The Texas Observer Can You Hear Me Now?, 11/8/2002

Feature: 11/8/2002


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Can You Hear Me Now?

Two Years Later, Tulia is Back in the Spotlight

BY NATE BLAKESLEE • PHOTOS BY ARTIE LIMMER

n the roadside billboards and church marquees of the Panhandle, religion is sold chiefly as a form of encouragement, and when you get out on Interstate 27 it’s easy to see why. Heading north from Lubbock, you soon find yourself in what is sometimes referred to as the Big Nothing: thousands of square miles of featureless high plains dotted with little towns whose very names–Friendship, Happy, Progress, Pep–seem to be a defense against the ominous feeling of being a lone body, without cover or companionship, in a plane that big and flat; a feeling of being conspicuously vertical, like a prairie dog caught too far from his hole with a red-tailed hawk circling overhead. Over the last two years, few communities in this area have needed uplift more than the people of Tulia, who have seen their town, and all its secrets, exposed to the glaring spotlight of the national news media.

When the Observer first reported on Tulia in June of 2000, very little had been written about the previous summer’s now-infamous drug busts. Our investigative report was a sort of perfect storm for drug policy reform advocates, neatly illustrating much that has gone wrong with the nation’s domestic drug war. The sheriff of Tulia, a ranching and farming town of 5,000 roughly halfway between Lubbock and Amarillo, had used grant money from the governor’s office to hire Tom Coleman, a gypsy cop with no experience in undercover work, and, as it was later revealed, a very checkered past. Coleman worked deep cover in Tulia for eighteen months with virtually no supervision, during which time he reported making more than one hundred drug buys, mostly small amounts of powdered cocaine, from no fewer than forty-six different dealers. Although the deliveries were small, an usually high percentage of them were alleged to have taken place near a school or a park, making them first degree felonies.

Coleman’s success seemed too good to be true, and it was. In not one single case did he wear a wire, nor did any second officer ever corroborate his claims with eyewitness or video evidence. When the arrests finally came, not one single suspect was found to be in possession of drugs or weapons. Perhaps most striking of all, forty of the suspects were black in a town with fewer than 300 black residents. Very few of the alleged dealers could afford to bond out of jail. Several were known to be crack addicts, people who had neither the money nor the connections to acquire powdered cocaine. In a handful of other cases, Coleman botched the identification of his suspects so badly that the charges against them were quietly dismissed. None of that seemed to matter to the district attorney or to the juries that heard the first half-dozen cases, pronounced the defendants guilty, and handed down sentences of up to ninety years.

Defenders of civil liberties, particularly the ACLU of Texas and the William Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice in New York, flogged the Observer story to everyone within range of a fax machine, and it gradually gained momentum; before long The New York Times re-reported it for page one. Yet nothing concrete came of the publicity–none of the jailed defendants were exonerated (though some were paroled)–and just as quickly the attention of the media dried up. Or it would have, had it not been for a series of columns this summer by Bob Herbert of the Times, whose better-late-than-never outrage resuscitated the controversy. Suddenly, two years later, the black residents of Tulia are once again being asked to give interviews to the broadcast and print media, and so are the local authorities, particularly District Attorney Terry McEachern and Sheriff Larry Stewart, who have learned by now to let someone else answer the phone when it rings. And the wheels of state government have finally begun to turn: Shortly after Herbert’s sixth column on the subject, Texas attorney general John Cornyn–in a hotly contested campaign for a U.S. Senate seat against, it should be noted, an African American–announced he finally supported a state investigation into the Tulia arrests. (He had been begged to investigate for more than a year.)

In September, I made another trip up I-27 to check in on the people I had interviewed on my first visit and to see how the town had survived its newfound notoriety.

ince I last interviewed him in May, 2000, Joe Moore has had a lot of time to think about what happened in Tulia and why. Moore, who was accused of delivering two eight-balls of cocaine (about $500 worth) to Coleman, was the first to go before a jury, and his trial set the pattern for what was to follow. The state began its case at 9:00 a.m., presenting a baggie of cocaine as their sole piece of evidence and Coleman as their only witness. Moore’s court-appointed lawyer called no witnesses. By noon the next day, he was sent away for ninety years.

If you ask Moore how this came to pass, he will begin with a short history of black Tulia. Much of that story–as the 59-year-old related it to me from a visitation booth in Abilene’s Robertson Unit, where he is beginning his fourth year of incarceration–is about sheriffs and highway projects. When Moore first came to Tulia in the 1950s, the sheriff was a man named Darrell Smith. At that time, black Tulians lived in a community just outside the northern edge of town, and Smith used to drive through it almost every Friday and Saturday night. "His main thing was, he wanted us people to go to bed at 12:00. He’d drive down there and if he see any lights, he like to kick the door down." Moore laughed as he said this, showing the six teeth he has left in his giant head, one of them capped by the prison dentist in stainless steel. For all his toughness, Moore continued, Sheriff Smith was honest, and people respected him.

Later, when U.S. 87 was extended into Tulia from the north, the highway department bought everyone out, and blacks were encouraged–with promises of free running water–to relocate to the west side, across the railroad tracks in an area that came to be known as The Flats. John Gayler was the sheriff then, a fair man with a live-and-let-live philosophy. "As long as you didn’t come across the tracks," Moore told me, "Gayler wasn’t gonna mess with you."

Those were good days for Moore, who quit the back-breaking work of loading hay and opened a little juke joint stocked with bootleg beer bought in Nazareth, the nearest wet town. Not only blacks but also white businessmen and ranchers, in town for the cattle auction held every Monday, would stop in to drink and gamble, and Moore was selling 100 cases of beer a week. "Nobody messed with me–my place was wide open," Moore said. He became known as the Mayor of Sunset Addition, as whites called the neighborhood. Blacks just called him Bootie-Wootie.

In the late 1980s, a new highway–an expansion this time of I-27–was slated to be built, meaning the fifty or so shacks in The Flats had to go. "They broke their deal with us," Moore said. Meanwhile a new sheriff, John Scarbrough, had been elected. Scarbrough and his deputy, Larry Stewart, took a different view of Moore’s business. Fines and an occasional case of beer were no longer enough to keep the authorities placated. They began to arrest Moore, something Sheriff Gayler had rarely done. Moore went to prison for possession of cocaine in 1990. He did just three months, but while he was inside his joint was pushed down. When he got out, Moore turned to raising hogs, leaving the hustling life behind. "That was my life: rattlesnakes, hogs, and calves," he said. Until Tom Coleman came to town.

Moore’s chronology throws Tulia’s fixation with drugs into a new light. Beginning with a few arrests in the mid-nineties, building momentum with a school drug testing policy passed in 1996, and culminating in the big busts of 1999, the drug war in Tulia coincided roughly with the razing of The Flats and the black community’s move across the tracks–essentially pushing black and white Tulia into the same space for the first time ever. Of course, the timing also corresponded with the arrival of crack in the tiny towns of the Panhandle, but not with the arrival of drugs per se; Tulians black and white have always had access to them, though perhaps not in proportion to their counterparts in the bigger cities. So why now, and why black Tulia?

"Propaganda is a funny animal," said Gary Gardner, a farmer who lives in the nearby village of Vigo Park. Few reporters on the Tulia beat have filed their stories without a visit to Gardner’s compound, where he holds court from a converted pool room piled high with transcripts, writs, and affidavits, along with the occasional box of ammo. If Moore is the mayor of black Tulia, then Gardner, who hails from one of the area’s original farming clans, is the mayor of rural Swisher county. Critical of the bust from early on, he has now made it his personal crusade to get Moore and the others out of prison. He blames politicians like McEachern for creating the atmosphere in which the busts could happen. "If you’re gonna make your living off the backs of somebody that you want to convict, you have to make ‘em the enemy," he said. "And in Tulia, everything is blamed on the black drug dealers."

That kind of sentiment, repeated in essence on newsstands and in living rooms across the country, has hit white Tulia hard. Almost every week a letter appears in the Lubbock or Amarillo paper from an aggrieved Tulian, protesting the treatment the good people of the town have received. "I feel we have been persecuted, but it doesn’t really surprise us because we know what the media can do to a town," said Glenna Reynolds, one of the letter writers. Recent revelations have not dissuaded Reynolds. Although she said she doesn’t fully support Coleman, she does believe that most, if not all, of the defendants were guilty–including Tonya White, who proved she was in Oklahoma at the time of the alleged drug deal. "I just know her potential for it, with her background and the family’s involvement as a whole," she said. Reynolds did concede that some of the sentences were longer than they should have been, and she hopes people are getting rehab in prison. More than anything, though, she’s ready for it to be over. "I just wish they would allow us to heal and work our way through this thing," she said.

Thelma Mae Johnson, Joe Moore’s longtime girlfriend, wants this to be over, too, but only if it ends with everyone’s release. Johnson, along with her counterpart Alan Bean, a white Methodist minister, has become one of the leaders of Friends of Justice, the local opposition to the sting. She has little sympathy for those who feel the town has been vilified. "When it comes to saying we’ve shamed our community by bringing the media here, I would say that when this bust came down and you paraded those people in front of the cameras half-naked and said ‘Look, it’s the biggest drug bust in Texas!’–it would seem to me that’s what put Tulia on the map," she said.

As was the case with the last wave of media exposure, few have felt the backlash in Tulia more than Alan Bean, who hosts the regular Friends of Justice meetings–attended mainly by relatives of sting defendants–at his home in the center of town. "He’s in danger of losing his white card," as one black resident put it. Bean is regularly pilloried in the local press, where he has tried with limited success to raise the level of debate on the bust. "There’s no logic to the letters to the editor–it’s all emotion," he said. "It’s ‘I believe Tom Coleman because we need drug-free communities,’ or ‘I believe they’re guilty because Larry Stewart is a Christian man,’" he said. But local organizing has born fruit. Following a controversial raid last spring on a graduation party for Latino students, two agents of the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission were fired and charges against several students were dropped.

any of the Tulia defendants have now paroled out and some, like Donnie Smith, have returned to Tulia. Smith was born in the Flats, one of six children of a single mother. He was a star athlete in high school, but floundered after his graduation in the late 1980s, a common fate for many young blacks in town, where the farming- and ranching-based economy has been in a tailspin for decades. Most young blacks now leave Tulia to find opportunities in nearby cities; for those who do not, unemployment is common, as is trouble with the law. By the mid-1990s, Smith was addicted to crack cocaine. But he was no dealer. To support his habit, Smith worked weekends at the cattle auction, where he was unlucky enough to meet Tom Coleman–or T.J. Dawson, as he called himself–one day in the summer of 1998. Coleman befriended Smith, who scored crack for the officer and, according to Smith, smoked it with him on several occasions. Coleman would later put powdered cocaine into evidence in most of Smith’s cases, as he did in almost every case in the operation. (The provenance of that powder, as well as the disposition of the crack Coleman legitimately bought from Smith and a few others, is one of the continuing mysteries of Tulia.)

By the time Smith was rounded up along with the others in July of 1999, he had been clean and sober for six months. His record was also fairly clean–a couple of fights over the years had left him with two misdemeanor charges. He expected to be offered probation; instead he eventually took a plea offer of 13 years.

Smith was paroled after 30 months. He is now living in a short row of public housing duplexes, built on the edge of where The Flats used to be. The big plans for I-27 never materialized, and Donnie’s back patio looks onto an empty flat plain sloping down to the interstate. Shortly after his release in January, Donnie got a job at a meatpacking plant in Plainview. But the work was grueling and dangerous, so he quit after a few months. He now works at Big N Seed Company in Tulia, where the money is not as good. In a small town like Tulia, everyone knows Donnie’s past. His current boss, in fact, is the same man who chaired his jury. But he treats Donnie well. "He’s good people. He told me he wouldn’t have convicted me if he’d known all this other stuff [about Coleman]," he said. Still, some of the others at the company treat him differently since he’s been back. "I haven’t set down and talked to ‘em now like I want to," he said.

Donnie learned a lot during his time in prison: how to light a cigarette using a 220 volt electrical outlet and a lead pencil, how to improve his "coping skills" with his wife and two sons, how to make coffee without a coffee pot. He also developed an appreciation for Louis L’Amour. Mostly he learned to expect less from his town. He did not hear from any of his friends while he was inside, he said. "It was all, ‘You get that money I sent?’" he scoffed. "What money?" Nor was there much help from the state in finding a job or readjusting to life on the outside. "You’re on your own. That’s what I learned." The mother of Donnie’s two sons, Lawanda, recently lost her job at Alco, the discount store in Tulia. She had been arrested in the sting as well, but received deferred adjudication, so no conviction would appear on her record. When she came up for a promotion, a regional manager ran a background check on her, found the arrest record, and told her not to come back. As soon as he gets some money saved, Donnie said, he’d like to get out of Tulia and take his family with him.

hat happened to the other players in the sting? Thirteen of the defendants are still in prison and serving long sentences, despite the fact that the state legislature passed several reforms in 2001 in response to what one member termed "the Tulia fiasco." An FBI investigation announced two years ago seems to have petered out (though the Times’ Herbert was told it was still ongoing). A team of attorneys led by Jeff Blackburn of the Tulia Legal Defense Project in Amarillo and Vanita Gupta of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in New York have taken up the cases of those still in prison. (In a recent victory, an appeals court ordered evidentiary hearings for two of those convicted in the bust.) The governor’s office has reorganized the grant program that funded the operation, putting task forces like the one that employed Coleman under the supervision of the Texas Department of Public Safety. Coleman himself–named a Lawman of the Year by John Cornyn following the busts–has since been fired from two separate narcotics postings around the state and has gone to ground in Waxahachie, where his lawyer deflects the media inquiries that still regularly come, from Court TV to the London Independent.

Local authorities, for their part, have refused to condemn McEachern and Stewart’s handling of the cases or to call for the release of those still incarcerated. That includes Ed Self and Jack Miller, the district judges who heard the majority of the original cases. "The lesson in all of this is that there is no political benefit to ruling for these defendants, and the judges saw that clearly," one defense attorney said. "They asked themselves, ‘Am I going to give up my career for these people?’ And the answer was, ‘No.’" Or as one person in the black community put it more succinctly, "There’s a lot of good, honest people in this community. They just don’t have any balls."

Paul Holloway found that out the hard way. An attorney in nearby Plainview, Holloway took on several of the cases in the original sting as a court-appointed attorney, and it was he who discovered much of Coleman’s personal and professional history. The son of a well-known Texas Ranger, as a deputy Coleman had skipped out on two different sheriff’s offices over the last five years, each time leaving thousands of dollars in unpaid bills around town. In interviews and documents collected by Holloway and other defense attorneys, former co-workers and associates of Coleman’s in both towns referred to him as a pathological liar and a paranoid gun nut. His most recent employer, the sheriff of Cochran County, filed charges on him in an effort to collect restitution and placed a letter in his official file warning future employers not to hire him in law enforcement. Deep cover in Tulia was apparently his last chance to make good. The sheriff in Tulia, Larry Stewart, discovered the Cochran County warrant about six months into Coleman’s tenure but decided to continue the undercover operation anyway. (Stewart would not be interviewed for this story.)

Holloway packaged up what he had found and presented it to District Judge Ed Self in an ex parte meeting. He asked for money for expert witnesses, though he figured he wouldn’t need them. "I thought that if somebody knew about Tom, it would all be stopped," Holloway said. Instead, Self sealed the information Holloway had spent weeks collecting and denied his request. "Do you know what this means, Judge?" Holloway asked. "I understand exactly what this means," Self replied.

"I recall that as a watershed event in my career," Holloway told me as we rolled through the wide, quiet streets of Plainview in his gold Mercedes. Holloway is now running for the office of District Judge Jack Miller, who is retiring. He paused to point out a Holloway yard sign. There were not many to be found. In a county where most of the Democrats are over eighty, Holloway is a realist about his chances of replacing Miller, as he is about the prospects for change in the justice system in the Panhandle. "My kid is 12-years-old, and we just watched ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’ And I told him the difference between me and Atticus Finch is this: At the end of the trial–this complete railroading of an innocent man–Atticus turned to his client immediately and said, ‘Don’t worry, we’re going to appeal.’" But Holloway’s conscience would not allow him to say that to his clients in Tulia. "I took an oath as a lawyer not to disgrace this system, but I knew in my heart they would win no appeals, and they didn’t. If this will be stopped, it will be when the prosecutor puts a stop to it."

That’s not likely to happen any time soon. Under pressure last summer, District Attorney Terry McEachern decided not to prosecute two outstanding untried cases from the sting. One of those defendants, Tonya White, proved she was in Oklahoma at the time of the alleged drug deal. Yet McEachern still stands by the rest of the cases. He would not talk to me about specific cases for this story, citing pending appeals and the U.S. Department of Justice investigation, which, depending on whom you ask, either is or is not still ongoing. "I wish I could tell you my side, because you’d hear a completely different story," he said. Asked if he still stood by Coleman after the dismissed cases, the troubling revelations about his past, and his disastrous record since leaving Tulia, McEachern did not answer directly. "I’ll stand by what ninety-six jurors have found," he said. "I’ll always stand by them."

And so far, the white citizens of Tulia have stood by McEachern. The Times doesn’t carry much weight in this town. If anything has put a dent in the picture McEachern has painted for them of the drug problem here, it might have been another spectacular bust, one that barely made the papers but which everyone in town knew about shortly after it occurred. In June, 2001, as the Observer story was going to press, a white teenager in Tulia told authorities that an older man had solicited sex from him and offered him cocaine. The accusation became a jaw-dropper when the boy revealed the man’s name: It was Charles Sturgess, one of the owners of the Swisher Livestock Auction. Tulia is built around that cattle auction, and Sturgess was one of the biggest wheels in town. Sheriff Stewart, who went to church with the Sturgess family and bought cows from Charles, asked the local Texas Ranger to conduct the investigation. The Ranger wired up the boy and sent him back out to meet with Sturgess, who made the same proposition once again as they cruised slowly through a pasture that night in his truck. The Ranger swept in and arrested Sturgess, but the biggest revelation was yet to come: A search of the truck yielded three-and-a-half ounces of powdered cocaine. In one single bust of a prominent white man–and a completely fortuitous one at that–more cocaine had been seized than in any single buy during Coleman’s entire 18-month undercover operation.

That much cocaine is more than one person can use, which raises several unsettling questions. Was he planning to sell it, and if so, to whom? Who was his supplier? How many kids did he give cocaine to? Tulia will never know the answer to those questions. A few months after he bailed himself out of jail, Sturgess drove his truck out to a piece of deserted ranch property and shot himself dead.

Nobody told Joe Moore about Sturgess’ death. When I gave him the news, he was amazed by every detail–except for the cocaine. Moore has lived in Tulia longer than most; he worked for Sturgess on occasion, just as he had for Sturgess’ father. "I been around hustlin’ and gamblin’ all my life," he said. "I know what someone looks like when they’ve been using something," he said. Moore also knew what a cop looked like–which is why, he said, he warned everyone he knew to stay away from Coleman when he came to town, and why he says he ran Coleman off of his property when he came by to ask for dope.

Nonetheless, Moore will spend his sixtieth birthday, this January, in all likelihood where he has spent his last three–in prison in Abilene. His health has not been good. Prison doctors had him on the wrong medication for his diabetes for months, and the concrete and steel is hard on his back and knees, which are battered from a lifetime of hard work. But he eagerly examines the updates his defenders send him every month, and keeps a careful eye on his parole date. "I’m gonna make it," he told me. "I’m gonna make sure I make it."

A shorter version of this story appears in the November Texas Monthly.

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