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Crackpot Crackdown

Jackson County's DA has convicted 28 black people on drug charges via manufactured evidence and railroaded trials. Now a small-town exile, her family, and a few neighbors are fighting back

By Jordan Smith, Fri., Oct. 21, 2005

Crackpot Crackdown
Photo By Jana Birchum

Frederick "Rick" Patterson was born in the small Southeast Texas city of Edna, seat of Jackson Co. and just north of Port Lavaca, in 1954, the same year the rural community earned its first moment in the national spotlight. That January, the U.S. Supreme Court heard an appeal brought by convicted murderer Pete Hernandez, an agricultural worker in Edna, who argued that Jackson Co. prosecutors denied his right to equal protection under the law by excluding Mexican-Americans from the jury pool. Hernandez's attorneys had discovered that from 1929 to 1954, not a single Mexican-American had ever served on a Jackson Co. jury – nor, for that matter, had any black juror. The state Court of Criminal Appeals had rejected Hernandez's argument – ruling that Hispanics were a subset of whites and therefore could not be considered a "special class" under the 14th Amendment. But on May 3, 1954, in a precedent-setting opinion authored by Chief Justice Earl Warren, a unanimous Supreme Court disagreed. Hernandez had "the right to be indicted and tried by juries from which all members of his class [were] not systematically excluded," Warren wrote. Indeed, Warren noted that courthouse practice itself belied Jackson Co. officials' assertion that Mexicans were considered equal to whites, for the courthouse had two separate men's restrooms – one for whites, and the other labeled for "Colored Men" and "Hombres Aqui."

Fifty-one years later, it seems, too little has changed in Edna.

The segregated restrooms are gone. But the town remains an East Texas – or Old South – throwback, where racism simmers like a bully's threat, and equal justice under the law appears little more than an outsider's sentimental fancy. And in the fall of 2002, Edna's institutionalized rural racism overmatched Justice's balanced scales when 29 African-American residents – nearly 4% of the town's black population – including Patterson, a lifelong Ednan, and later, his wife, Joycelyn – were rounded up and charged with felony drug offenses in connection with a six-month undercover drug sting, a joint operation of the Edna Police Department and the Jackson Co. Sheriff's Office coyly dubbed "Operation Crackdown."

"Eight of the defendants were located at one time in a bar in Edna. Four more were gathered up that same night," breathlessly reported the Edna Herald on Nov. 20. "The bottom line is that this type of conduct will not be tolerated here in Jackson County," sheriff Kelly R. Janica told the paper at the time. "We are going to do our job to keep drugs from infecting our streets." (And as this story was in preparation, it appears the job was far from completed – see "'Crackdown' Becomes 'Shutdown,'" below.)

But, in what has become an all-too-typical tale of rogue criminal justice in rural Texas – epitomized by the infamous 1999 Tulia drug sting – it appears that the Edna "crackdown" had much less to do with eradicating drugs than it did with institutionalized, small-town racism. Under the guise of removing drugs (specifically, crack cocaine) from the streets, local lawmen may have themselves broken state law, primarily by relying on a local crack addict as their sole informant to send 28 of the 29 defendants to prison for sentences from one to 20 years. Only two of the defendants, including Patterson, dared to challenge the charges in court; the rest accepted plea bargains offered by longtime Jackson Co. District Attorney Bobby Bell. They did so, it seems certain, in large part out of fear of challenging Bell's authority and thus receiving even heavier sentences. (Charges were dismissed in one case.)

One white Edna resident who requested anonymity, fearing retaliation, said bluntly that Bell's attitude is "'I'll break you, I'll take everything you've got; so take the plea [or] I'll make sure you go to jail.' He does as he pleases."

Lifelong Edna residents Rick and Joycelyn Patterson (right) were among 29 blacks in Edna, Texas (pop. 5,899), charged with dealing crack in connection with an undercover sting dubbed Operation Crackdown. Although there was scant evidence, all of it circumstantial, to support their guilt, longtime District Attorney Bobby Bell insists the Pattersons were kingpins of the crack trade. Fed up with Edna's apparently race-based brand of criminal justice, La'Trinda Patterson (pictured with her mother, Joycelyn, behind her, left) began a personal campaign to prove her parents' innocence and to end Bell's reign.
Lifelong Edna residents Rick and Joycelyn Patterson (right) were among 29 blacks in Edna, Texas (pop. 5,899), charged with dealing crack in connection with an undercover sting dubbed "Operation Crackdown." Although there was scant evidence, all of it circumstantial, to support their guilt, longtime District Attorney Bobby Bell insists the Pattersons were kingpins of the crack trade. Fed up with Edna's apparently race-based brand of criminal justice, La'Trinda Patterson (pictured with her mother, Joycelyn, behind her, left) began a personal campaign to prove her parents' innocence and to end Bell's reign.
Photo By Jana Birchum

Indeed, going to trial didn't help Rick Patterson at all. Instead, on virtually no evidence, and that circumstantial, a jury of nine whites and three Hispanics (11 jurors were women) quickly convicted Patterson, and Judge Skipper Koetter imposed the max: 10 years for each of the three charges. (In a moment of magnanimity, Koetter ruled that Patterson's sentences should run concurrently.)

Crackdown was not the first operation of its kind in Edna. By the estimate of many African-American residents, at least half the county's black population is "on paper" in some way with Texas' criminal justice system, either in prison or out on parole or probation – meaning, among other things, that many local blacks are unable to vote. But Operation Crackdown may wind up being the sting that broke the back of the already disenfranchised and beleaguered black community – and the sting that finally pushes them to fight back. "I am 27 [years old] and for 10 years I've seen my people go in and out and in and out of jail," said La'Trinda Patterson, Rick and Joycelyn's eldest daughter. "This is how it is and this is how it is always going to be [if] everyone is intimidated by Bobby Bell. It [has] hit home, and I know my parents didn't do it."

Indeed, if La'Trinda Patterson and her parents, along with an increasing number of Edna's residents and a small group of mostly volunteer attorneys – among them Amarillo lawyer Jeff Blackburn (who was instrumental in overturning the unjust Tulia convictions) – have their way, Jackson County's brand of justice will finally be exposed, and Edna will earn a second moment in the national spotlight.


Playing Ball With Bell

On Nov. 11, 2002, Rick Patterson was on his way home from his job as a supervisor at the Inteplast plastics plant in Lolita, in southern Jackson Co., when he was stopped by police in front of the Rent-A-Center in Edna and arrested on three counts of delivery of less than a gram of crack cocaine. Word of Patterson's arrest spread quickly through Edna's northeast side, home to the vast majority of the town's 796 black people. It wasn't long before someone called La'Trinda Patterson at her home in Houston with the news. La'Trinda was shocked. "I was like, how in the hell did he get caught up in this shit?" she recalled recently. "For 50 years he did nothing but work and raise kids. Why, how, and why now?"

Indeed, the idea that Rick Patterson had anything to do with drugs is difficult to believe. Patterson was born and raised in Edna, as was Joycelyn, his wife of 33 years. The couple lived in the house Joycelyn grew up in, where they raised three daughters, looked after their aging parents who lived nearby, worked hard, and Rick coached youth sports. The Pattersons were one of the town's most respected black families – their door was always open, Joycelyn always had something cooking in the kitchen, and Rick often left his keys in his car in case somebody needed a ride.

Moreover, Joycelyn and Rick know the scourge of crack – their home is two doors down from a notorious and now-vacant crack house, and several of Joycelyn's relatives have long struggled with addiction. The Pattersons strove to ensure that their kids would grow up in an environment that strongly discouraged drug use. "My mom broke it down," La'Trinda said. "She said, you have two choices in life. One, to be a smoker and lose everything," or two, to get an education, get out of Edna, and live life. No one, including white friends of the Pattersons, could believe Rick was a drug dealer. The Pattersons "are a hard-working, taxpaying family that took care of their business and raised their children," said one native Ednan. "I believe they were ramrodded. I can't prove it, but I believe it."

The day after Rick was arrested, La'Trinda drove to Edna from Houston to help bail him out of jail and find an attorney. The family raised enough to post bond, but finding an attorney was another matter. La'Trinda called a host of area lawyers, but when she told them it was a Jackson Co. drug case and that her dad intended to fight the charges on the grounds that he was, in fact, innocent, the attorneys she called turned tail. "As soon as I said it was Jackson County, they said, 'Oh no, Bobby Bell.' And they wouldn't take the case."

Photo from the <i>Edna Herald</i>
Photo from the Edna Herald

The attorneys' reluctance didn't exactly surprise the Pattersons, who know that Jackson Co.'s long-time DA Bobby Bell has a reputation for being a hardass. "Lawyers come up from Houston or the Valley and they're shocked by the kind of justice they receive [in Edna]," said one area lawyer. "If you're charged with a felony narcotics offense there's not any way you're ever going to be given [probation]. Whites can get breaks, but blacks and browns don't get breaks; they get nailed."

Of the 29 defendants charged in Operation Crackdown, 27 were represented by court-appointed lawyers, and only two, Patterson and a man named Tvan Bryant, declined Bell's plea offer, choosing to go to trial. After finally securing Victoria lawyer Tali Villafranca to represent her dad, La'Trinda said her family was cautiously optimistic – after all, she said, her father is innocent. "[My dad] didn't worry because Tali said that since he was innocent he could beat [the charge]," she recalled. Rick had never been in trouble with the law before; he'd never even received a speeding ticket, La'Trinda said.

Their confidence was soon shaken by a phone call from Villafranca. "Tali ... called Bobby Bell to tell him that my dad wasn't going to take a plea bargain and that he was going to trial," La'Trinda recalled, "and then Tali called [my dad] and said that Bobby Bell said to tell him, 'I have a surprise for [Rick], since he wants to play ball with me.' ... The next thing we know ... my mom was indicted and arrested." Indeed, in early 2003, Bell again shocked many in the community by returning an indictment against Joycelyn, charging her with one count of selling less than a gram of crack to the same police informant to whom the other defendants were alleged to have sold drugs. "It was totally weird," La'Trinda says, recalling the day her mother was arrested. "My mama wouldn't even go near drugs."

The writing was on the wall: The wheels of Jackson County's criminal justice system – as operated by DA Bobby Bell – had begun to spin, and they weren't likely to stop until the Pattersons were behind bars. "That's when we started putting everything together," La'Trinda said.


Radio Castañeda

Nearly three years later, the procedural facts of Operation Crackdown remain fairly mysterious, largely because the undercover drug buys that led to the 29 arrests were made exclusively by a local crack addict, 26-year-old Santos Castro Castañeda. According to Castañeda's testimony at Rick Patterson's Aug. 2004 trial, the entire operation was basically her own idea. Castañeda, who had also grown up in Edna, had been addicted to crack since she was 16; she'd tried rehab but it hadn't worked. So, she said, she decided to try something different: If she helped "clean up" the streets of Edna, she wouldn't be able to buy any crack, and thus would have to quit using. "The reason why I decided to help [the police was] so then I wouldn't be able to buy drugs in Jackson County any more," she told the court.

According to Castañeda's testimony – and those of Edna Police Investigator Craig Repka and Jackson Co. Lt. Curt Gabrysch, who together formed the law-enforcement end of Operation Crackdown – the mechanics of the undercover stings were simple. On 22 different dates between May and November 2002, Castañeda drove to the municipal airport, just outside the Edna city limits, to meet up with Repka and Gabrysch. After performing a quick search of Castañeda and her car – theoretically to ensure that Castañeda wasn't carrying any drugs of her own – the officers provided her with buy money, typically $50 (in bills that, for evidentiary purposes, they'd photocopied back at the police station), placed an audio transmitter in her purse and sent her on her way. Castañeda was told to talk as she drove, identifying the streets she took and the people she encountered, so that – by secondhand description – the officers could track her.

Without Castañeda's audio, the officers would have had no idea where she was, because they didn't outfit her car with any video equipment. Nor did they stay within visible range of her as she trolled for dope. They had no choice but to remain invisible, the officers testified, because if they got close enough to see the action, the people they were angling to bust would most certainly spot them. Additionally, Castañeda said that she was discouraged from buying crack from the same person twice, since the goal was to try and get as many different "drug dealers" as possible. Once she'd spotted a dealer, identified the person on tape, and exchanged money for drugs, Castañeda was instructed to place the crack rocks in "a cup holder that's in the central console" of her car, Gabrysch testified, and then to drive back to the airport, where the officers seized the drugs. Over six months, the officers spent $1,340 on crack – funds variously taken from either the city or county police budget – and $2,985 on "rewards" for Castañeda, who got between $50 and $100 for each buy.

The Pattersons' home (top) is down the street from a 
notorious, and now vacant, crack house (bottom) on Edna's 
east side.
The Pattersons' home (top) is down the street from a notorious, and now vacant, crack house (bottom) on Edna's east side.
Photo By Jana Birchum

As was the case with each of the defendants, neither of the cops responsible for Operation Crackdown ever saw Rick Patterson sell drugs to Castañeda, or to anyone else. "To ... my knowledge no peace officer actually saw visually" any of the alleged drug deals, Gabrysch testified. Unbelievably, neither did Castañeda: "I was right there at the area but I did not never ever see Rick Patterson hand drugs to nobody," she testified. "And you are not claiming that Mr. Patterson ever gave you any drugs, are you?" Patterson's attorney Tali Villafranca asked.

"He never had," Castañeda replied.

"[H]e never gave them to you directly or indirectly, did he?" Villafranca asked.

"No, sir. He didn't. No, sir. He didn't," she said. "I'm very absolutely sure," she replied.

Still, Patterson was tried for three counts of selling less than a gram of crack inside a so-called Drug-Free Zone (i.e., near a school) – which offered the state the ability to enhance his potential sentences from state jail felony counts (punishable by up to two years each), to third-degree felony counts, each punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Yet amazingly, the state had absolutely no direct evidence that Patterson had ever committed any crime. "My client was convicted on hearsay upon hearsay upon hearsay," Villafranca said recently. "It was ridiculous; it was so frustrating."

What the state did have were the audio recordings Castañeda made as she cruised alone through Edna's eastside neighborhood. Exactly what those tapes reveal is a matter of considerable debate, and transcripts of the recordings reveal that Castañeda wasn't even particularly diligent in identifying her routes – on more than one occasion she says she doesn't know exactly what street she's on, or identifies the area by using the nickname of a person who lives nearby. All too often, the transcripts lack whole lines of conversation, noting only that the dialogue between Castañeda and whomever she is speaking to is simply "inaudible."


Big Rick and the Bitch

On only one point concerning Castañeda's wanderings do Patterson, his defenders, and Bobby Bell apparently agree. According to the recordings, on three different occasions Castañeda drove into Edna's black neighborhood and approached three different people – Acie Jones, Lisa Robinson, and Jesse Darnell Chase, all of whom are now in prison – looking for drugs. From there, according to Bell, the recordings reflect that each of the three people Castañeda approached directed her to Rick Patterson's house to score a "tight fifty" – 50 dollars' worth of crack. "Three drug deals, three addicts, all direct [her to] Rick Patterson's house," Bell said.

Two photocopies of $20 bills that police say informant 
Santos Castro Castañeda used to buy crack from 
Rick Patterson. Police made photocopies of the bills 
before sending Castañeda out to troll for crack on 
Edna's east side, but they produced in court as 
evidence only the photocopies.
Two photocopies of $20 bills that police say informant Santos Castro Castañeda used to buy crack from Rick Patterson. Police made photocopies of the bills before sending Castañeda out to troll for crack on Edna's east side, but they produced in court as "evidence" only the photocopies.

In fact, Bell insists, you can even hear Patterson on the tape: "A person buying crack [Castañeda] says, 'Hi, Big Rick,'" he said. "We don't have many 'Big Ricks' in Jackson County." (Many black residents dispute Bell's contention: There are at least three men in the neighborhood named "Rick" or "Ricky," and in old-school Edna everyone has a nickname – if you're at all a large person, one of them is bound to be "Big.")

To Villafranca, Bell's account is nonsense. For starters, Villafranca said, the voice on the tape that Bell alleges is Patterson doesn't even sound like him. "It really didn't," he said. "They kept saying, 'That sounds like a black man.' That's prejudicial; what does that even mean? That's what I tried to tell the jurors, [that] there is just no way to prove that's one voice or another." But the fact that Castañeda never actually purchased drugs from Patterson directly, or that neither Castañeda nor the police ever saw Patterson with crack, or saw him hand it to anyone, is of little consequence to Bell – indeed, for the DA, the omission appears to be only additional evidence of Patterson's guilt. "Rick Patterson is one of the biggest drug dealers we've had here," he asserts – conjuring up a version of the middle-aged plant manager as in fact a smart, sneaky, and paranoid dealer. "If I'm a major drug dealer and I'm smart, I recognize that I'm a [visible] guy [in Edna]," Bell speculated. "So I get little crackheads [whom I sell drugs through], and I'm never going to leave the house. I sell drugs through [addicts]."

Bell insists that his version of events is supported by the trial testimony of each of the three alleged go-betweens – Jones, Robinson, and Chase, who testified that they got crack from Patterson or from Patterson's house – that they then passed on to Castañeda. But their testimony was also problematic, and not at all reliable, says Villafranca. Jones, for example, was completely unable to describe the inside of Patterson's house in any meaningful detail. Moreover, each of the three had already been charged with dealing crack to Castañeda, and Robinson and Chase agreed to testify against Patterson only as a condition of their plea bargains. Indeed, in a prison interview this spring, Rick Patterson said that Robinson had confessed to a relative that she'd only agreed to testify after Bell threatened to stick her with "the bitch" – life behind bars – if she didn't cooperate. "Lisa [Robinson] and all three of her children got time," as a result of the Castañeda crackdown, Patterson said. "Everyone is just afraid of Bobby Bell." Regardless, whether it was fear or evidence or something else in between that sealed the deal, Patterson's 11-woman, one-man jury stood with Bell on Aug. 20, 2004, and convicted Patterson on all three charges. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison.


Flat Time

The outcome of the trial devastated Rick's wife, Joycelyn. "I was so scared after Rick went to trial and got the 10 years," she recalled during an emotional interview. "He really didn't do anything. I think it was all a setup." Since she'd been indicted the previous year – five months after Rick told Bell that he would not plead guilty – Joycelyn said that Villafranca, whom the family had also hired to defend Joycelyn, had assured her that she and Rick would beat the rap. "I made the decision that I'd stand by [Rick] because they didn't have anything against me," she said. But according to Bell, Joycelyn had covered the family's crack trade one night in August 2002, while Rick was out playing dominoes, by selling a rock to an addict (Tanya Williams, Joycelyn's goddaughter) who was allegedly buying for Castañeda. (Interestingly, Bell dismissed charges against Williams, writing in court filings that Williams' testimony was integral in putting a "substantial drug dealer" – presumably Joycelyn – out of business.)

Whether there's any audio or other evidence to back Bell's allegations remains a mystery, since Joycelyn's case never made it to trial. Rick's conviction, based solely on the testimony of Castañeda – the same addict whom Joycelyn allegedly had sold to – frightened her enough that in October 2004, Joycelyn agreed to plead guilty to one count of selling Castañeda less than a gram of crack. Like Rick, she'd never been in trouble before and had little understanding of how the criminal justice system worked; in deciding to plea, she'd placed her faith in Villafranca. "I've never dealt with ... the system before. I've never even had a speeding ticket," she said. "Tali had said all along [that] this was a first-time offense and [that all] I'd likely get would be probation."

That didn't happen.

On Nov. 8, 2004, Joycelyn was sentenced to two years "flat time" – since the alleged crack deal took place inside a DFZ, she would not be eligible for early release; the Patterson home, along with much of Edna's historically black neighborhood, is within 1,000 feet of Edna's Carver Elementary School, or else near the small patch of scorched earth next to the city's water treatment plant that is the neighborhood's only "park." Nearly one year into her sentence, Joycelyn is still confused and angry about what has happened. "I've been working since I was 16 years old. If we'd been dealing drugs we would've been staying in a brick house and not in the same house I grew up in. If we'd been dealing drugs I would've been driving a nice new vehicle and not a 1992 Camry," she said during an August interview at the women's prison unit in Gatesville. "If you ask me, Bobby Bell is crooked and has been for a long time; he's taken it [upon himself] to get rid of all the black people. They sent me to prison because I am black and living in Jackson County."


Welcome to Belltown

A group of Edna's east-side residents – including 
Jean and Olin Robinson, second and fourth from left – say 
they're tired of DA Bobby Bell's lopsided brand of justice.
A group of Edna's east-side residents – including Jean and Olin Robinson, second and fourth from left – say they're tired of DA Bobby Bell's lopsided brand of justice.
Photo By Jana Birchum

Outside Jackson Co., Bell is probably known, if at all, as the prosecutor who secured a death sentence for 18-year-old Ronald Ray Howard, whose defense in court for the 1992 fatal shooting of Texas Department of Public Safety Officer Bill Davidson during a traffic stop outside Edna was that he'd been unduly influenced by gangster rap lyrics. (Howard was executed on Oct. 6.) Inside Jackson Co., and especially around the county seat of Edna, Bell's reputation is legendary – and somewhat alarming. Many, and not only on the eastside, snidely refer to Edna as "Belltown" – a place where Bell is the king of the hill, and Jackson Co.'s only real power broker. "He is. And if you ever cross him, for whatever reason, he has no compassion," said one white resident, who for that reason declined to be named. "You should see him operate in court; it's a show in and of itself. It's a whole production, with that little smirk on his face. ... And people do what he wants – they're afraid of him. Everybody's afraid of him."

Sitting behind a wide desk in his office on the second floor of the featureless prefab courthouse in downtown Edna, Bell brusquely rejected that characterization. On the wall behind him are oil paintings of golf course holes (one of Pebble Beach, the other in Minnesota); before him his ornate desk plate reads "Billy Bob DA." "I don't think that's true; I reject your premise," he said, shifting in his chair. "I am elected and serve [the voters]. If you don't want to do the time, don't do the crime."

What people forget when "they're trying to lay it on me," Bell said, is that he takes his cues from the voters – from those who cast their ballots for him and from those who sit on his juries. Jackson Co. jurors consistently vote to sentence defendants to an average 90% of the maximum punishment, which, says Bell, has nothing to do with him. Indeed, as evidence of his compassion, he says his plea offers are a lot less time than 90%. "I don't think I'm being a hard case to offer 40%," he said. In the case of Operation Crackdown, he thinks the sentences he offered were more than fair – including his refusal to offer either Rick or Joycelyn probation for their first-time offenses. He simply doesn't consider probation in any drug-related case, he said, "because the juries don't ever give it."

Yet Bell's protestations are belied by the fact that after Joycelyn pled guilty late last year, he indicted Rick Patterson yet again, charging him this time with perjury, according to state prison records – presumably for proclaiming his innocence at trial. Bell told me that he doesn't actually recall the charge. "I'm not saying it's not there," he said, "[but] I don't know."

To Bell, Rick's problem – and, by extension, Joycelyn's – is that he hasn't accepted responsibility for his actions. "He never did – he made no attempt to spare his wife, who is in prison by reason of his drug dealing," Bell said. "He never said, 'I'll man up and tell the public what I did.' I said, 'Look Frederick, just man up here.' We got him three times; I said, 'I'll offer four years to run CC (concurrently), and I'll dismiss on your wife.' But he wouldn't take it."

Bell rejects the possibility that Patterson refused to plea because he was actually innocent. "What irritates me the most about Frederick is that he was a Little League coach, and put himself out as a pillar of society, all the while he's one of the biggest crack dealers in Jackson County," he said. "When someone keeps insisting that they didn't commit a crime – he has every right to do that, but I think with Frederick Patterson it's to the point of ridiculous. I don't care what [Patterson and his] family says.'"


Against the Law

How it is that Bell is so confident of Rick Patterson's guilt, and certain of the fairness of a Bell-run Jackson Co. criminal justice system, is a complete mystery to the Pattersons' current attorneys, Joseph Willie and Jeff Blackburn. For starters, the use of Castañeda as the lone "witness" to the alleged crack sales, bolstered only by the dubious testimony of three convicted felons, simply isn't enough to satisfy state law, says Blackburn. He ought to know: He helped to craft the 2001 law outlining the standard for corroborative evidence in police undercover drug operations. Often referred to as the Tulia Law, it was passed in the wake of the notorious Tulia drug sting, in which 39 defendants were convicted of selling cocaine to the state's lone witness, a rogue drug-task-force "gypsy cop" named Tom Coleman, who claimed to have written all of his investigative notes on his leg, and who has since been indicted for perjuring himself during his Tulia-related testimony.

Crackpot Crackdown
Photo By Jana Birchum

In the wake of that debacle, state law was amended to provide that no defendant could be convicted of dealing drugs in connection with an undercover operation based solely on the testimony of a confidential informant who is not a cop but is operating "under the color of law enforcement," unless that testimony is corroborated by evidence that does more than simply reiterate the allegation that a crime took place. "Under the law ... undercover crackheads – informants, drug users, rats – must be corroborated," said Blackburn, who agreed to look into the Pattersons' cases, and into Operation Crackdown as a whole, after being contacted by La'Trinda Patterson this spring. "I looked in vain at these cases to find any form of corroboration. [But] they are only corroborated [by] other people who have no credibility whatsoever." In this respect, he said, the facts supporting Edna's Crackdown convictions are even weaker than those in Tulia. "These cases were not made by police officers, but by this undercover drug user," he said. "That makes these cases less reliable, and thus worse on facts than what was done in Tulia, where at least they had the sense to hire a police officer – albeit a lying police officer. In Edna they didn't even get a cop."

Indeed, not only had neither of the Crackdown cops, Repka and Gabrysch, seen any of the alleged drug deals go down, but they also lacked video or still surveillance photos to back up Castañeda's detail-weak testimony. Nor did they have any other form of physical evidence. Neither the Pattersons' home nor Rick's car was ever searched by police, nor did law enforcement ever seek access to the Pattersons' bank records. (Nonetheless, the state proffered as evidence a lone photocopy of the drug-buy money police allegedly supplied Castañeda copied before she set off to buy crack.) "That's basically the way they do things in Edna" – they don't abide by the rules, said Houston attorney Willie. "[Operation Crackdown] was totally against the law."


Snow Fell on Edna

Bell says those assertions are absurd, and insists that the evidence against the Pattersons was more than sufficient. There might not be direct evidence that Rick Patterson ever sold drugs, he said, but that doesn't mean he didn't do it. "If I go to bed and my grass is green, and I get up [in the morning] and there's snow, I have no direct evidence that it snowed," Bell explained mysteriously. "What I'm saying is that ... if you [require] that [kind of direct evidence] then you'll never get to prosecute. Circumstantial evidence is [apparently] not enough for you," he said, his voice rising. "What you're doing is trying to take the role of the jury and questioning the integrity or reliability, or whatever, of someone [Castañeda] telling the truth." Indeed, in court Officer Gabrysch resisted Villafranca's suggestion that Castañeda might not be reliable. "[I]s it fair to say that people that have a serious narcotics problem have problems being honest?" Villafranca asked. "I would not say that," Gabrysch replied.

In a perfect world, Edna's law enforcers wouldn't have to use a crackhead informant like Castañeda, says Edna Police Chief Clinton Wooldridge. "It would be great if ... we had Harry Potter's invisible cloak," he said, because Edna's too small for any of the roughly 20 officers employed by the Sheriff's Office and EPD to be able to work undercover, and they just don't have the resources to hire an undercover narc. The Texas DPS has an entire unit of narco officers able to assist smaller counties with Crackdown-like operations, but Wooldridge says he didn't think to ask, in part because he didn't think DPS would actually be able to help. "They prefer to help you instead of doing something for us" – like make the actual drug deals, Wooldridge said. In short, for Operation Crackdown, he said, "we didn't see the need" to ask DPS for help. "It seemed like it was working just fine."

Ironically, regarding the failure to search the Pattersons' home or to gather any other physical evidence against Rick Patterson, Wooldridge and Bell say they didn't have enough probable cause to legally gain access. They could've gotten a search warrant immediately following each of Castañeda's alleged buys, but if they'd done that they would've blown their whole operation, says Wooldridge. Indeed, despite Bell's insistence that Rick Patterson was Edna's crack kingpin, neither he nor Wooldridge were apparently willing to risk losing any of the smaller beefs they'd had on the addicts to whom Patterson presumably sold, in order to take down their kingpin source. And there's just no way a judge would've signed a warrant to search the Patterson home after Rick had been arrested, Bell said – unless they wanted to do so "illegally."

In the end, Bell said he doesn't know whether Castañeda's court testimony, explaining her motive for acting as a confidential informant as a way to somehow keep herself off drugs, was actually the truth. But in the final analysis, her motivation isn't important. "I don't know whether to believe her or not," he said, "but that [was] her logic."


A Closed County

Bell's steadfastness may seem defensive, but it doesn't surprise Blackburn, La'Trinda Patterson, or many other black Ednans. Blackburn dismisses Bell's explanations for the lack of solid evidence against the Pattersons – and, by extension, the rest of the Crackdown defendants – as "standard" yet "weak" excuses. "We're living in a time where a satellite 10 miles up in the stratosphere can take a picture of someone and can be blown up [so] you can see that the guy is wearing a yellow shirt," he said. "To live in a time and age where that is possible, and to say, 'We don't know how to get rudimentary evidence,' or to suggest that [Jackson Co.] should be excused because we're 'poor little Edna' is just ridiculous." He adds that while it is true that law enforcement can't use "stale" evidence to obtain a search warrant, it is also true, given their assertion that Rick Patterson was a "major drug dealer," that they should've had enough to get a warrant. "At best that is disingenuous," said Blackburn. "At worst it is a load of crap."

Crackpot Crackdown

Instead, to Blackburn, Edna's approach to eradicating drugs and taking down dealers suggests motivations far from pure. "If you are engaging in responsible law enforcement in drug laws, you target the number one dealer, build a slow and steady case and then take him down," Blackburn said. "If [your law enforcement] is politically motivated, and you want to be re-elected, then you do what [Bell] did: make a bunch of sloppy cases on users and then name a couple of 'kingpins,' from among those who are better-liked and [well-respected] in the black community." That kind of "law enforcement" is typical in rural Texas, Blackburn said. "It's business as usual – a perverted function of the criminal justice system: to make yourself look good by grinding up black and Hispanic people. And it's all drug war shit; it's like an exile strategy [for African-Americans] that they've worked out."

To La'Trinda Patterson, that assessment hits home. Rick and Joycelyn Patterson owned their house, worked hard, were always willing to help others, and often had at least some money left over each month. The combination, she says, made them a clear target. "If you're black and you own something, you're fortunate, and they don't like that," she said. But that's the way it's always been in Edna, with several black families – the Pattersons, members of the Robinson clan (especially Jean and Olin) and Tracy Santellana, who owns the eastside mortuary (the only remaining black-owned business in town) – standing out as strong and well-respected, and thus, La'Trinda says, "targets" of Edna's power structure.

Indeed, in recent months Bell has indicted Santellana as well as Jean and Olin Robinson on charges unrelated to the Crackdown – and Jean Robinson is certain the charges against her and Olin were motivated entirely by her increasingly vocal opposition to Edna's status quo. Jean says she started going to city council and county commissioners meetings two years ago, after two black teens came to her complaining of harassment by police. Black kids are followed, harassed, and pulled over by police for no apparent reason, she says. And she's had enough: "This is a closed county; they do what they want," she said. "I'm not saying ... criminals should get off free, but we want the same justice."

Robinson's message hasn't gone over particularly well, at least on the whiter side of town. On May 8, Jean, her handicapped husband Olin, and her sister Patricia Bryant were down the block from their home after driving nearly two hours on their return from a family gathering in Austin, when five police cars – including several Jackson Co. sheriff's cars and two Edna PD cars – began following. Jean says one may have had its lights on, albeit not the lead car. Disconcerted by the show of force, she drove the final half-block and into her driveway before stopping.

The police were not happy. They cuffed her and Olin, searched the car, and would say only that the Robinsons were being arrested for "resisting." Olin was later charged with assaulting a police officer, after Olin's paralyzed hand hit a cop who was trying to get his arms behind his back, and Jean is now facing two criminal counts, one a felony charge of "evading arrest" – apparently for her failure to pull over immediately. (According to the Edna Herald, the brigade of police were trying to pull Robinson over for failing to stop at a stop sign, failing to use her turn signal, and for having a "faulty brake light." Robinson denies all three allegations.) The charges are pending and Bell says he's therefore not at liberty to discuss the case, but he assured me that he's "made her what are reasonable [plea] offers."

Thus far Joycelyn's appeals have been denied, and on Oct. 6, Rick's appeal was denied by the 13th Court of Appeals in Corpus Christi. His attorneys argued that the evidence used against him – Castañeda's weak testimony, supported only by the equally questionable testimony of the three plea-bargained go-betweens or "accomplice witnesses" – was simply not enough to sustain a conviction. "At the outset, this Court must decide a preliminary question of law: may an informant corroborate the testimony of an accomplice, and vice versa?" Justice Dori Contreras Garza wrote for the court. "No Texas court has addressed this question." In the end, the court declared the corroboration sufficient. "We are aware of the absence of guiding case precedent in this area of the law, but we are confident that the legislature would have combined the informant and accomplice corroboration provisions if it had intended to prohibit an informant from corroborating the testimony of an accomplice and vice versa."

So it goes in Edna – but perhaps not for much longer. At least that's the hope of La'Trinda and her family. Undeterred by the Corpus Christi decision, Blackburn and the small contingent of Texas Tech law students who work with him through the West Texas Innocence Project continue to research the Operation Crackdown cases. "I am continuing my own investigation ... looking at patterns, and preparing," Blackburn said.

La'Trinda says she is determined to see her hometown transformed into a place that treats everyone fairly. "Home is not home, and it should be somewhere you're proud to be from and would go back to. But Edna is hell. There's nothing there; there's no way to advance yourself, and you don't get a chance to. Nothing is fair there," she said. "I have to do what I have to do so that these boys will quit messing with the black people of Edna." end story

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