The Tulia drug bust of 1999 was a major drug sting that occurred in the town of Tulia, the county seat of Swisher County, and subsequently caught national attention and criticism for convictions and harsh sentences based on scant evidence and questionable undercover work. The mass arrests, ensuing court cases, and public outcry were illustrative of the impact of federal drug enforcement funding on a Texas town worried about illegal drugs in a situation fueled by racial division.
Tulia, located south of Amarillo, had a population of about 5,000, including less than 400 Black residents, at the time of the drug bust. Historically, the town’s Black population came to work cotton fields and other agricultural labor in the 1940s and 1950s. Subsequently, “The Flats” neighborhood became a social center for African Americans in the Panhandle/South Plains region, a circumstance that changed when highway development effectively desegregated the community. The town’s declining agricultural economic prospects beginning in the 1980s led to a general dearth of economic opportunity and to a degree of entrenched poverty.
Early in the morning on July 23, 1999, the Panhandle Regional Narcotics Trafficking Task Force, based in Amarillo and cooperating with local authorities, executed a drug sting. Ultimately, authorities arrested forty-seven individuals on charges of drug distribution, of whom the vast majority (author Nate Blakeslee reported thirty-eight) were Black, constituting approximately 10 percent or more of the town’s Black population. The remaining accused were Hispanic and White, most of whom had close connections to the Black community. In the July 23 arrests, authorities found no drugs, drug paraphernalia, weapons, or significant amounts of cash. Those arrested were paraded, many disheveled and half-clothed, before regional news media cameras.
Tulia newspaper reports, including comments from law enforcement officers, painted those arrested in negative terms that seemed to presuppose guilt. The headline in the Tulia Sentinel after the raid was “Tulia’s Streets Cleared of Garbage.” Other regional papers took a similar tone. Many of those arrested did have criminal records, including drug convictions. Some were crack cocaine addicts and small-time dealers. Others, however, had no criminal records and were not involved with drugs.
The roundup resulted from the police work of Tom Coleman, son of a Texas Ranger. Coleman was hired by Sheriff Larry Stewart of Swisher County in 1998 with federal Byrne Grant drug war funds. Using the alias T. J. Dawson, Coleman spent eighteen months undercover in Tulia where he claimed to have made more than 100 drug buys, primarily of powder cocaine, rather than the crack cocaine typical of such a scenario. He subsequently was awarded Outstanding Officer of the Year by the Texas Department of Public Safety. In the course of the trials that followed, prosecuted by Swisher County District Attorney Terry McEachern before Judge Ed Self, Tulia authorities became aware of an arrest warrant for Coleman on the charge of theft from Cochran County. Stewart, McEachern, and Self kept this and other troubling details of Coleman’s background in Cochran and Pecos counties suppressed at trial.
The defendants, generally unable to afford bond, awaited trial in the Swisher County or other nearby jails. Almost all received court-appointed counsel. Defendants initially pled innocent and at trial appeared before almost all-White juries. The only evidence against them was the testimony of Coleman, who, during his sting operation, produced no video or audio surveillance and had no corroborating witnesses. The first defendant, Joe Moore, who had prior convictions, was given a ninety-year sentence. Another, William Cash Love (a White defendant who had a Black wife), received 361 years. Some with absolutely no record, like Freddie Brookins, Jr., received twenty or twenty-five years. Many penalties were “enhanced” due to alleged criminal activity in “drug free” school zones. After the initial trials led to guilty verdicts and lengthy sentences, the defendants began to accept plea bargains and received sentences ranging from one year probation to eighteen years.
McEachern dismissed a few cases, however, due to evidence that contradicted Coleman’s accounts—and Coleman’s testimony was the entirety of the prosecution’s case. Yul Bryant was so obviously not the man described in Coleman’s arrest report that his case was dropped in early 2000. Billy Wafer, tried in 2001, had time cards and the testimony of his employer. In what proved a decisive moment in 2002, a bank receipt from Oklahoma City led to the dismissal of Tonya White’s case.
Such discrepancies bolstered the skepticism of local and area residents, including Gary Gardner, a former highway patrolman, who had begun raising alarms in 1999 and remained committed to finding justice. By early 2000 Charles Kiker, Alan and Nancy Bean, Lili Ibara, and affected family members formed Friends of Justice, whose advocacy attracted broader notice, in part by making lobbying trips to Austin. The Amarillo Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) took an interest, as did Amarillo civil rights attorney Jeff Blackburn, who launched a civil lawsuit against Swisher County on behalf of Billy Wafer.
A major break came when Nate Blakeslee published a feature, “The Color of Justice,” in the Texas Observer on June 23, 2000. New York comedian/activist Randy Credico, involved with the William Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice, took up the cause. Amarillo and Lubbock newspapers began covering the situation more critically. Bob Herbert of the New York Times wrote a scathing series of articles, including “Kafka in Texas” in 2002, and brought further attention to the case. Coverage eventually included 60 Minutes and 20/20 television news documentaries and international media notices.
Vanita Gupta, an attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, arrived on the scene in late 2001. She consulted with Blackburn and soon organized a group of distinguished lawyers from across the nation. She also unified the advocates, lawyers, and defendants exhausted by their struggles. The legal “dream team” filed writs of habeas corpus, last appeals to the Texas Criminal Court of Appeals, which remanded the cases, meaning new hearings for Jason Williams, Chris Jackson, Freddie Brookins, Jr., and Joe Moore. District Judge Self, to whose court the cases were remanded and who was in the midst of a re-election campaign, was forced to recuse himself for writing a letter to the editor of the Tulia Herald and Amarillo Globe-News defending his record on the drug bust.
Semi-retired Dallas judge Ronald Chapman was assigned to the remanded cases, the purpose of which was to decide whether the convicts deserved new trials. While other damning information came through, the primary issue was the prosecutor’s non-disclosure of Coleman’s troubled past in law enforcement, which included the fact that Coleman was charged by his employer, Sheriff Stewart, for theft in Cochran County, where he had previously been employed, while undercover in Tulia. As a result of much troubling testimony, which included Coleman’s perjury under questioning, the state agreed to settlement, the terms of which included vacating convictions and dropping charges against those Coleman had implicated. On June 16, 2003, the convicts won their release. On August 22, 2003, thirty-five convicts received pardons from Governor Rick Perry. Two men, brothers Landis and Mandis Barrow, who had been incarcerated on the grounds that the arrests violated their probation, remained in prison.
By this time, Coleman had been indicted for three counts of aggravated perjury which concerned his lies about the circumstances of his legal difficulties and the timing of their disclosure. After trial in Lubbock, he was sentenced to ten years’ probation and a $7,500 fine, ending his career in law enforcement. The Tulia defendants received a total of approximately $6 million in settlements (with one-third of the settlement assigned to their attorneys) from Amarillo and regional counties involved. Blackburn, who pursued subsequent lawsuits on behalf of the Tulia defendants, won Lawyer of the Year from the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association. Gupta rose through the NAACP and American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to U. S. Department of Justice positions. Federal Byrne Grant funding for regional drug task forces dried up, and some Texas laws concerning rules of evidence and indigent defense were tightened. The Panhandle Regional Narcotics Trafficking Task Force was dissolved effective June 1, 2004. The Tulia drug bust is a significant case of late twentieth/early twenty-first century race relations and legal history in Texas.
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Alan Bean, Taking Out the Trash in Tulia, Texas (DeSoto, Texas: Advanced Conept Design Books, 2010). Nate Blakeslee, Tulia: Race, Cocaine, and Corruption in a Small Texas Town (New York: Public Affairs, 2005). Vanita Gupta, “Critical Race Lawyering in Tulia, Texas,” Fordham Law Review 73 (2005). Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, May 14, 2003. New York Times, July 29, 2002; August 5, 8, 12, 22, 2002. Hans Sherrer, “Tulia Travesty Settled for $6 Million,” Prison Legal News, October 2004. Texas Observer, June 23, 2000. Tulia Sentinel, August 12, 1999. Vertical Files, Southwest Collection, Texas Tech University, Lubbock (Tulia, TX: Drug Bust).
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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.
“Tulia Drug Bust of 1999,”
Handbook of Texas Online,
accessed May 28, 2022,
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