The primary challenger to state Rep. J.D. Sheffield, R-Gatesville, pleaded guilty in 2001 to making a pipe bomb — but he says he meant no harm and wants to change the laws that led to his conviction.
"Growing up, I blew up tree stumps recreationally," Sheffield's opponent, Chris Evans, said in a statement Thursday to the Tribune that also included a promise to voters in House District 59. "After I become a legislator, I'm going to get rid of dumb laws that hassle country kids who aren't hurting anyone."
Evans was given eight years of probation for the offense, but he ultimately had to serve only four years. Yet his criminal record could color the race between him and Sheffield, one of roughly two dozen House primaries where GOP incumbents are facing opposition from their right.
The case in question dates back to 1998, when Stephenville police learned from a former roommate of Evans — who was then in his early 20s — that he was keeping in his apartment two 1-foot pipe bombs and a 2-foot piece of PVC pipe. The roommate, who had recently moved out after a fight, told police that Evans referred to the 1-foot bombs as practice bombs and the 2-foot piece of pipe as ultimately "his bomb," according to a police report obtained by the Tribune.
While the former roommate did not know why Evans had the bombs, the former roommate appeared to be wary of Evans in general, according to the police report. The former roommate described Evans as a "guy that talked about going and living in the woods" and owned a ".22 semi-auto pistol with a 100-round magazine." Police paraphrased the former roommate as predicting that "Evans would not just let us arrest him."
The information from the former roommate led to an investigation that involved several law enforcement agencies, including the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, police records show. Within days of receiving the information, authorities executed a search warrant on Evans' apartment that required them to evacuate the neighborhood as a bomb technician removed the explosives and dismantled them. The technician later told police that the explosives were "good bombs that were fully capable of detonating" and showed "some signs of sophistication in there [sic] composition."
After police arrested Evans, he told them he did not intend to "hurt anyone and ... was just going to go out and blow [the explosives] up," according to the records.
It was not until roughly two and a half years later that an Erath County grand jury indicted Evans on a third-degree felony charge of possession of a prohibited weapon. The indictment said that he did "intentionally or knowingly possess, manufacture, transport, or repair an explosive weapon, to-wit: a pipe bomb approximately twelve inches in length constructed of PVC pipe and containing gun powder, shotgun shot, bb's, and live 22 caliber ammunition."
After pleading guilty, Evans was given eight years of probation, the terms of which included requirements that he complete 300 hours of community service and not leave Erath or Titus counties without written permission, according to court records. He was taken off probation in 2005, just over halfway through the eight-year term.
"I was blessed that the justice system, a practical judge, and an incredible probation officer saw the innocence of the situation," Evans said in the statement to the Tribune. "As a result of this incident, I received probation, taught GED classes for those who hadn't graduated high school, and finished my college degree."
Evans was one of the earlier House GOP challengers to emerge for the 2018 primaries. He has been running for Sheffield’s seat since May, when he launched his campaign with blunt criticism of the three-term incumbent.
"Our community is conservative. Yet, we’re represented by a liberal," Evans said at the time. "It’s unacceptable."
In November, Evans won the endorsement of the anti-abortion group Texas Right to Life, which has long been sharply critical of Sheffield. (Two other anti-abortion groups – Texas Alliance for Life and Life PAC, the political arm of the Texans for Life Coalition – have endorsed Sheffield.) Evans' campaign began ramping up last month, when he announced he was bringing on board two new staffers.
First elected in 2012, Sheffield has previously fended off challengers from his right. He defeated his 2016 primary opponent, Brent Graves, by 23 percentage points.
The sprawling House district stretches across eight counties from southwest of Fort Worth to northwest of Austin.
Who will hold the seat beginning in 2019 is almost certain to be determined in the Republican primary. No Democrat filed for the seat.
Sheffield's campaign declined to comment for this story.