Take a closer look at the conversations between Bexar County DA’s Office & criminal justice reform group

There are more than 200 pages of conversations between DA, first assistant DA and the Wren Collective

SAN ANTONIO – KSAT’s discovery of hundreds of emails and text messages between the Bexar County District Attorney’s Office and an Austin-based criminal justice reform group has revealed just how much of an influence the group had on the DA.

Earlier this week, KSAT obtained more than 200 pages of conversations between the firm’s founder, District Attorney Joe Gonzales and First Assistant District Attorney Christian Henrickson — many of which involve specific cases and policies. KSAT obtained the records through an open records request.

The Wren Collective’s website states it is a strategic advising firm made up of former public defenders that aims to “reimagine the way our country approaches criminal justice.”

Since then, texts and emails between Wren and the DA’s office ranged from discussions about policy, including bail reform, to topics the office discussed in county meetings with other county officials.

Keep reading for some of the specific conversations in the records.

Conversations begin days after Gonzales assumed office

Gonzales began talking to the group since he took office in January 2019, records show.

On Jan. 21, 2019, the founder of the Wren Collective, Jessica Brand, reached out by text to Henricksen:

Brand: “How are things going. Also, is there anyone our team can talk to on data”

Henricksen: “It’s crazy, (former Bexar DA) Nico (LaHood) left a mess. There’s a lot to do but it’s pretty cool to be doing it.

Brand: “Oh man. Let us know if there’s anything we can do. Same thing happened in St. Louis.”

Bail Reform

A month later, on Feb. 5, 2019, Brand reached out to Henricksen to talk about a bail meeting:

Brand: “I hear the judges meeting on bail went poorly. Not you guys the judges themselves.”

Henricksen: “It was frustrating. We had the county brass, the Chief public defender, us & THE SHERIFF all there backing them up if they wanted the lead of the Harris county court judges. They sent out a letter before the meeting even started & said no. Basically, they are resistant to change. I also think that they don’t fully understand the law on this issue. They basically claimed that our current set up addresses all of the issues brought up in the various lawsuits while still acknowledging that they use cash bonds to detain people Regardless, I never expected them to be helpful. I have always been operating under the assumption that, short of legislative action, we would need to be the ones taking the lead.

Brand: “I think we could very easily mobilize massive community action to support you. Actually not think I’m certain.”

Henricksen: “Yes. We had a meeting with TOP today. Joe just got back into town. I expect to have a detailed discussion about your proposal with him I’ve been reading up on the lawsuits & think they give us good cover.”

Around the same time, Brand alerted Henricksen that she is sending over plea guidelines:

Brand: “I have plea guidelines for you btw. Doing one final rounds of edits.”

Henricksen: “Looking forward to the plea guidelines.”

Toward the end of 2019, bail is talked about again.

Brand: “What do you think about the bail stuff from yesterday.”

Henricksen: “What bail stuff from yesterday Commissioners’ Court & magistration?”

Brand: “Yes”

Henricksen: “I think It should help some. The inside politics is that it may get the district court judges to back down from some of the positions that they have taken on jurisdiction that have gummed up the works & increased jail pop. I’m hoping that these new magistrates are going to be open to a sit down with us so that we can talk to them about our bond policy & the rulings that have come out of the bail litigation. I’m fairly certain that most of them are not up to it.

Brand: “Let us know if you need support”

‘You could settle that death penalty case right now’

As the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020 discussion still continue between Henricksen and Brand.

March 19, 2020

Brand: “You could settle that death penalty case right now and no one would bat an eye.”

Henricksen: “I know. I’m trying.”

Brand: “How can I help.”

March 23, 2020

Brand: “Are the judges being any better. Or would it be helpful if some real justice pac volunteers started calling.”

Henricksen: “Sent out jail report from my work email.”

July 2020

Brand: “Joe has always been very cautious and my personal belief is that’s a mistake. I think he underestimates enthusiasm for change and overestimated the continued power of the police.”

Henricksen: “He is cautious. Also, we brought in a bunch of defense attorneys as administrators. There is some good there but I’m learning there are some other issues they come with that. Our defense attorney administrators have pushed against open communication with the public. They seem to be afraid of information. Regardless, I think I finally won that argument.”

Brand: “Nothing like a bunch of backlash against lack of transparency.”

Sept 2020

Gonzales: “I’d love to do a zoom meeting with you later in the week we’ve got some hot irons on the fire the first part of this week.”

Brand: “Let’s do it”

Gonzales: “You may have heard about one of them involving a black jogger that was arrested.”

Brand: “I have not I will google now.”

SAPD releases crime stats

In the beginning of 2022, SAPD released crime stats from the previous year. Those stats and an article KSAT 12 wrote about them were a topic of conversation.

Jan. 18, 2022

Henricksen: “This is our police chief today. Nothing urgent but wouldn’t mind your input at some point. Here’s the full article -- KSAT LINK “SAPD reports 23% jump in homicides, smaller increase in overall crime in 2021.”

Brand: “We should also do an oped from a community advocate about this bogus response. And we can do some talking points for Joe.”

Jan 24, 2022

Brand: “Oped submitted”

Gonzales: “Can you email me a copy of the op-ed… BTW, chief of police continuing to bash me in public with the comment “people who commit crimes believe there are no consequences in this city” He did it again Saturday night.

Brand: “What a charmer”

Later talks continued about stats on June 9, 2022, between Henricksen and Brand.

Brand: “Am I reading right that your rearrest rate is lower than national. I don’t really get the point of this -- it’s not an attack on bail because the comparision period is four years. So what is it?”

Henricksen: “It’s this.. Cops arrest people and we have to keep arresting them bc the DA’s & judges drop the ball. The cops keep saying that so they decided to pull this data. But the way they did it is completely (f***ed) up & doesn’t actually mean anything. They pulled the data backward. They should have pulled arrest data from 2017 & then looked to see how many got rearrested. Instead they looked at who was arrested in 2021 & which of those had been arrested in the previous 5 years. This is the police chief trying to say, ‘not my fault.’ The whole thing is ridiculous. One of the interesting things to me was the top offenses for prior arrests. Almost exclusively low level stuff. Diversion eligible stuff. Just got data yesterday that our rearrest rate after a successful PTD completion is 9%. That is from the start of our program in 2019.”

Brand: “Oh we should pitch that to a reporter. Can you share that data. We should give it to the ED board. Have a press conference!!”

Migrant Flight Investigation

In 2022, Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar announced an investigation into migrant flights out of San Antonio, organized by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Gonzales met with Salazar and then texted details of that meeting to Brand.

Gonzales: “I wish he would have called me, we could have done a joint press conference.”

Brand: “Yeah me too are you guys engaged on this. We can prep some talking points and a stmt”

Gonzales: “He’s texting me now standby.”

Gonzales: “Says there is another plane scheduled to go out tomorrow, wants to know if we can stop it with a TRO or similar actions.

Brand: “Someone should file on fed court why not.”

Gonzales: “Let me get some details. Just spoke to the sheriff, he says there’s not enough information to believe that immigrants are actually being recruited for this plane trip. All they have is an itinerary for a similar flight from Florida to Texas and then to the East Coast.

Erik Cantu

Later, in October 2022, teenager Erik Cantu was shot by a now-fired SAPD officer in a McDonald’s parking lot. Henricksen and Brand began having conversations about the case on Oct. 7, 2022.

Brand: “Was thinking more about that case. My guess is there will be a lot of misinformation out there - if I were Joe I’d probably have a press conference, maybe with the sheriff, explain you are dropping charges (and why they were ever filed), and then that obv the video is extremely disturbing, you can’t say more because pending case, but are obv investigating and you know this incident has harmed public trust. If you want we can do talking point that don’t lead to commenting on the case - we’ve done it for others.

Henricksen: “I’m trying to get Joe in the phone now. I’m going to advise we dismiss immediately. I agree with a press conference. I’ll see what he says. Would not hurt to have talking points ready if he decided to a press conference.

Brand: “On it”

Henricksen: “I’m rejecting the kids cases now. Joe wants to do press this afternoon.”

Brand: “Julia is working on talking points.”

Henricksen: “He went totally off script but hopefully it was ok.”

Brand: “Oh man. Anything you are worried about.”

Henricksen: “It was just too much talking. Parts were good. There was a lot of trying not to commit to anything that could comm off as wishy-washy.”

Brand: “Joe’s signature move!”

Dec 1, 2022

Henricksen “We got an indictment on the officer from the Erik Cantu case. Thanks for the help from you & your team.”

Brand: “We saw! How was the press conference.”

Henricksen: “It went well. Joe pretty much stuck to the talking points.”

Brand: “Hooray”

Officers shot in Summer 2023

In summer 2023, five SAPD officers were shot, and a another shot himself during pursuits of suspects with violent criminal histories and pending warrants.

Gonzales, Henricksen and Brand discussed what was going on involving these shootings and the possibility of a removal of office petition being filed. The conversations end as Gonzales asks Brand to move their conversation to his personal email.

Aug. 31, 2023

Brand: “Has Joe gone to the county to ask for a budget if there is a removal petition.”

Henricksen: “Indirectly”

Brand: “Has he put out a response to the police union.”

Henricksen: “About to”

Sept 8, 2023

Henricksen: “It’s getting interesting down here.”

Brand: “?”

Henricksen: “Abbott blamed Joe for everything yesterday. Tony Gonzales just had a press conference declaring war on Joe.”

Brand: “Oh fuck can you send to me.”

Henricksen: “The Governor is sending 50 dps troopers to Bexar to fill up the jail.”

Brand: “Has your sheriff said anything. Would he consider saying something with Joe.”

Henricksen: “We just met with him. He might. We haven’t asked him that but the plan is a united front.”

Sept 13, 2023

Henricksen sends photo from Express News article.

Brand: “I like the photo at least makes Joe look kind.”

Henricksen: “Yeah. Glad he did that. Doubt chief would have shook his hand if Joe didn’t force it on him.”

Sept 20, 2023

Brand: “Hey guys can you PLEASE respond to arnold and porter”

Brand: “I just went out on a limb to get these guys and you are basically getting the smartest guys in dc”

Gonzales: “I just sent out an email and the problem is that this was sent to my work email and I do not always check my work emails as often as I do my personal. Can you please see that any future communications with this group or sent to ------ please? I would also suggest any communications coming from you, Jess, go to that email because my secretarial staff can see my emails and I would prefer this go to CH and I only.”

Brand: “absolutely”

About the Authors

Erica Hernandez is an Emmy award-winning journalist with 15 years of experience in the broadcast news business. Erica has covered a wide array of stories all over Central and South Texas. She's currently the court reporter and cohost of the podcast Texas Crime Stories.

Emmy-award winning reporter Dillon Collier joined KSAT Investigates in September 2016. Dillon's investigative stories air weeknights on the Nightbeat and on the Six O'Clock News. Dillon is a two-time Houston Press Club Journalist of the Year and a Texas Associated Press Broadcasters Reporter of the Year.

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