked up 11 guards and employees, overtook officers in a security tower, and drove away in a pickup with weapons, credit cards, and civilian clothes.
After robbing a RadioShack in Pearland, the Seven headed north to Dallas and checked into a Farmers Branch Econo Lodge. On December 24, they held up Oshman’s SuperSports USA in Irving, taking 44 guns, piles of ammunition, and $70,000 in cash and checks. Irving policeman Aubrey Hawkins, 14 months on the job, responded to a report of the robbery and was ambushed by the gang. He was shot 11 times, dragged out of his squad car, and run over as they fled.
Almost a month later, after the case had been featured repeatedly on America’s Most Wanted, six of the escapees were apprehended in Colorado. A seventh shot himself during a standoff at the RV park where the gang had been holed up.
They returned to prison as celebrities. Toby Shook, who prosecuted all six of the surviving members of the crew over the following three years, says, “We covered their mail, and the amount of mail they got from women was just amazing.” They all got married behind bars except for Michael Rodriguez. He was gay and in love with Rivas, says Shook, now a defense lawyer.
Randy Halprin, the youngest of the gang, cut a lean, handsome profile in his 2001 mug shot, with his strong jaw and smoldering eyes. He had two girlfriends at the time of his trial for Hawkins’ murder, a fact that Shook brought up when Randy took the witness stand. “They know about each other,” Randy told Shook as the issue was broached.
To show jurors Randy’s facility for lying, Shook recalls, he presented a letter in which Randy urged one of the women, a stripper, to claim her child was his. He told her to say it had been fathered when he was on the lam. “He wanted her to sell the story to the National Enquirer for $25,000, some of it to go back to him,” Shook says.
Randy’s first death row wife, Celene Chaney, was 20 when she married him just a month after he was sentenced to death. She visited him regularly for three years, then stopped in late 2006, and the couple divorced in May 2009.
Crystal, an attractive, zaftig woman with brown eyes and brownish-blond hair worn around her shoulders, says she wrote Randy for a year before she first visited him. She made the four-hour drive to see him at the Polunsky Unit in West Livingston for the first time in May 2009, just as Randy’s divorce was final. They were married three months later. Now, she says, she drives the eight-hour round-trip every Wednesday for their three-hour “noncontact” visit.
Crystal, who still uses the name Wilson around her hometown “because of all the conservatives around here,” declined to speak at length for this story, as did Randy via requests made through Crystal and Randy’s lawyers.
“Randy and I aren’t doing any media right now,” Crystal says, sounding as if she has also assumed the job of Randy’s PR agent. “People want to talk about the Texas Seven. We don’t want to be part of the Texas Seven. That’s our view in court right now.”
The last interviews Randy did, she says, were used for an episode of the National Geographic Channel’s series Breakout, which detailed the planning, complex timing, and success of their prison escape. “It really soured me on the media,” Crystal says.
Robert Wilson, who was married to Crystal for one year ending in January 2006, recalls that she got involved in an anti-death penalty group in 2008 and started writing prisoners. “She wrote to one guy who was pretty close to his death date,” Wilson recalls.
Crystal works as a bookkeeper at his mailing machine business, Wilson says. She also does the books for another ex-husband in town (who’s a plumber) and some of his “running buddies.” Says Wilson of their current relationship, “We get along better outside of our personal life.” As far as his ex marrying a convict, Wilson says, “Crystal gets involved in something, goes whole hog into it, then drops it like a hot potato. She hasn’t dropped this thing yet, and it’s gone on longer than anything else I’ve seen.”
As Crystal drives to San Antonio to the River Walk on August 28, 2010—so Randy, listening in on the phone in his cell, can hear the ducks and mariachi bands—the couple fills the time with everything from chatter about Crystal’s dogs to revelations that bring the conversation to a stop.
Randy reminisces about his life on the outside and the cases and crimes that have had him locked up since age 19. “You know there’s that Christian magazine called Guideposts,” he says. “It’s like Reader’s Digest, you know what I’m talking about? I read these stories where this person was an alcoholic or a wife abuser or a child abuser. Their life was messed up until they found Jesus. Then they get a new start, and people look at them differently. I wish something like that would happen with me.”
Randy was in need of second chances from early on. His biological parents were drug addicts who abused him and his brother. When he was 5, welfare officials took him and his brother into state custody, and a Dalworthington Gardens couple adopted them the next year. His adopted father ran an electronics shop, raised Randy in the Jewish faith, and made a comfortable enough living that when Randy started having trouble in school, he hired tutors.
At his bar mitzvah, at the age of 13, Randy was impressive, recalls Bill Waybourn, a friend of Randy’s father and the city’s police chief. “I thought, ‘This kid is smart. He’s charming.’ I thought he was going to be okay.”
But by ninth grade, Randy was smoking pot and dropping acid, his grades declined, and he was caught stealing from his school and his parents. They sent him to Oneida Baptist Institute, a boarding school in Kentucky, but he was expelled after he was caught stealing a credit card and $275 in checks from a teacher, according to trial testimony.
His father refused to let him come home. “Randy could always talk people into doing things for him. He’s great that way,” Waybourn says. “There was a female worker at a homeless shelter in Louisville, and Randy asked her to drive him all the way to Dallas, Texas. She did it.”By August 1996, he was living in an Arlington apartment with a group of people he had met in a homeless shelter. To pay his rent, Randy would babysit the 18-month-old son of one of his roommates. One night the child was found severely beaten, suffering two broken legs, two broken arms, and a skull fracture. Under police questioning, Randy at first suggested the child’s mother was to blame. He said she was always going out and getting “messed up” and neglecting her toddler.
He stuck with that story until he flunked a polygraph. When he broke down and confessed, he described how he’d beaten and kicked the child when the child wouldn’t stop crying. He even imitated the high-pitched voice the toddler used as he called for his mother. “He was mocking him,” Fort Worth police detective Renee Kamper testified years later. “I’ll probably never forget it.” There were also wounds on the child’s tongue that a doctor testified were consistent with burns from a match or cigarette.
“Randy would never confess to that part, the torture,” Shook says.
Facing the prospect of an even longer sentence from jurors not likely to sympathize with a child abuser, Randy pleaded guilty to felony injury to a child in return for a 30-year prison term.
Crystal seems uncomfortable with the details of the crime when it comes up in the couple’s rambling phone calls. Walking down memory lane with a convict, she is learning, can be a scary trip. Most wives, when they learn something about their husband’s past, don’t have to confront the idea that he burned a toddler’s mouth with a cigarette and broke the child’s arms and legs.
The babysitting, he tells her on the San Antonio trip, was a good deal for him. “I had a rule,” he says. “I wouldn’t babysit high. I told them, ‘Let me know ahead of time,’ so I wouldn’t do anything.” It didn’t always work out that way, he tells his wife, and on the night of the beating he says he was high on LSD.
Crystal, who had recently heard someone describe Randy as “someone who breaks the arms and legs and skull of a baby,” apparently had never heard all the details of the crime.
“What are they talking about?” she asks.
“It wasn’t a bad thing. It was a hairline,” Randy says. Silence comes from the other end of the line. “Crys?”
“Mmm-hmm,” she says, then more silence.
“What’s wrong?” Randy asks. “It was a toddler. Very soft heads. It was a horrible thing, babe. It’s hard for me to imagine doing it. There’s no way. I still ask myself why, you know—I don’t know what to say, but I’m sorry. I think back on it. I don’t know why.”
She goes silent again.
“I’m sorry about all this,” he tells her.
“I know you are,” Crystal says as she changes the subject back to the driving trip. “I’m behind a big yellow bus.”
Before he lets it go, Randy tells her that he’s really good with children. “You know how some people are just natural with children? That’s me.”
After just a few minutes of discomfort, they are back to small talk and professions of love. They exchange “I love you”s at the end of nearly every 15-minute call, so often that Crystal starts to joke about their “soap-opera moments.”
“Honey, I just want to look at you. I don’t have to eat,” she says, in a soap-star voice.
Randy says, “Do you realize that the world goes ’round, but my heart is always right there, in one place, with you?”
Randy played an active and integral part in the Texas Seven breakout, according to a state report and testimony at Randy’s trial. He was convincing in the role one lawman described as “the set-up guy.” He’d lure guards and maintenance department workers who knew him into positions where the other inmates could surprise them from behind.
Sometimes, Randy did both tasks. He drew Mark Burgess, a maintenance supervisor, into a place where Rivas could hit him on the back of the head and knock him out. Randy then removed Burgess’ clothes, bound his hands and feet with tie straps and duct tape, placed a gag in his mouth and duct tape over his eyes. “You think I like you, but I hate your ass. Give us any problems and I swear I’ll kill you,” Burgess quoted Randy saying during the trial.
Randy was just as bold in a note he left in his cell. “You haven’t heard the last of us,” it read. The words were more chilling in the wake of Hawkins’ killing. And they didn’t help Randy’s trial defense, which portrayed him not as an aggressive killer but as a passive sort, a bystander who chiefly followed along.
Of the six escapees who went to trial, all of whom received the death penalty, only two testified: ringleader Rivas and Randy. “His ego is huge,” says Shook, who cross-examined Randy over two days.
Randy testified that he joined the escape because prison was so isolating. He received no visitors and only a few letters from his brother. The rest of his testimony was a series of denials. He said he never hit anybody during the escape, refused to take part in the gang’s South Texas robberies, and only carried a gun during the Irving store robbery because the gang “made it very clear it was their way or the highway.” He told jurors he never fired a shot.
“Randy’s own testimony placed him beside Hawkins’ car, on the passenger side, and we showed shots were fired from that position,” Shook says. Additionally, Randy had been shot in the foot, evidence that he was around the gunfire at the back of the store. More importantly, Shook says, all the defendants were tried as parties to the murder, guilty under the law because they knew their actions as part of the group would lead to the killing. “Five guns were used,” Shook says. “We never could trace back who held each gun.”
Nearly a decade later, in recalling his arrest on the phone with Crystal, Randy offers his wife this explanation for why he surrendered to police: “I can’t hurt anyone and I can’t kill myself.” He came out of the Colorado mobile home, which was surrounded by cops, with his hands up.
“Did they know you were coming out?” Crystal asks.
“No, they didn’t,” he says.
“Oh, my,” Crystal says in a little kitten voice.
“I just put my arms in the air, said I’m unarmed.”
“Oh, Randy,” she coos. “During that extradition hearing, you looked so scared in that video.” She says, “I’m someone who could have kept you safe. I could have. I never would have imagined you getting found guilty for not killing someone.”
“I love you, honey,” he says.
“I love you, too.”
Crystal might have provided Randy virtual Texas tours, money on his “jail book” (good for food and magazines), a sympathetic ear, and regular phone sex, but she wanted to do more. “I want to get you a ring,” she tells him during one call in late August 2010.
Randy tells her the gift might be against prison rules, then suggests she “call your friend” for permission. That person turns out to be the Polunsky Unit’s senior warden, Timothy Simmons.
Crystal has Simmons’ cell phone number. He answers it even when he’s in meetings. “There’s a bunch of calls to him,” says Dallas County First Assistant District Attorney Terri Moore. Crystal’s calls to the warden and Randy’s description of his time in Dallas put Moore’s office on alert to some possible security lapses surrounding Randy. They were appalled that a high-risk inmate and former escapee would be permitted to gab on the telephone for hours on end.
“He’s very personable, and she’s pretty and she’s using all her skills,” Moore says. “The next thing you know, they just suck these people in, and they let go of all their security. They forget what he did when he escaped last time.”
The prosecutor’s concerns led to two bailiffs in state District Judge Rick Magnis’ court being reassigned while a review was made, and security was heightened at Randy’s third hearing in Dallas. Somehow, talk of security concerns gave some around the case—including Randy’s lawyers—the mistaken impression that he was, in fact, planning an escape.
At the second hearing, Bruce Anton, one of Randy’s appeals lawyers, took Crystal aside and told her their recorded phone calls, web journals, Facebook page, and everything else were making his job very difficult.
“You want me to stop loving him?” she asked Anton. She relayed the conversation to Randy that night on the phone. “He said, ‘You want to love him. You want him dead or you want him alive?’ ”
Prosecutors had used Randy’s words to poke holes in testimony at a 2008 appeals hearing. Randy wrote afterward that he needed to stop posting his journals out of respect for “those who are fighting for me.” But he started back up a year later.
Anton and Randy’s other defense lawyer, Gary Udashen, declined to talk about the case with their six-year-long appeal still pending in a Dallas court.
Moore, who has been a defense attorney as well as a prosecutor, says it’s frustrating for a lawyer to contend with the added variable of a defendant, or a wife, who might not realize all the ways their words can slip them up. “The attorney’s trying to save the guy’s life, and they’re just trying to have a life—for a short period of time.”
On October 6, in the middle of one of Crystal’s virtual phone trips to a fishing spot, guards told Randy to hang up the phone. They moved him to another cell, and then, under heavy security, the next morning they put him in a police car for the trip back to prison. “I noted a billion deputies around and a sniper gun trained on me,” he wrote in an early October journal entry. “We were driving so fast that I couldn’t take the scenery in like on the trip to Dallas.”
Within two months, Randy and Crystal took down that journal entry along with years of material, their wedding photos, and various other content from randyhalprin.com.
But Randy didn’t take the site down. He returned there this spring with a new cause. It’s an online petition to give phone privileges to the 315 prisoners currently held under death sentences in Texas. The first signature came from Crystal, who wrote, “These men on death row are humans and are loved.”
Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.