Drug Warriors

Zero Tolerance Takes Toll in Hays County

Rusty Windle, shown here with girlfriend Kristie Izzo, was killed by Hays County law enforcement officers.
Rusty Windle, shown here with girlfriend Kristie Izzo, was killed by Hays County law enforcement officers.

Alexander "Rusty" Windle was not a drug dealer, but he died like one. Before dawn on May 24, nine law enforcement officers from three different agencies surrounded Windle's home, a modest duplex in a subdivision a few miles outside the sleepy Hill Country community of Wimberley. Windle's house was one of over a dozen hit that night in and around Wimberley, in the culmination of a four-month undercover marijuana sting conducted by the Hays County Narcotics Task Force. Windle, a 25-year-old electrician's apprentice, had been set up by a confidential informant, a man he had met in a Wimberley bar frequented by electricians and other tradesmen. According to arrest warrants obtained by the task force, during a two-week period in March, Windle twice delivered half-ounce bags of marijuana -- just enough to make the crime a state jail felony -- to the informant, a 47-year-old ex-con from Montgomery County, north of Houston.

The task force had supplied the informant with a motel room, cash for drug buys, and a miniature recording device. According to a desk clerk at the motel in question, Kasia Zinz (a close friend of Windle's who was also arrested in the May 24 roundup), the room became a party hangout for Wimberley youth, with the informant providing the beer and barbecue, and his new friends supplying the marijuana. "He asked everybody to get him pot, he practically begged you for it," Zinz recalled. It didn't seem to matter to the informant whether the people he set up were actually dealers or not. It took Windle six days to make his first delivery, according to the warrant. On another occasion, he failed to come up with a half-ounce at all, returning instead with a small bag weighing only a few grams. The warrant states that he apologetically refused to take any cash for it.

On May 17, the informant disappeared. A week later, armed with three warrants, officers arrived at Windle's house just before 5am. Two agents, dressed in the black pants and T-shirts of the task force, approached the front of the house. A sheriff's deputy covered their backs. Three more agents dressed in black entered the back yard, and one additional sheriff's deputy staked out each side of the house. The ninth officer, a federal agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF), watched from the shadows of the driveway. Only the four officers in front of the house saw what happened next.

They described their observations in separate sworn statements to the Texas Ranger who investigated the incident. Officers Chase Stapp and David Burns approached the front door, and Stapp rang the doorbell and knocked. The officers' accounts differ on whether or not they identified themselves as police. Burns reported hearing at that point what he believed to be the slide action of a rifle bolt. He immediately dove off the porch and took cover behind a brick wall. The door opened as Stapp began to retreat, knocking over a potted plant on the porch. All four officers reported seeing Windle, dressed only in blue jeans, point an assault rifle at Stapp. Ducking and stumbling backward, Stapp drew his .40-caliber Glock semiautomatic and fired four rounds. Windle was hit once in the leg and once in the chest, falling back into the house. The four officers rushed in and began CPR, but Windle died before the ambulance arrived.

That is the officers' story. Local news crews, already tipped about the sweep by the police, rushed to the scene of the shooting. The morning news carried footage of Windle's front yard filled with officers and a shot of his AR-15 assault rifle lying in the yard where the police had placed it. There were intimations that Windle was not just a heavily armed dope pusher, but also an arms dealer, wanted by the ATF for weapons charges. Officer Stapp (who has since been cleared of wrongdoing by a grand jury) was praised by his superiors, who also congratulated themselves in a press release later that afternoon for making a dent in the "unchecked" flow of marijuana trafficking and use in the Wimberley area.

Kasia  Zinz and Steve Wiliiams were two of the first people Rusty Windle met when he moved to San Marcos.
Kasia Zinz and Steve Wiliiams were two of the first people Rusty Windle met when he moved to San Marcos. (Photo By Jana Birchum)

But there are several problems with the official story. Astute viewers would have noticed the absence of a clip in the gun lying in the yard. Although both Burns and Stapp reported hearing the rifle's bolt action before the door opened, Windle never fired a shot, and according to the Ranger's report, the gun was later found to be completely unloaded, with the safety engaged.

None of Windle's friends doubt that he came to the door with a gun -- anyone would have, they maintain. "You can't tell me that any cop that was there at his house that night wouldn't have come to the door with his revolver," if he heard a pre-dawn disturbance outside his house, said Zinz. "What good is the right to bear arms, if you can't bring a gun to your own door?" That Windle knowingly would have pointed his gun at a cop they find much harder to believe. "He wasn't some kind of extremist, or a wacko," said his boss, Ernest Olsen. "I chew out enough asses in my business, and you get 'em heated up from time to time, and Rusty, it just wasn't in his nature. He'd just say, 'I'm sorry, you're right.'"

Accounts from other suspects arrested on the same night also cast doubt on the officers' version of events. Kasia Zinz was arrested at her boyfriend's house by a second team of officers, at about the same time Windle's house was hit. According to Kenneth Schlanker, her boyfriend's roommate, the cops failed to identify themselves at all. When he opened the door, they were crouched before him, their guns already drawn. A second suspect (who asked that his name not be used for fear of losing his job) said he got the same treatment: no identification, and guns unholstered. According to San Marcos defense attorney Billy McNabb, the requirement to "knock and announce" is a well-established common-law doctrine for police visits, unless the officers have a reasonable suspicion it would endanger their lives. "That's why we have that policy, to avoid tragedies like this one," he said.

San Marcos Police policy likewise requires a reasonable expectation of endangerment before the threat of deadly force (that is, drawing a gun) is used. Serving an arrest warrant for a nonviolent, low-level drug offense does not generally fit that category.

"I think they saw a rifle, had their guns already drawn, and panicked," said Zinz.

When the police searched the house, they found just two baggies of pot, totaling less than an ounce. Windle's friends and family say he was no different than most of the other suspects netted in the work of that evening: a working person duped into getting a bag for someone he thought was a friend. The task force called them "street-level dealers."

Big Job, Few Results

The 13-member Hays County Narcotics Task Force was formed in June of last year by combining personnel from the narcotics divisions of the San Marcos Police Department and the Hays County Sheriff's Office. The squad is also assisted by a special liaison in the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), one ATF officer (who serves other counties as well), and a retired CIA agent who serves as a special crime analyst.
Rusty Windle's brother, Nick, and Kristie Izzo in the living room where Windle died
Rusty Windle's brother, Nick, and Kristie Izzo in the living room where Windle died (Photo By Jana Birchum)

Multi-agency drug task forces became common across Texas in the late Eighties, following changes in federal drug laws, which, among other things, allowed such task forces to take advantage of "asset forfeiture" as a potent new means of funding their operations. By working in conjunction with a U.S. Attorney, task forces technically "federalize" their investigations, allowing them to keep a much greater portion of returns -- from seized cash, weapons, vehicles, and even houses associated with drug-related crimes -- than they could under state laws.

Still, despite Hays County's seemingly propitious location along I-35, a major drug corridor, the county task force's numbers in its first year were unimpressive: 43 pounds of marijuana seized, 1.4 pounds of powdered cocaine, and less than 10 grams of heroin. Not that Hays County narcs haven't been active. As of August 1997, almost one in three persons on probation in Hays County had been convicted of drug crimes. But the returns have been limited. The force spent considerable manpower and resources on the four-month Wimberley investigation. Yet approximately 30 of the 35 charges eventually filed were for fourth-degree felonies, meaning they involved delivery of small amounts of drugs. The majority of charges were for marijuana.

Wanting a Fresh Start

Rusty Windle came to the Hill Country to get a new start. He was born and raised in West Palm Beach, Florida, a violent, crack-infested community in decline, a place his mother refers to as the "armpit of Florida." "He told me stories about that place, of people getting shot right in front of him," his girlfriend Kristie Izzo recalls. "I never wanted to see it." Windle and his younger brother rarely saw their father, who left the family when Windle was two. He took after his mother, a tough single parent who worked as an electrician. He dropped out of high school, married at 18, and had a son, Christopher. The marriage fell apart, but Windle never forgot his son, diligently sending $200 per month in child support from Texas, according to Kristie, even though the mother would never let Windle visit the boy.

"At some point in time he wanted to have a real relationship with him," said his friend Kasia Zinz. "That was one of the things he lived for." Zinz and her longtime companion Steve Williams were two of the first people Windle met when he came to San Marcos; he was 18, with no high school diploma, no job, no friends, and a serious drinking problem. The middle-aged couple became surrogate parents to Windle. He sobered up, got a job as a short-order cook, and then drove a Pepsi truck for several years before becoming an electrician's apprentice at Olsen's Electric in Wimberley. He developed a reputation as a quiet, extremely dependable, even-tempered, and likable man.

He was also known by both his friends and the police as someone who liked guns. Windle's mother had taught him how to shoot in Florida at a very early age, and his grandfather had given him his first gun. In Texas, Windle became an avid outdoorsman. He spent much of his free time hunting with Steve Williams, who also introduced him to arrowhead collecting. By the time he died, Windle had a considerable collection of both arrowheads and guns. Williams' landlord, a Pearl Harbor veteran who also enjoyed hunting, allowed the two friends to build a backstop on land behind Williams' trailer in Wimberley, where the two could safely shoot whenever they wanted to. Five years ago, Windle bought an AR-15 at a Wimberley flea market for $80. The gun, a military assault rifle resembling an M-16, didn't have a receiver, the mechanism that loads and fires the bullet. It became a project for Windle and Williams to get the gun working again. Windle eventually found a receiver for it, though not the correct one. "I'm a Vietnam vet, and I can take 'em apart and put 'em together," Williams said, but they never got the gun working the way it was designed to. Eventually, the two got it to fire by inserting a metal pin into the receiver, but the semi-automatic rifle would never fire more than one shot at a time without jamming. Windle kept it anyway. It was a decision that changed his life.

A Triple Bad Deal

The politics of pot smoking in San Marcos reflect the vicissitudes of national drug policy. In 1974, the city council sent a resolution to the Legislature calling for decriminalization of the drug. Nationally, the push for drug policy reform was also peaking, encouraged by a surprisingly receptive Nixon administration. By the mid-Nineties, the pendulum had swung to the opposite extreme: More people have been incarcerated for marijuana-related crimes during Bill Clinton's tenure than during any previous administration.

In Hays County, prohibitionist sentiment has reached a fever pitch, particularly in the battle for the hearts and minds of young people. The prohibitionists are led by Sue Cohen, director of the Hays Caldwell Council on Alcohol and Drug Abuse. Cautious, middle-aged, and with a background in business rather than social work, Cohen agreed to an interview in her office only after repeated assurances that the subject would not be marijuana legalization. "We don't want to be accidentally interviewed by one of those pro-marijuana papers," she explained.

Like enforcement, drug education has also been federalized, with about 70% of the funding coming from federal grants. Curriculum and results are closely monitored by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In the early Nineties, San Marcos received millions from the Partnership for a Drug Free America campaign, with the goal of making San Marcos a "model zero-tolerance town." But Hays County had no more success with D.A.R.E. and other school-based educational programs than any other Texas community. Rates of usage for all age groups in Hays County remain considerably higher than state averages. "Marijuana activists will say, 'You're losing the drug war,' but my answer to that is, what if we didn't have these programs -- then what would our numbers be?" Cohen asked. It's hard to imagine that they could be any higher. Surveys of self-reported drug use taken annually from 1991 to 1996 showed that -- after five years of pep rallies, T-shirts, and red ribbons -- rates of marijuana use among Hays County high school students had more than doubled, with use among eighth-graders increasing over 500%. The school district's response was to stop doing the high school surveys.

The cabin where a Hays County drug informant stayed at the 7-A Resort in Wimberley.
The cabin where a Hays County drug informant stayed at the 7-A Resort in Wimberley. (Photo By Jana Birchum)

Cohen lays much of the blame on her major adversary, the "pro-legalization lobby" in San Marcos. A couple of miles down the interstate from Cohen's office, in a cramped one-car garage attached to an inconspicuous two-bedroom frame house, sits the nerve center of the legalization camp, KIND radio. In 1997, local marijuana activist Joe Ptak founded KIND ("kind" is street slang for primo-quality pot) -- an unlicensed "pirate" station operating from a low-power transmitter -- to support a local medical marijuana initiative. Spearheaded by Southwest Texas State University psychology professor Harvey Ginsberg, the initiative made it to the ballot following a citywide petition campaign. Coming in the wake of the successful statewide medical marijuana campaign in California, the initiative made national news, but also prompted a considerable local backlash. The Hays Caldwell Council went into high gear (Sue Cohen was then assistant director), producing a fact sheet on "the dangerous hoax" of medical marijuana, and giving presentations at schools, libraries, and neighborhood associations. Medical marijuana, business owners were told, would be bad for economic development. The DEA sent in personnel, also for "educational purposes," blitzing the town with cautionary flyers. Neither the DEA nor the Hays Caldwell Council is legally permitted to use federal or state funds for politicking or lobbying. "We walked a fine line," Cohen admitted. "Actually, [the initiative] was the best thing they ever did for us, because people came out of the woodwork to get involved."

But in fact, Ginsberg recalled, voter turnout for the initiative was only slightly higher than is typical for any San Marcos election. Out of 20,000 registered voters, about 2,100 came to the polls: Roughly 700 voted for the initiative, and 1,400 against. Ginsberg, relying chiefly on the 45-watt radio station to get the word out, was considerably outspent. Despite the outcome, the low turnout seemed to show more than anything that most people didn't care one way or the other. The spectre of sick people smoking pot -- even if it might have been, as Cohen insists, a smokescreen for legalization -- failed to move Hays County residents to the polls in large numbers. The controversy definitely got the state's attention, however. In the next legislative session, Hays County State Sen. Ken Armbrister, a former police officer, sponsored a bill to ban consideration of any local initiative that would contravene a federal drug law. It passed easily.

Ginsberg says he has no intention of trying again, despite subsequent successful initiatives in Washington, D.C., Oregon, Arizona, and Maine, and the recent defection of New Mexico's Republican governor to the legalization camp. Meanwhile, the federal education money keeps coming, and the battle continues; Red Ribbon week, the Hays Caldwell Council's biggest campaign of the year, descended on every school in the county in mid-October.

KIND radio, meanwhile, has begun broadcasting the names of suspected drug informants. (A day after the bust, KIND was the first to break the true identity of the Wimberley confidential informant, based on a tip from a law enforcement source.) "They've been very irresponsible," remarked Cohen, who says all of her employees have attended the citizen police academy, and gone on police ride-alongs in many cases. "We have a very professional organization here," she said of the task force. When asked if the raid on Windle's house might have been overkill, Cohen shakes her head. "Marijuana is illegal," she said simply. "Whether it was 20 ounces or 20 pounds, they are still obligated to enforce the law." Windle's death was a waste, she conceded. But "if a law officer had been killed or injured, that would have been a triple bad deal."

Making the Cases

The gun that got Windle killed may also have been responsible for drawing him into the task force's net in the first place. Windle and several other electricians spent last winter at Rio Bonito, a Blanco River resort where they rented cabins at off-season rates. One of Windle's neighbors, a middle-aged electrician named David Stringfellow, had befriended a man known to him as Roger Dalton, who was living at the nearby 7-A Resort in Wimberley.

Although the district attorney's office has yet to reveal that Dalton was the informant, or release the terms under which he was retained, a comparison of warrants and court records confirm Dalton's role in the arrests, as well as his true identity: one Roy Parrish. It's unclear how Parrish came to be employed by the task force. "Some do it for money, some do it to work off a case [i.e. an indictment of their own], some do it for revenge type reasons," according to Stapp, who since the shooting has been promoted to assistant commander of the task force.

Parrish's criminal record reveals that, apparently in the Eighties, he served two two-year sentences in the penitentiary, one for burglary and one for drug dealing. (Among the many aliases listed on Parrish's rap sheet is the name "Rodger Dolson.") If Parrish had been arrested recently for a third felony charge, he presumably would have faced a lengthy prison sentence. "Hays County police will offer almost anyone the chance to flip on someone," in exchange for leniency, said San Marcos attorney Billy McNabb. "Typically they're given a quota: Go out and get anyone you can until you've made 'X' number of cases." Declining to comment on the specifics of the Wimberley operation, Stapp said in general it's up to the D.A.'s office to make those types of deals. But, he said, "We don't just work with anyone; we have some guidelines."

The Mole

When Roy Parrish moved into Cabin Number 14 at the 7-A Resort, he hung a Vietnam-era flag on his porch that declared, "Kill 'em all, let God sort 'em out." He claimed to be an electrician from Houston who had been injured on the job and had come to Wimberley to recuperate and wait for his settlement. He had an ugly wound on his arm that seemed to support his story and a briefcase full of prescription drugs that never left his side. Zinz, a desk clerk at the 7-A, recalls that he quickly befriended a young couple living two cabins down. "He had a fridge full of beer, and he barbecued on the porch almost every night," she said. Parrish encouraged his new friends to bring anyone they knew to the cabin, and Zinz says she soon started to get complaints from neighbors about the constant music and partying. She says she personally witnessed minors drinking at Parrish's cabin. "I rarely saw the guy when he wasn't looped." Zinz says he began asking her to get him pot, almost every time she saw him.
Joe Ptak of KIND radio
Joe Ptak of KIND radio (Photo By Jana Birchum)

Kristie Izzo recalls Parrish coming to Rio Bonito frequently to visit David Stringfellow. Eventually, he started coming to Windle's cabin as well, on one occasion bringing a joint to smoke, then asking Windle to get him some more. Parrish came on strong. He was loud and boisterous, with a beer gut, tattoos, scraggly brown hair, and a prominent scar that extended from the right corner of his mouth all the way up to his cheekbone. "He was too friendly," according to Izzo. Then he asked Windle to get him cocaine. "We'd only known him a week," she said.

Somehow, Parrish knew that Windle was a gun collector, and that he knew how to make a silencer. Steve Williams says he and Windle used them for poaching: hunting deer on other people's land, usually at night. Sticking anything on the end of a gun to muzzle the sound is illegal, but it is a frequent practice in the Hill Country, especially among working-class hunters who can't afford deer leases. The most common method is to put a plastic soda bottle around the end of the muzzle. Windle was a little more ingenious. He fashioned silencers out of toilet paper rolls, old butane bottles, anything that would fit on the end of a gun. "He was like a little Boy Scout, always making stuff," according to his Rio Bonito neighbor and friend Andy Wood. In one of Windle's two previous busts, in February of 1998, SMPD narcotics officers raided a friend's house where Windle was staying. The cops didn't find Windle's friend or his alleged stash, but Windle and Izzo were in their room, smoking pot. Both got probation for the quarter-ounce bags they had on them, and Windle's AR-15, which had a homemade silencer on it, was confiscated. The gun was returned and no charges were filed, but Steve Williams now believes that the ATF took an interest in Windle at that time. (Windle's only other conviction -- the "weapons charges" alluded to on the local news -- was a $200 ticket for illegally transporting a firearm; Windle was pulled over while moving his things to a new house, and a pistol was found in a box on the floorboard.)

Perhaps prompted by the task force, Parrish began bugging Windle to make him a silencer. But Windle was reluctant, according to Izzo. Eventually, he gave Parrish a metal tube and some washers -- about $10 worth of parts available at any hardware store -- but never assembled anything for him. Parrish promptly turned the goods over to the ATF agent working with the task force. No charges were ever filed for the silencer, but about three weeks after his death, Windle received a letter notifying him that the materials had been "confiscated."

After the War

There is much to be done after a shooting. The police don't put things back where they were after executing a search warrant, nor do they help clean up the blood after the body is removed by the coroner. Returning to the now-empty duplex with Izzo, Zinz, and Windle's brother Nick, Steve Williams pointed to where pools of Windle's blood had soaked the carpet in the dining room. The grim task of cleaning up (the landlord let it be known that he would not be responsible) fell to Windle's roommate, Burt Chumley, and his girlfriend, Melissa Abernathy, who had been asleep in the back of the house at the time of the shooting. They moved out the same day. The couch where Chumley's brother Blake had been sleeping -- directly in the line of fire -- was the only furniture remaining in the duplex. Williams showed me where the forensics team had pulled a stray bullet out of the wall just above the couch. (Blake was hustled out the back door by officers so fast, he didn't even know Windle had been shot.) Andy Wood was the first to call Windle's family in Florida, breaking the news to his grandfather and brother. He, Izzo, Zinz, and Williams packed up Windle's things so that his mother wouldn't have to see the mess.

Windle's mother and brother arrived the next day, and a wake was held a few days later. Windle's family would have seen him soon; he was planning a temporary move to Florida at the end of the week to be near his ailing grandfather and to look after his brother, with whom he was very close. Windle also wanted to be near his son, who turned seven on the day he was shot. His mother took his ashes back to Florida, where his son Christopher helped spread them. "She told us that he seemed to understand who it was and what it meant," Izzo said.

Windle's wasn't the only life disrupted by the events of May 24. His ex-wife and son will lose their child support. Steve Williams was evicted from his trailer. Burt Chumley and Melissa Abernathy have gone to live with Chumley's parents. Several arrested that night lost their jobs. David Stringfellow, arrested for allegedly selling half a bottle of Vicodin to Roy Parrish for $30, is still in jail five months later, on a parole violation. Stringfellow had been living with his mother, a 72-year-old woman who told me that Parrish tried to solicit her for pills as well. The drug war breaks up families, a reality that Sue Cohen said the police seemed to sincerely appreciate. She recalled an instance in which the task force arrested and jailed the parents of a family with seven children. It was Officer Chase Stapp, she said, who called her office asking for some "Drug-Free" T-shirts for the kids.

"It's Like Waco"

Quiet, rail-thin, with a deeply creased face and short, wiry gray hair, Steve Williams doesn't become animated until he starts talking about the shooting. At the duplex, he can't resist walking through the incident one more time, demonstrating how the cops' version just doesn't make sense. Windle fell a good 10 feet from the door, around a corner. He thinks the task force came to the house looking for trouble. He thinks they may have shot Windle before he reached the door. He demonstrates how they could see Windle through the windows, but Windle couldn't see them. He doesn't know what to believe. "It's just like the thing in Waco: 'The Davidians were all a bunch of idiots and they shot at us and then they set themselves on fire,'" he said. "Now come to find out it was all a bunch of lies." Back at his place, Williams holds a Glock like Chase Stapp's, coated in nylon, lightweight, fast, deadly. See how the clip can hold 14 bullets, how the safety automatically disengages when you pull the trigger.

"This is what it's beginning to be like here in the U.S.," he said. Zero tolerance. end story

This story, and Jana Birchum's accompanying photographs, originally appeared in the The Texas Observer, where Nate Blakeslee is a staff writer.

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