Pubdate: Sat, 17 Jul 2004
Source: Houston Chronicle (TX)
Copyright: 2004 Houston Chronicle Publishing Company Division, Hearst Newspaper
Author: Shannon Buggs
Bookmark: (Tulia, Texas)


Defendants Get Share of Drug-Bust Settlement Cash

TULIA - When Billy Wafer fantasized about his share of a $6 million lawsuit 
settlement, he imagined making the biggest purchase of his life within days 
of getting the check. Payday came Friday for the 45-year-old, who was 
ensnared with 10 percent of Tulia's black residents in a now-discredited 
drug bust.

"At first I wanted to buy a house here in Tulia in the next few days, but 
now we're going to wait a while," he said on Friday. "We're first-time home 
buyers, and we just learned that there are a lot of things we need to do 
before we buy a house."

All but four of the 46 people arrested by a Panhandle narcotics task force 
solely on the word of one undercover agent received their pre-tax portion 
Friday of the settlement with Amarillo and 26 counties.

Three of the former defendants, nearly all of whom are black, are still in 
prison because the drug arrest violated their parole. Their money went into 
a trust account.

The fourth died before the filing of the civil lawsuit claiming the arrests 
were racially motivated.

Attorneys took $2 million off the top, and the retired state appellate 
judge who threw out the convictions divided the rest among the 45 survivors.

"Everybody lost something whether it was time incarcerated, time away from 
their families, a job or a house or other material things," Judge Ron 
Chapman said. "I had to be as fair and objective as possible, and, in the 
end, I had to make some subjective decisions in deciding the amounts."

Crash Course in Cash

Chapman, the lawyers and former defendants won't say how much each person 
got or divulge a range - just that each got a second chance and enough 
money to make good on it.

To steer her clients away from future trouble, Vanita Gupta of the NAACP 
Legal and Educational Defense Fund hosted a financial seminar in Tulia days 
before the checks were delivered.

Sitting in a meeting room in the Swisher County Memorial Building bearing 
the last name of two former local sheriffs, about two dozen people got a 
crash course in money management from a New York-based venture capitalist.

Nine hours stretched over two days, however, is not enough time to teach 
more than the basics to the few who had never opened a bank account, others 
in need of general equivalency diplomas and several without jobs or chances 
of getting one.

But their teacher, Melissa Bradley, a Soros Justice Fellow at the Open 
Society Institute, refused to accept a lack of formal financial education 
as an excuse to squander the settlement.

"There is no reason you should not have more money a year from Friday than 
you do on Friday," she told them. " ... You have the opportunity, if you 
put in the time, if you put in the effort, to make this money grow."

That will be a self-motivated enterprise since there's little help in the 
community where many of them grew up and still live.

Small Expectations

Tulia has been a town of just 5,000 people since 1970.

The library has several outdated financial planning books on its shelves, 
including a tax preparation guide from 1995. Three banks serve the town, 
and the personal banker at one has not completed college.

And many residents expect the worst of the former defendants.

Although no white Tulia residents agreed to be quoted, all who commented 
believe most of the Tulia 46 sell drugs despite Chapman's ruling that no 
evidence supported the accusations.

They also predicted every cent of the money received Friday will be gone in 
a year.

Given human nature, some probably will be broke again in a year. 
Considering that most Americans get financial educations exclusively from 
the school of hard knocks, many may make mistakes that cost them dearly.

Long gone are the settlement payments of between $2,000 and $12,000 that 
some of the former defendants received from Swisher County last summer.

Dennis Allen got the maximum and bought a 1990 Oldsmobile for $3,000 and 
treated his two preteen daughters to a $1,700 shopping spree at Mervyn's in 
Amarillo. The rest bought him clothes, paid his mother's bills and secured 
anything else he wanted after spending four years in prison.

"I didn't know then what I know now," he said after the first money 
management session on Monday. "I didn't know about investments, CDs, 
stocks, bonds and stuff like that."

Despite the odds, many of the former defendants want to improve their lives 
and give their children more than they had. For some, raising their lot in 
life is as simple as buying a new truck.

Exits are few and far between on the highways that connect Tulia to the 
Panhandle towns where folks tend to work, get medical care and visit relatives.

If your car stalls on the interstate between Amarillo and Lubbock, you 
won't find trees or buildings on the plains to protect you from broiling 
sun or knife-sharp winter winds.

"If I don't get anything more out of this than a new car, fine," says Tonya 
White, who got a $40,000 GMC Envoy on good faith weeks before the money to 
pay for it arrived. "That will get me to and from my job, and I know I will 
have to work no matter how much money I get."

Investing in Life

Most, however, want to sink their new wealth into something permanent.

Willie Hall plans to open a beauty supply store in Tulia. Others inquired 
about buying the town's defunct Dairy Queen.

Such dreams have raised the anger of neighbors who can't imagine their 
dusty downtown being revitalized by people who don't regularly attend one 
of the two dozen churches in town.

"That people can do wrong and come out of prison with a clean slate and 
more money than anybody else has ever had, that's not fair," says Dora 
Benard, a black resident who prayed on the jailhouse steps for many of the 

Gupta, of the NAACP legal defense fund, warned that investing in Tulia is 

"By and large, folks need to think about relocating and moving to a place 
where the stigma of the sting is not always on their backs," she said. "It 
will be much harder to succeed at using this money to improve their lives 
as long as they live in a place where everyone else believes they are 
guilty people and what they are receiving is not deserved." 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake