By Vanesa Brashier, firstname.lastname@example.org
Since 1994, only three Texas Rangers have served Liberty County – Tony Leal (1994-1997), Grover “Frank” Huff (1997-2013) and Brandon Bess (2013-current). For 20 years prior to that time, the Ranger post in Liberty County remained closed. It was reopened in 1994 by the Texas Legislature, and Leal was assigned to the post.
“The number of Texas Rangers is legislatively mandated. The highway patrol can do whatever is in its budget, but the Rangers have to be approved by the Texas Legislature,” said Leal.
Now retired and owner of a security company, Leal rarely visits Liberty County, though he attends the annual DPS Region 2 Firearms Qualifications and Luncheon held at the Liberty County Sheriff’s Office firearms range on Plum Grove Road in Cleveland. This year marked the seventh annual event.
When asked if he remembers some high-profile cases he handled while stationed in Liberty County, Leal recalls helping other agencies with murder investigations, but “can’t remember the names.”
“There were some rough-and-tumble people in Liberty County at the time,” he said. “Because of the size of the police agencies in a rural county, Texas Rangers in places like Liberty County are more involved in murder investigations. For Rangers in Harris County, they won’t be called to the scene of a murder typically, but in rural counties you will be.”
Leal recalls assisting former LCSO Investigator Ashley Fenton on murder investigations in Liberty County. Fenton, he said, moved on to a job with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
After his three-year stint in Liberty County, Leal moved on to a Ranger post in Seguin, where he worked for six years before earning the rank of lieutenant, which required him to relocate to Austin.
In 2005, he was promoted to captain of Company A in the Houston area, and was promoted again in 2008 to chief of the Texas Rangers.
“I was in charge of all the Rangers in the state at the time we put together border security and the S.W.A.T. team. I retired in 2011 and went to work in the private sector,” Leal said.
In his lengthy law enforcement career, Leal has seen a lot of changes in technology and training that have advanced the Rangers.
“I think the Rangers today are better. They are better trained and better equipped. I think that is what you want for every generation – to improve. Not better women or men, so to speak, but better Rangers because of the advancements and training,” he said. “The Rangers have always been the best of the best, but today’s Rangers are the best they’ve ever been.”
Liberty County has proven to be a good training ground for the Rangers. Leal’s successor, Grover “Frank” Huff, is now the captain of Company A in Houston. Huff’s successor, Brandon Bess, made Ranger status in 2013.
“Chief Leal was a Ranger before I even joined DPS, but his footprint was seen as soon as I was stationed in Chambers County as a highway patrolman back in 1996,” Bess said. “Tony had arrested a doctor for sexual assault in Chambers County and one of the investigators who had worked the case told me about him when I made my intentions known that I wanted to eventually join the Rangers.”
According to Bess, the investigator told him that Leal would be a great resource for advice on becoming a Ranger.
“I didn’t meet Tony until about 2006 when he was a lieutenant during one of the hurricane duties in which I was involved and immediately saw that he had the true presence, for lack of a better term, of what any Texan thinks a Ranger should be,” Bess said. “Tony and I have been great friends over the years and his care for the Rangers and especially his generosity to anyone in need is an example for all new Rangers.”
When Bess was named a Ranger in 2013, he got a call from Leal to congratulate him and offer support. With Leal’s help, Bess was able to reopen the Monica “Christy” Wilson case. Wilson, 19 and recently married, was murdered in 1982 after leaving her job at Snappy’s convenience store in Liberty, Texas. Her body was found the following day in a secluded area of the county. Her car was later found abandoned in Liberty. To this day, few clues have been found regarding her murder.
“Tony actually was able to ‘raise’ a fingerprint, probably in 1994 or so, but was unable to identify the print due to restrictions in technology back then. I got a ‘hit’ on the fingerprint in 2014, but unfortunately it was the police officer who collected the evidence, which was not uncommon on cases from the early 80s,” Bess said. “Even though that didn’t generate a solid lead, it got the conversation started between Tony, Huff and myself. We haven’t let that case die and Tony asks me for progress reports often.”
Thursday’s luncheon in Cleveland brought out 300 or so active and retired members of the Texas Department of Public Safety, including the Texas Rangers, and active members of law enforcement agencies across Southeast Texas.
Bess said this year’s event was a banner year with the most fantastic weather.
“The event has grown so well and fast that we are all amazed at the response we have received from our retirees and guests that support the event,” he said. “This year we had more than 45 volunteers to make this a success including our friends from the Liberty County Sheriff’s Office and Dayton Police Department. We really could not make this happen without them and the support of Liberty County Commissioner Greg Arthur, County Judge Jay Knight, Sheriff Bobby Rader and, of course, Royce Wheeler, who has truly become a part of this DPS family.”
Helping to cook the fried catfish, french fries and hush puppies for the luncheon were
Investigator Curtis Trousdale and Lt. Shane Burleigh with Dayton Police Department, and Judd Russell with the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office.
“The ladies behind the scenes – Linda, Fanchon, Sheila, Lynn and Julie, and many more – do so much that us ‘boys’ aren’t trusted with,” Bess said. “Our sponsors truly make it easy for us to feed everyone and they have supported us without any hesitation.”
The sponsors included the American Association of State Troopers, Texas State Troopers Association, Department of Public Safety Officers Association, PPI Security, Liberty County Pct. 2 Commissioner Greg Arthur and John Hart RV and Propane.