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Emily Munoz was nervous — and afraid. A prosecutor working for Harris County, Texas, District Attorney Johnny Holmes, Munoz was heading to Holmes’ office to hand in a letter of resignation and didn’t know what to expect. For starters, Munoz was breaking an employment promise that she would stay for three years. That three-year commitment had been hammered into her during interviews to get the job, and she understood there would be no returning to the DA’s office if her other plans — mainly personal and not in law -� didn’t pan out. And it was Holmes whom she was about to face. Munoz had met him when she was first hired, and that was about her only experience with the boss. But she knew about him. A tough- and straight-talking man, curmudgeonly and crusty, Holmes was a legend to revere and fear. Munoz worked on the misdemeanor floor, and the story was sometimes told how Holmes dropped by one day at 5 p.m. just to see who was still in the office. It made everyone think twice about leaving early. And he supposedly sat in his office, watching out the window, prepared to pounce on any prosecutor who dared to jaywalk. Everyone knew that Holmes was a strict man of the law, and no one wanted to face his wrath. Holmes had a trademark handlebar moustache, a slight twang in his accent and the political incorrectness of occasional expletives when he spoke. Those who knew him knew that Holmes truly would speak his mind and in no uncertain terms. As a general rule, you were in big trouble if you were seeing Holmes. That or, as Munoz points out, you were quitting. Either way, you didn’t expect the meeting to be pretty. To her surprise, Holmes thanked Munoz for her work. She says he had grown some spinach in his backyard and — as he talked with her — was busy bagging it up for some people at work to take home. Holmes pointed to pictures of airplanes and helicopters on the wall and chatted about how he had flown in them with various government agencies. “He was as nice as can be,” Munoz says. She sat there, amazed, as Holmes’ small talk continued for 45 minutes and nothing unpleasant happened. “He kind of took the load off of me by carrying the conversation.” After she left Holmes’ office, Munoz says other prosecutors were interested to find out what happened, how it went and what it was like. They pried for information about the legendary boss, and the gossip pipeline was open among the young prosecutors. “It was like you had just gotten in to the Wizard of Oz, gotten through the curtain,” says Munoz, who is now an associate with Houston’s Schneider & McKinney. A FORCE John B. Holmes Jr. — the “B” stands for Brockenbrough, and Holmes says he was 13 before he learned how to spell it — left office Monday after more than 20 years as Harris County DA. Holmes, 59, did not seek re-election and will be replaced by Chuck Rosenthal, an assistant DA in charge of one of the office’s felony divisions. When Holmes announced he was leaving office, he said he would endorse none of the candidates to succeed him. In a rare case where Holmes went back on his word, he later supported Rosenthal’s campaign and appeared in ads on his behalf. “No doubt I got screwed in the race since he told me he wasn’t going to take sides, and then he took sides,” says Jim Leitner, a former prosecutor who lost to Rosenthal, coming in third out of five candidates in the GOP primary. But Leitner says he holds no grudge, calls Holmes “rock solid” and describes him as a great boss. Holmes insists he does not know what he will do after leaving office, but observers expect him to pop up somewhere. Outspoken and determined, Holmes’ influence over the Harris County legal system is enormous. Much of the Republican-dominated judiciary is filled with his former employees. And part of Rosenthal’s message in running for office was a promise to run the DA’s office much as Holmes did. “He’s like Alan Greenspan,” says famed Houston defense attorney Richard “Racehorse” Haynes, of Richard Haynes & Associates. “If he hiccups, the market changes.” Haynes calls Holmes a “vigorous” prosecutor and says he is one of the best in the country. But Haynes, among others, also believes Holmes has used his political power to put his former prosecutors on the bench, replacing judges he viewed as being too soft. Holmes downplays any such role, saying he is not politically active and generally stays out of Republican Party affairs. But Holmes has always been a force to be reckoned with, in ways big and small. In 1986, shortly after the Houston City Council banned smoking in council chambers, he appeared there before a committee considering legislation. Holmes puffed a pipe through much of the meeting, apparently unaware of the newly enacted smoking ban. No one dared during the meeting to ask him to stop. And, yes, Holmes has berated prosecutors and others over the years whom he has seen jaywalking around the courthouses. But no, he says he doesn’t sit and watch out of his office window for transgressors. “I just feel real strongly that people who enforce the law ought to follow it,” Holmes says. Holmes grew up as the son of a Houston oil well driller. Holmes Drilling succeeded to the point where his parents moved into the exclusive River Oaks area while he was in college at the University of Texas. While in school, Holmes was on the football team and named All Southwest Conference in his freshman year. A head injury during his sophomore year pushed him away from the football field for good. Holmes still refers to his father as “Daddy,” but didn’t always see eye to eye with him. After a spat with his dad — Holmes didn’t appreciate career pressure coming from his father and wasn’t entirely sure that he wanted to be a lawyer — Holmes left the University of Texas School of Law and returned to his previous love: flying. He had learned to fly a plane when he was 14. After leaving law school, he flew for a small charter airplane outfit for several years. His father eventually nudged him back into law school, and he graduated from the University of Houston in 1969. Holmes had visions of working for the FBI, but changed his mind after an internship in the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Prosecuting appealed to him, but he says federal prosecutors appeared to have little leeway in trying their cases. “I perceived that the people weren’t really free to do, to be lawyers,” he says. “The real decisions were being made by other folks. I really found that distasteful.” Holmes applied for work with Harris County District Attorney Carol Vance, who describes the job interview as “the most unusual I ever had out of maybe hundreds of interviews.” Vance typically asked applicants what were their goals in life. ” ‘Someday I want to be district attorney just like you,’ ” Vance says, quoting Holmes’ reply. “ He said it very seriously, and I took it very seriously.” Vance says he saw surprising maturity in Holmes and was impressed with the flying experience and Holmes’ general demeanor. Vance hired Holmes, and Vance says he continued to be impressed. Holmes moved quickly through the ranks and became a chief district court prosecutor in about four years, an advancement that Vance says normally took five to eight years, at best — if at all. It was while working under Vance that Holmes says he had some of the most enjoyable times of his life. He also had some of his biggest moments. Working in a special anti-crime unit, Holmes helped convict Don Yarbrough, a Texas Supreme Court justice, for perjury in a case in which an informant alleged that Yarbrough had tried to have a witness in a civil trial killed — an allegation Yarbrough denied. The perjury came when Yarbrough told a Travis County grand jury that he had never met the informant. It was a trap laid by Holmes, since they already had evidence putting the two together. “I knew he was going to commit perjury before he even got there,” Holmes says. Holmes also got evidence on tape — with an informant wearing a wire — to convict Harris County State District Judge Garth Bates of bribery and oust him from office. MOUSTACHE PROBLEM In 1978, Holmes became Vance’s first assistant and was the boss’ right-hand man. Vance recalls driving one day with Holmes in a county vehicle, equipped with a police radio, in downtown Houston. Back then, Houston had a high homicide rate and was sometimes referred to as a “murder capital.” A deputy came on the radio and wanted to know what to do after finding a body, an apparent shooting victim, in the San Jacinto River, halfway between the Harris and Montgomery County sides. Vance says Holmes grabbed the microphone. ” ‘You push that body over on the Montgomery side,’ ” a laughing Vance quotes Holmes as saying. In the spring of 1979, Vance told Holmes that he was going to retire. Holmes had his chance to live up to what he had said in the first job interview and seized it, adding that he also was afraid of what might happen to him if someone else became DA. Vance was leaving with some of his term remaining, so the governor would appoint someone to serve out the term until the next election. Holmes applied for the post and landed on the short list. There was one problem: his moustache. The trademark handlebars were in full flower, an upper-lip growth that Holmes had begun in the early ’70s on a lark, while on a trip out of town. Why a simple moustache had grown into a rare, lengthy handlebar configuration is a question even Holmes says he cannot answer. “I’ve always been a different drum marcher,” Holmes says. Holmes says that Gov. Bill Clements didn’t like the facial hair and wanted him to shave it off. Holmes refused but got picked anyway. He successfully ran for election to the post in 1980, won by a wide margin and easily won re-election every time after that. Defining Holmes’ popularity — despite being cut from something other than the usual clean-shaven, survey-driven political cloth — is no easy task. Perhaps, in part, the moustache did play a role in that Holmes stood out from the majority of political players. His candor often made critics bristle when a controversial case came through the DA’s office, but that same candor scored him political points. In the case of Pedro Oregon Navarro, shot 12 times in his home, allegedly amid a hail of gunfire by Houston police officers in an unauthorized raid, Holmes faced some of his strongest criticism. Holmes was accused of not strongly pushing for criminal charges against the police, amid protests in Houston’s Hispanic community and complaints from Rodulfo Figueroa, Mexico’s consul general in Houston. The officers were fired, and a civil case against them continues in U.S. District Court in Houston. But a Harris County grand jury no-billed the officers on murder and manslaughter charges after Holmes’ prosecutors presented the case “straight up,” without recommending indictments. Holmes says police had a right to fire since they believed the 22-year-old had a gun, which he did, although he did not shoot back. As reported in the Houston Chronicle, one of the officers allegedly reloaded his gun during the incident. “An analogy that I use is that if it is OK to kill a guy dead, it is OK to kill him dead, dead, dead,” Holmes was quoted as saying in a Nov. 5, 1998, Chronicle article. “He was candid to a fault, and what you saw is what you got,” says defense lawyer Dan Cogdell of Houston’s Cogdell & Lewis, who adds that Holmes “didn’t give a damn over what the public thought or the defense bar or the silk-stocking lawyers.” Cogdell says Holmes’ decisions were never based on political ramifications, and he was accessible. “If you wanted to find Johnny, you get to the DA’s office at seven in the morning and knock on the door and you’d probably get Johnny.” And when Cogdell and fellow defense lawyer Kent Schaffer, of Houston’s Bires and Schaffer, were in a fix, Holmes even helped his legal opponents when he easily could have laughed them out of his office. The two were approached by an informant for the government in a federal drug case they were handling. Cogdell says the informant solicited a bribe in order to leave town and not testify. Fearing they were being set up in some kind of federal sting operation and feeling uncomfortable with turning to the feds for help, they turned instead to Holmes. He gave them flash money, wired them and they caught the informant on tape, leading to charges against the informant while getting Cogdell and Schaffer off the hook. “There are probably not five DAs in the country who would have done what he did,” Cogdell says. THE DEATH PENALTY Of course, Holmes is far from universally loved. As the DA in a county that leads the state in death penalty sentences — in a state that leads the nation — Holmes is the poster child of capital punishment. “Hey, let me run look at my gun, see how many notches are in it,” Holmes said sarcastically in a spring 2000 interview with Texas Lawyer when asked about death penalty statistics. Holmes says he is simply doing his job and upholding the law. But he refuses to appear on network television programs to talk about the death penalty, saying that he doesn’t want “to be perceived as marketing that.” “We became addicts to the death penalty in Harris County [under Holmes],” Cogdell says. Holmes also shoots down proposals that would give juries greater leeway in sentencing, by offering that they can give a defendant life without parole instead of death. To those who support the idea of life without parole, such as Danny Easterling, immediate past president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association, the idea makes sense. “The Death Penalty in Texas,” a report issued this year by the Texas Civil Rights Project, notes that 27 of the 38 states that are willing to impose a death penalty offer life without parole as an alternative. It would give juries more choice and give defense lawyers another legal weapon when their clients face possible death. “The Harris County District Attorney’s Office seeks death in too many cases,” Easterling says. “I just think the statistics bear that out.” Holmes says he likes the death penalty, thinks those who receive it deserve to die, and doesn’t care to bear the expense of elderly prisoners in a “geriatrics unit.” “I don’t want to support these clowns that I’ve seen over the years,” Holmes says. “My compassion’s not so great.” Easterling also contends that prosecutors in Harris County work under rules that are too rigid. For example, prosecutors are not allowed to recommend probation to a judge in cases involving prostitution. And they cannot recommend a lesser charge in DWI cases. Holmes says he doesn’t want line prosecutors to set their own rules. He says fairness dictates a level of consistency. But he allows that any prosecutor can ask for approval from supervisors to deviate from his rules. “They can go all the way up the line to me,” Holmes says. And he says there is a quote in the written guidelines given to all prosecutors: “No rule is intended to cause a damn-fool result.” While Holmes says he doesn’t know what he will do with his time, it is likely he won’t change his ways. Known for arriving early at the office — he would rise at 3:45 a.m. and typically get there at 5:30 a.m. — he won’t start sleeping in. Holmes says he is a morning person and gets up early even on weekends. He will still be stubborn. Longtime assistant Jo Tinkle tells how Holmes, when he was fairly new to the job, wore shoes with large silver-dollar size holes in the soles. He wouldn’t repair or replace them. Holmes paid for that habit when he stepped on a roofing nail on the street. His shoe filled with blood, and he needed medical attention and a tetanus shot. He will still be fond of gadgets and computers and such. Kenny Rogers, chief investigator in the DA’s office, says Holmes is the type of person who reads an entire manual when he gets a new product, saves all the manuals, and is apt to call the manufacturer or store if he finds a mistake in the directions. And if he spots you jaywalking or otherwise breaking the law, even a minor infraction, he is apt to tell you about it. That’s Johnny Holmes.

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