Montgomery County Auto Theft Task Force arrests first, investigates later

Organized crime charges against three men who were arrested in July at a Grimes County car auction appear to be unraveling. According to an audio recording that I obtained last week, witness Richard Masto said he was pressured by a lieutenant in the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office to sign a handwritten statement accusing one of the men of selling cars without authorization.

Lt. Joseph Sclider, who serves as the commander of the Montgomery County Auto Theft Task Force, organized the June 24, 2015 raid in tiny Anderson, Texas, then arrested my client, Les Shipman, his associate, Jerry Williams, and the auctioneer, Israel Curtis. The task force also seized 54 cars, all with television news cameras rolling. From the news coverage, you would have thought the three men were running a stolen car ring.

In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Mr. Shipman owns the car repair business where the raid was conducted, and Lt. Sclider seems to have a grudge. Between 2013 and the time of the raid, Lt. Sclider and/or his task force officers inspected Mr. Shipman’s premises four times without finding any violations. Mr. Shipman was planning to auction off all of the cars on his property on June 27, 2015 so he could ultimately sell the business and move out of state.

Around 11 minutes into the interview of Mr. Masto, you can hear the following exchange between Mr. Masto and a private investigator hired by Mr. Shipman’s criminal defense attorney, John Quinn of Bryan:

Investigator: Apparently you talked to [Lt. Sclider] and he wrote this statement out for you. Have you seen that?

Masto: Yeah, I signed it.

Investigator: My understanding is, that he kind of explained to you that if you didn’t write this statement – tell me if I’m full of sh@# – but if you didn’t write this statement he was taking your ass to jail.

Masto: Pretty much.

In fairness, Mr. Masto seems to equivocate later in the interview, and unfortunately he died soon afterward. Even so, the state’s case against Mr. Shipman, et al. is full of holes.

According to The Bryan-College Station Eagle, task force members attended the auction preview and determined that most of the cars did not belong to Mr. Shipman. In fact, most of the cars belonged to Mr. Masto, and that’s where things get interesting. You might think that investigators would contact the record owner before concluding that the cars were being sold without permission and before arresting someone on an organized crime charge. Instead, Lt. Sclider waited until almost two weeks after the arrests. And the statement itself acknowledges that it is written in Lt. Sclider’s handwriting, not Mr. Masto’s.

In a September 17, 2015 letter to the Grimes County Grand Jury, I explained that the organized crime charges against Mr. Shipman, Mr. Williams, and Mr. Israel are preposterous, as is the misdemeanor charge of “title jumping.”* I can only conclude that Lt. Sclider jumped the gun, launching his televised raid before finishing his investigation. Then, when he realized his case was full of holes, it looks like he sought an incriminating statement from Mr. Masto rather than admit his mistake.

If that’s indeed what happened, Lt. Sclider should be stripped of his badge and arrested. I’ve demanded the return of the seized cars, and I’ve asked the FBI and the Texas Rangers to investigate Lt. Sclider. Incidentally, if you have a picture of Lt. Sclider, please send it my way. Since he spread my client’s mugshot all over the Internet, I figure someone should return the favor.

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* I need to make a confession of my own: I did not listen to the complete audio recording before sending my letters to the grand jury, Rangers, and FBI, thus I did not disclose the fact that Mr. Masto seems to equivocate later in the interview. That was a sloppy mistake, and I apologize.