The November morning began routinely enough. Brad Laffoon drove from his Alvarado home to Arlington, where he was renovating a condominium he had purchased to flip. The tall, rugged construction worker with the friendly disposition had no idea he would be traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind. Next stop …
“I felt like I was in The Twilight Zone,” he said on a recent afternoon, still astonished almost two months later.
On that November 30 day, Laffoon was doing drywall work at the North Arlington condo when his cell phone rang. A deputy constable was on his way to serve him a court order. A confused Laffoon walked outside to the parking lot to wait for the officer’s arrival. The deputy handed him a court order saying Laffoon was required to hand over the keys to his condo to a woman claiming to have been unfairly evicted from the unit. The woman had arrived in her own car, Laffoon said.
Laffoon told the deputy that he knew the woman but not well. He recognized her as the mother of one of his North Arlington neighbors. Laffoon wasn’t renting his condo to her or anyone else, he said, inviting the deputy to walk a short distance inside to observe the construction underway.
“I said, ‘There has been some kind of mistake made –– please come inside,’ ” Laffoon recalled. “He said, ‘Y’all guys need to work it out yourselves.’ ”
The deputy appeared to be under the false impression that Laffoon and the woman were a couple. Indeed, Laffoon said the woman had knocked on the condo door about three weeks earlier and asked him to give her an engagement ring and a pickup truck. Her command puzzled him since they had never been on a date, he said. Laffoon considered her to be troubled.
Explaining all of this to the deputy turned out to be impossible. Hand over the door keys or risk legal problems for defying a court order, Laffoon said he was told.
Constable David Woodruff, who oversees Precinct 2 from his Arlington subcourthouse, told me last week that he feels empathy for Laffoon after hearing his story but said the deputy did what he was supposed to do –– serve a court order as directed by the judge.
After the deputy constable left the parking lot that day, Laffoon locked up the apartment and headed to the subcourthouse on East Abram Street to visit the justice of the peace.
“I said, ‘You have granted access to this woman, and I don’t understand,’ ” he remembered telling a court clerk. “What do I do?”
The clerk gave him a form to fill out to request a hearing, which was set for four days later.
I called the court last week. Court manager Nancy Griggs said Judge Mary Curnutt would not discuss the situation.
“She is not going to be able to talk to you about a case that might end up having jurisdiction or preliminary power or something else might come back on that case or something in this court,” Griggs said.
Laffoon returned to his apartment and continued working on the rehab for the rest of the day before driving back home to Alvarado. When he returned on November 31 to start working again, he noticed the front door was open wide. Someone had entered the apartment and stolen many of his tools, almost $4,000 worth of electric saws, drills, and routers, he said. Also missing was a bottle of heart medication. Paying out-of-pocket to replace the stolen pills cost him another $450.
Had the woman let herself into the apartment the previous night and ripped him off? Laffoon thought so. He changed the lock on the front door to keep her from returning to steal anything else or vandalize the place. Then he headed back to the justice of the peace court to complain.
A clerk told him he would have to wait until his hearing date, still days away, to talk to the judge. Laffoon received a stern warning after mentioning he had changed the door lock, he said.
“They said, ‘Oh, no. You are going to be in serious trouble because you are not following the court order. If she comes by now, and her key doesn’t fit, you are in contempt of court,’ ” he said.
A frustrated Laffoon drove to the nearby police station to report the theft. His explanation didn’t go over well with the desk sergeant, he said.
“He said a judge would never sign a paper if the woman didn’t have a right to be in there,” Laffoon said.
Laffoon went back and forth between the court and the police station several times but was told he would have to wait to tell the judge at the hearing.
Several days later, Laffoon drove to court to speak to Curnutt, an Arlington native who took the bench in 2013 to fill in for a retiring judge and then was elected to a four-year term that ends this year. Curnutt’s Tarrant County website describes her Precinct 2 court as one of the busiest, handling about 15,000 cases a year.
Laffoon said he showed the judge several photos depicting the apartment’s uninhabitable condition.
The woman who was supposedly leasing the apartment and had allegedly stolen the tools didn’t show up for the hearing.
Curnutt issued a notice for the woman to vacate the premises. The woman, though, was long gone along with his tools, Laffoon said. And police weren’t interested in filing a theft charge on her, he said, because of the court order, which indicated that the woman had a lawful right for re-entry after being locked out by her landlord.
The judge, he said, showed no concern, recommending only that Laffoon file a small claims complaint and seek a judgment against the woman. Laffoon told the judge that police were not willing to file a report because they thought it was a lover’s spat or a landlord-tenant dispute rather than a theft.
The judge looked at Laffoon “like somehow I brought it on myself, and I deserved it,” he said. “There was no remorse.”
What evidence had the suspected thief presented in court to convince Curnutt to issue an order forcing Laffoon to hand over the keys to his apartment –– without speaking to him first?
“We are not a court of record,” court manager Griggs said. “I couldn’t tell you what happened in the court room. I couldn’t tell you what she presented. But evidently she presented something. The judge wouldn’t just go around issuing something without, you know …”
“That’s even more reason why I need to speak to the judge,” I countered.
“Well, I’m sorry, sir, but like I said, she cannot speak to someone about a case,” Griggs said. “If anything else comes up regarding this case, she would be the one hearing it. That’s why she can’t discuss the case.”
OK, I said, but there will be a story in the paper saying that the judge “issued a court order to a woman this guy barely knew” and that the judge is “not helping him.”
“I don’t know what you mean that the judge did not help him,” Griggs said. “She ruled in his favor. You might look at the laws before you start saying she did something that was not right. OK?”
A couple of days later, the suspected thief’s son contacted Laffoon to say that his tools were being listed for sale online by one of the woman’s relatives. Laffoon has screen shots of the sites as evidence. But police weren’t interested in his story anymore, he said.
I asked Arlington police Lt. Chris Cook why officers wouldn’t pursue a theft charge. Cook said Laffoon had allowed the woman to stay in the apartment and establish residency and that removing her had required a civil process. I told him that Laffoon disputes that account. Cook said a police officer had asked Laffoon for documentation to prove the tools had belonged to him.
“It is the officer’s belief that the original complainant never provided this to us so that we could pursue other actions against the woman,” Cook said. “If [Laffoon] would like to speak to an investigative supervisor and has more information that we were not originally privy to, the department would be more than happy to sit down with him and carefully go over the allegations to see if there are any other criminal remedies available to him.”
Laffoon said he wrote down the list of tools that were missing, but that he had owned some of them for years and did not have the purchase receipts. He considered filing a small claims complaint as the judge suggested. But one of the first questions on the form asked for the suspected thief’s address.
“I said, ‘Y’all keep saying she lives in my apartment,’ ” he said.
He doesn’t know where the woman is now and hasn’t seen her since his tools went missing, he said.
He tossed the form.
“That court won’t be able to enforce any judgment,” he said. “They can’t make her pay. They have no power to enforce their judgment.”
Mostly, Laffoon wants the judge to know that her order forcing him to hand over keys to a near-stranger caused him much grief and stress, which was hard on his already embattled heart that requires high-dollar medicine to keep from killing him.