Leon County Court, Where Justice Can Come To a Screeching Halt
On April 11, 2011, Leon County Judge Byron Ryder signed off on Gerald Willhelm’s application to probate the will of his late wife, Janice Lee Willhelm (Robeson). This is what Judge Ryder had to say on the occasion:
“The Court, after having heard and considered the evidence, finds that legal notices of the filing of said Application have been issued and posted in the manner and for the length of time required by law, and no one came to contest same; and it further appearing that said Will was executed on June 10, 2009, with the formalities and solemnities and under the same circumstances required by law to make it a valid will….proved by sworn testimony by two subscribing witnesses to the execution of the will in open court.”
Setting aside the fact that the will in question is a blatant forgery, obviously signed by Janice’s (now late) husband Gerald Willhelm, and that the “two subscribing witnesses” are on the record as having committed perjury and recanted their testimony, the will is what is of interest to us today. See previous posts for information on perjury and the forging of the will.
Today, we want to address the format of Jan’s will. It is a hodgepodge of blatant inconsistencies, none of which spurred the Leon County authorities to investigate. One page is handwritten, the next page is typed, and another page appears to have been printed from a computer. Of great interest is the fact that the will is not notarized, although the location where the principle parties claim it was witnessed and signed has a notary on site. Of further interest is the fact that shortly after Jan’s will was probated Gerald Willhelm completed a will and had it signed AND notarized at the Leon County Abstract Office. Why would he not afford his wife’s will the same legal authority?
Over the past several years, the forged will has been brought to the attention of just about every elected official in Leon County who has any authority to rectify the issue, except County Judge Byron Ryder. It has been suggested that perhaps Judge Ryder, who had no legal experience prior to his election, did not know what he was doing with regards to Janice Willhelm’s will. That would seem plausible on the face of it, as has been opined by members of the legal profession who have looked into this case. But is that really the truth? Let’s look at some prior cases and look for a pattern, or precedent.
We sent a first year law student to Leon County during the Holidays to pull 16 random, ad litem cases. An informant in the county was kind enough to compile a list of ad litem cases from the last 2 years. What does ‘ad litem’ mean, you may ask? Simply put, it literally means “for the suit,” and is a term used in law to refer to the appointment by a court of one party to act in a lawsuit on behalf of another party, such as a child or an incapacitated adult, who is deemed incapable of representing themselves. It is also used in property litigation where a person may be appointed to act on behalf of an estate in court proceedings when the estate’s proper representatives are unable or unwilling to act.
These are the cases we pulled at random if anyone wants to check.
2016-6460 2017-6464 2017-6517 2017-6532
2017-6489 2017-6501 2017-6530 2015-6363
2016-6457 2016-6453 2017-6432 2017-6495G
2017-6525 2017-6518 2013-6171 2017-6492G
In each of the sixteen cases studied, Judge Ryder appointed one of two local attorneys to represent the interests of someone named in the case whose whereabouts are unknown or who lack legal representation. In one such case, a man died and left no will. His wife had a natural born son and the man had a son from an earlier marriage. In the application for the estate the widow requested one third for herself, and two thirds for her son. The deceased’s son from his earlier marriage was to receive nothing, and the application claimed his whereabouts had been unknown for many years. Judge Ryder quickly appointed a local attorney to represent this young man’s interest and located him. Incidentally, we briefly looked up the widow’s son on Facebook, and his “missing” brother was on his friends list. A good call Judge Ryder.
Another ad litem case involved an elderly man passing away leaving two grown children, who are grandparents themselves. The younger child, a son, obtained legal counsel and submitted an application to be appointed executor of the father’s estate, to be able to sell, buy, settle account, etc. and so forth. He provided an affidavit from his sister, who had signed forms stating that she was waiving her rights and wished her brother to be appointed as the executor. Inexplicably, Judge Ryder instead appointed one of his pocket attorneys to represent the interests of the sister. This case is currently in litigation and involves a lot of mineral rights and land. Another good judicial call.
Many of the other cases seem to be similar, though often involving less drama or money. In each case it appears that Judge Ryder acts fairly and logically. Let’s fast forward to 2017, when Gerald Willhelm was suspiciously found dead after speaking to an NBC news team wherein he told them they could film him but not record audio because he was being sued over a forged will. In Gerald’s case, he left his estate to Christine Bain and Deirdre Kyle. Diedre was a witness to Jan’s will that Gerald probated in 2011. The application to file and probate Gerald’s will was filed and stamped within 48 hours of the discovery of his body. I have been connected to the legal field for over twenty years, and I have never seen or heard of an attorney doing anything that quickly.
In the case for Gerald’s will, Judge Ryder ruled almost immediately in favor of Christine Bain being appointed executor of the estate, stating he saw no reason not to. There was, however, a BIG reason. A lawsuit was active in the District Court over Gerald’s estate, a fact of which Judge Ryder should have been aware as an elected official in Leon County. And even if he had missed it at the courthouse, it received national and local media attention. Local sources tell us that it was much talked of in Centerville, and that it was a favorite topic in barbershops and beauty salons. The likelihood Judge Ryder was aware of the case is strong. Judge Ryder opened the door for Christina and Deidre to enter into District Court Litigation now. Have fun girls and remember, attorneys are not cheap.
So with two bad decisions in a row from this formerly upright county judge, we decided to take a look into his life and career. Judge Ryder is currently up for reelection. We were informed that Byron Ryder formerly owned a convenience store in Jewett, Texas, where alcoholic beverages were sold, and that when he wanted to become a deacon in his local church he sold the store to a relative so that it would no longer be in his name but he would still receive the profits. His religious beliefs or alcohol sales are not our concern. But as a Church Deacon isn’t one of the tenants of Christianity to tell the truth to one another? We also learned that he owned a company called Ryder Oil Company that had been selling fuel to Leon County while he was in an elected position. That really sounded like a conflict of interest, so we did a bit more digging. We came across a communication from the Texas Attorney General’s office regarding the matter.
“ Dear Mr. Montgomery:
On behalf of the Leon County Auditor (the “Auditor”), you ask whether a company in which the Leon County judge has a substantial interest may sell fuel and oil products to Leon County (the “County”).
The Auditor has informed you that Ryder Oil, a company in which County Judge Byron Ryder owns a substantial interest, wishes to sell fuel and oil products to the County.* An outside auditor, whom the commissioners court hired to adult all county offices, has requested that the County seek an attorney general opinion on the legality of these sales.
A business entity in which the Leon County Judge owns a substantial interest may sell fuel or oil products to the County only if, in accordance with Section 17 1.004 of the Local Government Code, the judge has filed an affidavit “stating the nature and extent of” his interest in the company and abstains from participating in a deliberation or vote on any matter that will “have a special economic effect [on the company]…distinguishable from its effect on the public.”
– Greg Abbot, Texas Attorney General
After this communication, Judge Ryder placed the company in his son’s name, but our sources tell us he continued to have great influence over the company. In May of 2014, a Leon County Grand Jury indicted a former employee of Ryder Oil, Wayne Keith Johnson Jr., of “transporting motor fuel without shipping documents” and “engaging in organized criminal activity.” Whitney Smith, then District Attorney, never prosecuted the case, and neither did his successor, Hope Knight. When asked about it, we were told the accused had basically been selling diesel fuel from one of the Ryder Oil trucks on the side of the road one day every weekend for half price and pocketing the money. We were also told that he would often do this in front of his grandmother’s house and his uncle claims vehicles would form long lines to get fuel from him. Although Johnson was indicted on two felonies he was never prosecuted. Our sources have told us that Judge Ryder made considerable money with Ryder Oil and selling fuel to the county. Recent records indicated the Ryder Oil has been sold, but interestingly enough Judge Ryder’s wife lists the new company as her employer.
Judge Ryder may have a history of acting fairly, but much about his involvement with the county and the case surrounding Janice Willhelm’s death is suspicious and out of character. We have to wonder exactly where the good judge fits into the story, and how he stands to profit, since that seems to be an important motivator for him.