Pubdate: Sun, 20 Jun 2004
Source: Houston Chronicle (TX)
Copyright: 2004 Houston Chronicle Publishing Company Division, Hearst Newspaper
Author: Zanto Peabody
Bookmark: (Tulia, Texas)


TULIA -- Showroom-new SUVs line the nubby roads that intersect Sixth
Street. The vehicles -- a loaded Ford Explorer, a Ford Expedition, a
convertible PT Cruiser, among others -- are the only outward signs of
the renewal of lives lost.

A year ago, the cars were not there. Some of the drivers weren't
there, either. They were in prison for drug crimes they may not have
committed; their convictions were based on testimony from an
undercover officer now charged with perjury.

Last June, Gov. Rick Perry signed a bill freeing those who were still
in prison, but their legal battles continue as they try to get the
bogus convictions expunged.

More important, most of the 46 people ensnared in the corrupt 1999
drug sting have been trying to put their lives back together. Of those
arrested, 38 people, most of them black, were convicted.

For some, there is not much to restore. They live on the most
economically depressed side of a town in a two-decade slump.

And though they may not have committed the crimes they went to jail
for, several have admitted using drugs and some have had scrapes with
the law that previously landed them at least on probation.

Soon they will be rich -- at least by Tulia standards. Swisher County
paid them $12,000 each as part of a settlement for their wrongful
convictions. They also await a decision from the judge in charge of
dividing $4 million among them.

For some, buying cars was one of the first steps in defining their new
lives. Dealers, anticipating the settlement, made it easier by
deferring payments until the money came in. Finding a modicum of
normalcy may be more elusive.

"Everyone is poor, and there aren't good jobs in Tulia," said Vanita
Gupta, an NAACP Legal Defense Fund attorney who argued the cases on
appeal. "The town still has a lot of resentment about the tarnishing
of their town's name, so they are not interested in hiring the former

"And until they have the convictions wiped from the record, they also
do not have access to public housing or student loans to go to school.
Tulia has become the name for everything wrong with the war on drugs."

When Panhandle Regional Narcotics Trafficking Task Force officer Tom
Coleman swept through the Sunset Addition on the edge of town, looking
for a mark who would sell him drugs, he went to the right place. The
area was originally called the Flats, starting out as a cluster of
small homes just outside the city limits where black field workers
lived when wheat and cotton production fattened Tulia.

Over the years, the Flats had become a laissez-faire, hard-working,
harder-playing community. The cozy blocks were the Bourbon Street of
Tulia, where late-night dives offered all types of indulgences, even
though the county was dry.

"People knew you could come out and have as much fun as you wanted,"
said Joe Moore, one of those convicted. Moore owned a juke joint
called The Hotel.

The Flats enjoyed a degree of sovereignty and had its own style of
justice. Though most followed conventional laws, everyone knew that
the Flats not only tolerated vices, it fed them.

By 1998, the clubs were gone and the area had been annexed by Tulia.
In walked Coleman, an undercover narc hired by the Amarillo-based drug
task force to rid Tulia of drugs.

Coleman claimed he set up drug buys. When the cases went to trial,
Coleman said he witnessed the buys, but he had no audio or video
corroboration and no witnesses to back up his stories. Nonetheless,
local juries handed out more than 800 years in prison sentences to the

The Tulia story made national headlines and prompted cries of racial
injustice. Appeals were launched, and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund
filed suit.

Last June, Perry signed a bill releasing those still in prison. Some
already were out on parole. Coleman, whose investigation has since
been discredited, awaits a perjury trial this summer. His attorneys
have filed a motion to have the trial moved out of Swisher County.

Most of those released have gone back to their family homes in the
Sunset Addition. Most remain out of work, except those who moved to
the big cities -- Amarillo, Lubbock, Oklahoma City -- where they work
unskilled labor jobs in restaurants and hotels. Two brothers remain
jailed on a related probation violation.

One died before Perry's pardon. At least one has been arrested again.
Two remained in prison because of other charges.

Drugs still find their way into Sunset Addition. The few blocks that
escaped leveling when Interstate 27 was being built look different, a
little more middle class, than the old Flats. The SUVs dress up brick
duplexes and shotgun houses.

Trailers and open fields sit where homes and Moore's speakeasy used to

In the heyday of the Flats, Moore offered liquor and gambling at The
Hotel. He also pulled cotton and still subcontracts labor for big
farms. With only a sixth-grade education, he became the unofficial
mayor of the Sunset Addition.

He shut down his watering hole in 1990 after an altercation with a
cowboy that ended with Moore accidentally shooting himself in the arm
with a long-barrel .22. For his part in the fracas, Moore was
sentenced to probation and ordered to stay away from gambling and

By the time Coleman came around, Moore made ends meet by working as a
loan shark and working the fields from time to time. Moore pleaded not
guilty to delivering cocaine to Coleman. Last week, he said he had
never sold drugs, only alcohol.

Because he already was on probation with a history of bootlegging
charges, Moore was sentenced to 90 years in prison based on Coleman's

By the time he was released, The Hotel had been razed.

"Most of my old gambling friends are gone now," Moore said. "You can't
do that around here anymore anyway. And my health is going down, so I
stay at home mostly."

In retrospect, some white Tulia residents who now decry the corrupt
arrests said the Flats' heritage made Coleman's assertions easy to

"We knew we had a drug problem in Tulia, and we knew a lot of those
people were not working," said Kenneth Wyatt, an internationally
acclaimed cowboy poet and artist who lives in Tulia. "It was easy to
believe (Coleman). With what we know now, it's easy to believe he
lied. I think's it's time for both sides to take advantage of a second

Second chances can be hard to come by in the small town where
tradition carries much weight. The 5,000 residents of Tulia have
closely intertwined histories.

A handful of surnames cover all of the Tulia 46. Moore once picked
cotton for a farmer named McEachern, the father of Swisher County
District Attorney Terry McEachern.

That's where Tulia resident Alan Bean finds the hopelessness in the
town's attempt to rebound from disgrace.

"The criminal justice system in Tulia, with the help of the war on
drugs, has become a great big welfare system for out-of-work farmers,"
Bean said. "Swisher County was founded on cotton and cattle, but it
survives on crime. Crime is about the only thing that does pay here."

Bean's outspoken opinion cost him a job as a prison minister. He drew
attention to those arrested when he wrote a letter to the local paper
decrying the arrests. He and his wife have given gas money to some of
the free men. They got death threats when they co-founded the Friends
of Justice, an advocacy group for those arrested.

Lost in the aftermath since the release, Bean said, is a sophisticated
view of Tulia's black community and a critical view of law enforcement
as a whole. The "one bad cop" story line plays well in prime time, he
said, but the real story is the prosecutors', judge's and white
community's early acceptance that poor blacks must be criminals if a
white cop said so.

The old Flats stereotype prevails, and some of the newly free
perpetuate it by buying flashy vehicles before they buy homes or even
receive the money to pay for them, he said.

Still, Bean sympathizes with them. "What they have done," he said, "is
taken a dysfunctional community and added another layer of
dysfunction, crushing an already hopeless group of people."

When a visiting judge divides the $4 million -- lawyers already have
taken their $2 million cut -- among the wrongly imprisoned, he will
not solve all the struggles in the Sunset Addition or in Tulia.

Already, infighting has begun among the beneficiaries, who have
started asking questions of fairness. Do they get paid according to
how long they spent in jail, their criminal records or family status?

Thelma Johnson, whose two nephews were tangled in the 1999 bust, said
financial settlements will do little to heal the victims.

"I can't say $6 million is too much," she said. "I can't say it's too
little. I do know that money doesn't solve anything, especially after
you've taken four years of someone's life."
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