Confidential records detail decision not to warn judges of threat

Investigators attempting to trace a possible threat against a judge thought, based on a tip, that the potential target was a male judge involved in a recent court hearing outside of Travis County, according to a confidential report obtained by the American-Statesman and KVUE-TV.

The caller identified Chimene Onyeri as the person threatening to hurt a judge, but investigators from the Travis County District Attorney’s Office learned that his case was in state District Judge Julie Kocurek’s court — not that of a male judge.

The informant also reported that Onyeri’s threat was the result of a court hearing two or three weeks prior, and the report noted that Onyeri had not appeared in Travis County in two years.

Because of that and other evidence, “I do not believe that there is a credible threat to any Travis County district judge,” Sgt. William Beechinor, an investigator with the District Attorney’s office, concluded in his two-page report.

Beechinor, who worked on the case with Sgt. Manuel Fuentes, recommended that the information be sent to the Calcasieu Parish Sheriff’s Office in Lake Charles, La., where a search of a national criminal database showed Onyeri had more recent cases, including a June hearing, “to determine if the information matches the events described by the caller.”

Exactly three weeks after Beechinor completed his two-page report, state District Judge Julie Kocurek was shot and severely injured in the driveway of her Tarrytown home. Law enforcement sources have told the Statesman that the suspect placed an obstruction in front of a gate, causing the driver of her car to stop, at which time the gunman fired several rounds.

Police have identified Onyeri as a person of interest, but have not charged him with the crime. He remains in jail in Houston on an unrelated murder charge.

The report, obtained Thursday, shows the limited and confusing information with which investigators were working in trying to trace the threat. Investigators tried to corroborate much of the tipster’s information, but appeared stymied.

According to the document, the tipster, who learned of the threat from another person, said that “Onyeri was upset with the judge because they had exchanged words in the courtroom over a sentence … because of this, Onyeri had stated he was going to kill the judge.”

The report referred to a new effort by Travis County prosecutors to revoke Onyeri’s probation, but noted that Onyeri has not appeared in person in any Travis County court since November 2013.

“If the caller’s third-hand information is to be believed, then the threat made to a judge in a courtroom within the past two to three weeks did not occur in Travis County,” it stated.

It said Onyeri’s case had recently been placed on Kocurek’s docket, and that prosecutors were recommending a nine to 12 month prison sentence because he violated terms of his probation.

Onyeri’s case in Kocurek’s court stemmed from a 2012 Rollingwood case involving stolen credit cards. Onyeri, who was born in the U.S., was identified as a member of a Nigerian crime ring in that case.

Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg has said her office, which received the threat, passed the information to courthouse security staff, which work for the sheriff’s office, per the agency’s protocol.

Because the threat was deemed not credible and did not name a local judge, sheriff’s investigators say they did not alert Travis County judges, in part to avoid needless alarm. But judges insist they would have wanted to know — no matter what.

A Kocurek family spokesman declined Thursday to comment on the handling of the threat. Kocurek remains in the hospital, but her condition is being kept closely guarded.

After the attack, Onyeri’s girlfriend called the district attorney’s office several times, telling them she had heard secondhand that Onyeri had spoken with a man named Calvin Green Jr. about the attack and his plans to get rid of the evidence, a search warrant for Onyeri’s property said.

Whether sheriff’s officials should have alerted local judges about the threat remained a source of friction Thursday within the county’s criminal justice community.

Experts say the issue highlights the delicate balance law enforcement officials must make in determining how to respond to threats — and specifically whether to alert potential targets. Several agree the judges probably should have been told.

“While there should be enumerated protocols, much of this ends up being an art rather than science,” said Brian Levin, professor of criminal justice at California State University in San Bernadino and former New York City police officer. “But I always tell people, ‘Err on the side of safety.’”

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