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Ferris chief’s background probed

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Agency investigates other possible license violations
Records show chief charged with family violence in 2002


SHEILA HATFIELD
Managing Editor

FERRIS - A second case could cause Ferris Police Chief Jeff Cot-tongame to lose his license to remain a police officer.

If charges for illegally running a private security business are filed against Cottongame and Lieutenant Sherman Swafford by the Texas Commission on Private Security, the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement Officer Standards and Education will be the agency responsible for revoking or suspending the police officer's licenses.

But, TCLEOSE Director of Enforcement Bobby Williams said the agency already has a case pending on Cottongame, regarding a charge against him for Assault by Threat involving family violence.

'We have a rule that requires officers to report these kind of charges,' said Williams. 'He's [already] violated that rule when he failed to report this to us.'

Cottongame was char-ged with Assault by Threat - Family Violence on May 22, 2002 for making a verbal threat to do physical injury to Tony Watson, his cousin.

He appeared before then-Justice of the Peace Sue Schmidt on June 21, 2002 and was found guilty of the offense of Assault by Threat - FV.

Cottongame was sentenced to pay a fine of $150, which could have been suspended at the end of a 90-day probationary period, where he was required to 'commit no offense against the law' in any state.

Court docket notations show the charge was 'amended' during the 90-days to become Assault by Threat, with the family violence-part removed from the charge.

According to Schmidt, Cottongame came to her shortly after the sentencing to get the 'family violence' portion amended, because it could cause him to lose his peace officer's license.

She said shortly after, a Sheriff's deputy asked for the amendment and the charge then read, 'Assault by Threat.'

Assault by Threat is a Class C misdemeanor; Assault by Threat - Family Violence is a Class A, which would cause an officer to lose his license.

TCLEOSE received a complaint on Aug. 12, 2002, regarding these charges and it was referred to its legal department on Aug. 19, 2002.

'The [case is still] pending - I don't know why it has taken that long,' said Williams.

He said when a complaint has been submitted; it is normally referred to the State Office of Administrative Hearings. Within 30 to 90 days, a hearing would be held with the officer about the charges.

Ellis County District Attorney Joe Grubbs said the complaint shouldn't have originally been filed as 'family violence,' and that probation keeps a case in suspension until it is finalized.


Cottongame threatened to kill his cousin


The case began on May 10, 2002, when documents show the Ellis County Sheriff's Department detained Cottongame at the home of his cousin, Tony Watson, after Cottongame threatened to kill Watson.

According to witness Betty Watson (Tony Watson's mother and also Cottongame's aunt), Cottongame had burst into her home in Ferris following a phone argument that day between Cottongame and her son.

'He pointed his cell phone in my face and [started] using a lot of curse words,' said Betty Watson, a long-time Ferris resident.

'I was crying, shaking and hurting in my chest - so bad … I believed he meant every word he said.'

She said Cottongame wanted to know if Tony was at his residence on India Road, and when she replied she didn't know, he left her home, 'to kill the little b——d.'

According to a phone harassment complaint Cottongame filed the same day against Watson, Watson had called him earlier in the day to 'make threats to let the public know some of the things he had done and gotten away with.'

Tony Watson admitted he did call and had told Cottongame, 'If he didn't leave the young girls alone,' he would tell people what their chief was doing.

'I was just mad,' said Watson.

He said he had just confirmed Cottongame's affair with a young Ferris girl and so he called Cottongame.

'I told him his days as police chief were just about over,' he said.

When Deputy Robert Grindele arrived on the scene at Tony Watson's home, his report stated Cottongame was standing in the roadway, waving his arms and cursing at Watson, who was standing behind his front yard fence.

Grindele's report said a Ferris Police Department dispatcher initially contacted the Sheriff's Department, reporting that the chief had 'stormed out of the office and was very upset.'

While Grindele was on route, the second call came advising that Cottongame had been to Betty Watson's home and told her he was going to kill Tony Watson.

'Suspect [Cottongame] was very angry and was shaking,' stated Grindele.

Watson told the officer Cottongame had said, 'I am going to wait until you pull out of the driveway and I am going to yank you out of that truck and whip your a—.'

Grindele stated he asked Cottongame to sit in the back seat of the squad car, until he had a chance to investigate.

Watson said Cottongame was then handcuffed, after he used his cell phone to call Betty Watson to try and apologize.

Two other deputies arrived on the scene and, according to witnesses, one of them took Cottongame out of the squad car, un-cuffed him and told him to get in his truck and go home.

Betty Watson said when she arrived on the scene at her son's house; she noticed Cottongame had changed vehicles since he left her home.

She said he was in his police vehicle while he was at her house, but he had driven a black pick-up truck to Tony's.

Cottongame declined to comment on this story.

Feuding brings fear into family

'He was like a brother, until he became chief,' said Tony Watson of his cousin.

He said things just got worse and worse between them.

Watson said Cottongame and Swafford sometimes used him for help with drug cases.

Once, Watson said he called Swafford and told him two guys came into town and offered Thia (drugs) to Watson.

Cottongame and Swafford told Watson to tell the suspects he needed to get some money at the bank and for them to drive him there.

Watson said the officers told him they would be nearby and would tell a bank employee to call them when Watson entered the bank and they would apprehend the suspects in their vehicle.

When Watson entered the bank, the employee did call and he went to the restroom in the bank to wait. He said a few minutes later, one of the suspects came into the restroom and pointed a gun at his head.

He said another Ferris officer did rescue him, but Cottongame did not come to help him, as he had been promised.

He said he has been humiliated in public with unprovoked searches, kidnapped and beaten up by two other men who told him they were advised he had 'snitched' on them, and arrested for things he didn't do.

Young Ferris girl taken on official police trip in 1997
Chief fired in ‘98 for phone calls to girl, then rehired

SHEILA HATFIED
Managing Editor

FERRIS - Documents have recently been submitted to several agencies regarding questionable actions during Jeff Cotton-game's tenure as Ferris Police Chief.

Cottongame is currently on paid suspension while the city's legal firm investigates Cottongame's involvement in using a city bank account for a possible private security business.

Among the documents supplied to the attorneys and the FBI, are copies of airplane tickets showing a former Ferris High School student accompanied Cot-tongame on an official business trip while he was chief.

In September of 1997, three plane tickets were purchased at a travel agency in Lancaster in the names of Jeff Cottongame, Leland Herron and Shayna Byers.

The Southwest Airlines tickets were paid for with cash. Destination was Corpus Christi.

When contacted, Her-ron, a former Ferris police officer, said the trip was for a police-training seminar.

They stayed in a hotel in Corpus Christi.

When asked where Byers slept, Herron replied, 'She didn't stay with me.'

Herron said he had no further comment.

Byers was 18 years old at the time of the trip, but had previously lived with Cottongame and his family.

Several months before her 17th birthday, relatives said Byers moved in with the Cottongames for about a year.

Rick Barrett, who was mayor at the time, said the girl's mother, Debby Hart, had complained to him about an affair between her daughter and the chief.

'I told her to file charges,' said Barrett. He said Cottongame was not an elected official and the girl was a legal adult at the time the mother came to him.

On Election Day of May 1998, former Mayor Jimmie Birdwell was reelected as mayor.

Cottongame was visibly upset at the prospect of Birdwell becoming mayor again.

'I'm out of here … I'm fired,' said Cottongame when the results of the election were posted.

Months later, Cottongame actually was fired by Birdwell.

In October of 1998, Birdwell said he discovered Cottongame's cell phone bills were no longer coming through city hall.

After investigating, Birdwell obtained Cottongame's phone records, which were being paid directly to the phone company by Cottongame.

Birdwell said the records showed many phone calls 'night and day' to Byers' phone number.

On Oct. 26, 1998, Birdwell fired Cottongame because of the phone calls and was at the police department overseeing Cottongame collecting his personal effects, when then-Councilman Tip Riley appeared at the door.

Riley said he had gotten a phone call from a city employee that the mayor was at the police department firing Cottongame.

He said he simply asked the mayor what was going on.

'I asked the mayor if this was the right way to do it, and he said, ‘I do the hiring and I do the firing,'' said Riley.

Another councilman, Curtis Moon, was inside the police department while the discussion between the mayor and Riley was going on.

'I didn't know he [Riley] saw me,' Moon said.

Moon said the mayor felt pressured by Riley and changed his mind, rehiring Cottongame.

Birdwell said the council didn't want Cottongame fired, but Riley said nothing was ever brought before the city council about the incident.

Current Mayor Pro-Tem Scott Born said he was also on the council at the time and the mayor did show him the records. He said the mayor was going to do something about it, but Born was never informed about what happened and it never came before council officially.

Birdwell was quoted in The Ellis County Press' Oct. 28, 1998 issue that Cottongame would be given a 30-day probation and a written reprimand would be placed in his personnel file.

He said the council would review Cottongame's performance in 30 days, but according to council members, that didn't happen.

Current City Secretary Alice Holloway said Cottongame's personnel file contains nothing about any reprimands, phone records or other documents requested through open records.

Cottongame was contacted for a response, but asked to keep his comments 'off the record.'


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'He [Cottongame] wanted to ruin my reputation, so no one would believe me,' said Watson.

'I never have been arrested, legitimately, for anything other than writing a hot check,' said Watson.

He said Cottongame had pulled him over a few days after the incident happened at his home.

'I pulled into Davis [Food] to get a Dr Pepper and Jeff puts his lights on,' Watson said.

'He said I went down a wrong road.'

Watson said he and his car were searched in front of everyone downtown.

'I felt like such an idiot,' said Watson.

He said former officer Marty Steinfeldt and Cottongame didn't find anything when they individually searched Watson's vehicle, but when they both searched together for a third time, they found cigarette-rolling paper.

Watson said he was then ticketed for drug paraphernalia.

He said disputes between him and Cottongame in the last few years have been very hard on his family.

He said several years ago when his parents called the police department about drug dealings going on in the park across from their home, the Watsons heard officers telling the suspects that the Watsons were the people who reported them.

'Dope dealers called and threatened to blow up momma and daddy's house,' said Tony Watson.

Betty Watson said she and her husband, Carl, went before the city council about the drug dealings.

They then began to get threatening phone calls.

'Jeff came to our house and said if we got on the same page with him, everything would be O.K.,' said Betty Watson.

Watson said they stopped going to the council about drugs and the calls stopped.

Watson said her life changed because her nephew had so much authority.

'We live in fear of retaliation from Jeff Cottongame,' said Betty Watson.

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