At last count, nearly half the total amount of cocaine seized last year by the Dallas Police Department was pure gypsum. A Sordid Police Trail, Paved in Gypsum

Last spring, the highly-touted narcotics division of the Dallas Police Department was on a roll, chalking-up more than a dozen large cocaine busts, amounting to more than 650 pounds of white powder being pulled off the streets. It was, perhaps in hindsight, too good to be true.

By fall 2001, lab tests began confirming a troubling pattern for the district attorney’s office. Most of the seized white powder wasn’t what arresting officers claimed it was. Instead, lab experts discovered finely ground gypsum, a substance most commonly found in wallboard. At last count, nearly half the total amount of cocaine seized last year by the Dallas Police Department was pure gypsum.

Dallas Police Chief Terrell Bolton seemed eager to believe that his department had successfully caught drug dealers in the unlikely enterprise of attempting to hawk large quantities of phony cocaine. The Dallas Morning News, which broke the story, quotes Bolton on January 1, 2002 as saying, "I think the system worked. We discovered it [the gypsum]."

Since then, bad has gone worse for Chief Bolton’s beleaguered department. It appears that most, if not all, of the gypsum-related "cocaine" seizures can be traced back to an unidentified, paid police informant and two veteran narcotics officers. Those seizures resulted in the arrests of as many as 39 people, most of whom happen to be lower-income Hispanics or Mexican citizens who speak little or no English.

On January 15, Chief Bolton changed his tune slightly: "We’re going to get to the bottom of every issue associated with this." He announced that the two veteran narcotics cops had been placed on paid leave pending an investigation of the questionable arrests -- one of which, at the time, was billed as one of the largest drug busts in Dallas history. In addition, Chief Bolton said he had called in the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), to advise his internal investigation.

Dallas District Attorney Bill Hill, who has suspended all prosecutions of gypsum-related cases, invited the FBI to launch an investigation, not only of the police department, but of his office as well.

Mr. Hill and Chief Bolton also have changed the testing procedures for seized narcotics. Prior to the gypsum revelations, police did not submit evidence for lab tests until just before a suspect’s trial. The conventional wisdom was that the accused often cut plea bargains based on the police’s preliminary field tests alone, thus saving time and money. Newly instituted procedures will require lab tests on evidence prior to any indictments.

The Investigation

Dirty informant? Crooked cops? Faulty field tests? Here’s what has been uncovered so far:

We know little about the informant. We do know he was paid well for his services. In exchange for information leading to at least 70 drug busts since 1999, he received roughly $200,000, according to news reports. Yet, according to Chief Bolton, the informant passed a polygraph, indicating he didn’t know the drugs that turned out to be gypsum were phony at the time.

What about the suspended officers? Were they trying to beef up their arrest records? Was race a factor or were the Mexicans they arrested just easy targets? The suspended narcotics officers, Senior Cpl. Mark Delapaz and Officer Eddie Herrera, have more than 10 years on the force and are both highly commended.

As to the possibility that field tests conducted by the police on the cocaine were faulty, experts say it is highly unlikely the gypsum could have triggered a false positive. If anything, a field test might read genuine cocaine as fake, not the other way around.

The Accused

Quickly forgotten in public tempests of this sort are the stories of the victims, which, in this case, are those who served time behind bars for crimes they didn’t commit, or, absent the ability to defend themselves, were quickly deported in plea bargain deals. Many of those who weren’t deported hope to resume normal lives in an America they’ve quickly grown to distrust.

"I didn’t do anything. It wasn’t fair. I don’t think the system is fair," said Jose Luis Vega to the Associated Press. Mr. Vega, a 35-year-old Mexican immigrant and family man, was one of the 39 falsely accused.

Mr. Vega was at the auto repair shop where he worked last August when police came knocking at the door. Having found "drugs" in a vehicle at the repair shop, they would only tell him that "he knew" why he was being arrested, despite his repeated pleas to the contrary.

Mr. Vega soon found himself behind bars, bail set at half a million dollars. The police department’s informant alleged Vega had stashed more than 25 kilos of cocaine in a vehicle at the shop. Police bought the story and claimed field tests confirmed the powder was cocaine. The informant may have received upwards of $3,000 for the bust.

Unlike some of the other defendants who pled guilty despite their innocence, Mr. Vega’s family fought back. They hired Cynthia Barbare, a Dallas criminal defense attorney with more than 11 years experience in defending those accused of Mr. Vega’s supposed crime.

To Ms. Barbare, and defense attorneys involved in similar cases, the facts simply didn’t add up. Mr. Vega, like most of the accused, was poor, had no prior arrests, and the amount of cocaine said to be in his possession was enormous. Barbare believed Mr. Vega’s claim of innocence and asked for independent tests to be conducted on the evidence, as well as a polygraph test. Mr. Vega passed the polygraph, and the seized "cocaine" was gypsum.

Word traveled fast around the courthouse, and other defense attorneys began comparing notes and demanding independent tests of their own. The revelations were beyond anyone’s wildest imagination --- dozens of people charged with possession of cocaine had, in fact, been "in possession" of mostly ground sheetrock.

Mr. Vega was freed after spending more than two months in jail. He had no job to come home to, having been fired after his arrest, and past due bills were piled high. He was one of the lucky ones. The same could not be said for Abel Santos.

Mr. Santos, a 26-year old auto mechanic who came to America illegally over 15 years ago, was also arrested last summer, charged with "possessing with the intent to deliver" more than 400 grams of cocaine. Lab tests later revealed the substance was gypsum. Mr. Santos was deported before the charges against him were dismissed.

A month after Mr. Vega was released from prison, Michael Irvin, former star wide-receiver for the Dallas Cowboys, won a quick dismissal of felony cocaine possession charges against him due to a warrant-less search of the young lady’s apartment he was "visiting" when FBI agents stormed in. "It’s a God thing…He stepped in and got it done before we even got to trial," claimed Mr. Irvin. Meanwhile, there were more than a dozen wrongly accused Mexicans behind bars hoping for a little divine intervention of their own.

The Aftermath

As we write this, Dallas prosecutors are working to dismiss the charges in at least 59 gypsum-related cases, which include the 39 Hispanics and Mexican citizens who were arrested. Meanwhile, federal grand jury subpoenas are being served on the police department for records related to the gypsum cases.

According to news reports, Cynthia Barbare is planning a civil rights lawsuit on behalf of Messrs. Vega and Santos. "The majority of defendants involved are Mexican nationals, which to me looks like they were targets," Barbare told the Dallas Morning News.

A federal civil rights lawsuit already has been filed by plaintiff’s attorney Don Tittle on behalf of Emigdio Esparza, a Mexican imprisoned for five months before it was determined the 60 kilos of cocaine he was charged with trafficking was gypsum. The suit charges the Dallas Police Department and Officers Delapaz and Herrera with knowingly imprisoning Mexican nationals and Hispanics with false evidence.

Sunlight, the Best Disinfectant

This one has all the ingredients for a very long, very public controversy — the kind that turns major cities like Dallas upside down, leaving fingers pointed and many more questions than answers.

If they had been convicted, the defendants in many of the gypsum-tainted cases could have faced up to life in prison. With little money and little command of the English language to mount an adequate defense, many agreed to plea bargains from prosecutors who seemed more intent on chalking up scores than establishing the facts in the case.

As for the police, it may be that the troubling pattern of evidence was lost on officials playing the numbers game -- cops tend to get intoxicated by the big busts. And as for the informant, guilty or not, he’s $200,000 richer.

Whatever may ultimately come of this investigation, lost may be much of the public’s trust in their local justice system. What may be gained is a new appreciation for the constitutional right of due process, albeit at an extremely high cost for all the investigations, prosecutions and civil lawsuits.

In the end, someone’s going to take the fall for this. Someone always does. There are lots of cities out there like Dallas. We hope they’re paying attention.

January 31, 2002
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