|FERRIS FOLKS: Police Chief Jeff Cottongame was suspended after Sheila Hatfield published stories about him in the local paper.|
On February 25, the day the Ellis County Press ran a story about Ferris Police Chief Jeff Cottongame’s affair with a high school girl, Danny Satterwhite was seen peeing on the newspaper’s front door.
Satterwhite, who runs an auto shop that does much of the work on the town’s police cars, was one of the more outspoken supporters of the chief. Others who also felt Cottongame was a victim of character assassination bought as many copies of the 50-cent newspaper as they could and shredded them on the downtown square.
From the outside, Ferris (pop. 2,401), just 21 miles south of Dallas, might seem quaint. Townspeople still gather at Bea’s, the diner on the square, for pie and bottomless cups of coffee. City Hall is an old train depot, built when the community was established in 1874, during the construction of the Houston and Texas Central Railway. Back then, residents were railroad workers, cotton farmers, and, later, brick workers. In the 1950s, the town became known, at least locally, as the brick capital of the nation.
But things haven’t been that simple in a while. And quaint? Not even close. Since that story ran in the Press (motto: “Defending Truth & Freedom”), people have hardly been speaking to one another. Actually, the trouble began earlier.
Last summer, Ferris city secretary Alice Holloway found a $10 receipt for a botched fingerprint job at the police department. The receipt was written to the Ferris Police Reserve Account, which she’d never heard of. When the mayor asked Chief Cottongame for the records on the account, he said they had been destroyed when his office was remodeled. Suspicious, Holloway kept digging for weeks, and the bank records were eventually found in Cottongame’s locked desk drawer.
Before becoming managing editor of the Press, Sheila Hatfield was a florist and owner of a gymnastics studio in Muskogee, Oklahoma. One afternoon, at the Fiesta Inn, just off the Ferris town square, while she’s having a lunch of coffee with sugar and menthol Virginia Slims, Hatfield recounts how she got the scoop.
“Victor began coming over to the office,” she says, “which he does quite often anyway, and he began telling me little things about what was going on at the police department, little things that Jeff [Cottongame] was doing.” “Victor” is Victor Burnett, the hard-drinking city councilman. He’s also the only African-American on the Ferris City Council. “Basically it was stuff there was no way to prove. Well, one day, he come by, and he said, ’Do you know that Jeff is working his officers security for Ferris ISD, and the money is going to the Police Reserve Account?’ Well, finally there was something I could check out.”
That’s when the real trouble started. A series of stories that ran in the Ellis County Press last fall divided the town into pro- and anti-Cottongame camps and led to the suspensions of Cottongame (a 22-year veteran of the force) and his lieutenant, Sherman Swafford (18 years). The FBI is now looking into wrongdoings by both men.
“I don’t think we’ve done anything that any other true journalist wouldn’t do,” Hatfield says. “I’m sorry that people have been hurt. I’m glad I did it. Because I know Jeff and Sherman would still be there.”
Hatfield’s husband Charlie, who is the Press’ former publisher, agrees. “Sometimes we have to play an active role,” he says, “and I call it advocacy journalism, because we’re advocating certain issues for the people.”
That’s what the paper did in September 2003, when Sheila Hatfield ran the first of her stories on Chief Cottongame, headlined: “Ferris PD Works Off-duty Business.” In the story, Hatfield reported that Cottongame was under investigation for operating a private security business out of the police department and had been using the Ferris Police Reserve Account to pay officers working off-duty jobs, such as security at Ferris High School football and volleyball games. When the work was done, he’d cash the check, written to the Ferris Police Reserve Account, and then dole out the $60-$80 per game to the officers, in cash.
The Ferris Police Reserve Account was set up years before Cottongame became chief, and it was never meant to be used that way. Back when the Ferris Police Department had more than 20 reserve officers, the account was used to deposit donations and vending machine change to purchase supplies for the reserves. Today, there’s only one reserve officer. Also, Cottongame’s cash payroll system wasn’t legal. State law requires that the person providing the guard service be paid directly and individually, as an employee or private contractor.
The day after the article came out, Ferris Mayor Jimmie Birdwell put Cottongame and Swafford, who also cashed the security checks, on administrative leave.
The next week, at the regular Monday night City Council meeting, Councilman Burnett said he thought the city should bring in an outside legal firm to investigate all matters related to the Cottongame and Swafford suspensions. He suggested giving the firm authorization to bring in state and federal agencies, such as the FBI, if it wished. Sherman Swafford Sr.—the father of the ousted lieutenant, known around town as “Big Sherman”—stood up and, referring to Burnett, said, “I will kill that son of a bitch.” According to Hatfield’s article in the Press, Big Sherman, then a Waste Management employee, “was later overheard as having said he wished he had worn his white robe and carried his Confederate flag.”
Councilman Fred Pontley—who had been a Ferris police officer under Cottongame and who has an affinity for chewing toothpicks during council meetings—didn’t want an outside firm examining the books, either. And Councilwoman Lori Perkins—a former Ferris High School cheerleader who says Cottongame was her first boyfriend—didn’t see any sense in the suspension. At the meeting, she asked, “Why can’t they be put back on duty, since they’re being paid, anyway?”
In December, after a 10-hour appeals hearing, the council voted 3-2 to continue Cottongame’s and Swafford’s suspensions. But it’s not over yet. An election this month could determine their future. Two City Council seats and the mayor’s seat are up for grabs. Depending on how the votes tally, Cottongame and Swafford may get their badges back.
In the meantime, Alice Holloway, the city secretary who was suspicious about that $10 receipt made out to the Ferris Police Reserve Account, fears for her life. At press time, she had filed stalking charges against Danny Satterwhite, the auto repairman, who she says had been watching her. Now that Satterwhite is on probation for resisting arrest on another matter (he’s been walking with a limp for months after his run-in with Ellis County sheriff’s deputies), he has backed off a bit, Holloway says. Satterwhite calls the stalking accusations “a lie.”
“For something like this to cause people to have hard feelings for each other, it’s really sad,” Holloway says. “Everybody has disagreements, but you don’t take action against them, revenge against them. It really shocks me.”
Press managing editor Sheila Hatfield says Satterwhite has been stalking her, too. Not so much for printing the stories about the Police Reserve Account, but the really big one, the story that she wrote about Chief Cottongame’s affair with a high school girl. Hatfield says she prayed for three weeks before she decided to run that story.
In October, the Ellis County Press actually ran two stories about Jeff Cottongame, side by side, above the fold, under the headline, “Ferris Chief’s Background Probed.” The one headlined: “Young Ferris Girl Taken on Official Police Trip in 1997” really got everyone upset. It said:
In September of 1997, three plane tickets were purchased at a travel agency in Lancaster in the names of Jeff Cottongame, Leland Herron, and Shayna Byers. The Southwest Airlines tickets were paid for with cash. Destination was Corpus Christi.
When contacted, Herron, a former Ferris police officer, said the trip was for a police-training seminar. They stayed in a hotel in Corpus Christi. When asked where Byers slept, Herron replied, “She didn’t stay with me.”
Herron said he had no further comment.
According to the Press, Byers had moved into Cottongame’s house several months before her 17th birthday, after her own family experienced trouble. For about a year, she lived with Cottongame, his wife Gaylynn, and their daughter, then 9. At the time of the Corpus trip, Byers had graduated from Ferris High School. Prior to the trip, Cottongame had written a $250 check for cash on the Ferris Police Reserve Account. When the mayor at the time learned about the trip, Cottongame wasn’t reprimanded or punished.
Cottongame didn’t get in trouble until October 1998, when Mayor Birdwell discovered that the chief had made more than 400 minutes’ worth of calls to the young girl on his mobile phone. He fired Cottongame, then rehired him the same day. According to one source, Hubert Cottongame, the chief’s older brother, told the mayor that the firing would destroy their mother. So the mayor backed down. In the end, Cottongame was given 30 days’ probation and a written reprimand, with plans for the City Council to review his performance at the end of the 30-day period. That never happened. City secretary Alice Holloway says all paperwork relating to his probation, reprimand, and phone records mysteriously disappeared from his files.
Naturally, the people of Ferris were angry when they read about Cottongame’s affair with the young girl. But they weren’t mad at Cottongame; they saw him as the victim.
|POWER BROKER: Many people think Councilman Victor Burnett runs the town.|
Mary Gean Cope is pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Ferris, one of 15 churches in town. She is also part of “Save Ferris,” a pro-Cottongame group.
On a rainy afternoon, Cope sits nervously in one of the gray metal folding chairs in the church, located less than a mile from the town’s Dairy Queen. Cope doesn’t try to hide her hatred for the Ellis County Press, which she blames for getting Jeff Cottongame and Sherman Swafford fired.
“That won-der-ful newspaper,” she says sarcastically, “was trying to get rid of Swafford and Cottongame, and when they didn’t think that the city was acting fast enough to make that happen, they kept running stories, kept running stories, kept running stories. If someone needs to be out of their job, that situation needs to be handled properly and without character assassination.
“Usually the people running the paper are part of a small town, and [the Hatfields] moved here,” she adds. It’s true. Sheila and Charlie Hatfield are not Ferris natives. They moved there 13 years ago, when they bought the Press. Which is five years before Cope herself moved to town.
Cope is also mad at the newspaper for reporting that “Save Ferris” meetings have been held in the church, which Cope sees as “an attempt to stir up trouble.” (To counter “Save Ferris,” Sheila Hatfield recently started “Ferris United.”) “We don’t do politics in the church,” Cope says. “I will not advocate openly for any candidate. That’s not appropriate.”
Cope, however, does have strong opinions about Councilman Victor Burnett, who she believes is the most powerful person in town. “Victor has been calling the shots and running things, been trying to tell [Cottongame] who to hire and who not to hire,” she says. “I wouldn’t believe anything Victor told me, because the things that he has told me are self-serving and untrue.” She reaches for an expandable file folder. “He shot Duane Yee. Has anybody showed you his arrest record?” the pastor asks, pulling out a fistful of papers. “Want to see it?”
Later that afternoon, Cope drives to the home of Bill Pardue, who is running for one of the vacant City Council seats. Inside, Hubert Cottongame sits at the dining room table, folding stacks of day-glo orange “Save Ferris” flyers. Cope joins him.
Like his younger brother Jeff, Hubert is a strapping bear of a man, prone to sudden flashes of temper and, just as often, dramatic displays of sentimentality. At 58, Hubert is 15 years older than Jeff. “We lost our daddy in ’93, so now I’m the daddy,” Hubert says, his eyes welling up with tears behind his thick glasses.
Like Cope, Hubert claims the newspaper has unnecessarily aired what he sees as his family’s dirty laundry. “My brother had an affair in 1997, and my mother did not know,” he says. “When they brought it up a second time, all they did was destroy a 15-year-old girl [Jeff’s daughter, now a Ferris High School student] and destroy my mother.”
Hubert says that the newspaper kept coming out with “slander-type stuff,” and that, finally, he appealed to Sheila Hatfield to stop running stories about his brother, explaining that it would hurt his mother. But this appeal “fell on deaf ears,” he says. “She said, ’It’s about morals and ethics and stuff,’ and I said, ’[Charlie’s] been married eight times, and you’re talking morals and ethics to me?’” In fact, Charlie has been married only five times.
For the newspaper articles and everything else that has happened to his brother, including his firing and the FBI inquiry, Hubert blames Burnett. “He is probably the most evil person I’ve ever heard of. I always thought he was a snake in the grass. Victor’s the reason for everything,” he says while folding orange flyers. “Victor runs the town. They’re scared to death of him because he’s black. He’s a John Wiley Price wannabe. He’s a little, old, dumb black man caught in a white man’s world.”
“Hu-bert,” Cope says sweetly, tilting her head toward him. “You’re going to sound like a racist.”
“I don’t care. He’s the biggest racist I ever met in my entire life.”
Last fall, just past 3 in the afternoon, at a bar in Dallas called Adair’s, Victor Burnett—three-time Ferris city councilman and “1978 or 1979” FHS grad, he says—sips his second tequila shot out of a tiny plastic cup, chasing it with a Budweiser. As on most days, Burnett wears his black felt hat crushed down past his eyebrows, barely revealing his eyes, two small slits between thick, black horn-rimmed glasses. For hours, as he drinks tequila and beer, Burnett avoids questions about himself and instead shares his thoughts on the Ferris Police Department. “We get the rejects,” he says. There’s one “reject” in particular that Burnett has in mind: Chris Pearson.
Burnett has a history with Pearson, who was hired in 1999 as a Ferris police reserve officer and promoted by Jeff Cottongame, much to Burnett’s dismay. Pearson had arrested Burnett years before, when he was a Lancaster cop, for an outstanding warrant for livestock theft. (Burnett was later found innocent.) He arrested Burnett again, during a “domestic violence issue,” according to Pearson. The city of Lancaster paid a settlement of $175,000 in a civil case against Pearson in which he was charged with using excessive force. He was “permanently dismissed” from the department in 1999.
When Pearson was hired at Ferris PD, his run-ins with Burnett continued. When Pearson put a red tag on a Chevy pickup truck that was parked in front of Burnett’s house and that hadn’t been registered in more than a year, Burnett peeled the sticker off the windshield and slapped it on Pearson’s new truck the next day. “The fender was damaged where it looked like somebody tried to kick it,” Pearson says.
Pearson isn’t the only law-enforcement agent Burnett has had run-ins with. On separate occasions, the councilman has been charged with aggravated robbery with a deadly weapon, resisting arrest, DWI, and theft of livestock (though he’s been found guilty only of DWI and resisting arrest). Burnett says that the aggravated robbery with a deadly weapon charge, which was no billed, occurred when he was working as a confidential informant for Cottongame during a drug bust in Ferris. (Cottongame denies that Burnett ever worked for him.) The resisting arrest charge involved Pearson, and Burnett received probation, as he did for the DWI charge. He’ll go to trial for the felony assault charge against his ex-wife this spring. (When his wife was eating dinner in the living room with another person, Burnett allegedly jumped out of a closet and hit her in the face with a metal pipe.)
Oddly, Cottongame and Swafford supported Burnett in last year’s City Council election and even paid for one of Burnett’s campaign signs. They also agreed to stand up for Burnett as character witnesses at his DWI trial. But now Burnett says, “Jeff Cottongame’s never been my friend. Me and Cottongame is history. To me, I don’t care if me and Cottongame don’t speak for another day in my life.”
Burnett is quick to dispel any notion that his support of Cottongame’s firing has anything to do with his conflicts with Pearson. “This is not no revenge or grudge or nothing. This is about business,” he says. “They was in the wrong. Live with it.”
Burnett also says that he didn’t tip off the Ellis County Press to Cottongame and the Ferris Police Reserve Account. “Victor Burnett didn’t know nothing about no tax ID number on a reserve account,” Burnett says. “I didn’t know he was writing checks. How the hell would I know about his checking account?”
Cottongame needed to be fired, Burnett believes, but he agrees that the article about his affair with the high school girl seven years ago went too far. “Sheila Hatfield has a hard-on for Cottongame for some reason,” he says. He says that he’s been made the fall guy in town over the Cottongame business for one simple reason: “When a black man speaks up to white folks, he’s automatically a radical. Their movement is to keep the black man down.”
Burnett is running for Ellis County Commissioner in the November election.
Lori Perkins is running for her third term on the Ferris City Council. From grades seven to 11, she was a cheerleader for Ferris High. She can still do a handspring and is still somewhat of a celebrity around town.
“I was at the Dollar Store a little while ago, and you know people that know you and recognize you? I’m so bad with that,” she says, taking sips of iced tea from a blue-and-white-striped straw bobbing in a Mason jar.
Perkins grew up in a close-knit family with eight siblings. Her mother lives a mile away, and her brother Duane Yee, who is the school board president, lives next door. When Yee was a senior at Ferris High, Victor Burnett shot him in the leg. It was an accident, of course. It happened in 1975 at an EZ Mart in Ennis, when Burnett was visiting his friend on the job. He’d brought his handgun, despite Yee’s protests. Somehow, Burnett fired the gun, and the bullet went through one leg, then the other, breaking a bone.
The shooting stuck with Perkins. Sitting with her elbows propped on a stack of Ferris High School Yellowjackets yearbooks, she tears up when she talks about trying to get on better footing with Burnett. “For years, I just had this hatred of him,” she says. “I said, ’Please just pray for me that these feelings go away and take this burden off of me.’ And, of course, I’m a very strong believer in the power of prayer.”
Now that she’s been able to put the past behind her, Perkins considers Burnett a friend, but she says he’s a relentless self-promoter. “It’s all about Victor. He’s not as dumb as a lot of people think he is.”
She says he doesn’t drink as much as people say, either. “He never drinks at council meetings. Believe me, if I knew, I’d smell him. He’s right next to me. Yes, he has drank whenever we’ve been out socializing … but I have never seen him falling-down drunk, if that’s what you want to know.”
Unlike Burnett, who voted to keep Cottongame and Swafford off of the force at the appeals hearing, Perkins voted to reinstate both officers, mainly out of loyalty, she says. (Cottongame was the best man at her first wedding, to Scott Sills, who would eventually become police chief. Swafford played Little League baseball with one of her brothers.) Since, Perkins has changed her mind. “They’re nice guys,” she says. “They did their job well. But I think they’re victims of having some wrongdoings. What they did was wrong, but they have to suffer the consequences.”
As a child, Jeff Cottongame was known around Ferris for his beautiful singing voice, and he’s still often asked to sing at funerals. He started working as a police dispatcher his senior year (FHS 1979), then attended the police academy in Arlington. He joined the Lancaster Police Department as a reserve officer, and when he was 20, the Ferris Police Department hired him as a full-time officer. At 26, he was named director of public safety for Ferris, overseeing both the fire and police departments; four years later, when a new fire chief was hired, he became police chief.
Yet Cottongame could have easily fallen into another line of work. “I can’t say that I always wanted to be a cop,” he says. “It just happened. I loved my job. I loved serving the people here, especially the older people. I liked taking care of them, calling them when the weather got bad so they didn’t have to go out and get anything. We tried to make it a safe place to live and raise a family and keep it in the country way of living. I don’t want to pat myself on the back, but I think I was good for the city of Ferris.”
Cottongame lives with his wife Gaylynn in the newest subdivision of Ferris, on the east side of I-45, in a custom-built $220,000, 2,900-square-foot, two-story brick house with a swimming pool. He and Gaylynn were high school sweethearts. Gaylynn works as a second-grade teacher in Ferris. Until his firing, Cottongame made $43,000 a year. Today, he and Swafford commute to Houston where they work part-time hanging doors for Wagner Installation, a Home Depot subcontractor.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, Cottongame sits at his kitchen table in black windpants and a gray Adidas t-shirt to talk about his ordeal. “I’m very hurt, and I’m very disappointed, and I’m sorry it all happened,” he says, intermittently resting his chin in his hand and half covering his mouth, as if he doesn’t really want to say anything at all. “Excuse me for being human and making mistakes in my life. They didn’t have to crucify me like this.”
He’s mostly shocked at Victor Burnett, whom he has known since high school and whom he considered, until all of this happened, one of his best friends. “I was nothing but good to Victor,” Cottongame says. “I loaned him a truck for months, sold him a vehicle one time, loaned him money. We’d eat lunch together on a daily basis. He’d drop by the house. He’d call, and we’d hang out.”
Cottongame, like many others, believes that the hard feelings started when he promoted Chris Pearson. He tried to make it happen smoothly, he says. Last July, he says he approached Mayor Jimmie Birdwell and Burnett about his plans to promote Pearson. He says he wanted to make sure they were both okay with his decision, because they were the two most powerful seats on the City Council. “No comments were made by either one of them,” Cottongame says. “That was a Monday night, and after [the meeting], Victor and I ran to Jack in the Box to get something to eat. It was kind of late. Everything was hunky-dory. The next day, it all went to hell in a handbasket. The snowball started rolling.” Burnett says such a meeting never took place, much less a trip to Jack in the Box.
“I’m not saying what we did was right,” Cottongame says. “I’m still not understanding what they said we did, other than cashing the checks for security and paying the guys. It probably wasn’t good procedure, but there wasn’t a policy involved.” Actually, policy governing such things is outlined in the Texas Private Security Act, but Cottongame says he didn’t know about it. “Why would I go and start reading laws that govern security guards?”
Showing a visitor to the front door, Cottongame glances down at an unkempt flower bed filled with newly sprouted weeds and shakes his head. “I keep spraying Roundup, but they keep coming up,” he says.
“I’m not a bad guy,” he says, ignoring the weeds. “I don’t care what they say. I still love Ferris. It’s my town.”
Ellise Pierce is a Dallas freelancer who has written for Newsweek and Jane.