Dirty or Duped?

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The narcotics division treated this as a major buy-bust operation. Ten narcotics detectives, two narcotics sergeants and five patrol officers staked out the Jack in the Box. DeLaPaz wore a wire; a police helicopter flew overhead, and a surveillance team was set to capture the transaction on videotape. If DeLaPaz knew this was a bogus bust, his attempt to pull it off so openly was either daring or foolish.

DeLaPaz denies knowing that Ramirez and Licea were day laborers who had been duped into driving vehicles loaded with drugs, fake or otherwise, according to sources close to DeLaPaz. He insists that both suspects knew they were in the middle of a dope deal and claims he was only acting on information supplied by Alonso, who said he was expecting a large shipment of cocaine from one Jose Luis, someone he claimed to be dealing with in Laredo. Alonso also claimed that he and Luis once had a falling out but had now patched things up. DeLaPaz spoke to a man on Alonso's cell phone; he said he was Jose Luis, though the caller ID was blocked. When DeLaPaz approached Denny Ramirez in the Jack in the Box parking lot, according to the arrest report, Ramirez said that Luis had sent them, although there is no audio recording of this part of the conversation.

The videotape makes Ramirez and Licea seem unaware and unfocused, more interested in finishing a soda than delivering 76 kilos of cocaine. Even if these were mules, employees of Jose Luis hired to deliver his dope, losing $7 million in drugs could cost them their lives. Yet Licea handed the van's keys to Alonso, offering to let him drive. It seemed surprising that he would surrender control of the drugs without word from Luis that he had money in hand. Unless, of course, Luis was willing to deal on credit with Alonso, someone with whom he once had a falling out, and with DeLaPaz, someone he had never met. That is, if Jose Luis even existed.

Not that it made a difference that day. Herrera had field-tested the powder and, according to police reports, it proved positive. The operation was a huge success. The media were alerted that the narcotics unit had made one of the largest drug busts in the department's history. Seventy-eight green packaged bricks of cocaine--76,512 grams--were wheeled out for display. Partly on the strength of busts like these, Officer DeLaPaz would be nominated for Officer of the Year; his lieutenant, William Turnage, would receive a promotion to deputy chief. The streets were just that much safer. The Dallas Police Department was on the job.

Two weeks later, on August 27, Assistant District Attorney Long phoned DeLaPaz, say police sources close to the officer. There was a problem with one of his bigger seizures from yet another day laborer, Hugo Rosas. His attorney filed a motion to analyze the 42 kilos of purported cocaine. So far only 1 kilo had been analyzed. It was fake.

Even though District Attorney Bill Hill would later praise his staff for exposing the injustices of the fake-drug scandal in a timely, ethical fashion, in several instances, prosecutors hustled pleas on lesser offenses in an apparent attempt to salvage something from these cases weeks after they knew they were problematic. Defense attorneys would also accuse prosecutors of withholding exculpatory information about their clients' cases, information that assailed the credibility of undercover officers and their informant, information prosecutors had a duty under the law to disclose.

Truth is, if not for the work of a few determined criminal lawyers, these defendants would have languished in jail much longer than the several months they had already spent. One of these attorneys was Cynthia Barbare, who had little more to go on than a gut feeling, she says, a strong hunch that things didn't add up. But there was something about her client Jose Vega that convinced her that he had been framed. It might have been the distraught plea of Adriana Vega, who swore her husband was innocent when arrested for possessing 25 kilos of cocaine on his job as a mechanic in Oak Cliff. Or it might have been the look of Vega's hands when Barbare visited him in jail--greasy fingers, broken nails, the look of a working man, not a drug dealer.

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Mark Donald
Contact: Mark Donald