By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Almost without warning, she bursts into a flash flood of tears. All it takes is for you to gently scratch the surface of her memory of the time she spent behind bars for a crime she did not commit. Her soft eyes redden easily; her high-pitched voice at times grows incomprehensible, hindered by her thick Honduran accent and uncontainable emotion. "I never sell drugs to nobody," she says. "I swear I am innocent. I swear to God."
She riffles through some papers scattered on her desk until she finds what she is looking for: a crumpled sheet of lined notebook paper. On it is a green crayon drawing, a sad stick figure sitting behind bars, and scribbled across the top are the words "My grandma is in jail."
Yvonne Gwyn, grandmother, naturalized citizen, detail shop owner, takes a deep breath, hoping to calm herself so she can tell her story--an Orwellian nightmare if you believe her--whose particulars hold some of the clues to the enigmatic "fake drug" busts that have scandalized the city, undermined the integrity of the Dallas Police Department and called into question the ethics of the Dallas County District Attorney's Office.
On September 7, Gwyn had been in business for a few months and was struggling to pay rent. To cut costs, she had moved into the back of her detail shop on Fort Worth Avenue in Oak Cliff. She believed it was just a matter of time before Gwyn's Auto Service Center would be making money. "I love to work, and cleaning is my hobby," she says.
At around 11 a.m., a customer came into her office claiming he had just purchased a car from Silva's Auto Sales, also on Fort Worth Avenue. The Honda Civic was for his brother, who wanted it detailed and tuned, or so she was told. Gwyn didn't know the customer, whom she describes as a "clean-cut Spanish guy," but found it odd that someone claiming to be his brother phoned her shop three times while the customer was in her office. He filled out a work order, writing only the initials "D.J." and an address and phone number that would prove fictitious. The customer seemed nice enough; he said he would return for the Honda in the afternoon. But five uniformed Dallas police officers arrived first, guns drawn, handcuffing Gwyn, planting her in a chair while they obtained a search warrant.
"I kept saying, 'What's going on? What's going on? I'm a 52-year-old woman. I've never been arrested before,'" she recalls. "One of the officers, he said, 'You, Ms. Gwyn, you want to be rich too fast. You are going to jail for the rest of your life.'"
She was at once terrified and outraged. There had to be some mistake. She had always respected authority; she had even cooperated with the Dallas police. When her son was arrested on drug charges, she gave an undercover officer information about her son's supplier, whatever it took to help her family, she says. One former narcotics officer even claims Gwyn had signed on as a confidential informant.
Strangely, the police never searched her business; the warrant was issued solely for the 1984 Honda Civic parked beside her shop. According to arrest reports, Officers Mark DeLaPaz and Eddie Herrera, undercover officers within the Dallas narcotics unit known as the "street squad," were working with an informant who claimed that he had purchased a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of cocaine from Gwyn earlier that same day. Although a kilo has a wholesale street value of about $16,000, no money changed hands; the transaction between dope dealer and customer apparently was done on credit. To corroborate his informant, DeLaPaz claimed he had placed Gwyn under surveillance. Through binoculars, he observed her remove a package from the Honda--the same package the informant would later claim she sold him. A third undercover officer field-tested the package for cocaine with positive results. That was all the information Judge Jay Robinson needed to sign a warrant, which when executed at 2 p.m. uncovered a cache of 30 kilos of what appeared to be cocaine hidden inside the backseat and speakers of the Honda. All but a small amount of it would later turn out to be gypsum, commonly found in Sheetrock.
The case had uncanny similarities to a spate of unusually large busts that had recently begun to wind their way through Dallas County courts: same two undercover officers, same confidential informant, multi-kilo dope deals conducted on credit, no guns, property or cash confiscated, no audio or video surveillance, no FBI or Drug Enforcement Administration involvement despite the mega-quantities of drugs seized. Most of those arrested were auto mechanics, day laborers and construction workers who possessed none of the trappings of high-rolling dope dealers. Many of them were undocumented or recent Mexican immigrants who had no criminal records, no money, no English proficiency, and whose fears of deportation might make them less likely to protest too loudly.
Because the Dallas County District Attorney's Office had a policy that no drugs would be analyzed by its forensic lab unless the case was going to trial, any defendant unwilling to risk a jury verdict and long sentence would never know if the drugs he had just pleaded guilty to selling were, in fact, drugs. The only forensic evidence that he possessed a controlled substance would be a simple field test that was never intended by its manufacturer to resolve the issue of guilt or innocence.