Daily Progress, Jacksonville, TX

December 19, 2013

Fletcher’s initials on document

Officials don’t deny signature for Bentley written by former county court-at-law judge

Ben Tinsley
Jacksonville Daily Progress

RUSK — The Dec. 9 resignation of Cherokee County Court-at-Law Judge Craig Fletcher appears to be related in some capacity to a year-old court document that eased the restrictions on a convicted Rusk sex offender.

In that Dec. 12 document,  Fletcher signed in the name of Second Judicial District Judge Bascom W. Bentley III with the scribbled caveat "by permission CAF" directly

beneath it.

Fletcher's resignation immediately preceded the appointment of County Attorney Kelley Peacock as his immediate successor the same day it was accepted by Cherokee County Commissioners.  

Fletcher has gone off the grid since his resignation and has not responded to numerous requests for comment. He has, however, made updates on his Facebook account that do not address allegations but do specify he has a new job at University Land Clearing LLC of Rusk.

Bentley, meanwhile, has remained mum about the signature issue, even when asked directly in a Dec. 12 email if Fletcher had permission to sign his name on the sex offender document and if doing so was legally allowed by law.

Bentley's court coordinator, Tina Teetz, responded on his behalf — a week after a direct response was requested.

"Judge Bentley would not like to comment on this matter at this time," Teetz wrote in her Dec. 19 response.

An email inquiring as to the legalities of one judge signing for another also was submitted to the office of  Dallas County Justice of the Peace Steve Seider, who is listed as the chairman of the state commission of judicial conduct.  But as of a week later Seider had not responded.

After Fletcher's resignation was officially accepted,  a reserved Cherokee County District Attorney Rachel Patton confirmed a criminal investigation into Fletcher dates as far back as early October, shortly after she was informed of inappropriate professional behavior on the part of Fletcher that had the potential to have criminal implications.

Patton said she contacted the Texas Rangers and the Attorney General's office to request an independent outside investigation and possible prosecution.

A spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Public Safety also confirmed that the Texas Rangers recently were asked to investigate Fletcher through a special prosecutor with the district attorney's office.

When asked directly if this signature or those documents had anything to do with the investigation, Patton responded, "The initial allegations I was made aware of did not involve a court order."

But she added, "What information or potential charges the subsequent investigation by separate, independent agencies may have turned up, I cannot speak to."

Tom Kelley, spokesman for Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, was equally guarded in his comments when asked about the signature situation.

"I'm sorry," Kelley said in an email. "The matter was closed as far as our involvement, and no charges filed. So we cannot comment. If you want to consult a legal expert on the legality of signatures, you certainly may do so."

The sex offender whose restrictions were eased by virtue of the court action is listed in court documents as Rebecca Diann Blankinship, a former Rusk Independent School District nurse who pleaded guilty to having an improper relationship with a student — two counts of sexual assault of a child — in January 2010.

The case was prosecuted by DA Patton, when she was a first assistant district attorney for her predecessor, Elmer Beckworth.

As part of a plea agreement with Patton, Blankinship acknowledged her guilt on two counts of indecency with a child and two counts of improper relationship between an educator and a student.

She was sentenced to two years in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice for one of the counts of sexual assault of a child and received five years "unadjudicated" probation on the other count of sexual assault of a child.

As part of the plea agreement, Blankinship agreed to voluntarily relinquish her Texas nursing license, and she was required to comply with the Sex Offender Registration requirements for life.

Blankinship’s victim was a student of Rusk ISD while Blankinship served the district as nurse, the DA's office announced at the time.

The Dec. 2012 order signed by Fletcher using Judge Bentley's name modified the terms and conditions to community supervision rendered in January 2010 allowing Blankinship to attend extracurricular, religious or school-related activities with her biological children with a chaperone approved by her supervision officer.

She also will be allowed to use the Internet and to pick up and drop off her biological children.

Since authorities are declining to discuss the court document and Fletcher's signature, it was not clear Thursday if its presence on the document modifying Blankinship's community supervision is still legal.

Blankinsip was not at the home address listed for her in Cherokee County sex offender records when a reporter stopped by for comment Thursday.