Sgt. Phillip J. Breeding lay in bed one morning this spring anxiously awaiting a phone call that would change his life. Well before pinning on his first badge as a rookie patrolman in Lamesa, Breeding had his sights firmly fixed on the pinnacle of law enforcement in the Lone Star State: the storied Texas Rangers.
The baby-faced 36-year-old who grew up in Monahans had come a long way, ascending the ranks of the Department of Public Safety to highway patrol sergeant in Odessa. In recent years, as Breeding’s goal evolved from a childhood fantasy to an attainable promotion, Breeding became more earnest about the Rangers, spending long hours in the library preparing for a rigorous selection process that separates the elite from the merely qualified.
“I joined DPS for this reason,” Breeding recalled in an interview this week. “I knew what I wanted to do and I knew what I had to do to get there.”
Candidates who don’t make the cut learn of their rejection via snail mail, Breeding knew from experience. So when his phone chirped at 10:43 a.m., his face lit up when he recognized the Austin area code.
“How’s it going?” asked the caller, Senior Capt. Antonio Leal, the assistant director of the Rangers.
“I guess that depends on what you have to tell me,” a nervous Breeding replied.
That conversation set into motion a whirlwind of events that has proved exciting — “I was like a little boy in a candy store when (Leal) called me,” Breeding said — but also challenging. Breeding not only passed muster but finished second in his class. So after Kenneth D. Wadsworth —the only new Ranger who ranked higher than Breeding — chose the Ozona station, Breeding was offered the option of returning home. He quickly accepted the new Monahans post, which meant a move for his family.
“I spent my whole life trying to get out of that town and the better half of my adult life wishing I was back,” Breeding said. “I’ve always been a small town kind of guy. My daughter will adapt to not getting to go to the movies every Friday night.”
Over the past two months, Breeding himself has been adapting to a different realm of law enforcement. But former colleagues said Breeding would have no trouble easing into his new role.
“He always gives everything he has to the job he’s doing regardless of what it is,” said DPS Lt. Matt Garrison, who used to supervise Breeding. “He’s always wanted to be a Ranger. I hate to see him leave our service, but I understand that he’s pursuing his dream.”
As a highway patrol sergeant in Odessa, Breeding spent much of his time arresting drunk drivers and investigating crashes. Now as Ranger, his work includes “everything from theft to murder and everything in between,” Breeding said.
“It’s been overwhelming as far as the amount of things going on,” Breeding said. “I had just reached the point to where I was comfortable with what I was doing after 15 years, and now it’s like, what did I get myself in to?”
The Texas Rangers claim to be the oldest law enforcement agency in North America, tracing their roots to the early 1800s. Mike Cox, a former DPS spokesman and the author of a two-volume history of the Texas Rangers, said that competition for openings among the Rangers has increased as the organization’s reputation continues to grow.
“When I was at the DPS, it was not unusual for 200 officers to apply for one Ranger opening,” Cox wrote in an e-mail message. “I’ve known DPS officers who took a pay cut, going from Highway Patrol lieutenant to Ranger sergeant, just to get a chance to wear the cinco peso, the silver Ranger badge.”
Though the organization’s size and makeup have changed over the years, its role has remained fairly consistent, particularly in the modern era.
“They’re not infallible, and they have had their low points in history, but in modern times, they’ve grown more professional, with better training and equipment by the decade,” Cox noted.
The Rangers primarily use their skills and resources to assist other law enforcement agencies with some of their trickiest investigations. A handful of local Rangers, for instance, are helping the Reeves County Sheriff’s Office investigate a mysterious fire and apparent homicide that happened in March just southwest of Pecos.
Rangers also look into allegations of misconduct in other agencies, such as the family violence probe last fall that led to the resignation of Odessa police Sgt. Johnny Joe Valderaz. There are also times, however, when Rangers initiate their own investigations. Texas Ranger Lt. Brian Burzynski, for instance, is widely credited with single-handedly launching a probe into the widespread sexual abuse of inmates at the West Texas State School in Pyote. Ray Edward Brookins, the former assistant superintendent, was sentenced in April to 10 years in prison for his role in that scandal; John Paul Hernandez, another former administrator, is awaiting trial on 13 counts.
Burzynski, who was based in Fort Stockton when he began investigating the abuse, was Breeding’s classmate in DPS recruiting school. He has since been promoted to lieutenant and is based in Amarillo.
“He left a pretty big pair of boots for me to try to fill with the work that he did in that area,” Breeding said of his former classmate. “One of the biggest responsibilities that I have is not letting any of the guys that came before me down and living up to their expectations.”
Breeding’s assignment includes Ward, Winkler, Reeves and Loving counties. He said one of the main concerns in his region is oilfield theft.
“It’s unbelievable the amount of stuff and the thousands and thousands of dollars these companies are losing because of this theft.”
Despite the challenges he faces, Breeding says he appreciates the significance of what he has accomplished and the ranks of which he has joined. He says he is recognized many places he goes by the classical western attire the Rangers still wear in light of their heritage.
“We went into a restaurant yesterday in Monahans and this little kid looked at me and I could hear him whisper to his grandmother, ‘Hey, that’s a Texas Ranger,’” Breeding said. “It’s funny because I felt that way when I was a street cop and I’d see a Texas Ranger walk in.”