Tulia Blues

How the Lingering Effects of a Massive Drug Bust Devastated One Family in a Small Texas Town

TULIA, TEXAS—Only a few years ago, Mattie White liked to sit on the front porch of her one-story house. In the park across the street, young people played basketball and hung out on the swings, their shouts echoing through the neighborhood. These days, though, Conner Park is quiet. Many of the people who once gathered there are now in prison.

In Tulia, a dry town without a bar or nightclub, Conner Park was a favorite hangout for the town's black youth. Today, it has become a symbol of the community's devastation. For Mattie and many others, the park is a lonely sight, a constant reminder of all the friends, neighbors, and relatives who are gone.

Early on the morning of July 23, 1999, cops burst into homes all over this tiny town in the Texas panhandle. Forty-six people—a few whites and almost half the town's black adult population—were indicted for drug trafficking. Dozens of children became virtual orphans as their parents were hauled to jail. In the coming months, 19 people would be shipped to state prison, some with sentences of 20, 60, or even 99 years.

Mattie White: “My whole world seems like it fell down on me.”
photo: Joe Don Buckner
Mattie White: “My whole world seems like it fell down on me.”

The last trial ended in the fall of 2000, but this chapter in Tulia history has certainly not closed. Ever since the arrests, prisoners' relatives and friends have been struggling with the aftermath: destroyed families, traumatized children, townspeople's cold stares. The ripple effects of a large drug bust may be the same everywhere, but they are especially apparent in a small town, where there is none of the frenzy of urban life to hide the damage.

Mattie, a 50-year-old mother of six, was never accused of selling drugs, but she too has been punished. The undercover drug operation snared her two sons, one daughter, one brother-in-law, two nephews, one son-in-law, one niece, and two cousins. Now Mattie struggles to raise her daughter's two children and juggle two jobs, including one as a prison guard. (Her ex-husband took in a few other grandchildren.) About the undercover drug operation, Mattie says, "It has made my life miserable. My whole world seems like it fell down on me."

Drive 45 minutes south of Amarillo, Texas, and you'll arrive in Tulia (pop. 5117), where a billboard welcomes visitors to the town with "the Richest Land and the Finest People." Perhaps a more accurate description these days would be "the Driest Land and the Most Divided People."

Tulia has the feel of a ghost town. Most of the parking spaces downtown are empty and nearly all the fields are brown. Like many rural farming towns, Tulia has been ailing for years. Farmers who received federal subsidies survived, but the poorer residents, including most of the black population, were hard hit. Farmhand jobs disappeared. Two of the main employers for blacks are a meatpacking plant and a Wal-Mart distribution center, both located in a small city 22 miles away. Working there requires a car, which many people here do not own.

In some ways, the civil rights era seems to have never quite reached Tulia. Poor blacks here live in trailers and subsidized houses in

"Sunset Addition," a neighborhood on the west side that some people still call "Niggertown." Once an almost all-white town, Tulia is now 51 percent white, 40 percent Hispanic, and 8 percent black.

Cocaine has been readily available here for years, as it has been across the rural South. But over the last year, Tulia has emerged as a hotbed of drug-war politics. Activists point to the situation in Tulia as a perfect example of all that is wrong with the war on drugs—from dubious police tactics to ultra-stiff prison sentences to shattered families.

How could such a small, impoverished town possibly support 46 drug dealers? The answer appears to have nothing to do with uncovering a well-organized drug ring and everything to do with a narcotics agent named Tom Coleman. The undercover agent spent 18 months infiltrating the black community here, and the entire drug bust was built on his undercover work. There were no wiretaps, no surveillance photos, and virtually no secondary witnesses. The morning that cops barged into the suspects' homes, they found no weapons, money, or drugs.

Questions about Coleman's credibility have been buzzing along Tulia's grapevine ever since. The black community here insists that Coleman targeted its members, setting up small-time users and fabricating evidence against others. Some defendants charged with selling Coleman drugs said they did not know him. In one case, the agent said he was not certain whether a defendant actually sold him cocaine. The charges against that man were dropped.

While he was working undercover in Tulia, Coleman himself was arrested. The sheriff at a police department where he'd previously worked filed charges of theft and issued an arrest warrant in 1998, after Coleman disappeared mid shift and never returned, leaving behind a pile of debts and a police car parked next to his house. Coleman paid back the money after he was arrested. He did not spend a night in jail. (The NAACP is planning to try to get Coleman indicted for perjury based on a statement he made about his past during a court hearing.)

None of these incidents curbed the Swisher County district attorney's enthusiasm for prosecuting Coleman's cases. Over the next year, Mattie and many others spent hours pacing the corridor of the town courthouse. Mattie's three children decided to go to trial; not one of their jurors was black. Mattie knew many of the jurors, including a few who had played with her on a town softball team. In the end, all three juries voted to convict her children. Of the eight defendants who did not plead guilty and instead went to trial, everyone was found guilty.

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