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. In the Dallas County drug courts, prosecutors are extraordinarily tough. Because they are confronted with huge dockets, they are under pressure to dispose of cases quickly. According to attorneys who worked the drug courts, the prosecutors discouraged attempts to have drugs tested for authenticity in a lab because the results wouldn't come back for six to eight weeks, which made the backlog of cases even worse. The attorneys claimed they were regularly told by prosecutors that the length of the prison sentences being offered in pretrial plea bargains would go up substantially if the attorneys went to court demanding lab tests for drugs seized during the arrest of their clients.

Unlike his counterparts in other cities, who required lab tests before asking a grand jury for an indictment of a suspect on drug charges, the Dallas County DA would ask for an indictment based only on a field test, in which a tiny sample of the seized drugs is tested by a police officer using a small kit (the DA would order a lab test only if the case went to trial). It was no secret that the practice was potentially problematic. Last May, long before the Sheetrock Scandal broke, an attorney named Deandra Grant, announcing her candidacy for district attorney against Hill, declared, "The citizens of this county would be shocked to learn that individuals are routinely arrested, jailed, charged, and even indicted for drug possession only to learn months later that the substance was, in fact, Sheetrock, chalk, soap, legal 'pep pills' from a convenience store, etc."

At the time, Grant knew of only a couple of cases to back up her assertion. Then Cynthia Barbare came onto the scene. A congenial, attractive woman who worked in a modest area of far east Dallas, Barbare was hardly one of the city's elite criminal-defense attorneys. Nearly 90 percent of her clientele was Hispanic. But she was an idealist who liked to talk about defending the underdog. In September, accompanied by an interpreter, she went to see Vega at the county jail. As he proclaimed his innocence, she noticed that he had grime under his fingernails, just like a real car mechanic would. Later she visited the small house that he rented and inspected the old truck that he drove. If he was a drug dealer, she thought, he certainly disguised it well. She looked again at the police reports. The cops had not found any money or guns on Vega—which is rare in large drug busts. They had not wired their informant so that his conversations with Vega could be picked up. And there was another thing that bothered her: Why would a veteran operator in the drug trade have left $1 million dollars worth of cocaine sitting in an unlocked car at an auto-repair shop?

Barbare had Vega take a polygraph test. After the examiner told her that the test indicated Vega was telling the truth, he said, "This is going to sound weird, but your case sounds exactly like a case I just did for Tony Wright [another Dallas defense attorney]." Barbare immediately called Wright, who told her that he was representing a Mexican immigrant named Jesus Mejia, a 39-year-old auto mechanic who had been arrested in May at a West Dallas auto shop for selling about $80,000 worth of cocaine to Alonso. The polygraph showed that Mejia too was telling the truth.

"Who were the officers who did the arrest?" Barbare asked Wright.

"Two guys named Delapaz and Herrera."

Within a couple of days of that conversation, another Hispanic family—knowing nothing about Vega or Mejia—arrived in Barbare's office and asked her to represent their relative Abel Santos, who had been in jail since July for allegedly selling 28 pounds of cocaine to a DPD informant. As she flipped through Santos' police report, Barbare saw the names of Delapaz and Herrera. The cops claimed that an informant had met Santos, who agreed to sell a stash of cocaine that he kept in an old truck in the parking lot of an auto-repair shop where he worked.

Was it possible that the cops and their informant had discovered a major operation to sell cocaine out of auto shops? Or, Barbare wondered, were they involved in a scam in which they drove around late at night, dumped bags full of cocaine into unlocked cars parked at auto-repair shops, then showed up the next day to make a spectacular bust? Did they think they could get away with it as long as they targeted poor Mexican immigrants whose court-appointed attorneys would be far more willing to negotiate plea bargains than fight for their clients in court?

ALTHOUGH BARBARE SAYS SHE MADE her suspicions clear to top drug prosecutors in August, she had no concrete evidence to help Vega or Santos—and the prosecutors were not going to give her a break. The only thing she could do was ask for lab tests of the seized drugs. Wright also ordered tests for his client Mejia. Then they sat back and waited.

By November 1 the lab results had arrived. The "cocaine" that the three men were supposedly trying to sell was Sheetrock. Yet Dallas police officials did not pull Delapaz and Herrera off their beat or cut off their relationship with Alonso, and Dallas County prosecutors did not inform other defense attorneys representing clients who had been arrested by Delapaz or Herrera that they should also ask for lab tests. In fact, later that month, one Hispanic defendant arrested by the two officers was allowed by prosecutors to plead guilty to possession of cocaine.

Throughout October and November, other defense attorneys who had represented clients arrested by Delapaz and Herrera began demanding lab tests too. The lawyers for the two men arrested with the 169 pounds of "cocaine" said their clients were merely Hispanic day laborers who had been approached on a street corner by Alonso and Delapaz and hired to drive the van to a fast-food restaurant and wait for further instructions. The lawyer for the Hispanic man arrested with "cocaine" in his Ford Escort said his client was also a day laborer who had been asked by Alonso to follow him to a location where he would be put to work. When he did, police officers surrounded him. In both cases, the cocaine turned out to be Sheetrock. It was also discovered that "methamphetamine" supposedly found by Delapaz and Herrera in other busts was also Sheetrock.

On December 31, when the scandal was about to go public—WFAA-TV reporter Brett Shipp and his producer Mark Smith were first on the story—Chief Bolton called a press conference in which he denied any wrongdoing and claimed that the police should be applauded for finding the fake drugs, which he said could be deadly if ingested or inhaled. Since his appointment as Dallas' top cop in 1999, Bolton has been a lightning rod for controversy. He has fought turf wars with the local FBI office, been accused of trying to prevent an investigation into bribery by Dallas strip clubs, and been roundly criticized by his own officers for summarily demoting almost all of the assistant chiefs at the department and replacing them with less experienced police officials who were more supportive of him. Not only did his demotions cost the city $6 million in settlements after the former assistant chiefs sued, but they led to allegations that his new assistant chiefs weren't good at their jobs.

At his press conference, Bolton tried to make the case that suddenly there were fake drugs being sold in Dallas by devious dealers because security along the U.S.-Mexico border had increased sharply since the fall, shrinking the supply of real drugs. "Let this be a warning," he proclaimed with a straight face. "Since September 11, you don't know what you're getting out there."

What Bolton didn't address was the burning question of why the police field tests came up positive during two dozen busts involving fake drugs between May and October. Defense attorneys noted that officers other than Delapaz and Herrera were conducting those tests. Phil Jordan, the former head of the Dallas office of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, told reporters that any experienced narcotics officer should have been able to open a bag of ground-up Sheetrock, which is made of gypsum, and know immediately from its texture and feel that it was not cocaine. How could DPD supervisors not have been suspicious of Alonso's ability to make so many big busts without dealers catching on to him? And how could those supervisors have allowed Delapaz and Herrera to make so many arrests that were the result of the uncorroborated allegations of their informant? And why, if these busts were so significant, did the DPD not bring in federal agents to question the men being arrested to discover who their suppliers might be?

Then Bill Hill had a press conference of his own. Hill is no idiot: He made his top assistants, including the ones who should have caught wind of the scandal months earlier, answer most of the questions. It didn't exactly help him, however, when one of those assistants told the press that prosecutors were the "victims" because they were having to work extra hours at night reviewing cases involving narcotics officers. To his credit, Hill went on Nightline to answer questions about the scandal, but then, at the end of the show, he refused to apologize to anyone who had been falsely arrested, jailed for months, and in some cases, deported back to Mexico. He continued to insist that he was not sure the Hispanic suspects who had been arrested were innocent.

By February 25, however, Hill had ordered the dismissal of eighty cases in which Delapaz, Herrera, or Alonso had participated. In more than a quarter of those, the cocaine or methamphetamine seized turned out to be Sheetrock. That's not to say that Delapaz and Herrera had never caught real drug dealers selling real drugs. But their work and credibility were so tainted that Hill had no choice but to wipe the slate clean.

Bolton, meanwhile, had put the two officers on administrative leave and suspended the department's investigation until the FBI had concluded its own. Delapaz's defense seemed shaky when the Dallas Morning News reported that he had filed for personal bankruptcy in mid-December after questions were raised about his busts. In the bankruptcy petition, he and his wife listed $328,000 in debts, including a $224,000 mortgage and $62,000 in credit card bills. Considering his salary, why had he accumulated such debt in the first place?

WHATEVER THE ANSWER, IT IS unlikely that anything like this can happen again in Dallas. Hill now requires lab tests to be conducted in all felony drug cases. But the fallout from the Sheetrock Scandal continues: The FBI is said to be investigating other narcotics officers and informants who may have worked with Alonso. Bolton wrote a cryptic letter to the FBI suggesting that they investigate "all members of the criminal justice system," leading a few lawyers to suggest that he was hoping the feds would investigate the DA's office and take the heat off of the DPD. "What everyone knows is that somebody's going down," says Barbare, who is suddenly the toast of Dallas' legal community. She has even been asked by one local television station to do commentary on the Andrea Yates murder trial in Houston.

As for her clients Vega and Santos, Barbare is representing them in civil suits they will be filing against the city for civil rights violations. At least ten others who were falsely arrested have also hired lawyers to file lawsuits. There is little doubt the City of Dallas is going to be paying out hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars in settlements. The poor Hispanics who almost got their lives destroyed by illegal arrests and prosecutions are about to learn the flip side of what the American legal system is all about. "They're going to get rich," says Barbare. "But after all, isn't that the American way?"

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