W-H custodian indicted on theft charge; 3rd person indicted in district inquiry accused of stealing computers

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 7B

A Wilmer-Hutchins custodian is the third person indicted in the ongoing criminal investigations into the district.

Willie Dunn is accused of stealing 18 laptop computers from the district’s administration building this summer. The charge, issued by a Dallas County grand jury on Thursday, is a third-degree felony and could carry up to 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

Authorities have given Mr. Dunn 24 hours to surrender. He could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

The computers were purchased as incentives to attract new teachers to the district. Their disappearance had been one of the first issues addressed by the multiagency criminal task force, which includes the FBI, the IRS and the Texas Rangers.

“The allegations were brought to us and the Rangers pretty much at the beginning of the investigation,” Assistant District Attorney Pat Batchelor said.

Cedric Davis, police chief of Wilmer-Hutchins Independent School District, was given the task of removing Mr. Dunn from district property when he was suspended from his job two weeks ago. He said Mr. Dunn acknowledged taking the laptops from the office of Lew Blackburn, the district’s executive director of human resources.

“He said he did it, but what I felt was strange was that he said ‘I did most of it,'” said Chief Davis, the initial investigator in the case. “I believe it goes further than Willie Dunn. I can’t see him planning out something like this.”

“It was really a surprise,” interim Superintendent James Damm said of Mr. Dunn’s indictment.

Mr. Batchelor said investigators have recovered 12 of the 18 computers, which had a retail value of about $900 each.

Chief Davis said that Mr. Dunn is a popular figure in the community and that a group of residents would be raising money for his legal defense.

More indictments likely

Mr. Dunn joins Superintendent Charles Matthews and maintenance director Wallace Faggett as indicted targets of the criminal corruption investigation. Dr. Matthews and Mr. Faggett were indicted last month on charges of document tampering.

Law enforcement officials have said more indictments are likely. In court testimony last week, Chief Davis said the targets of the investigation include several school board members, Dr. Matthews, district lawyer James Belt and several other top administration officials.

Meanwhile, the district’s school board is now able to meet without restrictions, state District Court Judge Merrill Hartman ruled Tuesday.

On Nov. 5, Judge Hartman issued a temporary restraining order preventing the board from meeting or taking action. He issued the order after a group of district residents filed a lawsuit asking for the removal of all the board’s members because the residents disagree with some of the board’s past decisions.

The residents’ attorneys had sought last week to have the restraining order extended into an injunction, but Judge Hartman decided to let the board meet Monday even with the restraining order in place.

On Tuesday, the judge ended the restraining order and declined to issue an injunction. As a result, the school board will be able to meet without restrictions, although Judge Hartman ordered district officials to provide him and the plaintiffs with copies of the agenda of all future board meetings.

‘A good solution’

“It’s a good solution,” Mr. Damm said.

Last week, the Texas Education Agency appointed a two-person management team to oversee the troubled district’s affairs, with the power to overrule almost any district decision. Both the plaintiffs and Judge Hartman said TEA’s intervention lessened the need for the board to be made powerless by judicial order.

But Cyrus Holley, who led the TEA management team the last time the state took over Wilmer-Hutchins, said he was disappointed in the judge’s decision.

“This board has had its chance,” he said. “My recommendation is to get rid of this school board once and for all.”

Mr. Holley said the school board tried to sabotage his stewardship of the district when he was appointed in 1996. Board members openly disobeyed managers’ orders and told staff members to ignore the demands of state officials, he said. His car was vandalized twice in district parking lots.

He also said he discovered phone taps on several office phones and a hidden recording system in the superintendent’s office. Information gathered from those clandestine devices was reaching school board members, he said.

Mr. Holley and his fellow manager, Lois Harrison-Jones, eventually resigned their posts, citing the board’s interference.