FATHER AND SON REUNION — Jeremy Bratcher carries his son, Josh, to the car for the pair’s first visit in more than a month after they were reunited in April 2010 at the Hood County Law Enforcement Center. Earlier that week, County Court At Law Judge Vincent Messina allowed Sarah Varnado Bratcher to maintain primary custody, but ordered weekend visitations for Jeremy. Father and son were parted after Sarah took the toddler and entered a women’s shelter. Mary Vinson/Hood County News
, Texas Press Messenger
Hood County News reporter Kathy Cruz received a 2011 Texas Gavel Award from the State Bar of Texas this month for her investigation of claims made by several men in the community of bias in custody and spousal abuse cases. The award-winning story, “Best Interest of the Child,” which was published last August, was an emotional one for Cruz, who, over the course of a year, pored through a litany of court documents, interviewed multiple families and even endured a personal attack in pursuit of the truth. The award was presented on Aug. 12 at the annual Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas conference in Austin.
It started with a photo of a boy with a second-degree sunburn. Just weeks after losing a custody battle, a frustrated father named Cody Walker turned to the Hood County News for help, the paper reported. Walker sent an email to Editor Roger Enlow in June 2009 claiming he had received unfair treatment in a custody case.
But it wasn’t just about the ruling — something else had happened. Walker had intercepted, by accident, written communication between his attorney and his ex-wife’s attorney that he felt made light of the situation.
“He had received some kind of paperwork in the mail from his attorney after the judge had ruled, and there was a Post-it note stuck on the paperwork from his ex-wife’s attorney that said something like ‘Tisdale’s a loser,’” Cruz said.
“Cindy Tisdale was this father’s attorney, and it turned out that it was a joke between the two attorneys, who were friends, but the father felt that no one was showing any concern for the safety of his child. And within a couple weeks of the judge’s ruling, his son received a pretty serious sunburn and was taken to the emergency room. The boy was in the care of his mother when that happened.”
The photo in the email spoke for itself, Cruz said. There was a blister on the boy’s arm that was severe enough for both she and Enlow to find the photo upsetting.
“I felt a lot of empathy for the boy’s father, and I thought that there might be something there, but honestly, it took me awhile to really get on it, because we have a small staff and we’re busy doing our day-to-day stuff — covering city council, the commissioners court and all the other things that we’re expected to cover — so taking on something of this magnitude was very difficult,” Cruz explained.
Four months later, Cruz received a panicked call from a second father, Jay Upham, who had also lost a custody battle and was upset that his kids were being taken away from him.
“I talked to him on the phone and I went out and visited with him and his boys, and one thing you have to be careful of in a situation like this is the whole parental alienation thing,” Cruz said. “So when I went out there, I tried to kind of have my radar on to try to determine whether these boys might have been unduly influenced by their dad. And I just didn’t get that feeling.
“They seemed very genuine about the fact that even though they loved their mother, they wanted to stay with their father and they explained to me the reasons why. When they had been in their mother’s care, she had pawned them off on relatives and things just didn’t go well. They told me about this one aunt of theirs who would make them stay outside in the summer all day long while her own kids were in the house in the air conditioning.
“But their feelings just didn’t matter in that custody case. The judge never talked with them and they ended up going back to their mother and were just completely uprooted.”
In March 2010, Cruz was contacted by yet another father, Erich Klein, and it was the this third encounter that really cemented her commitment to launching a full investigation of the issue of bias in the justice system. Klein was a federal law enforcement officer living in the Metroplex who had emailed the paper in hopes of helping a Hood County man who was embroiled in a bitter divorce and custody battle with Klein’s ex-wife, Cruz reported.
Klein had been accused by his former wife, Sarah, of abusing both his wife and their two daughters. But “it was Sarah who in 2007 was found guilty of assault after failing to appear in Lewisville Municipal Court to answer to charges that she shoved Klein in the chest in front of witnesses as he held their 2-year-old daughter,” Cruz reported.
Klein was finally exonerated by Child Protective Services, but lost custody of his children in the process. Sarah later remarried a man named Jeremy Bratcher and was once again in the middle of a divorce and custody case, when Klein emailed the newspaper in an attempt to “warn that his ex-wife’s new husband — a Hood County man — was about to experience the same hellish nightmare he had endured. He was right,” Cruz reported.
During the custody battle between Jeremy and Sarah Bratcher, Cruz witnessed Sarah seemingly commit perjury on the stand.
“Here I was sitting in the courtroom on the day of that hearing, and this is the scenario that is detailed on page one: Sarah was testifying from the stand and husband number two and his attorney knew that I had those documents about her being found guilty of domestic violence against husband number one,” Cruz said.
“They knew I had obtained that, and when she testified from the stand that she had not been found guilty, they looked at each other and whispered, and the attorney had the husband get up and go back to where I was sitting to ask me if I had that document with me. Well, I didn’t. It was back at the office, and the attorney saw Sarah wink at her advocate from the stand and he challenged her on it, and she admitted she was winking at her Mission Granbury advocate.”
Mission Granbury is a local charity that provides advocacy for abused women and assistance in seeking protective orders. In February 2009, Cruz published an article investigating claims of mismanagement at Mission Granbury.
“That caused a huge uproar in the community,” she said.
The story “Mission in Peril” mentioned the wife of County Court At Law Judge Vincent Messina who had recently transitioned from a board member to a paid employee — “a move that caused a county commissioner to resign from the board because he said the entire board had not been notified before the change was made,” Cruz said.
In response to allegations of impropriety on the part of his wife, Messina wrote a letter — using his official title — attacking Cruz and had the letter distributed to people who visited the women’s shelter to drop off donations.
“It was pretty nasty,” said Cruz, who filed a complaint with the Judicial Conduct Commission.
“The Judicial Conduct Commission chose to do nothing about it, which I disagree with because they acknowledged that what he did was inappropriate, and my question is if what he did was inappropriate, why was it not unethical?” Cruz asked.
After the controversy that surfaced over the mismanagement of Mission Granbury, Cruz said the woman who was executive director of the agency was let go after a new board president took over.
By the time Cruz started working on “Best Interest of the Child,” Messina’s wife had become acting executive director of the agency and the wife of a second judge was serving as a volunteer board member (her term expired in August 2010, the month in which the article was published).
“I already knew that those judges’ wives were involved in Mission Granbury, and I felt that there was a conflict of interest there, because that agency helps women get protective orders and these judges rule on those protective orders,” Cruz explained.
“You don’t have to be too terribly bright to figure out that if you claim abuse, you might be able to walk away with everything in a divorce case, including custody of your child.”
When she first discussed the conflict of interest with the judges, both judges told her the connection did not affect their decisions.
But during the course of her research for “Best Interest of the Child,” Cruz said she believes Messina, the judge who had personally attacked her, “finally saw the writing on the wall.”
“After years of ruling on protective orders requested by Mission Granbury clients, the judge who had written the agency’s by-laws and whose wife was involved in the agency’s management recused himself. Twenty-one days later, the judge’s wife resigned from Mission Granbury,” Cruz reported in her article.
It took Cruz almost a year to put all the elements of “Best Interest of the Child” together. She spent Tuesday and Friday afternoons, after the paper had gone to press, pulling custody case files at the district clerk’s office.
“I wanted to be able to say that I had looked at all of the divorce cases from the last five years,” Cruz explained. “Well, that took a lot of work and it only ended up being one paragraph in the story, but it was important to me to be able to say that I had examined every file. I made a note of who got primary custody and whether it was a man or woman.
“I also did a lot of phone interviews and I went out to Jay Upham’s house and met with his boys. There were a lot of email exchanges, but over time it just started to fall together. When you start writing something like this it’s kind of difficult at first but then after awhile you kind of get your momentum going. The editor here, Roger Enlow — when I have something that’s big and unwieldy, he’s good at helping me structure it.”
Cruz said she didn’t receive too many comments from readers after the publication of the article, but the comments she did receive were mostly positive.
“It saddens me that attention spans seem to have gone down so much,” Cruz said. “You like to think that people will read a story because the subject matter is important, but that’s not necessarily the case. So I have no way of knowing how many people actually read the entire story, but I think “Best Interest of the Child” was just the most meaningful thing I’ve ever done. It meant something to me.”
Despite extensive experience in obtaining public information, Cruz said she doesn’t feel like she’s an expert in open records.
“When I say I feel like most of the time I’m flying by the seat of my pants, I really mean that,” Cruz said. “But I think the most important thing is to fight for it and not to just lay down.”
She continued, “It’s difficult for papers with smaller staffs ... in order to take on any kind of investigative work it often means a reporter has to put in long hours, but just because a community isn’t the size of Dallas or Houston doesn’t mean that community is not in need of watchdog journalism. Community newspapers absolutely can do investigative journalism if they’re willing to commit to it.”