Accusations pile up against a North Texas narc.
‘you can’t be a preacher in your hometown.’
‘in palo pinto, it’s guilt by indictment.’
By DAN MALONE
Rodney Price spent much of the last decade chasing dopers in the rolling, scrubby hills of Palo Pinto County. Working undercover and posing as a druggie, or supervising confidential informants making buys, he figures he’s been involved in a thousand or more transactions during his years on the Cross Timbers Narcotics Task Force.
“Every drug dealer in this county knows me,’’ he said. With his pressed blue jeans, boots, western shirt and hat, he looks more Tractor Supply than Miami Vice. He has a deep voice that exudes confidence and he doesn’t flinch when questioned about the things people are saying about him. Was he drunk on duty? Did he put a civilian’s life at risk? Was he was sexually harassing women on the job? Did he spread devastating rumors about those who didn’t acquiesce?
All lies, he said. And yet some of those accusations have cost Price his badge. Some fellow officers have turned against him and, according to records obtained by Fort Worth Weekly, Price is now under FBI investigation. The allegations against him are detailed in a memo from the state police official who oversees four North Texas drug squads, including Cross Timbers, and in interviews with those who say they’ve given statements to the FBI.
“I would never have believed something like this could happen to anyone,’’ Price said. “It’s hard. My kids have to hear this crap.’’
That same sentiment was earlier voiced by one of Price’s chief accusers, Kim Gibbs Mackey, who said Price has falsely accused her of selling drugs.
“I am ruined in this town,’’ she said. “People need to know what is happening out here. If this can happen to me, someone who is a law-abiding and taxpaying citizen, then it can happen to anyone at any time.’’
“This is a little bitty town and everybody knows everybody,’’ explained Pam Hunter, another of Price’s accusers. “We were all friends for a time.’’
What’s happening is yet another entry on a lengthening list of scandals involving Texas’ regional drug task forces. This one is unfolding bit by bit in a rural county just west of Fort Worth, a place where many of the players are related by blood, friendship, or work. Hunter’s children play ball with Price’s kids. Mackey is a distant cousin of the county prosecutor. Price’s wife used to cut the hair of both women.
Price was removed from his task force job last summer and subsequently fired from the Mineral Wells Police Department. He’s been charged with no crime and is considering a lawsuit against his former employers over his termination. But the implications go beyond the effects on Price’s career. For some, the allegations against him bring to mind the undercover drug scandal in Tulia, where a rogue cop, now under indictment, was accused of making dozens of bogus drug cases against members of that Panhandle town’s tiny African-American community. That flawed sting became a national news story, featured in The New York Times and on 60 Minutes, and a symbol of a misguided and botched battle in the war on drugs.
Though law enforcement officials say they don’t believe Price’s conduct calls the validity of his cases into question, others wonder whether Cross Timbers is following the path blazed by the Panhandle task force.
The Weekly first wrote about Price two years ago, when his current troubles were simmering. That article examined a questionable drug case he made against an African-American man from Dallas, Aaron Jefferson, who claims he was set up and sent down for 30 years for something he didn’t do. Price said this week that he is confident that Jefferson is guilty and noted that his conviction has been upheld on appeal.
But Jefferson, in papers filed with his case, pointed out parallels. “There was a very similar situation that happened in Tulia, Texas, and we know how that turned out,” he wrote. Jefferson said he is continuing to appeal his conviction.
When Price was fired last fall, Mineral Wells Public Safety Director Jerry White accused him of being intoxicated on duty and of jeopardizing a civilian’s life during an undercover operation. In sworn statements, two Department of Public Safety troopers said they found Price’s vehicle stuck in a ditch in late 2002 with Price and an unidentified woman inside.
“Price was telling us how he had been working undercover in Mingus earlier in the night,’’ Trooper Rebecca E. Haley said in an affidavit. “He appeared to be intoxicated. He smelled of alcoholic beverage, had slurred speech, and stumbled as he walked toward us.’’
Even though Price appeared to be drunk, Trooper Michael D. Stoner said, he and his partner decided not to arrest him because “neither I nor Trooper Haley actually observed Price driving the pickup.’’
In an interview this week, Price said he “remembers the incident well,’’ but that the troopers have the story wrong. He said he was returning from a fishing trip, alone, and was neither drunk nor on duty. “Simply, what they said happened, didn’t,’’ he said. “If it would have, they’d have taken me to jail.’’
The troopers probably made the allegation, he said, “because I had just caught them in a very compromising position.’’ But Price refused to elaborate on what he said he saw.
The troopers were not available for comment. Their supervisor, Sgt. David Smith, said Price’s allegation was investigated. “We can definitely say that’s not true,’’ he said.
In a second incident, White accused Price of violating Cross Timbers procedures by using an “uninvolved civilian’’ in an attempted undercover drug buy that left the woman “in fear and jeopardized her personal safety.’’ White also accused Price of failing to include the woman’s name in his report.
White’s letter doesn’t identify the woman or provide many details about the incident. But Kim Gibbs Mackey, one of the women who has accused Price of sexual harassment, said that she is at the center of the complaint. “I was one of the reasons he was given that he was fired,’’ she said. Mackey is a 35-year-old mother of two, a former model who said she had known Price since they were in elementary school.
She said Price showed up at her home one day, unannounced, accusing her of selling drugs out of a tanning salon and of peddling her own prescription drugs on the street. She told Price he was welcome to search her property and count her pills. “I had nothing to hide,’’ she said.
When his search turned up nothing, Mackey said, Price insisted on taking her and one of his informants to dinner. After dinner, she said, Price insisted on taking her along on an undercover drug operation.
“You need to be my girlfriend,’’ Mackey said Price told her. “I need to make a drug buy.’’ She agreed to play the role of “Brandy” to Price’s “James” while the informant introduced the make-believe couple to a suspected drug dealer.
When the trio arrived at the suspect’s house, Mackey was astounded to learn that she knew the man who lived there and feared that their cover would be instantly blown. The suspect was so strung out, however, that he failed to recognize her until later. “I should have never been there,’’ she said. Price had his arm around her, she said, telling the would-be dealer “we just want an eight ball, want to get high, we’re just jonesing.’’
On that night, however, there were no drugs to be had. She said Price made arrangements to return the next day to make his score, and the three left. When Price took her home, Mackey said, he invited himself in, saying “we need to talk.” By then, she said, he’d had plenty to drink.
“Let me tell you what’s fixing to happen,’’ she remembered him saying. “If you ever tell anyone this, I will make sure you never make it to the witness stand, I will discredit you. I can pass a polygraph. I will be believed over you.’’ She said he then changed the topic from drugs to sex, telling her he’d “like to start coming over three or four days a week.’’ He was “extremely persistent,” she said, and was “pushing me to have an affair.’’
Eventually though, Price gave up and changed his tactics. “I started hearing I was a prostitute’’ Mackey said. “I was hearing that I was going down for drug dealing. That I was manufacturing drugs at my lake house.’’
Mackey was never arrested for drugs. But earlier this year, she said, she was arrested for interfering with child custody orders in a complicated dispute with her ex-husband involving their young son. And during a temporary custody hearing, none other than Rodney Price took the stand to testify against her. The judge, she said, awarded temporary custody of her son to her ex-husband.
Price confirmed making a drug case on the suspect Mackey named and confirmed having dealt with the informant Mackey identified, but he said the rest of her account is pure fiction.
“Never happened,’’ he said. “I have never put a civilian ... in jeopardy in my life.’’ He said he “dang sure wasn’t intoxicated at her home’’ and “never had any kind of sexual overture with Kim in her house or anyplace else, period.’’
Mackey said, however, that her account was verified by statements to police from the informant and the dealer. And the Mineral Wells officer who investigated the case said the two men confirmed Mackey’s presence that evening.
“The only one who didn’t [confirm it] was Price,’’ Mineral Wells Police Captain Mike McAllester said. “He’s the only one who claimed it’s all a bunch of lies.’’
Nor is Mackey alone in accusing Price of sexual harassment. Pam Hunter is a 30-year-old mother of three who waits tables at a Palo Pinto County café when her children are in school. She says she’s been friends with Price’s wife and worked for the wife of District Attorney Tim Ford. Her children play on the same baseball team as some of Price’s three boys. “It’s very difficult,’’ Hunter said.
She said Price betrayed their friendship by trying to persuade her to have sex with him. When she rebuffed his advances, she said, he then began spreading baseless rumors that she was sleeping around on her husband.
In an incident documented in a memo by the DPS official who oversees Cross Timbers, Hunter said Price repeatedly called on her cell phone, pestering her for sex. The memo recounts her description of what she said was a “typical phone call from Officer Price.”
Officer Price: “Hello.”
Mrs. Hunter: “Hi, how are you doing?”
Officer Price: “Without.”
Hunter, like Mackey, said Price called incessantly, often sounding drunk, and left messages when she didn’t answer. She changed her cell phone number, hoping to end the calls, but Price persisted. Hunter told the DPS that she believes Price got her new phone number from a relative of the district attorney.
At first, Hunter said in an interview, she didn’t know how to respond to Price’s overtures. He was, after all, a well-connected big fish in their small pond, and his wife was one of her friends.
Hunter finally had all she could take and sought advice from another friend, Justice of the Peace Todd Baker, who contacted the DPS. But Hunter said her complaints to state police only led Price to change tactics — just as Mackey said had happened to her.
“Since all of this has happened, he’s still trying to ruin me,’’ she said. Price told her husband “that I was sleeping around on him. It’s awful, he told everyone that.
“He thinks he’s above the law in every way,’’ she said. “I’ve completely had it with this stuff.’’
Hunter’s mother, Debra McKinney, owns a grocery store near the Palo Pinto courthouse and said she too has talked to the FBI. She said she’s afraid of Price and worries that the complaints about him are being treated lightly. “No authority is taking this seriously,’’ she said.
McKinney said she’s known Tim Ford, the district attorney, since he was a boy. Until recently, she said, “I would have put my money on him [Ford] any time, but he is oblivious to the real Rodney Price.’’
She said Ford telephoned her one day, warning her to keep Hunter away from Mackey for Hunter’s own good. In that same conversation, she said, the prosecutor was singing Price’s praises, “trying to tell me what a fine upstanding citizen Rodney was, that he was just the epitome of all that’s good in law enforcement.’’
Price urges those curious about his reputation to call Ford or District Judge Jerry Ray. He said he has filed more than a hundred cases with Ford, and never lost one. The Weekly put in telephone calls to the prosecutor and the judge this week, but heard back from neither.
The Weekly found no evidence that either Mackey or Hunter has been convicted of a drug offense. In an interview, Mackey acknowledged a teen-age experimentation with drugs but said she has neither used nor sold them as an adult. She also said that she recently passed a hair follicle test that shows she hasn’t been using drugs.
Hunter said she’s never used illegal drugs, never even so much as a drag off a joint. “Never in my life, and I would swear to that on a Bible,’’ she said. “The only drug I ever used is beer.’’
Price, however, said he is convinced that both women were involved in drugs.
“I have no doubt that Pam Hunter was getting her drugs for free from Kim Mackey,’’ he said. The two women, like the two troopers, are motivated by what he knows about them, he said. “You don’t make narcotics cases and not make enemies,’’ he said. Mackey and Hunter are making accusations against him, he said, because they knew “no doubt I would bust them for drugs.’’
Mackey, Hunter, and McKinney all said they have given statements to an FBI agent, Jared Von Bose, about their encounters with Price. Von Bose declined to comment on the case and referred questions to Lori Bailey, the spokeswoman for the FBI’s Dallas office.
“We’re conducting a preliminary investigation,’’ Bailey said. “I don’t know if this will rise to the level of a federal violation.’’
Price worked as a Palo Pinto County deputy sheriff and Mineral Wells patrol officer for several years before joining the task force in the early 1990s. His personnel file contains glowing statements from his superiors. Over the years, they described him as a “steady producer of good work,’’ as an officer who “displays a professional style that gives the public confidence’’ and who “respects the opinions of others [and] works to avoid unpleasant confrontations.”
In 1997, Task Force Commander Bryan Wright lauded Price for “tireless effort’’ and “personal sacrifices’’ during a six-month cocaine investigation that resulted in 21 arrests. When he was voted task force officer of the year by his peers in 1996, Wright lauded him for “exemplary work’’ and for setting an “excellent example’’ for other officers.
Price has appealed his firing. A Texas Workforce Commision hearing officer ruled earlier this month that the evidence of misconduct against Price was insufficient. The city, the hearing officer said, had failed to produce time cards showing that Price was working when the DPS said he was intoxicated. Nor was there any “explanation as to why it took so long for the troopers to report the incident.’’
That same ruling notes, however, that the city “had information and affidavits on other possible violations ... but declined to produce those documents or evidence due to an investigation pending by the FBI.’’
Similarly, in its response to the Weekly’s request for public records on Price, the city released 217 pages of records but withheld “documents containing information that is currently under investigation’’ by the FBI.
There is at least one indication that the city may have withheld even more information. Price gave the Weekly an Aug. 28, 2003, memo from a supervisor at the police department which again describes him in glowing terms after he had been reassigned from the task force. He reports to work “on time with a smile on his face ready to get the day started.’’ Though it appears to have nothing to do with the FBI probe, that document was not among those the city released.
The echoes of Price’s firing, however, have rippled across the Cross Timbers task force. One narcotics officer was demoted to jailer for an act of insubordination committed during a related investigation. And Wright, the task force commander, was investigated after some of his officers sent records of a “personal and potentially embarrassing nature’’ about him to the task force board. In a report released last summer, Young County Sheriff Carey Pettus, who also serves as the task force director, said the investigation had revealed “serious leadership problems accompanied by lax controls’’ and that “petty office jealousies ... had gotten out of control.’’
Wright said he was disciplined with a week off without pay and he’s tried to learn from his mistakes. “I think the task force as a whole remains trustworthy and as good as anyone else,’’ he said. “Could I have changed some things? Absolutely. Were some things changed? Absolutely.’’
Pettus also said he was initially concerned about whether Price’s conduct might cast doubt upon the validity of his work. “I asked that question, and everyone who worked with him told me they felt like his cases were all righteous,’’ Pettus said.
Defense attorneys who have tried drug cases in Palo Pinto County say the allegations against Price may well affect the outcome of future trials.
“Any time you’ve got people with problems in their personal background ... it ought to call into question whether you believe that person beyond a reasonable doubt,’’ said Danny Burns. But Palo Pinto County juries are notoriously pro-police and tough on defendants, he said. “In Palo Pinto, it’s guilt by indictment.’’
“The first thing I would do is ask for his disciplinary record,’’ says Alex Tandy, another defense attorney. “And obviously he’s been disciplined. I’d ask if he’d ever been terminated before and he’d have to say yes and then I’d ask, ‘For what?’ He’d dance, but I’ve got his record.’’
Price and his lawyer, Jim Lane, said they are waiting to see whether Mineral Wells officials appeal the workforce commission ruling before filing a lawsuit over his termination. Both said they had difficulty getting explanations for his termination and learned more from records the Weekly obtained than they had from Mineral Wells officials.
Before reviewing those records, Lane said, “All we’ve been told about is the two DPS officers. ... If they thought he was drunk they should have arrested him. That’s what DPS does all the time.’’
“They’ve never told us what the allegations are against him,’’ Lane said. “We’re really kinda swatting at flies. We don’t know what they’re claiming he did.’’
Price said his only regret is where he worked, not the job he’s done .”I really did believe I made a difference once I got into it. I did my job. I did it well,’’ he said. “Like the old saying goes, you can’t be a preacher in your hometown. You can’t be a narcotics officer, either.’’
Price hopes to work in law enforcement again, perhaps undercover. Now, though, he’s seeking another job in his hometown: He’s running for constable. He was unopposed in the Republican primary and faces a Democratic opponent in November. That voters might give him power again to flash a badge, though, scares some who have dealt with him.
“He does not need to be constable down here,’’ Pam Hunter said. “I’ve told my husband,” that if Price becomes constable, her husband might as well “just put me in county jail and write me up.”
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