How did Carl Thomas happen?

Sheriff Carl Thomas and I were less than a block from the Dallas County Courthouse when a man of about 60 hailed Thomas from a yellow Cadillac and waddled across the street to greet him. “There’s the man himself,” said the sheriff’s aide, Van Dunn. Thomas shook the old man’s hand warmly and turned to introduce him to me as one Smokey Joe Smith.

I’d have thought Carl Thomas would be skittish about talking to Smokey Joe on the street, in the presence of a reporter. After all, the newspapers had been pounding at the sheriff for at least a week about his close friendship with this felon. The headlines had not been kind: Thomas’ most recent staff realignment – the third since he took office 18 months ago- was said to have been masterminded by Smith, a legendary courthouse character with a three-page single-spaced criminal record. The reports suggested that the sheriff had created a most peculiar kitchen cabinet of one – Joseph Daniel “Smokey” Smith – and that in place of efficient, honest deputies and civilian aides, a cadre of “Smokey’s boys” now surrounded Thomas.

The sheriff, on the other hand, had continued to maintain that Smith was nothing more than a professional acquaintance, and that a good sheriff needed to know people “from both sides of the fence.” And apparently Carl Thomas felt that his explanation was sufficient. He made no move to avoid Smith this morning, and he seemed completely unconcerned that a reporter stood listening as he and Smith engaged in what can only be described as an ugly conversation.

Smokey Joe was angry about the recent publicity concerning him and the sheriff. There, on the street, he spoke with contempt of a certain “Jackson” (whom 1 took, quite naturally, to be the county commissioner most at odds with Thomas) and of various members of the press. He said he’d told Times Herald reporter Gary Shultz. “I knew your mother pretty well.”

The sheriff of Dallas County laughed.

Then Smith brought up that his “place had been broken into” a few nights back. The sheriff nodded sympathetically, and then suggested, with a perfectly straight face, “What you ought to do is check any prints you found there against the prints of Times Herald reporters.” Throughout the conversation. Smokey Joe made repeated references to something he was going to put out that would “really stink.”

Later, as Thomas and I walked through the courthouse basement to his office, he commented. “I’11 say one thing for the guy. he’s got a lot of shit on a lot of people.” And in his office, with one foot slung casually on his desk – and in my face – he said: “One of these days they’re gonna print one thing too many, they’re gonna go too far. And when that happens I’m gonna be ready. I haven’t been in information gathering all these years for nothing. They go too far. and 1 put everybody’s business on the street!”

Carl Thomas has always been blunt, perhaps arrogant, ceritainly impatient with those who question him. When the commissioners court questioned him one time too many, he responded by describing them with graphic profanity, involving animal excrement and Oedipal love. When courthouse reporters Sam Attlesey of the News and Gary Shultz of the Herald began hounding him with tough questions about his policies. Thomas named two puppies in a new litter at his home after the reporters, because, “like them, I didn’t know who their fathers were.”

But this latest skirmish is different. This fight isn’t political; it’s personal. Thomas hasn’t responded with mere wisecracks; he has responded with personal threats. His office isn’t under attack. He is. He, and a close personal friend.

Carl H. Thomas will tell you to this day that he won the election in 1976. But the truth is that his opponent. Clarence Jones, simply lost. Carl Thomas’ victory wasn’t an upset: It was a fluke. A Marine veteran, a six-year Dallas deputy of pleasant but average reputation. Thomas was lucky; the time and circumstances were right. All he had to do was show up.

Clarence Jones had not really been a bad sheriff – just a lesser one than the legendary Bill Decker. That, and a little scandal, was all he needed to become political driftwood. The specific problems were several – lackadaisical monitoring of bail bonding and a childish recalcitrance toward Federal Judge Sarah Hughes’ jail reform order. Jones became distant, reclusive; his 1976 re-election campaign was little more than an abdication.

Under the circumstances, the time was ripe for a Republican challenge. Jones’ Democratic primary opponents were all department cronies: the only answer was new blood. And there was no newer blood than the Republican Party, which had begun to slip into the courthouse through the cracks in the conservative Democratic establishment in the early Seventies. A singularly bland John Whittington stunned the colorful 25-year incumbent Democrat Lew Sterrett for the county judge’s post in 1974. As a result, a young and enterprising Republican, Jim Jackson, replaced Whittington in the District I seat on the commissioners court.

Whittington and Jackson were hardly revolutionary figures, but they showed that for the first time in Dallas County history, significant Republican penetration at ’the courthouse was possible. When the chinks in Clarence Jones’ armor began to show, two of his deputies. Al Maddox and Johnny Webb, leaped into the Democratic primary. Another. Bill Courson, jumped onto the Republican side of the ballot.

Carl Thomas was interested, but he was too embarrassed to call the Republican headquarters to find out the procedures for filing. So his half-brother, Bill Parish, did it for him. Parish got in touch with assistant executive director Gary Griffith at Republican headquarters. Griffith explained the procedures and the next afternoon Parish and Thomas showed up and paid the $200 filing fee.

Carl Thomas had no business running for sheriff. He had no money, and he had to quit his civil deputy post with the sheriff’s department to enter the race. But he genuinely believed he would win. Thomas and Parish scraped up a few dollars and printed some calling cards, which they took door to door in the primary. Thomas went to coffees and neighborhood meetings. Either that would be enough or it wouldn’t.

It almost wasn’t. Election night. Carl Thomas went home a beaten man. The tally: Bill Courson – 27.150; Carl Thomas – 26,642. The next morning at nine, he received a phone call from Griffith: Show up at party headquarters as soon as you can. Seems a pretty serious mistake had been made, he was told when he arrived. Some votes were transposed. The actual tally was Courson – 26,675. Thomas – 27,050. Courson, understandably, fumed, “There will be some type of protest.” Carl Thomas, however, accepted the windfall with icy calm. “We ran a campaign and we should have won . .. and we finally did.” he said.

Thomas now had his wish – a run at incumbent Clarence Jones. That didn’t produce any more dollars, and the general election campaign limped along as the primary effort had. Carl Thomas needed help, and he needed it fast.

Help came in the form of Jim Jackson, Republican county commissioner. Jackson, aware of Jones’ vulnerability and eager to make another inroad at the courthouse, thought perhaps the baby-faced kid could pull it off. Savvy Republican workers like Natalie Kern and Mary Lynch were brought into the campaign. Suddenly, the candidacy of Carl Thomas was the most significant challenge to Democratic preeminence at the courthouse in the city’s history.

Carl Thomas looked like the right man for that challenge: tall, fair and boyish, slat-thin and nicely groomed. A perfect counterpoint to the country swarthiness of Jones. He talked right, loo. He spoke of the embarrassing 40.000 overload in the warrants division and of working with, not against. Sarah Hughes in cleaning up the jail. And finally, he spoke of the “new generation of law enforcement.” To those who had watched the county sheriffs department clunking its way through the Sixties and Seventies, this was sweet music. An old tune, but sweet music.

It was a good thing for Thomas that he looked and sounded right, for he was in other respects a less-than-ideal candidate. According to campaign workers. he frequently cancelled or simply missed appointments, sometimes as often as twice a week. It could have been shyness, but it could also have been arrogance. Carl Thomas never considered himself a long shot. He always knew he would win. “He was amazing in his determination,” recalls a campaign worker. “The rest of us knew it was an iffy deal, but Carl never doubted himself for a minute.”’

On his second election night. Carl Thomas did not go home early to commiserate with his wife. Instead, he relished a stunning 53 percent victory that made him – at the age of 31 – the first Republican sheriff of Dallas County. For this one night. Carl Thomas was the new generation of law enforcement. He was the Answer.

If Carl Thomas had a mandate, it was simply to do something, anything. Jones had destroyed himself by stubbornness and inactivity; gun-shy from bad press. he’d obviously decided that doing nothing was his best chance for survival. Thomas, on the other hand, seemed to believe that action, of whatever kind or quality, was preferable to the status quo. Like a young and energetic entrepreneur with his first successful company. Carl Thomas became an inveterate tinkerer, a compulsive fiddler.

For several months, the Thomas method worked. The warrant backlog was quickly reduced by a staggering 10.000 warrants. The dead weight from the Jones regime was quickly demoted or fired, and a new management team, including Thomas’ long-time friend Lee DeVaney and campaign workers Gary Griffith and Mary Lynch, took the reins. The jail, Jones’ albatross, was brought into compliance with state and federal guidelines so quickly that Judge Sarah Hughes was moved to compliment the new sheriff. Innovative concepts, such as a county-level narcotics task force and specialized investigative teams, were put on the drawing board. Old wounds were salved, as Thomas promised the commissioners and press alike that he would operate with a cooperative, “open-door” policy.

Thomas basked in good press. He was depicted as the earnest young crusader, the progressive hauling county law enforcement into the 20th century. To be sure, his abrupt, even rude manner broke through at times. But he was obviously a man in a hurry, and occasional impatience could be excused. After all. he was doing something.

The period of grace ended rudely only a month or so after Thomas took office. Thomas began his job in the midst of one of the tempestuous budget sessions of the commissioners court. As always, money was tight: All departments would have to hold the line. Thomas, in the first public display of the hardheaded-ness that would come to be his dominant characteristic, didn’t agree. Jones’ last budget had been $9.2 million; Thomas wanted $11.4 million. After all. he had a lot of ambitious campaign promises to keep. The commissioners hit the ceiling. Commissioner Jackson was dispatched to explain the situation to the young upstart. It didn’t work: Thomas was adamant about the $11.4 million, despite his campaign claim that he could run the sheriffs office more efficiently than Jones with the same money. Jackson grew testy, and at one point suggested to Thomas in paternal tones that “after six months or so down here, you’ll understand a little better what’s going on.”

That made Carl Thomas mad. He did not like to be condescended to. After all. he was the sheriff. As far as he was concerned. Jim Jackson was simply trying to meddle in his affairs, trying to show the Democrats on the court that Republicans controlled the largest department in county government. Jim Jackson was apparently like all the rest: Everybody wanted to be sheriff. But there was room for only one.

It will never be entirely clear who did what to whom in the Thomas-Jackson stand-off. Thomas and some former members of his staff continue to claim that the commissioner was trying to meddle. Jackson claims that he was simply trying to make an unrealistic budget request make sense. In the end. Thomas received a budget of roughly $10 million – nearly half of his requested increase. But his relationship with Jackson, his first important political father figure, would never be the same. For that matter, Carl Thomas would never be the same.

The new Carl Thomas was still a progressive sheriff. But his impulsiveness began to show more clearly. And his staff realignments began to take on the taint of personal vindic-tiveness. During his first year. Thomas demoted or fired some 50 deputies. Of course, a progressive sheriff, taking over from an old-style sheriff like Clarence Jones, could be expected to do some house cleaning. But one of those firings would force Carl Thomas to admit to motives other than promoting efficiency in the operation.

Benny Bob Barrett was terminated in August 1977 for violating two provisions in Thomas’ departmental code of conduct. The more serious of the alleged violations involved Barrett’s public statements, made following his demotion to jail duty earlier in August. Barrett, an 11-year veteran with an impeccable record, had complained bitterly of Thomas’ personnel policies. At one point. Barrett claimed the sheriff had a “’Hitler mentality.” Thomas summarily dismissed him.

Barrett filed a $50,000 class-action suit with the aid of the American Civil Liberties Union. The suit alleged that Thomas had a “policy of demoting and threatening termination of anyone who does not support him politically.” The suit also challenged the constitutionality of Thomas’ departmental “gag rule.” the part of the code that stated: “No employee of this department will address any statement or remark to any member of the news media that is or could be of a controversial nature.”

In Federal Judge Robert Porters court, former sheriff Clarence Jones testified that of Thomas’ 50 or so demotions, terminations, and resignations, 34 had been supporters of Jones in his race against Thomas the previous fall. Chief Deputy Lee DeVaney reluctantly admitted that Thomas had once said, ’”I am not going to tell them |deputies) they have to campaign for me. but at the same time, 1 don’t expect them to campaign for any opponent.” DeVaney also admitted that deputy AI Maddox, one of Thomas’ chief assistants, had been tired because Thomas heard Maddox was planning to run against him in 1980. And he confirmed that at a November meeting with some 50 deputies. Thomas made explicit instructions to deputies not to talk to reporters about departmental matters – especially not to Sam Attlesey or Gary Shultz.

Thomas denied that the demotions were solely motivated by the deputies’ support of Jones in the election, but he admitted that he didn’t consult previous performance ratings on the deputies before demoting or transferring them. He also said. “1 feel that if someone works for me or another elected official, that person should not campaign for another person.” Al Maddox testified that Thomas once told him he didn’t like Benny Barrett at all: “He told me he wanted to either fire him or keep demoting him until he quit.” He claimed the sheriff’s attitude stemmed from Barrett’s campaigning for Jones.

Of his own firing, Maddox testified that Thomas called him in and said, “I want you to lay your badge on the desk. I have been told by people that you have been campaigning against me.”

Barrett testified that Thomas had admitted the demotions were part of a political purge, and once said, “I don’t expect to be in the position Jones was in four years from now. I am going to bring people in off the streets.” On another occasion, Barrett claimed, Thomas told a deputy, “I have all those sons of bitches [deputies] in the palm of my hand.’” And once, when some deputies complained about the transfer of a couple of officers with outstanding records, Thomas allegedly replied, “I don’t give a damn how good they are.”

Judge Porter has issued a temporary order in the matter, ruling that the “gag rule” is a limitation on the constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech. Porter said Thomas was “trying to walk or water” by enforcing the gag rule. But Thomas was predictably blase about the ruling: He told Channel 8’s Kay Vinson that “it hasn’t affected me one way or the other.”

Thomas, of course, can have the last laugh on critics of his personnel policies. He is the sheriff, and the state constitution is not at all vague about his powers: He can hire and fire whomever he damn well pleases. But other questions emerged about the style of the new Carl Thomas that could not be easily dismissed.

It is not entirely clear when Smokey Joe Smith became a part of Carl Thomas’ life. Smith has been a fixture at the courthouse for a quarter of a century. During his checkered career, he’s been a bail bondsman, a private investigator, a deputy constable, a political candidate; he’s also been in 30 or so scrapes with the law, including everything from felony theft to verbal abuse. Just as important, however, Smokey Joe has been a courthouse crony; Bill Decker and other officers used him as a source of criminal scuttlebutt. Smokey seems to enjoy being near the power of the sheriff’s office.

Thomas says he has known Smith for years. Thomas’ father was a deputy under Bill Decker, and like all deputies had occasion to chew the fat with the charming old felon. But it was not until January 1977 that Smokey Joe became a constant presence in the young sheriff’s office. Thomas was out of town, at a law enforcement conference; Smokey Joe showed up and began “talking with dep-uties and making phone calls,” according to one former employee. When Thorn-as returned. Smith became a daily pres-ence. Often he would call to ask, “Who’s in the sheriff’s office?” Occasionally, he tried to order deputies and administra-tive personnel around. Thomas, for his part, began to make regular visits to Smith’s parking lot across from the courthouse. “Sometimes he’d just pick up and’ leave the office,” recalls a former em-ployee. “He wouldn’t say where he was going, but we knew.”

A law enforcement officer needs a contact on the other side of the fence. But Smokey Joe seemed to be offering Thomas more than his admitted expertise in the underworld. For one thing, Smith clearly had his preferences among members of the sheriff’s staff. When the un-chosen began to be demoted, fired and forced out. and the favorites started to make their way up the ladder, suspicions arose: Was it possible that a felon with a three-page rap sheet was dictating personnel changes in the sheriffs office?

Some of the sheriff’s staff members, including Gary Griffith and Mary Lynch, became concerned enough to talk to the sheriff about it. It was as if Thomas didn’t hear them. They warned him that the relationship would, at the very least, look bad to press and public. Thomas indicated it was nobody’s business. When the papers reported that Smokey Joe and Thomas had gone to the races at Louisi-ana Downs together, that Smith had once had a county-owned two-way radio in his office, and that the sheriff’s car had been fleeced of its hubcaps while sitting in front of Smiths house one night, the sheriff shrugged the matters off.

But he couldn’t be so casual for long. In mid-March of this year, Thomas announced another staff realignment. Chief Deputy Lee DeVaney and executive secretary Mary Lynch – both enemies of Smokey Joe’s – were out; up the ladder went deputy Lynn Burk, public information officer Van Dunn, and warrant chief John Vance – all said to be among Smokey’s chosen few. Was it possible that a felon was forming a cadre of friends in the office of the sheriff of Dallas County? Thomas denied the suggestion. But Smokey Joe bragged to a reporter, “I told him [the sheriff] to get some people in there who knew what they were doing.”

The sheriff and Smokey Joe Smith are friends. By available evidence, including their rather unsavory conversation that morning outside the courthouse, they are fairly close friends. Like all friendships, theirs is based on mutual trust and respect – and mutual weakness. Smokey Joe, at 62 and in poor health, can enjoy one last affair with the right side of the law, Thomas can enjoy the praise and respect of a flatterer who has the gentle strength of a father. As one former employee, still a loyal supporter of Thomas, said, “It’s as simple as this: Smokey Joe was just the only person who ever really treated Carl like he was the sheriff.”

Some men have a clear sense of their own political destiny. Carl Thomas doesn’t seem to be among them. He was a quiet kid from an Oak Cliff family of modest means, who, by his own admission, hung out with a lot of the wrong people when he was young, got expelled from one high school tor truancy and dropped out of another to join the Marines. As a veteran he tried and failed to get on the Dallas police force, went back to the security of the Marines, and later accepted a job as a Dallas County deputy from the man who’d given him his first toy pistol, Bill Decker; he was a competent if unspectacular patrolman and civil deputy, with a wife, kids, a house in DeSoto and a decent credit rating.

Carl Thomas will tell you “I’m just like my dad – not afraid of anything or anybody.” He wanted to be the next Bill Decker, a symbol of uncompromising, honest law enforcement. Though he denies conscious attempts to emulate Decker, that legendary figure looms large in Thomas’ office. Decker, in his time and place, could manage his numerous relationships with the other side of the law; things were rougher, looser in the Forties and Fifties, and no one with any sense ever doubted that Decker called all the shots in his relationships with the men across the fence. Thomas became sheriff in a time of concern about the public and private relationships of elected officials. Whatever the truth of the matter, the friendship between a sheriff and a felon doesn’t look right to a public soured by Watergate and endless smaller scandals in government.

Thomas is trying to convince us that he is in full control of his association with Smokey Joe. In the two days or so I spent with the sheriff, I heard him say “I am the sheriff” or “There’s only room for one sheriff in this county” at least half a dozen times. He also repeated the well-known political cliche: “They’re not attacking my office, they’re attacking me.”

In that instance, Thomas is right. He has been an effective, even progressive sheriff. But his style has been that of the frontier lawman. He has fallen back on the kind of cronyism that he promised to eradicate from the office.

It probably should be said in defense of Carl Thomas that the office itself is an anachronism. Sheriffs and deputies were intended for Texas’ rough and rural times; the growth of municipal police departments – not only in major metropolitan areas like Dallas, but in the suburbs around them – has turned the sheriff into a glorified jail keeper. The sheriff’s office processes and serves warrants; it houses the county’s 2000 or so prisoners: it makes an occasional arrest in odd corners of the county that the developers haven’t found yet. And that’s about it.

Carl Thomas is an ambitious and energetic man; he’s bound to be more than a little frustrated by the clunky old system he’s trying to overhaul. “Look,” he says, “I’m action oriented, i want to see results. I don’t want reports; reports don’t do me any good. I have a real long fuse, really, but I’m not the type you can pull the wool over my eyes. I may not caution someone l0 or 15 times because I know that they think they’re getting away with something. But I know.

“The only thing I regret.” he continues, “is living in a fishbowl atmosphere. You can never be by yourself.”

That may be Carl Thomas” most serious problem: He can’t be by himself; he can’t be the strong, silent lawman; he can’t do all the things he wants to do without the constant monitoring of the press, the commissioners, the courthouse gossip mill. This has driven him into solitariness and belligerence, and has consequently led him to make the same mistakes Clarence Jones did: creating confusion and divisiveness in his ranks and alienating the public.

He, not his office, is being attacked. But at some point style and substance become one in politics; if the office is the man, the man is the office. In this case, the man who is the most competent sheriff the county has had in this decade is also the man who told me, late one afternoon, “They [the press] just don’t know who they’re messin’ with when they mess with Smokey. Hell, he shot up the press room one time, got into it with a JP over there too. They don’t know who they are messin’ with.”

Maybe Carl Thomas doesn’t either.


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