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 0 15 864821 8

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.

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