Drug Money

Narcotics task forces in Texas spend millions of dollars each year busting low-level users and dealers. Is it money well spent, or are officers just addicted to easy cash?

The West-Central task force covers a wider area than the South Central task force. Its budget is also larger. According to figures obtained under the Texas Open Records law, West-Central had a combined budget for fiscal years 1999 and 2000 of just over $1 million. In that same period, the task force filed 433 charges, at a cost of more than $2,300 per case. Some of the busts were significant; last year the task force seized hundreds of pounds of marijuana. But that doesn't tell the complete story. Some of the arrests during 1999 and 2000 were not even drug-related. The arrest record includes suspects busted for DPS warrants, carrying large amounts of money, unauthorized use of a motor vehicle, car theft, reckless driving, failure to render aid, no driver's license or insurance, public intoxication and the mysterious "missing person." On two occasions, one agent listed the offense as "pending."

The January arrests followed the same pattern as those made by other task forces around the state: The targets were mainly the poor and/or people of color, none of the cases involved much more than a thimbleful of drugs, and the indictments and arrests came down about six months after the alleged drug deals had occurred, a tactic that criminal defense attorney Kirby Roberts believes is used to make it harder for defendants to say exactly where they were and what they were doing at the time.

Roberts, who is based in Junction, hears the same story -- and sees many of the same task force tactics -- all over his part of Texas. In fact, Roberts has stayed more than busy lately defending targets of not only the Southwest Texas Narcotics Task Force but also the West-Central squad, which operates out of Brownwood about 200 miles to the north. Over the past six months, Roberts, a big-boned man who resembles Salman Rushdie, has spent a considerable amount of time driving the two-lane blacktops among the prickly pear cactus on the western edge of the Texas Hill Country on a legal circuit that includes Brownwood, Brady, Menard, Junction and other towns. Roberts himself gets a bit prickly when he thinks about what he believes are the misguided goals and unethical -- if not sometimes illegal -- conduct of the members of the various task forces he encounters.

Junction defense attorney Kirby Roberts accuses task forces of being too lazy to go up the food chain looking for drug dealers.
Steve McVicker
Junction defense attorney Kirby Roberts accuses task forces of being too lazy to go up the food chain looking for drug dealers.
Trista Hoard (center) says undercover officers in Brady targeted kids.
Steve McVicker
Trista Hoard (center) says undercover officers in Brady targeted kids.

Particularly disturbing to Roberts was the case filed against Terri Rene Harrell, a twice-divorced mother of three getting by mainly on $300 a month in child support that she receives from her two ex-husbands. Her economic standing was only marginally improved recently by her marriage to a Texas Department of Criminal Justice guard.

In January Harrell was charged with delivering a gram of methamphetamine to Scotty Chew while he was working as an undercover officer with the West-Central task force. Chew testified that for four or five months, as part of his cover, he often hung out at Lakeside Tattoo on the outskirts of Brownwood, where he spent his time shooting the breeze and helping motorists and cyclists repair their machines. According to his testimony, during most of his encounters the conversation eventually got around to the subject of drugs and if anyone knew where he could get some.

It was under such circumstances that he hooked up with Harrell and her friend Jennifer Nell Spencer in July 2000. The undercover officer testified that when he approached Harrell about obtaining some speed, she informed him that her friend Spencer, who would be coming by the tattoo parlor soon, might have some contacts. When Spencer arrived, she made a call and set up a rendezvous with her connection along the side of a local highway. But when the amount delivered to the meeting place wasn't enough to satisfy Chew, the two women and the officer -- along with another man named "Jerry" in the undercover officer's car -- went back into Brownwood. When the two-vehicle caravan stopped in front of a house, the men in the lead car went inside along with Harrell and Spencer. A few minutes later, the women returned with the dope. Chew says it was Harrell who handed him the plastic packet.

Roberts, however, suggests that it was actually Spencer who gave the drugs to Chew, and that the officer was embellishing his story to add Harrell to his arrest list. What's more important, Chew admitted on the witness stand that he did little to find out who the men in the other car were, or who owned or lived in the house from where the drugs were fetched.

"No follow-up was ever made to identify who was in that house or who the house belonged to," says Roberts. "So there's no question in my mind that [Chew] was just after as many [easy] arrests as possible, and not in actually trying to get anybody of any importance. If he'd wanted to do that, he'd have gone up the food chain a step. It was right there in front of him."

Chew, 30, has served as a peace officer in Texas since 1993. Although he works directly for the West-Central task force, he is commissioned as a law enforcement officer through the Coleman County sheriff's office. He also has worked for the Erath County sheriff's office as well as the Rural Area Narcotics Task Force and others. In other words, he is a gypsy officer -- the kind who task force critics say bounce from one law enforcement agency to the next.

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