AUSTIN (KXAN) – At 4:45 p.m. on July 31, Ray Helm had just 15 minutes to go to uphold his end of a deal with the Texas Attorney General’s Office. He could either give up his law enforcement career or face possible prosecution related to his conduct in office.
As the business day ended, Helm submitted a form to the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement with his name inked across the bottom, forever surrendering every certificate and license ever issued to him by TCOLE.
That surrender also means Hays County Precinct 3 Constable Ray Helm will never be a peace officer in the state of Texas again.
Fabricated drone training records
In April 2018, Helm had three of his deputy constables show up to a field near Wimberley to help a drone company shoot an advertisement. They all showed up in uniform and in their taxpayer-provided police trucks.
The law enforcers would spend a total of about 10 hours on the shoot.
It took another 22 months before some of the deputies on the commercial shoot found out they’d received TCOLE-certified drone training credits for that outing.
But TCOLE investigators found the state-certified training never happened.
TCOLE received a formal complaint from a man named Ari Axelrod in February. Axelrod alleged credit hours Helm submitted from the drone shoot were fabrications. Axelrod had asked former second-in-charge, Gary Griffin, if he received drone training in April 2018.
Griffin said he had not.
Helm certified to TCOLE that he and his deputies received five hours of training credits from the drone shoot. At the time, Helm did not have any handwritten rosters or any signatures from the deputies related to the training, which is a TCOLE requirement.
Deputy Constables Donny Torres, Cody Cheatham and Gary Griffin all denied receiving training, and all said the shoot was solely for a commercial video requested by the private drone company.
The two videos were posted to Vimeo and show Helm and his staff using their police trucks and wearing their county-provided uniforms as part of a promotional video. The constables were participating in a dramatized search and rescue mission and helping to hunt for an armed suspect.
The report shows TCOLE investigators also interviewed Gene Robinson and Austin Police Officer John Buell; both owners of Drone Pilot, Inc., the company that organized the shoot. Both were on scene at the drone training and operating the drone during the shoot, according to the report.
Both told investigators the shoot was for a commercial.
“Buell said they explained to the Constables it was a commercial shoot. The producers told them were to go and how to walk. Buell explained later in the day they moved to a storage facility to shoot an active shooter scenario at night,” the TCOLE investigative report stated.” “Buell explained their training requires a PowerPoint presentation, Agenda, Outline and Test (Pre & Post). Buell said the day was strictly for a commercial not training. Buell said they do training but that day was a ‘straight up’ shoot and everyone was aware of that,” the report continued.
“Robinson said it was never purported to be a training class and there was no impression it was ever given it would be a TCOLE class. When Helm was contacted by Robinson it was to say we need people for a commercial,” the investigator wrote in the TCOLE report on Helm.
The alleged ‘cover up’
The investigation found Helm first got word that the 2018 drone training was being exposed on the website “The Truth About Ray Helm,” a site filled with allegations concerning Helm’s criminal record and actions as constable. The site posted an article on Feb. 7, accusing Helm of faking drone training certifications.
The website post was noted in the TCOLE investigative report.
The TCOLE report shows Helm started “gathering information” from the drone company the day after the article appeared on the website calling Helm’s drone training “fraudulent.” Helm also contacted two of the men who would go on to become witnesses in the state investigation: Deputy constables Torres and Cheatham.
Torres told both Cheatham and Helm that he “didn’t remember” participating in drone training the day of the commercial shoot. Word got back to Helm, according to the report.
Helm called Torres the night of Feb. 8; the night after the article was posted.
Torres recorded the call and would later hand the 30-minute recording over to TCOLE, which investigators made part of the official case file. In the recording, Torres tells Helm he doesn’t remember any TCOLE-certified drone training class as part of the shoot.
Torres told Helm in the call that he didn’t fly the drone or “Do anything with it,” Torres said. “We did a class for over 10 hours that day and I gave 5 hours for class credit and you tell me ‘I don’t remember s—?’” Helm said in the recording.
“I don’t, Ray. All I remember is we’re sitting there, we filmed a commercial, we’re sitting in our trucks the whole time and then you called us back and we had to go back there at nighttime,” Torres responded.
Helm would go on to call Cheatham the following day. Cheatham told investigators Helm was “p—ed off” at Torres because Torres “could not remember much about the drone training,” according to the report.
Torres said he was with Cheatham when Helm called Cheatham. Torres said he overheard Helm tell Cheatham that he would “F5” Torres if he couldn’t recall the training portion of the drone shoot. An F5 is the form sent to TCOLE when an officer is terminated from an agency.
Both Cheatham and Torres decided to hire an attorney to figure out how they could save their jobs, according to their attorney, Chevo Pastrano.
Pastrano sent Helm a letter a few days after the call. The letter was to warn Helm that both deputies had hired him regarding the drone training and the alleged threats made concerning Torres’ job.
During a Feb. 11 interview with Helm, TCOLE investigators warned him about contacting witnesses during the investigation, “I explained to constable Helm that Sergeant Investigator Norie would be making contact with the Deputies listed on the roster for the drone class. I explained we would also be contacting both instructors as well,” the investigator wrote in the final report.
“I told Constable Helm that I would hope he would not influence his people (witnesses) one way or the other and just let TCOLE get an answer from them. I explained to Constable Helm that if he started influencing them as what to say, it would certainly create a problem. Constable Helm replied ‘right, yeah witness tampering and everything else,’” the report quoted Helm as saying.
Even after the warning, Cheatham told investigators Helm contacted him again about the TCOLE investigation, “Cheatham said Helm called him when TCOLE Investigators departed the agency and began talking about the case again. Cheatham then reminded Helm, he can’t talk about the case. Helm then told Cheatham he just wanted to tell him everything was good,” the report shows.
Helm then called a meeting with his staff where Helm again attempted to discuss the TCOLE investigation, according to Cheatham. Torres made an attempt to stop Helm from further discussing the investigation, but Helm continued talking about it, according to Cheatham’s Feb. 19 interview with TCOLE investigators.
Helm bargains his badge
TCOLE closed its investigation into Ray Helm some time after March 5 when the commission served a subpoena on Hays County for Helm’s computer and email account. The commission’s investigative file shows “CASE CLOSED” as the final entry of the 72-page report.
Sometime after March 5, the case file was forwarded to the Texas Attorney General’s Office where an assistant attorney general was assigned to the case.
Pastrano told KXAN he eventually ended up in the attorney general’s office in a meeting, which included TCOLE investigators. That’s where Pastrano said he learned of the deal the AG was presenting to Helm. Pastrano said the assistant AG picked up the phone and called Helm’s attorney during the meeting.
“The deal that was made by the AG’s office to Mr. Helm’s attorney was that either one: he could face criminal prosecution, face indictment for several felonies or two: he could surrender his peace officer license for life and resign his position as the constable of Precinct 3 of Hays County,” Pastrano told KXAN.
Last week, Helm told Hays County Commissioners he was resigning his office effective July 31. Helm filed a permanent surrender form with TCOLE on July 31. The surrender prevents Helm from ever working as a licensed peace officer again.
“It’s apparent he has chosen to forego criminal prosecution,” Pastrano said.
Despite what Pastrano called a “mountain of evidence” against Helm, including the phone recording and Helm’s confession to TCOLE, the deal would allow Helm to surrender his peace officer license for life in exchange for not facing charges for the conduct alleged in the TCOLE investigative report, according to Pastrano.
“From my perspective when I listen to the recording, what I heard was somebody who was under investigation trying to sway the statements of a witness. From a trial lawyer’s perspective, that’s tampering with a witness,” Pastrano said.
“I think a jury would have been offended to hear all the evidence, see all the evidence and to know exactly what all went on, not only in the initial phases in committing the actual crime, but the attempt to cover it up and then the attempt to silence or change the stories of witnesses who may have been able to confirm a series of crimes along the way. I think a jury would have been offended to know it all,” Pastrano told KXAN.
TCOLE’s investigative report shows Helm ultimately confessed to fabricating records he initially used to try to convince investigators were authentic training documents, “Helm did finally admit he fabricated the evaluation forms and the memorandum dated 4/18/18. Helm went on to say he generated the documents on or around February 10, 2020. It is worth noting the weekend prior to the 10th of February would have been the time frame Helm found out through Axelrod the ‘Drone training’ was brought into question,” the investigator wrote ending the report.
“In conclusion, Helm fabricated documents (4 evaluation forms and a memorandum) to memorialize a training class that was nothing more than a commercial for a drone company. The only person out of all the individuals interviewed saying it was training is Constable Helm; all others immediately responded it was a commercial. Helm ultimately confessed to the fabrication of those said documents,” the TCOLE report concluded.
“Had you and I committed these crimes, had you or I committed these series of attempts to cover up this crime — this would have either one: been used as leverage to get a guilty plea in a courtroom or two, would have been used as a method of enraging a jury to convict and punish somebody,” Pastrano said.
“Is it enough? There are good points to the deal: we have a bad officer off the streets. Is it equal justice? I don’t think that it’s equal justice,” Pastrano told KXAN.
Helm did not respond to a request for comment for this report.
Neither TCOLE nor the Texas Attorney General’s Office would agree to an interview to answer questions regarding the decision to offer the deal Pastrano said was given to Helm.