Color of Justice
An Undercover Drug Bust Opens Old Wounds in Tulia, Texas
Last year's most talked-about drug bust didn't take place in the high-volume inner-city cocaine rings of Houston or Dallas, or in a major trafficking hub like Laredo. It happened about halfway up the hot, dusty highway from Lubbock to Amarillo, in a Panhandle county with more cows than people. The bust put tiny Tulia (population 5,000), previously known primarily for its bustling livestock auction, on the map, and made a star out of an equally unknown narcotics agent. Now, one year later, the fallout from the controversial operation has brought revelations about both the town and the agent. And a growing body of evidence that something has gone terribly wrong. The operation, Swisher County's first major drug sting, began in January of 1998. The modus operandi was one of the most common in the modern drug war: State and federal funds, distributed through a regional drug task force, were used to bring an undercover officer to a rural community, primarily to target "street-level" dealers. Using funds from the Panhandle Narcotics Task Force, the sheriff hired an undercover agent, who began making buys in and around Tulia. Only a select few knew about the deep-cover operation. But even those who did were not prepared for the results: Over an 18-month period, in a town so small it can barely support a Dairy Queen, the agent maintained his cover while allegedly making over 100 controlled buys of illegal narcotics, mostly cocaine. The morning of the arrests, which were finally conducted en masse on July 23, 1999, brought more surprises. Although the arrest warrants were served at dawn, surprising most of the defendants in their beds, no drugs, money, or weapons were seized in the roundup. Only a few of the alleged dealers were able to raise the money to bond themselves out of jail. Many lived in public housing or trailer homes. Of more than 100 cases filed, only one involved delivery of an amount larger than an "eight-ball" (3.5 grams), about $200 worth of cocaine.
By the end of the week, as the rest of the suspects were rounded up, it was evident that the 41 persons targeted by the sting had something else in common. Thirty-five of the arrestees came from Tulia's tiny black community, which numbers no more than 350. Ten percent of the town's black population had been taken down by one undercover agent.
While the black community in Tulia was devastated, the official community response to the operation was supportive, if somewhat shocked. (That support would wane only slightly when the county judge announced that a tax increase would be necessary to house and prosecute that many suspects.) The local paper, tipped off about the impending arrests, ran a photograph of young black men in their underwear and uncombed hair being led across the front lawn of the Swisher County Courthouse. An editorial in the Tulia Sentinel praised the sheriff and district attorney for rounding up the "scumbags" in town. The Amarillo Globe-News ran a laudatory interview with the undercover agent, Tom Coleman, an itinerant lawman from West Texas with no prior experience in undercover narcotics work. Coleman has since begun another undercover assignment for a drug task force in Southeast Texas. For his work in Tulia, the Department of Public Safety named him Outstanding Lawman of the Year.
Then came the trials. Despite the small amounts involved, many cases were enhanced to first-degree felonies, punishable by life in prison, because the buys allegedly took place within 1,000 feet of a school or park. The first trial set the tone for what followed. Joe Moore, 67, who was accused of two counts of delivering an eight-ball of powdered cocaine to Coleman, received a 99-year sentence. Moore had two prior felony convictions, which enhanced his sentence. But even those with no felony convictions, who would otherwise have been eligible for probation, received staggering sentences. Freddie Brookins, 22, received 20 years for one count of delivering an eight-ball. He had no prior record. Another defendant with no priors, 23-year-old Kizzie Henry, got 25 years. (For comparison, in another bust that made news last year, Laurie Hiett, the wife of the head of the U.S. Army's counter-drug force in Columbia, was sentenced for smuggling over $700,000 worth of cocaine and heroin into the United States. She got five years.) The harsh sentences handed down early sent a message to the other defendants, who began to accept long sentences in plea bargains with District Attorney Terry McEachern. Fewer than 10 defendants are still awaiting trial.
Because of the disproportionate number of African-Americans targeted by the operation, the Amarillo chapter of the NAACP has begun to investigate. A recent report by Human Rights Watch found that the rate of admission to prison for black drug offenders in Texas is 19 times that of white drug offenders, and 38% of blacks sentenced to prison in Texas have been convicted of drug crimes. (Nationwide, meanwhile, blacks constituted just 16.9% of drug users in 1996, but accounted for 37.3% of drug arrests that year.)
But the race of the defendants is not the only troubling aspect of the Tulia drug bust. There is also the evidence. Agent Coleman did not wear a wire during any of the alleged transactions. No video surveillance was done, and no second officer was available to corroborate his reports. Such measures, commonly employed by Department of Public Safety narcotics agents, were too dangerous for an agent operating in a small, tight-knit community, according to Sheriff Larry Stewart. In most cases, there were no witnesses at all, other than Coleman himself. Testifying in the first few trials, Coleman claimed to have recorded names, dates, and other pertinent facts about the buys by writing on his leg.
Then there are the drugs Coleman allegedly bought in Tulia. According to his own testimony, Coleman made contact with a community of low-income crack smokers, primarily young black men. But strangely, almost every buy Coleman made was of powdered cocaine. Only a handful involved crack or marijuana. Such irregularities didn't seem to matter to the Swisher County juries that began handing down verdicts and sentences last winter. "Just mention drugs, and you can get a conviction in the Panhandle," one defense attorney later said.
In recent months, as appeals and motions for retrial have been filed, defense attorneys have begun to raise questions about Coleman's background -- relating to his employment history and the mysterious circumstances surrounding an indictment of his own, which came to light during the undercover operation. As cracks in Coleman's credibility have begun to appear, McEachern's confidence in the cases apparently has begun to wane. Plea bargain offers have gotten progressively lower, and now a sort of stalemate seems to have set in with respect to the remaining cases. Meanwhile, the skepticism that was initially confined to the black community in this racially divided town has spread to the white community, and a few of Tulia's prominent white residents are beginning to ask questions about exactly what has been done in the name of justice in Swisher County.
You don't ordinarily associate crack cocaine with shoveling shit, but drug use in rural Texas has a logic all of its own. The Tulia Livestock Auction's steady need for manual labor provided a ready source of cash for a handful of young black men in Tulia who smoked -- and allegedly dealt -- crack cocaine. Thirty-year-old Donnie Smith was one of those men.
A Dealer's Life
Smith was Tulia High's Athlete of the Year when he graduated in 1989. It turned out to be the high point of his life. He married his high school girlfriend and had two children. But the marriage ended badly, as did a brief stint at West Texas A&M University in Canyon. Smith also got into trouble with the law -- a couple of fights which led to misdemeanor charges. He found part-time work at the sale barn, as the auction is called by locals, a last resort for unemployed men in Tulia. He and his fellow laborers were not cowboys. They worked "in the shit," cracking open bales of hay for the cows to eat or running the livestock gate in the stifling, dusty barn on Mondays, when buyers from across the Midwest came to bid on animals all day long. It wasn't glamorous, but it was steady work, and in Tulia there wasn't much else for someone like Smith to choose from. But the most important thing about the job from Smith's perspective -- especially after he became addicted to cocaine -- was that he could come in on a Saturday, work three days, and get paid in cash when the sale ended on Monday. It was the "sale barn" that provided Donnie Smith the money to buy crack cocaine. And it was a fellow employee, Eliga Kelly, Smith said in an interview at Abilene's Middleton Transfer Facility prison unit, who introduced Smith to undercover officer Tom Coleman.
Known to everyone in Tulia's tight-knit black community as "Man" Kelly, Eliga Kelly is an older, unemployed man who occassionally worked weekends and Mondays at the auction, primarily, according to Donnie Smith, to support his drinking habit. He would become central to the undercover operation. Donnie's mother, Mattie White, a correctional officer at a state prison near Tulia, claims that the sheriff told her he had given the undercover agent a list of names to check out at the outset of the operation, which led to the racial targeting of the sting. Sheriff Stewart now denies this, claiming that it was Coleman's chance meeting with Kelly, and Kelly's willingness to help him buy drugs (apparently in exchange for free alcohol), that led him into Tulia's highly insular black community.
Sometime in the summer of 1998, Kelly introduced Smith to Coleman, who claimed to be working construction in the town of Happy, about 15 miles away. Kelly told Smith he had known the man for years, though Coleman had only recently shown up in Tulia. Based on this assurance, Smith scored crack for Coleman on three or four occasions over the course of the summer. Although Smith was a regular crack smoker, he was not what most people would call a dealer. He took Coleman's money to his own supplier and used it to buy rocks for Coleman -- as well as for himself. According to Smith, the two smoked crack together in Coleman's truck on more than one occasion. Then, fed up with the drug life and wanting to become a better parent to his kids, who lived in Tulia with his ex-wife, Smith checked himself into rehab in Lubbock that winter and lost track of Coleman. When Smith finished the 90-day program, he returned to Tulia, where he began working for a local farmer. He had been clean for six months when the police arrested him, along with the dozens of others netted by Coleman, last summer.
With no prior felony convictions, Smith was prepared to plea bargain. The small amounts he had delivered, combined with his status as a first-time felony offender, he figured, gave him a good shot at probation. Then he read the indictments. He was accused of delivering cocaine to Coleman on seven separate occasions. But only one delivery was alleged to be crack cocaine. The other deliveries were said to be powder, in amounts between one and four grams -- making them second-degree felonies. The D.A. offered Smith 45 years.
Smith knew something strange was going on. "I don't mess with powder, man. I don't shoot it and I don't smell it," he said. Unable to raise bail, Smith sat in jail in neighboring Hale County (the Swisher County lockup was filled by the sweep; some defendants had to be housed as far away as Levelland, 100 miles to the southwest) from July until February, when he went to trial on the first count, a relatively minor charge of delivery of less than a gram of crack cocaine. On the stand he surprised everyone, including his own attorney, by admitting that he got crack for Coleman several times (although he denied making the specific delivery for which he stood accused). But he never delivered powder cocaine, he told the jury. Although Coleman asked for powder, Smith didn't know where to get it because nobody he knew used powder. It simply never came up in his circle of friends. But the jury convicted Smith and gave him the maximum sentence of two years. In light of the severe sentences already handed down in earlier felony trials, Smith's court-appointed attorney urged him to plead guilty to the powder charges even if he believed he had been falsely accused by Coleman. In a plea bargain with McEachern, Smith accepted an offer of 12 years.
Smith was not the only defendant in Tulia to have powder cocaine introduced as evidence against him. In fact, virtually everyone caught in the bust was charged with selling powder cocaine, in some instances up to a half-dozen counts. Tulia doesn't even have a McDonalds, much less a bar or nightclub. The per capita income is $11,000. Yet suddenly powdered cocaine, a drug normally associated with affluent users, seemed to be everywhere -- at least everywhere in Tulia's hardscrabble black community. And while powder was everywhere, it only seemed to appear in small quantities -- just enough to constitute a second-degree felony. Could there really be 40 coke dealers in a rural Panhandle community? "Where the drug addicts at? Where the big houses? Where all the gold teeth?" Smith asked.
Much more cocaine passed through the town, by virtue of its location on Interstate 27, than ever landed there. According to defendants interviewed for this story, there were no volume dealers in Tulia. The local drug scene was fueled by small amounts of drugs -- usually a few hundred dollars' worth at a time -- picked up in nearby Plainview or Amarillo. In a small town, word got around fast about who was holding what, and users looking to score would quickly arrive at the house with the drugs. "A good hour's run, and it's gone," said one defendant.
A Legal 'Lynching'
Yet by most indicators, Tulia never had a serious drug problem. In 1996, District Attorney McEachern told the Tulia Sentinel that he had prosecuted only about 10 cases that year involving delivery or possession of illegal drugs in Swisher County. The county attorney reported handling about 18 misdemeanor drug cases that same year, mostly for marijuana possession. And only eight of 61 referrals to juvenile probation that year were for drug abuse. Anecdotal evidence suggests that property crime -- usually closely associated with a large addict population -- was not a major problem in Tulia, where many residents still leave their doors unlocked. Polls of junior high and high school students in Tulia suggested some of the lowest rates of drug use in the region, much lower than statewide or national rates.
Yet some in the community saw a problem. A Tulia police officer told the Tulia Sentinel in 1996 that the department had compiled a list of "sixty known drug dealers" in town. In January of 1997, the Tulia school board adopted by a 6-1 vote a mandatory random drug testing program for all students involved in extracurricular activities. The one dissenting vote was Gary Gardner. One of Swisher County's most respected citizens, Gardner is an enigma in overalls. He lives in a rural village east of Tulia called Vigo Park, and he is the descendant of one of Tulia's oldest farming clans. Gardner's vocabulary on race and ethnic issues has not changed since the 1950s, yet he has emerged as one of the staunchest defendants of Tulia's disenfranchised and one of the most vocal critics of the 1999 drug bust that decimated Tulia's African-American community.
Once he locked horns with the school board, Gardner says, he began having trouble with all of Tulia's establishment, including local law enforcement. "In these small towns it's like Mexican judo," Gardner said. "Once you mess with one Mexican, 'ju don't know how many of his cousins will come after you." Over the years, Gardner has intervened on behalf of several of his Hispanic employees who fell afoul of the law and were in danger of being railroaded by the legal system. "If you're black or Mexican in Tulia, and you get arrested, you plea out. You have to, because you can't afford a good lawyer," he said. Even if they could, a trial in Swisher County is simply not worth the risk, Gardner said: "They call it McEachern's Law ... basically, in Swisher County, whatever Terry McEachern wants from a judge or a jury, he'll get."
When the big cocaine bust first went down, Gardner said he felt certain the defendants were all guilty. But as a former cop (he served briefly as a DPS trooper in the late 1960s), he objected to the efforts by McEachern, Sheriff Stewart, and others to try the suspects in Tulia's two newspapers. He wrote letters to each of the 45 defendants urging them to seek a change of venue. And he found that their responses were similar. "A bunch started writing me back with the same thing: 'I didn't sell the man that much stuff,'" he said. Gardner attended the first trial, that of Joe Moore. "That was a lynching," Gardner said of Moore's jury trial. But it was Tom Coleman's testimony that really disturbed him. "He said a thing or two that stood my hair up on end," Gardner recalled.
Deep Cover Tom Coleman does not make a good witness. A successful undercover agent must look like a hard-core drug user, the type of person who would buy drugs on the street from someone he does not know. Coleman fits the part. He is slightly built and short, with a pale, narrow face and a goatee. He wears his long, dirty-blond hair pulled back in a ragged ponytail that extends down to his shoulders. When he appeared at an April hearing in Amarillo, called to revoke the probation of Tulia defendant Mandis Barrow, Coleman showed up wearing a dark sportscoat over a dark shirt and dark tie, tight black jeans and cheap black loafers. He suffers from a form of astigmatism that causes his eyes to twitch, a condition he attempts to control on the witness stand by tilting his head slightly to one side, in a gesture that suggests he does not quite understand what he has just been asked. In testimony, he has a tendency to repeat questions before answering them, and to hedge every possible detail about his recollections. Given the opportunity, he offers long, rambling descriptions with plenty of irrelevant detail.
But there are other reasons why Coleman is not an ideal witness. After huge jury verdicts in a half-dozen trials, some cracks began to appear in Coleman's credibility. Tulia defendant Billy Wafer's probation-revocation hearing, held at the Hale County Courthouse in February, was the first major setback for the prosecution. Wafer had received 10 years' probation in 1990 for a felony marijuana-possession conviction in Plainview. At the time of his arrest in Tulia, he had served nine and a half years of the probated sentence, with no arrests or failed drug tests. Now he was facing up to 20 years in prison if his probation were revoked -- a decision that rested solely on the testimony of Tom Coleman. In court Coleman testified that on January 18, 1999, he and Eliga Kelly had flagged down Wafer as they passed him on their way to an Allsup's store on Highway 86. It was about 9:00 in the morning on a Monday. Coleman testified that he asked Wafer to get him an eight-ball, and to meet him at the sale barn with the drugs. According to Coleman, a woman showed up at the sale barn about an hour later with the cocaine.
But Wafer had a rock-solid alibi. At the time Coleman alleged he had met with Wafer to set up the buy, Wafer was at Seed Resources in Tulia, where he worked as warehouse foreman. Wafer provided time cards, and brought his boss in as a witness, to testify that there was no doubt in his mind that Wafer was at work, as scheduled, all morning long. Eliga Kelly was not called to testify (McEachern apparently thought that would not be necessary to win the case), leaving the case hinging on Coleman's word vs. that of Wafer's boss, a respected member of the community. District Judge Edward Self declined to revoke Wafer's probation. (Wafer had already lost his job, however, having served 30 days in jail; he and his wife also lost a home loan they had negotiated just prior to the arrest, and, inexplicably, his case has yet to be dismissed.)
Could Coleman have simply gotten his dates and times wrong? According to Eliga Kelly, the transaction never occurred at all. Four days after Wafer's hearing, still angry from the blown case, McEachern appeared before Judge Self again, this time in Donnie White's trial, which had just gotten under way at the Swisher County courthouse. McEachern called Kelly, who had turned state's witness, to the stand. Though it was hardly germane to Donnie White's case, McEachern asked Kelly about the exchange with Wafer. Didn't he remember talking to Billy Wafer with Tom Coleman at the Allsup's, and how a woman had come to the sale barn later to deliver cocaine? "I remember talking to Billy," Kelly said in the trial transcript, "but Billy told me to get out of his face." For reasons difficult to fathom, McEachern then went rapidly through the list of those arrested in the sting, asking Kelly if he had helped arrange drug deals with each of them. Again and again, Kelly testified that he had not.
In at least one case, Coleman seems to have been unclear on just who had supposedly sold him cocaine. Coleman alleged that Yul Bryant delivered an eight-ball to him in May of 1999, shortly before the end of the undercover operation. When Bryant read the report on his case, he found that Coleman had described him as a tall black man with bushy hair. Bryant is 5-foot-6 and completely bald. From other details given in the report, Bryant was able to guess the identity of the man Coleman had described.
Bryant contacted the man, one Randy Hicks, from jail and obtained an affidavit from Hicks, who selflessly confirmed that he was the man described in the report. Bryant sent that information to McEachern's office. McEachern's investigator then called Coleman in, showed him pictures of Bryant and Hicks, and asked him to identify Bryant, according to Bryant's attorney, Kerry Piper. Coleman pointed to the picture of Hicks, says Piper, and the case against Bryant (who was in Amarillo at the time of alleged buy) was quietly dismissed. The judge decided to revoke Bryant's parole anyway, for a technical violation, and he is serving four years in prison.
In another unpublicized indictment, Coleman named another suspect who moved away from Tulia several years ago. Fortunately for the prosecution, as damaging to Coleman's credibility as these cases are, none were heard before a jury or published by any news outlet in the Panhandle.
With respect to botched identities and misremembered encounters, Coleman can perhaps make the argument that he was overwhelmed by the size of the operation he was running. But there is no doubt that Coleman lied on the stand on at least one occasion -- in response to questions he was asked about his own criminal history. At Billy Wafer's hearing, Wafer's attorney Brent Hamilton asked Coleman if he had faithfully completed his application for employment as a Swisher County law officer -- specifically, whether he had listed previous arrests or charges filed against him. It should have been evident to Coleman that Hamilton was on to something, yet under oath and on the witness stand, Coleman replied that he had never been arrested or charged for anything more serious than a traffic ticket "way back when I was a kid." In fact, shortly after the first Tulia trial ended, a defense attorney discovered that Coleman had been under indictment for a theft charge in Cochran County at the same time he was running the undercover operation in Tulia.
Until 1996, Coleman had worked as a sheriff's deputy in Cochran County, his most recent law enforcement position. After he left the job, the county filed charges on Coleman for theft, allegedly for buying gas for his personal use on a county credit card. When Sheriff Stewart discovered the outstanding warrant in May of 1998, he had no choice but to "arrest" Coleman and collect bond from him in Tulia. Yet Coleman, already five months into the undercover operation at that point, was not fired. He was suspended temporarily until he got the problem "resolved." McEachern claimed he had no knowledge of the charge (though his sheriff certainly did) before the first three trials. When a defense attorney presented Judge Self with the new evidence concerning the prosecution's star witness, Self sealed it. Efforts to introduce the evidence, along with other information about Coleman's past, to impeach his credibility have been unsuccessful.
The theft charge was reported in a Lubbock Avalanche-Journal article in early May, however. Coleman has refused to answer questions about the charge. And when asked about Coleman's background, McEachern assured this reporter that a thorough background check had been done. "Everyone in Cochran County had the highest recommendations for him," he said. "If you do a thorough enough exam on anybody you're going to find something. Who hasn't done something at one time in their life?"
It would not have taken a very thorough exam to determine that Tom Coleman was not a good candidate for the job Sheriff Stewart brought him to Tulia to do. According to records reviewed during research for this story and interviews with past associates of Coleman, each of his last two law enforcement assignments, as a deputy sheriff in Cochran County from 1994 to 1996, and as a deputy in Pecos County from 1989 to 1994, ended when Coleman abruptly left town, with no notice to his employer, leaving his patrol car parked at his house. In both cases, Coleman disappeared owing thousands of dollars' worth of delinquent bills. His most recent employer, former Cochran County Sheriff Kenneth Burke, wrote a letter to the state agency that licenses peace officers, following Coleman's departure. "It is in my opinion that an officer should uphold the law. Mr. Coleman should not be in law enforcement if he is going to do people the way he did this town," he wrote.
Because of strict rules governing the admissibility of evidence about an officer's history, Tulia juries have yet to hear the full story of Tom Coleman's law enforcement career. He grew up in Reeves County, the son of former Texas Ranger Joe Coleman. The senior Coleman, who died of a heart attack in 1991, was one of the most widely respected lawmen in West Texas. Tom left high school in the 11th grade. He eventually received his GED, at age 27, and shortly thereafter began work as a jailer in the city of Pecos. His first assignment as a peace officer was in tiny Iraan, in Pecos County.
In interviews with former co-workers and associates compiled for this story, as well as in documented interviews conducted by a court-appointed investigator during Coleman's 1994 divorce from Carol Barnett, an unflattering portrait of Coleman emerges. According to an officer (who requested anonymity) who served with Coleman in Pecos County for several years, Tom developed a reputation as unstable and untrustworthy. "He was a nut," the officer said. Coleman was in the habit of carrying as many as three guns on his person at one time, says the officer. On one occasion, according to Pecos Co. chief deputy Cliff Harris, Coleman accidentally shot out the windshield of his own patrol car with a shotgun while he was seated in the car.
Coleman was also a liar, according to his former Pecos County co-worker. "He was the type of person who would tell you anything, and would turn around -- if you knew he wasn't telling the truth -- and come back and correct it," he said. In an interview conducted during Coleman's divorce, a second former co-worker, Pecos Co. deputy Rick Kennedy, also described Coleman as untruthful. "Tom can lie to you when the truth would sound better," he said. Kennedy also described Coleman as a paranoid gun nut who could not go on a fishing trip without an assault rifle in the tent and on the boat. Nina McFadden, the wife of another of Coleman's former co-workers in Pecos County, described Coleman as "paranoid" and a "compulsive liar," in a second interview conducted during the divorce. Both McFadden and another former associate in Pecos County, Bobby Harris (also interviewed during the divorce), said Coleman warned them that his house was always booby-trapped when he was out of town.
According to Coleman's ex-wife, Carol Barnett, things began to go sour in Iraan shortly after their second child was born. The family was deeply in debt, owing thousands of dollars to merchants and vendors, who readily extended credit to Coleman as a law officer. Finally, reeling from his father's death and fearing Carol would divorce him and take his son from him, he cracked, says Barnett. He wrote a note to the sheriff blaming his troubles on his wife. Leaving his patrol car at his house, Coleman put his two-year-old son in the family car, pawned a gun for gas money, and drove to Sherman, where his mother had moved following his father's death.
After a brief stint as a jailer in Denton, Coleman's next law enforcement assignment was back in West Texas, as a deputy in Cochran County. That ended in 1996 when, according to a letter from Sheriff Burke, Coleman walked into the dispatcher's office in the middle of his shift and told her he was leaving. With no prior notice to the sheriff, and without even returning his patrol car to the station, Coleman simply left town. According to a written account by the dispatcher on duty, Coleman told her he had to go look for his wife, a reference to his live-in girlfriend, who had left him. Coleman followed her to her hometown in Illinois.
The theft charge in Cochran County was filed a year after Coleman left town. According to records reviewed during research for this story, it stemmed from a co-worker observing Coleman using a county gas card to fill his personal vehicle. But what apparently spurred his former boss into action were Coleman's debts. According to documents reviewed for this story, the sheriff received a half-dozen letters from the grocery store, the gas company, Coleman's mechanic, and others, all requesting assistance in collecting debts Coleman promised he would make good on but never repaid. An unusual deal was worked out: Coleman would pay back the money, over $6,700, as restitution, though the theft charge against him was for less than $100 worth of gas. In return, the charge would be dropped, and the vendors would not pursue civil charges against Coleman.
News of Coleman's history has filtered through the black community in Tulia. Some were not surprised. "Get a dirty man to do a dirty job," said Freddy Brookins Sr., whose son was sent to prison -- like most of the defendants -- based solely on Coleman's testimony. Brookins and others contend that white Tulia was ready to believe Coleman, however problematic the details of the operation, because fear and distrust of the black community has historically undergirded many of the public policy decisions in the town.
The Life of a Kingpin
Sometimes that sentiment is not too far beneath the surface. In a transcript of the debate over the school drug-testing policy, white board member Sam Sadler described an after-school scene his wife witnessed: "[My son] has entered the sixth grade this year, and he is easily influenced. ... The other evening when several bigger kids, some colored kids -- not trying to pick on anybody -- but they had him all huddled up in a huddle there. You know, just really talking to him. ... And you know you do your best at home and you try to explain, you tell and do everything you know how ... I think that's a pretty compelling interest [to drug test], to protect my son."
McEachern played on that fear in the first case brought to trial, that of Joe Moore. McEachern portrayed the 67-year-old Moore, a central figure in the black community, as a drug dealer who preyed on school kids. In the trial, Moore, who had two prior felony convictions (one for cocaine possession in 1990) was sentenced to 99 years for two counts of delivering an eight-ball of powdered cocaine to Coleman.
Though McEachern described him as one of the four major dealers, if not the major dealer, in Tulia, Moore's dilapidated house in the heart of the black neighborhood does not suggest affluence. His yard is filled with junk he collected to sell for scrap. According to his girlfriend of 20 years, Thelma Mae Johnson, Moore had made a living for the last decade largely by raising hogs, which he fed with waste grain scavenged from grain elevators. On the day Johnson accompanied me to view the kingpin's estate, a Hispanic junk dealer and his son were towing off -- on four flats -- Moore's 30-year-old International Harvester truck.
Moore, who agreed to be interviewed at the Middleton Unit near Abilene, claims he never dealt cocaine. He is a mountainous man with huge hands and shoulders so broad that two sets of cuffs had to be linked together when he was arrested. He speaks slowly, in a heavy country accent through missing teeth. As one of Tulia's longest black residents, over the decades Moore's fortune has been a barometer for the rise and fall of black Tulia. Moore, or "Bootie-Wootie" as he is affectionately known in the black community, came to Tulia with his family in the 1950s. Now stooped and limping, he was once legendary for his stamina as a hay loader and his ability to toss bales onto a truck one-handed.
Most residents of the African-American community in Swisher County trace their roots to farm laborers who arrived a generation before Moore and lived in shacks on the white-owned farms where they worked. Entire families picked cotton or soybeans and grew their own vegetables. The second generation of black people moved off the farms to work at the town's many grain elevators or other ag-processing jobs. By the early 1970s, most black men in Tulia worked at the Taylor-Evans seed company. Black women, meanwhile, worked mainly at the Royal Park garment factory.
Moore has not always been a hog farmer, and his history with Swisher County law enforcement extends to an earlier generation. Moore made his living during the Seventies -- black Tulia's heyday -- as a bootlegger. Like much of the Panhandle, Swisher County never legalized alcohol sales after prohibition. In practice, however, the county remains dry for blacks only. Whites drink legally at two unofficially segregated private clubs outside the city limits: the country club, where Tulia's more affluent citizens meet, and Johnny Nix's, which caters to farmers and cowboys. For blacks, there is bootlegging.
For 20 years, Joe Moore and his brothers ran the only bar in Tulia, stocked with illegal beer purchased 19 miles away in Nazareth, the nearest wet town. The juke joint, known as Funz-a-Poppin', was the worst-kept secret in town, according to Moore. It was located in an old converted hotel in "Niggertown," as Tulia's black west side was commonly called. Moore was bartender, bootlegger, and eventually caretaker for his three older brothers, each of whom died of cirrhosis. He became a central figure in Tulia's black community, where he was known as someone who could help out a single mother from time to time, or advise a neighbor having trouble with the sheriff.
Moore and his brothers were convicted of bootlegging in the early 1980s and fined, but the police never tried to shut down the bar, according to Moore. Instead, they put him on the "slow payment plan." Every month, Moore says, he reported to the sheriff's office and paid $200 in cash, all of which was proceeds from bootlegging. Moore cannot read or write. He says he received receipts for the money, but has no idea where it went, or what happened to the records after the bar was demolished in 1992. Terry McEachern has been trying to put him in jail, he says, ever since.
Many of the buildings on Tulia's west side (now referred to as the "Sunset Addition"), including Moore's place, were pulled down in the early 1990s to make room for a planned expansion of I-27 that never materialized. Moore's girlfriend Johnson said she and some friends later tried to organize a private social club in an empty storefront, so blacks would have a legal place to drink and socialize. The city quickly responded with an ordinance banning private drinking clubs within the city limits, and the idea died. Evening entertainment for blacks is confined mostly to house parties now, according to Billy Wafer, who moved to Tulia from Plainview because he felt it was a better place to raise his kids. "We get everybody over, drink, listen to music, talk real loud and tell lies, stuff like that," he said. Since the bust, though, things have been quiet in the black community. "Right now the atmosphere with the blacks is real scared," he said. "We don't know which way to turn without the law messing with us."
Losing Funz-a-Poppin' was a blow to a black community already in decline. The closing of Royal Park in 1979, followed by massive layoffs at Taylor-Evans in 1985, devastated black Tulia. Families relocated to Plainview or Amarillo, to work in the beef-packing industry. Young people increasingly began to leave after high school and not return. Taylor-Evans finally closed its Tulia facility in 1995, leaving the Wal-Mart Distribution Center in Plainview as the leading employer of blacks from Tulia. Women now largely work as maids or home health care workers, or at the nursing home in Tulia. "There just aren't many places for them to work," County Judge Harold Keeter explained, referring to the predicament of the young blacks rounded up in the Tulia bust. Mattie White, who had three children arrested in the raid, including Donnie Smith, has a different take on the local economy. "There's plenty of kids my children's age working in the bank and in the department stores," she said. "But they're all white."
The bust went through a brief but widespread news cycle around the state, and Terry McEachern and Sheriff Larry Stewart have grown weary of fielding questions, particularly about the racial aspects of the sting. Yet several other questions about the operation remain unanswered. According to his own testimony, Coleman resolved his Cochran County theft charge by paying $6,700 in restitution sometime during the summer of 1998. But where Coleman got the money is unclear. His task force salary during that period, according to county records, was about $23,000 per year. According to a garnishment order from the attorney general's office, $200 of his paycheck was being garnished each month for child support during this period. After taxes and garnishment, he was taking home less than $1,500 per month. How did he come up with so much money in such a short period of time?
A Dirty Job
Coleman testified in January that he received no outside income while he worked for the task force. By February, his story had changed. His mother had given him several thousand dollars, he testified. By April, the scenario was that a friend of the family loaned money to his mother, who in turn gave the money to Coleman.
Several defense attorneys are working on another theory, one that may answer several questions about the operation. In order to get a higher rate of return on their investment, dealers cut cocaine with a variety of relatively inexpensive substances, usually mild anesthetics. In at least one case, the head of the Amarillo DPS narcotics lab testified that the powdered cocaine introduced into evidence by Coleman was unusually weak. Wafer's attorney, Brent Hamilton, has requested that all of the cocaine obtained in the 100-plus buys be tested at the same time, to determine if a common source could be found (i.e. if they are all cut with the same amount of the same substance), and to see if the same knife or scissors was used to cut all of the baggies holding the drug. A common source would support a devastating theory: that Coleman himself bought a quantity of powder, perhaps in Amarillo, cut it very weak, and put it into evidence for buys he never actually made. He could then use the task force money for the buys he reported making to pay his restitution.
After leaving Hamilton's request pending for several months, Judge Self has agreed to allow five randomly selected samples to be tested. That test has yet to be performed.
Coleman would not be the first West Texas narc to con his own handlers. In 1989, more than 25 indictments were dismissed in Sutton County when an undercover operation put together by local law enforcement came to pieces. Sutton County Attorney David W. Wallace says he recalls having misgivings from the start. "I stayed as far away from it as I could. They hired a non-DPS narcotics agent with a spotted history, or maybe they didn't check his history at all," Wallace said. "And he goes out and looks for people that are doing drugs. And based on his statements he is successful. But when the trials start coming around they find out maybe this guy isn't as honest and truthful as he holds himself out to be."
After several cases had already gone to trial in Sutton County, the undercover agent, Lonnie Hood, was discovered to have planted evidence and falsified reports during an unrelated operation in Taylor County. As in Tulia, most of the Sutton County defendants had been in jail since the day they were arrested. Several had already been sent to prison. All were eventually released. In the aftermath, both the county and the district attorney's office were sued.
Roaming narcs-for-hire like Coleman have a poor reputation in the law-enforcement community, says Amarillo defense attorney Jeff Blackburn. "They're at the bottom of the food chain. Other cops don't trust them." According to Coleman's ex-wife Barnett, Coleman applied to be a state trooper numerous times. "He's been riding on his daddy's shirttails for years, tryin' to be like his daddy," she said. Coleman was working as a welder in Midland when he heard about the job in Swisher County. After burning his bridges with his past two law enforcement employers, deep cover may have been his last chance to redeem himself as an officer. But Lawman of the Year? Those who know him aren't buying it. "Tom is very crooked," said his ex-wife. "I would not be surprised a bit" that he fabricated buys, she said. "He's the type of guy that would do something like that," one of Coleman's former co-workers in Pecos County agreed. "I guarantee you Tom Coleman didn't make no 50 buys."
Coleman declined to be interviewed for this story. Approached outside of the courtroom in Amarillo, he would only say that his critics have it all wrong. "I got it all straight. I lived with them, I ate with them. I was them," he said.
The Stranger in Town
But was he? Donnie Smith said he never even got close. "He was never at no parties, man," as Coleman had claimed in court. If he had been, "it would be like, 'He gots to go,'" Smith said. But he was also not a member of Tulia's white community. Why was a small community so ready to turn on its own, based solely on the word of a stranger? It was not as if the defendants were unknown to the juries. The County Judge testified in Donnie Smith's case that he had known Smith for years and helped him get into rehab the first time he became addicted, out of fondness for the former football star. "The guilty verdicts don't have anything to do with the evidence," one defense lawyer said. "What they've done is they've rounded up all the people with bad reputations that they've had trouble with in the past. Then they use this guy and his testimony as a vehicle for the juries to run 'em out of town."
In fact, the list of defendants read like a Who's Who of Tulia High sports heroes from years past. But that was then. "As long as you're in school, playin' sports, and winnin' for them, you're all right," Smith said. "Once you get out, if you don't move away, you in trouble. That's basically the way it is. And if you're a white or Spanish guy hangin' out with the blacks, you already in trouble." That idea seemed to have particular resonance in the black community. All the whites arrested in the bust had ties to the black community (though none of them were paraded before the cameras on the morning of July 23).
Ironically, it was one of those white suspects, William Cash Love, who made the only delivery in the entire operation of any substantial size: an ounce (28 grams) of crack cocaine. For that crime, along with several smaller deliveries, Love received a sentence of 434 years. The sentiment in the black community is that Love, a young white man who spent his entire life in the company of blacks, and who married a black woman (Donnie Smith's sister Kizzie), was singled out to send a message about his lifestyle choice. "When we saw Cash, we didn't see white. We saw black," Billy Wafer explained. "They don't want 'em crossing over." The younger generation in Tulia is much less prejudiced, says Wafer. "The young white kids are so intrigued by the slang, the talk, the way of life, how them young black kids walk the street all the time," he said. "That's what they're so fearful of, the influence on their kids, and that's the reason things are happening the way they are now."
Nate Blakeslee is a staff writer at The Texas Observer, where a version of this story first appeared.