Another Drug War Casualty

Testimony continues this week in the capital murder trial of 23-year-old Edwin Delamora, accused of firing the fatal shot that killed Travis County Sheriff's Deputy Keith Ruiz in February 2001.

Testimony continues this week in the capital murder trial of 23-year-old Edwin Delamora, accused of firing the fatal shot that killed Travis County Sheriff's Deputy Keith Ruiz in February 2001. The District Attorney's office has declined to seek the death penalty for Delamora, but he does face life imprisonment. The jury faces many difficult questions, but perhaps the hardest one of all is this: Was Ruiz just another casualty of a war on drugs that's impossible to win?

On the night of his death, Ruiz was assisting members of the Capital Area Narcotics Task Force in their attempt to serve a search warrant at Delamora's trailer in Del Valle. According to Assistant District Attorney Amy Casner, Delamora tried to buy enough time to hide his drugs by breaking out a small window in his front door and firing a single 9mm round at Ruiz -- who, as a member of the two-man forced entry contingent, was trying to pry open the door. Ruiz wasn't a CANTF member, but had been asked to participate in the raid because of his skill with the "hooligan tool" that officers use to jimmy open doors. To date, all of the CANTF officers who have testified have said the team clearly identified themselves by shouting some version of "Sheriff! Search warrant!" before hitting the door with a battering ram and having Ruiz swing the hooligan tool into a prying position on the frame. But after three tries, the door still did not give way, they said. With the critical element of surprise lost, the situation no longer appeared safe.

The defense admits that Delamora fired a bullet, but disagrees on why he fired and where the bullet landed. Attorney Leonard Martinez contends that his client did not know whether it was the police calling, or robbers trying to break into his trailer. The fatal shot likely resulted from "friendly fire" by one of the six task-force members waiting to enter Delamora's trailer, Martinez says. (Whether or not Delamora and his wife actually heard or understood the officers' shouts is clearly debatable; in court, a Spanish interpreter must help him understand testimony.) And without the quick entry the team members hoped for, it could easily be argued that the lengthy attempt at entry made it seem less like cops at the door and more like a home invasion -- a matter that the jury will decide.

Travis County Deputy Medical Examiner Elizabeth Peacock testified that the angle and path of the shot that killed Ruiz tagged Delamora as the shooter. However, conclusively ruling out any other possibility is likely impossible. Court sources say ballistics experts were unable to match the bullet lodged in Ruiz's spine to one that would've come from Delamora's gun. Furthermore, it seems the sheriff's investigators never took the deputies' guns into custody to determine which of them had been fired, although at least one deputy was also carrying a 9mm pistol.

Meanwhile, the amount of drugs turned up during the subsequent search of Delamora's trailer hardly suggests he was a kingpin. In all, narcotics officers collected just over one ounce of marijuana and about 25 grams (equaling about 50 single doses, a Department of Public Safety chemist testified) of street-grade methamphetamine. Along with a selection of baggies and a small electronic scale -- both items suggesting a dealer's stash, and not that of a casual user, officers testified -- Delamora neatly contained his booty in a "Space Saver" plastic box about the size of a 5-inch-by-7-inch picture frame.

Ruiz's shooting occurred at a time when problems plaguing the Capital Area Narcotics Task Force -- and similar task forces -- were coming into sharp relief. In May 2000, CANTF members swooped down on the Hazy Hills home of Sandy Smith, who they suspected was growing marijuana on her two-acre property. After holding a frightened Smith and two of her tenants at gunpoint for nearly 45 minutes, officers realized that the suspected dope was ragweed. Nonetheless, CANTF officers conducted an exhaustive search of Smith's home before leaving her shaking on her front lawn. (The incident is currently the subject of a civil rights lawsuit pending in federal court.) And in December 2001 -- just 10 months after the fatal shooting of Ruiz -- CANTF officer Derek Hill killed 19-year-old Tony Martinez during yet another Del Valle mobile-home drug raid. Martinez, who was not the task force's target, had been sleeping on a couch when officers entered and shot him.

South of Austin, members of the Hays County Narcotics Task Force shot and killed Wimberley resident Rusty Windell in 1999 during an early morning raid. Based solely on information from a three-time felon turned confidential informant, HCNTF members executed 12 search warrants -- including one against Windell, who officers said came to the door armed with a loaded shotgun. The officers said they announced their presence, but a Texas Ranger investigation report of the incident revealed that several officers later admitted they had not. The Rangers investigation eventually showed that Windell's gun was unloaded, its safety lock engaged. After 12 warrants and one death, HCNTF officers netted a piddling quarter-ounce of marijuana.

None of these unfortunate incidents surprise Kevin Zeese, head of the national advocacy group Common Sense for Drug Policy. "Texas is among the worst," he said. Most states only enter into such task force situations in conjunction with the federal government, he said, creating what's known as an Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force; Austin has also done this, through the Austin Police Department. "But they are much more focused on higher-level activities. You are special out there. Unfortunately it's giving Texas a bad name nationally -- just look at the Tulia thing," he said, referring to the small West Texas town where a drug sweep netted 10% of the town's black population under questionable circumstances.

As for the Delamora case, many questions remain unresolved. Did the bust help stanch the flow of drugs into Austin? Was he a bigger dealer than his stash suggests? Did he really believe robbers were breaking into his home, or did he deliberately shoot an officer? Did the work of CANTF have a positive effect on limiting the amount of drugs on the streets in Central Texas?

And can we win a "war on drugs"? During jury selection for Delamora's trial, many potential jurors responded "no" when attorneys asked them this question. Since Ruiz's death, many counties -- including Travis -- have pulled their officers and resources out of the CANTF, ending its reign. But in the courtroom, the legacy of CANTF lives on, making for an uneasy push-and-pull between attorneys for the state and for the defense. While the state has focused on Ruiz's death to prove that Delamora knowingly took the deputy's life, the defense has continuously tried to expand the questions at issue by highlighting the vagaries of CANTF's past.

In the end, the situation has been devastating for everyone. In the courtroom, Ruiz's tragic death elicited a great deal of sadness for his family. Delamora's family stands to lose a husband and father, and is being pulled apart. The Travis County Sheriff's Office mourns an officer. The CANTF is disbanded. The question remains: Did the benefits outweigh the costs?

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