Thomas Mullen hasn't been in jail in years.
But if you looked at the Dallas County jail site, it wrongly made it seem like he was behind bars for 13 years.
He was shocked when News 8 informed him.
“They shouldn't be able to do that to anyone,” he said.
Mullen was booked into the county jail in 2003. He acknowledges he fell behind on child support by about $6,000. He got arrested on a contempt charge and ended up in a work-release furlough program run by the family courts. That program hasn’t existed for years.
He is not alone.
In all, there are 299 people who, if you look on the public jail lookup, wrongly appear to be in jail. The oldest name dates back to 1990. It would be very easy to pull Mullen’s name or anybody’s else’s name on that list up on the jail’s public site.
“I think they're eager to get you on there and put you on there and make you look like you're a deadbeat dad for 13 years,” said Mullen, whose children are now grown and in their 30s.
District Judge Ken Molberg, the local administrative district judge, had not heard of the issue before News 8 brought it to his attention Thursday morning. This afternoon, he issued an order to Sheriff’s Department that all of the names be removed from the jail site.
"There is no need to piecemeal this when I have the power to do it in one fell swoop,” Molberg said.
It was actually defense attorney Chris Mulder, who stumbled across the issue.
He says he was looking for a witness and checked to see if they might be in the jail. He typed in the witness’ initials and up popped the name of a man who appeared to have been in jail for more than a decade on a child custody issue.
“My first thought was, ‘Oh my God, I wonder what this guy did to be in the Dallas County Jail for 10 years,” Mulder said. “Then I wondered if they lost him.”
Mulder contacted News 8 about the situation. We reached out to the jail. They provided News 8 with a list of the 299 people, who were erroneously listed as being in the now-defunct furlough program.
At one time, the backlog was as many as 800 people, county officials say. Sheriff’s officials had been quietly prodding the courts for years trying to resolve the issue, but it had been moving along at a snail’s pace for years.
Jail spokeswoman Melinda Urbina says internal jail records indicate the person's out on furlough even though they're really not.
“We literally have to have a piece of paper faxed over to us so we can take them off the books,” Urbina said.
News 8 reached out to dozens of people on the list. They were shocked to hear to their names and images still appear on the jail site years after their cases were over.
“Evidentially from what I understand I'm supposed to be sleeping in Lew Sterrett,” said a 50-year-old man, who asked that have his identity concealed his wife and children from embarrassment.
The jail site indicates that he has been in the jail since 2004. At the time, he was behind on his child support by about $2,000. He was paying his child support and was paying extra to catch up when he got arrested at work because of a missed court date, he said.
“This third party collector – the guardian ad litem – had said he sent me a letter for a court date,” he said. “I never saw the letter.”
He spent 32 hours in jail before he found out why he was even in jail. He settled up his child support issues and moved on, not knowing that his name was never cleared from the jail site.
“I'm very involved in my kids’ lives,” he said. “I'm very far from being a deadbeat dad.”
The child support case involved his son who is now 28 and two years out of the Marines. He says about two years ago, he was questioned about it by a potential employer and by a sporting organization he coaches for.
He tried to call the county but got put on that “indefinite hold where you get tired of waiting and hang up.” He talked to an attorney who told him it was going to cost about $2,500 and there was no guarantee the attorney could get it removed.
Now, he wonders how many people had looked up his name and he didn’t even know it.
“It’s just an uncomfortable feeling,” the man said.
Mullen was thankful that Judge Molberg took immediate action.
“I’m not an angel, but I don’t need any help shooting myself in the foot. “Really I don’t know if just an apology is going to be good enough for me to be honest with you. I’m looking at other options as well.”
Mullen and the other man wonder how much damage has been done to their reputations over the years without them even knowing it.
“It’s not going to help anything that has happened in the past, but at least I know from this point forward I can hold my head a little higher with confidence now and not worry about the fact that somebody’s looking at me out of the corner of their eye,” the man said.
The judge says he plans to investigate further to try to determine how this backlog could have persisted for so many years. He wants to prevent something like this from happening again.