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?

During his cross-examination of Chew, Roberts attempted to show that Chew was indeed a dirty cop. While on the stand, Chew denied that he had ever sold drugs himself, or that he had ever exchanged drugs for sex. However, Chew's claims were contradicted when Roberts called Wilda Renee Crelia, who was also facing drug charges, to the witness stand.

Roberts: Let me just ask you, did Scotty Chew ever supply you with any drugs or controlled substances?

Crelia: Yes.

The Brady paper's gung-ho coverage of the drug busts, the suspects say, ensured that they would never work in the area again.
Steve McVicker
The Brady paper's gung-ho coverage of the drug busts, the suspects say, ensured that they would never work in the area again.
Former undercover cop Barbara Markham became disenchanted with the priorities of drug task forces.
Former undercover cop Barbara Markham became disenchanted with the priorities of drug task forces.

Roberts: And did he require you to do anything in return for supplying that?

Crelia: Yes.

Roberts: And what was that?

Crelia: Oral sex.

Despite Crelia's testimony, Harrell was convicted on the delivery charge. But the judge who heard the case sentenced her to probation despite a prior drug conviction. Roberts believes that decision was significant.

"She walked out of the courtroom a free woman," says Roberts, "because I don't believe the judge liked what he heard."

Chew could not be reached for comment, but Billy Schatt, commander of the West-Central task force, says Crelia's charges against the officer are unfounded, and calls her testimony a typical legal ploy to shift attention away from the defendant. He also defends Chew's and the task force's focus on street-level users and dealers. The task force's priorities, he says, are set by the police chiefs and sheriffs in his 15-county region. A small-time dealer in a big city, he adds, could be a major player in a place like Brownwood. Besides, he asks, "What do they want us to do? Trace it all the way back to Colombia?"

The case of 30-year-old Iletha Spencer, who is also represented by Roberts, in many ways parallels that of Harrell.

Spencer is an unemployed single mother of four children, who range in age from eight years to two and a half. Until recently, she and her brood lived in a federally subsidized house in Brady. In March, as part of 32 indictments handed down from a McCulloch County grand jury, she was forced to move out of the dwelling after she was arrested for selling less than a gram of cocaine to an undercover member of the Southwest Texas task force, based in Junction.

Officer Larry Stamps arrived on the scene last summer when the task force set him up in a unit at a federal Housing and Urban Development apartment complex in Brady. The move was designed to ensure than any drug buys that Stamps made there would automatically carry a stiffer penalty. As part of his cover, Stamps was known at the housing project as Delbert, not Larry.

Spencer was introduced to Stamps by her girlfriend Gracie, who was dating Stamps's undercover partner. Spencer says Stamps came off as the original party animal. Every time she saw him he was drinking; he would show up at all hours of the day and night looking for drugs and flashing cash at people not accustomed to having much money. Both Spencer and Gracie were impressed with the two new big spenders.

"I saw the money," says Spencer. "I counted $300 or $400. He was always buying beer and stuff like that. They're dealing with people that live in low-income houses, and here this guy is forking out the money. Well, yeah, you're going to think he's cool. But I guess he knew what he was doing. He did us all like that."

Eighteen-year-old Trista Hoard agrees. Hoard's 17-year-old brother, Justin, also was named in the indictments that came down this spring, about nine months after Stamps arrived. It troubles Hoard that a drug task force officer like Stamps would spend so much time hanging around teenagers from the poor side of town like her and her brother.

"We all partied and barbecued at this guy's house," says the pregnant Hoard, adding that the gatherings remained fairly innocent and juvenile. "We had water fights. We would just sit out there all the time. Then he just starts throwing money at us. I mean giving us money, practically. And [the police] know that if we're living in government apartments, you don't have that much money. You throw $700 at a kid, what are they going to do? Turn around and say no? I mean, come on."

Of the 32 Brady residents indicted, not one was accused of having or selling more than a small amount of marijuana, meth or coke. Twenty-year-old Neal Solomon was among those charged with delivery of a controlled substance -- one gram, to be exact. He is the son of 40-year-old white-bearded, gimme cap-wearing James Solomon, who ekes out a living at SureFed Mills. At the time the Press interviewed James Solomon in March, Neal had not yet turned himself in to authorities. Solomon acknowledges that his son has a prior conviction for possessing just over a gram of cocaine. Still, after taking a look at the Brady arrest list, he has a hard time believing that the task force is making the best use of its taxpayer-provided resources.

"There's nothing I can do to get my boy out of this," says Solomon. "But in the long run, when they quit going after the little guys who are just trying to make a buck or two, they ought to try going after people who are making thousands."

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