DICKINSON — Roddy Dean Pippin is ready to saddle up and head out of Texas. When they finally let him out of the big house, Pippin said, he will not stop riding until he has crossed the Canadian River and begun to feel the chill from the Dakotas.
Pippin, a 27-year-old diabetic cowboy outlaw, figures his ride away from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s Carole S. Young unit — where he is serving eight years for cattle rustling — should have started Thursday.
Prison officials do the math differently. They determined that Pippin’s sentence ends in 2013. And so his confinement continues, and Texas taxpayers continue paying for his extensive health care needs.
“I crave felicity,” Pippin said in an interview. “I’m in a state of peonage that seems perpetual.”
Pippin’s situation is unusual, not only for the nature of his crime — cattle rustlers are a rare breed in the 21st century, even in Texas — but also for his health condition: “brittle” diabetes. It is an uncommon form of the disease that causes blood sugar levels to swing sharply, and seemingly without reason. At times, Pippin said, the disease that was diagnosed when he was a child has been his greatest ally, allowing him a respite from incarceration. But in a complex legal twist, it could also wind up being the reason he stays in prison longer than he expected.
In 2004, Pippin pleaded guilty to stealing cattle from a handful of ranches in North Texas, not far from where he grew up and became enamored with the cowboy life. Just 20 years old at the time, he worked on oil rigs during the day and absconded with truckloads of cattle at night. He made a pretty penny, too, selling his ill-gotten livestock at auction. “I wore my pistols into the bank,” he said. “I was kind of out there living a fantasy, I guess.”
The cowboy fantasy came to an abrupt end after neighbors and the police started wondering how Pippin’s roughneck salary afforded him an expensive truck and fancy suits. In ranching country, Pippin’s escapades were akin to treason, and the judge punished him accordingly, assigning him the maximum sentence on four counts of theft of livestock: two years on each state jail felony, to be served consecutively.
Soon after being incarcerated, Pippin began having health problems. He had dozens of seizures and was hospitalized to treat his severe diabetic reactions. After he served his first two-year sentence and nearly two years of the second sentence, a judge granted Pippin medical leave in the form of “shock” probation, essentially house arrest. He stayed with his mother for the next two years, wearing a GPS tracking device and leaving the house only to receive medical treatment and to attend legal appointments.
Pippin’s health improved at his mother’s house in Erath County, and he even participated in a clinical trial of inhalable insulin. He married and, at his own wedding, met the woman who is now his second wife, Jacie Pippin. “Jacie’s been a godsend,” he said. “I wouldn’t trade her for all the horses and cattle on earth. That’s a lot, coming from me.”
When his two-year probation term was up in November 2009, Pippin attracted statewide attention with his horseback ride through the streets of Quanah to the Hardeman County Jail, where he turned himself in to serve the remainder of his sentence.
That is when the counting confusion began. Pippin and his lawyers argue that the time he spent on probation should count toward his third two-year sentence. When he came back to jail, they contend, he started serving his fourth and final sentence — a term, they argue in court documents, that should have ended Thursday.
“Their math is perverted,” Pippin said of the criminal justice department. “I may not be the sharpest knife in the drawer, but I know when I’m being abused.”
Melinda Bozarth, general counsel for the criminal justice agency, said that according to the way prison officials interpreted the judge’s orders, Pippin’s third sentence began when he rode back into custody, and his fourth sentence starts today. They believe Pippin should be released Jan. 20, 2013.
Complicating matters further, both the department’s officials and Pippin’s lawyers agree that Texas law prohibits the stacking of probation terms and prison sentences. So the judge’s order that allowed Pippin to spend those two years at home may have been illegal. How that could affect Pippin’s sentence remains unclear.
“This is a highly unusual case,” Bozarth said. “We’re just trying to do the right thing.”
Pippin has filed an appeal and is awaiting a ruling from the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to tell him when he can leave prison. In the meantime, Pippin said, his health is better than it has been in other facilities. He is incarcerated at the Carole S. Young Medical Facility near Texas City, where doctors from the University of Texas Medical Branch ensure he gets eight insulin shots a day.
At a time when Texas is cutting billions of dollars from public education and state services, Pippin said, it seems wasteful for the state to pay “a fortune” for his health care. Dr. Owen Murray of UTMB, who oversees health care for Pippin and many other inmates, said Pippin’s treatment does not cost more than that of any of the other 8,000 diabetics in the system. But Murray said it does cost more to care for prisoners in the medical facility.
“Now that we’ve got him in the Carole Young facility, he’s been doing fine,” Murray said. “He was looking very good.”
Pippin reads the news voraciously and writes letters — his neatly written notes, signed with his cattle brand, read like excerpts from Louis L’Amour novels — to public officials, reporters and anyone who he thinks might help set him free. “I’ll always be a cowboy at heart, but I’ll never steal again,” he said.
A Facebook page and website feature pictures of Pippin with his black Stetson, blue jeans and cool stare. Songs have been written about him, and he said he had even sold the movie rights to his life story. But sitting in his white prison jumpsuit, wiping away tears of frustration, Pippin said he doesn't want to be famous. He just wants out.
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- Letters from Roddy Dean Pippin (2.0 MB) DOWNLOAD