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Tom Coleman is Not the Biggest Racist in America

When 10 percent of the black residents of a small Panhandle town were snagged in a drug bust, the white cop responsible for it became the poster boy for bigotry. It’s time to unlearn everything you think you know about Tulia, Texas.
By Todd Bensman |

THE LAWMAN: Coleman in his Waxahachie home in January, a week before his trial.

THE LAWYERS HAD POCKETED THEIR MILLIONS. The politicians had secured their votes. The book and movie deals had been signed. By January 2005, more than four years after the Panhandle town of Tulia had made national headlines for a huge drug bust that snared an almost unbelievable 10 percent of the town’s black residents, only one matter remained: to punish the racist cop responsible for the sting.

His name was Tom Coleman, a white freelance undercover agent who had busted 46 people, 40 of whom were black. The arrests were based solely on Coleman’s word. He’d worked alone and had not used video or audio surveillance to support his charges. It didn’t take long for the media to uncover the story.

Bob Herbert, a columnist for the New York Times, wrote that Coleman was a racist cop who had targeted innocent blacks. The ACLU proposed in a successful civil lawsuit that Coleman conspired “to accomplish the forbidden aim of cleansing Tulia of its black population.” Coleman’s ex-wife even revealed that he was “a card-carrying member of the Ku Klux Klan.” More salacious accusations followed from the men and women Coleman had arrested: that he had used drugs during the sting, that he had manufactured evidence, that he had had sex with some of the female defendants. Coleman didn’t help his case by appearing disorganized and confused, and when he admitted that he had used the word “nigger,” he only fueled the media’s outrage. Coleman became the Mark Fuhrman of Texas, and the most hated lawman in the state had to be brought to justice.

By the time Coleman found himself in front of a Lubbock jury earlier this year, Gov. Rick Perry had pardoned 35 of the convicted drug dealers, and the case had produced $6.3 million in legal settlements. Coleman faced up to three decades in prison on a trio of state perjury charges, but they were only distantly related to his work on the busts. It did seem odd that after all the hype, prosecutors could muster a case based only on Coleman’s testimony during the Tulia trials about his conduct at a job he’d held years ago. But the victims were eager to find justice anywhere they could. The packed courtroom pulsed with contempt. Vengeance seemed at hand.

When the verdict finally came on a Friday, it wasn’t very satisfying. Two of the three charges didn’t stick, and Coleman returned home to Waxahachie with a single penny-ante perjury conviction, 10 years’ probation, and a bout of the flu. And by Monday—Martin Luther King Jr. Day—the flu was already clearing up.

How could Coleman get off so easily? And why wasn’t anyone going to pay for the grave injustice committed in Tulia? As it turns out, the media got the story wrong—or never wanted to know the truth.

To be sure, Coleman’s sloppy police work critically weakened some of his cases and, by extension, all of them. But he was never a criminal conspirator determined to carry out ethnic cleansing in a small Texas town. At worst he’s an absent-minded lunkhead who was unqualified to do the job. Had reporters done their homework, they would have learned that Coleman wasn’t the villain his critics wanted him to be. Take the KKK business. Yes, it is true that at one time he had befriended some Klan members in Ellis County. But a little detail had been overlooked: he had infiltrated their group as a supervised undercover agent, and he busted three of his “brothers” for dealing methamphetamine.

And that’s just the beginning. The government itself conducted two civil rights investigations—one by the FBI and the other by the Texas attorney general’s office. Both agencies to this day have refused to share their reports with the public. But they have slipped out. And, according to those documents, the evidence reveals a far different Tom Coleman than the one his enemies set out to destroy—and the world seemed determined not to know.

OVER PLATES OF CHIMICHANGAS AND ENCHILADAS at Don Jose’s Mexican Restaurant in Waxahachie, Coleman chain-smokes Marlboro Lights. He’s wearing his trademark black cowboy hat and boots. It is shortly before the start of his trial, but the 46-year-old’s Texas drawl still exudes a rural friendliness that invites camaraderie. He’s sitting with his longtime girlfriend, a curious mate for a man portrayed as an unabashed racist. Mimi McBroom is half-Japanese. The couple plans to marry as soon as Coleman completes a task that would send any self-respecting Klansman running to get a rope: he’s converting to Catholicism.

“They’re calling Tom a racist, him being a blue-eyed white man living in Texas,” Mimi says. “I, on the other hand, have dealt with racism coming at me. Of all the charges against Tom, the racism charge is the one that makes me want to throw up the most, because, you know, for obvious reasons.”

Coleman contends that his sting was rock-solid, by the book, almost perfect—except for a mistake or two. He insists on the strength of his word, as if he subscribes to a code of honor that could have been lifted straight out of a Louis L’Amour novel.

“They were pissed off at me because all the blacks went to jail, and I was the cause of all this misery,” he says. “Well, I wouldn’t have been the cause of all this misery if they hadn’t sold me dope. I’m not an angel. I’ll own up to anything I didn’t do right, but I’ll sure as hell not own up to anything I didn’t do.”

ACCOLADES: As attorney general, John Cornyn presented Coleman wih the Lawman of the Year award, an act that would soon embarrass Cornyn.

Despite his earnestness, it’s easy to see how Coleman exposed himself to the perjury charges and damaging press interviews. He seems to forget about events that occurred just hours earlier, and in fits of boyish enthusiasm, Coleman blurts out non sequiturs that only Mimi understands. One judge called Coleman the worst, most discreditable witness he had ever observed in 25 years on the bench, an opinion the dinner conversation doesn’t contradict.

“When I was working undercover in Tulia, I was T.J. Dawson, period,” Coleman says of the identity he assumed on the streets. “I couldn’t go to the store with Mimi. I couldn’t go to church. I couldn’t go to the restaurant with her. I couldn’t—”

“Backtrack that,” Mimi says. “We did go to church.”

“Yeah, that’s right,” he admits. “We did go to church.”

“We always sat in the back,” she says.

“But we was real careful,” Coleman says.

The couple now rents a tidy, comfortably worn duplex in Waxahachie. The interior reflects Coleman’s unrepentant pride in his work in law enforcement. One picture shows his father, storied Texas Ranger Joe W. Coleman, sitting on a white horse. Another shows Coleman’s mother, Erma Dean, in her Texas Department of Public Safety uniform. In the center of the wall hangs a picture of Coleman when he was named Texas’ 1999 Lawman of the Year for his work in Tulia. He’s standing next to then-Attorney General John Cornyn, a current United States senator, who’s presenting the award. The plaque hangs nearby.

Coleman never wanted to do anything but follow in his father’s footsteps. After earning his G.E.D. in 1986, he embarked on a career in small-town law enforcement, where the close-quarters office politics can get dicey. Coleman’s rocky stints over the next 12 years—as a jailer and sheriff’s deputy in Pecos, a jailer in Denton County, and a sheriff’s deputy in Cochran County—would be dredged up after the Tulia scandal broke.

In 1998, he landed in Amarillo a recently unemployed lawman with a choppy career history and uncertain prospects. A federally funded drug task force with jurisdiction over the Panhandle offered him a contract to go undercover in Tulia. The depressed Swisher County farming community of about 5,000 people, only some 400 of whom are black, sits about halfway between Lubbock and Amarillo on I-27. Abandoned homes and businesses reflect the town’s fortunes. Towering grain silos overlook “The Flats,” several streets of public housing apartments where Coleman would spend much of his time. Tulia’s impoverished multiethnic underclass snared more than its fair share of drugs that moved along I-27, and the town’s tiny police force couldn’t stop a prolific nickel-and-dime drug trade that spilled into the parks and streets.

Infiltrating any small-town drug underworld presents unique difficulties. Mike Hughes, a retired task force member who now owns the Blue Gator restaurant in Amarillo, says everyone in Tulia’s drug crowd had known each other all their lives. Strangers were regarded with suspicion. “Everyone knows who is doing the dealing, who is selling, and who to sell to and not sell to,” Hughes explains. “You are going to have to have someone that they trust introduce someone to that community.”

Task force supervisors thought they found the perfect stranger in the cocky, longhaired Coleman, who liked snakeskin boots, black Stetsons, motorcycles, and guns. Coleman also came to them as a rare white cop who was fluent in the language of the hood. Coleman had never worked as an undercover officer, but he completed an 80-hour course with the Drug Enforcement Administration and spent a number of weeks training with the task force. He assumed the role of T.J. Dawson, a streetwise drug probationer who had drifted into Tulia looking for work. His orders were to flash cash and buy drugs, especially powdered cocaine, which brought stiffer penalties than marijuana or crack. Coleman arrived in Tulia with a case of beer and a police-supplied silver and black Ford pickup.

But two weeks went by, and he failed to make a single contact among white or Latino drug dealers. So his supervisors told him to change strategies: Coleman should get a job. He found work at a gas station, but he was fired for associating with drug dealers. This helped boost his street cred, but he still couldn’t get on the inside. He tried infiltrating the white drug community at the local Dairy Queen, but according to state investigators, “The whites wouldn’t talk to him.” He would have better luck with Tulia’s black residents.

To understand why, it helps to know that Tulia’s drug subculture was rigidly divided by race into tight-knit white, Hispanic, and black groups. These maintained almost inviolable boundaries. Acceptance by one group meant hostile rejection by the others. Coleman’s movements show that he gave all groups an equal opportunity to take him in, that he wasn’t out to get a certain group. “I know that Tom did try to get into all groups of people in the Tulia area,” Swisher County Sheriff’s Deputy Linda Swanson, who was Coleman’s main contact in town, later told investigators. “In my opinion, Tom is not a racist, nor did he target the black community.”

Coleman struck pay dirt when he landed a job baling hay at the Tulia Sale Barn, the region’s big cattle auction house. He befriended 65-year-old Eliga Kelly, a black man whose poverty had him doing heavy manual labor. Coleman ingratiated himself with Kelly by hefting hay for him, buying him food, and doing his yard work. Before long, Kelly was vouching all over town for Coleman. Kelly opened the doors, and Coleman made the most of it. He went on to buy drugs and make cases for more than a year.

A large part of Coleman’s success in infiltrating the black group—and his exclusion by other groups—was owed to his chameleon-like ability to act a part, an attribute as highly valued for undercover work as it is in Hollywood. Much moral indignation would later be expressed, in court and in the media, about Coleman’s acknowledged use of the word “nigger” during the operation. But that was perfectly accepted in the street underworld Coleman was trying to penetrate.

“My first name wasn’t T.J. to them,” Coleman explains. “It was ’nigga.’ ’Nigga’ was my first name. It was always, ’This fella might be white, but he’s my nigga.’ The word don’t mean what it used to. Look at the movie Training Day. Denzel Washington used the word, like, 20 times. That’s how they used to talk about me, and that’s how I talked to them.”

That wasn’t the only reason black residents embraced Coleman. He intentionally overpaid for his drugs, a habit that attracted friends fast. In fact, Coleman’s supervisors admonished him for paying too much, but he rebuffed them, reasoning that making cases was worth the extra expense.

In July 1999, Coleman’s work paid off—and T.J. Dawson was unmasked. Humiliating scenes of white cops arresting barely dressed black residents just roused from bed were rebroadcast for days on Panhandle news stations. For the rest of the year, black defendants were tried by mostly white juries, or pleaded guilty when they saw the long prison sentences being handed down—some as high as 90 years for relatively small purchases.

Coleman went on to win recognition for his skills and followed the new demand for his special services elsewhere in Texas, but the work he left behind was already unraveling. Several cases were thrown out, for instance, when Coleman volunteered that he couldn’t positively identify the defendants—and wouldn’t testify against them unless he could.

Soon, several concerned white Tulia residents, alarmed by the severity of the sentences and intrigued by the proclamations of innocence, began examining the cases. Gary Gardner, a former highway patrolman, got involved. So did a former Methodist minister named Alan Bean. Together they found discrepancies between some of Coleman’s testimony, including dates, times, and descriptions of events. Coupling these errors with the fact that no videotape, wiretaps, or sworn colleagues had been used to corroborate Coleman’s word on any of the cases, Gardner and Bean realized that the entire operation was open to a legal attack.

At the time, however, state law allowed agents to work without corroborating evidence. That changed in the wake of the busts, but Coleman didn’t wear a wire for a simple reason: because he was working alone, his supervisors worried that it would be too dangerous. On one occasion, Coleman was wearing a wire while playing cards at Eliga Kelly’s house, but he ditched it after he thought that two other men were going to rob him outside. Later on, Coleman was frisked by dealers on three separate occasions, and had his cover been blown, it could have cost him his life.

Still, without additional evidence, the convictions hinged on Coleman’s memory and credibility, and his every lapse suggested that he had an agenda. A call went out across the country to civil rights groups and reporters, but at first the response was tepid. The bland, almost academic, legal precepts about police credibility and testimonial corroboration did not exactly capture the imagination.

But racism did. Some civil rights groups saw an opportunity, and their allegations that a criminal conspiracy by small-town racist cops to railroad innocent blacks on bogus drug charges electrified newsrooms across the country. The major-league players in news media, civil rights, law, and entertainment suddenly couldn’t get enough of Tulia.

Bean is now writing a book about the sting that contains an unlikely concession. He believes that outsiders hijacked a technical legal story and hyped it into something it wasn’t, something that took on a life of its own. “Too many reporters wanted to write about hot topics such as racist conspiracies, racist jurors, and racist police officers instead of focusing on dull matters like the faulty mechanics of the Coleman operation,” Bean says. “That was the story the New York Times wanted to tell. Bob Herbert wanted to show that Tulia was a nasty little pestilent racist community in George Bush’s home state. And I think the reason the story took off originally was because lefties were looking for a club to smack George Bush over the head with, and they found a good one.”

Bean’s observation about how the press reshaped the Tulia story rings true. After the Tulia operation, Coleman was busy making more drug busts across the state. Of the 17 people he busted as an undercover agent in Chambers County, 15 were white and two were black. In Ellis County, Coleman made cases against 32 whites and seven blacks. Black police officers who had worked with Coleman told investigators that he never exhibited signs of racism. Tellingly, none of these busts was ever publicized; they didn’t fit the story.

After Tulia broke in the press in June 2000, reporters rushed to Chambers County, demanding to know how many blacks Coleman had busted there. “Once I showed that most of Tom’s cases were white defendants,” Commander Don Palmer told state investigators, “the press calls stopped there.”

The Tulia case also affected the way the national press covered our own scandal, right here in Dallas. At the time, plaintiffs’ attorney Don Tittle was laboring in comparative obscurity in Dallas, representing most of the 24 poor Mexican immigrants falsely convicted in the Dallas Police Department’s fake-drugs scandal. All had languished in jail pending trial, or pleaded guilty, on drug trafficking charges between 1999 and 2001, after three paid police informants planted hundreds of pounds of ground billiard chalk on them. At issue were the same kinds of mundane stuff about credibility and evidence corroboration that came up in Tulia. And as they did in Tulia, major civil rights organizations came calling on Tittle. But when he told them that the Dallas cops and their crooked informants were just as Hispanic as their victims, the story died. “They just kind of dropped it,” Tittle says. “The fake-drugs scandal just didn’t have the black-white issue.”

For the Dallas victims, there was no sustained national publicity blitz, no governor’s pardons, no instant settlements. In February, after three years of foot-dragging, the City of Dallas finally agreed to pay some of Tittle’s clients $6 million, but nine others received nothing. The hard-won, long-delayed settlement in Dallas stood in sharp contrast to the lightning speed with which all of Tulia’s convicts, fully pardoned, got their $6 million.

FREE TO GO: The media swarmed Tulia when the suspects, including Willie Hall, were released in 2003. Gov. Perry eventually pardoned 35 people.

THOUGH THE MEDIA AND CERTAIN CIVIL RIGHTS groups made the most noise about Tulia, the government wasn’t far behind. In October 2000, the Dallas FBI office, which had jurisdiction, ordered Special Agent Tim Reid to determine whether Coleman, driven by racism, had fabricated evidence, tampered with evidence, or committed aggravated perjury. In the only known public glimpse of the report, which was first obtained by CBS Channel 11, Reid summarized his conclusions this way: “The Tulia arrests were not racially motivated, and Thomas Coleman had not violated any laws.”

One of Reid’s top priorities was to talk to the people Coleman had busted, who were still in prison at the time, and see if they were, in fact, innocent. If so, Coleman would be on the ropes—and the government might be more inclined to bring charges against him. But after an exhaustive series of jailhouse interviews, that’s not what Reid found. To be sure, many of the Tulia convicts maintained their innocence. But 11 of the 35 individuals who later received pardons admitted to Reid and his agents that they had sold drugs. Co-defendants said that they had witnessed a 12th and 13th Tulia defendant selling drugs to Coleman. Of those 13, eight admitted to the FBI that they sold drugs directly to Coleman.

Alberta Stell Williams, for example, told FBI agents that she had sold more drugs to Coleman than she was prosecuted for. The state investigators’ summary of her FBI interview reads: “Stated sold crack cocaine to Coleman four times but only charged with one sell. Stated guilty of offense, and more.” Williams would eventually receive a pardon and her share of the settlement money, as would another co-defendant, Daniel G. Olivarez.

An interview summary with Olivarez contains the following: “Stated sold crack cocaine to Coleman on eight or more occasions. Stated sold approximately 3-4 ounces of crack cocaine to Coleman. Stated gave marijuana to Coleman on 10 occasions or more.” Many more of the Tulia convicts interviewed by the FBI insisted they had been framed, but a source close to the investigation says that a number of their alibis proved bogus, bringing the number of discreditable potential government witnesses to nearly half of those whom Coleman had helped put in jail.

Reid pressed on, uphill now, to other important matters, such as the allegation that Coleman had created evidence and used it to file bogus cases. He had all of the drugs that Coleman purchased during the sting tested by the DEA lab in Dallas. They all checked out, and Reid noted in his report: “There is no indication that Thomas Coleman ever tampered with any evidence.”

Reid dismissed other much-publicized claims by the Tulia convicts as well. He found no evidence that Coleman had had sex with any of the female defendants. Then there was the allegation that Coleman had used drugs with some of the defendants. Reid obtained the six random drug tests that Coleman took during the operation, and every single one had been negative.

In addressing the allegations of aggravated perjury, Reid unintentionally hit upon a vital clue that some of Coleman’s colleagues and relatives had believed about the high school dropout’s intellectual abilities and memory. Various colleagues described Coleman to investigators as “not a rocket scientist,” “a scatterbrain,” “sometimes slow in turning in his paperwork,” and “a disorganized person.” Even Mimi ruefully acknowledges that she works doubly hard to keep Coleman’s personal affairs in order.

Reid noted other problems with Coleman, such as completing and filing paperwork on his cases. For instance, Reid reported that he thought Coleman might have “accidentally messed up” some of the reported drug transaction dates. By any trial standard, this would constitute an egregious mistake that should certainly provoke a challenge, but absent obvious criminal intent, it would not likely be considered a violation of federal law.

In the summer of 2002, long after Reid had filed his report, New York Times columnist Bob Herbert howled when he found out the investigation had been concluded with no charges. In one column he argued, “Federal investigators who are both honest and diligent will find plenty of evidence of official wrongdoing waiting for them in Tulia.” New York senators Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton were quick to respond. They demanded in writing that Attorney General John Ashcroft keep the investigation open.

So that’s what the Department of Justice did. It ordered Reid to dust off his completed case and find something. Three months later, Reid again came back empty-handed, reporting that he “still hasn’t found any evidence indicating that Thomas Coleman violated any federal laws during the Tulia drug sting. Right now on our end, we are not finding anything illegal.”

And the FBI wasn’t the only agency looking into Coleman’s history. In August 2002, the state attorney general’s office began its own inquiry into possible civil rights violations. At that time, Attorney General John Cornyn, who is white, was running for the U.S. Senate against former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, who is black. Cornyn was under pressure to address the busts. His publicized investigation helped defuse Tulia as a campaign issue. When Cornyn defeated Kirk, his successor, Greg Abbott, put a quiet end to the probe in April 2003.

But what did the report conclude? It determined that racism had not been a factor in the arrests. However, it did slam Coleman for sloppy police work. The report also came down hard on Coleman’s bosses—including Swisher County Sheriff Larry Stewart, Lt. Michael Amos, and District Attorney Terry McEachern—for hiring him in the first place.

“When Tom Coleman received the Narcotics Officer of the Year Award, they all shared the praise,” the AG’s report reads. “Now that the operation is receiving national criticism, it should be stressed and remembered that all of them participated in Tom Coleman’s decision-making process.”

THE ATTORNEY GENERAL’S OFFICE completed its inquiry four months before Gov. Perry granted his pardons, in August 2003. The findings should have made for some interesting reading; at the very least, they should have played some role in his decision. But Laura McElroy, general counsel for the parole board, which issues recommendations to Perry, said its members did not ask for the findings. McElroy said voluntary confessions to the FBI by those up for pardons would not have factored into the board’s recommendation.

“I find it unthinkable that that information was not part of the record,” says Victoria Palacios, a law professor at SMU, who once served on a pardons board in Utah. “I can’t imagine circumstances under which a member of the board would knowingly not seek out that information. If it was available, it should have been used.”

Last fall, Perry told CBS Channel 11 that he stood by the pardons—even though the cases had been making their way through the appeals process. But he refused to say whether he knew about the FBI or the AG reports before issuing his pardons. “I pardoned those individuals—not a pardon of innocence—I pardoned them for what had occurred,” Perry said. “They were not pardoned because of the concept of innocence here.”

The pardons vanquished any hope that Amarillo and the 26 surrounding counties that had contributed funds and manpower to the Coleman investigation might have harbored for defending the flood of civil rights lawsuits that followed. The city and counties knew full well about the reports. “I informed all attorneys representing defendants in the civil suit that a significant number of those defendants had confessed to selling drugs to Tom Coleman or stated that they had seen someone else sell drugs to Tom Coleman,” says Charlotte Bingham, an attorney who represented 18 counties in the suit. “All I can say is the reason that my clients settled is because the media had run amok and portrayed these people as innocent victims.”

But the FBI and the attorney general’s office weren’t sharing their material. “The FBI was not going to come out publicly and say there was no racial bias because everyone in the media was convinced of that, and the politicians, too,” says Marcus W. Norris, Amarillo’s city attorney. “Everyone had it built up in their mind it was all racism.”

In an ironic twist, it wasn’t long before a number of the individuals who had received settlements ran afoul of the law. In June 2003, while he was out on bail, Christopher E. Jackson pleaded guilty to felony charges of assaulting a Pampa police officer, evading arrest, and public intoxication. When he was booked, police found a $5,500 check he’d just received from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. He told police that he was in town to buy a car.

Jason Paul Fry was arrested in Tulia in June 2004 on a charge of aggravated robbery. Fry was accused of beating up an 85-year-old man for $100, then falling asleep on the man’s couch. Those charges were eventually dropped, however, after the victim’s family moved him to another state.

In July 2004, when settlement checks were being cut, William Cash Love was back in jail on drug charges. An Amarillo police raid on his rent house turned up 10.7 grams of cocaine and 261 grams of marijuana. It was the second time Love, who was one of the few white suspects in the case, had been busted for drugs since his pardon. Kareem Abdul Jabar White was arrested for marijuana in late January 2005 for the second time since his pardon. The cops found him on an Amarillo street, passed out behind the wheel of a brand-new Cadillac Escalade he had purchased with his settlement money.

BACK IN WAXAHACHIE, Coleman is still trying to move on after his trial. He’s had trouble finding work as a welder, and he claims that several employers fired him after they learned that he was the infamous Tom Coleman of Tulia. As a convicted felon, he had to give up his precious gun collection, and, needless to say, he will never work in law enforcement again. Yet he still believes in the sting, despite his own mistakes. “Forty-six people sold me dope in Tulia, and 46 people went to jail,” he says. “Gov. Perry let drug dealers back out on the streets of Texas.”

In a final twist to the Tulia saga, just as the FBI was being ordered to reopen its investigation in September 2002, the Amarillo-based office of the DEA capped a lengthy drug sting that swept up more than 20 defendants. But one of the men, Dock Allen Casel, boasted an unlikely set of credentials that would get him off the hook. Casel was black, and he was from Tulia.

His arrest raised such consternation that U.S. Attorney Jane Boyle, who was based in Dallas, personally intervened, according to sources close to the investigation. One of them, now-retired DEA Special Agent Lonnie Watson, said Boyle’s directive not to file charges against Casel was political. “I felt like we had a case that was prosecutable,” Watson says. “The political concerns were that the Tulia situation had stirred up a lot of concerns at higher levels of government. I disagreed strongly, but it wasn’t my decision to make.” (Boyle, who is now a federal judge in Dallas, declined interview requests.)

Last year Casel was convicted on other drug charges—a traffic stop that couldn’t be ignored because he fled on foot, leaving behind a trail of dope. But Boyle’s intervention highlights a dirty little secret about Tulia. Since the scandal broke, no one in law enforcement wants to bust a black resident. Doing so carries the implicit risk that damning charges of racism might follow, played out once again on a national stage. The result is that personal-use drug dealing in the small town is out of control. One DEA agent recounts a running joke about the town: “If you’re a drug dealer and you’re on the run, Tulia, Texas, is the place to be.”

Granny Bell Yarbrough, an elderly black resident of Tulia, says she is fed up with the public drug dealing that infests her community. Yarbrough points to houses up and down her street where she routinely witnesses dealing. “It’s scary,” she says. “A lot of them, they’re showing money, and the next thing you know the kids are selling it. There’s so much mess here, dope and people running up and down the streets. You say something to them and they’ll cuss you out. They ain’t nothin’ but kids.”

Desperate to retake the streets, Tulia’s leaders passed a 2004-05 budget that contains a $23,000 provision that has gone unnoticed, perhaps mercifully so. It includes $10,000 for covert surveillance cameras that will be placed around town, recording drug deals. The remaining $13,000 is listed under the innocuous heading “Special Services.” That money will be used to pay Tulia’s share for its next undercover officer.

Photos: Coleman: Dan Sellers; Cornyn and Coleman: Courtesy of Tom Coleman; Hall: Jim Mahoney/Dallas Morning News