By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Just over a year ago, the small Texas Panhandle town of Tulia made national headlines when police rounded up more than 10 percent of the city's African-Americans and jailed them on drug charges. All of the arrests and charges were based on the uncorroborated word of one officer: Deputy Tom Coleman of the Swisher County sheriff's office. Coleman was a lawman with a checkered past. He had been charged with theft in Cochran County before signing on with Swisher County, where he was working as an undercover narcotics officer. He was also known as a "gypsy cop," a sort of hired gun who bounced from one law enforcement agency to the next--usually one of the dozens of federally funded regional anti-drug task forces that have sprung up around the state since they began forming in the late 1980s.
At the time of the Tulia busts, Coleman, through his employment with the sheriff's office, was once again working for a regional anti-drug outfit, the Panhandle Regional Narcotics Task Force. First chronicled in the Texas Observer, the arrests soon were reported by newspapers and television and radio stations across the state as well as by the likes of The New York Times and The Washington Post.But the events that occurred last summer in Tulia did not happen in a vacuum. Nor was the targeting of minorities and the poor a tactic employed by only the Panhandle task force.
Instead, Tulia was just the most visible example of these problems as they relate to regional drug task forces in Texas, which last year received $31 million in federal money through a U.S. Department of Justice grant program known as the Edward Byrne Memorial Fund. By far the largest funder of these narcotics-fighting groups, the Byrne Fund has distributed billions of dollars to drug task forces across the nation.
Some of those Texas task forces--especially the ones in rural areas--are now being accused of employing their own Tulia-like tactics in dealing with the drug problems in their communities. In places such as Brady, Hearne, Caldwell, Brownwood, Chambers County and elsewhere, critics say task force members have relied on unreliable informants to make cases against small-time, street-level drug users and dealers who are nowhere close to the epicenter of the narcotics problem in Texas. Task force officials defend the program by pointing out that all illegal drugs are illegal. But civil rights activists charge that the task force system is the latest example of an enormously expensive misplaced priority in the so-called war on drugs, a war they say focuses on the poor and people of color rather than the real players in the narcotics trade.
"The fundamental problem is that you have these task forces out there operating with little or no supervision and absolutely no state or federal accountability," says Texas American Civil Liberties Union President Will Harrell. "No one is accepting responsibility, and the task forces have one motive and one motive only: to produce numbers lest they lose their funding for the next year. But no one questions how they go about their business."
It was during the presidency of Ronald Reagan that the United States declared war on drugs. In a February 1988 speech in Mexico, Reagan went so far as to proclaim that the crusade was "an untold American success story" and that illegal drug use had "already gone out of style in the United States." He could not have been more wrong, as the billions of dollars that have been spent on drugs and fighting them since prove.
Each June, the beginning of the Byrne Fund's fiscal year, the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Assistance distributes the millions in federal dollars to state agencies across the country. It is the states that send money down the line to the various task forces within their boundaries. This past June, Texas received a fresh fix of $31,636,000 earmarked for state task forces. Just like every year, the grant was sent from the federal government to the Texas Narcotics Control Program, a branch of the criminal justice division of the governor's office, which has its own current two-year budget of $176 million. One of the main tasks of the TNCP is to distribute Byrne Fund money among the state's task forces. Only multijurisdictional task forces--the ones that include peace officers from law enforcement agencies in multiple jurisdictions--are eligible for the grant money.
Federal guidelines allow for 100 percent funding of a task force, but they also encourage in-kind funding by the participating agencies. In 1994 there was a push in the Justice Department to abolish the Byrne grants program because the task forces were inefficient, redundant and bad about sharing information. According to Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, then the deputy assistant attorney general in the Office of Justice Programs, the Byrne grant program "was never intended to be a continual grant to the states." Townsend, daughter of the late Robert F. Kennedy and now lieutenant governor of Maryland, adds that the funds would continue to be available for use by the states, but that the "dollars will be focused on programs that work."
The plan to eliminate the program generated loud criticism from rural lawmakers and law enforcement agencies, and today more Byrne Fund money than ever is being pumped into anti-drug task forces in Texas and throughout the country, and that trend shows no sign of abating, even though, beginning with the revelations in Tulia, the last year has not been a good one for the Texas Narcotics Control Program.
Hearne, Texas, is a long way from Hollywood, California. Situated on State Highway 6 about 120 miles northwest of Houston, Hearne, with a population of just over 5,000, is the largest city in Robertson County. It is an area that is less than vibrant economically. Those who own the gently rolling hills try to eke out a living working the land. Most of the rest commute to Waco or the Bryan-College Station area for work.
Despite the sleepy nature of the city, Hearne residents say that last November their town could have been mistaken for an action-adventure movie set when members of the South Central Narcotics Task Force began rounding up alleged drug dealers and users in the community. As police vehicles sped through the streets, task force members even called in a chopper for aerial surveillance.
In all, 28 people were arrested. Most were black, and many were residents of Columbus Village, a federally subsidized low-income housing project located in a predominantly African-American neighborhood in east Hearne, just down the street from an elementary school. Both the school and the housing project are, by law, drug-free zones. That means that penalties for drug-related crimes committed in those areas are automatically enhanced.
At first, the arrests were not that alarming to Hearne residents, who had watched passively as the busts occurred every year since the late 1980s, when task forces and the Byrne Fund first came into being. But then the numbers started piling up: From October 1998 to December 2000, according to records obtained by the Houston Press, the Dallas Observer's sister paper, the eight-member South Central task force filed 574 charges, although some defendants were charged more than once. The task force's records are poorly kept, but of the suspects who had a race attached to their names, 257 out of 364 were African-Americans. Only 34 of the cases involved more than 4 grams of cocaine or crack. The task force made three major seizures during this period: 4.16 pounds of cocaine, 90 grams of methamphetamine and 312 pounds of marijuana. South Central's budget for this period was $972,238; if you divide that figure by the number of charges filed, it comes out to $1,694 per charge. At the same time, the task force members were paid an average of nearly $36,000 annually.
"Every year they just round up a bunch of black men and women," says Charles Workman, who is a member of the Hearne City Council as well as president of the area chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
"If you've got gold teeth, you're fit to profile," says hospital administrator Helen Boone.
While the annual raids were familiar to Workman and Boone, last November's police action caught the attention of both parents, since each had a son arrested during the roundup and charged with delivery of a controlled substance.
"I guess in the past it's been pretty easy for them to get away with this, because blacks are easy prey," says Workman, a slow-talking man who chooses his words carefully. "Automatically, if you arrest a black kid, everybody says he's guilty, and nobody asks any questions. Blacks don't have any money to get lawyers, so it's easy to get them and send them off to prison. No problem. And they've been doing it for about 15 years."
So Workman decided to do something about it. He decided to fight. Rather, he hired someone to fight for him: Brad Wyatt, a Bryan-based attorney who looks like the redheaded, freckle-faced good ol' boy next door. As Wyatt investigated, he began to see similarities in many of the 28 arrests from that November bust. Most of those arrested were black, most were poor, and most lived at the Columbus Village housing project. Additionally, Wyatt says that although the crimes were alleged to have taken place seven months earlier in April, some of the defendants had solid alibis, including his client Corvian Workman.
"It just so happened that my client, at the time of this alleged drug deal, was at his grandmother's house with about 40 family members in attendance for a birthday party," Wyatt says. "Corvie was actually cooking chicken-fried steak at the party."
Perhaps most significant was the fact that the younger Workman and many of the others arrested had been fingered on the word of an undercover informant, 27-year-old Derrick Megress, who was already on probation for burglary and unauthorized use of a motor vehicle. He is also an admitted former drug dealer. To avoid jail time, Megress testified, he signed an agreement with the Robertson County District Attorney's Office--headed by District Attorney John Paschall, who was also in charge of the task force--to produce 20 drug arrests. In addition to his freedom, Megress also earned $100 for each person he helped bust.
During Workman's trial, under questioning by Wyatt, Megress admitted that he had violated the terms of his agreement with the district attorney's office by using drugs while working as an informant. Wyatt also was able to show that, in violation of task force protocol, Megress had not been in plain view of a task force member during the alleged drug buys. Additionally, Wyatt pointed out that Megress' wife lived at the housing project. He theorized that Megress, once out of sight of task force officers, was able to slip into his wife's home, retrieve drugs he had already stashed there and then bring them back to the officers with the story that he had purchased them from a Columbus Village resident. Wyatt knew it would not be easy to sell his theory to a small-town jury.
"You have these people from whatever walk of life they are from," says Wyatt. "They walk into a courtroom, and they see a young black man sitting at the defense table. And their first thought is, 'I wonder what this guy did.' And when they hear the word 'cocaine,' they start making assumptions. The presumption of innocence is supposed to be there, but in order to get somebody to recognize that presumption of innocence, and maintain it, you got to change the way they think. And it's real tough to do. They have no point of reference. All they know is drugs and black male."
In March, a Robertson County jury, composed of 11 whites and one black, deadlocked 11-to-1 for the acquittal of Corvian Workman. A few weeks after the trial, with the credibility of his informant in shambles, the district attorney of Robertson County dismissed the charges against Workman and 16 other people who had been arrested during the November roundup. Thinking about the 11 defendants who pleaded guilty before he raised questions about the legitimacy of the arrests sends "a chill up my spine," Wyatt says.
Both the ACLU and the NAACP have asked the Justice Department to investigate.
District Attorney Paschall "does have to bear some responsibility," Wyatt says. "He took taxpayer funds, and he expended them on this confidential informant, which was a waste of taxpayers' money. In the end, he did the right thing" by dropping the charges. "But his motives may have been the scrutiny and the fact that he couldn't get a conviction. He had to cover his ass."
But Paschall, who has been replaced as head of the task force, has not been the only official in Robertson County with an exposed derriere. Following the arrests in November, Hearne City Councilman Workman introduced an idea that he believed would deal with the city's drug dealers and users in a more evenhanded way. Workman's plan, which initially was approved by the council, called for the city to spend $370,000 to hire North Carolina-based private security company ShadowGuard to enforce drug laws in Hearne for four months--and to put an end to racial profiling while enforcing those laws.
"From your words to God's ears," says ShadowGuard President Rick Castillo. "Because that's basically what we found. Hearne, Texas, is 50 years behind the times in terms of anything relating to affirmative action."
Castillo found that in a city where African-Americans make up almost 50 percent of the population, there was not one person of color on its police force. In addition to bringing in its own officers, who would have been licensed by the state of Texas, ShadowGuard would have trained the Hearne Police Department in the area of narcotics law enforcement. The company also planned a computer system upgrade and the legally questionable installation of a closed-circuit television system throughout the city to spot possible drug deals going down, regardless of who was making them.
"You have these kids that make a few dollars" selling drugs, says Workman, who is also a Baptist minister. "Which I don't agree with. Meanwhile, the guys who are making thousands and thousands of dollars go free. ShadowGuard wasn't going to leave anybody out. And that scared a lot of people."
Indeed, following the approval of the ShadowGuard contract, threatening telephone calls were made to the home of a black city council member, 69-year-old Thelma Drennan, one of three African-Americans on the five-member Hearne governing body. A week after its original approval, the council took a second vote and canceled the deal. Drennan was one of two black members to change her vote; Workman was the lone holdout. While Drennan says her reversal was based on the price of the plan, she also says she doesn't believe the threats directed toward her ever will be thoroughly investigated.
"I don't know that they will ever look into it," says Drennan, a woman with a fragile frame who admits she was frightened by the calls. "Somehow I get the feeling that they don't care if something were to happen to me. It would just be one more black person gone."
Hearne isn't the only small town in Texas where the actions of anti-drug task forces have been called into question. While those questions don't always have racial overtones, they usually have economic ones--task forces preying upon the poverty-stricken and the young. This January a grand jury in Brownwood, about 125 miles west of Fort Worth, issued 75 indictments involving 40 defendants. The indictments were the result of undercover work, code name Operation Loser, last summer by the West-Central Texas Narcotics Task Force based in Abilene.
The West-Central task force covers a wider area than the South Central task force. Its budget is also larger. According to figures obtained under the Texas open records law, West-Central had a combined budget for fiscal years 1999 and 2000 of just over $1 million. In that same period, the task force filed 433 charges, at a cost of more than $2,300 per case. Some of the busts were significant; last year the task force seized hundreds of pounds of marijuana. But that doesn't tell the complete story. Some of the arrests during 1999 and 2000 were not even drug-related. The arrest record includes suspects busted for Department of Public Safety warrants, carrying large amounts of money, unauthorized use of a motor vehicle, car theft, reckless driving, failure to render aid, no driver's license or insurance and public intoxication. On two occasions, one agent listed the offense as "pending."
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.
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?"
Roberts: "And did he require you to do anything in return for supplying that?"
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.
"She walked out of the courtroom a free woman," Roberts says, "because I don't believe the judge liked what he heard."
Chew could not be reached for comment, but Billy Schatt, commander of the West-Central task force, says Crelia's charges against the officer are unfounded and calls her testimony a typical legal ploy to shift attention away from the defendant. He also defends Chew's and the task force's focus on street-level users and dealers. The task force's priorities, he says, are set by the police chiefs and sheriffs in his 15-county region. What may be a small-time dealer in a big city, he adds, could be a major player in a place like Brownwood. Besides, he asks, "What do they want us to do? Trace it all the way back to Colombia?"
The case of 30-year-old Iletha Spencer, who is also represented by Roberts, in many ways parallels that of Harrell.
Spencer is an unemployed single mother of four children, who range in age from 2 to 8 years. Until recently, she and her brood lived in a federally subsidized house in Brady. In March, as part of 32 indictments handed down from a McCulloch County grand jury, she was forced to move out of the dwelling after she was arrested for selling less than a gram of cocaine to an undercover member of the Southwest Texas Narcotics Task Force based in Junction.
Officer Larry Stamps arrived on the scene last summer when the task force set him up in a unit at a federal Housing and Urban Development apartment complex in Brady. The move was designed to ensure that any drug buys that Stamps made there would automatically carry a stiffer penalty. As part of his cover, Stamps was known at the housing project as Delbert, not Larry.
Spencer was introduced to Stamps by her girlfriend Gracie, who was dating Stamps' undercover partner. Spencer says Stamps came off as the original party animal. Every time she saw him he was drinking; he would show up at all hours of the day and night, looking for drugs and flashing cash at people not accustomed to having much money. Both Spencer and Gracie were impressed with the two new big spenders.
"I saw the money," Spencer says. "I counted $300 or $400. He was always buying beer and stuff like that. They're dealing with people that live in low-income houses, and here this guy is forking out the money. Well, yeah, you're going to think he's cool. But I guess he knew what he was doing. He did us all like that."
Eighteen-year-old Trista Hoard agrees. Hoard's 17-year-old brother, Justin, also was named in the indictments that came down this spring, about nine months after Stamps arrived. It troubles Hoard that a drug task force officer such as Stamps would spend so much time hanging around teen-agers from the poor side of town like her and her brother.
"We all partied and barbecued at this guy's house," says the pregnant Hoard, adding that the gatherings remained fairly innocent and juvenile. "We had water fights. We would just sit out there all the time. Then he just starts throwing money at us. I mean, giving us money practically. And [the police] know that if we're living in government apartments, you don't have that much money. You throw $700 at a kid, what are they going to do? Turn around and say no? I mean, come on."
Of the 32 Brady residents indicted, none was accused of having or selling more than a small amount of marijuana, meth or coke. Twenty-year-old Neal Solomon was among those charged with delivery of a controlled substance--1 gram, to be exact. He is the son of 40-year-old white-bearded, gimme cap-wearing James Solomon, who ekes out a living at SureFed Mills. At the time the Press interviewed Solomon in March, Neal had not yet turned himself in to authorities. Solomon acknowledges that his son has a prior conviction for possessing just over a gram of cocaine. Still, after taking a look at the Brady arrest list, he has a hard time believing that the task force is making the best use of its taxpayer-provided resources.
"There's nothing I can do to get my boy out of this," Solomon says. "But in the long run, when they quit going after the little guys who are just trying to make a buck or two, they ought to try going after people who are making thousands."
It's a sentiment echoed again and again, and loudly by Peggy Parker, the outspoken mother of Iletha Spencer. Parker notes that the alleged drug deals were supposed to have taken place in September 2000, or seven months before her daughter and the 31 other defendants were indicted.
"If they want to get it off the streets," asks Parker, "why don't they go after the ones who are selling it out of their homes? [Stamps] knew some of them, because he was carried to their houses. For seven months he's been doing this, and he doesn't know who the drug dealers are?"
While Stamps and the task force may not know the names of drug dealers higher up the food chain, the residents of Brady are definitely aware of the suspects snared in the busts last spring. All the names were printed on the front page of the two weekly Brady newspapers for two weeks running. Many business owners clipped the box and posted it in their stores and shops. Spencer says everyone on the list is immediately turned away when applying for a job, whether they were convicted or not.
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.
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 lookedyoung 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.
"I was almost old enough to be their mom," Markham says.
From high school, Markham went to working the bar scene in small towns around Dallas before settling into a patrol job with The Colony Police Department in 1988. When The Colony decided to join an anti-drug task force that was forming in the area, Markham was selected as the department's representative, and she was happy to be working drug cases again. But after she'd spent a few months with the task force, department officials decided Markham had been working narcotics for too long. They reassigned her to patrol in 1997. In retrospect, Markham admits that she should have done exactly what she was told. Instead, she signed on with the now-defunct Northeast Area Drug Interdiction Task Force based in Rockwall, something she calls "the worst mistake I ever made in my law enforcement career."
From the beginning, Markham says, she was troubled by the focus of the Rockwall task force. "The thing I started noticing was that they were only going after blacks," Markham says. She also got crossways with her new boss.
"He wanted me to take a load of [marijuana] to Vicksburg, Mississippi, and drop it off there," says Markham. "When I told him I couldn't do that" because it was against the law, "I got fired."
Rockwall task force commander Mike Box III declines to address Markham's allegations. He does acknowledge, however, that the task force's emphasis on low-level dealers and users is merely a response to the concerns of the community. Residents, he says, routinely call sheriff's departments in the four-county area complaining of the drug traffic in their neighborhoods.
After Rockwall, Markham's next stop was the Narcotics Trafficking Task Force of Chambers and Liberty counties in 1995. Once again, Markham found what she describes as racial profiling.
"Basically, it came down to that white America was no longer touched," Markham says. "If you were white, you didn't have to worry much about task forces, because they were going after crack. But it doesn't take any skill to make a crack bust. All you have to do is drive up and roll down your window. It's like shooting fish in a barrel. But the drug problems in these various counties do not just involve black people, and it's not just crack. But that's about all they're turning out now. It's just ridiculous."
According to Markham, the problems in Chambers and Liberty counties run deeper than racial profiling. In 1997, after two years on the job, Markham discovered that the task force members and their confidential informants were setting up people for arrests. She became aware of the practice when she and an informant went to a house in Anahuac in Chambers County to buy some pot. Markham says that while she and the informant were able to obtain the dope from the woman who lived in the house, the woman refused to take their money. Nevertheless, the informant later put in his report that the woman had in fact taken the money. Markham questioned the informant about the discrepancy, but she says the informant told her that it was the task force's standard procedure to falsify statements--that he had done at least 150 cases the same way.
When she took the problem to her superior, Markham says, she was told not to worry, that it would be the informant, not her, testifying in court. Soon afterward, she was handed a list of 22 reprimands and was fired. Markham filed a lawsuit against the task force and eventually settled out of court. She received a mere $8,000, but she refused to cash the check when she realized that one condition of the settlement was for her to remain silent.
Mike Little, district attorney for Chambers and Liberty counties and the task force project director, did not return phone calls seeking an interview.
"I think there needs to be a Justice Department investigation," Markham says. "I think the office of the governor should be more involved in these task forces and look into the corruption, because they are full of corruption, but they operate like the CIA. Nobody ever knows what they're doing, which is a good thing investigation-wise. But accountability-wise and responsibility-wise, nobody's doing anything. Because if anything happens, everybody's afraid they're going to lose their federal funding. So they just let you resign, no matter what you've done. You get a clean bill of health, and you move on to the next task force."
If central casting ever needs a stereotypical Texas lawman, they could turn to Sheriff Gerald Yezak. In his white straw cowboy hat, elephant-skin boots, striped western shirt and creased Wrangler blue jeans secured with a belt anchored by a buckle the size of his fist, the long, tall and prematurely gray Yezak cuts an impressive figure as he enforces the law in Robertson County, the 870 square miles where he has spent most of his 45 years. Rolling along in his maroon Dodge Ram 2500, Yezak seems to know everyone in the county, greeting his constituents by name as he makes his way along the quiet, lazy streets of Calvert, Bremond and Franklin, the county seat.
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.
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.