Assault With a Deadly Elbow – Rolling Stone
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Assault With a Deadly Elbow

Welcome to Texas – where a flagrant foul in a high school basketball game can get you five years in jail

Basketball

basket

Sadik Demiroz

AROUND THE LEAGUE, Tony Limon was known as an enforcer, the kind of guy who’d grind his elbows in your back or snap them up in your face. He started at forward for the Bobcats, the pride of South San Antonio High School. Year after year, the Bobcats fielded one of the best teams in the city.

Off the court, Limon came off as a shy, soft-spoken kid. But once a game started, another Tony seemed to show up. In early January of last year, he elbowed a McCollum High player in the face, leaving a cut that took several stitches to close. A few games later, Tony ratcheted up the violence. Late in the first half of a January 15th, 1999, game vs. the East Central High Hornets, one of the Bobcats’ chief rivals, Limon threw a vicious, intentional right elbow at Brent Holmes, a talented East Central guard who’d already poured in nineteen points. Holmes lay on the court unconscious for about five minutes. Because the incident happened behind the play, the refs didn’t see it and no foul was called. After the game, Dwayne Holmes, Brent’s father, took him to the hospital, where doctors treated him for a concussion and a broken nose. As Dwayne and Brent left the gym that night, some South San students mocked them by performing an elbow-throwing gesture.

Though he finished that game, Limon was subsequently suspended from Bobcat basketball, missing the final five games of the season. The Bobcats’ season sputtered out; the East Central Hornets went on to the playoffs and were runners-up for the district crown. And that, it seemed, was that: another ugly moment in teenage sports, one that only Bobcat diehards could care about.

***

SOUTH SAN IS AN URBAN, MOSTLY Hispanic school on the southern side of San Antonio. The halls of East Central are more diverse, with a greater percentage of white and black students than South San and students from outlying ranches and farms. Last February 10th, almost a month after the game in which Brent Holmes was injured, he and his father pressed charges against Tony Limon. Holmes claimed that Limon made some outrageous comments to him during the game, things like, “You’re just a nigger” and “You’re gonna be washing my car like a slave.” And at least one spectator had caught the altercation on videotape.

The Bexar County District Attorney’s office entered the case, and in the next few months Tony Limon would learn a few harsh lessons about the idiosyncratic Texas criminal-justice system. On June 16th, 1999, a grand jury indicted Limon on a charge of aggravated assault, a second-degree felony punishable by between two and twenty years in prison. Though a warrant was issued for Limon’s arrest, State of Texas vs. Antonio Limon didn’t become a high-priority case. Limon wasn’t arrested until a week later, when he dropped by a Department of Motor Vehicles office to renew his driver’s license and the outstanding warrant came up on the computer system. Tony had no idea he was even in trouble. “We thought the school had taken care of it,” says his mother, Olivia Ramey, a bus driver for the city of San Antonio. “It happened on school property, it happened on school time. It was their puppy.”

Limon had already graduated from South San by then and was working a couple of part-time jobs in San Antonio: telemarketing at Sears, selling clothes for teenagers at a store called Gadzooks. He planned to attend Palo Alto, a community college a few streets from his house.

That didn’t happen. The judge in the case, Mark Luitjen, shocked Limon, his family and just about everyone else in San Antonio by sentencing him to five years in prison. It was the first time in Texas, and the first time in America, that a high school athlete went to jail for conduct on the field of play, conduct that normally results in nothing more than a foul or a suspension. Out rushed the pundits, to debate whether Tony Limon received the punishment he deserved or whether this was just another wacky example of judicial overreaching in a state that proudly leads the nation in executions.

***

TONY LIMON STEPS INTO AN INTERVIEW cubicle at the Bexar County Jail on a recent Saturday afternoon, wearing standard prison-issue orange and rubbing his eyes. He’s been staying up late, he says, studying the Bible. Tony does push-ups and sit-ups to keep in shape, and two months in prison have shaved about twenty pounds from his six-foot-two-inch frame. He sports a small mustache and goatee; his wire-frame glasses give him a studious look.

In jail, Tony fraternizes with gang members and members of the local Mexican mafia. “I’m in with those guys,” he says wistfully. “An eighteen-year-old kid who’s never been in jail before.”

Limon isn’t much of a talker. In a whisper, he answers most questions with just a few words or maybe a short sentence, except when he mentions finding God. He was born again in jail. “I believe this was no coincidence,” he says of his misfortune. “The Lord has a plan for all of us.”

Tony Limon grew up in San Antonio, wanting to be a veterinarian. He lived with Olivia and his stepfather, Russ Ramey, in a small house in a mostly Hispanic, working-class section of South San Antonio. Limon’s biological father, Antonio Sr., a mechanic better known as Big Limon, left the family when Tony was ten years old.

A fierce, emotional woman, Olivia Ramey doted on her son and overprotected him. No matter where he went, Ramey tried to keep track. “He never once, not even one weekend, spent the night out of my house,” she says. “Never. If it was two or three in the morning and he was on his way, I’d call him on the cell and he’d go, ‘Mom, I’m around the corner.’ And I said, ‘Just checking if you’re OK.’ “

Ramey went to all of Limon’s basketball games. That was no surprise. But she was the only mother who went to all the practices, too. The family’s place on Abacus Street became known as the Kool Aid house. That was the only beverage Ramey let the teenagers drink. Not even a Corona once in a while.

Limon might not have been a drinker or a smoker, but like any other seventeen-year-old, he wanted many of the accoutrements of teenage cool –– the expensive sneakers, the Polo, Tommy Hilfiger and Structure jeans. A few days before Christmas, 1998, Limon and a couple of friends decided they needed some new car stereos. It was a decision that would come back to haunt Tony Limon in a way he could never have imagined.

On December 20th, Limon and two of his pals took off in Ramey’s white ’97 Chevy Cavalier with a metal ladder, a nylon rope and a pickax. Around 1 A.M., they climbed up on the roof of a small strip mall on San Pedro Avenue in South San Antonio, not far from Limon’s house. With the ax, Limon’s friends made holes in the roof over a couple of electronics stores, Car Tunes and Electronic 2000. Limon acted as lookout.

This was no professional job. Almost immediately, the crew tripped a silent alarm. Police arrived in cars and in a helicopter; a police dog also responded to the scene. The teens tried to run, but they were caught and arrested on a charge of burglary. Limon confessed right away. “I was very upset,” Ramey recalls. “But being the way he was with his friends, as far as helping them out, it didn’t really surprise me. I didn’t even get after him. He felt enough guilt that I didn’t have to do that. That was more pain than he could tolerate.”

The burglary case never went to trial. Limon pleaded no contest on January 28th, 1999 (about two weeks after clocking Brent Holmes), and in March, Judge Luitjen sentenced him to four years’ probation.

***

UNDER THE TERMS OF A PLEA agreement, Limon faced a minimum of probation and a maximum of six years for the incident on the basketball court –– fourteen years less than the statutory maximum, but still quite a prison stretch. Even though Limon was already on probation for the Christmastime burglary, he, his mother and his lawyer, James Rodriguez, all figured that as a first-time violent offender, he would again receive probation.

And so, on February 7th, 2000 –– after pleading no contest –– a contrite Tony Limon appeared in Judge Mark Luitjen’s court for sentencing. Almost immediately, Luitjen interrupted the proceeding and asked to view the videotape of the elbowing incident. Rodriguez objected briefly, then relented. Luitjen returned to the bench a few minutes later. The prosecutor on the case, Ernest Gonzales, made no sentencing recommendation to the judge. “That was part of the plea agreement,” says Mary Green, the chief prosecutor in the 144th District Court. Limon stood up and begged for leniency. “I’m still young,” he told the judge. “I feel that I can make something of my life, sir. I come from a tight family, and taking me away from my family would hurt –– hurt me and my family, sir.”

None of this seemed to impress Luitjen: He had Limon’s burglary case squarely in mind: “You came into this court; I granted probation. And within a month of committing those burglaries, you’re out knocking people down, cold-cocking them. . . . And that’s not going to be tolerated.”

Luitjen gave Limon five years, plus a $1,000 fine, and ordered him to reimburse Brent Holmes for $6,263.59 in medical bills. James Rodriguez led Olivia Ramey outside of the courtroom. According to Ramey, Rodriguez began to cry. “It wasn’t supposed to happen,” he said. “It wasn’t supposed to happen.” Leaving the court, Ramey was in such shock, she couldn’t find her car.

Ramey and Limon’s girlfriend, Vanessa Polendo, a pretty senior at South San High, organized a plate sale to raise money to pay new lawyers. Most of the people around the Abacus Street neighborhood like brisket, so they cooked a lot of it and charged five dollars a plate. “I work check to check,” explains Ramey, a bus driver for nine years. “I haven’t hit the Lotto or anything like that.”

Ramey visited Limon three times per week, the maximum number of visits allowed at the Bexar County Jail. “And just for fifteen minutes,” she says. “Through a glass. There’s no contact.”

Limon called home, collect, almost every day: three dollars for a fifteen-minute conversation. The dirty clothes he left in his room the day he was arrested remained there: Mom’s choice, her brand of tribute.

***

THREE DAYS AFTER LIMON WAS incarcerated, his father hired a new lawyer, Jack McGinnis II, a former Bexar County prosecutor. Ramey retained another, Carlos Uresti. Uresti looked at Limon’s paperwork. What a terrible plea bargain, he thought. He and McGinnis put a private eye to work.

On February 17th, McGinnis and Uresti filed a motion for a new trial in the 144th Judicial District in Bexar County Court. Two affidavits from the private investigator were attached to the motion. The idea, clearly, was to imply that Limon was only acting on orders. Everyone who followed high school ball in the city knew about South San’s coach, Gary Lee Durbon, who was sort of a local version of Bobby Knight –– “a real wildcat,” in the words of one opposing coach.

Limon’s investigator interviewed Jerry Soto, South San’s assistant basketball coach. Soto “indicated that he heard Coach Durban [sic] tell Tony Limon that he could be a great asset to the team if he would ‘take out’ the star player on each team that they played.” In the second interview, the investigator talked to Ray Pacheco, a former teammate of Limon’s on the Bobcats. Pacheco “advised that Coach Durban [sic] told the players to be aggressive on rebounds and to ‘cut the legs out from under other players’ if they tried to rebound over their back.”

At a jailhouse news conference in March, Limon elaborated. A timeout had been called after Limon elbowed Brent Holmes, during which Durbon appeared to endorse Limon’s rough play. “I went into the huddle, and my coach was very angry about the way the game was being played and the way the referees were calling the game,” Limon said. “And he told me that it was about time someone shed some blood.”

True or not –– and Durbon stoutly denies encouraging any Bobcat to hit anyone –– the statements from Limon’s private investigator were hearsay; they were not affidavits from Soto and Pacheco. On February 25th, without comment, Judge Luitjen denied the motion for a new trial. Limon remained in jail, reading Scripture, answering the half-dozen or so pieces of mail he received every day from friends and lawyers around the country offering their help for free.

Coach Durbon, it turns out, had recently resolved some legal trouble of his own. One night in November 1998, police arrived at the Durbon home on Vanderpool Street in West San Antonio at 3:15 A.M. Officer Brandon Cancino found Durbon’s wife, Michelle –– barefoot, with a cut on her bottom lip –– locked outside the house. Gary, she said, had slapped her when he returned home from a night of drinking at a place called Fatso’s Sports Garden. Officer Cancino arrested Gary Durbon and put him in his patrol car –– whereupon, according to Cancino, Durbon announced, “Take the badge off, uncuff me, and pull over and see what happens. I’m going to put a contract out on you. I hope I see you out on the streets without your uniform.” Durbon pleaded no contest on July 12th, 1999, to a charge of making a “terroristic threat” to his wife and was put on nine months’ probation. The charge had been reduced from felony assault, a charge much like the one Limon faced. “I don’t want to say he’s crazy,” says one rival high school coach of Durbon. “But it’s obvious he has an abusive nature. He goes over the line.”

Durbon’s fate as a coach was taken up by the members of the South San Antonio school district on April 19th. A motion was made to relieve Durbon of his duties, and a negligence suit by the Holmes family against him, the school district and the school’s athletic director is pending. Durbon survived by a thread: The motion failed in a vote of 3-2.

***

THERE ARE ALSO SOME QUESTIONABLE incidents in the past of the man who sent Tony Limon away. Like many judges, Mark R. Luitjen is a former prosecutor with a zero-tolerance taste for law and order –– a ticket to success in Texas politics. “He’s got ambitions,” says a local lawyer. “Mark wants to be somebody.” During sixteen years with the Bexar County district attorney’s office, Luitjen, by his own estimation, disposed of more than 10,000 felony cases. As a senior prosecutor, he handled eight capital-murder cases, seven of which resulted in death sentences. During a 1997 murder trial, he told the jury, “The only way we can say life matters is that the ultimate price must be paid for taking a life.”

One of Luitjen’s oddest and most drawn-out prosecutions occurred several years ago, a controversial matter that some took to calling the Capital Deer Case. In the view of Luitjen, an avid hunter, it was a matter of enforcing fish and game rules in a state where such things are gospel. To the opposing lawyer, John Killian, it was a “perfect example of someone abusing power.”

It all started on Friday, the 13th of November, 1992, when a large deer became entangled in a fence in the wealthy San Antonio suburb of Hill Country Village. Deer always wandered around the big spreads out there. A local homeowner, Susan Mangum, tried to put the beast out of its misery. She shot it with a rifle and stabbed it with a knife. Luitjen, who lived nearby, believed that Susan Mangum had committed a crime.

A few days after Mangum removed the big deer from her fence, Texas game wardens executed a search warrant at the Mangum home, taking away two rifles, some ammo and the deer’s antlers, valued by the state at about $45,000. Mangum was indicted for criminal mischief and felony theft, the theory being that since she had not taken the deer while hunting and that since deer in Texas belong to the great State of Texas, she had in effect stolen the animal.

The case dragged on for more than seven years, wending its way from district court in San Antonio to a court of appeals and even up to the Texas state Supreme Court –– twice. The charges against Mangum were eventually thrown out, and she was never convicted of any offense in connection with the deer in her fence.

“Luitjen wanted to curry favor with his neighbors,” says Mark McDonald, who covered the case for the San Antonio Express News. “He wanted to use it as a base to run for political office.”

***

IN THE INTERESTS OF GETTING Limon out of jail right away, his new lawyers took a calculated risk on May 1st. They had already applied for what is called “shock probation,” which could have had Limon released from prison in six months, with the understanding that if he got in trouble again he’d end up behind bars for ten years. Luitjen, however, had not ruled on that request, and it would have been within his power to turn it aside. So McGinnis and Uresti appealed Luitjen’s sentence to the 4th Court of Appeals in San Antonio, effectively removing the case from Luitjen’s jurisdiction. “Some judges don’t like it when you appeal,” says Uresti. “That’s a risk you take.” Appealing made Limon immediately eligible to be released on bond until the appeal was decided, a process that could take nine months to two years. On May 8th, Big Limon, Ramey and a couple of friends put up $3,000 to secure Tony Limon’s $3,000 to secure Tony Limon’s $30,000 bond, and a few days later he left jail for Abacus Street. But Luitjen was not done. Limon would remain under house arrest, Luitjen ordered, and wear an electronic monitoring device on his ankle.

“He can file all the appeals he wants,” says Dwayne Holmes, who is struggling to pay his son’s medical bills. “He hasn’t paid one brown penny toward restitution. My credit has been affected by this.”

If Tony Limon’s appeal is ultimately turned down, later this year or in 2001, he will probably have to go back to prison in Texas. And Limon’s chances of winning the appeal aren’t great. Remember, he agreed to plead guilty. Having already served about three months in jail for elbowing Brent Holmes, Limon will have fifty-seven more months to go.

While Tony Limon spent those three months in jail, another case involving a San Antonio high school student came to a close. Timothy Busby, a senior at Marshall High School, was driving a pickup as fast as 125 miles per hour in April 1998 when he caused a horrific accident. Two teenagers died; two others suffered serious injuries. Under the terms of a plea bargain, Busby, who had no prior record, was recently sentenced to eighteen months in jail, three and a half years less than Limon. He was also fined $10,000 and ordered to pay $200,000 in restitution. The judge allowed Busby to graduate from Marshall High before reporting to prison.

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