The Jump-out Boys

J. Robert Lennon

  • Tulia: Race, Cocaine and Corruption in a Small Texas Town by Nate Blakeslee
    PublicAffairs, 450 pp, £15.99, September 2005, ISBN 1 58648 219 X

On a summer morning in July 1999, a massive drug bust took place in the Texas panhandle town of Tulia. In a few hours, beginning before dawn, the town’s police force, the county sheriff and his deputies, a group of state troopers, and the agents of a special drug task-force had rounded up dozens of men and women, all of whom were accused of selling cocaine – crack and powder – to an undercover operative, a narc, called Tom Coleman. When the operation had finished, 47 Tulians, almost all of them black, found themselves in jail.

At the outset, the bust seemed almost flawless. Coleman, the son of a Texas Ranger and a one-time ‘officer of the year’, had posed as a construction worker down on his luck, infiltrated the underworld of Tulia, and caught dozens of dealers in the act. Among the arrested were some familiar faces that certain Tulians were happy to see behind bars. One was a former juke-joint owner and bootlegger called Joe Moore. These days, Moore made his living raising pigs and cows, but local police still remembered his more disreputable days. He’d been busted for cocaine possession a couple of times in the past, and had gone to prison briefly each time. But Moore now commanded great respect in the black community, and many were shocked by his arrest. A giant man, heavy, broad and tall, he appeared imperturbable and unimpeachable – and yet he was Coleman’s prize, the alleged kingpin of Tulia’s drug trade.

Another of those arrested was Donnie Smith. Charismatic, a former star athlete, he had graduated from high school against the odds. But he was soon getting into fights and taking drugs. A failed marriage and a series of dead-end jobs didn’t help. He was known to be on crack, and to have sold small amounts of the drug.

But if Moore and Smith’s arrests seemed at least plausible, there were plenty of other suspects whose supposed relationship to the drug trade strained credibility. One woman no longer even lived in Tulia: she worked as a nurse in a town many miles away, where she was when the supposed drug deals took place. Most puzzling, however, was the arrest of Freddie Brookins Jr. The son of a hard-working pillar of the black community, Freddie was quiet, plain-spoken and studious, and had excelled in athletics, basketball and football. He was ambitious, and rejected, Nate Blakeslee writes, the ‘gangster culture so many of his peers seemed to admire’. And though he had suffered some setbacks after high school – his girlfriend had a baby, he never got the scholarship he strove for – he continued his education in trade school and stayed employed. He wasn’t known to use drugs, let alone sell them. On the morning of the bust, he was dragged naked from his house, handcuffed, and read his rights on the front porch. Tom Coleman, who took part in the sting, had been wearing a ski mask. He took it off and jeered: ‘Recognise me now?’ Freddie Brookins had never seen the man before in his life.

In a town of only 5000 inhabitants, a town of 20 churches that prided itself on its conservative values, a bust like this represented a major clean-up, a removal from the streets of people whom the local paper, in its coverage of the bust and subsequent trials, referred to as ‘scumbags’. It was a cause for celebration. But many of the defendants had no former convictions, and had never even been arrested. Nobody confessed, and many, like Freddie Brookins, claimed never to have met Tom Coleman. Not a single gramme of cocaine was found in any of the suspects’ homes, even though the raids happened before dawn, waking most of them.

Later that morning, when the county jail was filled with the people he had busted, Coleman strolled past the cells. ‘You niggers quit sellin’ them drugs!’ he called to the prisoners. Almost four years later, as the cases crumbled, he faced the suspects again, from the witness stand. There, he repeatedly perjured himself, lying about his methods, about his past, about his accusations. It became clear that none of the accused had sold him cocaine. The suspects were freed and later pardoned, and Coleman and the town of Tulia were humiliated in the national media.

Blakeslee, a reporter for the Texas Observer, a left-leaning fortnightly, broke the Tulia story in 2000, in an 8000-word article that earned the notice of both the national media and a phalanx of lawyers, whose pro bono work eventually overturned the convictions of the supposed dealers. In Tulia, his first book, Blakeslee displays a firm command of an extraordinarily complex narrative; he draws together the histories of the town and its inhabitants, including those of Moore, Smith and Brookins, and shows that this egregious injustice was not a freak occurrence, but rather the product of years of disappointment, resentment, political manoeuvering and wishful thinking. It is a cautionary tale, not just for this small Texas town, but for every town; indeed, for all of America.

One thing that turned out to be true about Tom Coleman is that his father was a Texas Ranger. The Rangers are an elite division of the Texas state police, known for their bravery and investigative acumen; there are only a hundred or so active at any given time. But Joe Coleman, Blakeslee says, was cruel and abusive, and his son was a high school dropout with a persecution complex. On the strength of his father’s reputation Coleman got a job as a prison guard, but barely avoided being fired for laziness. Still, he managed to get himself made a deputy sheriff and was assigned the small town of Iraan. There, he would pull people over for no reason and wander out of his jurisdiction, then brazenly lie about it. After his father died in 1991, he became a gun nut, collecting a large and illegal arsenal of antique weapons, and over-arming himself for routine police matters, often carrying three guns at a time. He abruptly left two police jobs in order to avoid being fired, and went through two marriages and contentious divorces, leaving his ex-wives in terror of meeting him again. He owed thousands of dollars to dozens of people in several counties. He was said to have carried a KKK card and was widely known as a vocal racist. At his last job before being assigned to the drug task-force that conducted the Tulia busts, Coleman was caught stealing gasoline: he was actually arrested for this while working undercover in Tulia. At every turn, with the help of his father’s friends in the Rangers, he managed to avoid conviction, and his record was consistently swept under the carpet.

Coleman worked undercover without any immediate supervision, and the convictions handed down by the court in Tulia were based entirely on his word, and not backed up with a single photograph, video or sound recording. The only physical evidence was the cocaine Coleman himself presented to other law enforcement officers. So why did so many people end up in jail?

The answer is complicated. Part of it, Blakeslee argues, is certainly to do with race. Few Tulians had any doubts about the defendants’ guilt. The head of the Chamber of Commerce, Lana Barnett, was blunt: ‘We know these people; we grew up with them. And we know what they sell.’ If anything, Blakeslee writes, ‘Barnett felt the system was stacked in the defendants’ favour. She resented her tax dollars being spent on providing attorneys for indigent defendants, for example. “If you can’t afford insurance, then you don’t go to the doctor,” she pointed out. “If you can’t afford to hire a lawyer, then you go without,” she said.’ The chair of the county Democratic Party, Delbert Devlin, agreed: ‘They’ve grown up doing nothing but cheating and stealing and that’s all they know.’ He also said that ‘he did not know of any instance of a white person cheating a black person in Tulia.’

Yet the races had always coexisted more or less peacefully in Tulia, despite the town’s near unanimous disdain for civil rights law in the 1950s and 1960s. Blacks – Donnie Smith and Freddie Brookins among them – had propelled the high school football team to many victories, and the parks, stores and other local institutions had been smoothly integrated. But Tulians believed first and foremost in ‘looking after their own’, and white Tulia resented what they saw as a disproportionate amount of welfare money being given to blacks. However, as Blakeslee points out:

The total tax dollars invested in poverty programmes in Swisher County, controversial though it may be, is dwarfed by the subsidies the county receives through various federal farm programmes. In 1999, farm subsidies totalled $28.7 million for Swisher County . . . which means that almost everybody in Swisher County, regardless of race, relies on a handout of some kind, either directly or indirectly.

Even with Coleman exposed and the defendants freed from prison, many ‘still seem to believe that Coleman had been guilty of nothing more than faulty record keeping’. The idea that blacks were shiftless, drug-dealing criminals, and that whites were merely trying to maintain order and look after their own, has been difficult to overcome, even after hard evidence was put before Tulia in an embarrassingly public way.

It wasn’t just race, though, that allowed Coleman free rein: it was also a culture of law enforcement that had become deeply flawed, in thrall (once again) to government dollars; and a justice system packed with partisans and hypocrites. One source of the trouble was the drug task-force to which Coleman had been appointed, an organisation operating under the auspices of the Edward Byrne Memorial State and Local Law Enforcement Assistance Grant.

Byrne was a New York City police officer murdered in 1988 by drug dealers; George H.W. Bush used the case in his election campaign, during which he accused Michael Dukakis of being soft on crime. In November of the same year, Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, the opening salvo in the ‘War on Drugs’, which has done little to curb drug abuse and much to increase a national prison population that was already disturbingly high. The Byrne Grant was established under the act, and offered states funding for, among other things, ‘multi-jurisdictional task-force programmes’.

These programmes were to be co-ordinated by local officials, not DEA agents. The intention was to get more narcs on the streets. But with no federal oversight, the Byrne money has been misused: in many parts of rural America, it has become a form of pork. Byrne-funded drug task-forces in Texas (known in the panhandle as ‘the jump-out boys’) aren’t subject to the same rigorous training and testing requirements as most other Texan law enforcement agencies, and they work unsupervised and unmanaged. In some sparsely populated areas, Byrne money represents a major source of income to law enforcement officials, and task-forces are staffed, if need be, with inexperienced, unscrupulous officers, in order to keep the money flowing. Officials in Swisher County did everything they could to ignore Tom Coleman’s shortcomings. His references went unchecked, his records were left unopened, his arrest was kept quiet, and the proper reports of it were never filed.

During the Tulia drug trials, some of the defence lawyers tried to discredit Coleman’s evidence by drawing attention to his past unreliability. But the judge, Ed Self, a George W. Bush appointee, would hear none of it. The revelations of Coleman’s unfitness for the job, his debts, his violent temper, his racism, weren’t permitted as evidence. One by one, the defendants fell. Donnie Smith was sentenced to 12 years in prison; Freddie Brookins got 20. Other sentences ranged from a few years to Joe Moore’s stunning 90 years in jail – all for uncorroborated drug sales that never took place. Before long, nearly every defendant had been sent to prison, and Coleman had escaped with his reputation as an über-narc intact.

Almost immediately, a man called Gary Gardner began to wonder about the case. He was a retired – bankrupt, in fact – farmer, cropduster and descendant of pioneers and railroaders; bowlegged, corpulent, straw-hatted and outspoken, he had acquired a reputation in the Tulia area as an eccentric and enthusiastic troublemaker after suing the Tulia school district over its new drug-testing policy, with which his son, Hollister, had refused to comply. At the time of the Tulia busts, the drug-testing case was still making its way through the courts, and Gardner, newly self-schooled in the complexity of drug policy, smelled a rat.

Gardner wasn’t an enemy of law and order and, exhausted from his battle with the school board, wondered if this was a battle worth fighting, and if so, whether he was the one to fight it. But he had read the self-satisfied words of Tom Coleman and the sheriff, and he had seen the humiliating photographs of the suspects in the paper, and the demeaning headlines calling them ‘garbage’. He wrote to all the defendants in prison, encouraging an independent investigation into Coleman’s character. ‘The officer,’ he wrote, ‘reminded me of a cow buyer I knew several years ago whose cheques were never any good and always talked too much about his personal accomplishments . . . I think perhaps someone outside of the local law enforcement system should investigate this man’s background.’

The defendants hired lawyers, who publicised their cases. Slowly, over a period of years, appeal cases were built. Thanks to an avalanche of media coverage, the defendants’ cases caught the attention of an increasing number of supporters, starting with a local trial lawyer, Jeff Blackburn; a comedian-turned-activist, Randy Credico; and an NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund attorney, Vanita Gupta. Their dedication lured a number of high-powered city lawyers to join them, working pro bono, and before long this team had torn Coleman’s credibility to shreds. Judge Self had himself removed from the cases, and his replacement, a Dallas judge called Ron Chapman, proved far less willing to reject evidence that weakened the prosecution’s case. Spectators in the courtroom looked on in astonishment and, at times, glee, as Coleman perjured himself over and over, tying himself in knots to remember which lies he told when. The prisoners were freed, pardoned and awarded $6 million compensation.

Blakeslee is a reporter, not a social critic, and he sticks to the facts. But he makes it clear, in various small ways, that the trouble with Texas is the trouble with America. Faith, he tells us, is king. ‘No church captured the spirit of Tulia,’ he writes, ‘like the Church of Christ . . . the intolerance of the Church of Christ is legendary.’ Anti-gay, anti-welfare, anti-urban, this Christian sect is setting the agenda for America, as it set the agenda in Tulia.

But it isn’t just the politics – it’s the faith itself. Faith is the engine of injustice in Tulia, as it is in America as a whole: not the religious kind of faith, but the kind that convinces people that the world is conforming to their idea of it, however much evidence there may be to the contrary. Blakeslee describes the hapless prosecutor Terry McEachern (who later in the trial was caught driving drunk down the highway with a woman not his wife) instructing a jury on how to determine innocence or guilt:

As was his habit, he emphasised the portion of the law that says that a reasonable doubt is ‘one that is based on reason and common sense’, underlining those two terms for the jurors with his felt pen. Common sense, a notion that appealed to rural jurors, was really what being on a jury boiled down to, in McEachern’s view. He was a master, Paul Holloway [a defence attorney] said later, at ‘changing “beyond a reasonable doubt”, to something more akin to a gut instinct’.

Gut instinct, in this case, was the widespread and long-held conviction that black people were criminals. Remember Lana Barnett: ‘We know these people; we grew up with them. And we know what they sell.’

Blakeslee mentions other cases, tangential to the drug busts, that reveal Tulians’ willingness to convict and condemn their fellow citizens, not according to the facts, but to their prejudices. Most remarkable is the case of David Johnson, a 36-year-old black man, who was arrested for the murder of his white ex-girlfriend’s son. The medical examiner had ruled that the child died of pneumonia, but four years later, after the couple fell out, Johnson’s girlfriend had a dream in which Johnson murdered the boy. This, coupled with doubts about the post mortem (the examiner had resigned amid accusations of falsifying a different autopsy), sent Johnson to prison for ten years, in spite of a complete absence of physical evidence, and medical records confirming that the child had gone to the doctor seven times over four months and had been taking antibiotics for ten days before he died.

Blakeslee mentions as an aside, in the middle of his account of the appeal, that ‘President Bush began his invasion of Iraq that evening.’ Bush is from Midland, just down the road from Tulia. When, after Hurricane Katrina, the rapper and record producer Kanye West accused Bush of not caring about black people, the president appeared genuinely shocked. I was reminded of his denial when I read, in Blakeslee’s book, the words of a Tulia store clerk: ‘I believe we’re equal as far as we work together, but I don’t believe in the interbreedin’.’