The commotion started at the elevators on the 48th floor of Renaissance Tower and surged toward the glass doors of the offices of Clark, West, Keller, Butler & Ellis. Within minutes, more than 25 law enforcement officers-FBI agents, police officers from Dallas and University Park, and building security guards-had rushed onto the floor where the oldest law firm in Dallas has its practice.
An officer asked to speak to a partner at Clark, West. So attorney Mike Maslanka left his desk and went out into the hall by the elevators. An FBI agent told him that there had been a bank robbery an hour earlier. At 9:17 that cold, drizzly Monday morning in December, a man had demanded money from a teller at the Bank United branch in University Park. Police had traced the robber’s car to a downtown parking garage. When someone at another law firm on the same floor called authorities to report finding a wad of cash beneath the water cooler, police swarmed to the 48th floor in response.
That morning, when Maslanka arrived at work, his secretary told him police had surrounded a bank robber in the parking garage. And earlier he had seen a police officer stop one of the firm’s young lawyers in the hallway and ask him his name. “Joseph Chavis,” the associate said in his usual soft, high-pitched voice. Slight and unassuming, Chavis had just come out of a meeting with another attorney; the two had discussed that afternoon s business of preparing a witness for a deposition.
“Do you mind waiting?” the police officer asked Chavis, “Please don’t leave the foyer.” Maslanka was unconcerned, thinking simply that police were canvassing the floor.
Now summoned by police, Maslanka was alarmed. He came back into the office, found Chavis, and took him into a small conference room. “You know that bank robbery?” Maslanka told Chavis. ” They say it was a guy about your height and description.”
Chavis is 30 years old, 5 feet 7 inches tall, 130 pounds. One other black man works on that floor, but he is 6 feet 3 inches tall and 220 pounds. Maslanka thought he knew what had happened: Because Joseph Chavis was black and fit the height and weight, the police had jumped to conclusions. Joseph Chavis rob a bank? That simply could not be possible.
A graduate of Southern Methodist University Law School, where he had been president of the Black Law Students Association and served on the Dean’s Advisory Council, Chavis had worked at Clark, West for more than six years. The first black attorney hired by the 110-year-old law firm, which produced former U.S. attorney general Ramsey Clark, Federal Judge Barefoot Sanders, and the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Tom Clark, Chavis had become a valuable member of the practice.
The only rap on Chavis (pronounced Chay-vis) was that he was not particularly aggressive. When he needed to go for the jugular of his opponent, Chavis sometimes settled for a kick in the shins. Still, if Chavis continued on track, he almost certainly would be named partner within a few years. It would be a coup for any attorney, much less a poor black boy from the projects in Beaumont, as Chavis sometimes referred to himself among friends.
After returning from a run to a snack shop for a muffin, law partner Melvin Douglas walked into the confusion and Maslanka quickly filled him in. Maslanka, Douglas, and Chavis stepped into the small conference room, a police officer close behind them.
Maslanka negotiated with the officer to allow them to move into a larger conference room where there was a phone. “It’s obviously a case of mistaken identity,” Maslanka said. “This is the kind of thing that could end up on ’60 Minutes.’ We need to call a criminal lawyer.” From the conference room, Maslanka called Barry Sorrels, the best criminal defense specialist he knew, and asked him to come over immediately.
While the gaggle of FBI agents and police officers watched them through the glass wall of the conference room, the three attorneys sat and waited, whispering among themselves because the uniformed cop refused to leave. When Sorrels arrived, Maslanka gave him what limited information they had. Chavis was certainly the most unlikely bank robber Sorrels had ever met. He seemed too mild-mannered and soft-spoken to insult a store clerk, much less rob a bank.
A police detective appeared and announced they were arresting Joseph Chavis for bank robbery. After police booked him. Sorrels met Chavis again at the offices of the FBI. A detective outlined the evidence for Sorrels, who was stunned to learn they had high-quality videotape of his new client robbing the bank. The detective asked Chavis if he was going to cooperate.
“I’d like to talk to my lawyer,” Chavis said. The detective nodded and left the room; a University Park police officer stayed behind.
“Joseph, just whisper to me,” Sorrels said, not wanting the officer to hear anything that could be used against his client in court.
“Barry,” Chavis murmured, “I just want you to know I did it.”
What Sorrels didn’t know-and what the young lawyer’s family, friends, and legal colleagues still have a hard time comprehending-was why Why did Chavis, an attorney on the fast track, a lover of books whose prior criminal record amounted to a few speeding tickets, wake up one day and rob a bank on his way to work?
Chavis’ arrest triggered calls to Sorrels from producers at “20/20,” “60 Minutes,” ‧’Dateline NBC,” “The Montel Williams Show,” as well as The New York Times, the Wall Street journal, People, the National Law Journal, and The Dallas Morning News. They all wanted interviews with Joseph Chavis. Why did an up-and-coming young lawyer self-destruct so spectacularly? Was it drugs, alcohol, gambling, women? Was he a victim of racism, of a rush to judgment by bigoted Dallas cops?
Provocative questions. But Chavis and his family kept silent, refusing to talk even to the high-powered New York television media.
Now they’ve broken their silence. D Magazine visited with Chavis’ parents in Beaumont, his brother in the Huntsville prison, and his wife at the couple’s Lovers Lane condo. And in a series of exclusive interviews that lasted more than 20 hours, Chavis talked candidly with D Magazine, describing not only the events of that December day, but the pressures and strain that led a “poor boy from the projects” to destroy in moments the life of achievement and success he had struggled so long to build.
In Two Worlds
Sitting in Sorrels’ McKinney Avenue office overlooking downtown Dallas, Joseph Chavis peers through his oversized glasses and shakes hands. Wearing chinos and a colorful rugby shirt, Joseph smiles wanly and softly says hello. If not for his mustache, he could pass for a teenager. He looks wary but resigned. Joseph wants to explain what happened, but he also wants it all to go away, to wake up and realize the robbery and its humiliating aftermath were just a bad dream.
Joseph was released on personal recognizance because it was his first offense and he did not use a weapon. Though police found a toy gun in the glove compartment of his car, it had been purchased in September for a Halloween party and there was no indication he took it into the bank.
Since then, Joseph has spent most of his time at home, at the library, or in this office. He reads. He watches television. He rarely answers the phone, preferring not to return the many calls of support he’s received. It’s too painful, and Sorrels has told him that until he is sentenced, he can’t really answer the question he knows they all want to ask.
Joseph sips coffee and hesitantly begins to talk, looking out over the Crescent and beyond to the office building where he worked lor six years. He’s come to believe that the roots of the robbery go back a long way, to growing up poor on the Texas Gulf Coast.
“I wits kind of an oddball kid,” Joseph says. His nickname was “Skeeter” because bis brother thought his ears stuck out like a cat-toon mosquito’s. Until high school, he was usually the only black child in his classes at Catholic school. He remembers getting off the Beaumont city bus after school and literally running home to change clothes. In the subsidized housing project where Joseph lived, wearing that Catholic school uniform was like strapping on a target.
“I spoke ’proper’ and got teased about it,” Joseph says. “I got in fights and tussles because of that. Over a period of time, I developed two different speech patterns.” Black slang tor the neighborhood, correct grammar for school. “The fighting stopped, but the teasing was always there.”
The two worlds coexisted but were millions of miles apart in the way they viewed reality. The neighborhood children thought police were the enemy, The kids at St. Anne’s School thought police were the nice men in blue uniforms.
“I remember being the only black kid who had a library card,” Joseph says. He recalls overhearing a white parent at the school telling her child: “Don’t play with the black kids in the park-except with Joseph. He’s one of us.” Joseph saw nothing strange in that; he was one of them.
The world of the neighborhood was infinitely more dangerous and unpredictable. “When I was probably 10 years old, I saw a guy get killed in a drive-by shooting,” Joseph says. It happened on the playground in the housing project. “I was playing with a whole bunch of kids out there. I remember hearing tires squeal and everybody taking out running. That meant there was going to be a drive-by. And bam, bam, bam. When everybody raised their heads, there was a body in front of the playground.”
But everyone agreed: If anyone could break free from that perilous environment, it was Joseph.
Joseph’s mother, Jeraldine Sells, still lives in the same Beaumont apartment complex where Joseph grew up. In conversations with D Magazine, both Jeraldine and Joseph Edward Chavis Sr, describe Joseph as the “perfect son”-attentive, helpful, dependable. “To be honest,” Jeraldine says, “when he got married, it was like I lost my best friend,” But Joseph stayed devoted to his mother; he called her every Wednesday and Sunday night, even on his honeymoon.
A petite woman who wears her hair swept up in a bun, Jeraldine trained as a nurse. But she has been unable to work since 1972 when she was diagnosed with lupus, a progressive disorder of the immune system. Jeraldine prides herself on being an immaculate housekeeper; her apartment’s linoleum floors gleam and curio cabinets contain her collection of whimsical statues of black children and historical black figures.
She met Joe Chavis in 1964, when her first son, James Hill, was still an infant. Joseph, born a year later, was so smart he was reading at age three. When it was time for his son to go to elementary school, Joe Chavis, who is Catholic, enrolled Joseph in Beaumont’s best parochial school.
A post office supervisor who makes $50,000 a year, Joe Chavis is a slender, handsome man in his mid-50swith a salt-and-pep-per mustache. He had once aspired to be an accountant, but in the ’60s, educated black men in Beaumont had two options: Teach or work at the post office. It wasn’t going to be that way for his son. Joseph was so bright, he could be anything he wanted.
Chavis officially adopted Joseph and gave him his name. Joseph was upset when The Dallas Morning News ran a story saying his parents never married. Joseph had long known the “family secret,” but it pained him that his actions threw such an intense spotlight on his parents, who split up when he was eight or nine. Jeraldine and the two boys moved into subsidized housing, but Chavis continued to pay Joseph’s school tuition and help Jeraldine financially. “I never remember a time he wasn’t there for me,” Joseph says. “He instilled in me the belief I could do and succeed at anything I wanted to do if I got my education and worked hard.”
As for his mother, her debilitating disease dominated Joseph’s childhood. “I can remember her being so weak, she couldn’t hold a glass of water without shaking,” Joseph says. His father often admonished the boys not to cause their mother problems. Stress made her sick. And James was a constant source of stress.
“My brother could sell you your own car,” Joseph says with a half smile. “He was always the bad kid. I was always the good kid.” Bigger, stronger, James was constantly in trouble-breaking windows, stealing, running away. The pattern was predictable: James did something bad. The stress aggravated Jeraldine’s lupus. Joe bailed James out of trouble. And Joseph took care of his sick mother.
In ninth grade, Joseph began attending Monsignor Kelly High School. Out of 120 students in his class, only eight were black. Joseph became a scholar-athlete, playing basketball, football, and running track. In his junior and senior years, he won state championships in the 400 meters, setting a state record, And he studied.
“We all picked up right off the bat that he was very smart,” says Raymond Dumas, a black man who was in Joseph’s class and is now a coach at Kelly. “He was always reading. I remember asking him, ’Why do you read so much?’ ” And he said, “Man, it’s fun. And reading makes you smarter.”
The seven black male students at Kelly hung out together. All athletes, they didn’t smoke, drink, or do drugs. Joseph was the quiet core of the small circle, helping the others with their homework at study parties. “I felt good about knowing him,” Raymond says. “Even though I’m a year older, I looked up to Joe. He showed me it wasn’t bad to be smart. Alter I started hanging around him, my grades went up.”
The only time Raymond ever saw Joseph upset or angry was when a new guy at Kelly called Joseph a n*****.
“I don’t appreciate that,” Joseph said quietly.
“N*****,” the larger white teenager sneered again. Joseph jumped him; Raymond and the others had to pull him off.
At graduation, Joseph received the school’s American Legion Award, an honor recognizing character and academics. Offered a full scholarship to seminary, Joseph thought briefly about becoming a priest. But he chose Texas A&M because he received a couple of partial scholarships and the university was close to home.
For years, Joe Chavis Sr. had watched his son become one of Beaumont’s best and brightest, resisting the temptations that ensnared his brother. James had dropped out of Prairie View A&M and gone to prison for the first time for stealing a car. (He’s now serving 25 years in Huntsville prison for felony theft.)
“I think he got in the wrong crowd,” says Joseph. “He wanted things too easy, too fast. He was always impatient.” Joseph knew that his way out was education; his father never let him forget that.
On the day he left home for college Joseph says, his father pulled him aside. ” Keep your grades up,” the older man said. “Keep in touch with your mother, And don’t plan on coming back.” Joseph was startled, but his dad explained that Beaumont’s economy was heading south. “You can’t have a career here,” Chavis said. At least not the kind of impressive career his son, Joseph Edward Chavis Jr., was going to have.
Working the System
Joseph hated Texas A&M his first semester, but things improved his sophomore year when he and 11 other African-Americans founded the first black fraternity at the school, Alpha Phi Alpha. He graduated in 1987 with a degree in finance and a respectable, if not impressive, 2. 8 grade point average. But Joseph studied hard for the LSAT and scored in the top 8 percent. As a result, he was admitted to SMU Law School and given a full scholarship.
Within the first few weeks there, at a happy hour sponsored by the law school student government, he met another first-year student: petite, intelligent Debra Lockhart, who had a Jamaican accent and a wicked sense of humor. Joseph had seen her on campus and was intrigued. “I was trying to pick her up,” he says of the meeting. “I ran out of things to say. So I said something really dumb. ” The line was: “What’s your zodiac sign?”
At home, after taking out her contacts and putting on large black-rimmed glasses-with lenses even thicker than Joseph’s-Debra curls up on the living room couch and laughs, remembering how they met. A self-proclaimed “spoiled princess,’ she grew up in a very intellec tuai Jamaican family thai moved to Dallas in 1980. Her father, an ophthalmologist stressed achievement. Debra’s younger sister is Shell Lockhart, a morning anchor on Channel 5, and her brother is completing medical school. Debra’s first semester at SMU was rocky; in their law school class of 250, only 10 students were black. But Joseph felt very comfortable there and immediately got involved in student activities.
“You have to know how to fit in,” Joseph says. “I knew how to work the system. Even if you ’re the smartest white guy in the system and you don’t fit, you’re not going anywhere. You have to know when to be in the forefront and when to stay in the middle and keep your head down.”
When Joseph realized his grades weren’t in the top 10 per-cent and he wasn’t going to make law review, an honor given to top students, he concentrated on getting clerkships. After deciding he wanted to practice employment law, Joseph focused on the small but prestigious firm of Clark, West, Keller, Butler & Ellis. But on the day law firms came to interview for clerkships, he discovered his name had somehow from the firm’s list.
So Joseph stuck his head in the door and offered to hang around or go to lunch with them, anything to get an interview. He wangled a meeting, then sent several follow-up letters. “I really chased them,” Joseph said. “I targeted them.” Though his grades put him in die middle of the class, Joseph was so persistent, so enthusiastic, the firm offered him a coveted clerkship.
Once at the firm, his strategy was simple: “When someone asked me to do something, the answer was yes,” Joseph says. When the time came to offer one student a job after graduation, the partners chose Joseph. Ecstatic, he started working there part-time during his third year. Even before graduating, Joseph passed the bar and was licensed as an attorney.
Of the 10 black students in his class, only five made it through law school. But Joseph never worried about the high attrition rate for minorities. “I always knew I was going to make it,” he says. That summer, Debra and Joseph got married at the chapel at the University of Dallas. His father was his best man. His mother mourned. She liked Debra, but to Jeraldine, the wedding felt like “a funeral. ”
His life and career were going beautifully. While many of his peers who ranked higher in the class were still scrambling for jobs, Joseph stood before Federal Judge Barefoot Sanders, a former Clark, West attorney, and was sworn into the bar.
“Please give me your money”
One afternoon over lunch in Sorrels’ conference room, Joseph tells the story of how it all unraveled. He rarely makes eye contact. His fingers constantly rub the deep grooves in the crystal tumbler of soda he is drinking.
To almost anyone watching the arc of Joseph’s career during 1995, he would have seemed unstoppable. “If I had to script out where I wanted to be, I couldn’t have written it better myself,” he says. As senior associate, Joseph was first in line to be named partner in a few years, which could easily mean a six-figure salary. “I was starting to get head-hunted,”Joseph says.
It was exhilarating, but Joseph had planted the seeds of his downfall in the spring of 1994, when he had agreed to handle pro bono the sale of a brownstone in New York for an elderly West Indian friend of his inlaws. The buyer sent Joseph a check for $5,000, earnest money in the sale. “I should have deposited it in the firm’s trust account,” Joseph says. “But I didn’t want to charge him. If I put it in the firm’s account, it would be treated like any other case.”
So, in May 1994, Joseph put the money into his own personal account. He knew that he was violating a fundamental rule of the legal profession, known to every first-year law student, which prohibits commingling of funds. But he told himself that when the deal was final, he’d simply write the man a personal check.
By then, Joseph was earning $52,000 a year at the law firm. Unable to find a job as a lawyer, Debra was making $20,000 as a social worker. Still, money was tight. Between the two of them, the Chavises owed more than $100,000 for school loans; each month, they paid almost $1,200 on that debt. They were also paying off two car loans. In 1991, Joseph had asked his dad for help in buying a two-bedroom condo on Lovers Lane, a $40,000 unit that was in foreclosure. His father gave him the $5,000 down payment; it was the only time he’d asked his father outright for money. Though the mortgage and fees totaled only $530 a month, the condo was a stretch. They had no savings and virtually no liquid investments.
Things got worse during the first week of March 1995, when Debra came home and announced that she was quitting her job. That morning, after a yelling match with a supervisor, a co-worker had retrieved a gun from his car and emptied it into the supervisor’s vehicle. Joseph agreed that she should leave, but not only did the couple lose Debra’s income, they had to pay several hundred a month to keep her health insurance. Though they deferred several student loans for six months, their cash flow was close to zero.
In September, Debra found a job with an Arlington law firm. Joseph was relieved to have some of the financial pressure lifted, but the student loan deferment ended around the same time. His workload was heavier than ever; struggling to keep up with critical projects and deadlines, he usually didn’t get home until 7:30 p.m., and sometimes not until It) p.m.
Then, near the end of the year, a jolt hit like lightning at sea. On Wednesday, Dec. 13, Joseph got a call from New York. The pro bono transaction that should have taken a couple of months had dragged on almost two years; he had paid the expenses like postage, filing fees, and long-distance calls out of his own pocket. Every time the transaction seemed about to end. the buyer wanted something changed. Now, he learned, the troublesome deal was finally going to close, “1 thought, ’Yeah, right, I’ve heard this before,’ “Joseph says.
The next day, the tide company called to say that a check for $80,500 was in the mail. Joseph still didn’t believe it. On Friday morning, when he saw the overnight envelope on his desk, the sight struck him like a fist to the gut.
“It was the biggest surprise of my life, to get that check,” Joseph says, his face a blank slate. He had only $700 in his checking account. He didn’t know where the client’s $5,000 earnest money had gone-a phone bill here, a credit card payment there-but he knew instantly he had to have that money and fast.
That afternoon, Joseph gave his client the check for $80,500. The man asked about the $5,000. ’I’ll have it to you on Monday,” Joseph promised. “Sure,” said the friend. He had known Joseph for five years and trusted him completely.
“At that point, I felt like I had this 2,000-pound gorilla on my back, “Joseph says. “To me, it’s a major problem, as close to a life-and-death situation as I’ve ever had.”
That Friday, Joseph got his paycheck and a Christmas bonus. He cashed the two checks, which totaled about S 1,900. He had to come up with more than $2,000 by Monday. Near panic, he looked into withdrawing money from his retirement account, but discovered he could not touch it unless he was terminated or resigned from the firm.
It was after 8 p.m. when Joseph got home. “He’s grouchy and he’s late and I’m annoyed,” Debra says. The Christmas party at her new office had started at 7 p.m. She didn’t ask what was bothering him and Joseph didn’t offer an explanation.
That night, Joseph lay awake going over his options in his head. He couldn’t tell Debra what he’d done. She didn’t have any money stashed away and she would certainly go to her father. Joseph couldn’t bear the shame of admitting to his in-laws that he had taken the money of a family friend.
At the firm, Mike Maslanka had become a good friend, and partner Dave Ellis had been a strong mentor to him. But going to Ellis or one of the others meant admitting that he’d screwed up royally, stealing a client’s money, which could open up the whole firm to liability. They’d pay back the client, then terminate him.
“Yeah, we hired a black attorney once. It was a big mistake. ”
His mother had no money and if Joseph told Jeraldine he was in trouble, her lupus would flare up. She’d end up in the hospital.
What about his father? Hearing the question, Joseph bows his head and puts a hand to his face. His eyes fill with tears. It’s the first time he’s shown obvious emotion.
Joseph knew his dad had the money and would give it to him. But going to his father, he says, would have been worse than going to the firm. “I think my dad thought I was perfect, that die sun rises and the moon sets on me,” Joseph says softly. “When I talk to my dad, it’s about doing something good, about Skeet being on the way up.”
Admitting moral failure-admitting that Skeet had betrayed a friend-was impossible.
“I could hear myself saying, ’Dad, I’ve screwed up, I’ve done something unethical, way outside my value system,’ ” Joseph says, fiercely rubbing the grooves on the glass. He imagined his dad looking at him with new eyes of contempt, seeing his son as he really was: flawed, struggling, imperfect. “You’re Just like your brother, ” Joseph could hear his father say. At the domino parlor, there’d be no more bragging on his son, no more exulting in Joseph’s newest triumph.
Wherever Joseph cast his mind for salvation, he could see only ruin. Sometime during the night, “an incredibly stupid idea” took shape in his mind. He had won $600 gambling in Shreveport in November. Now, as he lay awake in the early morning of Dec. 16, Joseph realized that if he took $2,500 to the casino and doubled it, he’d have enough to replace the client’s money.
It was a desperate plan, but it was doing something, not just waiting for the anvil to crush him.
That morning Joseph told Debra he was going to Longview to see a witness. Instead, he went to an ATM machine and withdrew enough money to bring his cash stake to $2,500 and drove 200 miles east to Shreveport. For two or three hours, he played blackjack and roulette. For a while it seemed that he’d found a reprieve, running his stake up to $4,000. But his winning streak ended, he lost it all.
Devastated, Joseph returned to Dallas about dusk. “I’m thinking my careers over,” he says. “On Monday, I’m going to tell the partners I took $5,000 of a client’s money and spent it. There’s no doubt in mv mind they’re going to do two things: They’re going to pay this guy off, then fire me.”
But he told Debra only that it had been “an unproductive day.” Later, while they were eating dinner, Joseph asked his wife a strange question. “What would you do if I died?” Knowing he had a million-dollar life insurance policy, Debra made a joke of it. “Take the insurance money and go to Hollywood and find Denzel Washington,” she teased. He tried to laugh.
Sunday they went to her parents’ house for lunch. Joseph tried to read and watch a football game while her boisterous family swirled around him. Back at their condo that evening, unable to concentrate, Joseph told Debra he was going to the bookstore as he always did when he was upset or angry. As he drove down Lovers Lane toward the Bookstop at Inwood Village, he got a craving for a snack but discovered he had no cash. He drove to the NationsBank on Hillcrest Avenue near SMU. His ATM card didn’t work at that machine, but showed he had a balance of about $80. Seeing a Bank United up the street, Joseph tried his card there. The machine spat out $20.
He stood there a moment and looked at the bank.
The grocery store didn’t have the dried cranberries he wanted, so Joseph headed to the bookstore. At 11 p.m., the store closed and he drove home. Debra was already asleep. He lay there all night, staring at the ceiling.
That morning, Joseph says, Debra reminded him that they had to take their two cats to the veterinarian that night and he’d better bring his tennis shoes and jacket. The last time, one of the cats had sprayed him.
An hour later, driving to work down Lovers Lane, Joseph came to the Tollway and realized that if he turned right, he’d go downtown to his office. If he went straight, he’d go to the bank he’d seen the night before.
The idea had come to him when he slipped his ATM card into the slot at Bank United. “That’s a really crazy idea,” Joseph told himself. “Don’t be stupid.” But somehow, as he tossed in bed that night, robbing the bank worked its way into the mix of his unthinkable options.
Joseph drove straight down Lovers Lane and parked outside the Bank United. He tells the story of what happened next matter-of-factly. as if watching a movie unfold before his eyes.
“I remember thinking, ’Am 1 going to go in and rob this bank or what?’ ” Joseph says. He looked around the car and saw the gray jacket and tennis shoes he’d brought to go to the vet, as well as a baseball cap given to him by a pleased client for winning a trial. Joseph took off his tie, put on the tennis shoes, jacket, and cap, and got out of the car. He walked into the bank at 9:11 a.m.
“I’m thinking ’This is nuts! You’re crazy!’ ” Joseph says. “I walked toward a teller, but I could hear myself say, ’Turn around ! Do anything other than this! ’ When I got to the window, I didn’t know what to do.”
He pulled out the bill he’d gotten the previous night and asked the man for S20 worth of quarters. The teller gave Joseph two rolls of coins and he walked back to his car. ” I was confused and disoriented,” Joseph says. “1 sat there for what seemed like an eternity.” The bank videotape would later show he was gone about five minutes.
When Joseph walked back into the bank at 9:17, he felt as if he was standing outside of his body watching. He leaned over to a female teller and spoke: “Good morning. I have a gun in my pocket. Please give me your money.”
He didn’t have a gun. Dripping with sweat, his heart racing, Joseph could hear someone-a sarcastic angel, maybe-saying, “Not only are you crazy enough to rob this bank, you’re being polite about it!” The teller told him her drawer was locked and she didn’t have the key. “Well then,” Joseph said, waving at the male teller who was talking on the phone, “give me his money.”
She moved to another drawer and began putting cash on the counter. Joseph saw with dismay that her hands were shaking as she stacked the money; as he reached to stuff it in his jacket, he realized his hands were trembling too.
“That’s all,” she told him, handing over $1,430. “Okay,” said Joseph. He turned and left the bank.
In the car, Joseph put the cash in his briefcase. “Once I was out of the bank, it was like it never happened,” Joseph says. As he drove to work, he straightened his tie in the mirror and began thinking about a conference call he needed to make at 11 a.m. to a judge in Austin.
After parking his car, Joseph threw away the quarter wrappers and the baseball cap in a trash can, unaware that a security camera was taping him. In his office, he set his briefcase aside and went to work-returning phone calls and organizing his day’s agenda. Later that morning, he heard secretaries talking about the police and looked out his window to see dozens of police cars surrounding the parking garage.
“It didn’t really click,” Joseph says. Finally, it dawned on him that they were looking lor him. Joseph stuffed the cash into the pockets of his jacket, took an elevator down to the underground tunnel, dumped the money into a trash can, then went back to work.
Later that morning, Joseph says, he reached into his briefcase to get some notes and was stunned to see yet another stack of cash. He headed for the bathroom in the main corridor of the 48th floor, intending to flush the money down the toilet. But as he hurried down the hall, he saw a man in a blue blazer with a walkie-talkie. He turned and quickly shoved the cash behind a water cooler.
Back inside, Joseph heard a voice behind him say “Hey!” He kept walking. “Hey!” the voice repeated. Joseph turned. A police offi-cer asked for his business card and Joseph handed him one, then went on to a meeting. In the background, he heard noise in the hallway, people saying words like “police” and “money” and “bank.”
Joseph didn’t run down a back stairway or hide. He went into the front conference room and called his father in Beaumont. He didn’t say anything about the police or his impending arrest. He just told his dad that he wasn’t going to be home in time for Christmas.
“I threw it all away”
In the days after Joseph’s arrest, his friends and loved ones flooded his answering machine with calls of support. The charges were completely preposterous, friends said. It had to be a case of mistaken identity, law partner Mike Maslanka said on the TV news. Goaded by a reporter at The Dallas Morning News, Dr. Albert Lockhart went even further. The police were railroading his son-in-law based on racial stereotypes, Dr. Lockhart said, as they did in the case of Lenell Geter, a black Dallas engineer falsely identified as an armed robber in 1982.
Joseph was horrified that his supporters were making statements he knew they’d later regret, but Sorrels had told him not to say anything to anyone, except his wife, for fear of compromising his case. Sure of his innocence, Debra had greeted him at home with a laugh and a smile: “I’ve been looking all over for the money,” she joked. “I can’t find it anywhere.” That night when Joseph told her the truth, Debra refused to believe him. Sorrels invited Maslanka to his office to meet with Joseph. Maslanka began by reassuring him that the firm stood behind him; they were ready to do whatever it took to help him clear his name. Sorrels explained that Joseph couldn’t talk, but he wanted Maslanka and the members of the firm to understand the situation. While Joseph sat in quiet anguish, his lawyer went over the mountain of evidence the police had against him: the bank video, his fingerprints on the quarter rolls, the baseball cap, the identification of the tellers, the money. Before Sorrels was finished, tears welled up in Maslanka’s eyes.
Joseph called his father late on the evening of his arrest but was only able to get a few words out before he started crying. At the news that his perfect son had robbed a bank, Chavis sat down and began to weep. His companion found him stretched out on the floor in a daze.
Sorrels sent Joseph to an internist, who found no sign of a physiological problem that could explain his aberrant behavior. A psychological test showed no criminal tendencies. After spending long hours talking to a psychologist, Rycke Marshall, Joseph now believes he knows why he did what he did.
Joseph, Marshall says, felt he was the carrier of all the hopes and dreams of his family and his extended family-and his race. Stress and anxiety had been building for years; whenever Joseph succeeded, the pressure ratcheted up a notch. “It is not okay to say no and it is not okay to ask for help,” Marshall says. When the real estate transaction closed and Joseph needed money, his coping mechanisms crumbled.
The signs had been there all along, Marshall says. In the months before the robbery, Joseph had gotten sick more often than usual. Uncharacteristically, he’d missed a couple of important court dates. And a nervous tic developed, causing him to nib the hair off his head in one spot.
Ironically, Marshall says, the bank robbery had the spectacular effect of ending all the pressure. “It’s as though he’s been on a treadmill forever, and he’s stepped off,” Marshall says. A psychiatrist who examined Joseph called his actions “metaphorical suicide.”
When Sorrels realized that the police had enough evidence to convict his client, his concern became mitigating the damage. At a minimum, Joseph was looking at serving 30 to 37 months in a federal penitentiary. While Sorrels had won acquittals in other difficult trials, the evidence in this case was overwhelming. He pointed out to Joseph that a quick admission of guilt is weighed favorably under federal sentencing guidelines. That fit with Joseph’s desire to avoid a trial, causing the least amount of anguish for his loved ones,
In late January Joseph went before feder-al Judge Jorge Soils. He had met Solis on legal business; now he stood in front of him as a defendant. Crying, at first unable to speak, Joseph pleaded guilty to bank robbery.
At his sentencing on April 3, Joseph offered the most he has had to say in public about the case. ” Your honor, let me first apologize to the bank tellers for any trauma that I may have caused them,” he said, struggling to maintain his composure. Joseph also apologized to his wife, his parents, and his colleagues in the legal profession. “This is certainly not how I anticipated ending my legal career. ” He took off his glasses and wiped his eyes. Behind him, his mother and father began softly weeping.
“I have to say this is probably one of the most unfortunate cases I’ve run across in my career as a judge and a lawyer,” said Solis, who then sentenced Joseph to 30 months in a federal penitentiary. Sorrels had gathered Joseph’s friends, family, and law partners to testify about his character in support of a request that the judge go below the minimum sentence. But knowing such a request was rarely granted and concerned that the prosecution would in turn demand the maximum sentence, Sorrels withdrew the motion.
Joseph-like his brother has done several times before-will report to prison on May 1 to begin serving his sentence, Legal proceedings by the state bar to strip him of his law license will likely begin soon.
He knows now what he should have done. His dad’s first response when he called was: “What do you need? ” His father repaid the $5,000 and paid his son’s legal bills. One of the partners, who was very close to Joseph, told Sorrels, “I wish he’d come to me. I’d have given him $5,000, no questions asked.”
But it’s too late. He’s destroyed not only his own dreams, but the hopes and dreams of those who love him.
“I would give anything if it had never happened,” Joseph says. He closes his eyes as if feeling a pain deep in his body. “1 had everything and I threw it all away.”