Advocate editorial board opinion: Cuero needs to investigate top public safety officials' actions in assault case

By the Advocate Editorial Board
June 3, 2014 at 1:03 a.m.
Updated June 4, 2014 at 1:04 a.m.

When something smells fishy, the best step you can take is to air it out. If you don't, the rotting odor can get much worse.

Unfortunately, the stench hangs heavy over the the normally fair town of Cuero. The odor started the night of April 17 after a Cuero police officer is accused of assaulting his wife, a Department of Public Safety trooper.

Any case of possible domestic violence is troubling, but what followed should concern all Cuero residents. What followed should have prompted an internal investigation by the city of Cuero into its police and fire departments.

After being injured, Elizabeth Tolbert lay on the ground for almost two hours before finally being taken to a hospital. During that time, her husband, Corey Tolbert, called his father, Cuero Fire Department Chief William "Butch" Tolbert, who came to the scene but did not render aid or call 911, according to a Texas Rangers investigation.

Instead, the elder Tolbert called a Cuero police officer, who took the report up the chain of command. News of the incident reached Cuero Police Chief Jay Lewis, but no one in his department called for an ambulance or contacted the DeWitt County Sheriff's Office, which had jurisdiction over the case.

Sheriff Jode Zavesky learned of the incident the next morning as news traveled around the small town. He immediately did what Lewis should have done if he didn't want to contact the sheriff's department: Zavesky brought in the Texas Rangers to investigate.

By then, Elizabeth Tolbert had been transferred to a San Antonio hospital, where she was in critical condition. When sources tipped off the Advocate about the incident, Lewis told the newspaper that erroneous information was circulating about the incident and that nothing indicated Elizabeth Tolbert's injuries had been intentionally inflicted.

He said this even though his department had not investigated the case, and he knew the Texas Rangers had been called in. Two days later, Lewis told the Cuero Record that the woman's injuries were caused by an accident.

For the town's top cop to make such a statement under these circumstances is inexcusable. Every law enforcement official knows not to step on the investigation of an outside agency brought in to provide an objective look at a case.

Within a week, the Rangers had arrested Tolbert for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. The investigating officer noted in the arrest warrant affidavit that Tolbert admitted striking his wife and had told his father, the fire chief, on the night of April 17 what he had done. The fire chief admitted his son told him he had pushed his wife, "put her on the ground" and "shoved her away." The fire chief also told a Cuero police officer that night that his son "had gotten into a fight, and Corey Tolbert punched Elizabeth Tolbert in the face," according to the affidavit.

Yet the fire chief and the police chief took no action at all that night. When the police chief was questioned by the media about the incident, he still maintained for several days afterward that it was only an accident.

The inaction that night by the top two public safety officials in Cuero demands a full investigation. Because City Manager Raymie Zella has not already started this process, the Cuero City Council must demand action at its next meeting.

If Cuero wants to regain its residents' trust, the entire troubling affair needs a public airing. The police chief and the fire chief need to answer for how they behaved that night and afterward.

This editorial reflects the views of the Victoria Advocate's editorial board.



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