Texas slayings highlight shortcomings in state parole system

DALLAS (AP) — A Texas felon accused in a criminal rampage that killed three people was arraigned on capital murder charges Monday in a case that authorities say highlights cracks in a criminal justice system that is slow to nab parolees when they pose new threats.

Jose Gilberto Rodriguez, 46, also was denied bond during a hearing in Houston. Investigators say Rodriguez is linked to the shooting deaths of three people over four days in the Houston area this month, including two people who worked at mattress stores. He was arrested in a stolen car last week.

Rodriguez had cut off his ankle monitor several days before the first killing, sending an alert to the parole division of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, authorities said. The monitor stopped transmitting three days later, and an arrest warrant was issued that day. But investigators didn’t identify him as a suspect in the killings until a week later.

Parolees can go days undetected after they violate terms of their release parole. Last month, there were about 7,200 parolees statewide and nearly 1,500 in the Houston area who were being sought because they failed to report to their parole officer, according to KHOU-TV in Houston.

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And on some days, officers have to deal with hundreds of alerts about violations that, in many cases, are false signals, such at those stemming from a malfunctioning ankle monitor. State parole officers don’t have the power to arrest, so warrants must be issued for another law enforcement agency to act on.

Parole officers also each have dozens of parolees to monitor, with caseloads sometimes upward of 110 or 120 felons, according to the Texas State Employees Union, which represents parole officers. The union estimates the number of parolees requiring supervision will climb to about 87,000 by next year in Texas. The union said the state isn’t hiring enough people to keep up.

“Caseloads at current levels, combined with high staff turnover and insufficiently funded positions, have led to many officers having to double-up on caseloads to cover an unfilled position,” the union said in a recent legislative memo.

Houston police Chief Art Acevedo wants to create a system to assess parolees’ criminal history and prioritize who should be sought before others by using “risk-assessment categories.” The offender with a history of sexual abuse, for instance, would be sought before another with white-collar offenses.

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Acevedo’s immediate concern is the more than 500 parolees with a violent history living in the Houston area and facing an active arrest warrant for violating terms of their parole. He wants to take the roughly 10 Houston officers who focus on parole violators and draw an officer from each law enforcement agency in Harris County to create a task force of about 40 people to go after reoffenders before their actions turn violent.

“Teeth have to be provided by front-line law enforcement,” Acevedo said. “I don’t believe we’re doing as good a job in law enforcement because of lean resources.”

Rodriguez is suspected of killing a 62-year-old woman whose body was found at her home on July 13, a 28-year-old employee of a Houston mattress store found dead the next day, and a 57-year-old man who worked at another mattress store in Houston on July 16.

Rodriguez also is a suspect in the robbery, shooting and wounding of a Metro bus driver and two home-invasion robberies, investigators said. Investigators say a handgun was found in the stolen car Rodriguez was driving when he was arrested.