The Usual Suspects
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
It began, as many drug stings do, with a lucky break. In November 2002, a traffic cop pulled over a driver ferrying crack cocaine on U.S. Highway 79 into the small east Texas town of Palestine. Police believed they had caught a glimpse into a drug ring that was smuggling crack from Houston and Dallas into rural Anderson County, 40 miles southwest of Tyler. The Dogwood Trails Narcotics Task Force, a regional alliance of local, state and federal law enforcement, promptly launched an investigation.
When the arrests came two years later, residents of Palestine must have been surprised to learn that their small town apparently had more crack dealers than restaurants. On Oct. 13, teams from the Anderson County sheriff's office, Texas Department of Public Safety, U.S. Marshall's Service, and the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) started at 7 a.m. and swept through tiny Palestine (population 17,000) to round up an astonishing 40 indicted drug dealers.
More arrests followed in the coming days. In all, a total of 72 Anderson County residents were detained on various state and federal drug dealing charges. After the arrests, the U.S. Department of Justice put out a celebratory press release that boasted of cracking a large Anderson County drug distribution ring.
"This coordinated effort shows the success that can be achieved when resources and people are pooled together," U.S. Attorney Matthew Orwig said in the statement. Curtis Bitz, head of the Dogwood Trails task force, told the Lufkin Daily News, "There's no question as to whether they did it or not."
An examination of the charges, however, raises questions about the drug bust, especially about the sheer number of people charged as dealers. Could there really be 72 crack dealers in little Palestine? And is it only a coincidence that all 72 of them are black?
There seemingly were at least a few dealers in town. Four of the defendants who were indicted in federal court were allegedly caught with hundreds of grams of both powdered and crack cocaine, and with stashes of guns and cash. If they were the real dealers, what was everyone else doing? Many of the defendants, a third of them with no prior records, are charged with delivering crack to a single confidential informant. None of the deliveries exceeded four grams. In some instances, it was less than a gram, about the size of a Sweet-N-Low packet.
Many of the suspects appear to be poor crack addicts swept up in the drug sting. Charged as dealers, they now face sentences of 20 years to life in state prison.
Yet again, a regional drug task force targeted an African-American population in a small Texas town, charging apparent crack addicts as dealers. All of this brings to mind the now-infamous Texas Panhandle town that has become synonymous with all that's wrong with the war on drugs – Tulia.
In the 1999 Tulia drug bust, a single undercover cop took down 10 percent of the tiny town's black population on trumped-up charges of cocaine dealing. The Tulia scandal, and similarly botched drug task force stings around the state in recent years, revealed two sad truths about the drug war in Texas: It disproportionately targets blacks and Latinos, and it too often entraps low-level addicts and street-level dealers into serious drug-dealing charges. (Blacks comprise 12 percent of Texas' population, and studies show that whites and blacks are equally likely to use drugs. Yet 70 percent of drug offenders in Texas state prisons are black, according to the ACLU of Texas.)
After the abuses of Tulia and other scandals, the ACLU successfully pushed a bill through the Legislature that now requires confidential informants to provide at least one form of outside corroboration for their evidence in drug stings.
All over Texas, federally funded drug task forces, with little oversight from state officials, have employed the same strategy. The task force targets a minority community and sends in an undercover officer or confidential informant armed with public funds to buy drugs. Over the course of a long investigation, the undercover officer befriends a group of addicts. Eventually, the undercover cop asks his addict friends to get drugs for him. When an addict goes to his or her dealer and scores a small amount of drugs for the cop, he or she has stepped into a felony charge of delivery of a controlled substance and, because of harsh sentencing guidelines, could face decades in jail.
The Dogwood Trials task force's investigation followed a familiar pattern. Soon after the November 2002 traffic stop on U.S. 79, law enforcement officials began working with a confidential informant named Othella Kimbrew, according to court documents. Almost all of the defendants delivered, or offered to sell, small amounts of crack to Kimbrew over the course of two years, according to Anderson County indictments.
At press time, the Observer has not uncovered anything wrong in how investigators gathered their evidence, but much of what went down remains hidden from view. Prosecutors haven't revealed exactly how Kimbrew went about collecting evidence or how much of it is corroborated. The district attorney's office says it has at least one drug deal on video tape. Task force Commander Bitz refused an interview request from the Observer. He also wouldn't release copies of the search warrants executed in seizing evidence.
In early September of this year, the U.S. Attorney's office in Tyler chose 16 of the most egregious cases from the Palestine bust and indicted the suspects on various charges in federal court. Among the federal indictments are the four alleged ringleaders of the crack operation, including Riley King, who police believe brought crack to Anderson County from the Dallas-Fort Worth area. When authorities raided King's house, they seized 600 grams of powdered cocaine, 266 grams of crack, a gun, and $7,000 in cash, according to a Justice Department spokesperson (U.S. Attorney Allen Hurst, who is prosecuting the case in Tyler, refused to comment).
The remaining 56 suspects were left to the Anderson County district attorney to prosecute in state court. It seems unlikely that such a large number of crack dealers could thrive in rural Anderson County. Even in high-crime rural areas, only 0.3 percent of the population typically smokes crack, according to federal government studies. In Anderson County, with a population of about 54,000, that means roughly 160 people probably use crack. In Palestine itself, where prosecutors said 95 percent of the arrests were made, the average works out to about 70 crack smokers. That nearly matches the 72 alleged dealers nabbed in the drug sting.
Nearly all of the 56 defendants in state court are charged with delivering less than four grams of crack, according to the county indictments. At least 14 of them have no prior felony convictions, and eight more have had a clean record for at least 10 years. For instance, 43-year-old Ira Mae Gross, who has a clean record in Anderson County, is charged with just one count of delivering between one and four grams of crack to Kimbrew last June, according to her indictment. She now faces a second-degree felony drug dealing charge that could earn her a prison sentence of two to 20 years.
Many other suspects are seemingly longtime addicts. Henry Rhodes, Sr., 56, was convicted of possession of less than four grams of crack in 1995. He has no history of selling drugs, though. He was indicted on three counts of delivering crack to Kimbrew. Then there's Charles E. Barrett, 45, who has a lone drug possession conviction from 1977. He too is facing one count of felony drug dealing for allegedly delivering less than a gram of crack to Kimbrew on June 22, 2004.
Anderson County D.A. Doug Lowe defended the indictments. In an interview, he said that the county suffered from a serious drug problem, and that he was confident all the cases were solid. Lowe said the defendants indicted for delivering less than a gram of crack face state jail felonies, punishable by three months to two years in prison.
Most of the 56 suspects indicted in Anderson County, however, face second-degree felony charges (two to 20 years). Because most of the suspects are charged with multiple counts of dealing crack, some defendants could wind up with decades-long jail sentences. Lowe added that three defendants had their charges upped to first-degree felony charges (five to 99 years) because they were allegedly part of a drug conspiracy. That means three defendants charged with dealing, at most, a few grams of crack could receive life sentences.
Lowe added that he plans to take the first several defendants to trial, see what kind of sentences they get, and then offer plea bargains based on those sentences.
"I'm hopeful that we can give the most serious of the dealers some serious time," he said. After talking with the Observer for about 10 minutes, Lowe halted the phone interview, saying that he didn't want to comment further without the case files in front of him. Lowe said he would call back shortly. He never did. He then didn't respond to four subsequent phone messages left at his Palestine office.
The number of suspects charged as dealers in Anderson County has attracted the attention of the ACLU, which has uncovered task force wrongdoing all over the state and is investigating the Palestine bust. Meanwhile, prosecutors and the Dogwood Trails task force will soon get the chance to prove that Palestine was so awash in crack that all 72 defendants really were legitimate dealers. The first trials are scheduled to begin in early December.
Dave Mann is a staff writer for the Texas Observer.