Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch
Bill Howard relaxes at the ranch, before the fire and federal charges changed his life. (Courtesy Tina Burns)
‘Technically, they are crimes of violence.’
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Federal aid on a dude ranch arson case has netted ... one snake-killer.
By JEFF PRINCE
Federal prosecutors stepped into a high-profile North Texas arson case a few months ago, taking it out of the hands of a small-town police department.
Their large-caliber help produced no convictions or trials on arson charges. But their elephant gun has taken down a gnat, sending a low-income ranch worker to federal prison for six years, for actions that probably wouldn’t even have rated a fine in state court. What’s more, it appears that the federal prosecutors pursued their case in the face of video evidence of police misconduct.
Billy Gene Howard was suspect numero uno in the Nov. 4 arson that caused more than $2 million in damages at Texas Lil’s Dude Ranch near Justin. Police said they found the longtime ranch hand at the scene reeking of gasoline, disoriented, and acting suspiciously. Employees saw him running with a shotgun.
Northlake police quickly developed a theory — Lynda “Texas Lil” Arnold was distraught after losing the party ranch to bank foreclosure and solicited Howard to burn down the dancehall, restaurant, and office. Arnold is a tough but charitable businesswoman with big dreams and a tendency to overreach her finances (“Still Wranglin’,” Jan. 19, 2005). For more than 25 years she had given jobs to drifters, wayward teens, broken-down rodeo riders, and others who stumbled in and promised hard work in exchange for food, shelter, cigarettes, and a little cash. Arnold didn’t tolerate slackers but was motherly and loyal to those who worked. Some cursed as she ran them off. Some stayed weeks or months. Others, like Howard, never left.
Despite police suspicions, Arnold herself has not been charged in the fire. Over the past six months, townfolk, acquaintances, and her former employees have said they believe she had nothing to do with the crime. They describe her as sometimes scattered and hot-blooded but not the type to burn down the beloved dude ranch that she’d built with decades of sweat.
Arnold and others around Justin say the list of potential suspects is hefty. Between disgruntled former employees, small-town feuds, and a knack for speaking her mind, Arnold had made plenty of enemies. And she had nothing to gain from a fire, since the ranch’s new owners held the insurance policy. Nonetheless, Northlake police still seem convinced that she is involved.
Howard, 48, has also maintained his innocence from the start. On the night of the fire, Howard said, he grabbed a shotgun to protect the ranch against what was an obvious arson. Fires erupted in three different buildings; one was set after emergency personnel were at the scene. Howard told police that he discovered the stage curtains on fire in the dancehall and used a blanket to try to quell the flames — the stage curtains had been doused in gas and fell on him, one reason he reeked of fuel. Also, he was a maintenance man and often wore clothes that smelled of oil and gas.
The shotgun was a communal weapon for dispatching snakes and skunks. “He didn’t believe in hunting for sport,” said Tina Burns, a former ranch employee who married Howard on Feb. 13 while he was in jail awaiting trial. Burns recalled him shooting 11 snakes in one day last September after a ranch visitor was startled by a water moccasin. “We had a bed of water moccasins under a floating dock on a pond at the ranch,” she said. “Another time he shot a rattlesnake that a dog cornered.”
Without physical evidence or witnesses linking him to the fire, convicting him would have been difficult. But federal prosecutors had an ace in the hole. As a young man in 1976, Howard committed several burglaries and was caught and convicted in Arkansas. Many states, including Texas, ban felons from possessing firearms for several years after conviction. Federal law calls for a lifetime ban.
Howard was charged in federal court with the weapons violation and faced a penalty of 15 years to life in prison. Prosecutors pushed for a plea bargain, and the hapless Howard agreed on April 19, accepting six years in prison.
Howard’s attorney, Clint Broden, said Congress intended the gun law for violent cases. “I’m not sure Congress knew how far the law would reach,” he said. “Normally these felon-in-possession cases are in relation to using a gun to commit a crime.”
Pursuing the gun case so diligently seemed atypical, Broden said. “Had this fire not taken place, would they have still brought the case to trial and pressed for six years? I would be surprised,” he said.
Federal prosecutor Ernest Gonzalez said he pursued the felony gun charge rather than arson because “we felt we could get more time out of the ‘felon in possession of a firearm’ case instead of the arson.”
He agreed that the federal gun law was aimed at violent felons — but said Howard technically fits the definition. “Technically, his priors were for burglaries of a habitation and businesses,” Gonzalez said. “Technically, they are crimes of violence.”
He said there was nothing unfair about the gun charge, even though the burglaries happened three decades ago. “Legally he should not have possessed the weapon, but we evaluated and thought six years was an appropriate sentence,” Gonzalez said. “I believe that it is a fair sentence in a sense that he has been convicted [of a felony], even though the convictions were some 30 years ago. When a person is convicted, they are told they cannot possess a firearm.”
Howard’s is not the only case in which questions have been raised about federal prosecutors’ use of the firearm statute. “They just have an unbelievable amount of leverage and don’t hesitate to use it,” Broden said. For instance, Gun Week magazine wrote about a man who had mooned a college dean during a 1969 protest rally, for which he paid a $25 fine. When he bought a shotgun 30 years later, federal agents showed up at his house, confiscated his weapon, and threatened him with arrest. The man had stated on a background check that he had no felony convictions, unaware that the mooning incident was categorized as a felony lewdness.
Austin attorney Paul Velte, founder of Peaceable Texans for Firearms Rights, has met numerous Texans who, because of long-ago felonies for minor incidents, are haunted by the federal gun law. “I’m so sick of people getting chewed up by these anti-gun laws that don’t do a damn thing about keeping people with criminal intent from getting guns,” he said. “If you pour oil out on the grass you could be a felon. If you snort a line of coke you could be a felon. I’ve gotten a lot of these kinds of people who get in a little trouble as a teen, and now they are in trouble years later for guns. It’s a really sad thing.”
In Howard’s case, Broden said, prosecuting Howard and sending him to prison for six years “is going to cost taxpayers about $200,000.”
Howard considered refusing the plea bargain. “A Texas jury would have said ‘not guilty’ because Texans don’t find that sort of thing wrong, shooting snakes,” Arnold said. But fear of spending the rest of his life in prison made Howard think again. “He just didn’t want to take a chance,” she said.
Actions by the federal judge, prosecutor, and Northlake police convinced Howard that he wouldn’t get a fair trial, Tina Burns said. The judge allowed a police witness to lie without repercussion, and the prosecutor seemed to care only about a conviction rather than justice, she said.
Northlake police Lt. Brian Harpole said under oath in a pre-trial hearing that police would have stopped questioning Howard if he’d asked for an attorney. However, a police video showed Howard repeatedly asking for a lawyer. “When Bill saw what happened at that pre-trial hearing and saw police perjure themselves and the judge didn’t do anything, he knew right then the cards were stacked against him and he was going to jail, so it was better to take the plea than to risk 15 years to life,” his wife said. “He told me, ‘This way we could have a life afterward.’”
U.S. District Judge Richard A. Schell declined to comment on the case or in general about the application of federal gun laws.
Ironically, it may have been Arnold and Burns who first drew U.S. prosecutors’ attention. Fearing that local police weren’t conducting an adequate investigation, they called the feds for intervention. Federal prosecutors, however, continued to rely on Northlake’s investigation, something Harpole confirmed to Fort Worth Weekly. The feds probably didn’t take over the case because of Arnold’s complaint; it is more likely the agents got involved because it was a high-profile case in a small town with limited resources, Howard’s attorney said.
Whatever their motives, federal prosecutors did step in. The state arson charge against Howard was dropped, and he was charged under federal law with both arson and the gun violation.
Arnold said that federal prosecutors promised Howard a short prison stint — less than a year — on the gun charge if he would give evidence against her, but Howard insisted that neither he nor Arnold was involved in the blaze. Six months after the fire, neither Northlake police nor federal prosecutors appear to have any new suspects.
Burns said she’ll wait for Howard’s release in 2011 and begin a new life with him. “I find it hard to believe,” she said. “All this time I sat there and thought, ‘We didn’t do anything wrong, so it’s all going to be all right.’”
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