On July 23, 1999, undercover narcotics officer Thomas Coleman executed one of the biggest drug stings in Texas history. By the end of the blazing summer day, Coleman and his drug task force had rounded up and arrested dozens of residents of the small farming town of Tulia. Thirty-nine of the 46 people accused of selling drugs to Coleman were African American. It was a bold move by the later-named Texas Lawman of the Year. But it was exactly what many of Tulia's white citizens had hoped for when Coleman came to town.
The sign off Highway 27 to Tulia welcomes visitors to "the Richest Land and the Finest People." But entering Tulia, the closed businesses and abandoned gas stations are stark reminders of a dying economy. The few available jobs in Tulia, as cashiers, gas attendants or farm hands, are low paying, and Tulia's small African-American community has suffered most from the town's decline.
Like many other struggling rural towns in America, cheap drugs like methamphetamines and crack have become more readily available in Tulia. But when Coleman went to work in Tulia, he zeroed in on a high-priced drug he claimed was plaguing the town: cocaine.
It all started in the spring of 1998 when a drifter named T.J. Dawson turned up in Tulia looking for work. "T.J." was the undercover alias of Coleman. Transformed into a longhaired rocker, Coleman sped through town in his pickup truck and worked a string of odd jobs in Tulia until he claimed he made enough contacts to begin buying drugs.
Eighteen months later, dozens of Tulia residents were woken from their sleep by law enforcement and taken to the local jail in front of television crews tipped off to the sting. Among those charged with selling cocaine were childhood friends and family members. Many were arrested on multiple counts and accused of selling cocaine near parks and schools, "drug-free" zones that carry higher penalties. More than 10 percent of Tulia's adult black population was locked up.
The arrest of 22-year-old Freddie Brookins Jr. came as a shock to his family. The Brookins have deep roots in the community with two generations of the family laboring in Tulia's cotton fields. Freddie, a celebrated high school athlete, had recently graduated from a Job Corp. training program. He had no prior criminal record and insists he never knew Coleman until the day of his arrest.
Coleman, the son of a legendary Texas Ranger, worked the Tulia operation alone and never used surveillance equipment. The Panhandle Regional Narcotics Task Force and Swisher County Sheriff Larry Stewart together hired and supervised Coleman with funding from a federal grant program conceived at the height of the drug wars in the late eighties. The program was designed to help local law enforcement in small rural towns combat drug dealing and often resulted in undercover operations netting large numbers of arrests.
Tulia newspapers applauded the drug sting, christening Coleman the "lone ranger" and reporting on the accused using headlines such as "Tulia Streets Cleared of Garbage." When the first defendants stood trial, Tulia juries handed down guilty verdicts with stiff sentences ranging from 20 to 90 years in prison. Many defendants fearful of a similar fate accepted plea-bargains for probation or reduced prison time. Freddie Brookins Jr. steadfastly denied ever selling Coleman drugs. His family supported Freddie in fighting the charges at trial. The jury delivered a guilty verdict and took just one hour to determine his sentence: 20 years, the maximum time punishable for the offense.
Jeff Blackburn, a criminal defense attorney in Amarillo, Texas, says Freddie Brookins Jr. never had a fighting chance. Like many defendants, he was represented by a court-appointed attorney who Blackburn says did little, if any, investigation for Freddie's case.
Blackburn represented several of the Tulia defendants after a group of concerned Tulia residents, "Friends of Justice", The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, and the New York-based William Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice, began publicly speaking out against the drug sting, raising questions about Coleman's motives and methods
Joining forces with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF), Blackburn began to gather evidence on Coleman, uncovering striking inconsistencies in his investigatory work from misidentifications of defendants to contradicting dates on his reports and time sheets. Then, Blackburn learned that in the middle of the undercover operation in Tulia, Coleman was wanted for arrest for theft in another county he had worked before. But the sheriff and drug task force supervisors continued with the undercover operation anyway, relying on Coleman to finish the job.
After three years of mounting public pressure, and help from powerful Washington D.C. law firm Hogan and Hartson, the attorneys finally won a hearing before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. In March 2003, the legal team presented days of testimony, calling nearly a dozen witnesses to the stand, including Coleman, and entering volumes of evidence that had never been presented to jurors in the original Tulia trials. At the end of the proceedings, in the same courthouse where the Tulia defendants had been tried and convicted years before, presiding Judge Ron Chapman concluded Coleman "was the most devious, non-responsive law enforcement witness this court witnesses in 25 years on the bench in Texas." Prosecutors immediately pursued felony perjury charges against Coleman.
On June 16, 2003, the Tulia defendants were released from prison. With his wife Terri clinging to his arm, Freddie Brookins Jr. hugged his parents as a free man for the first time in nearly four years. Twelve other men and women were also reunited with their families that day.
Two months later, Texas Governor Rick Perry pardoned all the convicted Tulia defendants. A civil lawsuit resulted in a multi-county $6 million settlement and was shared among the defendants and their attorneys. Swisher County paid out $250,000 with the agreement that the pardoned defendants couldn't sue the county. The Panhandle Regional Narcotics Task Force was eventually disbanded, and Coleman was found guilty of aggravated perjury, receiving ten years probation and a felony charge that bars him from ever working in law enforcement again.
Freddie Brookins Jr. returned to Tulia to live near his family and raise his own children there. Even though his felony conviction was overturned in 2003, he has struggled to put what happened behind him and believes that many Tulians still think he is guilty.
"Tulia, Texas" is the story of a small town's search for justice and the price Americans pay for the war on drugs.