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?

When asked if there is much violent crime in Robertson County, Yezak smiles and says, "Well, that depends on your definition of much." He goes on to explain that there were only three homicides in the county last year; none so far in 2001. In other words, there's not much violent crime in Robertson County. Yet, when it comes to drugs, Yezak maintains they're a growing problem.

His biggest concern, he says, is the resurgence of methamphetamine laboratories. Meth labs produce a distinctive and foul chemical odor, one that's hard to hide in the close confines of urban areas. The sparsely populated rolling hills of Robertson and other rural counties, the sheriff says, provide meth dealers with the privacy they need to cook their product. The proliferation of meth labs, Yezak says, has also produced a black market for one of the key ingredients in making the drug: anhydrous ammonia. The substance is in abundance in the county because farmers use it to fertilize their fields. Normally anhydrous ammonia goes for about $400 a ton; on the black market, it brings $300 a gallon.

In addition to his job as sheriff, which he has held for the past five years, Yezak is also project director of the South Central Texas Narcotics Task Force. He was appointed to replace Robertson County District Attorney John Paschall early this year, right about the time questions emerged about the drug arrests in Hearne last November. Yezak had no part in those raids, and he refuses to fault his predecessor's penchant for targeting street-corner dealers and small-time users. He points out that the possession and sale of illegal drugs is against the law, period, regardless of the amount. That said, however, Yezak also indicates that the priorities of the South Central task force will be different under his watch. He wants his team to spend more time looking at the big picture. Specifically, he plans to target the meth labs that have moved into his territory.

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.

As for the millions of dollars that pour into the Texas drug task forces each year, Yezak acknowledges that it's a lot of money but believes it is money well spent. His task force commander, Joe Davis, agrees, insisting that rural Texas counties like Robertson just don't have the tax base to adequately fund a war on drugs.

One of Yezak's first moves after taking over was to hire Davis, a small dark-haired man with 16 years of law enforcement experience, away from the Brazos Valley Task Force in nearby Bryan. Brazos Valley has a reputation as a well-run operation, and Davis has a reputation as a stand-up officer, even among criminal defense attorneys.

"I can tell you this," says Bryan attorney Brad Wyatt, who defended Corvian Workman in the Hearne drug raids last November, "based on my experience with this guy in the past, things are going to change in Robertson County--for the better."

As to why he brought Davis in as the new commander, Yezak is again diplomatic and deftly avoids saying that it was because he was unhappy with the way the unit was being run. "The old commander worked for the D.A.," says Yezak, between spitting sunflower seed shells into a cup. "He didn't work for me. If I'm going to have somebody running [the task force], and I'm the project director, I'm going to have somebody who works for me. Somebody who answers to me."

Davis isn't one to criticize, either. But he believes his predecessor's problems--indeed, the problems of the task force--stemmed from poor supervision of confidential informants. Davis says he plans to avoid those problems by strictly limiting how and when his officers use informants.

Of course, starting this month, Davis, Yezak and all the other Texas task forces really don't have any choice but to change their ways.

On September 1, a new state law went into effect limiting the use of confidential informants in court. Drug convictions no longer may be based on uncorroborated testimony from a single informant. The new law is one of several battles won during the last session of the Texas Legislature by a coalition of groups including the ACLU and the NAACP. The Legislature also made it easier to obtain background information on law enforcement officers. The measure was the result of the revelations about undercover officer Tom Coleman, whose theft charge (later dropped) was discovered after his busts in Tulia as part of the Panhandle Regional Narcotics Task Force.

Meanwhile, Coleman continues his gypsy ways. He left the Panhandle task force and found new employment with the Southeast Dallas County/Ellis County Task Force in Waxahachie. This past April, however, Coleman was fired. The Amarillo Globe-News quoted Ellis County District Attorney Joe Grubb as saying Coleman's termination did not involve any of his work as an undercover officer. "It involved his relationship with an individual in the community."

In addition to calling for a Justice Department investigation of Coleman's actions and last summer's arrests in Tulia, the ACLU also is pushing for federal reviews of the task force actions in Brownwood and Brady. What's more, agents from the FBI have interviewed former undercover task force officer Barbara Markham about her allegations of at least 150 trumped-up drug charges filed against people arrested by the Narcotics Trafficking Task Force of Chambers and Liberty counties. Markham currently works for the small Oak Forest Police Department on Lake Lewisville near Denton. After seven years of going under cover for task forces, she'll never work for another one--even if she wanted to.

"I'm completely blackballed," Markham says, "but I wouldn't work for a task force again."

Houston Press editorial assistant Kirsten Bubier helped compile statistics for this story.

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