Hill County town fears police influence is out of control




Posted on February 17, 2012 at 11:48 PM

Updated Saturday, Feb 18 at 12:17 PM

Covington, Texas

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COVINGTON - Unless you turn at the blinking light at State Highway 171 and FM 67, you might not notice Covington, Texas, which is the way most in this tiny town want it.

Now, out of fear and frustration, they want the public to know.

"They are scared to death now," said Covington City Council member Marty Smith. "They lock their doors, they lock the car doors because they are scared of the police."

Smith said she also fears the man running the Hill County town, Police Chief Wade Laurence.

"Wade Lawrence asked me what it was going to take to shut me up, and them to arrest me and handcuff me at a council meeting," Smith said. "I'm 69 years old and I don't need the hassle of it."

Former Covington police officer Kayla Richardson said the trouble began one year ago when she discovered drugs missing from the police evidence locker. She said the only cop who didn't take a lie detector test was Laurence.

She said when nothing was done, she filed a complaint with outside authorities.

"I took this to the Texas Rangers and I also took this to Johnson County and gave it to them and told them what I thought was going on, and told them that people are starting to get threatened," Richardson said.

When no investigative body took up the her complaint, Richardson says that's when Laurence's bullying began.

"Once he found out that I was the one who told on him, he wanted me gone," she said.

One month later, Richardson was fired. The police chief accused her of not showing up to work when she was supposed to.

At a city council meeting last November, Richardson says the chief ordered the arrests of her boyfriend and a former mayor. Richardson’s boyfriend was charged with assault. The ex-mayor was charged with credit card abuse. Both claim it was out of retaliation.

The day after the arrests, former Covington Fire Chief George Burnett gathered more than 60 signatures, nearly 25 percent of Covington residents, petitioning to have the police department disbanded.

That's when Burnett says he was threatened by the chief.

"The police chief and three other of his other police came down and were raising cane about me getting this petition signed," Burnett said. "They said I was starting a lot of trouble in town."

But the collected signatures have collected dust. The have never been presented to city council, because no meeting has taken place since November.

When town folks showed up for January's meeting, Mayor Pro-Tem Alan Snider abruptly canceled the meeting, saying he couldn’t get a majority of council members to attend. Yet there stood council members Marty Smith and Rose Diaz, ready to attend.

"I find it very suspicious," said Council Member Rose Diaz.

By nightfall, several residents had gathered out front of city hall and the conversations all turned toward the police chief and his department. Among them was former council member Emma Marbut.

"I was threatened to go to jail by one of the officers when I was on the Council," Marbut said. "I immediately resigned, because there's one thing I don't need in my life, and that's jail."

"The police have so much power and authority here, they've turned this into a little police state," said Covington resident John Whittington. "It's almost unbelievable."

When we tried to get a response from Chief Laurence and Mayor Pro tem Alan Snider, we were told not on camera. While neither wanted to discuss any of the complaints against them on camera, they both summarized their complaints by suggesting they are holding the trouble makers in town accountable.

Covington resident Delores Wright agrees, saying she feels safer than ever now that Chief Laurence is running the department.

"He's just a down-to-earth, good, nice person," Wright said. "I hope he is police chief here forever."

And while Chief Laurence oversees a four-man police department in a town of 283 people, the city faces steep fines from the state for a dilapidated and leaking water system fluoride mixing tank. The city clerk, who is also Laurence's girlfriend, never responded to our request for a copy of the city budget.

Since News 8 first started asking questions about missing drugs, the Texas Rangers have opened a criminal investigation.

A council meeting has now been scheduled for next week.

But some say as long as the chief is in charge, they still live in fear and in hopes that the public will slow down and take notice.

E-mail bshipp@wfaa.com