Snow Job

Two aggressive Dallas cops. One confidential informant. Hundreds of pounds of cocaine. Fifty-three drug traffickers busted. Sound too good to be true? It was.
JUSTICE: Barbare (l.), who blew the lid off the conspiracy, and Vega, her wronged client.
Photograph by Judy Walgren

BY ALL ACCOUNTS, 2001 WAS shaping up to be a banner year for the Dallas Police Department’s narcotics squad. According to the buzz around headquarters, two aggressive undercover cops, 34-year-old senior corporal Mark Delapaz and 31-year-old officer Eddie Herrera, had found a confidential informant who not only was able to get to the “mules,” the Mexican immigrants who brought drugs into the U.S. for major Mexican suppliers, but also could arrange buys from some of Dallas’ biggest Hispanic dealers. In May and June the young narcs made nearly a dozen good-sized busts. In July their informant helped them make one of the biggest seizures in the city’s history, leading them to a man whose Ford Escort was packed with more than 150 pounds of cocaine. Less than a month later, the cops and their informant struck again, arresting two men in a van with a little more than 169 pounds of coke.

It seemed too good to be true—and before long it became clear that it was. In August a Dallas attorney named Cynthia Barbare was approached by relatives of 35-year-old Jose Luis Vega, who had been at work in an auto-repair shop when Delapaz and Herrera arrested him for allegedly trying to sell more than 56 pounds of cocaine (they said the drugs had been found in a duffel bag on the seat of an unlocked car at the garage). Although Vega’s relatives tearfully told Barbare that he was an honest, hardworking mechanic who had come to the U.S. to make a better life for himself and his family, the police reports indicated he had been caught red-handed. After his arrest, prosecutors from the Dallas County district attorney’s office persuaded a judge to set his bail at $500,000. Barbare was going to be lucky to plead out the case and get Vega released from prison in less than fifteen years.

Little did the 41-year-old attorney know that she was about to blow the lid off a conspiracy to plant large amounts of ground-up Sheetrock disguised as cocaine or methamphetamine on poor Hispanics, all of whom spoke little or no English, and get them sent to prison on trumped-up charges of drug trafficking. The Sheetrock Scandal, as it is now called, has embarrassing echoes of the controversial drug-related arrests of forty black men and women in the Panhandle town of Tulia in 1999. The FBI has launched an investigation into the activities of Dallas Police narcotics officers, and the DA’s office has dismissed 63 cases against 44 defendants, some of whom have spent five months in jail; another 17 cases against 9 defendants are expected to be dismissed. The scandal has tarnished the reputations of Dallas police chief Terrell Bolton and Dallas County district attorney Bill Hill, who have had to rebut allegations that they and their top lieutenants failed to notice the misdeeds taking place right under their nose.

Most disturbing about the scandal, at least to many Dallas citizens, is the realization that the police are not even coming close to getting drugs off the street. Of the 1,447 pounds of powdered “cocaine” that were supposedly seized in 2001, much of it discovered in large busts that were later ballyhooed at press conferences, nearly 700 pounds reportedly turned out to be fake. “It’s hard to believe something so sinister could have happened,” says Barbare. “And it’s even harder to believe a system was in place to have let it happen.”

DELAPAZ, WHO JOINED THE DPD IN 1990, and Herrera, who came aboard two years later, made their presence felt all over the city, arresting crack-cocaine dealers in South Dallas and black-tar heroin dealers in Northwest Dallas. Yet while they had each received more than twenty commendations from their superiors, they didn’t have a big bust under their belts, the kind that gets noticed around the department. All that changed in June 1999, when they arrested a burly, smooth-talking man named Enrique Martinez Alonso for possession of a pound of cocaine. According to the Dallas Morning News, Alonso and the two officers, with the DPD’s approval, eventually cut a deal: The charges against him would be dropped if he would become their informant.

In narcotics such arrangements are not unusual. Without informants, cops rarely get close to the big dealers. Alonso’s job was to approach a dealer, buy a kilo or less of cocaine, then return later and make a larger deal, at which point Delapaz and Herrera and a backup team of officers would swoop in and make an arrest. Alonso was so good that by February 2000, he had gotten enough dealers busted to satisfy the agreement to have the charges against him dropped. Yet he continued to work for Delapaz and Herrera. The reason: The DPD pays select informants in the same way a realtor is paid for selling a house. The bigger the bust that results from an informant’s work, the bigger the payoff to the informant.

In 2000 and 2001 Alonso was reportedly the narcotics squad’s most prolific snitch, a player in about seventy drug buys that yielded huge amounts of cocaine and methamphetamine and resulted in 35 arrests. He was also believed to be the DPD’s highest paid snitch. For those two years, according to the department, he received sixty payments from the department totaling more than $200,000—an amazing amount of money when you consider that Chief Bolton’s salary in 2001 was only $152,000 (including $20,000 in overtime) and that Delapaz, the Dallas Morning News revealed, earned just $48,834.

At least one defense attorney complained about Alonso. In July 2000 Eric Smenner, representing a man arrested for doing a drug deal with Alonso, warned Delapaz that the informant was, in his words, a “dirty snitch” who perhaps had stolen some drugs from his client before the arrest was made. Smenner also said he didn’t like the way Delapaz was allowing Alonso to make deals outside the view of officers. Yet his objections were dismissed by prosecutors as a desperate attempt to defend a guilty client.

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