Research and Investigation – Part 5

My Investigation Begins

While I was researching Steve’s trial, I was, of course, doing regular “real life” things (helping my wife care for her elderly parents, working at Rice University until late-2009 and then retiring, writing novels, etc.), but Steve’s situation, was always in the back of my mind. I felt like there should be something I could do. I helped Steve in small ways financially, but I knew Minay and I would never, for example, be able to afford to hire a lawyer for Steve. After retirement, we were on a fixed income, and any extra expenses lowered our savings. So, I continued to help him work on his legal case.

Steve was now his own lawyer, representing himself pro se by this time. Pro se is a Latin term meaning “on behalf of themselves.” His court-appointed appeals lawyer had finished the first appeal, and Steve couldn’t afford to pay any more lawyers, so he was on his own (a very common situation for most inmates). Each time he started a new appeal or writ, he sent me his first drafts, and I helped him with his grammar (sometimes it’s handy to have a former English teacher in the family), but I wanted to do more.

My big breakthrough came when I decided to do a little investigating on my own. In February 2013, I drove up to Deep Springs to see if I could interview a few people, and fill in some of the blanks in my understanding of the case.

I didn’t know how much of Trial #1 had been transcribed, so, while I was there I met with Mindy Camillo, the court reporter for the trial, and arranged for her to transcribe Darla Belisle’s testimony from the first trial. Darla was Hanna’s mother, and I hoped that her testimony in Trial #1 was so different from Trial #2 that I could catch her in a lie. Her Trial #1 testimony hadn’t already been transcribed, so I had to wait six weeks for a new transcription. Also, I had to pay five dollars per page for twenty-one pages of testimony only to find out that it was nearly (but not quite) identical to the second trial. I believe that Darla did lie during the second trial, but I already knew about that thanks to Steve. That lie plays a prominent role in sections of Aggravated, so you’ll need to get the book to find out.

I also made arrangements to talk to two people who are important to the story: Tom Swearingen, the investigator that Steve hired back in 2004, and Cleveland Sanford, the attorney that represented Steve at his second trial. On my way back to Houston, I took a little detour to Brady, Texas, and met Tom Swearingen at a doughnut shop. Over coffee and doughnuts we swapped information. The information flowed a lot more heavily from Tom to me than the other way around. I had already learned a great deal about the trial, but still had tons of questions. Tom told me about some of the methods he used when interviewing people. He also said that he was owed a great deal of money from Steve’s attorneys. I think he said it was in the neighborhood of $6,000. During the investigation he had taped quite a few conversations with people (in person and on the phone), and had saved all of those onto CD’s and a flash drive. I had my laptop with me, so I copied the information from his flash drive onto my laptop, and accepted the CDs from him. I wrote him a check for $250, which was truly all I could afford, but hoped that would make up for some of the money he hadn’t received for his investigations (I never found out which of Steve’s three attorneys Tom felt still owed him money).

I inserted one of the CDs into my car’s audio player, and tried to listen to the interview he had done with Hanna on my way home (it was the one I was most interested in, of course), but the audio was terrible. He and Hanna were both on cell phones and the connections were bad, resulting in a tinny, static-filled, electronic sort of sound. I was anxious to hear what she told Tom, but I had to wait until I got home and could clean up the sound. It was two-and-a-half hours long. After five minutes of it I gave up. I knew I couldn’t listen to that and focus on driving.

My next stop before heading back to Houston was in Collinson, Texas. Cleveland Sanford, Steve’s attorney for his second trial, had an office there, and had agreed to meet me. We talked for about thirty minutes, and when he found out I was trying to analyze the transcripts, made copies of what he had from the first trial. I thanked him, and headed for home, armed now with more trial data than I’d had for a long time.

I was about to have another bout with the scanner, but when it was done, months later, I had a partial transcript for the first trial, and a complete transcript for the second trial, both searchable. I also created transcripts of Tom’s audio interviews, but it took me close to another year to improve the sound quality enough that I could do an accurate transcription of Hanna’s interview. Finishing those transcriptions stretched on into 2016 and 2017. I find transcribing audio very difficult, I don’t type fast enough to keep up with the dialogue.

Ultimately, it was the information on Tom’s CDs that allowed me to get the clearest picture of who was probably lying. In 2013, I still hadn’t officially decided to do a book about the trials. That would come later. At that time I thought that some of the information I was finding could be used to help Steve get a new trial, so that was my primary focus then. What I was hearing on the CDs did give me some perspective, though. It allowed me to start sorting my random thoughts into a coherent narrative. The audio interviews were all done during the two years preceding the trials, so they provided a good bridge between what Hanna said during the accusations, and the story she told later at the trials.

The truth is, even though I had doubts about a few of the elements in the two trials, until I listened to Tom’s interview with Hanna I didn’t have the overview I needed to make decisions about what happened. That interview broke everything open for me, but I wasn’t able to fully study it until much later. That interview was especially revealing because I could get a glimpse of what her thought process was as the trials got closer. By 2016, once I was able to compare all of Hanna’s statements to comments made by other people (and have a sense of the relative order in which all these statements had been made), it became easier for me to see how a jury could have believed some of what Hanna was saying. They were hearing her story in isolation, with no one to contradict it.

By 2016 and 2017, I had much more research to deal with (numerous phone calls and e-mails, Internet searches, public information act requests, etc.). A lot of that was covered in a talk I gave in May 2017 about researching Aggravated. I covered that already in an earlier post. I’ve provided a link in that post to a video of the talk. Check it out here.

That, in essence, is the format of Aggravated. As completely as possible I follow Hanna’s narrative, showing (through comparison to statements made by Hanna and others, and to verifiable data) why I believe her story can’t possibly be true.

Aggravated is undergoing its final edits now. I want to make absolutely certain that I have been completely accurate (in order to leave no room for contradiction). A nearly impossible task, I know, but that’s the goal. The current target for publication is December 15, 2020.

[Note: I made it just under the wire. Aggravated was published in print and ebook versions on December 11, 2020. If you would like a copy, use the Buy Aggravated link at the top of each page, or go here. Thanks.]

Michael Sirois

Standard Disclaimer: Please post a comment below if you would like to. All comments are personally moderated by a grouchy old guy, though, so posts by self-promotional schemers, spammers, and lunatic ranters won’t make it through. Everyone else, whether your thoughts about this story are positive or negative, please feel free to speak your mind, but don’t ask me to reveal the identities of any of these individuals. Thanks.

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