Article originally appeared at VICE.com
If it seems perfectly normal lately for American cops to shoot and kill unarmed suspects, it’s still news when a judge decides to start running guns across the Mexico border.
That’s what happened in Austin, Texas, this week, where a federal ground jury indicted a judge for smuggling guns, selling guns to a convicted felon in the state, and lying to federal agents. The Tuesday indictment followed a raid by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) on the judge’s home late last month, where they found dozens of weapons.
The judge, Timothy Wright III, lied when buying guns at two different businesses in Williamson County, claiming the guns were for him when he intended to sell them to a convicted felon, according to the nine-count indictment. All nine charges are federal felonies.
The case brings to mind the scandal that plagued Columbus, New Mexico, when the mayor, police chief, and city trustee were found to be smuggling guns across the border in 2011. That case was wrapped up in ATF’s infamous Fast and Furious operation and involved at least 200 high-powered guns.
Wright turned himself in to US Marshals in Austin on Wednesday morning and was out of jail by mid-afternoon on an unsecured bond, meaning he didn’t have to pay the court anything. Usually, a person has to pay 10 percent of the total bond amount to get out of jail, which many people—especially minorities—cannot afford. That can mean remaining in jail for days, weeks, or even months, which translates to losing jobs and more money.
Wright was out within hours, but had to hand over his concealed handgun license and passport, and his movements are confined to three counties in central Texas. He also isn’t allowed to be around firearms or sell any guns through a third party.
Initial local news accounts suggested Wright would be back on the bench Thursday, but Texas’s State Commission on Judicial Conduct suspended the judge indefinitely without pay.
“Judge Wright is disappointed that the commission took the action that it did but he intends to fully and firmly comply with its orders,” Wright’s attorney, Jeff Senter, told VICE.
Less than two weeks ago, Wright’s neighbors watched as ATF agents carried stacks of long cardboard boxes and black plastic cases out of the house and into vans. At the end of the day, they drove away with 51 confiscated firearms and Wright’s Ford F-150 pickup truck. The seized weapons were mostly handguns, along with a few carbines. The agency had been keeping tabs on Wright since at least September, when agents visited him, according to the indictment, though it’s unclear whether that was the agency’s first contact with Wright. (ATF referred all questions to the US Attorney’s Office, and that office’s spokesperson would not answer any questions related to the case.)
By that point last fall, Wright had allegedly been smuggling guns to Mexico for about four months. But a few months after ATF agents visited him, he inexplicably began smuggling again, and the indictment suggests he didn’t stop until the raid in March. Senter says everything in the indictment is an allegation at this point, and that he can’t comment on whether ATF contacted Wright in September.
Judge Wright lives in Georgetown, about four hours from the border with Mexico. That a county judge in the middle of the state would be involved in running firearms south of the border is shocking even in gun-loving Texas, where the state legislature is currently well on its way to allow guns to be carried on college campuses. The indictment contains no mention of Wright’s motive for allegedly committing these serious crimes, though it says he raked in at least $42,604.
It’s not as though Wright didn’t know what he was doing—the 70-year-old has been a judge since 2003, and was an attorney for decades before that. He’s one of four court-at-law judges in Williamson County, where he oversees the DUI and drug courts. If convicted of all nine charges, Wright could face up to 70 years in prison—ten years for each of the five firearm charges, and five years for each of the false statement charges. His lawyer maintains his innocence, and says Wright has a license to sell guns. The indictment says Wright did indeed obtain a license in January, but that he began selling—to a convicted felon—nearly a year ago.
On the day of the raid, Wright apparently told an ATF agent that he had not sold any weapons since the agency last visited him in September. The indictment adds that he falsified paperwork to change a December sale date to August. He also told the agent that he hadn’t sold any firearms to a person identified as “J.C.” in the indictment since finding out that person was a convicted felon, but the grand jury was told that Wright “sold firearms to ‘J.C’ in person on three occasions after he learned that ‘J.C.’ was a convicted felon.”
Only the Texas Supreme Court can remove a judge from the bench. Wright’s arraignment is set for next Wednesday morning, and his attorney says he will plead not guilty to all counts.