By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
He looks like a good cop. He's got the 'stache, the short-cropped hair, the pushed-out chest and the shiny badge. He sounds like a good cop too; drawled and official. He's got a TV reporter's microphone in his face and a brick of marijuana in his hand, and he's answering questions—not in the "I just accidentally Tasered an old lady" kind of way, but with a grin of accomplishment. The total bust was in the neighborhood of 275 pounds.
This is the old Barry Cooper. Top cop. Total prick. He claims more than 300 felony drug arrests during his eight years as an officer in Gladewater, Big Sandy and Odessa, and a former supervisor says he was damn good at his job, even if he doesn't agree with Cooper's latest get-rich idea.
The video cuts to a decade later, a few months ago. "That was me, Barry Cooper," he says, "top narcotics officer." His hair is longer. That 'stache is now a full-on goatee. The top cop has become a dude. "I'm going to show you places that I never found marijuana hidden." He talks with his hands, like a mellowed-out P.T. Barnum. "I'm going to teach you exactly how narcotic-detector dogs are trained, and I'm going to answer that age-old question: Do coffee grounds really work?"
It's quite the pitch: Former drug warrior sees the light, goes to the dark side and makes a video, Never Get Busted Again, with shady tips on how to fool the fuzz. Stoners rejoice. The new beginning of the end of prohibition is near.
"The drug war is a failed policy, and the legal side effects on the families are worse than the drugs," Cooper says. "I was so wrong in the things I did back then. I ruined lives."
Cooper now sees himself as the new face of marijuana reform, and he just might be right. He's got the credentials. He's got the charisma. He's got the shiny new DVD. Sure, his former colleagues don't approve, but that's to be expected. What's surprising is that Cooper has also managed to piss off some of the old guard, the hippies-turned-reformers who've been knocking on the back door for years, chipping away at the legal system with talk of medical marijuana and overcrowded prisons. He's a Johnny-come-lately, they say, an ex-narc looking to make a fast buck. He claims he doesn't understand why they're against him, but he's confident he'll eventually lead the flock:
"The people who take the time to know me will get on my side."
"When I was 5 years old, I specifically remember being in the backyard and it really felt like I had tens of thousands of people behind me, and I was leading them, and they were following me because they liked me, not because they had to," says Cooper, sitting on a couch in the living room of his three-bedroom house in Big Sandy, one of those small, pine-covered towns between Tyler and Longview. His wife and their four kids—two his and two hers—are huddled together in a warm pile on the other couch. Earlier today, he told one daughter he liked her hair, although he wished she would've used more blue; the pink was a tad overwhelming. "I want to be a freedom fighter," he says. "I want to help people get out of jail."
Cooper says he's always felt like he was meant to lead an army, but before he dreamt up Never Get Busted Again, he'd begun to think his chance had passed. He'd been a good cop. "He was hard-working, and he was talented," says Tom Finley, a private investigator in Midland who used to be a supervisor with the Permian Basin Drug Task Force, where Cooper worked between stints in East Texas. "He had trained his own dog. He was good. He made a lot of arrests and found a lot of drugs on the highway." But Cooper wound up on the wrong side of small-town politics—busting a mayor's son for meth and a councilman for pot didn't help—so he left law enforcement in 1996 to pursue two other ventures: selling used cars and preaching the gospel.
His larger-than-life persona and big, toothy grin served him well. "I was making more money in cars in a week than I'd make in a month for the police department," he says. "Everything I do, I make money on. That's my gift." As for the preaching, he had a congregation for six years, although he's reluctant to provide many details, save for abstract talk about how it ended: "The best I can tell, the Bible, it's about love and being friendly and being kind, and the meanest people you'll ever meet in your life are at church."