On June 26, 2014, grand jurors in Cleburne handed down 91 indictments. One of them was for Ryan Andrew Peucker, indicted for possession of a controlled substance. Peucker’s mention was just a line on a long list that included several men dabbling in illegal horse racing and gambling on a Cleburne farm, several thefts, a couple of forgeries, and several DWIs.
A year later, Peucker, 36, was sentenced to 75 years in the state penitentiary for the 4.5 grams of methamphetamine — a two-week supply — with which he’d been caught. He’s what is called a “habitual offender.” His new home is the H.H. Coffield Unit in Tennessee Colony, one of the toughest prisons in Texas.
Johnson County is known for being exceedingly tough on crime when it comes to the punishment phase. Criminal activity that might not even result in an arrest in Tarrant County is frequently handled in the most severe fashion possible in Johnson. Peucker, whom Fort Worth Weekly has written about before (“Prison Bound,” Sept. 20, 2006), has been in trouble with the law for nearly half his life, but his crimes hardly seem to add up to a 75-year stint. His biggest problem seems to be getting out of his own way.
Peucker, who grew up in Joshua and Cleburne, first ran into legal trouble in 1997, when he pawned some things a friend had stolen from his grandfather. Several teens had been involved, but since Peucker was the only one who was 18 — and therefore the only one who could legally pawn the stolen goods — he took the fall on a felony count of burglary of a habitat. He was given a 10-year sentence, which would be conditionally suspended on the successful completion of a 90-day boot camp, becoming instead a sentence of 10 years probation.
A bad back prevented him from finishing the boot camp, and he was given a 120-day work release program in lieu of that. A failed urine test during that program got him six months in the county jail waiting to be seen by a judge and then nine more months at a drug rehab program. He finished the program successfully, went back on work release, but got kicked out after he was accused of selling a small quantity of LSD to other prisoners. He did four months in the county jail — waiting to be seen by a judge — and then he was sent back to drug rehab, this time at the Jester 1 Unit in Fort Bend. Serious physical and sexual abuse at the prison was so rampant that Johnson County finally removed all of their inmates, including Peucker, from the program (“Hard Time,” May 17, 2006).
Back in work release, he was missing from his job one day when his probation officer called — his boss said he was running errands — but the probation officer nonetheless moved to have Peucker’s probation revoked. Peucker ran. After he was caught, he was given six months, and the felony became part of his permanent record. Not long after he was released, he failed another piss test, sat in the county jail for eight months, and then was sentenced to five years in the state prison. He wound up serving 14 months there before being released. He got out and stayed clean and held a job for two years before failing another piss test for pot.
His arrest didn’t go well. The officers who brought him in on the failed urine test claimed that as they were entering the police station Peucker tried to head-butt one of them. While Peucker, who had no record of violence, claimed he never attempted to head-butt anyone –– and wound up in the hospital with severe head trauma and deep bruising on his neck from the police take down after the alleged head-butt — he was charged with felony retaliation. The District Attorney, Dale Hanna, offered him two years. According to a defense attorney at the time, it was an “or else” offer. Peucker took the felony and did just about two full years for it.
In all, what started out as 10 years probation wound up being seven years in the county jail, or state prisons, most of it for failing piss tests.
When he came out in 2007, he walked a straight line for a long time. He married, stayed away from drugs, got a job in a glass factory, and was clean until 2013, when he began doing meth.
His mother, Robin Hunter, said that Peucker lived with her for part of that time. “He was working hard at his job,” she said, “and he was clean. But he’d run into friends of his from jail or kids he grew up with who were living on the street, and he’d bring them home to stay with us. And some of them were doing meth and other drugs, and Ryan just fell into it. It wasn’t the first time. He just couldn’t help himself.”
Hunter wound up losing her home to foreclosure and moved in with a friend. Ryan and his wife wound up living in a tent in a park in Cleburne for nearly nine months. And then things went sour fast.
Ryan, reports indicate, was bringing scrap metal he had collected to sell to a scrap yard near Hill Community College in downtown Cleburne in late April 2014. He ran into a friend who was being watched by police because he was suspected of having done $40,000 worth of damage to the air conditioning system of the college –– stealing copper to sell for drugs.
“The police were looking at the friend,” Hunter said, “and Ryan ran into him. They talked for a few minutes. Then Ryan left. Ryan told me he had to pee, so he went into some nearby bushes, and when he came out, there were the police.”
The officers searched Peucker’s backpack and found the 4.5 grams of methamphetamine. He was arrested, and his bond was set at $50,000, which he didn’t have and couldn’t raise, so he sat in the county jail from April 22, 2014, until his trial last June. During that time, DA Hanna offered him a plea bargain of 25 years, which Peucker turned down. Peucker’s mother said that at one point the DA offered 20 years, but Peucker still refused, sure that he’d be cleared at a trial or that he’d get less than what was being offered.
“If this was Peucker’s first case for that amount of meth,” his lawyer, Bill Mason, told the Weekly, “he would have faced a third degree felony and a sentence of two-to-10 years max. But under Texas law, if a person has two separate trips to prison, a new felony can be charged at a minimum of 25 years.”
Mason told Peucker to take the plea. In a letter to Peucker, he wrote that the indictment “accuses you of possession of a controlled substance that has been enhanced by the allegation of two prior felony convictions. This affects the habitual offender enhancement. The penalty range for a habitual offender enhancement is any sentence from a minimum of 25 years to a maximum of 99 years or life in prison.”
Hunter “begged him not to go to trial” after she read that, she said.
“He didn’t understand it. He didn’t get it, even though it was right in front of him.”
The trial lasted three days. During the punishment phase, the jury recommended 75 years.
“It blew me away when he got 75 years,” said Mason, who did not want to discuss the particulars of the case because it is being appealed.
Peucker’s new home houses roughly 4,000 men, more than half of them serving 20 years or more. Half of the inmates are doing time for murder, aggravated assault, assault with a deadly weapon, and child molestation or bodily harm. No one in the prison is doing anywhere near 75 years for the types of crimes Peucker committed: selling a few stolen items to a pawnshop, attempted head-butting of an officer, and possession of 4.5 grams of meth.
Douglas Smith, a policy analyst with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, a nonprofit, non-partisan organization working to find solutions to both youth and adult justice issues, said that while Coffield “is not known as an ideal unit among those in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, there are opportunities to work, take classes, and obtain vocational skills.”
Because of the mix of prisoners, however, Smith said that “it’s completely normal for someone convicted of a drug dealing offense to be housed with someone convicted of murder.
If Peucker does not win an appeal to get a new trial or to have his sentence reduced, he will not be eligible for parole for nearly 25 years. Many of the murderers and child molesters sharing space with him in Coffield will be released long before that.