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Drug Busts Gone Bad, Then Worse

Crime: Dallas is hit by claims of planted, fake cocaine and corrupt cops and informants.


DALLAS — The bogus drug busts are notorious: Mexican immigrants were jailed, went broke or got deported, only to have the evidence against them fall apart. The bricks of white powder they were charged with peddling turned out to be plaster of Paris--not cocaine or speed, as police had claimed. In all, more than 70 arrests have come unstrung this winter in a very public crescendo of bad cop work and shoddy prosecution.

Now Dallas is in an uproar. Federal investigators are probing the police department. Scores of drug prosecutions have been dismissed. Two narcotics detectives have been suspended. And a scandal that started in the dingy streets on the outskirts of town has worked its way into the city's political machinery.

"It's like watching a slow train wreck," said Paul Coggins, former U.S. attorney for the northern district of Texas. "We may never know exactly what happened."

If truth can be gleaned at all, it will be extracted from a tangled constellation of cops, drug pushers and immigrants. The informants blame crooked detectives. The detectives blame corrupt tipsters and drug dealers who, they say, were trying to rip off their clients with worthless products. The onetime suspected drug dealers--who are expected to file a bevy of civil rights lawsuits against the city--blame a vast, racist conspiracy.

Los Angeles Times Tuesday April 9, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 2 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
Drug arrests--In a story Friday in Section A about tainted drug busts in Dallas, a defense attorney was quoted as saying that his client's signature was forged on drug informant receipts. The quote was misattributed to Glenn White, the president of the Dallas Police Assn. The statement in fact came from attorney William Nellis.

Jose Luis Vega was beneath the belly of an old car the day police swarmed into the garage where he worked. It was a sticky afternoon in August, and Vega--a 35-year-old from Mexico who doesn't speak English--had just finished lunch. Before he could figure out why uniformed officers were rushing into Samuel's Transmission Shop, his wrists were cuffed and he was squeezed into the back seat of a police cruiser.

"What did I do?" he called in Spanish to a passing officer who looked to be Latino.

"You know already," came the reply. While curious neighbors craned their necks, Vega was taken away. Charged with intent to deliver cocaine, he didn't walk out of jail until October, when the 56 pounds of powder seized during his arrest turned out to be plasterboard. With her husband behind bars, 28-year-old Adriana Vega peddled homemade tacos and menudo on the sidewalks of Dallas to pay the bills. "You can't imagine the anguish," she said.

Cynthia Barbare, a hometown defense lawyer who roams the halls of justice with a Yorkshire terrier tucked under one arm, has seen plenty of drug pushers. But Vega didn't seem the type: He bore the rugged face and greasy nails of a man who works for a living. The Vegas share a cramped bungalow in Oak Cliff, a neighborhood of Laundromats, chain-link fences and vacant lots across the muddy Trinity River from downtown Dallas. He drove an old pickup and put in long hours at the garage.

The mechanic and his wife struck Barbare as honest, but it was more than that. The whole bust was peculiar: Who would leave $1 million worth of cocaine in a broken-down--and unlocked--Cadillac on the lawn of an old garage? If Vega were a dealer, where was his cash? Why wasn't he packing a gun? Moreover, Barbare didn't understand why investigators swept in and arrested Vega without questioning him--he didn't own the shop or the car. And after all that, no federal authorities had been notified of the large cocaine seizure.

"There were red flags everywhere," Barbare said. "If you've got drugs in that volume, you want to get at the source. The first thing you're going to do is interrogate. The second thing you're going to do is call the feds. That wasn't happening."

The lawyer sent the alleged cocaine to a laboratory for testing and hooked Vega up to a private polygraph machine. That, it turned out, was the big break. As the polygraph operator listened to Vega's responses, he turned to Barbare with a frown.

"You're not going to believe this," the operator told the lawyer, "but I just did a case for [another Dallas defense attorney] that sounded exactly like this."

That was how Barbare began to string the rotten busts together. The polygraph operator was right: The details in the second case were uncomfortably similar. The suspect: a Mexican immigrant. The place: a mechanic shop. The drug: cocaine--lots of it. The arresting detectives: Mark Delapaz and Eddie Herrera, the same duo that put Vega behind bars.

"I knew right then," Barbare said, "there's a conspiracy here."

The day the laboratory results came back, yet another Mexican family trudged into Barbare's office. A mechanic named Abel Santos was stuck in jail, they explained. The police said he had been selling cocaine out of his neighborhood auto shop. He had been arrested by a pair of detectives who quickly were becoming familiar to Barbare: Delapaz and Herrera.

It was a setup, the family insisted. Somebody had planted cocaine in an abandoned car at the garage, they said, and Santos had been framed.

Barbare and Tony Wright, the other lawyer, spread the word in the courthouse corridors: There's phony dope out there. Get the laboratory tests. Don't plead out.

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