The Washington Post
Tulia: Race, Cocaine, and Corruption in a Small Texas Townby Nate Blakeslee
In the summer of 1999, in the tiny west Texas town of Tulia, thirty-nine people, almost all of them black, were arrested and charged with dealing powdered cocaine. The operation, a federally-funded investigation performed in cooperation with the local authorities, was based on the work of one notoriously unreliable undercover officer. At trial, the prosecution
In the summer of 1999, in the tiny west Texas town of Tulia, thirty-nine people, almost all of them black, were arrested and charged with dealing powdered cocaine. The operation, a federally-funded investigation performed in cooperation with the local authorities, was based on the work of one notoriously unreliable undercover officer. At trial, the prosecution relied almost solely on the uncorroborated, and contradictory, testimony of that officer, Tom Coleman. Despite the flimsiness of the evidence against them, virtually all of the defendants were convicted and given sentences as high as ninety-nine years. Tom Coleman was named a Texas Lawman of the Year for his work.
Tulia is the story of this town, the bust, the trials, and the heroic legal battle that ultimately led to the reversal of the convictions in the summer of 2003. Laws have been changed in Texas as a result of the scandal, and the defendants have earned a measure of bittersweet redemption. But the story is much bigger than the tale of just one bust. As Tulia makes clear, these events are the latest chapter in a story with themes as old as the country itself. It is a gripping, marvelously well-told tale about injustice, race, poverty, hysteria, and desperation in rural America.
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TULIARace, Cocaine, and Corruption in a Small Texas Town
By NATE BLAKESLEE
PublicAffairsCopyright © 2005 Nate Blakeslee
All right reserved.
A dozen officers stood outside the Swisher County sheriff's office smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee in the predawn darkness of a cool summer morning on the high plains. It was July 23, 1999, and it would have been a good day to commit a crime in Swisher County. All seven of Tulia's police officers were there, including Chief Jimmy McCaslin. Sheriff Larry Stewart brought every deputy he had available, and the local state troopers had been pulled in off the highway as well. They were waiting for agents from the task force in Amarillo to arrive so they could get started with the morning's work: a stack of arrest warrants several inches high. Each had a cover sheet with the name of the defendant, his date of birth, and a black-and-white Xerox photo of the target. Under many of the photos were notes scrawled in black magic marker: "Cooker (crack)," "Fighter," "Armed: Use Caution!" The notes reflected intelligence gathered by Tom Coleman during his eighteen-month investigation.
Until the secret indictments had come down a few days earlier, none of these men, with the exception of Sheriff Stewart, had even heard of Coleman. Many had still not met him; they just knew that he was from the drug task force up the highway in Amarillo. Like most of the rural counties around Amarillo, Swisher County had technically been a member of the task force for years, but the "jump out boys," as the crooks called them, had seldom come this far south. And no agency of any stripe had ever done a roundup like this in Swisher County. Forty-seven arrest warrants for drug dealing in Tulia! This was huge. Most of the officers assembled that morning had never done a felony drug arrest. Their days consisted mainly of endless cruising around the county's perfectly flat rural roads or the deserted streets of Tulia, getting keys out of locked cars, keeping the drunks in line at football games, making an occasional arrest for DWI. A not insignificant portion of their time was spent patrolling the inside of the cafe at the Tulia Livestock Auction, where they enjoyed cheap coffee and marathon bull sessions. This bust was going to be on TV in Amarillo and Lubbock, maybe even in Dallas. This was going to put Tulia on the map.
The sky was turning from black to dark blue when the task force cars pulled up. A half dozen agents poured out. They were dressed all in black, like SWAT officers. They wore no badges, and their cars were unmarked. Their T-shirts simply read POLICE in big white block letters. Several of them carried assault rifles. Coleman was with them, and a few of the local officers recognized him: a scruffy, longhaired, unsavory-looking character they'd seen around town over the past year. He was the last person they'd have expected to be a cop, but then most of them had never met a real narc before. Coleman had on black as well, and he carried a black ski mask in his fist. On his belt was a pair of expensive-looking automatics. He shook hands with all of the local officers, accepting their congratulations. He didn't need any coffee; he was juiced and ready to go. This was the greatest day of his life.
Freddie Brookins Jr. woke up at dawn that morning, as he usually did, and started running his bath. He lived on the south side of Tulia, which was mostly black and Hispanic. His street was lined with small wood-frame houses, some with freshly painted porches and tidy yards, and others so weathered by the high plains sun and blowing dust that no trace of the original paint could be seen. He had no particular reason for rising so early; he had simply grown accustomed to getting up with the sun during the year he spent working in the country, just after graduating from high school. His father, Fred Sr., kept some hogs and a few calves on a piece of rented ranch property, and Freddie's job was to slop them down every morning and make sure they weren't getting into any trouble. The hogs, in turn, were supposed to be keeping Freddie out of trouble until he found a job of his own, or, as his father was quietly hoping, applied to college. Fred Sr. grew up on a farm, and he considered spending time in the country to be a wholesome influence on his kids. He still dressed like a farmer most of the time, in boots and blue jeans and a ball cap. Freddie's older siblings had spent time tending the animals when they were his age, and they all eventually settled down and found their own careers.
Freddie, on the other hand, was having trouble getting his feet on the ground. After a year or so out on the farm, he had convinced his dad to get him a job at Excel, the meatpacking plant in nearby Plainview where Fred Sr. worked as a line manager. Freddie was assigned to the processing line, where his job was to cut the bones out of a moving line of strip steaks, spending no more than ten seconds per steak. Most parents on the south side of town were pleased if their kids worked at all, but Fred wasn't crazy about his son starting a career at Excel. It was cold, it stank, and the odds of losing a finger or hand were higher than most people realized. It wasn't just that, however. Like most black Tulians his age, Fred Sr. grew up picking, pulling, and chopping cotton, and he wanted something better than manual labor for his son. Freddie didn't really have the disposition for the job anyway. He had a tendency to question authority-a trait he inherited from his dad-and there weren't many environments more heavily managed than a packing plant. After about a month on the job, he got into an altercation with a Mexican worker (Mexicans out-numbered blacks about ten to one at the plant) and that was the end of his career in meatpacking, supervisor in the family or no.
Now Freddie was unemployed. It was not an uncommon problem on the south side of town, but Freddie was a Brookins, and everybody knew that the Brookins worked. Even his grandfather, well into his seventies, still got up every morning and put in his hours on the family farm. Freddie knew that if he didn't find something soon, it would be back to slopping his father's hogs.
As he was stepping into his bath, Freddie saw a shadow move across the bathroom window. "There's people in the yard!" his girlfriend Terry yelled from the bedroom. Freddie grabbed a sheet and wrapped it around himself. Before he could get to the window he heard a loud banging on the door. "Do you know who it is?" he asked Terry. She shook her head. Freddie cracked the door open and saw Sheriff Larry Stewart on his porch. Behind him were perhaps half a dozen men with guns. Men in black with ski masks over their faces lay prone in the yard, rifles pointed in his direction.
Freddie had grown up going to the same Church of Christ chapel with Larry Stewart, where he'd listened to the tall, solemn-faced farmer sing every Sunday. He hadn't said more than ten words to Stewart since he'd become sheriff, and he had never particularly liked him-but assault rifles at dawn? What did the man think he'd been up to?
"We have a warrant for your arrest, Freddie," Stewart said. He slid a piece of paper through the screen door. "Delivery of a controlled substance," Freddie read. He was dumbfounded. His first instinct was to shut the door.
"If you close the door, we'll have to shoot," Stewart warned. Freddie stepped out onto the porch, holding his sheet up with one hand and the warrant in the other.
"Put your hands against the house!" one of the agents shouted. By now the neighbors had come out up and down the street. Freddie couldn't remove his hand from his waist.
"Freddie, I'm not going to tell you again," Stewart warned. Then somebody snatched the sheet off, and Freddie stood there buck naked on his front porch as they cuffed him and read him his rights. The agents began to pull him toward the car. Freddie recognized one of the Tulia cops, a man he knew as Big Otis. "Let me put some clothes on," Freddie pleaded. Otis intervened and took Freddie inside. Stewart and a half dozen cops followed. As Terry cowered in the living room, Freddie got dressed. He still had no idea what was going on.
"Larry, you've known me for years and you've never known me to sell drugs," Freddie said. Stewart's long-jowled face was like a rock. "Well, I don't know about that," he said.
"What do you mean you've never sold drugs?" one of the masked agents jeered. He stepped up close and put his gun near Freddie's head. With his other hand he pulled his mask up. It was Tom Coleman. "Recognize me now?" the man gloated. Freddie didn't.
"Take him to the car," Stewart said.
Joe Moore's house was still dark when the police arrived at 300 South Dallas Street that morning. It was not an impressive dwelling. The exterior walls were made of pocked brown stucco, repaired here and there with patches of white. The detached garage looked ready to fall over onto the rusty car parts and scrap metal strewn on either side of it. An uneven dirt yard was scarred by the hardened ruts of truck tires. The Tulia police had raided this house more than once, though the last time had been years ago. On this morning the jump-out boys left empty-handed; Coleman's prize catch was nowhere to be found.
Moore was out in the country at that hour, trying to make money the way respectable folks in Swisher County had done for a hundred years-by fattening up creatures with four legs and selling them to those with two. For the past ten years or so, Moore had run a modest hog and calf operation on a piece of land he rented from a white farmer about five miles outside of town. He started with no capital but plenty of ingenuity. He hustled cracked waste grain from Tulia's elevators and hauled off surplus milk from a local dairy to feed his first few sows. When he could scrape up enough money he'd buy a calf or two, more often than not some half-dead animal that a neighbor had all but given up on. Moore suckled them with a bottle by hand. The operation had been touch and go for years. On one occasion, when Moore was in the county jail, a fence blew down during a storm and his entire drove wandered off down the highway. A neighboring farmer rounded them up until Moore's girlfriend, Thelma Johnson, could come and collect them. Now he had over 200 hogs in his pens and the longtime labor of love was beginning to pay off.
Moore made his share of disreputable money over the years, chiefly through bootlegging. The local vice industry made Moore notorious but never rich, and he spent most of his time trying to stay out of jail, especially after the rumor spread that he was in the drug business as well. Though Moore was busted twice on minor cocaine charges over the years, Terry McEachern never managed to put him away for long, chiefly because he never caught him red-handed. It was not for lack of effort, however. For McEachern, and especially for Sheriff Stewart, Moore was the one that got away.
His past was waiting for him when he got back to town that morning. Moore parked his truck in the yard, oblivious to the pandemonium less than a quarter of a mile down the street at the small cluster of Tulia Housing Authority duplexes that housed several of Coleman's targets. Phones were ringing off the hook all over the south side of town by this point, but Moore didn't have a phone. He took off his muddy boots and settled down on the couch to wait for The Price Is Right to come on. Suddenly his neighbor's face darkened his screen door. "They're arresting all the black folks, Bootie!" she shouted through the screen. She was gone before he could ask what the hell she was talking about. It surely wasn't any of his people, he thought; most of them were already locked up. Thelma Johnson's son had just been arrested the month before. One of his own sons and his nephew were in prison. He figured he'd better go see who it was this time. If there was trouble, it would wind up in his lap before long anyway. A lot of people on Tulia's south side considered him a sort of godfather, and he was used to people bringing their problems to him. He would head downtown to see what was going on, he figured, and be back in time to watch his show.
Moore climbed into his old International Harvester pickup and headed for the county courthouse on the town square. As he pulled up, he saw a crowd on the lawn in front of the old brick jail on the north side of the courthouse. He could see camera crews and at least a dozen police and sheriff's patrol vehicles, more than he had ever seen in one place in the forty-odd years he had lived in Tulia. As he came to a stop in the courthouse parking lot, another patrol car whipped in behind him. Two officers barreled out, their guns drawn, and ordered him out of the truck and onto the ground. It took three sets of handcuffs linked together to get his wrists cuffed behind his enormous back. "You'll find out," the officers told him as he pleaded with them to tell him what he had done. As they entered the elevator to go up to the holding tank, someone shoved him in the back, sending him headlong into the rear wall of the car and raising a bump above his right eye that would never fully go away. They had the kingpin, at last.
Donnie Smith sat against the wall of the holding tank on the second floor of the Swisher County jail, watching in disbelief as the twenty- by thirty-foot cell filled up with his friends and relatives. Freddie Brookins Jr. was there, and Vincent McCray, and Benny Robinson, and more were coming in every few minutes. They had pretty well cleaned out the row of housing authority duplexes west of the tracks, where Donnie's ex-wife and kids lived. By 9:30 a.m., when Joe Moore shuffled in, the cell was getting crowded. Donnie was glad to see Moore. Although he had been arrested a couple of times for fighting, Donnie had never been accused of a felony. He wasn't sure what he was supposed to do. Moore's warrant had been the same as Donnie's: delivery of cocaine. But Moore didn't know any more than anybody else about what was going on; the warrant just said delivery, not when or to whom. Moore seemed to think Donnie would know. Everybody in the tank knew Donnie smoked crack, after all. "I didn't sell anything to anybody," Donnie kept repeating whenever a new person entered the tank. He hadn't smoked any for months, he told Moore, not since he'd come back from rehab in Lubbock the previous winter.
The irony of his arrest was killing him. He had been so strung out the previous fall, his mother had been afraid for his life. Now, after six months on the wagon, he had found steady work with a farmer. He was lifting weights regularly, trying to get back the compact, powerful physique he had been so proud of in high school. After spending most of the past five years trying to stay high, knowing he could have been busted by Sheriff Stewart at any time, he found he enjoyed being behind the wheel of a tractor again, making money, taking care of himself. Now here he was, stone cold sober, sitting in a jail cell.
By 10:30 there were roughly twenty men in the cell, almost all of them black. Cleveland Joe Henderson showed up wearing nothing but his pajama bottoms, his hair a wild shock of uncombed Afro. Donnie had never seen the skinny, soft-spoken Henderson without his neat Snoop Dogg-style ponytails and tiny rimless shades. Baby James Barrow, Donnie's best friend in high school, was there. All the guys Donnie used to party with were there. Timmy Towery. Chris Jackson. Jason Fry. Troy Benard. Jason Williams. Mandrell Henry. And there were men from the older (and bigger) generation too. Donnie's cousin Kenneth Powell and uncle Willie Hall-Big Tank and Big Bucket, respectively-were there. By the time 300-pound Billy Wafer, sweating and swearing, joined the mix, it was getting hot and hard to breathe in the tank, with no air conditioning.
Excerpted from TULIA by NATE BLAKESLEE Copyright © 2005 by Nate Blakeslee. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Nate Blakeslee, a former editor of the Texas Observer, broke the Tulia story for the Observer in 2000. It was a finalist for a National Magazine Award. In 2004, he won the Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Award for his drug war reporting. Blakeslee's work has also appeared in Texas Monthly and The Nation. He is a Soros Justice Media Fellow. Born and raised in Texas, he lives in Austin.
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Justice is not always fair.
I truly encourage anyone reading this book to know that it is informative, sad, and enligtening all at the same time. This is a crazy world we live in, and this book just outlines a piece of it for us. I am in a relationship with Mandrell Henry, one of the men involved in this travesty, and the story is very real, and heartbreaking.