Tuesday, May 28, 2024 May 28, 2024
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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.
photography by Elizabeth Lavin; cake toppers by Jocelyn Meinster; cake by Frosted Art

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.”