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Cuero police officer indicted on assault charges; defense attorney raises concerns about bias

By Jessica Priest
May 14, 2014 at 12:14 a.m.
Updated May 15, 2014 at 12:15 a.m.

16 X 9 POLICE TAPE

A Cuero police officer was indicted Wednesday afternoon on two counts of assaulting his wife, a state trooper.

Corey Lane Tolbert is charged with one count of aggravated assault against a family member, a first-degree felony, and one count of aggravated assault, a second-degree felony, District Attorney Michael Sheppard said.

A DeWitt County grand jury heard from a dozen witnesses from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Wednesday.

"That's not typical. We just wanted to do as thorough a job as we could," Sheppard said.

Tolbert was arrested after his wife, Elizabeth Tolbert, was injured the night of April 17 at their property on Heinie Bade Road.

Tolbert told Texas Ranger Drew Pilkington afterward the couple had been drinking while working on water wells at the property.

Tolbert admitted he may have hit his wife with a trailer attached to his truck while moving it after the two had a fight. He said that it was unintentional, according to an arrest-warrant affidavit.

That same document showed his wife lay on the ground for almost two hours before friends lifted her, with a fractured hip, into their truck and took her to a nearby hospital.

She was later transferred to a San Antonio hospital but has since been released.

"She is in rehab and improving, so we're very optimistic that she'll make a full recovery," Sheppard said.

Some residents have questioned why charges were not sought for Tolbert's father, William "Butch" Tolbert, who serves as Cuero's fire chief, or Cuero Police Chief Jay Lewis.

Tolbert came to the couple's home after his son called him for help. He gave his daughter-in-law, who was still lying on the ground, a pillow and a blanket and brewed his son a pot of coffee. He notified a police officer about the incident, who went up the chain of command, eventually looping in Lewis. No one called 911.

"Everything leading up to the assault and most of what occurred after the assault was also subject to investigation," Sheppard said.

Sheppard said he read the Texas Penal Code cover to cover and couldn't find anything he could charge the chiefs with, though.

"Readers will read that, and they're not going to understand. ... You have to distinguish between what we may view as morally right and what is a violation of the Penal Code of Texas. I could not find a violation of the Penal Code of Texas," he said.

Corey Tolbert has hired attorney Brent Dornburg to represent him.

Dornburg thought the Texas Rangers may have been biased in their investigation because Elizabeth Tolbert works for the same agency.

"My concern is how fair is that investigation going to actually be? I'm extremely concerned about that," Dornburg said.

He also questioned why DeWitt County Sheriff Jode Zavesky called the Texas Rangers, especially after he heard the sheriff was gossiping about his client.

Zavesky said he requested the Rangers' help because Tolbert has a personal issue with someone in his office. He declined to elaborate.

"There is obviously no one else who could do that if we couldn't do the investigation. ... They are the next investigative arm," Zavesky said, adding he was confident the Rangers did not have a conflict of interest.

"There's just a lot more rumors floating around anytime you have an incident. Unfortunately, people - what they don't know, they just make up," Zavesky said. "He's saying that I am gossiping. The gist is I haven't been."

A first-degree felony carries a punishment of five to 99 years or life in prison; a second-degree felony, carries two to 20 years in prison, if convicted.

Tolbert has worked for the Cuero Police Department and held a peace officer's license since 2002, according to the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement.

The commission can revoke peace officer licenses for convictions of crimes ranging from a Class C misdemeanor or family violence to a felony.

Recent changes in the law have made it possible for a person to seek a waiver to be a peace officer if convicted of a Class B misdemeanor.

With the waiver, a person can become a peace officer five years after a conviction rather than 10 years, said Laura LeBlanc, custodian of records for the state.

"If he is found guilty, we would definitely take action on his license," she said.

On Tuesday, the commission had already received the required paperwork notifying it of Tolbert's arrest.

Cuero City Manager Raymie Zella placed Tolbert on paid administrative leave during the investigation, noting he would reassess his decision should Tolbert be indicted.

Zella declined then to investigate the police chief and said he did not have the authority to investigate the fire chief.

While the city of Cuero has six paid firefighters, the chief is not among them. He is the chief and president of the board of the Cuero Volunteer Fire Department, a nonprofit registered with the state.

Zella could not be reached for comment after 6 p.m. Wednesday.

Dornburg said the couple did not have a rocky relationship beforehand.

"They were together several days after the incident. It wasn't until they got an arrest warrant and a bond that said he wasn't allowed to speak to her that she evidently changed her mind and filed for divorce," Dornburg said. "We look forward to our day in court and the public hearing the whole story."

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