Sheriff keeps doors open;Tarrant official a contrast to reclusive Ft. Worth predecessor

By Evan Moore
The Houston Chronicle
March 25, 2001

(Fort Worth, TX) - When Dee Anderson stepped into his first day as Tarrant County sheriff on Jan. 1, he passed through three sets of security doors to find a darkened, dusty office and not a trace of his predecessor.

"My wife and I spent the night cleaning the place," said Anderson. "It was covered with cobwebs and dust. There was almost nothing from the former sheriff. It was like he'd never been here."

By many accounts, that was almost literally true. Former Sheriff David Williams, Anderson's predecessor, had become known as a recluse before the end of his second term. After losing the election, he had vacated his post as quietly as he had held it.

As the transition of office was occurring, Williams remained in his house, sent emissaries to pick up his belongings and left behind a legacy of one of the strangest tenures for a public official in the state.

"There's quite a bit to overcome," said Anderson, now reflecting on his first two months as sheriff of the fourth-largest county in the state. "There's really been 16 years of mismanagement here."

For more than two decades, the top law enforcement officer for Tarrant County was Lon Evans, a popular figure who was re-elected repeatedly. Evans left in poor health in 1984, and his successor, Don Carpenter, served for two terms, then left under a cloud after being indicted for a series of abuses of office.

Williams emerged as a Republican reform candidate in 1992. A non-political figure, he had been a small-town policeman in Oklahoma, a drug-enforcement officer in a Fort Worth suburb and a mailroom worker for evangelist Kenneth Copeland.

He won, however, with the financial aid of Fort Worth auto-parts dealer Ed Max and votes from Copeland's followers and the Christian right. Then, over the next eight years, Williams conducted a running battle with county commissioners over his budgets and the press over his quotes. He became suspicious of both, grew to believe his office was "bugged" and installed the triple security doors.

He puzzled his staff with weekly meetings that were closed to most of the department. Those meetings opened with a lengthy prayer session and sometimes inexplicably included war movies featuring cavalry skirmishes.

He eventually fell at odds with commissioners over a $ 33 million budget increase, his purchase of $29,000 Chevy Tahoes for his staff, and his "God Pod," a paid chaplain's program that, among other things, once performed an exorcism in the county jail.

Williams finally retreated, abandoning his downtown office and closeting himself in a suburban office behind a steel door. He distanced himself from others in the department, using a private elevator and refusing to speak. He later began spending most of his time at home and had papers requiring his signature brought to him there.

In his final days as sheriff, Williams told his secretary and others that he feared for his life. He refused to drive himself, saying it made him a target, and had deputies drive him, even requiring a chief deputy to drive him to Oklahoma for his grandfather's funeral.

By the end of his tenure, Williams had become such an elusive figure that a number of deputies failed to recognize him on sight.

"Apparently, there was just no communication at all," said Anderson.

Anderson, conversely, is well known in Tarrant County and beyond. A former patrolman in Arlington, he became a media spokesman for that police department in 1986.

Over the next 14 years, he was often quoted in newspapers and seen on television. When the abduction of 9-year-old Amber Hagerman occurred in Arlington in 1996, Anderson was seen daily and interviewed by national media.

And, when he retired in 2000, many saw him as the viable candidate to defeat Williams.

"People thought I could win without a runoff," said Anderson.

Anderson took 61 percent of the Republican primary vote, with Williams receiving 14 percent and the rest scattered among a half-dozen candidates, and the beefy, affable, ex-policeman assumed an almost virgin post.

"It was strange when I got here," said Anderson. "This department has 1,240 employees, and a lot of them had never been able to speak to their boss. My first priority was to re-establish communication from this office and I announced that I'd have an open-door policy.

"That might have been a mistake. I got overwhelmed at first. It looked like one of the lines at Six Flags out there for the first few weeks. Some people came up here just to see the office, 'cause they said they'd never been in it.

"A couple of times I've had people hesitate to get on the elevator with me, and I've had to tell them to come on, that it's OK to get on and speak to me.

"I'm really trying to restore some of the morale here."

Observers say Anderson appears well-suited for sheriff.

"It's too soon to judge, but I think he's doing great so far," said Tarrant County Commissioner J.D. Johnson.

Johnson, the commissioners court liaison to the sheriff, switched from being one of Williams' defenders to one of his most vocal critics before his defeat.

"Dee Anderson's completely reorganized his staff and brought some very qualified people in there. He has weekly staff meetings and they're open to just about anyone.

"It's a pleasant change."

Among the most pleased is Sandra Colwell, executive secretary first to Carpenter, then Williams and, now, Anderson.

"You wouldn't believe how strange things had gotten here," said Colwell. "It started when he (Williams) decided his office was bugged.

"Then he started spending all his time at home and we'd have to have someone take papers out to him.

"Then there was Y2K night (Dec. 31, 1999). He had me buy $ 500 worth of maps and kept the entire department on duty all night so we could sit up here and track Armageddon as it passed across the country. When the world didn't end, he went in his office and shut the door.

"Now that we've got Mr. Anderson, it's like a new world. He actually comes out here and talks to me."

Williams is said to have remained at home since the election. Few in Anderson's administration say they have heard from him. A Web site created for his re-election campaign, containing numerous pictures of Williams with then-Gov. George W. Bush and other notable Republicans, remained active until mid-March, but then disappeared.

Williams did not respond to initial requests for an interview for this story. Later however, he sent a message through an intermediary, saying he would call.

The call never came.

"He'd mentioned he was going back to college," said Colwell. "I think he's getting his degree over the Internet."

Copyright 2000 LEXIS-NEXIS, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights Reserved.

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