March 12, 2004 - The Amarillo Globe-News (TX)

Get-Tough Stance Start Of Task Forces

By Kris Abbey

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Basketball fans were in mourning in the summer of 1986.

College star Len Bias, recently drafted by the Boston Celtics, was dead from a cocaine overdose.

The fallout from Bias' death encouraged legislators to pass the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which set mandatory minimum sentences in drug cases and made funds available for local agencies to fight drugs.

In this get-tough-on-drugs climate, Panhandle Regional Narcotics Trafficking Task Force was born.

Funded by federal and state grant money - as well as money from seizures in drug cases - the organization responds to calls from area law-enforcement agencies. Task force agents work undercover, help serve search and arrest warrants, and provide backup for local agencies.

The task force closed three clandestine drug labs in 1989. Last year, officers handled 94 methamphetamine labs and seized more than $3 million worth of methamphetamine, according to the task force's 2003 report.

Total value of drugs seized in 2003 was more than $100 million, the report said.

Before 1987, the only multijurisdictional effort against narcotics activity in the Panhandle was Amarillo Police Department's Organized Crime Unit, which covered Potter, Randall and Deaf Smith counties.

The task force and Organized Crime Unit co-existed under a combined board until 1990, when OCU disbanded and its agents joined the task force.

Col. Robert Francis of APD was the first coordinator of the task force. On Thursday, he declined to comment on task force history, saying he had been instructed to direct all inquiries to the city attorney's office.

The task force weathered several controversies before the Tulia case.

In 1990, a Randall County grand jury issued a report that claimed the philosophical and personal differences between the task force and the Organized Crime Unit could hamper the fight against drugs. The report alleged the governing board over both units was not fulfilling its responsibilities.

The grand jury report described undercover operations as ineffective because agents were well-known in area towns.

In 1993, law agencies in several eastern Panhandle counties feuded with the task force board because those counties felt the task force was not supporting them. The disagreement led to a rift, and three counties began to work drug cases on their own again.

The task force won accolades as the 1998 Texas Narcotics Control Program Task Force of the Year, and one of its agents was named Texas Narcotics Control Program Officer of the Year.

The agent was Tom Coleman, and he garnered the award on the basis of his now-discredited operations in Tulia.


Jan. 21, 1998 - Tom Coleman hired by Swisher County Sheriff Larry Stewart and officials from the Panhandle Regional Narcotics Trafficking Task Force.

March 29, 1998 - Coleman logs his first drug buy in Tulia, posing as TJ Dawson, a man seeking drugs for his girlfriend.

May 6, 1998 - While still on the job in Tulia, Coleman is charged with abuse of official capacity and theft in Cochran County for allegedly using a county credit card to purchase gas for his private vehicle.

Aug. 17, 1998 - Charges against Coleman are dropped after he makes restitution. Coleman goes back to work after passing polygraph exam.

July 20, 1999 - Swisher County grand jury hands down 132 indictments of 46 people based on Coleman's undercover buys.

July 23, 1999 - Scores of officers from numerous agencies conduct early morning raids in Tulia, arresting dozens. Within days, all but two suspects are arrested.

Dec. 15, 1999 - First trial concludes with Joe Moore sentenced to 90 years in prison.

Sept. 7, 2000 - Last trial concludes with Kareem White sentenced to 60 years in prison.

Sept. 28, 2000 - First civil suit filed in federal court on behalf of Yul Bryant, who was mistakenly identified by Coleman.

Oct. 13, 2000 - Complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Justice seeking a civil rights investigation. Results of investigation still have not been released.

Feb. 22, 2001 - Second civil rights suit filed on behalf of Billy Wafer, who was at work at the time Coleman said Wafer was selling drugs. Suit later settled.

July 18, 2002 - Charges dropped against the final defendant, Zury Bossett, who had been on the lam since being charged.

Aug. 26, 2002 - Texas attorney general's office launches investigation of bust. Results still not available.

Sept. 25, 2002 - Texas Court of Criminal Appeals remands the appeals of two defendants back to Swisher County for evidentiary hearings. Two more cases would later be added.

March 17, 2003 - Evidentiary hearings begin in Tulia.

March 22, 2003 - Coleman gives contradictory testimony causing the evidentiary hearings to be stopped. Judge in hearings later issues recommendation that all defendants be freed because Coleman is "unreliable."

April 25, 2003 - Coleman indicted on three counts of aggravated perjury.

June 16, 2003 - All defendants who are still in prison are released on bond to await outcome of their cases.

Aug. 22, 2003 - Gov. Rick Perry issues pardons for nearly all of the defendants in the case. Swisher County agrees to pay $250,000 for immunity from suit by most of the defendants. Federal lawsuit filed against 30 cities and counties on behalf of two cleared defendants.

March 11, 2004 - Amarillo decides to settle federal suit for $5 million and a promise to disband the task force that supervised the Tulia bust.

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