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?

Spencer has yet to come to trial, and she declines to say whether she helped Stamps acquire any drugs. But that didn't stop her from venting.

"We're not drug dealers," Spencer insists. "He didn't bust drug dealers. He busted people who went and did a favor for him and got him drugs. We weren't selling the stuff out of our houses. People knew where to get it, and they picked it up and gave it to him. But they didn't mess with the drug dealers."

The Southwest Texas Narcotics Task Force, established just last year, is messing with the Press, however. It has appealed to the Texas attorney general's office regarding the paper's Texas open records request for information on its arrests and seizures. Stamps, meanwhile, has moved on to the Dogwood Trails Narcotics Task Force in Palestine, where attempts to contact him were unsuccessful.

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.

A question lingers: Why do these drug task forces remain in business despite their well-documented problems, their poor arrest records and their emphasis on low-level dealers and users? The answer is simple: because there's money available.

Established in 1988 to honor a fallen New York City police officer, the Edward Byrne Memorial Fund, in just the past five years, has distributed approximately $2.5 billion in grants to drug task forces nationally, with $160 million of it going to Texas, where it is divvied up between the almost 50 tasks forces operating in the state. Those task forces are as addicted to the federal cash injections as the junkies are to their dope. According to critics, they're more concerned with making as many busts as possible to keep their arrest numbers up and their funding high than they are on concentrating on time-consuming investigations that might net large-scale dealers.

The Texas Narcotics Control Program, the division of the governor's office that distributes Byrne Fund money to state task forces, has come under heat itself. In June, the Austin American-Statesman reported that Robert J. "Duke" Bodisch, the head of the program, was reassigned when an audit revealed that he borrowed three cars from one of the task forces. The report also showed that for five years the TNCP had used Byrne funds to buy awards, gifts, alcoholic beverages and entertainment--spending that appeared to fall outside the guidelines governing the use of the Byrne money. Bodisch declined to be interviewed.

This is not the first instance of alleged abuses of task force money. In June 1998 then-Governor George W. Bush's office stopped funding for the Permian Basin Drug Task Force amid allegations of falsified meal tickets, doctored quarterly reports on confiscations and other irregularities. The task force was abolished that summer.

"Some of them are run well. Some are not run well. It's very political," says former task force officer Barbara Markham. "And it's definitely not money well spent."

With her skinny frame, sleepy eyes and cigarette voice, 41-year-old Markham comes off like a doper. It's a good look to have if you happen to be an undercover narcotics officer, as she used to be.

Markham got her start in law enforcement in 1983. At the time, she was 23 years old, living in Frisco, going to college and working for Arco Oil & Gas--and making more money than she ever would as a police officer. But Markham found herself scrambling to find work when the oil boom ended, so she got herself certified as a peace officer and then hired on as a reserve officer in Frisco, at that time a quiet burg of about 3,000 people. At first it seemed like there was nothing to it.

"Back then we were dealing with things like cattle in the roadway," says Markham.

Markham's cushy new job didn't last long. Shortly after she was hired, Markham's chief approached her about doing some undercover work. Thinking the assignment would be for only a couple of hours or so, Markham agreed, unaware that what the chief had in mind would turn her life upside down forever.

"What they wanted was to put an undercover officer in a high school," says Markham. "They had searched high and low throughout the county looking for somebody who was young enough." Or someone who looked young enough. Although she was 23, Markham could easily pass for a 17-year-old.

After a crash course in narcotics law enforcement and armed with fake transcripts from Wichita Falls High School, Markham slipped unnoticed into Wylie, in Collin County. She enrolled in summer school and began hanging out with the kids, throwing Frisbees and riding skateboards. Little by little they took her in.

"My goal was not to bust the kids, but to bust who was selling to them," Markham says. "That's the way I ran my operation." When Markham was pulled out of the school six weeks later, 20 suspects were arrested on charges of delivery of a controlled substance. All but two were adults.

After Wylie, Markham was assigned to Princeton High School, east of McKinney. There, things did not go so well, as news of her arrival preceded her among the students. For the next few years Markham continued to infiltrate student bodies in North Texas in search of drug dealing. By the time she reached 30, she'd had enough.

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