Advertisement

Drug Busts Gone Bad, Then Worse

Share
TIMES STAFF WRITER

The bogus drug busts are notorious: Mexican immigrants were jailed, went broke or got deported, only to have the evidence against them fall apart. The bricks of white powder they were charged with peddling turned out to be plaster of Paris--not cocaine or speed, as police had claimed. In all, more than 70 arrests have come unstrung this winter in a very public crescendo of bad cop work and shoddy prosecution.

Now Dallas is in an uproar. Federal investigators are probing the police department. Scores of drug prosecutions have been dismissed. Two narcotics detectives have been suspended. And a scandal that started in the dingy streets on the outskirts of town has worked its way into the city’s political machinery.

“It’s like watching a slow train wreck,” said Paul Coggins, former U.S. attorney for the northern district of Texas. “We may never know exactly what happened.”

Advertisement

If truth can be gleaned at all, it will be extracted from a tangled constellation of cops, drug pushers and immigrants. The informants blame crooked detectives. The detectives blame corrupt tipsters and drug dealers who, they say, were trying to rip off their clients with worthless products. The onetime suspected drug dealers--who are expected to file a bevy of civil rights lawsuits against the city--blame a vast, racist conspiracy.

Jose Luis Vega was beneath the belly of an old car the day police swarmed into the garage where he worked. It was a sticky afternoon in August, and Vega--a 35-year-old from Mexico who doesn’t speak English--had just finished lunch. Before he could figure out why uniformed officers were rushing into Samuel’s Transmission Shop, his wrists were cuffed and he was squeezed into the back seat of a police cruiser.

“What did I do?” he called in Spanish to a passing officer who looked to be Latino.

“You know already,” came the reply. While curious neighbors craned their necks, Vega was taken away. Charged with intent to deliver cocaine, he didn’t walk out of jail until October, when the 56 pounds of powder seized during his arrest turned out to be plasterboard. With her husband behind bars, 28-year-old Adriana Vega peddled homemade tacos and menudo on the sidewalks of Dallas to pay the bills. “You can’t imagine the anguish,” she said.

Cynthia Barbare, a hometown defense lawyer who roams the halls of justice with a Yorkshire terrier tucked under one arm, has seen plenty of drug pushers. But Vega didn’t seem the type: He bore the rugged face and greasy nails of a man who works for a living. The Vegas share a cramped bungalow in Oak Cliff, a neighborhood of Laundromats, chain-link fences and vacant lots across the muddy Trinity River from downtown Dallas. He drove an old pickup and put in long hours at the garage.

The mechanic and his wife struck Barbare as honest, but it was more than that. The whole bust was peculiar: Who would leave $1 million worth of cocaine in a broken-down--and unlocked--Cadillac on the lawn of an old garage? If Vega were a dealer, where was his cash? Why wasn’t he packing a gun? Moreover, Barbare didn’t understand why investigators swept in and arrested Vega without questioning him--he didn’t own the shop or the car. And after all that, no federal authorities had been notified of the large cocaine seizure.

“There were red flags everywhere,” Barbare said. “If you’ve got drugs in that volume, you want to get at the source. The first thing you’re going to do is interrogate. The second thing you’re going to do is call the feds. That wasn’t happening.”

Advertisement

The lawyer sent the alleged cocaine to a laboratory for testing and hooked Vega up to a private polygraph machine. That, it turned out, was the big break. As the polygraph operator listened to Vega’s responses, he turned to Barbare with a frown.

“You’re not going to believe this,” the operator told the lawyer, “but I just did a case for [another Dallas defense attorney] that sounded exactly like this.”

That was how Barbare began to string the rotten busts together. The polygraph operator was right: The details in the second case were uncomfortably similar. The suspect: a Mexican immigrant. The place: a mechanic shop. The drug: cocaine--lots of it. The arresting detectives: Mark Delapaz and Eddie Herrera, the same duo that put Vega behind bars.

“I knew right then,” Barbare said, “there’s a conspiracy here.”

The day the laboratory results came back, yet another Mexican family trudged into Barbare’s office. A mechanic named Abel Santos was stuck in jail, they explained. The police said he had been selling cocaine out of his neighborhood auto shop. He had been arrested by a pair of detectives who quickly were becoming familiar to Barbare: Delapaz and Herrera.

It was a setup, the family insisted. Somebody had planted cocaine in an abandoned car at the garage, they said, and Santos had been framed.

Barbare and Tony Wright, the other lawyer, spread the word in the courthouse corridors: There’s phony dope out there. Get the laboratory tests. Don’t plead out.

Advertisement

In some cases, it was too late. For months, nobody had questioned the authenticity of the drugs or the integrity of the arrests. Some of the mechanics and day laborers who languished in jail, unable to make bond, claimed they had been framed. But such complaints are common. Some of the court-appointed lawyers urged the suspected drug dealers to plead guilty.

“I said, ‘Look, what do you think the jury will think when it’s your word against a police officer?’ ” said Bill Stovall, whose client pleaded guilty--and was deported--because he didn’t want to risk 15 years in prison with a trial. “He said, ‘I’d rather be free in Mexico.’ ”

By the time winter blew down off the Oklahoma plains, the cases were falling apart at an alarming rate. On New Year’s Eve, as scandal percolated, Police Chief Terrell Bolton called a news conference.

The day Bolton faced reporters, 16 drug cases had been thrown out, and scores more were soon to follow. Bolton admitted his detectives had paid a top informant hundreds of thousands of dollars for tips that ended up leading to phony drugs. But Bolton argued that the detectives should be congratulated for saving unwitting junkies from poisoning themselves with fake dope. “Let this be a warning: You don’t know what you’re getting out there,” he said.

By mid-January, 30 more cases had been dismissed and activists were holding vigils outside police headquarters. What had started out as a peculiar plague of fake dope had grown into a federal probe--and a festering political problem.

Mayor Laura Miller called for an explanation. In the midst of his campaign for reelection, Dist. Atty. Bill Hill is fending off accusations that his prosecutors overlooked the faulty cases for months.

Advertisement

Delapaz and Herrera have been suspended with pay since late fall. Their lawyers say the partners are good detectives who either were led astray by greedy informants or duped by crooked dope peddlers. Under Texas law, they point out, a dealer can be prosecuted for selling any substance he believes is an illegal drug, even if he’s mistaken.

“He’s a good cop and he always has been,” said Bob Gorsky, who represents Delapaz. “We think his name will be cleared, and he’ll be back to work.”

“They’ve been [dragged] through the mud,” added Bob Baskett, a lawyer for the Dallas Police Assn.

The time-honored police practice of buying tips is a risky, and high-rolling, proposition. In 2001, Dallas detectives poured about $500,000 into the pockets of tipsters for information leading to the arrest of drug dealers.

That sum was double what they had paid in 2000, but it was considered cash well spent until the arrests started to sour. What was touted as the biggest cocaine seizure in Dallas County history turned out to be a mother lode of ordinary gypsum powder. In the last few months, prosecutors have tested the evidence, reviewed arrest records and thrown out half of last year’s cocaine busts.

The informant linked to tainted case after tainted case--the one Delapaz and Herrera worked with most--is a Mexican immigrant, like most of the suspects he helped arrest. In total, he has pocketed more than $200,000 for drug tips. That’s $50,000 more than Chief Bolton earned last year. It’s four times what the two detectives took home.

Advertisement

“When I heard that, my eyebrows shot up,” former U.S. Atty. Coggins said. “Unless they handed over Pablo Escobar, you’ve got to wonder. It defies logic that an informant would get that much money.”

But if you ask Glenn White, informants never got their hands on the cash. White represents a Mexican bartender whose signature appears on some of the tip receipts submitted by detectives in connection with dirty busts. But there’s one hitch: White’s client says that he had nothing to do with the arrests and that his signature was forged.

“They used him as a patsy or red herring to dilute their money trail,” White said. “It’s horrifying to think about these people strutting around the streets in their shiny boots and guns, and maybe they’re dirtier than the people they’re supposed to protect us from.”

Since the bogus arrests came to light, the department’s policies have been revamped. From now on, Bolton promised the City Council, all suspected narcotics will be shipped to a laboratory for analysis. “We will do whatever it takes,” he said.

In the past, suspects were jailed, indicted and encouraged to enter pleas, even when the “drugs,” as in these cases, had only been identified by field test, a notoriously flawed chemical experiment done by detectives at the time of arrest. Those days are over. The new laboratory examinations are expected to cost Dallas an extra $1 million next year.

But that’s nothing next to the sum the city could lose in civil litigation. Because one thing is clear: Somebody made money at the expense of people who didn’t speak English, couldn’t pay lawyers’ fees and didn’t quite know their rights. In other words, people who were unlikely to fight back.

Advertisement

“They preyed on ignorance and the inability to maneuver in the system,” said Adrian Rodriguez, district director of the League of United Latin American Citizens. “They picked on easy targets, and they knew what they were doing.”

*

Times researcher Lianne Hart contributed to this report.

Advertisement