tulia, texas
 
 

 

A Question of Motive Dogs Texas Panhandle Drug Bust

 

* Tulia: One of every six blacks was arrested. Some residents see raid as state- sponsored 'ethnic cleansing.'

 

TULIA, Texas -- The officers and deputies came in the morning. They arrested pig farmers and warehouse workers, single mothers and lithe young men who once were heroes for the town's pride and joy--its high school football team. Forty-three people in all.

 

The biggest drug raid in Swisher County's history also was the worst day in memory for Tulia's small, tightknit African American community. In a matter of hours, one of every six black residents had been indicted for selling cocaine.

 

At first, hardly anyone raised a voice in protest. The local paper celebrated the roundup of the "scumbags" corrupting the town's children. Those few who had doubts kept quiet, except for one man--a self-described "hick farmer" and gadfly named Gary Gardner.

 

Thanks in part to his efforts, Tulia now stands divided by a controversy that has thrust this town of 5,000 in the drought-stricken Texas Panhandle into the national debate about drugs, race and the criminal justice system.

 

Sentiment here began to turn after a series of revelations about the white undercover agent who had set up the July 1999 sting, a journeyman deputy with a tainted past whose word was the only evidence against most of the defendants. That information led the American Civil Liberties Union last week to file a federal civil rights lawsuit against the county, charging that the arrests were racially motivated.

 

"I just worked the facts and the facts show that a lot of these people aren't guilty," said Gardner, a large man with a pinkish complexion and a penchant for foul language. "It's like a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle you dump on the floor, and years later it begins to make sense."

 

In the last year, Tulia's one-bench courthouse has hosted 11 drug trials, each one ending with a conviction, most without a single black on the jury.

 

Many of those convicted have received long, Texas-size sentences for selling relatively small amounts of cocaine--crimes big-city prosecutors and judges likely would punish with a few years of probation.

 

The most recent trial ended last month with the conviction of Kareem Abdul Jabbar White, who got 60 years for selling one-eighth of an ounce of cocaine (street value: about $150).

 

"These drug traffickers have been a cancer on our community long enough," one local paper editorialized. "It's time to give them a major dose of chemotherapy behind bars."

 

Buoyed by such sentiments, the county district attorney and sheriff have defended the drug raid and the aggressive prosecution. "We're not a lynching county," said Swisher County Dist. Atty. Terry McEachern. "This is a community that's tough on drugs."

 

Some See Different Agenda

 

And no one denies that Tulia has a drug problem. Rural communities have the nation's fastest growing rate of cocaine and heroin use. But to some here it seems that, at best, the local authorities rounded up a bunch of small-time users--many had previous arrests for petty offenses--and treated them as if they were million-dollar drug kingpins.

 

"These are the young people we're supposed to be trying to help," said Charles Kiker, a retired Baptist preacher and one of a small but growing circle of residents who have denounced the raid as government-sponsored "ethnic cleansing."

 

"It's not the drugs they're after," said Mattie White, a guard at a nearby state prison who had three adult children arrested in the raid, including Kareem. "They don't want these kids in this town."

 

To these critics, the allegations behind the drug sting are patently absurd: Tulia is a poor, hardscrabble community. And yet the defendants were charged with selling powder cocaine, a rich man's habit. And why, they ask, were no guns, drug paraphernalia or large amounts of cash seized in the raid?

 

"You see how small this town is?" asked Billy Wafer, a warehouse worker who was arrested in the 1999 raid but was later freed by a judge. "How can 43 drug dealers survive in this community? Everybody in this town would have to be a drug user."

 

William Harrell, executive director of the Texas ACLU, calls the Tulia case "the most blatant example of police and prosecutorial misconduct I've seen in my entire career." Harrell has petitioned federal authorities to launch a criminal investigation.

 

In response to such charges and a flood of critical publicity, local residents are organizing a rally for Monday to thank the sheriff "for making Swisher County a safer place to live."

 

The bust has transformed Tulia into a small-town laboratory on the social effects of the nation's drug wars. So many people were arrested and put on trial that the county had to raise its property tax 5% to pay for it all.

 

Walk down Tulia's streets--a lonely tableau reminiscent of "The Last Picture Show"--and the few people you run into likely have a connection to the raid and the trials that followed. To date, 132 county residents have served as jurors.

 

Ventura Ramos sat in the jury that convicted White, 24. She has a vague memory of having met White briefly at her farm, many years ago, when he was still a boy.

 

"It took me about three days to get over it," Ramos said after the verdict. "Some of these young people had so much potential."

 

Like others in Tulia, Ramos saw the trial in a larger context, as part of the effort to rid her community of a horrible evil.

 

"You don't want these kids exposed to drug dealers," Ramos said. "So you tell yourself that if you ever have a chance, you're going to punish them."

 

The first defendant to go to trial--one of three nonblacks arrested--got the longest sentence, 434 years. Freddie Brookin, a 22-year-old black man with no prior convictions, received a 20-year sentence for delivering an eighth of an ounce of cocaine. (In California, five years is the maximum prison term for a similar crime.) Other defendants began to opt for plea bargains, admitting guilt in exchange for lesser sentences.

 

Enter Gardner, a longtime nemesis of county officials who had tangled earlier with them about their plan to administer random drug tests at Tulia High School.

 

A large man who wears denim overalls, Gardner seems an unlikely advocate for the African American community. Among other things, he peppers his speech with a certain highly offensive racial slur, giving a slight grin when he says it, as if it were a term of endearment.

 

"I assumed like everybody else that they were guilty," Gardner said. "They were lynched in the papers before there ever was a trial."

 

Gardner wrote a letter to each defendant urging them to seek a trial outside of Swisher County. He looked deeper into the case and fed information to journalists in Amarillo, Lubbock and elsewhere.

 

Soon, all of Tulia knew what only a handful inside the office of Sheriff Larry Stewart had known for months: The county's first undercover narcotics officer himself had been arrested halfway through the sting on a theft warrant.

 

Tom Coleman had run afoul of authorities in nearby Cochran County, where he had worked as a deputy. The sheriff there accused him of stealing gasoline from the county. Coleman also owed more than $6,900 to local merchants. His new boss, Stewart, had Coleman fingerprinted and then released him on bond.

 

A few weeks later, Coleman cleared his debts and paid restitution, although he denied stealing the gas. The matter was quietly dropped. He returned to his undercover work, making friends in the black community under the alias T.J. Dawson.

 

(Coleman is said to be working undercover at a new job and could not be reached for comment.)

 

When Coleman's arrest finally became news, long after the sting's climax, what many black residents had been saying all along didn't seem so implausible. Coleman, they charged, had completely fabricated most of his drug buys.

 

At White's trial, defense attorneys produced four witnesses who testified that Coleman had cheated or lied to them--including the vice chairman of a bank, a Pecos County prosecutor and the Cochran County sheriff. All said Coleman was untrustworthy.

 

In a 1996 letter to the state licensing officials, Cochran County Sheriff Ken Burke had written words that some in Tulia took as an eerie portent of what happened in their own community: "Mr. Coleman should not be in law enforcement if he is going to do people the way he did this town."

 

Juror Decides to Draw the Line

 

Despite such testimony, and inconsistencies in Coleman's report of his drug buy, a Tulia jury found White guilty. Ramos said she believed the four lawmen who testified to Coleman's good reputation. Another juror, who asked not to be named, said she had trouble believing any of the defendants could be innocent because she had heard before White's trial that most had accepted plea bargains. "When it comes to drugs, you have to draw the line somewhere," she said.

 

Stewart said it was a long-standing problem with drug abuse in the community that led his office to accept a federal grant for an undercover narcotics officer.

 

A tall, otherwise amiable man, Stewart spoke about the controversy with a weary, pained expression--confessing to being "worn out" by months of questions.

 

"There was never any attempt to target a specific group," he said. "We wanted to attack the drug problem. These are the ones that got caught."

 

Wafer, 42, recognized Coleman on the day he was arrested, even though the deputy was wearing a black mask. T.J. Dawson stood out in Tulia--a goateed man with a ponytail who had spent months hanging around with a local drunk, trying to buy drugs. Wafer said he twice chased the drunk away and told him to "get out of my face."

 

Wafer had a prior drug conviction--for marijuana possession. He was just about to finish 10 years of probation, having passed all his court-ordered drug tests, when he was caught up in the sting.

 

"It almost ruined my marriage," Wafer said. "I understand how [my wife] feels. When we got married, we was young and I was wild. But after we had those kids, I was trying to straighten my life up and be a responsible parent."

 

Fortunately for Wafer, he had a strong alibi, backed up by his time card and the testimony of his boss. A judge ordered him released.

 

Charges against another of the Tulia defendants, Yul Bryant, were dropped when it became clear deputies arrested the wrong man: Coleman had described Bryant as tall and bushy-haired; Bryant is, in fact, short and bald.

 

Such inconsistencies have only heightened the sense of persecution in Tulia's black community. Freddie Brookin Sr. considers his son's case, looks at the other defendants and comes up with a startling conspiracy theory: The law in Tulia had it in for people in multiracial relationships.

 

One of two convicted whites, he points out, had a child with a black woman. His own son, Freddie Jr., has a child with a white woman.

 

"It goes deep," Brookin said. "They were determined to get rid of him because of the child." He produces a photo of his granddaughter. Her skin is the color of chocolate milk, several shades lighter than his own.

 

Brookin gives a knowing look, as if the truth in the picture were there for anyone to see.

 

Gary Gardner, the unlikely defender of Tulia's black community.

Nearly all of the "Tulia 46" as they came to be known, were eventually set free and the city paid out millions to settle lawsuits against the police force.

For more on how the case was resolved, click here