Rat’s in the Trap
The day before Michael Beckcom was arrested for murder, a Texas Ranger spotted his red Ford Explorer parked in a small town not far from the Gulf Coast. On its tailpipe was a silver substance that looked like the remnants of melted duct tape. It was evidence that would link Beckcom to the grisly killing of a federal witness.
On June 4, 1996, Beckcom was jailed on a $10 million bond for his role in the slaying of George “Nick” Brueggen. Brueggen had been cooperating with federal authorities to build a fraud and tax evasion case against Beckcom and his associates, who fancied themselves a sort of South Texas Mafia. Beckcom and several others, including Mark Crawford, the former mayor of sleepy Ingleside, Texas, locked Brueggen in a large metal storage box. Using duct tape, they attached one end of a garden hose to the box and the other end to the tailpipe of Beckcom’s SUV. According to the Texas Rangers’ report, Beckcom then revved the engine, asphyxiating Brueggen.
Facing a capital murder charge, Beckcom cut a deal with prosecutors, becoming the government’s key witness against Crawford, the mastermind behind the murder.
Beckcom’s testimony was vivid. “Nick was kicking the box and making noise; he was panicking,” he testified in federal court, recalling one of his associates offering a pithy aside: “The rat’s in the trap.” When it was all over, his friends were eager to open the box, Beckcom said, while he “looked from the distance” as fumes wafted from its lid. Brueggen’s “eyes were open, and he had a blank stare. He was frozen there.”
Beckcom was critical to convicting Crawford, and while a federal district judge ultimately signed off on his plea deal, he also made clear that Beckcom had lied under oath. “The court believed you in part,” the judge said at Beckcom’s sentencing hearing. “But there were certainly areas where you gave false statements either to the investigating officers or your testimony on the witness stand was false.”
Despite the apparent perjury, Beckcom went on to play an equally crucial role in convicting Jeffrey Prible, who was sent to death row for the murder of his friends Steve Herrera and Nilda Tirado, along with their three kids. The family was found dead in their Houston home on April 24, 1999. Two years later, Prible was indicted for the killings while serving a five-year sentence at the federal correctional institution in Beaumont for a string of bank robberies.
There was no direct evidence tying Prible to the murders. Instead, Harris County prosecutor Kelly Siegler’s case was based on the thinnest of circumstantial evidence, which made Beckcom’s testimony indispensable even if his credibility was questionable: He was the only witness who could connect Prible to the crime.
Beckcom said that he and his cellmate, Nathan Foreman, had befriended Prible while imprisoned at Beaumont. One evening, according to Beckcom, the three men were sitting in a field on the rec yard when Prible confessed to the killings.
Once again, Beckcom’s testimony was cinematic. He described Prible as a modern-day ninja who boasted about his ability to carry out the murders undetected. “Anybody that can go in a house and take out a whole family and get out without being seen is a bad motherfucker,” Beckcom recalled Prible saying. “And I’m that motherfucker.”
The information Beckcom provided also sewed up the gaping holes in Siegler’s case. Prible lacked a motive — until Beckcom said he was angry with Herrera for hoarding cash from the bank robberies. Beckcom explained away the missing murder weapon by implying that Prible had buried it under some newly poured concrete. “Asphalt’s good sometimes for hiding things,” he said Prible told him. And he countered Prible’s alibi witness — a neighbor who saw Prible dropped off at home hours before the murders — by suggesting that Prible had snuck back into his friend’s house to kill the family.
In early 2017, Prible’s defense lawyers, James Rytting and Gretchen Scardino, sought Beckcom out to learn more about the deal he’d cut with Siegler. The first time he was scheduled to be deposed, Beckcom didn’t show up. Perhaps it shouldn’t have come as a surprise; when a defense investigator went to serve him with a subpoena, Beckcom was outwardly hostile to the notion of having to answer any questions.
The investigator persuaded Beckcom to meet him at a Starbucks outside a gated community in Florida. Beckcom rolled up on a Harley Davidson. Still fit, with his dark hair now graying around the temples, he was furious to learn about the subpoena. “If I have to,” the investigator recalled Beckcom saying, “I’ll kill the son-of-a-bitch lawyer and go back to prison, but I’m not going to get involved in this case anymore.”
The threat unnerved Scardino. She hired a retired federal marshal to sit outside the room when they finally got Beckcom in for his deposition. Scardino steadied her nerves as the questioning began, but it was Beckcom who broke the ice. Was he on anything that might impair his memory? Scardino asked. “Just age,” Beckcom joked.
For his role in the Crawford prosecution, Beckcom had been handsomely rewarded: just 11 years for a slaying that could have netted him the death penalty. Still, as he served his time at Beaumont, he hoped that his cooperation in the Prible case would swing the prison doors wide open. He expected as much from Siegler, he told Scardino. Instead, he got a year shaved off his sentence. Nearly two decades later, he was still vexed.
“You thought you’d be walking out the door?” Scardino asked.
“For a house full of bodies? Yeah,” he replied, crossing his arms. “Children? Sure.”
Still, Scardino could see why Beckcom made an effective witness; he remained unflappable and calm over more than five hours of questioning. He said he’d gotten Siegler’s name from Foreman but couldn’t recall how he knew that Prible was coming to the unit before he arrived. “Someone would have had to tell you that he was coming, right?” Scardino asked. “Yeah, I would assume so,” Beckcom replied. Nor could he recall whether Siegler had shared details about Prible’s case, like the problem of the alibi witness.
At some point, Beckcom said, he realized there were multiple men vying to inform on Prible, “like fricking 10 guys,” but “somehow I ended up with the information.”
“The details Jeff Prible gave me he gave completely and explicitly to me and Nathan Foreman one night,” he said. “He just rolled it out.”
At trial, Siegler had introduced a photo of Beckcom, Foreman, and Prible alongside their parents in the Beaumont visitation room. During his deposition, Beckcom acknowledged that the photo was staged to corroborate his story that the men were so close that Prible would confess. But while the photo was dated the same day as the alleged confession, it was taken hours earlier, before Prible had said anything. “You had nothing to corroborate yet,” Rytting said. “No,” Beckcom agreed.
Rytting asked Beckcom about the affidavit Foreman had provided in 2016, which characterized Beckcom as one of the men looking to sink Prible in exchange for a time cut. Foreman said that Prible never confessed in his presence, contrary to Beckcom’s trial testimony. “In fact, I never heard Prible say anything bad about the victims,” Foreman said. “When he talked about Herrera, he talked about him like he was a friend he had lost.”
“Wow,” Beckcom remarked. “I mean, it makes no sense. Why would he be trying to gather information and then say, ‘I didn’t get the information, no, that’s not true’? He either heard these things or he didn’t hear them, so he can’t have it both ways.”
“That’s correct,” Rytting replied. “And he states he didn’t hear them.”
Kelly Siegler sat in a leather office chair, a bottle of Diet Coke in hand, staring down a videographer’s camera. Throughout more than nine hours of questioning, her expressions traversed a spectrum of impassive to dismissive to haughty as she repeatedly denied doing anything wrong.
In her decades at the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, Siegler had been the one asking questions. Now, during a sworn deposition in October 2017, Prible’s lawyers had the chance to confront her about the measures she took to convict their client.
It was a significant turn of events for the hot shot prosecutor-turned-reality TV star, but not unprecedented. A few years earlier, she’d spent five bruising days on the witness stand answering questions about her prosecution of David Temple, the high school football coach sentenced to life in prison for murdering his pregnant wife, Belinda. Temple’s conviction, based on circumstantial evidence, was Siegler’s final cold case victory at the DA’s office. Months later, in the wake of her failed campaign to become the next DA, she resigned.
More than just a personal defeat, Siegler’s election loss signaled the start of Harris County’s ongoing shift away from the lock-them-all-up politics of her mentors. And while it ultimately fed the narrative of Siegler’s phoenix-like ascent to a larger stage, the loss also seemed to animate her with the notion that subsequent allegations of prosecutorial misconduct were some sort of political payback.
In challenging his conviction, Temple argued that Siegler had withheld a raft of records from the defense, including those related to an alternate suspect. Confronted with the alleged improprieties in court, Siegler was pugnacious. She was only required to turn over evidence related to “truly, truly” alternate suspects, she said, not “ridiculous” information that came from sources she deemed “kooky.”
Assistant District Attorney Kelly Siegler takes the stand during a hearing for a new trial in the case of David Temple on Jan. 14, 2008.
Photo: Steve Campbell/Houston Chronicle via Getty Images
She intimated that the questions swirling around Temple’s conviction were all thanks to her opponent in the DA’s race years earlier, whom Siegler claimed had made a deal with Temple’s trial attorney to reopen the case, presumably as part of a plot to besmirch her reputation.
Siegler’s testimony did not sit well with the district court, which concluded that her actions had deprived Temple of a fair trial. The notoriously conservative Texas Court of Criminal Appeals agreed, vacating the conviction. While Temple would eventually be retried and convicted, the public rebuke was still fresh when Siegler sat down to answer questions about the Prible case.
Siegler insisted that the lawyers’ petition challenging Prible’s conviction was full of lies.
Can you name one of the allegations that “stands out as being false?” Rytting asked.
“Well, the overarching lie is that I orchestrated a ring of informants from the Beaumont federal prison,” she said. “That is a lie … that you made up.”
Siegler also denied hiding anything from Prible’s lawyers at trial. All the evidence the state had developed was in a file that was open to the defense, she said, including any notes.
It was an odd position given that federal District Judge Keith Ellison had only recently unearthed notes from Siegler’s files documenting her meetings with Nathan Foreman, who positioned himself early on as an informant against Prible and was later described as the ringleader of the Beaumont snitches. The notes also showed that she had consulted a forensic expert who undermined her assertion at trial that the sperm found in Nilda Tirado’s mouth could only have been deposited moments before she was shot.
Siegler’s colleagues, meanwhile, had different takes on her willingness to turn over evidence. “Kelly didn’t give up anything she didn’t have to,” Johnny Bonds, the DA investigator who went on to become Siegler’s “Cold Justice” co-star, said in a deposition. Vic Wisner, her co-counsel on the Prible case, said the DA’s office “always had an open file policy unless there was some extraordinary need not to,” but that it didn’t include notes.
There were other contradictions. Siegler denied that Beckcom played a “vital role” at Prible’s trial, even though that was the precise language she used to describe his participation. In a Rule 35 letter, Siegler had implored the federal prosecutor who handled the Brueggen murder case to advocate for a time cut for Beckcom. The prosecutor was reluctant; Beckcom’s plea deal was generous, he told Siegler. But her case “involved the vicious murder of FIVE people,” she wrote in a second letter. And Beckcom had “played a vital role in obtaining a conviction.”
Siegler conceded at her deposition that she and Bonds first met with Foreman to discuss Prible’s case in August 2001, long before the casual rec yard encounter presented at trial. Foreman offered dubious details of Prible’s alleged crime, which Siegler and Bonds memorialized on several sheets of lined paper. Still, Siegler insisted that Foreman played no role in the case, becoming increasingly hostile each time his name was brought up. “Mr. Foreman was not involved in Jeffrey Prible’s case,” she told the lawyers. “I know you want him to be, but he was not.”
Siegler claimed, for the first time, that she and Bonds left the meeting convinced that Foreman was not credible. “We walked out of there saying we didn’t believe a word he had to say.” This echoed what Bonds said in his deposition; as he recalled, Foreman could not even describe what Prible looked like. Siegler did not explain why she continued to meet with Foreman, who introduced her to his cellmate, Beckcom, the man she decided was credible enough to put on the witness stand.
As it turns out, Siegler had been talking about Prible with a Beaumont informant even earlier than her notes reflected. At the deposition, she revealed that in July 2001 she had discussed Prible’s case with Jesse Moreno, the informant who gave her Foreman’s name and later served as her star witness against Hermilo Herrero. The admission suggested it was Siegler who set in motion the high-stakes competition to inform on Prible. And all of it started before Prible had even been charged with murder or transferred to the unit where the snitch ring operated.
There was also the matter of the letters Siegler had received from three other men at Beaumont volunteering accounts of Prible’s jailhouse confession. Like Siegler’s notes, the letters were only disclosed via judicial intervention years after Prible’s trial. They would never have come to light without Carl Walker, one of the would-be informants who withdrew from the scheme after a crisis of conscience and prompted the lawyers to seek a review of Siegler’s records. Nevertheless, Siegler said that the letters would also have been in her “open” file.
She dismissed their significance, seemingly unfazed by the idea that so many people angling to inform on Prible might cast doubt on any confession narrative coming out of Beaumont. “Federal inmates audition for any role … on any case they can think of with any information they might hear to try to get a time cut,” she said. “That’s what federal inmates do all day long 24 hours a day.”
“So you knew that they were doing this before Mr. Prible’s trial?” Scardino asked.
“I’m not stupid,” Siegler replied.
Rytting questioned whether Siegler had engaged with the Beaumont informants in an effort to gin up evidence. Siegler was having none of it. “Your witnesses’ affidavits were lies,” she stated. “You have not one shred or iota or piece of credible evidence from a credible witness that supports any of these allegations.”
“And these are the type of witnesses that you used to put people on death row?” Rytting asked.
“I’m calling you a liar, sir,” she replied.
“And I’m calling you one.”
Undisclosed records in Kelly Siegler’s file showed communications with the same group of Beaumont informants about two cold murder cases she was prosecuting nearly simultaneously. Siegler heard from at least five men at Beaumont volunteering accounts of Jeffrey Prible’s jailhouse confession. Meanwhile, her meetings with Jesse Moreno and Nathan Foreman included discussion of both the Prible and Hermilo Herrero cases.
Graphic: The Intercept
In 2018, Scardino and Rytting filed an amended petition in federal court challenging Prible’s conviction. “For over 15 years, the state has denied any conspiracy to frame Prible for the murders of the Herrera/Tirado family through the use of false jailhouse informant testimony,” it began. “Now, lead prosecutor Kelly Siegler’s own handwritten notes … confirm that this was in fact the case.”
“Prible’s trial was a master class in obfuscation by omission,” the lawyers wrote. Had jurors been privy to the extent of Siegler’s interactions with the Beaumont informants, they would have seen the state’s case for what it was. “The jury would have figured out that the whole thing was a set-up.”
A year later, Ellison granted their request for a hearing to consider the evidence. For so long, Prible’s suspicions about the Beaumont informants had been dismissed as paranoid speculation. Now a federal judge was giving them a chance to prove their case. “We knew we had a story to tell,” Scardino said.
A few days before the evidentiary hearing was scheduled to begin in downtown Houston, Ellison convened a conference call with the lawyers for each side. The topic: Kelly Siegler.
“I am concerned with the fact that Ms. Siegler seems to be unavailable,” he said.
For months, Scardino and Rytting had been trying to serve Siegler with a subpoena to appear at the hearing. They tried her at her office and at home. She never responded.
Tina Miranda, the Texas assistant attorney general tasked with defending Prible’s conviction, spoke up: Siegler had contacted her to say that she “travels a lot for her taping of her show” and would be unavailable. The judge was irritated. “That’s the kind of thing that a witness avoiding appearing would say,” Ellison said. “I really would have expected much more from an officer of the court.”
On the morning of the hearing, Prible sat in a high-backed chair in Ellison’s courtroom. He turned to smile at his family, which was out in force. His three grown children were there, along with his mother, sister, and other relatives. Scardino had two witnesses waiting to testify: Nathan Foreman and Carl Walker. The judge assumed the bench at 10 a.m. There was just one problem. “Has anybody heard from Ms. Siegler?” Ellison asked.
Miranda had: Siegler was still out of town. “I wish she would cover this case on her TV show and explain to the nation why she couldn’t be present,” Ellison quipped. The hearing would start without her.
Scardino launched into Prible’s case. Prosecutors had declined to indict anyone for the Herrera and Tirado murders based on the limited evidence collected by the summer of 1999, she said. Yet, without uncovering anything new, Siegler asked a grand jury to indict Prible two years later. By the time she took the case to trial, there was only one additional element: Michael Beckcom.
To believe Beckcom’s story about Prible’s confession, Scardino told the judge, you’d have to place faith in Foreman, whom Beckcom said was by his side when Prible owned up to the crime. Siegler had met with Foreman at least twice in connection with Prible’s case, although she failed to inform the defense. Despite this, Siegler claimed Foreman was irrelevant and untrustworthy.
Siegler’s files showed that she’d heard from at least five men at Beaumont jockeying for informant status in the hopes of securing time cuts, which should have raised red flags. Yet Siegler simply buried the communications.
The “sordid backstory” of the prosecutor and the informants would never have come to light, Scardino said, if “one of the informants that Siegler decided not to use,” Carl Walker, hadn’t come forward and “spilled the beans on the ring of snitches.”
“There’s only one reason she would avoid being here in person today to clear her name,” Scardino said. “That is because her name can’t be cleared.”
Miranda conceded that “at face value,” it was “disturbing” that so many people were trying to snitch on Prible, but she said there was no proof that Siegler put them up to it or even understood what was going on.
The judge seemed skeptical of Miranda’s take. “What was the alternative thesis?” he asked. “Why would these inmates become so enthusiastic about trying to pin a capital crime on Mr. Prible?”
That’s just what they do, Miranda responded. If that were the case, Ellison said, “Wouldn’t that cause a seasoned prosecutor to be especially wary about this kind of evidence?”
Miranda insisted that Siegler was attuned to the problem. After all, she only put Beckcom on the stand as a witness against Prible — not the four others who also supposedly heard him confess.
Jeffrey Prible, bottom center, poses for a group photo at FCI Beaumont. He is surrounded by a group of informants, including Carl Walker, top left, Michael Beckcom, top center, and Nathan Foreman, top right.
Courtesy Gretchen Scardino
After being released from Beaumont, Foreman had landed in legal trouble again with a conviction for aggravated kidnapping and robbery. When he took the stand at the evidentiary hearing, he was out on bond as his case made its way through the appeals process. Although he’d played an outsize role behind bars in the scheme to snitch on Prible, in court Foreman was almost timid; he spoke so quietly that the court reporter asked him to pull the microphone closer.
At Beaumont, Foreman had every incentive to offer up incriminating information about his neighbors, true or not. Now he was facing 50 years in state prison — the rest of his life — and no amount of self-dealing would change the sentence.
Foreman testified that he’d first heard the names Kelly Siegler and Jeffrey Prible from Jesse Moreno, the informant who met with Siegler about Prible’s case and became her star witness against Hermilo Herrero. It was Herrero who first alerted Prible that the same band of informants was behind their convictions. Two months before Prible’s trial started, Siegler traveled to Louisiana to testify in favor of a drastic time cut for Moreno, whose sentence was reduced from 78 months in prison to just one.
While incarcerated in Beaumont, Foreman and Moreno both wound up in the Special Housing Unit, where Foreman was working as a janitor and orderly, delivering meals. It was there that Moreno told him about Prible — before Prible had even arrived. Moreno suggested that he reach out to Siegler about becoming an informant. Foreman testified that what he knew about Prible’s case came not only from Moreno, but also from Siegler, who told him that Prible’s DNA had been found in Tirado’s mouth.
Foreman said he never heard Prible confess to the murders of Herrera, Tirado, and their kids. And since he was eager for a time cut, he’d remember a confession. Beckcom’s statement at trial sounded scripted, he added. “All I could say is that he should have been a book writer or something.” When Rytting read aloud Beckcom’s line about Prible being trained in the Marines for “high-intensity, low-drag” maneuvers, Foreman laughed. “I’ve never heard that one,” he said. “It really sounds like he got it off television.”
The judge wanted to know if men at Beaumont regularly discussed the crimes they had committed. Wouldn’t that be risky business? “That is correct,” Foreman replied. People might talk about past crimes — if they were of little consequence — but never about pending charges and certainly not about murdering children. That could get you killed.
As Prible recalled, Foreman winked at him on his way out of the courtroom. Prible took it as a conciliatory gesture, as if to admit he’d done wrong but tried to make it right. “So he’s OK with me.”
In contrast to Foreman, Carl Walker had created a prosperous new life for himself after leaving federal prison, becoming a tech entrepreneur in Houston. He was, Scardino thought, the moral center of their case, sharing what he knew about the ring of informants even when doing so might have put him in jeopardy. “He struck me as someone who has a very clear understanding of right and wrong,” she said.
“He was going to be a scapegoat for several individuals to have an opportunity to get out of prison sooner than later.”
The courtroom was silent as Walker testified. He’d been recruited as one of a handful of snitches who would inform on Prible, he said, and was told details of the alleged offense before Prible was transferred to the prison unit.
“It was already mapped out” by the time Prible arrived, Walker said. Beckcom and Foreman were the ones corralling things on the inside, but there was clearly someone pulling the strings on the outside: “The details they knew … was so vivid or so in depth that, like I say, I knew before he got there, and they knew even more than I knew.”
“Was Mr. Prible a mark?” Rytting asked.
“In every sense of the word,” Walker replied. “He was going to be a scapegoat for several individuals to have an opportunity to get out of prison sooner than later.”
Did Walker know anyone else at Beaumont who was the target of a similar plot? Yes, Walker said: Hermilo Herrero. A bunch of guys who tried to get a piece of the Prible case had eyed Herrero as well. “Some of them were working on the twofer aspect.”
By the time Terry Gaiser appeared at the hearing, he had nearly 50 years of criminal defense experience in Harris County under his belt. Gaiser represented Prible at his 2002 trial. Back then, he told the court, what was shared with the defense was “what they put in the file.” The whole discovery process relied on a foundation of trust, and jailhouse informants were “fundamentally unreliable,” Gaiser said. Had he known Siegler was communicating with a network of men competing to inform on Prible, as the undisclosed letters and meeting notes revealed, he could have used these items to dismantle the basis of the state’s case.
Kelly Siegler in a “Cold Justice” press photo.
Photo: Michael Wong/Oxygen/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images
By the time the hearing convened again, arrangements had been made for Siegler to appear via video. It was a less-than-ideal setup. There were transmission delays, and Siegler was positioned so that part of her face was out of the frame, making it hard to read her expressions. At one point, the connection was lost altogether. “She do it intentionally?” Ellison asked. “Can we tell?”
Cheryl Peterson, Prible’s aunt, recalled this as the one moment Ellison seemed close to losing his cool. “He was so restrained,” she said. She had watched with growing disbelief as Siegler tested his patience in the run-up to the hearing. “Like, how the hell does she thumb her nose at a federal judge?”
Siegler was unapologetic about her failure to appear in court. Miranda hadn’t told her where to be or when, she said. And she claimed to have no idea that Prible’s team had repeatedly attempted to serve her with a subpoena.
Pressed about her failure to disclose her dealings with Foreman to Prible’s defense, Siegler again insisted that Foreman was not connected to the case. But he was her original snitch, Scardino said, and according to Beckcom, he was there when Prible confessed, which made him a corroborating witness even if he didn’t take the stand. “Because he’s standing there, it doesn’t mean he’s credible,” Siegler snapped. “It doesn’t mean he has information.”
Siegler seemed invested in painting Foreman as a liar, not just in their previous interactions, when he was angling for a time cut, but also at the hearing, when he was undermining the basis of her case against Prible. When Ellison suggested that Foreman’s testimony struck him as sincere, Siegler assured him she knew better. “Of all the inmates I’ve ever dealt with, he’s at the top of the list for not being credible.”
On cross-examination, Miranda pitched a series of softball questions: When Siegler got the case in 2001, there was already enough evidence to take it to trial, right? Was she even looking for an informant? “No, ma’am,” Siegler replied.
If her case was already solid, the judge asked, why did she use Beckcom at all? “There are five victims here,” Siegler said. While she believed her case was “strong enough for a jury to convict,” she worried that some of the jurors might not see it that way. “I wanted to be sure.”
Scardino pounced on Siegler’s statement as an admission that the case was too weak to prosecute without Beckcom. “Siegler didn’t just use Beckcom to testify that he heard a confession,” Scardino told the judge. She used his “highly scripted and choreographed” testimony to “explain away all of the problematic aspects of the state’s case.” Beckcom, she said, was Siegler’s case.
A courtroom at the Harris County Criminal Justice Center in Houston on May 18, 2018.
Photo: Karen Warren/Houston Chronicle via Getty Images
A year after the evidentiary hearing, Ellison vacated Prible’s conviction. The prosecution had engaged in a “pattern of deceptive behavior and active concealment” that could have changed the outcome of Prible’s trial, he wrote. The evidence Siegler withheld revealed an “orchestrated effort by a ring of informants to fabricate a confession from Prible in return for sentence reductions.”
Ellison concluded that Beckcom had acted as an agent of the state in working with Siegler to elicit a confession from Prible, implicating the prosecution in a violation of Prible’s Sixth Amendment right to counsel.
And while the evidence did not prove that Siegler knew Beckcom was lying nor “completely” verify Prible’s argument that she was running a snitch scheme, Ellison nonetheless found that Siegler had hidden the full extent of her dealings with the informants and “was far from credible in her federal court testimony.”
“This court does not endorse the cavalier attitude Siegler has displayed regarding her constitutional duty to preserve the fundamental fairness of the trial proceedings,” Ellison wrote.
Scardino was elated. She felt confident that the judge would rule in their favor, but she didn’t anticipate how powerful the ruling would be. “It really vindicated Jeff,” she said.
News of the order came in the early months of the pandemic. “We were all just stumbling into one of our first of many covid lockdowns when I heard the news about Jeff’s reversal,” Thomas Whitaker, the incarcerated writer who investigated Prible’s case, wrote. “I remember standing at my door, paper in hand, arms raised in triumph.”
Prible’s sense of vindication was bittersweet. His father, who suffered bouts of depression over his son’s wrongful conviction, had died without seeing the legal victory. Prible’s own son, 27-year-old Ronald Jeffrey Prible III, whom he called “Little Jeff,” was struck by a train and killed six months after attending the evidentiary hearing. For Prible, who had seen hundreds of neighbors taken to the execution chamber, there was no court order that could restore what he had lost.
Still, he began to imagine a life outside prison walls. Peterson, his aunt, used to send him photos of the sunsets from her waterfront property on Lake Conroe, north of Houston. Prible dreamed of working the grounds and watching the sun go down over the water. From his colorless death row cell, the images of future sunsets sustained him. But just when it started to feel like freedom might be within reach, a whole new nightmare began.
Ellison ordered the state to retry or release Prible within six months. Instead, Texas balked at the ruling and asked the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn it.
According to Texas Assistant Solicitor General Ari Cuenin, the allegations of the snitch ring were “incoherent and unproven,” and federal law barred the judge from even allowing Prible’s lawyers to present them in court. In the state’s reading, any argument Prible wanted to pursue about the Beaumont informants should have been made by his state post-conviction attorney, Roland Moore, back in 2004. At the time, Prible was only aware that a Black man named Walker might have some information about how he was framed for a crime he didn’t commit.
To Rytting and Scardino, this was absurd. Prible had no proof precisely because Siegler failed to disclose evidence of her communication with the Beaumont informants. After all, the state knew where the elusive Carl Walker was all along: His full name and inmate number were included on the letter he’d signed, which was sequestered in Siegler’s file.
It was the state’s actions that prevented Prible from raising the claims earlier, the lawyers maintained. If Prible’s trial attorneys had known there was a band of informants scheming to set him up — and that Siegler deemed Foreman unreliable, even as Beckcom testified that Foreman could corroborate his account of Prible’s confession — then they could have gutted Beckcom’s testimony, leaving Siegler’s otherwise circumstantial case in tatters.
In late 2021, the lawyers for each side traveled from Texas to New Orleans, where the 5th Circuit is based, for oral arguments. Presiding over the panel was Judge James Dennis. Now 87 and on senior status, he is one of a handful of judges appointed by a Democratic president left on the ultra-conservative court. Dennis, participating remotely amid the pandemic, asked no questions of either side; all queries would come from a pair of Republican-appointed judges who appeared to see the case in radically different terms.
A former Texas assistant solicitor general and Trump appointee known for his far-right views, Judge Kyle Duncan leaned into Cuenin’s position that Prible should have raised the informant issues years earlier. Duncan asked whether the defense had sent anyone to Beaumont to look for a man named Walker, prompting a long pause from Rytting: “That is not how the Bureau of Prisons works,” he said. “What, the investigator goes in and says, ‘You got a guy named Walker here?’”
Prible did what he could with the scant information available behind bars, Rytting said. But it all amounted to rumor and hunch, which was not enough to raise a concrete legal claim back in 2004.
Jennifer Elrod, who was a civil court judge in Houston before being appointed to the bench by George W. Bush, appeared to understand Prible’s dilemma.
She took issue with the state’s dismissal of Siegler’s note about the DNA, which Cuenin said had no bearing on the case given Prible had admitted to having sex with Tirado early on the morning of her murder. The note would have to say more than it did — “Pamela McInnis — semen lives up to 72 hours” — to be relevant to Prible’s defense, Cuenin argued.
“It is very relevant whether it happened on the edge of the killing or whether it happened several hours before,” Elrod said. At trial, Siegler asserted that the amount of semen on the swab proved that Prible had forced Tirado to perform oral sex moments before shooting her. The note showed that the director of a local crime lab she consulted would not have been willing to back up her argument. “That matters tremendously in inflaming the jury and … whether you get the death penalty because you’re such a monster that you have sex and then have just an overwhelming desire to kill,” Elrod said. “And that was ginned up to be very relevant.”
“Do we have any ethical duties if we believe that there’s unethical conduct?” Elrod asked Cuenin as the arguments came to a close.
“As lawyers we all have ethical duties,” he replied.
“I’m just wondering, has that been handled?” she pressed. “We don’t have any duty to report anything we learn in this case to the bar?”
“That’s not a part of this case,” Cuenin said.
Peterson remembers feeling encouraged by Elrod’s line of questioning. She was optimistic that the court might rule in Prible’s favor. Instead, nine months later, a unanimous panel ruled in favor of Texas, reinstating Prible’s death sentence. “That was devastating,” she said. “After that, we didn’t have much hope.”
Scardino and Rytting were dismayed. Elrod had expressed concern about unethical conduct on the part of the state. For her to join Duncan’s majority opinion, which fully embraced the state’s position, was confounding. The judges did not address whether Siegler had withheld evidence critical to Prible’s defense, ruling only that the lawyers had raised the claim too late.
“Jeff was gaslighted for years,” by Siegler, by the courts, by the attorney general’s office, Scardino said, “all of whom were saying, ‘This guy is delusional, this conspiracy is all a figment of his imagination.’” And once he was finally able to prove it, “the 5th Circuit says, ‘Too bad, it’s too late, he should’ve figured it out years earlier.’”
The lawyers asked the full court to reconsider the panel’s ruling, and when it declined, they asked the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene. In June, it too declined to get involved.
Truth Will Come Out
If Siegler was paying attention to Prible’s case as it made its way through the courts, there was no sign of it on her Twitter feed. As Prible’s fate hung in the balance at the Supreme Court, Siegler posted a landscape photo taken from an airplane. “Hello America! First case, Season 7 we start working tomorrow,” she wrote. ““Wish us luck!”
The new season of “Cold Justice” is set to air next year. In the meantime, Siegler is promoting the inaugural season of “Prosecuting Evil.” At CrimeCon in Orlando, she was welcomed with uproarious cheers and a standing ovation. “When you’re not here you’re so missed,” said the Oxygen correspondent who introduced Siegler. “When you’re back here it feels like a reunion.”
Siegler took the stage with the showrunner from “Cold Justice” and the executive producer of “Prosecuting Evil.” They teased the new show’s premiere with a clip revisiting Siegler’s most notorious moment: straddling her colleague on a bloody mattress to reenact a defendant stabbing her husband to death.
“I can truly say that probably is what led to all this,” Siegler said of the bed stunt. It was the point where her real life as a hard-driving prosecutor produced the parallel life she would later inhabit, turning her into a reality TV star. There were members of the legal community who thought she went too far, she told the audience, but that didn’t bother her. “I care more about what people like you think.”
Asked about the advice she would give someone “passionate about a career in the legal system,” Siegler said it was all about ethics. “Every decision you make comes back to your own integrity.” From filing charges to “every time you talk to a witness,” she said, you’re “always really, really” trying to do the right thing. “And you don’t let your damn ego get in the way. And you don’t worry about winning or losing the trial, you just do what’s right. It’ll keep your reputation always intact.”
Five episodes in, “Prosecuting Evil” appears to be about fortifying Siegler’s reputation and ensuring her legacy as a prosecutor who pulled no punches in the pursuit of justice. The show prominently features the families of homicide victims, who show deep gratitude for the work done on behalf of their loved ones. In the episodes focused on her old cases, Siegler is more defiant than reflective, reveling in court victories and evincing scorn for defendants, defense attorneys, and attempts to overturn her convictions. “That’s inflammatory and that’s over the top and that’s grandstanding,” she said in the premiere, mocking her critics. “Gimme a break.”
To Prible’s supporters, Siegler’s continued celebrity is less disturbing than the lack of accountability she’s faced. Ward Larkin, the anti-death-penalty activist, has made it a point never to watch “Cold Justice.” “It’s obvious she’s extremely intelligent,” he said. “But she’s also a horrible person. … She has no compunction about the horrors she inflicts on people.”
Hermilo Herrero is now in his 50s. Despite Rytting’s efforts on his behalf, his appeals have been denied. He continues to insist on his innocence for the murder of Albert Guajardo in 1995. “Albert was a friend and never my enemy and I have been living with that lie they made up,” he wrote in a letter to The Intercept. He blames Siegler for her drive to win at all costs, even if it meant sending innocent people to die in prison and “stealing the justice from the victims or the victim’s families that they so much need and deserve.”
“It is not just Herrero and myself where the only evidence presented against us is a jailhouse snitch who says that we confessed to them,” Prible wrote in an open letter after his conviction was vacated. “There are others. … The truth will come out. It has already started.”
Jeffrey Prible and his son “Little Jeff” in a photo taken at FCI Beaumont in 2001.
Courtesy of Prible family
If the state wanted to reinvestigate Prible’s case, there are some obvious places to start. A man named Philip Brody shared recollections with The Intercept that could have been critical to law enforcement had there been a thorough investigation two decades ago. Brody was friends with both Prible and Steve Herrera in the years leading up to Herrera’s death. Some six months before the killings, Brody said, Herrera told him about a man in the “drug game” who owed him money. The man had been arrested before paying Herrera back. So “we took my truck and emptied out everything in his whole house,” Brody recalled. Then Herrera sold the man’s belongings.
The man was just one person who had a motive to kill Herrera. But there were others, Brody said. Shortly after that incident, Herrera asked Brody to do something that “kind of put the nail in the coffin for our friendship.” According to Brody, Herrera asked if he would be willing to arm himself with tactical gear and an assault weapon and break into a drug dealer’s house to steal money, drugs, and whatever else they could find. “And I was like, ‘Hell no.’”
To Brody, it seemed obvious that Herrera was making dangerous enemies. He believes this is what got him killed in the end. Murdering an entire family was something members of a drug cartel would do. Prible had children of his own. “I couldn’t see Jeff doing that to the innocent kids, you know?”
It should also have been obvious to police that Herrera’s drug dealing likely played a part in the murders. Among the documents the state failed to turn over to Prible’s defense before trial was an anonymous letter that Herrera’s parents received days after their son’s murder. “OK Fuckheads this is not a cordial greeting,” it began, before demanding that the couple get rid of the “thieves and drug dealers” living in a rental property they owned. The letter threatened to burn down 11 properties the Herreras maintained as rentals if the alleged drug dealing continued. “This is your only warning!!!!” the letter concluded.
The letter did not include the house where Herrera and Tirado lived. Still, the threats dovetailed with the circumstances surrounding the murders and appeared to offer a viable lead. But contemporaneous reports suggest police did nothing with the letter aside from putting it in a manila envelope and marking it as evidence.
It isn’t clear when Prible’s attorneys received a copy of the letter. When Gaiser, Prible’s trial attorney, was shown a copy during the 2019 evidentiary hearing, he testified that he’d never seen it. He said he would have used it as a jumping off point for his own investigation. “That was extremely relevant to whether there was another motive,” he testified.
Bill Watson, the state’s DNA analyst at trial, told The Intercept that he would testify differently if called to the stand today. He has more experience now, he said, and some of his answers sounded more “definitive” than they should have. As the state’s expert witness, he didn’t intend to endorse the theory that the DNA could only have been deposited at the time of Tirado’s death, but that’s how the state used his testimony. During his closing argument, Vic Wisner, Siegler’s co-counsel, told the jury that there was “no way in the world that semen wasn’t deposited either moments before or seconds after Nilda died.” Watson called that an “overstatement.” “‘No way in the world’ is not something I would’ve said.”
In a phone call with The Intercept, Johnny Bonds, the DA investigator turned “Cold Justice” star, defended Siegler, saying his longtime friend and colleague is one of the most “upstanding” people he’s met. Bonds said he was reassured when he learned that Prible’s death sentence had been reinstated. “I can’t imagine her doing anything like [what] she’s accused of.” Upon reflection, he believes Nathan Foreman was behind the allegations that fueled Prible’s litigation. Foreman was indignant that Bonds and Siegler wouldn’t let him on the “bandwagon” of informants against Prible, Bonds said. “He wanted something out of it, and when he didn’t get anything out of it, he said, ‘Well, I’ll show you.’”
Scardino, meanwhile, is hard at work on a new state court appeal. While the 5th Circuit ruled against Prible, it didn’t disturb the district judge’s findings that Prible had been denied a fair trial. Scardino plans to take those findings and the wealth of evidence backing them up to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. “I really do believe that in the end, the system will correct the colossal miscarriage of justice that has taken place,” she said.
Michael Beckcom has been out of prison for nearly two decades and lives a quiet life. He rides a motorcycle, plays in a band, and loves dogs. He still carries himself with confidence, though years of bodybuilding have left significant aches and pains.
He doesn’t like to talk about his time in prison or his turn as a snitch for Kelly Siegler. Working with her put him in danger behind bars, he said, netting him several years of solitary confinement, which was meant to keep him safe. Beckcom is still angry with Siegler. He expected that his testimony against Prible would spring him from prison. He was counting on that. And he needed to get home to take care of his daughter and aging mother.
It was Siegler who screwed him over, he said over a cup of coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts, but it was Foreman who “roped me” into the whole mess to begin with. Foreman was working with Siegler on the Herrero case, he recalled, when he pulled Beckcom in on the Prible case. Foreman then told Siegler that Beckcom was the one who “knew the whole story,” he said. “And it all came to fruition.” Foreman did not respond to The Intercept’s requests for an interview.
Beckcom acknowledged that his testimony against Prible might have sounded fishy. He understands that it was the only new piece of evidence Siegler turned up after taking over the cold case. But he insists that Prible confessed to him. At least that’s how he remembers it. “It is what it is from my perspective, and that’s the way it happened to me,” he said. “Anybody can take that, do with it what they want.”
“Your ass is in a jam because she’s going to get 12 people to say you did it.”
At the same time, he believed Siegler provided him with a road map to the information she needed to convict Prible. “She may give you, I’m not going to say evidence, but she can give you certain things that he wouldn’t have given you,” Beckcom said. “It’s all in the framing.” She would say something like, “‘Did he mention anything about such and such’ and then maybe give you an idea. If you had more than one brain cell kicking, you could figure it out what she was talking about.”
“This was her forte,” he added. Which is “not good if you’re on the fucking receiving end. Your ass is in a jam because she’s going to get 12 people to say you did it.”
When asked if it was possible that his story of Prible’s confession wasn’t all above board — that it was embellished with information Siegler provided — Beckcom said no. But he also demurred, saying maybe Prible was just telling stories to make himself look tough behind bars. “If everything he said was a fabrication to make him look like a gangster because he was in prison, then that’s on him,” Beckcom said. “He shouldn’t have said anything.”
Prible has never stopped talking about his case. In correspondence, he often writes at a frenzied pace, joking frequently, alluding to literature and music, and peppering his emails with exclamation points.
Prible makes no excuses for his past. “I did drugs and was involved in criminal activity! I was a womanizer! I am not like that anymore!” He maintains his innocence and adamantly denies ever confessing to Beckcom, “an obvious fake” who carried himself like an Italian mobster, saying “stupid shit” like he knew who killed Jimmy Hoffa. Prible said he only tolerated Beckcom because he was friendly with Foreman. “I did not want to say ‘your friend’s full of shit.’”
Prible rejects the notion that the state never considered any other suspects in the murders, as Siegler emphasized to his jury. “They just got rid of anything that was useful to my defense!” While he’s eager to discuss aspects of his case that he feels have not been sufficiently investigated, he’s just as anxious to convey the urgency of his circumstances. Living on death row for 21 years has been a “rollercoaster ride through hell.”
Prible’s mental health has ebbed and flowed over his decades at Polunsky. During one period, Larkin said, “he was having episodes, mental health episodes, where it would just paralyze him.” Prible asked Larkin to research the impact of long-term solitary confinement — “he was convinced that there was something to that.” He was right. Solitary confinement has been shown to be psychologically devastating. Many experts consider it torture. The research became a survival tool for Prible, a way to recognize what was happening to his mind.
Prible’s earliest emails to The Intercept were strikingly upbeat. He was hopeful that the Supreme Court would take his case, even though it was a long shot, and seemed undeterred when it was rejected. “Jeff, in spite of all of this, is an eternal optimist,” Scardino said. “He’s able to recover from the repeated blows to his legal case — to his life.”
But more recently, Prible has struggled to ward off the torment of his surroundings. In early November, a series of panic attacks sent him spiraling. “You know I was fine until they locked me in a tiny cage for so fucking long and killed everyone around me I come to care for!” he wrote in one email. In another, he remembered a friend executed years ago, whom he believed was waiting for him “at the end of the Green Mile. … He comes to me in my dreams and always makes me smile like only he can!” In the wake of the panic attacks, Prible sent a letter asking the judge in his case for an execution date.
Legally, it would take more than such a letter to put Prible in imminent danger of execution. And he’s not actually ready to give up. “In the Marine Corps, they teach you contingency plans for everything,” he said in a recent phone call, discussing a possible hearing in state court. As Christmas approached, he shared recipes from a holiday-themed issue of Southern Living.
Despite bouts of rage and despair, Prible expresses constant gratitude for those who have helped him, whom he describes as heaven-sent. Though he does not consider himself religious, he takes comfort in passages from the Bible. One, from the book of Jeremiah, promises freedom from captivity: “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to give you hope and a future. … I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you … and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.”
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