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Hester v. State

Court of Appeals of Texas, First District

October 31, 2019


          On Appeal from the 10th District Court Galveston County, Texas, Trial Court Case No. 17-CR-2105

          Panel consists of Justices Kelly, Hightower, and Countiss.


          Richard Hightower Justice.

         A jury found appellant Russell Aaron Hester guilty of engaging in organized criminal activity and assessed his punishment at ten years' confinement.[1] In two issues, Hester asserts on appeal that: (1) the trial court erred in admitting, over Hester's objection, unauthenticated text messages between the undercover detective and a third party; and (2) the evidence was insufficient to establish a "combination" as required to support Hester's conviction for engaging in organized crime. Because we conclude that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in ruling that the text messages had been properly authenticated and that the evidence was sufficient to establish the elements of engaging in organized crime, we affirm.


         After receiving multiple tips from neighbors regarding suspicious activity, the League City Police Department began surveilling the house at 612 Brunswick in League City, Texas. Lieutenant S. Antly testified that he supervised the investigation into the Brunswick house, which he described as a "problem house." Lieutenant Antly testified that he had been "out there previously on another call" that was "narcotics-related." Detective T. Knowlton, who also participated in the investigation, testified that the tip from the neighbors specifically referenced James Lafrenz, a resident of the house, as "the most likely suspect" for dealing drugs.

         During surveillance operations, detectives observed people coming and going from the house and made traffic stops when appropriate to conduct further investigation. Detectives were not able to obtain video surveillance or photographs because they did not want to draw the attention of the house's occupants or visitors. Lieutenant Antly testified that the Brunswick house was on "the very back street of [a] small subdivision" with only "one way in, one way out." He testified that officers with cameras would have been very noticeable, "[especially [at the Brunswick] house, very obvious, because there was very little traffic on that street besides that house."

         On June 20, 2017, Detective R. Haunschild, acting undercover, made his first purchase of a small amount of methamphetamine from Lafrenz at the Brunswick house. Detective Knowlton and other personnel observed from a distance and were available to assist if Detective Haunschild needed it.

         On June 27, 2017, Detective Haunschild returned to the Brunswick house and made another small purchase of methamphetamine from Lafrenz. Detective Haunshcild observed that Lafrenz retrieved the drugs from the master bedroom closet, and Haunschild observed that the closet also contained "a scale, methamphetamines and baggies" in addition to other miscellaneous items. Following this sale, Haunschild was able to obtain Lafrenz's phone number and began communicating with him by phone.

         At this point, detectives were hoping to find out who was supplying Lafrenz with the drugs that he was selling, so on June 29, 2017, Detective Haunschild and Detective A. Strachan went to the Brunswick house again, this time to try to buy a larger amount of methamphetamine, an eighth of an ounce, also referred to as an "eight-ball." Detective Knowlton, who was conducting surveillance while the other detectives acted as undercover drug buyers, testified that he had observed a Silver Saturn in the Brunswick house's driveway before the undercover detectives arrived and that it was gone by the time Detectives Haunschild and Strachan arrived. Detective Strachan likewise testified that the only car at the Brunswick house when they arrived was a Mercury Montego registered to Montgomery.

         Detective Haunschild testified that, when he arrived at the house, Lafrenz was there with Montgomery. This was the first time Haunschild had interacted with Montgomery, but he testified that it appeared to him that Montgomery was "aware of what was happening." While Detective Strachan waited in the car, Detective Haunschild asked Lafrenz if he could sell them an eight-ball. According to Detective Haunschild, Lafrenz stated that he could not supply that amount, but Lafrenz also stated that his "dealer had just left and he could call him back to the house." They agreed on a price of $130 for the sale. At that point, Haunschild got Detective Strachan from the car and they waited in the house for Lafrenz's dealer to arrive.

         According to Detective Strachan, after Haunschild came to get her from the car, they both went inside the house. She testified that, after entering the house, she and Haunschild "talked in the kitchen with James Lafrenz and Steven Montgomery, the two people that lived in the house. And Montgomery ended up going into a front bedroom while we still talked with Lafrenz." Detective Strachan testified that these conversations were "narcotics-related." Detective Knowlton likewise testified that Lafrenz and Montgomery were at the Brunswick house during this deal.

         Detectives Strachan and Haunschild waited approximately ten minutes until Lafrenz's dealer-later identified as Hester-arrived. Strachan stated that Hester "seemed very familiar to be able to just walk in and go straight to the master bedroom." Detective Haunschild likewise testified that, when Hester arrived, he and Lafrenz "were conversing in the living room. And I heard a brief knock on the door, and Mr. Lafrenz yelled, 'Come in,' as the person was entering the home." Haunschild testified that, based on his observations, Hester was" very knowledgeable" about the layout of the house. Even though there were multiple ways to get from the front door to where he and Lafrenz were conversing, Hester "took the most opportune route through the kitchen area, met with Mr. Lafrenz briefly and walked back into Mr. Lafrenz's master bedroom without being accompanied by the master of the home." At some point, Lafrenz had a "brief conversation with Hester in which Lafrenz told Hester, "I told them $130," apparently in reference to the cost for purchasing an eight-ball of methamphetamine.

         According to Detective Strachan, Hester came out of the bedroom with "a large piece of crystal meth and he commented on how much it was and then he went back in the bedroom. We weren't there to purchase that large amount." Detective Haunschild testified that Hester told them that the shard weighed 15 grams and that he intended to break off a smaller amount to sell to Haunschild and Strachan. Hester then returned to the master bedroom.

         Detective Strachan testified that she gave $130 in cash to Detective Haunschild, and Hester came out of the bedroom a second time "with a smaller baggie with what appeared to be closer to the amount that we were going to buy." Haunschild confirmed the weight of the drugs in the baggie and then paid Hester with the money he had gotten from Strachan.

         After completing the purchase, Detectives Haunschild and Strachan left "almost immediately," while Hester was still at the Brunswick house. Detective Strachan observed a silver Saturn in the driveway. Using information that she obtained from running the Saturn's license plate information through police databases, Detective Strachan learned that the silver Saturn belonged to Hester, and she discovered several associated addresses, including one in Seabrook. Detective Haunschild testified that the team wanted to set up another drug purchase directly with Hester.

         Detective Haunschild texted with Lafrenz to obtain contact information for Hester. Haunschild then texted Hester to arrange a purchase for an even larger amount of methamphetamine-either a quarter or a half of an ounce. Hester indicated that he could get a "quarter" to sell to Haunschild and provided Haunschild with his address so that the two could meet up to get the drugs.

         On July 7, 2017, Detective Haunschild picked Hester up from his home in Seabrook. Haunschild observed the silver Saturn at Hester's house. Haunschild and Hester drove around and had a conversation about Hester's ability to sell the requested amount of drugs. According to Detective Haunschild, Hester "said that he had different connects" and that "his girl plug [or supplier] could possibly fill the order, but she had fallen off the map. . . . And then he started making additional phone calls to try and fulfill that order that we agreed upon."

         Hester also mentioned Montgomery during this conversation. While Haunschild was in the car with him, Hester called "Steve" on the phone in an attempt to find a supplier for the drugs, and Hester later confirmed that "Steve" was the same man-Montgomery-who had been at the house during the June 29 drug deal. Detective Haunschild testified that he and Hester were unable to complete the deal at that time, so they agreed to "continue our deal," stating that Hester would make more phone calls: "[H]e was really wanting to look elsewhere to try to fulfill the order, and he wanted some more time to do that."

         They exchanged further text messages, including negotiating over the price for the "quarter" of methamphetamine, with Detective Haunschild at one point offering $150 for the drugs. Hester replied, "Lol. Get out of here. I'll make 550 off that before 12:00 o'clock tonight." Haunschild testified that, in his experience, this meant that Hester "was going to break it down so that he could make more money off of it versus selling it to me raw." The ...

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