Sheriff’s sergeant memo: Judge’s release of man led to deadly incident

An Austin municipal judge’s decision to allow the release of a man charged with stalking his ex-girlfriend is being scrutinized by local law enforcement after the man took his own life in the woman’s home during an attempt to hunt her down and kill her.

Travis County sheriff’s Sgt. Scott Crowe notified the county’s presiding municipal judge Nov. 8 that Richard Thornton’s release from the Travis County Jail in October, despite warnings from a pretrial screening, aided his attempt to kill his ex-girlfriend.

Thornton, 39, was found dead in his ex-girlfriend’s northern Travis County home Oct. 21. He broke into the home by shooting out a glass sliding door with a shotgun, according to a copy of the memo obtained by the American-Statesman.

A week earlier, Municipal Judge Celeste Villarreal signed the personal recognizance bond that set Thornton free.

Villarreal did not consult the Travis County district attorney’s office before releasing Thornton. And because screeners at pretrial services believed no judge would allow Thornton to be released given previous incidents, his stalking victim wasn’t given the chance to protest Thornton’s release.

Villarreal told the American-Statesman she did not specifically remember signing Thornton’s release papers but said she would have made the decision based on the information available to her. Not all of the details after Thornton’s arrest were presented to her, she said.

“I definitely have a reputation for being very firm and a stickler on family violence and strangulation cases,” Villarreal said. “I don’t take these cases lightly.”

Villarreal is a part-time municipal judge who typically works overnight. She said she did not contact the Travis County district attorney’s office because no one would have been there during her shift.

Municipal judges are hired by the city of Austin. However, they can conduct hearings for anyone in Travis County charged with a crime under certain circumstances.

Judge Sherry Statman, the presiding municipal judge in Travis County, said she asked Villarreal to review what led her to allow Thornton’s release.

“Without improperly commenting on a specific case — in general, if reasonable procedures are not followed, there should be meaningful accountability,” Statman said in an emailed statement.

In addition to the memo, the American-Statesman reviewed public records to piece together details of the case.

Thornton had been arrested in 2014 and convicted of harassment in connection with the same female victim. The Statesman is not naming her due to the nature of the crime. In September of this year, she reported to authorities that Thornton had left a plastic bin full of love letters and gifts in the driveway of her home.

The victim later discovered that a GPS tracking device had been planted on her vehicle after Thornton showed up at a Bastrop County bar where she was present, according to the arrest affidavit. She had never been to the bar with Thornton, and it was not a common place for her to go, the document said. She got someone to check her car for spying devices, and the tracker was found, it said.

The sheriff’s office filed a felony stalking charge against Thornton on Sept. 15. The warrant included a request that bail be set at $75,000.

When Thornton learned that stalking charges would be filed against him, he fled the state. He was arrested Sept. 22 in Alabama but was released Oct. 7 before extradition paperwork could be completed. On Oct. 8, he drove straight from the Alabama jail to the victim’s house, where he vandalized vehicles, the memo said. Police arrested him again Oct. 9 near his ex-girlfriend’s home.

After his arrest, Travis County Pretrial Services reviewed Thornton’s case and recommended he not be granted a personal recognizance bond. Despite that, Villarreal approved his release without bail.

After his Oct. 15 release, Thornton took three days to comply with an order to be fitted with an ankle monitor. The monitor then showed that Thornton, a Hutto resident, repeatedly came very close to violating a restraining order that prohibited him from coming within 200 yards of the victim.

Thornton removed the device Oct. 21, triggering a rapid police response and activating the victim’s safety plan. A neighbor also called 911 after seeing Thornton shoot out a sliding glass door at the rear of the home.

Within seconds of police arriving, they heard a gunshot. They entered the home and found Thornton dead. In the memo, Crowe said that Thornton’s case is an example of why stalking suspects should be subject to a higher standard of release.

“I believe that based on the events in this case, Mr. Thornton had no intention of living up to any agreements made to be released on a PR bond,” Crowe wrote. “He had a single minded goal, and his ease of release aided him at his attempt to kill the victim.”

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