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25 Investigates: Determining Death, the case of Robert Pearson

Robert Pearson
Posted at 3:01 PM, May 10, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-11 01:30:18-04

WACO, TX — The death of a Waco icon, declared dead twice in one day, has raised many questions about where the death investigation into the passing of Robert Pearson went wrong, and how anyone could have missed that the man remained alive hours after being declared dead the first time.

25 News takes a look inside the case even though investigative agencies have slammed the door shut not only on what happened but even on the most basic questions of how a man gets declared dead twice.

Hank Pendelton bonded with his neighbor Robert Pearson over his barbeque.

"Every time I cooked some barbecue I always took him a plate, and he always thanked me," said Pendelton.

Pearson, the former Waco Airport shoeshine man, made headlines when he was forced to leave the airport after the city changed its vendor contracts.

Friends called him an encyclopedia of knowledge, the former Channel 25 Studio Cameraman read every newspaper and watched every TV newscast he could.

But last weekend friends became concerned about his welfare.

"There were folks who had been trying to reach out to Robert over the weekend and weren't able to get in touch with him, and we were getting worried about it," said Bank Executive Sam Brown.

In a written release Waco Police say, apartment managers found Mr. Pearson dead, they found no signs of life and called for Justice of the Peace "Pete" Peterson.

"He just looked at him and pronounced him dead and I didn't think that was right," Pendelton recalled.

But it was right at the time.

"And then we got the word a couple hours later that technically that may not be the case, but deep down I think we knew," said Brown.

Waco Mortuary workers found Mr. Pearson showed signs of life, and he was rushed to Hillcrest Hospital, where he later died.

"This is an interesting case, people have questions, but the assumption is, is that when a gap is called, that person is already dead," explained Justice Rick Hill, President of the Justices of the Peace and Constables Association of Texas.

If that's the case, who dropped the ball?

"The City of Waco Police Department, they're doing a phenomenal job," said Waco Police Chief Sheryl Victorian.

But did they in this case? Many say yes.

"We are just the conduit by which one set of experts gets to the other, for the most part," said Scott Rubin, President of the Texas Association of Police Chiefs.

Waco put out a new press release days after promising an investigation, saying it would change its policy and require Fire/Rescue or Ambulance personnel to certify actual death before calling a Justice of the Peace to certify it legally.

But Central Texas community activist Reverend James Hill believes a press release does not answer the many questions that remain about the death of a man who many say, represented the very best of Waco and Central Texas.

"Transparency and we always speak about that, as community advocates, we just want to know what's going on," he said.

Because to lose such a beloved man because of a mistake, friends call, unacceptable.

"All I can say he was a good person, and that he'll truly be missed," said Pendleton.

What happened with Robert Pearson declared dead twice in one day, left many questions. The main one, how could it happen at all.

Sam Brown says Robert Pearson loved God as much as life itself and didn't mind telling people about it.

"He shined shoes but that was almost just an opportunity for him to talk to people, there's so much that's conveyed in a face-to-face conversation that I just hope people remember that relationships matter," he said.

Waco's new police chief says she believes in building relationships.

"In order to reduce crime, we need our citizens, as a force multiplier to be our eyes and ears in the community," Sheryl Victorian recently told 25 News reporter Cierra Shipley.

But some say Waco police damaged their relationship with the community when even the department in a written release, hinted that it mishandled Pearson's death investigation, leaving him to "die twice" in legal terms after a mortuary crew found him alive.

The press release promised an immediate investigation, pointing out Police don't declare death in Texas.

Texas law has long left the legal determination of death to Justices of the Peace, the Judicial Branch closest to voters, what justices themselves refer to, as "the people's court".

The only exceptions? A relative handful of counties with coroners or medical examiners.

Waco Police wouldn't answer questions about procedures, but the president of the Texas Police Chief's association would.

"We would contact our EMTs, and they would come out and run a strip, the EKG to determine life or no life," explained Blanco Police Chief Scott Rubin, who once worked in a city that crossed three jurisdictions, and described different procedures for the different areas.

"EMTs would contact their medical officer for verification. And at that point we would either call the medical examiner's office for the justice of the peace depending on what county we're in," he explained.

As the weekend began, Waco police released a similar policy saying from now on, Waco Fire or the County Ambulance service would arrive to 'run a strip' on anyone apparently deceased.

And while the new Waco Chief put the accent in her first interviews on diversity some say she aimed to help with that policy say, she actually lost trust by hiding behind a press release and never coming forward to address the deficiencies of the Pearson investigation.

"It helps to increase that trust and legitimacy in policing," she said. "We need to be treated with respect and dignity. And the only way we can do that is we have to hear voices. We don't need to read, two-liners, we don't need that. We need to hear explicitly and definitively what have you changed. Chief, can you help us with that? We need for you come and show us that you are here to protect, and mostly to serve," said Central Texas community activist Rev. James Hill.

Rev. Hill points out, Victorian says she wants to bring big-city ideas to Waco.

"It's important that I assess what's going on here and then see how I can move us forward with any ideas that I've brought from Houston," she told Shipley.

And while some say her change to the department's policy on determining death could represent a big, positive idea, others warn announcing the change in a press release may be the Houstonian thing to do.

"If you want us to trust you, and you want to work with us, and you said you here for the community well, speak to us, speak to us," said Hill.

Speak the way Robert Pearson did, said the pastor, knowledgeable, inquisitive, engaging.

Many say that's what makes and gains trust with a community.

"I'm a better person because I met Robert Pearson and I'm gonna miss him," said Brown, choking back tears.

Some say Waco Police missed an opportunity to show they are better at policy and community engagement for the department's brush with Robert Pearson.