By his admittedly sketchy recollection, Dirk Richmond spent an unremarkable 18 hours of his life in Travis County. It was January, or possibly February, of 1987. Ronald Reagan was president; the Dow Jones industrial average had just inched above 2,500.
“Austin is like Paris!” declared a promotional video from a time when the city still needed promoting.
“It seemed like an OK place,” Richmond recalled. “But I’m an Aggie. So, you know.”
Richmond was driving from Arlington to Laredo to visit family. He arrived at an Austin Ramada Inn sometime in the evening — “it was dark” — rose early, and resumed his trip the following morning. “I was just there to sleep and then get back on the road,” he recalled. Six months later, he left Texas altogether, relocating to Illinois.
Which is why Richmond was confused a few weeks ago when he received a pale blue card in the mail from the Travis County attorney’s office saying there was a warrant out for his arrest.
“I was going to throw it away,” Richmond, now a 56-year-old accountant, said. “I thought it was a scam. But I decided to call.”
A clerk confirmed that, yes, Richmond had been a wanted man in Texas for three decades. She said county records showed that back in 1987 he had passed a series of hot checks to Austin convenience stores — one written for $1. He’d never responded and a warrant had been issued.
Richmond’s disbelief yielded to anger. “I was not pleasant,” he conceded. “They have ZERO sense. They were still pursuing the matter. Or I suppose I should say they were on a ‘High speed puh-SOOT!’”
Colorado Springs resident Mike Payton was also reluctantly transported back decades when he received a similar mailing at about the same time. “I thought it was a joke at first,” he said. “Since I moved from Texas in 1989, I was very curious what the hell was going on.”
When he called the phone number on the card, he, too, learned the notice was legitimate. “I was informed that indeed a warrant was issued on Aug 13, 1987,” Payton said. “That’s right — 1987. I was informed that I wrote a hot check to H-E-B on Dec. 31, 1985, for $49.57.”
He continued: “After I stopped laughing hysterically, I asked: ‘Why is this the first time I’ve heard about this?’” In the intervening years, through several careers, Payton had passed plenty of background checks.
He’d had his history plumbed when he worked as a licensed securities dealer, he said, and when his wife had to obtain a security clearance for her military work. The Colorado Bureau of Investigation poked around for closet skeletons when he adopted a child, and again when he obtained his state gaming license. His application for a concealed carry handgun permit prompted another official excavation of his conduct.
“And I’m pretty sure my mother-in-law had me checked out before I got married,” Payton said.
None had turned up any indication he was a fugitive. “I’ve been an outlaw for 32 years, and I didn’t even know it,” he said.
Sorry, you’ve got mail
Travis County Attorney David Escamilla, whose office houses the county’s hot check unit, said that his staff had been reviewing its older files in recent months. Thanks to the declining use of paper checks, the unit has found itself with some time to work on unresolved cases.
Travis County opened 1,400 hot check cases last year — a 44 percent plunge from the 2,481 cases it logged in 2014. The amount of money the unit collected dropped from $387,000 to $265,000 over the same period.
That trend holds for Texas generally. According to the Office of Court Administration, courts statewide reported 28 percent fewer theft by check cases in 2016 compared with the previous year. The number of hot-check cases has dropped 61 percent over the past 5 years, according to the agency.
Yet Escamilla also stressed that he hadn’t issued orders to sweep up the small-dollar, decades-old warrants. “No, there’s been no initiative,” he said. In fact, he said, “We generally have a practice of not going after old hot check cases for low amounts of money” — typically less than $250 — after “some length of time.”
A clerk’s error, however, caused a number of warrant notifications still on the books from the 1980s to be mistakenly mailed out across the country. “It’s more a computer glitch,” Escamilla said.
As a result, 189 of the so-called blue cards were mailed out notifying recipients they had a warrant out for their arrests because of hot check charges from a time when Austin’s population was less than half its current count and Stevie Ray Vaughan still played Auditorium Shores.
Although the department had no plans to pursue the decades-old scofflaws, Escamilla said several of the people who’d received the cards actually paid up. “They contacted us and said, ‘I never knew about it!’” he said. After all, “While I regret the unintentional notices, these were real cases.”
A smaller number of the blue card recipients who contacted his office, however, were more displeased, Escamilla said.
Another Smokey & the Bandit reference
That might be due to confusion over how seriously Travis County was taking the warrants issued a generation ago. Despite Escamilla’s assurances that his agency isn’t interested in pursuing the old cases, Payton said that wasn’t the message he got when he called.
“They told me I needed to send a money order immediately — the agency didn’t accept checks — or I could get arrested,” he said.
Richmond said he received similar instructions: “She told me, ‘I hope you don’t get stopped, or you could be arrested.’” (Escamilla explained that was extremely unlikely; after two years, the warrants are removed from all law enforcement systems with the possible exception of local police, and background checks typically don’t include misdemeanors.)
Payton said he has no memory of writing his allegedly bad check. He also noted there was a practical barrier to mounting a vigorous defense. “I couldn’t possibly have documents to refute such allegations,” he said.
Richmond said that when he pointed out the hot checks he was accused of passing were written several months after he had left the state, so must have been stolen, the clerk told him he would have to prove his case with handwriting samples. She sent him a copy of a blank check the agency needed to compare with the writing on the old hot check, with specific instructions: “The first check sample needs to be written out to Texan Market. The amount should be $10.90. The other check needs to be written out to Ballard’s in the amount of $6.10.”
Ballard’s, a Central Austin convenience store that made an appearance in the 1993 filmed-in-Austin movie “Dazed and Confused,” was converted into a gas station 20 years ago, said Dev Knwar, the building’s current owner.
“We’re talking about $50 from 30 years ago and she wants me to fill all this out and take it to an investigator?” Richmond said. “An INVESTIGATOR, for chrissake!! I didn’t know Buford T. Justice was still on the job.”
“I’m not about to pay it,” he added.
Neither is Payton. “But,” he said, “I wouldn’t mind getting extradited back to Texas. I still have family there, and I couldn’t make the trip for $50.”
This story has been updated with the correct spelling of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s name.