When Derek Wesley McBride of Bronson was convicted and sentenced to eight years in state prison in March for killing Amber Roussel on the Neches River bridge, Roussel’s family expected the sentence to be carried out.
But Roussel’s family and friends might be shocked to learn that McBride was transferred from the state penitentiary to Sabine County in what law enforcement sources are calling a highly unusual legal move.
Family and friends of Amber Roussel found some semblance of justice in Judge John Stevens’ Criminal District Court on Monday, March 18, after Roussel was killed by an admittedly drunk McBride as Amber traveled to a weekend getaway in Houston with her husband, Ryan Roussel.
McBride, 25, was indicted by a grand jury in November 2012 for the July 30, 2012, collision that killed Amber, 31, and severely injured her husband, Ryan Roussel, 36, both of Louisiana.
McBride received eight years in state prison for intoxication assault and intoxication manslaughter. McBride’s previous criminal history of drunk driving contributed to his plea — avoiding a trial where, if convicted, McBride could have spent up to 20 years in prison.
The scene of the July 2012 accident was littered with debris and wrecked vehicles, effectively shutting down Interstate 10 in both directions on the Beaumont side of the Neches River Bridge after police said McBride passed another vehicle illegally on the eastbound, right-hand shoulder. According to witnesses on the scene, McBride’s white pickup truck was clipped by an unknown vehicle as he attempted to pass it. Witnesses said McBride’s truck crossed all three lanes of traffic, striking the barrier wall and sending his truck’s brush guard careening into oncoming traffic, where it met the Roussel vehicle.
But no more than three months after he was sentenced to serve his time at a state penitentiary, McBride was sent from the Lychner Unit in Humble, Texas, to the Sabine County Jail where he was immediately given trustee status.
“It’s like they couldn’t wait,” said Criminal District Court Judge John Stevens in an interview with The Examiner. Stevens, who before the plea revoked McBride’s bonds of $100,000 for intoxication manslaughter and $50,000 for intoxication assault after McBride tested positive for amphetamines on a urinalysis and who subsequently sentenced McBride to eight years in state prison, said he was shocked when he found out McBride was no longer in state custody.
“Thursday a week ago (Oct. 17) is when I found out about it. I called and was told by the district judge that he would be back in prison the next day. He wasn’t,” Stevens said. “He didn’t get back until Monday (Oct. 21).”
But by then, McBride had been out of state custody for months in a county that Stevens said had no reason to request that he be transferred there.
According to the bench warrant dated June 27 and signed by District Judge Charles Mitchell and Sheriff Thomas Maddox in Sabine County, which sits on the Louisiana border north of Newton County, McBride was brought there for no other reason than “to be a trustee in the Sabine County Jail.”
Kevin Dutton, the district attorney who serves the smaller Sabine and San Augustine counties, said it is common for him to draft and present bench warrants before the district judge when they are requested from the sheriff’s office.
“In this case, I don’t think I even asked him who it was, if it was somebody I sent to the pen. He (Sheriff Tom Maddox) sent me a written request for a bench warrant to bring this guy back. We prepared it,” Dutton said. “It was presented to Judge Mitchell, he signed it and he was brought here.”
But Dutton admitted his mistake, saying he should have questioned the Sabine County sheriff and done his due diligence. He said had he known the nature of McBride’s crime, he would have asked more questions. The five-year district attorney said it wasn’t right for someone sentenced to the state penitentiary to serve easy time in a county jail as a trustee mere months after an eight-year sentence.
“Probably in hindsight, it would have been better for me to get more information and call y’all’s prosecutor and say, ‘Hey look, my sheriff wants to bench warrant this guy back’ and talk to him and get some more information about it,” Dutton said.
Nonetheless, Dutton said the questionable bench warrant came from a single source.
“It started at the sheriff’s office,” Dutton said.
Sabine County Sheriff Tom Maddox didn’t return multiple calls for comment, but Jefferson County Sheriff Mitch Woods said the practice of calling convicts back from the penitentiary hasn’t happened under his watch.
“Normally, the only way we bench warrant anyone back is if they’re a witness in a case that’s going to court or they’re a defendant in a case that’s going to court or if there’s some reason for them to be appearing in court,” Sheriff Woods said. “I don’t bench warrant people back here just to be trustees in our county jail.”
Having heard the circumstance of McBride’s release, Woods said many questionable bench warrants might have been issued over the years across the state. In the end, however, Woods said it’s up to a district judge to read and sign the bench warrant releasing an inmate from state custody.
“I’m aware that these situations have occurred,” Woods said. “So the question is, judges have to issue bench warrants. If the judge issues a bench warrant, TDC (the state penitentiary) is going to follow that order. The sheriff can make a request all he wants to, but if the judge doesn’t sign that warrant, he won’t come back.”
Multiple calls to Sabine County District Judge Charles Mitchell weren’t returned, but Judge John Stevens said he would never interfere with another judge’s ruling, especially concerning a crime of this nature and in light of numerous Florida felons having been released on phony documents.
“I can’t even imagine pulling a stunt like this,” Stevens said. “I would get in some big trouble.”
Sources close to the investigation said McBride might have some friends in high places who were able to secure the bench warrant without alerting Jefferson County officials who had just sentenced him to eight years in prison.
Roger McBride, the police chief of Hemphill — the Sabine County seat — said he is related to McBride, but only through adoption, adding he hadn’t come into contact with Derek at all until he was a trustee in the Sabine County jail.
“Derek is one of my nephew’s adopted step-sons,” Roger said. “Until he was bench warranted up here, I really had no contact with him prior to that.”
Having been police chief of Hemphill for more than 20 years, Roger said he stays out of county dealings for the most part as he depends on Sheriff Tom Maddox for the bulk of policing power in the area.
“I don’t get involved in the county’s business,” Roger said. “I have to use their jail and I have to use their dispatch, so I don’t get into any twists with them in any shape form or fashion. We’re just a little municipal police department. I have myself and two other guys.”
Roger said it isn’t right for McBride to have been transferred to the Sabine County jail under the circumstances and he added his surprise when he heard of the transfer because the Sabine County Jail is at capacity.
“In some cases, I know it has happened. Is it right? It’s not 100 percent right. It takes up one of our jail spaces, and we have a 17-bed facility,” he said. “When we house a TDCJ prisoner in the jail, it takes one of our bed spaces. Here at the city of Hemphill right now, we can’t even actually lock up a class C violator with a class C warrant because we have no jail space no more. They have to commit a big crime before we can even lock someone up.”
Roger also confirmed the bench warrant originated from Sabine County Sheriff Tom Maddox’s office.
Stevens said he is considering holding some Sabine County officials in contempt of court, but would not elaborate on who exactly he plans to charge. Now that McBride is back in prison, that might be easier said than done. For now, Stevens said citizens should fight to fix what he sees as a gaping hole in the justice system, a hole that can only be patched by the actions of the Texas Legislature.
“If this can be accomplished, we’ve got some changes that need to be made,” Stevens said. “From the people who have the audacity to pull a stunt like this, to the prison people who let people go on a bench warrant that says he’s going to do his time as a trustee at the county jail. Good lord! There’s not a statute that says that’s how you serve your time. So why would they release him?”
Stevens said he and other Jefferson County officials would have never known McBride was gone had it not been for a concerned citizen.
“That was four months ago! That guy has been away from prison for four months when he should have been serving time in prison,” Stevens said. “And we were lucky to find that out. It was an anonymous tipster who called, some person who recognized this as being terrible and had the courage to inform us.”
Bronson, listed as McBride’s hometown at the time of the accident, is in Sabine County.
In the end, Stevens suspects it may have been friends in high places in Sabine County that busted McBride out of state custody and into friendlier confines.
“They hatched a buddy, buddy plan,” Stevens said. “The first thing is who you know. If you’re a buddy of somebody, then you’re going to be treated different. You know and I know it happens, but that’s not the way it’s supposed to happen in America.”