Wednesday, January 26, 2022 Jan 26, 2022
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Drug Lies and Saved Lives

With a trusted snitch, Dallas undercover cop Mark De la Paz and his partner were racking up some of the biggest drug busts in the city’s history. Except the men they arrested weren’t guilty, and the drugs they seized weren’t drugs at all. Enter defense at
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SCENE OF THE CRIME?
It was a typical day for Jose Vega until the cops showed up at the Oak Cliff garage where he worked.

Barbare developed a
reputation in the Hispanic community as a woman who could help them
when they ran afoul of the law. Her office is decorated with sacred
Angel de la Guardia candles, gifts from grateful clients. In the
process, Barbare got a better understanding of the culture among poor
Mexican immigrants, especially those here illegally. “They get seduced
by illegal activities,” she says. “But it doesn’t mean they are bad or
not salvageable.”

Barbare swings
through the fifth floor of the Frank Crowley Courthouse for morning
docket call at drug court. She puts a hand on clients’ shoulders and
uses her limited Spanish to reassure them and their accompanying
mothers, wives, and girlfriends that everything will be okay.

But it would take
more than a compassionate gesture to soothe Adriana Vega when she sat
in Barbare’s office last August, spilling out her story in Spanish
between sobs. The 28-year-old with long, black hair said her husband
Jose had been charged with selling cocaine. But he was an auto
mechanic, Adriana explained, not a drug dealer.

“Maybe
you didn’t know,” Barbare suggested gently. Few defendants admit they
are guilty until confronted with the unpleasant facts that will be
thrown at them by the prosecutors at the district attorney’s office.

“No, it’s not true,” Adriana insisted. Other attorneys had simply laughed at her. At least Barbare didn’t laugh.

The man who shook
Barbare’s hand at the jail was stocky, just under 6 feet tall, with
brown eyes, thick hair, and a bushy mustache. Seeing fear and anger in
his eyes, Barbare looked at his hands. His nails were grimy and his
fingers cracked—hands of a mechanic, not a dope dealer.

Legal residents,
Jose, 34, and Adriana had married in 1999. Barbare’s investigator had
visited the house they are buying in Oak Cliff for $700 a month. They
had one old car and none of the toys, such as big-screen TVs, beloved
by dope dealers. In jail on a $500,000 bond, Vega had no hope of
getting out on bail. Adriana’s mother, who works a nacho pushcart, sold
a small piece of property to pay a portion of Barbare’s fee.

Vega worked six
days a week at an Oak Cliff garage, making about $600 a week. He told
Barbare that after lunch on Aug. 16, he was under a vehicle when two
police officers walked in. They handcuffed Vega and had him look toward
the street as a black car drove by slowly, window halfway down, as if
someone inside were looking at him. On the way to jail, Vega asked a
Spanish-speaking officer why he was being arrested.

“You know,”
was the only answer. Later, Vega was stunned to learn that 23 kilos
(about 50 pounds) of cocaine had been found in a junk car at the
garage. He pleaded with Barbare: “I am innocent.” She wondered what he
wasn’t telling her.

Barbare knew little
about undercover cop Mark De la Paz, the primary arresting officer, but
she respected him. As a narc agent, De la Paz is one of DPD’s elite.
Working undercover narcotics is one of the most coveted jobs on the
force, with an enormous amount of freedom. “In narcotics, you generate
your offenses,” says one retired narcotics officer. “You control it
from start to end. It makes you feel like you’re doing some good.” The
spoils aren’t bad, either. They drive vehicles seized from drug
dealers, everything from SUVs to Porsches.

But narcotics
undercover work also presents temptations, including large cash
seizures. Many agencies force officers to rotate out of narcotics every
few years. In 1975, DPD reassigned all but five narcotics officers,
keeping only the newest. “They were passing bad habits down,” says a
former detective. But in the last decade, DPD stopped rotating officers
out.

Since joining the force
in 1990 at age 22, De la Paz had worked narcotics for 11 years. His
wife Catherine had also worked narcotics until a botched drug sting in
1991 led to her partner’s death. She now works in another division. But
in recent years, things seemed to be going well for the two detectives,
who have two children. They bought a few acres in the country and built
a house, with a pool, valued at $250,000. With combined base salaries
of about $90,000 a year, plus overtime and off-duty security jobs, they
could easily bring in $120,000 or more.

De la Paz, 34, had
built a reputation as a detective who, as one retired cop who knows him
says, “wouldn’t steal a peanut”—steady if unspectacular, known mostly
for his just-the-facts accounts of drug buys from small-time pushers
and dope addicts. At only 5 feet 6 inches, De la Paz opts for a
clean-cut look rather than the long hair, stubble, and earring one
expects undercover cops to have.

To arrest Vega,
Barbare knew De la Paz had relied on one of his confidential
informants, or CIs, dealers who are busted by cops and squeezed by
prosecutors to work off their cases by setting up buys and helping bust
other dealers. A few informants turn professional, making money by
working for the cops. Like all narcotics officers, De la Paz knows he’s
only as good as his CI. In early 2001, rumor among defense attorneys
was that De la Paz had a good one, a well-connected Mexican dope dealer
who turned CI.

In the events
leading up to his arrest, Vega supposedly had given the CI, who had
never done business with him before, a kilo of cocaine, with a street
value of as much as $18,000, on credit. De la Paz had seized no cash or
guns from Vega, nor had he interrogated him. If Vega were a drug
dealer, he wasn’t a very good one.

Gut instinct told
Barbare that Vega was innocent. “What’s the first thing you do?”
Barbare says, playing devil’s advocate and presuming Vega had something
to hide. “Scare the hell out of him. You try to get to the hierarchy of
the organization.”

But her associate
Rob Simmons was still skeptical. Why would the police charge Vega with
such a serious offense if he were not involved? Barbare asked her
client to take a polygraph test.

“Let’s
do it today,” Vega said. He was eager to get out of jail, away from the
incessant noise and bad food. Plus, every day Jose sat in jail was a
day closer to the Vegas losing their house. Adriana and her mother were
having to make menudo every day and sell it to restaurants to make
extra money.

On Sept. 26, Vega
passed a lie-detector test, but that wasn’t the surprise. Polygraph
examiner Joe Morris asked Barbare if Vega was a co-defendant.

“No,” Barbare said.

“Well,”
Morris said, “I just polygraphed a guy in a case that’s a mirror
image.” A mechanic, Spanish-speaking, no interrogation, no seizures,
dope on credit. And when the suspect asked why he was in handcuffs, the
arresting officer would only tell him, “You know.”

In a twist of fate,
the sister of yet another mechanic, Abel Santos, came to see Barbare.
Arrested by De la Paz for selling 12 kilos (about 26 pounds) of
cocaine, Santos had a criminal record for burglary, was living in the
United States illegally, and spoke no English. Though prosecutors had
only the uncorroborated testimony of a CI, Santos’ court-appointed
attorney had encouraged him to plead guilty in exchange for a reduced
sentence. Facing deportation, insisting he was innocent, Santos had
refused. The attorney had reluctantly scheduled the case for trial,
knowing that the odds of an acquittal were against Santos. Ninety
percent of those who go to trial in drug court are convicted.

After Barbare read
the police affidavit on Santos’ arrest, she felt a rush of
exhilaration. She handed her associate Simmons the affidavit for the
arrest warrant. Except for the names and addresses, it was almost
identical to Vega’s.

“Oh, my God,” Simmons said, now convinced Barbare’s gut instinct was right.

Barbare talked to
Santos’ attorney, who seemed relieved she wanted to take over. “They
don’t pay me enough to fight these cases,” said the attorney. Even when
the clients face years in prison, court-appointed attorneys typically
are paid only $500 to $1,000 to handle their cases, not enough to mount
an aggressive defense. “You’ve got an innocent man in jail,” a furious
Barbare told her. “How can you have that attitude?”

Barbare contacted Tony
Wright, a crusty defense attorney who grew up in Oak Cliff. His client
was Jacinto Mejia, another mechanic, this one accused of possession
with intent to distribute. Mejia was the accused drug dealer whose case
polygrapher Joe Morris had called a carbon copy of Vega’s.

Two cases with such
striking resemblance could be passed off as eerie coincidence. Three
cases implied something closer to a conspiracy. Like Barbare, Wright
was convinced that his client was innocent, but the prosecutor had
refused to give Mejia a polygraph. “It would open the floodgates,” she
said. When Wright persisted, drug court supervisor Gregg Long stepped
in.

“The
informant is credible, and the officers are longtime, highly respected
officers,” Long told him. The DA’s offer: 15 years and deportation.
When Barbare called, Wright was fuming.

“I’m on to something,” Barbare told him.

“Baby,
tell me what you know,” Wright said in his flippant drawl. When she
pointed out the similarities in the two cases, Wright was dumfounded.

“You’re shittin’ me,” were his exact words.

Barbare and Wright
began putting the word out to attorneys in drug court. How many other
men were in jail, put there on the word of an informant whom no one
knew?

Enrique Martinez
Alonso was De la Paz’s star confidential informant. De la Paz had
busted Alonso and another man, Jose Ruiz, for two large drug buys in
June and July 1999. Then 41, Alonso had been living in the United
States since the ’70s. Known on the streets as David, he’d been dealing
dope for years. Impulsive and charismatic, Alonso has roots in Dallas—a
daughter, an ex-wife, and two girlfriends—though he still speaks poor
English. On probation from a 1989 conviction for felony burglary and
theft, Alonso faced a sentence of at least 15 years on the two charges.
With the approval of the DA’s office, Alonso and Ruiz both signed
contracts as informants for De la Paz.

Alonso and De la
Paz apparently hit it off; they talked on the phone several times a
week. Alonso set up some good busts, and on Feb. 21, 2000, the charges
against him were dismissed. Both Alonso and Ruiz agreed to work for De
la Paz in return for payment. The higher the quantities of drugs
seized, the more the informants made—anywhere from $1,000 to $5,000 per
kilo for cocaine.

But even as early as
December 1999, when the officer busted a dealer for 3 kilos of cocaine,
there were signs of trouble with De la Paz’s use of Alonso. Attorney
Eric Smenner represented the dealer, who insisted that Alonso had
stolen 1 kilo. At the trial six months later, Smenner grilled De la
Paz, who admitted he hadn’t searched Alonso before and after the buy,
as required by department procedure to prevent informants from planting
evidence. Alonso was the sole witness. After his client was sentenced
to 15 years, Smenner, a former officer, warned De la Paz that his
snitch was dirty. The officer just shrugged, seeming unconcerned. Or
maybe he didn’t want to risk losing a good CI.

Beginning in April
2001, De la Paz started racking up big busts: 4, 6, 14, 15, and then 42
kilos of cocaine. He and his partner Eddie Herrera would go on to
record the largest drug bust in Dallas history—76 kilos. Almost all of
the targets were Mexicans. Many were auto mechanics or garage owners.
But De la Paz was getting sloppy. In just two months, about $15,000 in
“buy money” De la Paz gave to Alonso and other informants was not
recovered. At other agencies, such a pattern would have triggered major
questions, but no one at DPD seemed concerned. “They don’t think the
rules apply to them and try to get around them,” says one narcotics
insider. “And they usually do.”

By the end of 2001,
police records indicated Alonso had been paid more than $200,000 for 70
buys leading to 35 arrests, but he wasn’t the only informant raking in
the dough. DPD’s expenditures for payments to informants jumped from
$253,000 in 2000 to more than $570,000 in the first 10 months of 2001.
Sometimes De la Paz would get the cash from the department safe only
hours after the busts. For the Vega bust, police paid $35,000; another
arrest netted $50,000. If the details of the case—selling on credit, no
guns in sight—weren’t enough to raise suspicion, the price tag should
have been. “I’ve never seen an informant get paid that kind of money,”
says one longtime insider.

Barbare was
convinced the CI had planted drugs on Vega and Santos, but she wasn’t
getting anywhere with her prosecutor, who explained that her hands were
tied. When Barbare talked to supervisor Long, he told her the informant
had taken a polygraph.

Barbare was
floored. She asked Long about a courthouse rumor that a case had been
dismissed because the cocaine turned out to be gypsum, the material in
sheetrock. Long admitted that had happened but brushed off her concern.
Police occasionally catch dopers trying to sell phony drugs. Long’s
theory: a big supplier in Mexico was sending fake drugs to Dallas to
see if the CI was a snitch.

“That might work once,” Barbare told Long, but fake dope could get a dealer killed. And on credit?

Both sides dug in.
The prosecutors were so confident of their case, they didn’t even offer
Vega a plea bargain. And if they had, Barbare would have rejected it,
vowing to get the case in front of a jury. Then she did what Dallas
defense attorneys typically do only when a case went to trial: she
requested lab tests.

Lab tests take time
and cost the county money, about $280 per sample. Instead, the DA’s
office relied on field tests performed by officers, which were
considered highly dependable—dependable enough for a conviction.
Defense attorneys say the request for the more exacting lab tests
carried risk. “In the past,” Barbare says, “if you wanted labs,
prosecutors would say the plea deal is off the table.” But in Vega’s
case, when Barbare wanted to double-check the drugs that had
field-tested positive, Long agreed.

Finally, on Nov. 1,
Barbare went to court for Vega’s pre-trial hearing. It had been a long
October for Vega, sitting in jail and becoming increasingly despondent.
He had told Adriana that if he was convicted, she should go on with her
life, without him. Adriana refused to listen and waited patiently for a
miracle to set her husband free.

The prosecutor appeared. “Both cases are being dismissed,” she said.”The labs came back sheetrock.”

Barbare hurried to
find Vega’s wife in the hall. “It was sheetrock! Jose’s free!” she told
Adriana, who picked up Barbare and swung the lawyer in a circle,
screaming, “I love you! I love you!” A few hours later, Jose was
standing in Barbare’s office, dressed in the clothes he’d worn the day
of the arrest almost three months earlier. After a group hug and many
tears, Vega’s mother removed the rosary from her neck and draped it
around Barbare. She wears it every day.

But Barbare’s
victory was bittersweet. A month later, after the charges against him
were dismissed, Santos was deported. And even although Vega and Santos
were freed, other innocent men were still jailed. In the weeks after
the release of Vega and Santos, Barbare warned other attorneys to get
drugs tested. But even as lab reports revealed case after case of fake
dope, the DA’s office was plowing forward.

Police Chief Terrell
Bolton’s New Year’s Eve press conference to announce that his
department’s war on drugs had taken “poison”—as he called the fake
drugs—off the streets was pure theater, and Barbare knew it. Kilos of
fake drugs, some marked with Vega’s name, were stacked on one end of a
table with a pile of guns on the other. But Barbare knew that in all of
the fake drug cases, police had seized no guns.

Bolton had launched
a preemptive strike as an attempt to save face. WFAA Channel 8’s Brett
Shipp and his producer Mark Smith had learned of the Vega and Mejia
cases from the polygrapher and found more cases of fake dope with
suspicious similarity. Many victims were mechanics, some were day
laborers hired to work, then arrested when the drugs were “discovered”
by the police. After getting WFAA’s request for drug squad records,
Bolton called the press conference.

Shipp began airing
a series of powerful stories in early January that made Barbare a
sought-after attorney and a media star. She even appeared on CNN and
Nightline to describe her fight against the system. Meanwhile, Bolton
suspended De la Paz and Herrera, and the DA’s office finally called in
the FBI to investigate. Confidential informant Alonso was arrested and
charged with two counts of lying about being a U.S. citizen to obtain a
social security card, and his jail interviews raised more questions
than they answered.

Alonso, who now
faces prison and deportation, claimed he received only $50,000 of the
more than $200,000 he was supposedly paid. Alonso’s credibility was
suspect, but defense attorneys involved in these cases wondered: was
the cash-strapped De la Paz, who filed for bankruptcy in December 2001,
skimming from the payments to his informant? Did Alonso fool De la Paz,
just as he apparently fooled police into thinking he was a legal
citizen? Or did De la Paz allow himself to be fooled? After all, De la
Paz would have had to be deaf, dumb, and blind to think his multikilo
arrests were legit. No experienced narcotics officer would confuse
cocaine or speed with gypsum, which WFAA’s Mark Smith discovered was
most likely from billiard chalk and probably bought by Alonso.

So far, about a
dozen of those falsely accused have retained lawyers to file
civil-rights lawsuits against De la Paz, Herrera, the police
department, and the city. Barbare is convinced that problems within the
drug squad are not limited to De la Paz and Alonso. At least five other
officers were recorded as performing positive field tests on dope
seized in their arrests that turned out to be phony or “salted” with
traces of a controlled substance. As a future safeguard—and an
expensive one at that—the DA’s office now requires lab tests on all
drug cases.

For Barbare, lab tests and apologies are too little. For innocent men like Vega and Santos, they’re too late.

Investigative reporter Glenna Whitley is a former D Magazine senior editor.

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