Hearing expected ahead of murder trial for ex-Bastrop Co. deputy

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BASTROP COUNTY, Texas (KXAN) — A motions hearing is expected Thursday for the Bastrop County sheriff’s deputy charged with murder. Former Deputy Daniel Willis will go to trial in the shooting death of Yvette Smith.

Willis was responding to a call in February of last year about a fight between two men. When he got to the house, authorities say he shot Smith twice when she walked onto the porch. Originally, the Bastrop County Sheriff’s Office said Smith was armed, but they later said she had no weapons on her.

Attorneys for Bastrop County reached a $1.2 million settlement on April 16 in the shooting death of Smith. Willis’ trial is expected to start in June. Bastrop County Judge Paul Pape said, to his knowledge, this is the county’s largest financial settlement.

The suit — initially seeking $5 million in damages — claimed Smith’s death was caused by the negligent hiring of Willis, who had previously applied four times to be a patrol deputy with neighboring Travis County Sheriff’s Office. He had worked there for years as a corrections officer, employment records obtained by KXAN show.

Records from the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, which oversees licensing of peace officers in Texas, show Willis joined Bastrop County as a patrol deputy in mid-May 2013. The morning of February’s officer-involved shooting, Willis had been patrolling Bastrop County for exactly 10 months.

Career as a jailer

Prior to that, he had worked as a jailer for eight and a half years with the Travis County Sheriff’s Office. During that time, he was assigned the overnight shift at the Del Valle Correctional Facility. He would later be promoted to a job at Central Booking downtown, personnel records KXAN obtained through an open records request show.

Willis’ handwritten application from 2007 for the Travis County jailer job shows he was a member of the Police Explorer program in his native Austin County, a rural county west of Houston where he grew up, studied martial arts and attended college. At the time, and in later performance reviews, Willis declared his goal was one day becoming a patrol deputy, joining SWAT and promoting through the ranks.

Failed APD’s psychiatric evaluation

The 2007 Travis County job application shows Willis had also applied to Round Rock Police Department, where he was passed over for missing an exam date. Additionally, he applied to the Austin Police Department and acknowledged he failed the department’s psychological exam.

State licensing rules require county jailers and peace officers pass a psychological test. Since those records are not public and there are no statewide standards, it can only be assumed Willis met Travis County’s standard. In early 2008, he received his jailer’s certification.

Willis’ employment records show he excelled in that environment posting perfect attendance and scoring well on performance reviews, even receiving recognition in 2009 for saving the life of a suicidal prisoner.

Before long, Willis applied to transfer to patrol duties. In 2012, his jail supervisors agreed in written evaluations Willis “appears to be mature enough to handle the responsibilities of a patrol officer” and “was not scared to handle disruptive/ combative inmates.”

But one wrote: he needed “more development in handling explosive situations and the utilization of common sense.”

Never served as a TCSO Patrol Deputy

Travis County records show he failed his first patrol exam in 2010 – it’s unclear what skills he lacked. A Sheriff’s

Office spokesman tells KXAN the exam has physical, written and verbal testing components. Willis would try three more times before resigning in May 2013 to take an open deputy job in Bastrop County, records show. A Travis County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson confirms there is no record of Willis having served as a patrol deputy.

Since there was no gap between the law enforcement jobs, the state did not required a new psychological test before Willis began responding to calls in rural Bastrop County. He was also able to maintain his Texas Peace Officer’s License. It requires officers undergo 40 hours of training every two years and take courses to learn about legislative updates.

“You’re going to have to go back and look at who is hiring and training these people,” Yvette Smith’s son Andrew Bell told KXAN the day after the shooting.

KXAN has requested Willis’ personnel and hiring records from the Bastrop County Sheriff’s Office. The request has been passed onto the county District Attorney’s Office.

We also reached out to Sheriff Terry Pickering asking in an email if Willis’ acknowledgment that he failed APD’s psychological test and never served as a deputy in Travis County raised red flags among Sheriff Office hiring staff.

A Sheriff’s Office spokesperson responded indicating, “By policy, no one at the County is allowed to speak to the media regarding any open case.”

Jail and criminal court records show Willis bonded out in June, waived his arraignment hearing. Along with his attorneys from the Texas Municipal Police Association, Willis is waiting to learn the start date of the murder trial. The indictment was ordered sealed.

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