Pubdate: Fri, 12 Mar 2004
Source: Amarillo Globe-News (TX)
Copyright: 2004 Amarillo Globe-News
Author: Greg Cunningham, The Amarillo Globe-News
Bookmark: (Tulia, Texas)


The road has spanned five years and countless miles, but the 46 people
arrested in the controversial 1999 Tulia drug sting took a major step
Thursday toward the end of their journey.

The news that the city of Amarillo would settle with the Tulia
defendants for $5 million and the dissolution of the task force that
conducted the sting was met with a combination of joy and
introspection by people finally nearing their objective - justice.

"I'm feeling great," said Michelle Williams, who missed three years of
her children's lives while in prison. "I'm kind of excited. I guess
you could say I'm glad and proud that it's over with. This can't make
up for all they took from us, but it's something to be proud of."

Elation was tempered for many with a recognition that what happened
Thursday was a truly significant event that could have far-reaching

"I think we got to see the wheels of justice turn at their fullest to
get to this point, and right here's the last step of it," said Billy
Wafer, who also was arrested in the sting. "I look at the real
picture, and I hope America sits back and looks at the real picture."

The step toward justice was announced at a news conference held by
attorneys representing Amarillo and the Tulia defendants, who had
agreed to a settlement of the federal lawsuit filed over the Tulia
drug bust.

The attorneys said the settlement, which was worked out over the past
few months, serves the interests of all parties, as well as the
interests of justice.

"What happened here today just shows that the city of Amarillo has a
real interest in seeing that justice is done," said Jeff Blackburn,
lead attorney for the Tulia defendants. "Amarillo is my hometown, and
I've never been prouder to say I'm from here."

For the Amarillo city government, the settlement came down to
protecting the city and its residents from what could have been a
devastating judgment if all 45 living defendants had prevailed.

"The lawsuit had the potential to cause many cities in the Panhandle
to become insolvent," Amarillo Mayor Trent Sisemore said. "It could've
been a $200 or $300 million settlement. Who knows? The sky's the limit
what it could've cost the city. We couldn't afford a hit that big."

The settlement calls for Amarillo to pay $5 million to compensate the
45 defendants. The city also will pull out of the Panhandle Regional
Narcotics Trafficking Task Force, effectively dissolving it, effective
June 1.

Amarillo's position as lead agency in the task force, which has been
headquartered in the Amarillo Police Department, is actually what
exposed the city to the most danger from a large judgment.

City Attorney Marcus Norris said the case law relating to task forces
is not at all clear, so determining who would be on the hook for a
judgment was impossible. A judgment could have been divided among the
30 member counties and cities, or it possibly could have fallen wholly
on Amarillo as the lead member of the task force, he said.

Additionally, any defense of the lawsuit would have required Amarillo
to defend the Tulia investigation, an operation the city has admitted
was flawed, as was the agent who conducted it, Tom Coleman.

"This was not an APD operation, and it was not consistent with APD
standards," said Mike Loftin, an attorney who represented the city in
the case. "The city of Amarillo did not feel comfortable standing
behind an agent who has been discredited numerous times and who is not
the caliber that would be employed by the city of Amarillo."

Loftin's comments amounted to fighting words for Coleman's attorney,
John H. Read, who said his client is being hung out to dry despite
doing nothing wrong.

"That is nuts. That is just absurd," Read said when told of the
settlement and statements made against his client. "They're always
looking for a scapegoat, but Tom is not going to be it. We're not
going to let them do it."

The loss of the task force and the millions of dollars in federal
grants it has brought to Amarillo and the Panhandle will no doubt be
hard to bear, but the city had no choice because the task force model
is inherently flawed, Norris said.

The biggest problem with the task force is that it was supervised by a
board of governors made up of law enforcement officials from across
the Panhandle, Norris said. Because of the great distances involved,
many of the governors had little contact with the task force, leaving
it without strong, central leadership.

"The task force system is simply not up to the standards of the city
of Amarillo," Norris said. "Other governments in the Panhandle have
been reluctant to give Amarillo control of the task force, so a
reorganization would have been ineffective. We have a duty to our
citizens to uphold our standards."

In addition to losing federal grant money, the dissolution of the task
force will lead to the departure of at least two Amarillo Police
Department officers.

The commander of the task force, Lt. Mike Amos, and the direct
supervisor of the Tulia operation, Sgt. Jerry Massengill, will be
retiring at the end of the year - willingly, according to their attorney.

"These guys are not being scapegoated, because they shouldn't be,"
said their attorney, Tod Mayfield. "These are two stellar police
officers who had stellar careers. This retirement, when it occurs
sometime toward the end of year, is entirely voluntary."

Few on the other side of the controversy will mourn the loss of the
task force. In fact, many say the task force's dissolution, and the
hoped-for domino effect with other task forces shutting down, could be
the lasting legacy of the Tulia controversy.

"We have said all along that the task forces were the greatest evil in
this whole mess," Blackburn said. "Hopefully, this will set an example
for other counties and cities across this state, and even this
country. We've got to rethink the way we've gone about this War on

No one can say whether the final outcome of the Tulia controversy will
rise to that level, but on a smaller scale, the approaching finish is
starting to look like a miracle to many of those involved.

"All of us, we give honor to God," Wafer said. "We thank God for
coming in and doing what he did for us. There's so many people to
thank, but you have to start with God."
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake