Afraid no more: Tulia woman out of hiding, cleared by unknown alibi

Copyright 2002 Houston Chronicle

The shock has worn off, replaced by a return to the small pleasures of everyday life. She can drive a car, confident that being stopped by the police will result in nothing worse than a traffic ticket. Walk into a government office without fear that every civil servant on a telephone is plotting her arrest. Stop constantly looking over her shoulder.

Tonya White has been transformed from a fugitive back to an ordinary citizen and, in the process, become more than a health-care worker in Shreveport, La. However unlikely, White has earned a place in modern-day civil rights history, one of the few winners in a controversial drug sting in the Texas Panhandle that tarnished the reputations of an entire town.

But none of that appeared likely when word of the sting operation first leaked in the summer of 1999, fueled by a predawn roundup of suspects in the dusty town of Tulia, about midway between Amarillo and Lubbock. Dozens of people were arrested, virtually all accused of selling powder cocaine.

In the end, 46 people were charged, the result of an 18-month undercover operation by a lone cop named Tom Coleman, a drifter who had bounced from one small-town law enforcement job to another before being hired by the local sheriff to clean up Tulia.

Thirty-nine of those charged were African-American, 9 percent of the town's black population of about 430.

At the time, no one questioned how a town of 5,000 people, with virtually no industry other than the weekly cattle auction, could support 46 cocaine dealers.

But as the cases churned through the courts, they slowly grew into a cause célèbre. Ultimately, the suspects were sentenced to more than 800 years in prison and 100 years of probation -- one defendant alone was sentenced to 341 years.

Two people, Tonya White and Zury Bossett, continued to elude police as the trials and plea bargains mounted. Bossett was arrested last summer after a traffic stop in Odessa; her trial is scheduled for July.

That left only White on the run, and in November she returned to Tulia, the hometown she had left more than three years earlier, to face the charge that she had sold Coleman 4 grams of cocaine Oct. 9, 1998.
The charge could have sent White to prison for 99 years. But it was dismissed in April, only a week before her trial was to begin, after an investigator uncovered new evidence: White had conducted business in Oklahoma City, where she was living, within a few hours of the time Coleman had claimed to be buying cocaine from her in Tulia -- 250 miles to the west.

Even before the charge against White was dismissed, efforts were under way to force the release of those still in prison and, ultimately, to secure pardons for everyone who was convicted or pleaded guilty.

But even if that happens -- and White's attorney, Jeff Blackburn, predicts it will take several years -- there are those who say the losses of the past three years can never be repaid.

The sting sent three of Mattie White Russell's children to prison, and she risked losing a fourth.
"I didn't think (Tonya) would get off," Russell says. "I knew she didn't live here (at the time of the sting), but I know how people are in this town. They love to put people in jail."

A generation of Tulia's African-American population is gone, leaving a generation of grandparents to raise their grandchildren. Russell, who works as a prison guard, is raising 8-year-old Roneisha and 5-year-old Cashawn while their parents are in other prisons.

"It's a struggle," she says.

The children's mother, Russell's daughter Kizzie White, 25, is serving a 25-year prison sentence. A son, Kareem White, 26, is serving a 60-year sentence; another son, Donnie Smith, 32, was sentenced to 12 years in prison but was released in January. He now works for a meat-packing plant in Plainview, 25 miles south of Tulia.

No one claims that all those snared in the sting were strangers to the drug world.

Smith testified he had sold crack to Coleman but denied using or selling the far more expensive powder cocaine, as Coleman charged; the jury was unswayed, finding Coleman more convincing.
Coleman, who is white, testified that he penetrated the town's black community with the help of a co-worker at the local cattle auction. He offered no real corroborating evidence from the witness stand: no videotapes, no audiotapes, no testimony from other law enforcement officers. Instead, he said, he kept track of details about the deals by writing notes on his leg, afraid electronic surveillance would lead to his discovery.

The jury sentences mounted: 99 years, 90 years, 60 years, and other defendants began to plead guilty and accept prison time, even as they denied their participation in the transactions.

White's case was only the third to be dismissed, says Swisher County District Attorney Terry McEachern, who personally handled the jury trials
and plea bargains.

The fact that so many defendants were African-American prompted critics, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the American Civil Liberties Union, to suggest that the prosecutions -- and the juries that issued the sentences -- were driven by racism. Most of the white defendants had ties to the black community, including biracial children.

Coleman's credibility also came under scrutiny.
The son of a Texas Ranger, Coleman had served as a jailer in Denton and a sheriff's deputy in Pecos and Cochran counties. He was working as a welder when he was hired by the Swisher County sheriff's office to run the undercover drug operation, funded by federal money funneled through the Panhandle Regional Narcotics Task Force.

Defense attorneys later learned that Coleman had built up large debts before abruptly leaving the jobs in Pecos and Cochran counties, and an arrest warrant for theft was issued for him in Cochran County during the Tulia undercover investigation. Coleman was arrested, but the charge was dropped after he settled the debts.

More critical documents surfaced, too, including a 1996 letter from Ken Burke, who was then sheriff of Cochran County, to the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, stating in part that "Mr. Coleman should not be in law enforcement."

McEachern defends the work done by Coleman, who was fired from a similar undercover job in Ellis County last year. "You can always play Monday-morning quarterback," the district attorney observes.
Coleman, who reportedly now works as a private detective in Waxahachie, could not be reached for comment for this article.

As for his own role, McEachern says, "I didn't have any input into the case until it was presented to me by the task force and the sheriff's office."
Once the indictments were issued, he says, "it became my duty to prosecute the cases that I felt there was just cause for. And that was determined by the grand jury."

McEachern denies that race was a defining factor.
"I'm sure, because of the publicity, that there are probably some people that feel like they've been discriminated against," he says. "I certainly do not feel I've been a part of that or anything else like that."
But Russell sees it differently.

"It's not the kids. It's their parents, people my age, the people that were on the jury," she says.
"If every black person would move out of Tulia, they'd be satisfied."

As far as Tonya White knew, her role in the case began with a phone call from her mother shortly after 11 p.m. the day of the arrests. White had just returned home from the evening shift at a nursing home in Shreveport, where she had moved the previous month.

"Your brothers and sister have all been picked up," Mattie White Russell told her. In all, almost a dozen family members were charged, and most of the rest were friends.

White was worried, but not about herself -- she had not lived in Tulia for years. In the summer of 1998 she left the high plains of the Panhandle for Oklahoma City, where she had cousins. The move seemed like an adventure, at least until she discovered she had no love for a big city and that its daunting freeway system was no place to be without a reliable car.

In June 1999 she moved to Shreveport, hoping to forge a closer relationship with her father, a truck driver whom she had met only a few years earlier.
Two months after that first frantic call from her mother, White received another. "She said, `I seen your picture. They got you for selling.' She said, `Lay low. Don't call.' "

White's life on the lam began.

As a place to fade into the background, Shreveport suited her fine. It is a storied but struggling town, pinning its economic hopes on casinos planted along the Red River.

But the glittering lure of easy money had little relationship to White's life. She simply found the city to be a comfortable place to live, easy to get around in but, with a metropolitan population of 250,000 people, half of them African-American, plenty big enough to ensure employment for someone willing to work as a certified nursing assistant.

Mattie Russell's warning call triggered a stream of fretful days and sleepless nights. Unsettled, White told her supervisor what had happened and was told to take two weeks off to pull herself together.
After she returned to find her schedule had been cut to two days a week, she quit and began working as a home health aide.

"I was just trying to keep busy. I kept quiet."

It wasn't hard; for more than a year she worked for an elderly woman who lived just a few houses from the duplex White rents in south Shreveport.

A 1987 graduate of Tulia High School, White became a nursing assistant about 10 years ago. It was a field that, while offering little in the way of status or money, offered steady employment. "If you want to work, you can always find a job."

So, with no husband or children to claim her time, she worked, building a life and a comfortable home, filled with tasteful furniture, green plants and scented candles.

For two years after her indictment, White lay low. She walked everywhere she could to limit the chances of being stopped.

She didn't go back to Tulia, although her mother occasionally traveled to Shreveport. Her sister is in prison in Gatesville, and her brother Kareem in Abilene, making visiting them too risky. She didn't see her brother Donnie until his release earlier this year.

Her future was on hold, too: She wanted to go to school to become a radiation technologist but was afraid to attempt it while the threat of arrest loomed.
Periodically, Russell called to report that the police hadn't forgotten her.

"She never did tell them anything," White says. "One time she told them I got married and moved to Africa."

But in January 2000 White had to take a risk. Her driver's license was about to expire.

"That was the scariest thing in the world," she says. "I didn't go to the main station but to a little bitty substation." As she filled out the forms, the clerk picked up the telephone. White froze.

"I was, `Oh, Lord. She's calling the police.' "
Eventually her heart rate slowed. The clerk didn't check for outstanding arrest warrants from other states, and White got her license.

She learned a lesson, too.

"I watch a lot of TV, and I used to say, `Man, that stuff's not real. But it's real.' "

Looking back, White says she always knew that difficult time wouldn't last forever.

"I wasn't really on the run," she says. "If they really wanted me, they could have come and got me."
Finally she grew tired of it. Tired of looking over her shoulder, afraid to go out at night, afraid to tell her friends the truth.

But her family knew, and she was periodically contacted by defense lawyers, offering to take her case for a $2,500 retainer. "I'm a poor black woman," she says. "I don't have $2,500."

Last September, Blackburn called to say he would represent her for free.

Blackburn had joined the cause after being approached by a lawyer for Cash Love, who was sentenced to more than 300 years in prison. (Love, who is white, is the father of Kizzie White's youngest child.)

As he learned more about the sting, Blackburn's outrage grew. "I felt a little guilty," he says. "Here I am in Amarillo. I do civil rights cases. I do criminal law. ... And this is the first time I came to understand what happened in Tulia, the impact it had on the community.

"The collateral damage is extraordinary, the number of breadwinners that have been removed from that community. ... The black community in Tulia cannot really recover."

Blackburn and a couple of other Amarillo attorneys began planning a long-term campaign to handle the remaining criminal cases and file legal papers asking that those still imprisoned be released; ultimately, they hope to gain pardons for everyone who was convicted or pleaded guilty. The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund is also involved and has recruited lawyers from a number of East Coast firms to help.

Closing Tonya White's case would be one step. So when Blackburn called in November to say that $2,500 in donations had been collected to post her bail, White went home.

"It was something," Blackburn says. "It was really a leap of faith on her part."

White tried to steel herself for the possibility of prison, while concentrating on the fact of her innocence.

Some of the people arrested may have used drugs or even sold them, she says. "I don't know, because I wasn't there."

Instead, she repeats what has become a familiar refrain among those critical of the charges: "I don't see how you could arrest 46 people for doing something in such a small town like that. ... When you arrest drug dealers, you're going to find money, guns and drugs. But they went in early in the morning, and they didn't find any of that? It's unreal."
hrough it all, White rejected any thought of a plea bargain, even one that promised probation.

"She was facing long odds, but we had a strong client," Blackburn says. "She was determined, and yeah, I was immediately convinced of her innocence. ... I didn't know we would be able to prove it."

He began looking for evidence that she hadn't been in Tulia on Oct. 9, 1998. Rent receipts proved she had an apartment in Oklahoma City. Telephone records showed her telephone was used that day, but Blackburn knew the prosecution could argue that proved only that someone was there, not necessarily White.

His legal assistant, Virginia Cave, got the break.
"We were looking for everything at that point," Cave says. "I was talking to Mattie one day, and it just came up."

Russell mentioned that her daughter had been injured on a job and received a settlement from workers' compensation.

"We burned a wire to Tonya, and she was, `Oh, yeah. I was getting those checks. ... Oh, yeah, I had to go to the bank and cash them," Blackburn says.
She didn't remember which bank -- by this time three years had passed -- so Blackburn sent an investigator to all the banks near her former apartment.

Because White had withdrawn $8 in cash from a $168 check, depositing the rest, the bank had noted the date and time of the transaction, Blackburn says. The notation mirrored the day, and almost the time, she was accused of selling drugs in Tulia.
Less than a week before her case was scheduled for trial in April, White had an alibi.

McEachern dismissed the charges.

Really, he says now, the deposit slip isn't absolute proof that White was at an Oklahoma City bank within a few hours of the time she was accused of selling cocaine to Coleman. "But it created enough doubt in my mind that I didn't feel I should go forward in that case."

White had been charged with selling 4 grams of cocaine, a second-degree felony. But Coleman also had claimed the sale took place within 1,000 feet of a playground, a circumstance that would have upgraded it to a first-degree felony.

"I'm still shaking," White said weeks later. "Even though I knew I was innocent, I might have had to do 99 years."

What possessed her to take out $8 in cash, instead of depositing the entire check or asking for a larger sum? "I don't know what I was doing," she says. "I might have needed some gas. But thank God for that $8."

he impact of the sting may ultimately be harder to measure than the numbers of people arrested and the sentences meted out.

Property taxes went up by 6 percent to cover the cost of housing and prosecuting those arrested, and while many people remain supportive, others -- both black and white -- have been critical of law enforcement.

Not even McEachern will claim that drugs are less available in Tulia than before Tom Coleman came to town.

"I really think that ... it's going to be real hard to stop drugs from being sold," he says. "That not only goes for Tulia, Texas, but for Houston, Texas."

As to whether the prosecutions were worth the controversy, McEachern seems ambivalent.
It is his job to prosecute cases after a grand jury issues indictments, he says, "but I will not send anybody to prison that I do not believe did the crime."
Still, he adds, "I don't think anybody could go through the ... turmoil that's been caused and like it."

But more turmoil appears unavoidable.

As appeals are exhausted, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund will file writs of habeas corpus seeking to have people freed, says Vanita Gupta, a lawyer with the fund, which is working with the Amarillo lawyers.

The Legal Defense and Educational Fund takes cases involving possible racial bias, Gupta says, but the organization also is concerned about legal issues raised in the Tulia cases.

Gupta first went to Tulia last fall, and the first writ was filed in January on behalf of Jason Jerome Williams, who is serving a 45-year prison term. More will follow, Gupta says.

"We hope it won't take (years), but we're going to be here for the long haul, as long as it takes for the Tulia arrestees to get some real justice.

"Tonya's case was a victory, but we really believe Tonya's case is just one of the 46."

If McEachern dreads the blizzard of legal paperwork headed his way, he isn't saying.

"Of course, they're free to file any type of writ that they want to file," he says. "I don't think it's going to impact my office. We just take one day at a time."
o does White, as she shrugs off the shroud of secrecy that surrounded her for so long.

Few people in Shreveport know her story, and that's fine. "I don't want them to know. This is where I live."
But she has also moved into a more public role, including a trip to New York City with Blackburn for a May 8 rally sponsored by the William Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice, protesting the state of New York's strict sentencing laws for drug offenders.

White met Randy Credico, an activist with the Kunstler Fund, when she turned herself in, and she was excited about his invitation to New York.
"That's my dream, to go to New York," she said before the trip. "This is probably the only chance I'll ever have to go."

She saw the sights, walking the teeming streets until she was exhausted. And when it came time for the rally, she climbed onto the back of a flatbed truck to face a sea of people as Blackburn described her case, arguing that problems with the legal system aren't confined to New York.

White was asked to speak but demurred, feeling overwhelmed by the sheer number of people. But she was inspired by those she met, including the mothers of people who had run afoul of New York's drug laws. Meeting activist Al Sharpton was a thrill.
"He was great, just the way I pictured him," she said. "A little short man, talking about civil rights."

Whatever twist of fate led to White's being swept up in the Tulia drug busts has also given her a place, if only temporarily, in the fight against injustice.

"I never imagined that, but I'm going to start. I want to see what I can do."