How a local prosecutor helped expose our broken state prison system

By John Toth / Editor and Publisher

I was wandering the hallways of the Brazoria County courthouse on a Friday afternoon in 1984, making some records checks that I didn’t have the time to do earlier. And I ran into first assistant district attorney John Davis.

I had been on the Houston Chronicle payroll for less than a year, covering the Brazoria County area. I was 28, full of drive, and always looking for a good story. Davis and I got to talking about the Texas Syndicate gang in state prisons.

“Stop by on Monday, and I’ll give you the rundown on the Syndicate. We have been prosecuting some of them while the state keeps denying its existence.” he said.

I stopped by his office that Monday, and we talked for two hours. He laid out in front of me everything he had on the organization, which had filled a void left by the elimination of the building tender system.
Building tenders were inmates who were assigned to guard other inmates. A federal judge decided that it was a brutal system and put a stop to it.

Davis was District Attorney Jim Mapel’s first assistant. We had come to know each other during trials I covered for the Chronicle that he prosecuted. He and I had an agreement that when we talked it was off the record unless we agreed that it wasn’t. He had a story to tell about the Syndicate, and I was all ears.

He told me about a case that was at the time on appeal in Houston and suggested that I go pull the testimony and read it. He laid out in detail what he knew about the gang. I took a lot of notes, which took hours to organize them before I sent a message over to the editors pitching the story. It needed lots of developing. This was the first step.

Start working on it, my editor said. Another reporter based in Huntsville, Frank Klimko, was also assigned to it.

One of the first things Klimko did was get official statements from prison officials denying the existence of the gang. That part was easy. They had been denying it all along.

Meanwhile, I went back to Davis to get some more details and quotes. I went to the appellate court in Houston and read the case to which he referred me. The trial testimony was all there in black and white, describing how the gang operated inside prisons. I was copying until closing and took voluminous notes.

We looked at other cases and conducted interviews for the story, shooting for a Sunday deadline. The story was done and was being edited. We needed just one more thing – a picture of a Syndicate tattoo on the arm of an inmate.

Klimko worked his sources and found a photo. But the tattoo was on the arm of a dead inmate. The editors then came up with another dilemna. Do we tell readers that the tattooed arm belonged to a dead inmate, or do we just use it for information purposes to prove our point that the prison system had been lying? They decided to just use the photo with no mention of the dead inmate.

On that Sunday, the story broke on top of Page 1, with the tattooed arm right next to it. It was picked up by news wire services and just about every TV station in the state. The prison system then denied that they had denied the existence of this murderous gang, but that didn’t matter. The process of cleaning up the gang activity had begun.

Thank you, John Davis, for your service, and your efforts to correct the record and help reform Texas prisons. I have not forgotten what you did. There is no telling how many lives you saved.

May you rest in peace.

John Joseph Davis
November 22, 1944 - June 16, 2018