A former United Airlines pilot who admitted operating a string of brothels throughout Houston pleaded guilty Thursday as part of a controversial deal that allows him to avoid jail time or even a criminal conviction.
The sentence by state District Judge Jim Wallace drew sharp criticism from civil rights groups, who said black and Hispanic pimps and madams are routinely sentenced to decades of prison time while Bruce Wayne Wallis, who is white, was not. Wallace, a Republican, is also white.
“It’s just another case of what African-Americans would call white privilege,” said Dr. James Douglas, president of the NAACP Houston Branch. “You get a break for being white and it’s something we’ve lived with all of our lives, especially in the criminal justice area.”
The judge ordered Wallis to spend five years on deferred adjudication probation, pay $2,000 fine and perform 150 hours of community service — which he suggested he serve at a woman’s shelter. If Wallis completes the probation, he will not have a felony conviction on his record and can keep his FAA-issued pilot’s license, with which he operates his other business, a flight school. He was suspended from United Airlines after his arrest.
Wallis, 53, was charged in 2015 with aggravated promotion of prostitution and engaging in criminal activity, accused of being the mastermind behind an illicit empire including about a half-dozen brothels in Galleria-area apartments and northwest Houston office buildings with six to 10 women.
Wallace said from the bench Thursday that he was satisfied that the pilot did not coerce any of the prostitutes.
“What you did was despicable,” Wallace said. “But you didn’t endanger any lives and you did not force anybody to do this.”
The pilot, in a black suit flanked by three lawyers, shook his head in agreement.
African-American activists were disappointed but not shocked at the lenient punishment for a large-scale commercial sex operation run by a white businessman.
“If that was someone who looked like me, they’d be under the jail right now,” said Ashton Woods with Black Lives Matter of Houston. “It appears that white men these days are getting off really easy. I’m not surprised, to be honest.”
The judge said Wallis suggested community service at a woman’s shelter to learn about the victims of sex trafficking.
The difference between prostitutes who agree to be part of a criminal enterprise and people who are forced to become prostitutes by traffickers has come under scrutiny in recent years. Many criminal justice reformers argue that no one wants to become a prostitute, and that the causes are more insidious than coercion.
To that end, prosecutors have largely stopped prosecuting victims of trafficking, but they continue filing charges against willing prostitutes.
In Wallis’ case, the prosecutor said he had sought up to seven years in prison in exchange for the guilty plea, but the judge instead ordered probation. The judge also ruled that Wallis could not fly commercially during the probation but could operate his flight school.
“The judge did a thorough review and determined that a deferred adjudication probation was appropriate in this case,” said Assistant Harris County District Attorney Lester Blizzard. “I asked for penitentiary time.”
Asked about disparity in sentencing between Wallis’ misdeeds and others, Blizzard said there was not a good way to compare cases.
“All cases stand on their own. All cases are different,” the prosecutor said. “So I don’t know if there’s a way to summarize or draw a line between any of these.”
Wallis’ attorney said the pilot was remorseful and admitted what he did, so probation was a just result.
“I think he learned that what he did was a crime,” said defense lawyer Dan Cogdell. “(The judge) did the right thing because it allows Mr. Wallis to accept responsibility and move forward and be a productive member of society.”
Asked about a sentencing disparity, Cogdell said the result was within the range of acceptable sentences.
He noted that early reports suggesting Wallis may have been using his position as a commercial pilot to move women, gold bars and millions of dollars in an international sex trafficking ring were speculation that turned out not to be true.
“When you recognize this for what this was, it certainly wasn’t a great idea, but it wasn’t the crime of the century that they initially made it out to be,” Cogdell said.
Court records show investigators believe the women advertised online and paid Wallis $400 a week. He was accused in court records of recruiting five women at a time and having sex with them before putting them to work as prostitutes. If convicted in a jury trial, Wallis could have faced a maximum of 20 years in prison.
The news caused criminal justice activists to speak out about other crimes involving prostitution and trafficking.
Tarsha Jackson, with Texas Organizing Project, said that while she does not like to see anyone put behind bars, the criminal justice system should be fair.
“This proves that our system is not fair,” she said. “I’ve talked to people who are charged with misdemeanors who got harsher punishments than this.”
Prosecutors noted that pimps who stand trial in Harris County are not typically sympathetic figures to citizens who judge them.
“Jurors have little mercy for pimps,” JoAnne Musick, head of the Sex Crimes Division at the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, said in a statement after Houston pimp Ronald Block was sentenced earlier this year.
Most of Harris County’s high-profile cases, however, have included allegations of sex trafficking or prostitution of underage victims.
Block, known as “Gorgeous Black,” was sentenced to 30 years in prison in May for forcing a teenage runaway into prostitution.
A registered sex offender who is black, Block pleaded guilty to compelling prostitution in an agreement that helped him avoid a possible life sentence. He admitted managing four prostitutes – including a 17-year-old runaway – from March to May of 2015.
Last year, the madam of a notorious brothel that operated in Houston’s East End for years was sentenced to life in federal prison for her role as the leader of an international sex trafficking ring that forced women and girls into prostitution.
Hortencia “Tencha” Medeles, 70, was convicted during a trial that exposed operations at Medeles’ three-building complex on Telephone Road. A cantina was located downstairs, and hidden doorways and staircases led to a brothel upstairs where 17 rooms were rented out for sex.
Earlier this year in a federal courtroom in Houston, a Harris County man was sentenced to more than 18 years in prison for the sex trafficking of a 17-year-old girl. DeAngelo Tate, a 27-year-old black man, also had to pay $20,000 in restitution to the girl in a plea deal in May. Tate pleaded guilty to one count of sex trafficking of children in December.
According to a statement by Tate, he posted classified advertisements on backpage.com promoting the prostitution of the 17-year-old female, but he said she was 19 or 22. Tate admitted he also rented hotel rooms in Corpus Christi and Houston to serve as the location for sex acts between the teen and male customers.
Some criminal justice activists said the trafficking allegations raise the severity of the likely punishment, but said there are other factors that can be detrimental to people of color in the criminal justice system.
Growing up in a disadvantaged neighborhood, for example, may lead to a minor criminal history that leads to the lack of steady employment. After being arrested for a serious offense, such as aggravated promotion of prostitution or engaging in criminal activity, a suspect with a criminal record and spotty job record may not be able to get bail. Stuck in jail, they lose money and family support that becomes crucial when a judge has discretion in a case.
Wallis, on the other hand had no prior criminal record and was able to make $15,000 bail.
“A lot of advantages that white defendants may have at sentencing tend to make them better candidates, reinforcing racial disparity at sentencing,” said Nicole D. Porter, a spokeswoman for the Sentencing Project, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C.
This story originally appeared 11/16/2017 in the Houston Chronicle.