Joe Kulakowski leans forward across a desk that would need a major cleaning just to qualify as cluttered and succinctly states what has become so obvious to him as he’s relentlessly pursued former Circuit Court Judge Herman Thomas for the better part of the past two years.
“This is the biggest scandal in the history of American jurisprudence. In the history of American jurisprudence there has never been abuse to this extent by a judge in power involving paddling and forced sex,” Kulakowski says. “There’s nothing like this in the history of the American court system that even approaches dimensions of the corruption in this case.”
For the past two years, Kulakowski has been at the front of an effort to get to the bottom of the activities that drove Thomas from the bench in 2007. By now allegations the judge paddled inmates in a secret room he’d set up in the Mobile County Courthouse are common knowledge, and most folks have heard whispers that there may have been sexual liaisons with prisoners. But what Kulakowski claims to have discovered over the past couple of years reaches far beyond sexual perversion into the realms of massive abuse of judicial power and on to the dark and dangerous world of narcotics trafficking and police corruption.
He also claims his investigation repeatedly bumped against the political power that helped set Thomas up as one of Mobile’s “movers and shakers” — a power structure he feels seems determined to keep the former judge out of jail.
In researching this story, Lagniappe spoke to law enforcement and court officials who are aware of Kulakowski’s investigation and who, speaking upon condition of anonymity, offered their appraisal that he has indeed been able to make breakthroughs in the investigation of Thomas’ case. It is also important to point out that while Kulakowski spoke on the record about this work, he has been in constant contact with law enforcement and court officials who have been instrumental in helping move the investigation forward.
Kulakowski has been practicing law since 1973, starting out as an assistant district attorney under Randy Butler and Charlie Graddick after clerking for U.S. District Court Judge J. Foy Guin and has been in private practice since 1975. Born in Bayou La Batre, he went to Theodore High School, Spring Hill College and the University of Alabama Law School. During the Vietnam War, he was a merchant marine and made two trips to Vietnam.
On one trip to Vietnam Kulakowski demonstrated a bit of the leap-first-look-later attitude that would come into play as he delved into Herman Thomas. The crew got an “all hands on deck” call about a pilot who had been shot down and stranded in the water for 24 hours. When they spotted him, Kulakowski jumped overboard to get him.
“Not having any sense, I just went in there and got the guy. I mean we had life jackets on and it was kind of calm, so it wasn’t so bad,” he said.
Still, he received “some kind of award,” which he said he didn’t want and seems to brush off in an embarrassed way.
Kulakowski says he’s known Herman Thomas since Thomas was in the district attorney’s office in the late ‘80s, through his time on the bench, both as a District and Circuit Court judge. Thomas was first appointed to the District Court bench in 1990.
“I’ve always liked him. He’s always been very gracious to me,” Kulakowski said.
He said the first indications that something was amiss concerning Thomas came when the judge tried to secure special treatment for his distant cousin and fraternity brother David Thomas when the former schoolboard member was to serve seven days in jail for running over a child’s foot and leaving the scene on Mardi Gras Day 2005. Both Thomases are members of the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity located at the corner of Dearborn and St. Louis Streets in downtown Mobile, and Herman Thomas is listed on a national website as the Polemarch or leader of that particular chapter.
Kulakowski said Herman Thomas’ actions in that matter — going out of his way to ensure that David Thomas could spend his jail time at the nearly empty Prichard Jail and essentially undermining the orders of fellow Circuit Judge Rusty Johnston — opened his eyes somewhat to the judge’s behavior. Still, it would take a strange nexus of criminal defense cases to put Kulakowski on a path of personally investigating Herman Young Thomas’ actions on the bench.
Although it would take another five years for allegations to surface publicly that Herman Thomas was possibly involved in paddling prisoners, and even longer for charges to arise that he might have been trading sex for sentences, Michael Dewayne Anderson made those very charges in a civil suit filed in 2002. The suit, filed in Mobile County Circuit Court, alleged that Thomas threatened to make life more difficult for Anderson if he did not become involved in a homosexual relationship with the judge.
“I was released in 1994 from prison, and did contact Thomas but his help was to get involved in a homosexual act with him. When I refused Judge Thomas’ offer of being involved in a homosexual relationship, he advised me that if trouble came he could help, but if I refused him, he could make it hard for me and Judge Thomas has made it hard from the District Court to the Circuit Court, and Mobile County Circuit Court has been advised of his action and has done nothing to correct it,” Anderson, who is currently serving a murder sentence at Atmore, wrote in his suit.
He claimed to have sent the complaint to, among others, the Alabama Ethics Commission and the Judicial Inquiry Commission. Included in Anderson’s complaint were also sworn statements from other inmates who claimed to have had dealings with Thomas. One of the affidavits in support of Anderson’s suit was from John Richardson who said Thomas did favors for drug dealers in return for sexual favors and he named two dealers who he claimed Thomas would pick up routinely. Richardson said one of them bragged he would always get out of trouble as long as he “plays the sex game” with Thomas.
Despite such allegations, Anderson’s suit was dismissed by former Mobile Circuit Judge Robert Kendall and was completely ignored within the state and local legal establishment.
As Kulakowski began assisting a colleague on the defense for a man named Raydale “Pokey” Shavers in spring 2007, he still knew nothing of Anderson’s explosive claims five years earlier. By this time Thomas’ name was in the news for something other than the glowing articles and endorsements in the Press-Register that had helped his rise to prominence.
Over the past year he had been front-page news for helping David Thomas find a cushier place to spend his seven-day sentence for felony leaving the scene of an accident. Eventually Herman Thomas called for the Alabama Judicial Inquiries Commission to investigate his own actions, and they ended up suspending him in March 2007 for willfully failing to uphold the integrity of his job. Thomas then was facing a possible trial on 15 charges of violating the state’s canons of judicial ethics.
But Kulakowski was busy at that time defending Shavers, who was accused of assault in the first degree for shooting Akil Figures, son of state Sen. Vivian Figures, a close friend of Herman Thomas. He figured JIC would do its job concerning the judge.
The shooting involved an argument over Akil Figures’ former girlfriend Harriet Womack, who was then involved with Shavers. Figures had been in jail, but Kulakowski says Thomas got him out “as a Mother’s Day present for Vivian” and Akil had used the occasion to get into an altercation with Womack and Shavers, getting shot in the process. At some point in putting together Shavers’ defense, Kulakowski called Womack in to his office and began asking about what Figures had told her about his relationship with Judge Thomas.
“In my conversation with Harriet Womack I asked her various things about Akil because I was about to try that shooting case, and she tells me what Akil told her about being paddled by Thomas. She says Akil showed her the marks on his behind,” Kulakowski said.
This got him thinking about Akil Figures’ close relationship with Thomas and lead Kulakowski to speak with another of his clients who had a close relationship with the judge, a murder defendant named Darius Lane. When Kulakowski began telling Lane he’d heard Thomas had paddled Figures, he says Lane leaned back and said, “He whooped me too.”
“He basically said he had to take a paddling with his pants down, get his dreads (hair) cut and go to Bishop State. Which at the time I didn’t think was that bad a deal,” Kulakowski said. “And I argued that in defense of Thomas, to some extent. But in terms of judicial conduct that seemed very odd.”
Kulakowski says he told Mobile County District Attorney John Tyson and Assistant District Attorney Nikki Patterson about Womack’s contention that Thomas had spanked Akil Figures and about Lane’s accusations that he too had been paddled. He said they were initially very interested in the paddling allegations and Patterson was assigned to investigate it.
Kulakowski said Thomas’ suspension and the discovery that he had routinely removed cases from other judges’ dockets and changed sentences for certain defendants kept him fairly confident JIC would remove Thomas from office. However, Kulakowski says the DA’s office began to take a different tack around that time and it concerned him.
“What changed things? The relationship with Nikki Patterson changed when I first told her about the sexual allegations. All of a sudden she wouldn’t talk to me any more. I had to talk to her assistants or other people and she wouldn’t see me,” he said. “I sensed something personal.”
Kulakowski said by the summer of 2007 there was a “deep fear” among many local judges that JIC was going to return Thomas to the bench with just a prolonged suspension. At that point he said he was contacted by a “pretty powerful individual” and instructed him that he would have to be the one to make things happen in the investigation because the DA’s office was not going to do so.
“That same day I determined that a polygraph as to the allegations of the paddling of Darius Lane would be the way to handle it to see if he was going to be able to run a good chart. So I polygraphed him on July 26th and he ran a good chart,” he said.
During the polygraph, another client came to see Kulakowski and when Lane saw the other client after the test, they high-fived one another. So Kulakowski asked him what he knew about Thomas and the second client said the judge was gay. When Kulakowski challenged him on his story, the client told him about another inmate who had confided that Thomas had sexually abused him for years. Kulakowski’s client agreed to try to set up a meeting between the two. As it turned out, Kulakowski already represented the man.
“He proceeded to tell me about being sexually abused by Herman since he was 17. At that point right there at the jail I started uncovering a large number of victims. And all of their claims were found to be credible. The numbers were staggering. People had either been paddled or whipped with a belt. In three or four places, one was in his chambers, other was the little room and some occurred at the Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity where Herman is the Polemarch,” Kulakowski said.
Kulakowski stresses that it is important to understand prisoners didn’t simply line up and start claiming sexual abuse by the judge. Often he would have to meet with an alleged victim several times before the man would tell of having done something sexual with Thomas. Kulakowski also points out that not all prisoners who claimed to have been paddled also claimed to have been sexually abused.
“Often it would take several interviews before they would admit to the sexual abuse,” he said.
From that point on, he says, he became “obsessive compulsive” in collecting the stories of these young men claiming to have been sexually abused by Judge Thomas — stories that often included tales of Thomas threatening stronger sentences for those who refused him, or sending reluctant lovers off to prison for periods of time and then bringing them back to see if time behind bars had softened their resolve against his advances. The statements were often shocking.
For example, there was the statement of Bobby Crook, who danced in drag at the bar Troopers on weekends. Crook said he knew Thomas casually because of his work for a bail bonding company during the day. One night as he came out of Troopers dressed in drag, he said, Thomas drove by and slowed his car and waved. Crook said the judge pulled over and the men started talking and exchanged numbers, with Thomas telling Crook the two might become “good friends.”
Crook said he later went out on the Causeway to eat with Thomas and later the judge asked him for sex, but Crook demurred. He claimed Thomas indicated there might be a time later when Crook would want his help and might change his mind, saying “maybe one day.” Crook said sometime later his cousin was jailed on what he believed to be false charges and he called Thomas, and Thomas told him “you can make it go away. You know what to do.” Crook took that to mean having sex with the judge would free his cousin, but he refused, and Thomas sent his cousin to jail.
“I feel like he would have threw the case out, found him not guilty, let him out, if I would have had sex with him. Now my cousin is in prison for 25 or 21 years or more for something he didn’t commit because I didn’t have sex with Thomas,” Crook said.
Another young man, who was on probation and had been required to get a GED by Thomas, said the judge began calling him to come visit him on Sundays. He told how Thomas would make him pull his pants down and would swat him with the paddle with his right hand while masturbating with the other.
The young man also claimed Thomas required him to meet out in west Mobile and performed oral sex on the young man while the judge masturbated.
As he collected such information, Kulakowski continued trying to get local, state and federal law enforcement officials interested in taking action, but little seemed to be happening.
“The DA’s office stopped investigating at some point, then it seemed like they would pick it back up when it got so inflammatory they couldn’t avoid it,” he said.
He said the JIC investigators also asked him to help them out with their investigation and he aided them as well. Originally Attorney General Troy King’s office was tasked with investigating the matter, but there had been a falling out with JIC and a special investigator was appointed. They set up shop in District Attorney Tyson’s office.
One of Kulakowski’s early interviews led to the discovery of Thomas’ now-famous “little room,” a small converted closet space on the eighth floor of the courthouse where the judge had ostensibly set up a place where he could read and tutor students. He had apparently asked a former presiding Circuit Judge Kendall for the space, but none of his current colleagues knew he had it.
“One of the people that was interviewed right away was Douglas Hill. He actually drew me a diagram to where the little room was. There was another individual that told me about being called by Judge Thomas on a Sunday and told me how he came up the stairs to a little room with no windows and told to pull his pants down. He was paddled while Thomas masturbated himself,” Kulakowski said. “He was told to keep his mouth shut.”
Kulakowski said that particular victim had told him he entered Government Plaza on a Sunday when all the doors were locked through a side door that didn’t close properly. The man claimed Thomas told him the door would be slightly ajar and that it would allow him entrance even though the rest of the building was locked down. Kulakowski said when he went to examine the door, it was indeed damaged and wouldn’t lock even though it might look closed from the outside.
This eventually led Kulakowski and some of the other judges to take a look inside Thomas’ “little room.” The room was described to have been decorated to look like an office, but there were things that didn’t seem to fit that mold. For instance, there were no pens and there was an adding machine that had no paper in it. On the wall was a large, framed photo of a former courthouse employee who had died, and in the portrait the man was making the sign of Thomas’ Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity.
Kulakowski said after seeing the room and hearing so many stories from inmates claiming sexual encounters in Thomas’ secret chambers, it made tremendous sense to him that the room should be sprayed with fluorenol, which detects the presence of seminal fluid. However, he says when he approached Patterson about doing so, she balked, saying it wouldn’t prove anything and that Thomas could have been having sex with his wife in the room.
“They didn’t want to do it,” he said, adding that months later he happened to walk by and saw forensic investigators were in fact using fluorenol in the room and took a couple of samples of carpet.
Kulakowski says he was dismayed by the lack of cooperation and interest he was getting from the DA’s office. He was particularly troubled by an order he says Patterson gave that none of Thomas’ victims would receive any consideration in their cases, despite potential mistreatment by a sitting circuit judge.
“Word came down from Nikki Patterson that none of these victims were going to be given consideration, and this is despite the fact that Mr. Tyson had said all these cases were going to be reviewed. But I was told by Ashley Rich and Theresa Heinz that these victims were not to be given any kind of consideration by order of Nikki Patterson,” Kulakowski said. “That was extremely disappointing, so I had to accomplish what I wanted to accomplish getting around what she was trying to do.”
Kulakowski said it was his understanding that the alleged victims’ cases would be reviewed because of the allegations Thomas was sending people off to prison and bringing them back for sex, or also keeping people on probation for years and years, times that far exceeded allowable sentences for certain crimes. Keeping these men on probation gave Thomas power over them for even longer time frames, he said.
“They were excessive times that exceeded the court’s ability to have people on probation,” Kulakowski said.
‘You owe me one’
As Kulakowski continued interviewing potential victims, the stories became stranger and stranger. He also says he continued sending taped interviews and information to federal investigators, but arrest and indictment never came despite a seemingly endless river of men willing to testify about paddlings, spankings, sex and threats.
As Kulakowski interviewed more young men, he learned more about Thomas’ reputation in the community.
“One of the things that impressed me most was the black defendants would simply tell me white folks are just learning about this and they’ve known about it for years. I found it somewhat shocking that there were people who knew about it and didn’t do anything about it,” he said. “But bear in mind, these young men are, for the most part, from dysfunctional families. They didn’t have the collateral support to bankroll their challenges to these things. They were just worried about going to jail.”
Another of Thomas’ alleged habits Kulakowski learned about was his propensity for checking out inmates from the Mobile County Metro Jail at all hours of the night. He would take them to his chambers and his home.
Thomas also had involved local school leaders in his monitoring of certain young men, Kulakowski said. If these young men didn’t show up in school, for instance, the principal had instructions to call Thomas.
“Of course that would be another invitation for him to tell them ‘You know what time it is. You owe me one,’” Kulakowski said.
Kulakowski also began to develop a profile of the young men who claimed Thomas preyed upon them. Generally they were from about 17 to 25, he said of the alleged victims. However, at least one may have been younger than that. According to several men Kulakowski interviewed, Thomas had sexual contact with a then 15-year-old boy on a trip to Atlanta. The judge had taken several boys there to see an Atlanta Braves game.
According to the statements given, Thomas brought the boys one at a time into his room and attempted to teach them about oral sex. Eventually he brought the 15-year-old in.
“From my understanding he was sodomized anally,” Kulakowski said. “That’s from the others who were consoling him because he came back in the room crying and the others were consoling him. Others had refused that act.”
That alleged victim was later shot and killed in an unrelated crime. Lagniappe has chosen to withhold the victim’s name out of respect for his family.
Mr. Fix it
As if it weren’t already heavy enough for a circuit judge to possibly have engaged in such gross sexual and sentencing misconduct, Kulakowski was about to be confronted with perhaps the heaviest claims against Thomas — drug trafficking. As he dug deeper into Thomas’ secret life, he says more and more people began making statements about the judge’s alleged involvement in drug use and distribution. It had Kulakowski’s head swimming.
“At some point I started getting information about Thomas being involved in drugs and distribution of drugs. And there were a number of those cases that concerned me. They involved corruption in the police departments and were highly disturbing,” he said.
For Kulakowski and other courthouse officials such allegations seemed to make sense and fit the pattern of defendants he was secretly moving from other judges’ dockets to his own, or those convicts whose sentences he went back and reduced. Very often they were on drug offenses. Lagniappe was able to obtain a list of 356 cases Thomas transferred from other judges’ dockets, although the list does not specify the criminal charge in each case.
Also, Thomas’ own lifestyle was suspect to many. He owned 13 cars, which seemed excessive for someone on a judge’s salary of $147,208. Records from 2007 show Thomas’ name on makes and models as varied as a 1999 Dodge Intrepid, a 2004 Cadillac Escalade and a 1998 Lexus. Law enforcement officials speaking on condition of anonymity also said it was not uncommon for officers working road blocks to run across people with criminal records driving cars registered to the judge. When they called about it, they were always told everything was OK.
Those same law enforcement officials also say it was not uncommon for Thomas to show up at crime scenes or at hospitals and to tell criminal suspects not to speak to police.
“At some point I started to hear stories of his distribution of drugs, and these were first-hand witnesses,” Kulakowski said.
Brandon Carr, who is currently sitting in Mobile County Metro Jail on robbery charges, and who knew Thomas from the time he was 16, told Kulakowski about how Thomas’ nephew who worked at a cell phone store in the mall was able to get “burnout” chips that would allow dealers to make unlimited calls without getting a bill or leaving a record of calls, making it extremely difficult follow a trail. He also explained how Thomas would supply him and others with powdered cocaine for sale, giving dealers roughly $1,200 worth of coke to sell and expecting about $300 back for himself. Carr blamed Thomas for getting him into the drug trade.
“I sold drugs for Judge Thomas back in 2004, 2005 and part of 2006,” Carr claimed in a recorded interview with Kulakowski.
Carr also detailed how the drugs were sold in various parts of the city and the expected take from each area. Carr was a member of the Kappa League, a junior member of the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity. He recalled a time when he claims to have showed up at the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity house and saw Thomas, along with several Mobile Police Officers — including a high-ranking officer, a member of the District Attorney’s Office, as well as at least one high-ranking city official, with “a bunch of money on the table, just stacks of money — maybe two-three-hundred thousand dollars.” He claims Thomas later asked him what he saw and he denied seeing anything.
Carr claimed he would often meet Thomas at Gone Fishin’ restaurant or at a barber shop to give him money from dealing. He also said Thomas and the rest of the drug ring would meet routinely to discuss in which areas of town drugs were moving best and where things might need to be moved to avoid detection. Carr also said Thomas could simply make problems go away for those who worked for him.
“And if you picked up a case it ain’t going to hang over your head because he feels like he has the power because he a judge. Ain’t nobody going to mess with him. His rank just overrides a lot and he’s got connections,” Carr said. “Of course I played a part in it, but I wasn’t losing at it. That’s why I never caught a drug case.”
Kulakowski said that despite sending the District Attorney’s office Carr’s statements and personally speaking with Tyson about Carr’s statements, no one from the DA’s office has ever interviewed Carr concerning his claims about Thomas.
Why so long?
As Kulakowski has been privately investigating Thomas’ actions for nearly three years now, and it has been nearly a year and a half since the judge resigned from office, frustration mounts that indictments have not been forthcoming from either John Tyson’s office or from the federal officials Kulakowski insists are still actively engaged in an investigation. He says he has turned over to law enforcement officials almost all of the taped statements he has gathered, statements that spell out in dizzying detail Thomas’ alleged sexual appetites and staggering misuses of judicial authority. There are also the statements that detail allegations of drug use, distribution and trafficking, as well as the use of judicial powers to protect a ring of drug dealers and crooked law enforcement officials. Still, no indictments.
“I have given not only statements but access to investigators to talk to these people,” Kulakowski said.
He is particularly vexed by the knowledge that every day potential crimes could be slipping away because of the statute of limitation, which for most crimes is three years. In other words, Kulakowski fears delays by prosecutors may severely limit their pool of crimes and witnesses if they ever do indict Thomas. Assault cases, he pointed out, have a limitation of only two years meaning many of those could not be pursued.
He points out that Section 14-11-31 of the State Code makes it unlawful for “any employee to engage in sexual conduct with a person who is in the custody of the Department of Correction, the Department of Youth Services, a sheriff, a county, or a municipality” and that doing so is a Class C felony in Alabama. This, he says, is certainly grounds for Tyson’s office to have attempted to secure an indictment of Thomas long ago.
Over time he says he even tried applying pressure on prosecutors by giving information on what he’d found to local mainstream media outlets, but that too seemed to be a dead end. Kulakowski says he brought Mobile Press-Register editor Mike Marshall to his office and played tapes of some of the statements from those alleging Thomas had demanded sex from them.
“I tried to talk to Mike Marshall at the Press-Register and he showed little or no interest — certainly not the interest I would expect for what I delivered to him. I delivered to him several tapes of victims and was going to deliver them three statements a week, but they didn’t show the interest I thought they should,” Kulakowski said.
He also said JIC never seemed particularly interested in getting to the bottom of things involving the sexual allegations about Thomas and was instead simply willing to just let things go.
“The JIC people didn’t want to hear about the paddling. They didn’t want to hear about the sex. I guess they had instructions about what they were supposed to investigate, but they got so inextricably intertwined that there was no way to talk about the ex parte contact without talking about the paddling without talking about the sex acts,” Kulakowski said.
Peggy Groves, assistant director of JIC, said that regardless of what Thomas or any other judge may have done, once he resigned JIC no longer has any authority to continue the investigation. So while JIC was presented with a signed affidavit by fellow Circuit Court Judge Joseph “Rusty” Johnston informing JIC of the sexual allegations against Thomas, once he resigned the investigation simply ended.
Now Kulakowski fears that as the case drags on, politics will again intervene on Thomas’ behalf. Assistant U.S. Attorney Vicki Davis is considered to be one of Thomas’ close friends, and she is also considered the odds-on favorite to be named the new U.S. Attorney for the Mobile District, a situation Kulakowski believes could favor the former judge, who at one time even managed a campaign for Davis when she ran for judge.
“Vicki Davis, who is up for U.S. Attorney, please understand that Herman Thomas was her political godfather. He was her campaign manager, and I’m deeply concerned if she’s confirmed as U.S. Attorney this investigation will go nowhere, because this thing is a lot bigger than Herman Thomas — much, much bigger than Herman Thomas,” Kulakowski said.
A call to Davis’ office seeking comment on this story was unreturned.
Meanwhile, Thomas has taken a position with the Brandyburg Law Firm and, among other things, has tried several cases at Strickland Youth Center. Youth Court Judge Edmond Naman verified that Thomas has appeared three or four times in his courtroom, but only as a privately paid attorney. Naman stressed that Thomas has not been appointed to do Youth Court work.
Thomas did not return a call for comments on this story before deadline. Kulakowski believes Thomas represents the centerpiece of a much larger criminal enterprise that has worked its way into many facets of Mobile life.
“There’s so much he had his fingers into and that he controlled. He was the Mr. Fix It, the Godfather of the black community,” Kulakowski said. “I think he’s inextricably intertwined with a great deal of corruption in this county. If the authorities do what they should do, there’s going to be a large number of people who should be concerned for their status in life. If Herman Thomas will roll if he’s ever brought to justice, there’s going to be bodies all over the streets of Mobile.”
Kulakowski, who has funded most of this investigation personally and eschewed filing a civil suit just so the case would remain “pure,” leans back and almost allows himself to smile as he thinks about his quest coming to an end if and when Thomas is indicted.
“It’s time for the people who have been associated with Herman to get on the train because it’s leaving,” he says leaning forward. “The ones who cut the deals first are the ones who get the best deals.”