Texas attorney Rod Ponton went viral Tuesday for appearing as a cute kitten in a Zoom court hearing.
As a county prosecutor in 2014, he oversaw a controversial raid on a smoke shop.
The shop's owner told Insider the raid came after she broke off a personal relationship with Ponton.
Texas attorney Rod Ponton - who went viral Tuesday when he appeared as an adorable kitten in a Zoom court hearing - has a record of controversy as a Texas county prosecutor.
Ponton served as Brewster County District Attorney from 2013 to 2016. He gained national attention in 2014 for a raid on The Purple Zone, a smoke shop in Alpine, Texas, following what the shop's owner described as a pattern of harassment.
In May 2014, local and federal agents raided The Purple Zone on the basis of a search warrant Ponton requested. They arrested its owner, Ilana Lipsen, on charges related to the possession of illegal synthetic marijuana. She was briefly jailed. Her mother and sister were also arrested.
Ultimately, Lipsen pled guilty to first-degree felony manufacturing and possession of a controlled substance even though the substances in question - chemicals found in packets from an earlier raid, in 2012 - were not illegal in Texas at the time. In return, other charges against her mother and sister were dropped.
Lipsen said she believed the raid and its aftermath were the culmination of a targeted harassment campaign from law enforcement, directed by Ponton.
"I never thought that what happened to me could actually happen to an American citizen," Lipsen told Insider. "I always thought that the police were here to protect and serve us."
Reached by phone, Ponton said the case was handled by the book.
"The charges were brought by the police and the authorities," Ponton said. "The case was handled professionally."
An alleged romantic history before the raid
Lipsen said the raid followed a long period of harassment from Ponton. She said she had a brief sexual relationship with the district attorney when she was a college student in the early 2000s.
Lipsen told Reason the details of the relationship in 2014 and repeated them to Insider in interviews Tuesday and Wednesday. Three other Alpine residents told an Insider reporter that the relationship was an open secret at the time.
"I heard about it before I ever met Ilana," Tom Cochran, an acquaintance of Lipsen, told Insider Wednesday. A third source said the same: "I knew her very well. I heard it from her before the raid."
After it ended, she told Reason, Ponton sometimes drove slowly past her house, "almost like he was stalking me."
Lipsen, a ranch owner, also said Ponton purchased horses for her, and would often use them as an excuse to check up on her once the relationship ended.
"I ditched him because he was creepy. And then years later he sees an opportunity to fuck me up," she told Insider.
She also said she moved to a different town after the incident, in part to evade Ponton.
"I had to literally reinvent myself," she said. "He did stalk me."
Ponton denied having a relationship with Lipsen.
"We never had a relationship. I never had sex with her. All that stuff is false," he told Insider Tuesday. "No reports were ever filed. Everything she said was a lie."
"No one took anything she said seriously," he added.
Lipsen was jailed after the raid. She wasn't permitted to post bond until she signed a letter retracting a description of events she gave to news outlets, as the Texas Observer previously reported. The letter also included an apology to DEA officers, saying they had a "legitimate reason" to search her shop.
Witnesses who posted photos of the raid's aftermath on social media said Ponton intimidated them, trying to get them to take the images down.
"[Ponton] personally threatened me with seven felonies if I didn't delete photos I took in public in my capacity as a journalist," Cochran told Insider.
Lipsen said the incident gave her "severe PTSD."
"Till this day I still get anxiety when a police officer comes to my work," she said.
After he lost the primary for district attorney in 2018, Ponton continued to serve in public office. In January, the Alpine city council fired him as the city's attorney, with a councilmember citing "a significant lack of trust" in him,
Ponton's time as a kitten was short-lived
Ponton's appearance as a harmless kitten in the court hearing lasted just a minute, Roy Ferguson, the judge overseeing the case, told Insider in an interview Tuesday. He told Ponton how to change the setting so that he could remove the filter and appear as a human again.
"I was (prepared to continue)," Ponton told the "Today" show. "Meow, meow, meow."
Ferguson told Insider he posted the video to YouTube "for educational purposes" to represent "the incredible professionalism and dignity displayed by all involved" in the legal profession and "exemplify the legal community's dedication to the cause of justice."
He said he had known Ponton for years and that he posted the video online without consulting him.
"I'm glad I was able to help people get a chuckle," Ponton told Insider.
In an interview with Motherboard, Ponton blamed his secretary.
"I was using her computer and for some reason, she had that filter on," he said. "I took it off and replaced it with my face."
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