Drugs

Drug War Overkill: The 5 Biggest Tragedies This Year

Aggressive enforcement of the drug laws can have terrifying consequences.

Photo Credit: Image by Shutterstock, Copyright (c) Katarzyna Mazurowska

In a country with more than a million and a half drug arrests every year, there's a lot of drug law enforcement going on. Sometimes, usually thanks to overzealous cops, paramilitarized police tactics, or reliance on self-interested informants (or a combination of all of the above),  it goes bad. And in too many cases, where the war on drugs crosses paths with the right to bear arms, it goes really bad. Here are five cases of drug war mayhem from this year. The toll: one brutalized toddler, three dead cops, one home owner facing a death sentence, one innocent businessman dead, one pot smoker dead, one fleeing meth user dead. 

1. Motorized Meth Madness Mayhem in Oklahoma

In January, outside Dill City, Oklahoma, an attempted meth bust foretold resulted in the deaths of three people, including two police officers, in an episode that could have been out of the Keystone Kops if not for its tragic result. Washita County Undersheriff Brian Beck, 39, had searched the home of Quentin Lee Johnson, 27, days earlier and found drugs, used needles and a stolen handgun. Beck didn't arrest Johnson at the time, but warned him he would probably be back with an arrest warrant.

When Beck indeed returned to arrest Johnson, Johnson took off in his vehicle. He had already done five years in state prison for possession of a controlled substance. Johnson shortly thereafter drove his car off the road and crashed into an embankment, killing himself.

Meanwhile, unaware that their prey had already crashed, Beck and another cop, Burns Flat Police Officer Kristian Willhight, 36, were racing at high speed to catch him when their two vehicles collided at a rural intersection south of Dill City, three miles from where Johnson had crashed minutes early. Both were pronounced dead at the scene. Neither was wearing a seat belt.

2. Baby Bou Bou Meets the SWAT Team

In May, in Cornelia, Georgia, a Habersham County SWAT team executed a 2am no-knock search warrant for an alleged methamphetamine seller at a single-family residence. The supposed dealer wasn't there, and no drugs were found, but police did manage to seriously injure a two-year-old. As the SWAT team tried to force its way through the front door and found it blocked by an obstruction, one team member tossed a flash-bang grenade through the doorway. The obstruction turned out to be a play pen, which was occupied at the time by Bounkham "Baby Bou Bou" Phonesavanh, whose parents had just moved in with relatives after their house burned down in another state.

Baby Bou Bou had his nose nearly blown off, his left lung was collapsed, and he suffered severe burns to his face and torso. He spent weeks in the hospital, and his parents are now stuck with a million-dollar medical bill, which the county has refused to pay.

The raiders didn't find any drugs or drug dealers, no arrests were made, and a toddler was seriously injured, but Sheriff Joey Terrell stood behind his SWAT team, saying, "Given the same scenario, we'll do the same thing again."

Local prosecutors took the incident before a grand jury, but it failed to indict any of the officers involved. Still, it was critical of local law enforcement practices in the case. "There should be no such thing as an emergency narcotics investigation," the grand jury report said. Baby Bou Bou's family and supporters are now seeking a federal investigation, and Atlanta US Attorney Sally Quillian Yates has said her office is looking into the matter.

3. SWAT Raids Take Another Texas Cop's Life

In May, in Killeen, Texas, Detective Charles "Chuck" Dinwiddie became the second Texas cop killed in a SWAT drug raid in five months when he died two days after being shot in the face by a homeowner whose house he was raiding. Dinwiddie was a member of the Killeen Police SWAT team unit serving a pre-dawn, no-knock search warrant based on an informant's allegation that he had seen "bags of cocaine" at the residence.

The SWAT team didn't find any cocaine—only a glass pipe and a grinder—but when they tried to break into the home through a window they encountered resident Marvin Louis Guy, who opened up on the intruders, wounding three other cops besides Dinwiddie. Guy, a black 49-year-old is now charged with capital murder and three counts of attempted capital murder, and the local prosecutor is seeking the death penalty.

By contrast, a 28-year-old white guy who shot and killed Burleson County Sheriff's Sgt. Adam Sowders during a December pre-dawn, no-knock drug raid at his home was not indicted by a local grand jury for the killing of the lawman. In that raid, cops were looking for marijuana and guns. Homeowner Henry Goodrich Magee, who was sleeping in bed with his pregnant girlfriend, had a gun—and he grabbed it and turned it on the intruders, leaving Sowders dead.  

"We feel that the grand jury acted fairly and reasonably and had all of the information that it needed to make the decision that it did. That is that this was a justified shooting," said flamboyant Texas defense attorney Dick DeGuerin, who represented Magee. "It need not have happened. They could have walked up to his house in the daylight and he would have let him in or they could have stopped him as he left his house to go to the store."

It looks like white guys can get away with shooting cops breaking into their homes in the middle of the night in Texas, but not black guys.

4. Georgia Businessman Gunned Down By SWAT in Drug Raid That Came Up Empty

In September, in East Dublin, Georgia, homeowner David Hooks, 59, was shot and killed in his own home during a SWAT drug raid sparked by the word of a self-confessed meth addict and burglar who had robbed the property two nights earlier. Despite an intensive, 44-hour search after Hooks was killed, no drugs were found.

Hooks was a successful businessman who ran a construction company that, among other things, did work on US military bases. He had passed Defense Department background checks and had a security clearance. His family says he was not a drug user or seller.

The search warrant to raid Hooks' home came about after a local meth addict named Rodney Garrett came onto the property two nights earlier and stole one of Hooks' vehicles. Garrett claimed that before he stole the vehicle, he broke into another vehicle on the property and stole a plastic bag. Garrett claimed he thought the bag contained money, but when he later examined it and discovered it contained 20 grams of meth and a digital scale, he "became scared for his safety" and turned himself in to the sheriff's office.

Hooks' family, however, said that Garrett had been identified as the burglar and a warrant issued for his arrest the day after the burglary. He was arrested the following day; the raid happened that same night.

According to Hooks' wife, Teresa, on the night of the raid, she looked out her window and saw people with hoods. She then awoke her husband, who, fearful that the burglars who had struck two nights earlier had returned, armed himself with a shotgun.

Teresa Hooks told WMEZ-TV what went down in the moments her husband was killed:

"Between 10:30 and 11, I turned the light off upstairs. I heard a car coming up the driveway really fast, and I looked up the upstairs window. I saw a black vehicle with no lights. I saw 6 to 8 men, coming around the side of my house, and I panicked. I came running downstairs, yelling for David to wake up. He was in the bedroom asleep, had been for about an hour and a half. When I got downstairs to the bottom of the stairs, he opened the door and he had a gun in his hand, and he said, 'Who is it?,' and I said I didn't know. He stepped back into the bedroom like he was going to grab his pants, but before he could do that, the door was busted down. He came around me, in the hall, into the den, and I was gonna come behind him, but before I could step into the den the shots were fired, and it was over."

Hooks' family and their attorney, Mitchell Shook, noted that not only did the search warrant have a dubious basis and that no contraband was found, but that even though it was not a no-knock warrant, the Laurens County SWAT team did not announce its presence, but just broke down the back door of the residence.

Just two weeks ago, Shook announced that Hooks had been shot in the head and back while face down on the ground, citing EMS and hospital records as evidence.

"One was to the side of the head, the other, was in his back, the back of his left shoulder, based on the evidence we see, we believe that David Hooks was face down on the ground when he received those last two shots," says Shook.

The death is being investigated by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, and the Laurens County district attorney is awaiting the results of the bureau's report before proceeding further. The Hooks family called on Sheriff WA "Bill" Harrell to suspend all the officers involved, but that hasn't happened.

5. Killed By SWAT Over Nickel-and-Dime Pot Sales

In May, in Tampa, a Tampa Police SWAT team executing a warrant for small-time marijuana salesshot and killed Jason Westcott, 29, after he awoke from a nap upon hearing intruders, grabbed a weapon, and headed for his bathroom, where he had a surveillance monitor.

Westcott and his roommate were both asleep when police knocked on their door. When no one answered, police entered through the unlocked front door. The roommate, who was sleeping on a couch, was taken into custody without incident, but Westcott, who had been sleeping in a bedroom, woke up and quickly became dead.

Upon encountering Westcott in the hallway between the bedroom and the bathroom, two SWAT officers opened fire, shooting him five times with a semiautomatic shotgun and a handgun.

Police claim Westcott pointed his weapon at them. He never fired it. Instead, hit once in the arm and twice in the side, he collapsed on the bathroom floor. He received medical attention from a SWAT medic on scene, then was transported to a local hospital, where he died.

Ironically, the only previous contact Westcott had had with Tampa police was several months earlier, when he contacted them to say he was worried that a man who had been at his house planned to rob him and had threatened to kill him. According to people close to Westcott, investigating officers told him: "If anyone breaks into this house, grab your gun and shoot to kill." Tampa police now deny they ever said anything like that.

In the kind of investigative piece that all too rarely follows drug war killings, The Tampa Bay Times looked into the police drug investigation that precipitated the fatal raid. They found that despite police statements that they began looking at Westcott because of complaints from neighbors, the investigation actually began when a snitch reported that he was selling marijuana.

Over a period of months, that same snitch made several small marijuana purchases from Westcott, in amounts ranging from $20 to $60. The grand total of marijuana purchased by the snitch was less than $200. When the raid actually went down, police found a grand total of 0.2 grams of weed.

Westcott's roommate said the pair were habitual pot smokers, but that they never kept more than 12 grams in the house at a time to avoid felony charges. And he said that the pair engaged in a bit of social dealing, nothing more.

"We would just sell a blunt here and there to our friends or whatever. It was no crazy thing," he said. "There weren't people coming in and out of our house every day," he said. "It wasn't paying any bills. We were still broke... going to work every day."

Police initially said an undercover officer had made the drug buys, but later admitted it was the snitch who had done so. The roommate said if police had made the buys themselves, they would have realized that they were not facing violent drug traffickers, and Westcott might still be alive.

"Nobody can believe that this happened to Jason. They can't understand how this could happen to Jason," said Westcott's mother, Patti Silliman of New Port Richey. "No one can figure this out."

But the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office has already determined that the two police officers who shot at Westcott -- Cpl. Eric Wasierski and Officer Edwin Perez -- were justified in the use of deadly force. And Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor defended both the drug investigation and actions of the officers involved.

"Mr. Westcott lost his life because he aimed a loaded firearm at police officers. You can take the entire marijuana issue out of the picture," Castor said. "If there's an indication that there is armed trafficking going on -- someone selling narcotics while they are armed or have the ability to use a firearm -- then the tactical response team will do the initial entry."

 

 

Phillip Smith is editor of the AlterNet Drug Reporter and author of the Drug War Chronicle.

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