By AMANDA KIMBLE
STEPHENVILLE (September 21, 2016) – Drug addiction can make good people do bad things.
Just after being handed down a 12-year prison sentence Wednesday, John Hermaestas Byrd said chemical dependency was to blame for a “criminal episode” that spanned several counties and targeted a number of victims.
Byrd, 49, addressed District Judge Jason Cashon in the 266th Judicial District Court, saying he “fell off the wagon” following a back injury. Byrd said he started taking opioids – hydrocodone – to escape the pain and eventually became “dope sick.”
“Your honor, I am 49, a father, and I was a husband, business owner and founder of a prison ministry,” Byrd said. “I am also an addict. I wish I could stop. I don’t know how to stop. If I did, these people would have not been hurt.”
Those “hurt” by Byrd include a list of theft victims, including individuals in Erath, Comanche, Eastland, Parker and Tarrant counties.
He plead guilty to two counts of theft of less than $2,500 in property in Erath County and reached a plea deal with the state through his court-appointed attorney Andrew Ottaway of Granbury.
Assistant District Attorney (ADA) Jett Smith offered the deal on behalf of the state. It included 12 years of confinement in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and the payment of a $1,000 fine, court costs and restitution.
The two 12-year local sentences were set to run concurrent with each other and six other cases out of the 43rd Judicial District Court in Parker County.
Following the proceeding, ADA Smith said the local victims were employees two area businesses. One of them worked at a retail store in Bluff Dale, where Byrd entered the management office to steal her wallet. The other victim, whose valuables were taken from behind the store counter, worked at a business between Dublin and Stephenville.
The crimes would have been misdemeanor offenses, but the defendant’s criminal history bumped the charges up to second-degree felonies, each punishable by two to 20 years in prison.
Byrd’s prior convictions include engaging in organized criminal activity in 1998 and obtaining a controlled substance by fraud in 2013. Both of those offenses reportedly occurred in Lubbock County.
Regarding the recent string of thefts, Byrd told the court he was recently given a 19-month sentence in Hood County. He also said cases are pending in Comanche, Eastland and Tarrant counties, referring to the incidents as a single “criminal episode.”
In February, the Weatherford Democrat reported Byrd and a female accomplice, Tina Ruggles, stayed at hotels along Interstate-20 between Dallas and Abilene committing similar crimes across the region through the final months of 2015 and the holiday season.
The duo was arrested January 27 when a Weatherford police officer spotted the couple at a convenience store. They had been identified through social media when law enforcement officials posted images from a surveillance video that showed the duo committing crimes. A tipster identified Byrd and Ruggles and officials across the area were on the lookout for the couple.
They were both on parole when they went on the stealing spree, entering breakrooms, offices and other areas inside of businesses and taking wallets and credit cards that belonged to unsuspecting employees.
Now a three-time felon, Byrd is intent on making his story about more than relapse and recidivism. Through his experiences as an addict, prisoner and from behind the pulpit of a prison ministry, Byrd said more needs to be done to address addiction.
He said confining people in cells and giving them nothing to do but watch television was not the answer. Byrd begged Cashon to order him into a substance abuse program to get the tools needed to overcome the disease.
The judge said he would include a notation about Byrd’s chemical dependency and the fact that drug addiction and abuse contributed to his crimes in his case file, which will accompany the defendant to prison.