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Not Out of the Woods: Guilty Until Proven Innocent

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An overzealous sting operation and sensationalist headlines cost one gay man his job, his good reputation, and thousands in legal fees until he was able to prove his innocence.
by Megan Smith

Kenneth Brooks has traveled across the country, hiking and jogging through some of the nation’s most beautiful parks. One of his favorites used to be sprawling Memorial Park, right here in his native Houston. All that changed on the afternoon of August 1, 2013.

That particular day, Brooks says, was especially stressful at his job as a supervisor in the housekeeping department for Houston Independent School District. By the time lunch rolled around, he was looking for an escape. “The work day was very hectic,” he says. “So around lunchtime, I got my lunch kit, I got in my Jeep, and I decided that I needed to get away . . . because it was so stressful.”

Brooks headed for Memorial Park, an area he regarded as a quiet, safe place to read. He parked near South Picnic Lane and began to eat his lunch. He saw a man and woman sitting at a picnic table not too far from him, but didn’t think anything of it until he noticed the man had disappeared.

“He was wearing a gray tank top and short, white, ladies’ Daisy Dukes,” Brooks says. “When I looked over to my driver’s side, he was right there. My window was cracked at the time, and he said ‘What’re you doing here? What are you up to?’ and I said ‘I’m on my lunch break,’ and I held up my sandwich. So, he walked away.”

As Brooks finished his lunch, his bladder reminded him that he had consumed three bottles of iced tea that day. He decided to use the restroom before heading back to work. “I’m not very good with teas,” he says.

But when he reached the park’s public restrooms, he found them locked with a “large green and gold key lock.” With a strong sense of urgency, Brooks says he headed into the bushes to urinate. “I started to take a leak, and that same guy that was sitting at the picnic table appeared several feet behind me, and once he saw me, he said, ‘Wow, you’re taking a leak.’ Once he said that, I began to realize that something was up, but he left so quickly, I wasn’t picturing what all was going to happen.”

When Brooks emerged from the bushes, he was met by a “smoke-gray, unmarked Ford F-150.” Two men in plain clothing stepped out of the vehicle, identified themselves as police officers, and questioned Brooks about his motives for being in the park. He again stated that he was on his lunch break and explained that he urinated in the woods after finding the restrooms locked. The officers announced that they were placing him under arrest for indecent exposure. “I’m thinking it’s a joke,” Brooks says.

But it was no joke. Brooks says they placed him under arrest and drove him to another part of the park, where they asked for his identification and Social Security number and ran a background check. Brooks remembers the officer saying, “Shoot! You’ve never been arrested before.” He thought the officer sounded angry. “He looked on the computer and just chose a name,” Brooks says.

Aside from plucking the wrong Kenneth Brooks from the database, Brooks says the police reports were scattered with errors. “What the cop did was change the story,” he says. “On the report they stated three times that I was arrested on North Picnic Lane. No I wasn’t. I was at South Picnic Lane. He said I was caught masturbating. You can’t pee and masturbate at the same time. That’s crazy.”

Brooks was held for a combined total of 42 hours in city and county jails. “It just got worse as it went on,” Brooks says. When he tried to call Michael Madison, his partner of 15 years, Brooks found the jail’s phone was not operating.

“I was calling hospitals everywhere, trying to figure out what had happened,” Madison says. “I drove by his mother’s house three times, hoping to see his car.” It was a call from a bonding company that finally led Madison to the jail, where he encountered more frustrations. Brooks had been booked with the wrong Social Security number and the wrong middle initial. “I couldn’t find him because of that,” says Madison.

Brooks returned to work Monday morning as usual. No one at work seemed to have knowledge about the weekend’s incident, he says. But when Madison called and told him his mug shot, along with the mug shots of six other men arrested in the police sting, was broadcast on ABC Channel 13’s morning news, Brooks left work as soon as he was able to get away. “That’s when everything went to pieces,” he says. “I became sick and cried.”

His picture was broadcast again on Channel 13’s five o’clock news and published on their website alongside an article that stated, “The afternoon of August 1 saw steaming hot temperatures at Memorial Park, but for those seven men, it was allegedly too hot to handle. They were arrested in an undercover sting and each was charged with indecent exposure.”

Brooks’s mug shot was also run in several other local newspapers, including the Cypress Creek Mirror. “Everyone who called us interpreted it as seven people were caught together having sex,” Madison says.

Work the next morning was hard to face, says Brooks. “Being the strong person that I am, I just walked in like nothing was wrong,” he says. But things were even worse than he imagined. He was summoned to his supervisor’s office, where he was fired from the position he had held for 10 years.

Brooks and Madison say they were surprised by the mixed reactions from the LGBT community following the sting. Not referring to Brooks’s arrest, but to the sting in general, longtime activist Ray Hill told OutSmart at the time, “It was literally seducing people into arrest. It is clearly about shaming gay people. We haven’t dealt with shit like this since the 1950s.”

Noel Freeman, then president of the Houston GLBT Political Caucus, told ABC Channel 13 that he supports police stings like this one. “These folks are people who have gone out and they have done something inappropriate and illegal and public,” Freeman said. “They don’t represent those of us who abide by the law and are responsible.”

Brooks and Madison expressed their disappointment with Freeman’s comments. “He’s supposed to be representing the gay community,” Madison says. “And to be blatant with his remarks before knowing the facts, I thought that was a little overboard.”

After being reset several times, Brooks’s case finally went to trial on
December 11, 2013. Brooks says he refused to plead guilty, despite the advice of those who tried to convince him it was the wise choice. Brooks and Madison are pleased with how Brooks’s attorney, Maverick Ray, handled the case, focusing on the officer’s lack of evidence. The arresting officer was not wearing surveillance during the sting, Madison says, and he “claimed that he had almost photographic memory, [and] he didn’t need any proof.”

Madison says, “The prosecutor started the trial by telling the jury that sometimes you don’t need visual proof, but you must trust the officer and his training. When she started saying that, I believe she started losing the jury.”

Brooks says that all five officers involved in the sting attended the trial, but only one testified. “[The officer] had his notes, reading on the witness stand,” Brooks says. “He couldn’t even read his own writing. I just had to look away from him because he was wasting the judge’s time and my time, too.”

“He kind of put his foot in his mouth,” Madison adds. “He couldn’t explain why he changed the address [on the reports of where Brooks was arrested].”

The trial lasted over three hours, but to the couple’s relief, the jury returned with a “not guilty” verdict.

Brooks’s case is not unique. In 2006, two similar stings were conducted in Memorial Park, netting more than 30 arrests of men for lewd activity, according to the Houstonist blog. The Houston Police Department conducts these stings in the park “on as frequent a basis that we can, because of complaints,” HPD spokesman John Cannon told The Dallas Voice following the August arrests. “For the most part, undercover officers have been conducting similar operations for years, so this is nothing new. This has been an ongoing issue in this particular part of Memorial Park.”

Houston criminal defense attorney Clyde Williams is no stranger to these cases, either. Although she did not represent Brooks, she has a history of representing men who have been arrested in similar sting operations. When these stings occur, she says, one of the officers usually serves as “the bait,” and unlike in Brooks’s case, is typically equipped with surveillance. “It’s usually kind of an entrapment situation,” she says, “in the sense that [the officer] will act like they’re gay and try to initiate the whole situation that would lead to public lewdness. When they do [these stings], it’s not just one officer that goes—there’s a team. And because of that phenomenon, there’s strong motivation for them to catch someone for whatever it is they’re enforcing—sex laws, in this case. Regardless of whether anyone is doing anything illegal or not, someone is going to be arrested. It’s kind of the gang mentality.”

“There are so many false charges and wrongful convictions in ‘sexual crimes,’” adds Williams, who also served as a former president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association. “The reality is, maybe one or more of those [arrested] men is guilty of public lewdness or indecent exposure. We just don’t know.”

Though some of the police tactics may seem a bit unorthodox, Williams says that the officers do not have to be in uniform during these stings. “It’s part of their job, and they’re allowed to lie,” she says.

Williams is not surprised that the officer’s report stated Brooks was masturbating instead of urinating, as most charges of public lewdness require sexual intent. The unpreparedness of the testifying officer, however, seems unusual, as the officers are usually very well trained, Williams says.

Like Ray Hill, Williams agrees that these stings are homophobic in nature. “Clearly it is targeting gay men,” she says. “It’s about the humiliation that these people feel. Because it hits them harder when it’s about their very personal sex life and that is made public. They’re being accused of doing something ‘bad’ and, typically, they’ll punish themselves far more than the police could punish them. They go through hell.”

As for Brooks and Madison, their main sentiment remains anger. Although he was found not guilty, Brooks continues to be burdened financially by lawyer fees, detective fees, and the cost to have his record expunged. With the loss of his job, he also lost his health benefits, retirement plan, and says the arrest has severely tarnished his reputation among friends and church members. “We had less Christmas parties to attend this year,” Madison says. “The church members did not want him there because of the incident.” They plan to seek compensation from HPD and ABC Channel 13, Madison adds.

Brooks is currently in the process of trying to get his job with HISD back, and is optimistic about the possibility. It’s one step closer to getting back to normal, he says. He is not optimistic, however, about one thing. “I’ve lost my love for Memorial Park,” Brooks says. “It’ll never be the same.”

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Megan Smith

Megan Smith is the Assistant Editor for OutSmart Magazine.
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