Calling her three years as U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Texas “the privilege of a lifetime,” Erin Nealy Cox recently announced that she is resigning, effective Jan. 8, to make room for a new nominee from the incoming Biden administration. With typical grace and humility, Nealy Cox credited her many achievements while in office not to herself, but rather to her team.
“Of course, I was never the key to the achievements of this great office,” she said in a statement. “Through a courthouse shooting, a government shutdown, a global pandemic, and unprecedented civil unrest, the attorneys and staff of the Northern District of Texas have never wavered in their commitment to justice. We’ve seen similar determination from our federal, state, and local law enforcement partners. I am thankful for their passion and inspired by their dedication.”
Nevertheless, ask anyone at the U.S. attorney’s office here in Dallas, and they’ll tell you it was Nealy Cox’s dedication, passion and leadership that were the driving force behind the Northern District of Texas’ impressive performance during her three-year tenure, prosecuting, according to the Department of Justice, “more cases and more defendants than any other extra-large non-border district in the nation.”
Indeed, her dedication to justice for all and her skills as a leader and a prosecutor have brought her national attention. In February, U.S. Attorney General William Barr asked Nealy Cox to chair the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee (AGAC), a great honor, and has described her as a “fierce advocate against human trafficking, public corruption, domestic violence and violent crime.”
As many readers of this newspaper will know, the scourge of human trafficking, and, more specifically, the brutal trafficking of young girls and women for sex, is a key area of engagement for our editorial page. We’ve encouraged law enforcement to treat sex-trafficking survivors as victims not criminals, and to instead arrest, prosecute and punish the traffickers, pimps and johns who abuse them.
From the day she took office it was clear that Nealy Cox “got it” and would be a valuable ally in the fight against sex trafficking. As we wrote in a recent editorial naming her a 2020 Texan of the Year finalist, she has pioneered efforts to combat the heinous crime of sex trafficking on both the supply- and demand-side, and set an example nationwide by working to assure that financial restitution is awarded to sex-trafficking victims whenever possible.
Yet, as we explained, her accomplishments as U.S. attorney are so extensive and varied, she could have been named a Texan of the Year finalist for her work on many fronts, including her “national leadership on combating domestic violence, using federal gun-crime laws to get violent offenders off the streets, and raising awareness about the threat of Chinese economic espionage.”
All of this is testament to the reputation Nealy Cox has earned as an aggressive prosecutor and effective leader who knows how to, first, identify what the most pressing challenges are in our criminal-justice system; and, second, how to assemble and motivate a team of federal prosecutors and partner with local, state and federal law enforcement to address those challenges.
Those are skills that could land Nealy Cox — if she chooses to run — back in public office one day. In any event, the end of 2020 and her departure from the U.S. attorney’s office is a good vantage point to reflect on her three-year tenure. And while she’s clearly not comfortable talking about herself, she graciously agreed to an interview just a few days before announcing her resignation.
We began by asking why combating human trafficking, in particular sex trafficking, was an early emphasis. “We already had a task force [the North Texas Trafficking Task Force], she explained. “There were a lot of people serving on the task force, but not a lot of focus. And it really just needed to be reinvigorated.”
So, she met with the head of Homeland Security Investigations, and they “both agreed that we really needed to double down our efforts on human trafficking.” They then reached out to police chiefs and agency heads and worked together to restructure the task force. “We talked about what are the cases that can be uniquely federal cases,” she explained, “where we can really make an impact and act with our skill set, and what are the cases that can be handled at the state adequately as long as the state is willing to take them and prosecute them aggressively.”
It took time to see the fruits of those efforts, Nealy Cox explained. But that initial work behind the scenes allowed her team to “focus on some of the cases that you all have noticed, which are the large website cases, the cases dedicated to really impacting the demand side.”
Chief among those cases was shutting down the infamous CityXGuide website in June and arresting its owner, Wilhan Martono, on more than two dozen federal charges. Months prior to the shutdown, local law enforcement and Nealy Cox’s team had rescued a 13-year-old girl from a West Irving hotel room and then built a case against her alleged trafficker, who law enforcement says advertised her sale for sex on CityXGuide, as well as two johns who allegedly had answered those ads and paid to abuse her. As we wrote in September, this “holistic approach” is “precisely what’s needed to bring down the sex trafficking industry in Texas and across the country.”
Seeking financial restitution for victims of sex trafficking — whenever possible — has also been central to Nealy Cox’s approach to a crime that not only robs people of their dignity and innocence, but lines the pockets and bank accounts of the traffickers. When we asked her why she believes restitution is crucial to fighting trafficking, she said it stemmed from visiting shelters and talking with victims and counselors face to face.
“The questions I had were: What are these victims dealing with? How are we able to support them in a way that would make it possible for them to get their life on the right track? They don’t have homes to go to. Or they don’t have jobs, they don’t have enough education. They’re scared. How are we really going to get this person back on track?” Part of that answer was clear — working with prosecutors, probation officers, and judges to make sure that financial restitution is first calculated, then requested, and finally awarded.
In June 2019, for example, Dallas-area sex trafficker Gregory Bowden was sentenced to 11 years in federal prison and ordered to pay his victim nearly $333,000 in restitution for, as Nealy Cox’s office said at the time, trafficking her across the state, “from Odessa to Euless to Corpus Christi, using violence to force her to engage in commercial sex acts while he kept the proceeds.”
Nealy Cox has also been a leader in the fight against domestic violence, chairing the Justice Department’s first-ever Domestic Violence Working Group, which partners with U.S. attorney’s offices across the country and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to keep firearms out of the hands of dangerous criminal offenders.
Indeed, Nealy Cox was instrumental in creating what has now become a DOJ-wide initiative aimed at prosecuting domestic abusers and protecting their victims. Under federal law, anyone with a domestic-violence misdemeanor or felony conviction, or is subject to a domestic-violence protective order, is prohibited from possessing firearms.
Known as Operation Ty, the initiative prosecutes convicted offenders in violation of that prohibition. According to the Justice Department, in fiscal year 2020 alone, U.S. attorney’s offices across the country charged more than 500 domestic violence cases involving firearms. Again, Nealy Cox and her team led the way, prosecuting more armed abusers than any other district in the nation.
These cases are crucial to preventing further domestic abuse and also to preventing homicides. Justice Department data show that offenders with domestic violence convictions are “five times more likely to kill their partners.”
Sadly, Operation Ty was named after the newborn son of Breshuana Jackson, Ty, who was delivered shortly after his mother was shot in her Dallas home in 2013 by a boyfriend with a history of domestic abuse. Both mother and son died. That tragic case was part of this newspaper’s 2014 investigative series titled “Deadly Affection,” which helped shine a bright light on how laws to take convicted abusers’ guns away from them weren’t being enforced.
“Obviously, gun crime is a big issue for the department, and it’s a really big issue for the reduction of violent crime in general,” Neal Cox explained. “For abusers who have a gun, the risk of homicide goes up by about 500%. That’s a pretty staggering statistic when you think about it.”
As feds,” she continued, “we can’t do the heavy lifting on domestic-violence crimes. The state has to prosecute for domestic violence. But once they do, even if they plead the felony crime down to a misdemeanor, if a convicted abuser is found with a gun after that, then we can prosecute that person federally. And a federal crime is a serious crime, there’s no parole, and they’re going to be detained before trial.” In that way, it’s a very effective way for the feds to “do their part” and “help in the domestic-violence realm.”
That kind of innovative thinking was the result, again, of Nealy Cox’s meetings with local law enforcement officials and cops on the beat who knock on the door when they get a report of domestic abuse. “A lot of the police chiefs I was talking to as I was meeting them across the district here, and everywhere,” she said, “would talk to me about how much time they spend on family violence … and how the patrol officers are at a huge risk when it’s a family violence disturbance — especially when they have a gun.”
“And certainly, we named our initiative after a horrible case involving a mother and an unborn child,” she continued. “But it’s really just to demonstrate to our colleagues that we want to help and we can help. Much of it has just been an educational effort to make sure that victims know that if their abuser has a gun, they can report it to ATF and we can help, and also the state knows that when they have repeat offenders down there, there may be another option for them.”
What’s most remarkable in all this is that, following Nealy Cox’s lead, other U.S. attorney’s offices began filing similar cases, sparking a national movement. “I was doing it,” she explained, “and a number of my colleagues across the U.S. were very interested in this sort of thing. And we got the attorney general to form a working group with all of us on it. I’m talking about U.S. attorneys in L.A. and Atlanta and Cleveland and Tulsa and Vermont … a whole bunch of U.S. attorneys looking at the numbers in the way that I was. So, we got this national working group put together, and once we did that, we were able to push out across to all the U.S. attorneys, sharing best practices information, research about how you go about it, what the differences are state to state, etc.”
Creating the working group, Nealy Cox said, “also put it on the radar of U.S. attorney’s offices across the country. And then we were able to get ATF at a national level involved. The ATF leader here in Dallas [Jeffrey Boshek] is great, and he was always very supportive of my desire to do it, but then we were able to get the director of ATF at headquarters involved, and we all sort of pushed together.”
Another area where Nealy Cox has been vocal is on bail reform, writing an op-ed for this newspaper stating clearly that any “Socioeconomic and racial disparities in bond determinations are unacceptable.” But also, that “Shuffling offenders through a revolving door cannot possibly be an effective use of law enforcement resources and when the offenders are violent, it makes no sense.”
When we asked why she felt compelled to write that piece, she said, “What I’ve had since I’ve been U.S. attorney is a real bird’s-eye view into what’s going on in Dallas, and it’s so disheartening to me to see that we’re in a state that we are right now with more homicides this year than we had last year — last year being one of the biggest homicide years we’ve had.”
In conversations with district attorneys and police and the folks at the Department of Public Safety about how the feds can better partner with them, Nealy Cox said, what was “disappointing” to her was “how often in those conversations they would tell me that their officers were demoralized because they would arrest people and then they’d be right back out on the street.”
As feds, she explained, “we’re allowed to move to detain on two bases: flight risk and danger to community. And when we feel like these people are a flight risk or danger to the community, we have to move to detain them, and we have to have the evidence to detain them. That’s not at all how it works at Dallas County. You could have really violent crimes, and people with very long, criminal histories, still getting back out on the streets. How can you ever make progress as a city if you send your DPD officers out there, you tell them to arrest people, and then they just see them on the streets the next day? It doesn’t send a good signal to the community. It doesn’t make the community safer. I don’t know how you can make progress on violent crime when you’re not detaining the violent criminals.
“You’ve probably seen examples where we stepped in,” she continued, “most recently we had a case involving a man named Andrew Beard who was accused of shooting and then stabbing his former girlfriend. He was released on bail by the county, and we then arrested him for a gun-crime violation and got him detained.”
Another case involved a Laredo man, David Cadena, who in September was charged by the state with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon after he allegedly attacked a woman with a fire extinguisher in a Dallas parking garage, then crashed her car while trying to steal it, police said. After Cadena bonded out of Dallas County Jail, Nealy Cox’s office charged him with the federal crime of carjacking and a judge ordered him detained pending trial.
“We’ve been really trying to make sure that we’re stepping in where we can,” said Nealy Cox. “But there are a lot of places where we can’t. It’s very frustrating. And certainly, it’s one of those things that really needs to be worked out. I really feel like that’s an issue I’ll continue to watch, even after I’m not U.S. attorney, because it’s something that needs to be addressed.”
When we asked her what comes next, she dodged the question and used it instead as another opportunity to praise her staff and local law enforcement. “There’s a lot of great officers on the DPD,” she said. “They risk their lives, and they really care about the community. They need all the support they can get. It’s been a real privilege to be here and I’ve loved every minute of it. But I always want to cabin that with the fact that this office is a great office. We have a lot of dedicated, talented prosecutors and staff. The pandemic, in many ways, has been everyone’s biggest challenge this year because you’re dealing with an unprecedented set of circumstances, but you’re also in law enforcement. Crime doesn’t go away. So, we have to try and figure out ways to keep our people safe and keep the wheels of justice going.”
True to form, she ends the interview with one last tip of the hat to her staff, who, she says, never fail to impress her, day in and day out. “They’re incredibly dedicated in a very uncertain landscape,” she says. “But still their dedication is very motivating.” We may not know exactly how Nealy Cox will serve the people of Texas next, but we have a feeling she’ll be giving others credit for her achievements whatever office she serves in next.