Fort Worth

She was in love with a rapist and stood accused of helping him escape. But a jury didn't buy it

Clay Graham discusses case with Paula Smith on Wednesday in hallway at Tarrant County courthouse. Smith was accused of helping a violent sexual predator escape from a halfway house in 2015.
Clay Graham discusses case with Paula Smith on Wednesday in hallway at Tarrant County courthouse. Smith was accused of helping a violent sexual predator escape from a halfway house in 2015. Star-Telegram staff writer

The case against Paula Holcomb Smith, a bus driver who fell in love with a violent sex offender who worked at a pet crematorium that was a front for a marijuana farm, was as complicated as her unlikely relationship with the man.

Smith, who also went by Paula Pedigo, stood accused of helping Brent Allen Jozefkowicz, escape from a halfway house in Fort Worth in August 2015.

But Thursday afternoon, after a Tarrant County jury remained deadlocked after two days of deliberating, state District Judge Louis Sturns declared a mistrial. It is not clear if the Tarrant County district attorney's office will retry the case, which is believed to be the first time in Texas that a conspirator was tried in a civil commitment case under the state's "law of parties."

The law of parties holds conspirators equally at fault for a crime — even if they did not foresee the consequences.

"This comes down to two questions," said prosecutor Nick Vincent said. "Did a violent sexual predator escape and did Paula Smith help him?"

Smith testified that she loved Jozefkowicz even though she knew it was against the law for him to be involved in a relationship.

She said "it was like a death sentence when they said I should cease having contact with him."

Jozefkowicz had been civilly committed to the halfway house after serving 16 years in prison for raping a woman in Wichita County. He was released from prison in 2009.

On Aug. 4, 2015, he cut off his ankle monitor and walked out of the halfway house at 600 N. Henderson St. , northwest of downtown Fort Worth. He walked to a Waffle House restaurant where two friends had stashed a motorcycle for him. He fled to Myrtle Beach, S.C., where, after an 11-day, multi-state manhunt, he was found dead. Authorities said he killed himself.

Jozefkowicz had previous sex-related convictions and was classified as a violent sex offender by the Texas Department of Public Safety. After being released from prison he was ordered into the state civil sex offender program, which is run by the Texas Office of Civil Commitment. The program was created in 1999 to keep watch over criminals who have at least two sex-related convictions and a "behavioral abnormality."

A 'dangerous' man

Marsha McLane, executive director of the Texas Office of Civil Commitment, said she is disappointed that the jury could not reach a verdict.

"There was not an appreciation of how dangerous this man was," McLane said after the trial was over. "He had a gun and he put people in every state he went through in danger."

Clay Graham, one of the attorneys who defended Smith, said the jury seemed confused by some of the wording in the charge against his client.

Graham said he made a motion for mistrial because of the apparent confusion.

"But as soon as the judge denied it the jury sent out a note saying they were deadlocked," Graham said.

Smith testified on Wednesday that she did not know that Jozefkowicz was thinking about escaping the halfway house.

But Tarrant County prosecutors told the jury that Smith had provided Jozefkowicz with a cellphone and money before his escape.

By assisting in his escape, Smith was accused of helping Jozefkowicz violate the rules of the civil commitment program. Smith lied to state officials the whole time she was having a relationship with Jozefkowicz and never had any intention of following the rules, Vincent said.

Graham and Lauren Crisera, who represented the defendant, portrayed Smith as a victim and said the man she loved, was a professional manipulator as well as violent sex offender.

The civil commitment program played a major role in Jozefkowicz's escape, which was the second in five months from the halfway house.

"Brent made a mockery of the civil commitment office," Graham said. "He's so dangerous, the state of Texas decided to put him in a halfway house where he could just walk out of the door."

'We were in love'

Smith and Jozefkowicz met in December 2013. Jozefkowicz offered Smith the use of his phone charger when her phone was about to go dead and became her hero, Smith testified.

After more than a year of courtship, she and Jozefkowicz began having sex, Smith said. They kept their relationship a secret from officials with the Texas Office of Civil Commitment because he was not allowed to date, Smith testified.

But she was determined to make the relationship work and was approved as one of his chaperones, who have a duty to make sure that sex offenders obey state laws.

"We were in love," Smith testified. "I never reported our relationship because I didn't see who I was hurting. I wasn't out to hurt anyone or the state. Brent said he would eventually get to a level where he would be approved for a romantic relationship."

She bought Jozefkowicz a cellphone and regularly visited him at his job at Pets Ever After, a pet crematorium that camouflaged a significant 2,400-square-foot marijuana growing operation that later became the focal point of a drug investigation.

Pets Ever After, in the 5600 block of Parker Henderson Road, is now closed, and the crematorium's owner, Jon Evans, was convicted on money-laundering and weapons charges and sent to prison.

'Paid his time'

Smith testified that Jozefkowicz had never been violent with her.

"The way I looked at it those things happened 25 years ago and he had already paid his time for it," Smith said.

His record was lengthy:

In 1984, Jozefkowicz was sentenced to two years in prison for indecency with a child involving a 14-year-old girl in Wichita County, according to DPS records.

In 1989, he was convicted in North Carolina of assault on a female and placed on probation.

In 1992, he was charged in Georgia with sexual battery, solicitation of sodomy, contributing to delinquency and simple battery, but prosecutors dismissed the charges, records showed.

In 1992, he was convicted of the sexual assault in Wichita County and sentenced to 16 years in prison, according to Texas Department of Criminal Justice records.

He completed his sentence March 3, 2009, and was ordered by a judge into the state's civil commitment program for sex offenders.

Not long before he escaped, Smith testified that she had purchased a second cellphone for Jozefkowicz and began transferring more money to his bank accounts.

She maintained contact with Jozefkowicz until the night he escaped.

Smith said she lied to police investigators during an initial interview, but later came clean about her relationship with the sex offender.

"I told them everything I knew," Smith said. "I don't know how many lies I told them before, but at this point I was scared. They questioned me for hours."

This report includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.

Mitch Mitchell: 817-390-7752, @mitchmitchel3

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