Drug Crazed

Millions in federal tax dollars are being spent by narcotics task forces in Texas to nab low-level users and dealers. Is this any way to wage a drug war?

The January arrests followed the same pattern of those made by other task forces around the state: The targets were mainly the poor and/or people of color, none of the cases involved much more than a thimbleful of drugs, and the indictments and arrests came down about six months after the alleged drug deals had occurred, a tactic that criminal defense attorney Kirby Roberts believes is used to make it harder for defendants to say exactly where they were and what they were doing at the time.

Roberts, who is based in Junction, hears the same story--and sees many of the same task force tactics--all over his part of Texas. In fact, Roberts has stayed more than busy lately defending targets of not only the Southwest Texas squad but also the West-Central Texas Narcotics Task Force. Over the past six months, Roberts, a big-boned man who resembles Salman Rushdie, has spent a considerable amount of time driving the two-lane blacktops among the prickly pear cactus on the western edge of the Texas Hill Country on a legal circuit that includes Brownwood, Brady, Menard, Junction and other towns. Roberts himself gets a bit prickly when he thinks about what he believes are the misguided goals and unethical--if not sometimes illegal--conduct of the members of the various task forces he encounters.

Particularly disturbing to Roberts was the case filed against Terri Rene Harrell, a twice-divorced mother of three getting by mainly on $300 a month in child support that she receives from her two ex-husbands. Her economic standing was only marginally improved recently by her marriage to a Texas Department of Criminal Justice guard.

Charles Workman, second from left, and Helen Boone, fifth from left, were among several Hearne residents to testify about drug task forces before the Texas Legislature.
Steve McVicker
Charles Workman, second from left, and Helen Boone, fifth from left, were among several Hearne residents to testify about drug task forces before the Texas Legislature.

In January, Harrell was charged with delivering a gram of methamphetamine to Scotty Chew while he was working as an undercover officer with the West-Central task force. Chew testified that for four or five months, as part of his cover, he often hung out at Lakeside Tattoo on the outskirts of Brownwood, where he spent his time shooting the breeze and helping motorists and cyclists repair their machines. According to his testimony, during most of his encounters the conversation eventually got around to the subject of drugs and if anyone knew where he could get some.

It was under such circumstances that he hooked up with Harrell and her friend Jennifer Nell Spencer in July 2000. The undercover officer testified that when he approached Harrell about obtaining some speed, she informed him that her friend Spencer, who would be coming by the tattoo parlor soon, might have some contacts. When Spencer arrived, she made a call and set up a rendezvous with her connection along the side of a local highway. But when the amount delivered to the meeting place wasn't enough to satisfy Chew, the two women and the officer--along with another man named "Jerry" in the undercover officer's car--went back into Brownwood. When the two-vehicle caravan stopped in front of a house, the men in the lead car went inside along with Harrell and Spencer. A few minutes later, the women returned with the dope. Chew says it was Harrell who handed him the plastic packet.

Roberts, however, suggests that it was actually Spencer who gave the drugs to Chew and that the officer was embellishing his story to add Harrell to his arrest list. What's more important, Chew admitted on the witness stand that he did little to find out who the men in the other car were or who owned or lived in the house from where the drugs were fetched.

"No follow-up was ever made to identify who was in that house or who the house belonged to," says Roberts. "So there's no question in my mind that [Chew] was just after as many [easy] arrests as possible, and not in actually trying to get anybody of any importance. If he'd wanted to do that, he'd have gone up the food chain a step. It was right there in front of him."

Chew, 30, has served as a peace officer in Texas since 1993. Although he works directly for the West-Central task force, he is commissioned as a law enforcement officer through the Coleman County sheriff's office. He also has worked for the Erath County sheriff's office as well as the Rural Area Narcotics Task Force and others. In other words, he is a gypsy officer--the kind who task force critics say bounce from one law enforcement agency to the next.

During his cross-examination of Chew, Roberts attempted to show that Chew was indeed a dirty cop. While on the stand, Chew denied that he had ever sold drugs himself or that he had ever exchanged drugs for sex. Chew's claims were contradicted when Roberts called Wilda Renee Crelia, who was also facing drug charges, to the witness stand.

Roberts: "Let me just ask you, did Scotty Chew ever supply you with any drugs or controlled substances?"

Crelia: "Yes."

Roberts: "And did he require you to do anything in return for supplying that?"

Crelia: "Yes."

Roberts: "And what was that?"

Crelia: "Oral sex."

Despite Crelia's testimony, Harrell was convicted on the delivery charge, but the judge who heard the case sentenced her to probation despite a prior drug conviction. Roberts believes that decision was significant.

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