Naked City

No Weed, Just Dopes

Travis County Sheriff's Dept. officers raided Sandy Smith's Hazy Hills back yard last week, claiming they had seen marijuana growing there. The real culprit? Mulberry weed, about as common in Texas as fire ants.
Travis County Sheriff's Dept. officers raided Sandy Smith's Hazy Hills back yard last week, claiming they had seen marijuana growing there. The real culprit? Mulberry weed, about as common in Texas as fire ants. (Photo By Jana Birchum)

As far as 30-year Hazy Hills resident Sandy Smith was concerned, Tuesday, May 8, was a typical day off from her job at the Exxon Neighborhood Convenience Store, where she has worked for 15 years. But at about 2:30pm ("I was fixing to go to the grocery store and the bank," she says) a Dept. of Public Safety helicopter began circling her 2.5-acre property just off Hwy. 71 in Spicewood. "They came in from a higher altitude and then dropped down right there," she says, pointing to the rear of her property.

Just then the phone rang. A neighbor was calling to tell Smith that he thought the helicopter was taking photos of the property. But before Smith could even hang up the phone, she says, a swarm of cars -- Travis County Sheriff's cars, a couple of vans and SUVs marked "Narcotics" and "Drug Enforcement," along with several unmarked sedans -- pulled up in front of her house and unloaded a gaggle of heavily armed officers. "They came from every direction, with their guns drawn, and told me to 'spread 'em and drop that phone'," Smith says. "I asked them, what did I do? What was going on? They told me to 'shut up and don't worry about it.'" Meanwhile, her housemate, Wayne Darling, came out of the house and was told to put his hands up too. "They had what looked like 9mm [guns], and M-16s, assault rifles, on us," Darling says. "There were at least 12 to 14 officers."

What had Smith and Darling done to deserve all the attention? "They said they were looking for marijuana and that they had spotted some behind my house," Smith says. "I told them, 'Well, have a look, I wouldn't know the difference.'"

Smith said she and Darling were held at gunpoint for about 30 minutes before a Travis County Sheriff's deputy returned from the back of the house. "'This is the season for marijuana, and the helicopter spotted what he thought was marijuana growing behind your house,'" Smith says the officer told her. Upon examination, the officer said, the plants were "just a weed that looks similar." As it turned out, the "weed" in question -- which was growing in a roughly 8-by-10-foot patch behind Smith's house -- was mulberry weed, about as common in Texas as fire ants and dirt. "You don't even need binoculars to see this isn't marijuana," said Sybil Autrey, Smith's friend and attorney. For one thing, mulberry weed has three-fingered leaves, readily distinguishable from cannabis leaves, which wilt almost instantly when plucked from their stalks.

All the same, the officers took a garbage bag full of the mulberry "for testing," Smith says. But that wasn't the end of it. When Smith and Darling went back inside the house, they found that the place -- along with two other small houses on the property -- had been "ransacked." The officers tore down some curtains, left magazines scattered around, and left two BB guns, cocked, sitting on an easy chair. "Nobody said anything about a warrant," says Autrey. "This was just the ultimate harassment." Smith and Autrey say they have called and written letters to Travis County Commissioner Todd Baxter and Travis County Sheriff Margo Frasier. Aside from a short letter from Baxter's office, Smith says, they haven't gotten a response.

Sheriff's office spokesman Roger Wade says his department is investigating the incident for "any violations of policies or procedures." "We're contacting everyone who was involved to get their stories [about what happened] in writing," he says. Wade says he isn't sure what prompted the raid, but that generally "these things get started from people who call in and say, 'I've seen something,' or, 'I think something is going on.'"

That jibes with Smith's suspicions. She says she's had problems with "new" people complaining about everything from the number of people living on her property to "playing our music too loud and talking too loud." Smith said the least she expects is a formal apology. "This is a small community, and everybody knows what happened. Now everybody thinks I'm some kind of criminal," she says. "I mean, this totally ruined my day off."

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Sandy Smith, Wayne Darling, Sybil Autrey, Todd Baxter, Margo Frasier, marijuana, Roger Wade

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