Feature: Wednesday, August 1, 2002

A Dallas man’s conviction raises questions about yet another drug task force.

By Dan Malone

Aaron Jefferson’s life seemed on track not so long ago. The lanky 43-year-old was working in an office supply warehouse and driving a truck in northeast Dallas, putting in 10- and 11-hour days. It was work that would leave a man tired, dirty, and sweat-drenched by day’s end, but it was a job Jefferson needed. A high-school dropout who grew up never knowing his father, Jefferson had been to prison for less than a year when he was in his 20s. In the 15 years since, sweaty work had helped keep him clean. Now married and a father himself, more trouble was the last thing Jefferson wanted.

His weekends were nothing extraordinary, just time to relax with kin and friends. Jefferson and a buddy sometimes would cruise the streets of Dallas, shooting the breeze. Or he might hang with his extended family of uncles, aunts, and cousins. Or drive out west and take in the view of the undulating hills of Palo Pinto County, where he had recently made friends.

When Thanksgiving came around in 1999, Jefferson had not a hint of the trouble that stalked him, ready to pounce, a mountain lion on a cottontail. But the very next day, a police officer stopped Jefferson and a friend for running a red light on Ferguson Road. The officer took Jefferson’s license and returned to his patrol car. As Jefferson waited for the officer to write a ticket, it dawned on him that this was taking longer than a routine traffic stop should. He asked his friend: “Man, are you wanted for anything?”

His friend wasn’t. And Jefferson didn’t think he was either. But when the officer returned, Jefferson learned that a warrant had been issued for his arrest in Palo Pinto County.

Jefferson was jailed in Dallas over the weekend, and then transferred to Palo Pinto County for several days. He learned that the Cross Timbers Narcotics Task Force, an agency operating in Palo Pinto and a handful of neighboring counties west of Fort Worth, had accused him of a small-time drug deal in Mineral Wells the day after Christmas in 1998 — a $150 transaction that Jefferson swears he knows nothing about.

Jefferson wasn’t arrested until nearly a year after the alleged deal and wouldn’t go to trial for two more years, in April 2002. Jefferson thought the prosecution’s case was incredibly weak — a fuzzy tape, a single informant. Testimony in the guilt or innocence phase of his trial lasted four and a half hours. A jury convicted him in 20 minutes. And Jefferson was sentenced by a judge to 30 years in prison for selling barely enough cocaine to give a stoner a daylong buzz.

Prosecutors and cops say their case against the Dallas man is solid. But Jefferson’s conviction adds another page to the pile of questions being raised about drug task force cases. Rural fear about urban crime and the methods of some local narcs have proved a volatile mixture in far-flung and unlikely places. Tulia, Texas, for example, continues to make national headlines for a 1999 task force sting in which the town’s tiny black population was decimated on the word of a white undercover cop with a checkered past.

Cross Timbers has avoided such notoriety. The agency in 2000 had a staff of about a dozen, with a budget of about $700,000. Money is the mother’s milk of undercover narcotics operations, and Cross Timbers earmarked $35,000 for confidential funds — more than it paid all but two of its agents that year, records show. In a recent three-month period, Cross Timbers narcs boasted of filing 98 cases, dismantling a dozen drug labs, and aiding in the seizure of more than three tons of marijuana. Many of the agency’s cases are made with confidential informants. Forty task force cases — including Jefferson’s — have been made by a single snitch, Pamela Kay Newman, a convicted thief and accused drug dealer who has been back in trouble again herself. The informant’s work in Jefferson’s case has raised questions that continue to linger three years later.

Alex Tandy, a Fort Worth defense attorney, doesn’t know Jefferson or anything first-hand about his case. But he’s tried enough cases to know Palo Pinto is the last county in Texas in which anyone would want to stand trial for drugs.

“They blame everything from diaper rash to bad hair days on drugs in the community,’’ he said. “It’s the toughest county I’ve ever tried a drug case in — no question about it.”

Cross Timbers is one of 46 federally funded local narcotics squads that work largely in the shadows of the war on drugs in Texas. One of the oldest task forces in the state, it was set up shortly after Congress funded a program in 1988 to help local law enforcement bust dopers. For much of their existence, such task forces have operated without much public scrutiny — but with considerable fanfare from local news media for successful busts. The local paper in Mineral Wells, for example, heralded Newman’s bust beneath the July 8, 1998 headline, “Task Force Arrests 4 More.” Thanks to Tulia and other cases, such task forces are getting a new kind of attention.

Jefferson says his conviction was based on the testimony of a desperate snitch and a fuzzy tape recording she made that captures dog barks and holiday chit-chat, but nary a word about a crack deal.

“All it takes in this county is to be accused, and somehow, some way, they will get a conviction,’’ Jefferson said in a letter to Fort Worth Weekly. “They basically do whatever they want to do and get away with it. And until something or someone comes down on them, they are going to continue to railroad people the way they did me.”

Cross Timbers commander Bryan R. Wright said he has full confidence in Newman, his officer, and Jefferson’s conviction. “She’s always been pretty good, fairly truthful,”he said. “Ihave to go with her judgment.”

Palo Pinto County has an ethereal, eerie feel to it. The land itself is beautiful — from the chalky cliffs of Possum Kingdom Lake to the cedars, mesquite, and oaks that carpet the rolling hills. Its ghostliness stems partially from things long lost. The dominant landmark in Palo Pinto County is Mineral Wells’ 14-story Baker Hotel, shuttered when Richard Nixon, who first declared a war on drugs, was in the White House. Twelve miles to the west, a majestic courthouse rises as if misplaced from the town of Palo Pinto, the county seat with a population of about 400.

The county’s 953 square miles are lightly populated, and many of its residents teeter on the edge of poverty. The county’s remoteness has long been a drawing card for speed cooks. But much of the local drug trade is fueled by small-time peddlers whom Tim Ford, the current district attorney, calls “welfare dopers” — people who cook just enough speed or peddle just enough crack to pay for their own habits.

By spring of 1998, Pamela Newman’s life had swirled out of control. The 43-year-old Mineral Wells native was working as a resort manager at Possum Kingdom. She already had theft and credit card abuse convictions when a Palo Pinto County grand jury indicted her for twice selling amphetamine to another confidential informant, in whose footprints Newman would soon be walking. With two new drug cases on top of her existing criminal record, Newman knew better than to trust her fate to a jury in Palo Pinto County. Jurors there come from tough, no-nonsense stock and have virtually no tolerance for dopers — whether skin-popping street addicts or fat dealers piling up mountains of cash.

“They’re very religious people,’’ said Tim Ford. “They go back four and five generations. They kind of believe in God, family, and country — in that order. They have no room for drugs.’’

“Everybody is given an opportunity to help themselves,’’ he explained. “Some, like Pam Newman, say OK. Others just flip us off and say shove it.’’

So Newman approached a prosecutor to see “if there was anything I could do to possibly help get myself out of it. My life had become totally unmanageable and was a mess and I wanted it different,’’ she later said on the witness stand. The prosecutor told her to get in touch with a Cross Timbers narcotics officer named Rod Price — the man who had busted her.

Rodney D. Price had been a cop for about 10 years by that time. He started his law enforcement career as a Palo Pinto sheriff’s deputy when he was in his early 20s, and was later hired by Mineral Wells police. For the last nine years, he’s been assigned to Cross Timbers. In Jefferson’s case, he testified that his record in law enforcement had never been blemished by so much as a single reprimand.

On the witness stand, Price estimated that he’s made or supervised thousands of drug cases during his years on the task force. In the beginning, he could work the cases himself. But that meant he had to testify, and people would get to know what he looked like. As his value undercover dwindled, he began to do more “controlled buys,” sending informants into dope houses to conduct the business he no longer could.

Ford describes Price as an honest cop who puts getting dope off the street above all else. “Like Rodney says, there’s plenty of good cases to make without having to fudge or lie,” Ford said. “There are no qualms.’’

Newman started working as Price’s spy sometime in 1998 — about the same time Jefferson started coming to the county.

While still in the Palo Pinto jail, Jefferson said he started hearing stories from other prisoners about a “white chick’’ working undercover with local narcs. “Guys were talking about ... this chick going around setting up people,” Jefferson recalled. He didn’t hear a name until he was released from jail and read his indictment. But even when he got the white chick’s name, it did him no good. Jefferson said he didn’t know anyone named Pamela Kay Newman — much less anything about crack dealing in Palo Pinto County.

Jefferson describes himself as a city boy who knew little about life in the sticks. Over the Labor Day weekend in 1998, a friend took him camping on the Brazos River near Mineral Wells, and he became enamored with the countryside and the people he met.

“I’d never been in the country,’’ Jefferson said. “Seeing that they were actually having a good time kind of intrigued me.’’ Eventually, he started spending some of his days off with his newfound friends. “I’d drive down there and see everybody, kick it with them a little bit.’’

One of the people he met was a man named Carlos E. Wallace. Jefferson said Wallace’s house, with its big-screen television, was a weekend gathering place. It wasn’t unusual for 10 or 15 people to be inside when he would drop by. Jefferson said there was always a lot going on in Wallace’s house — and some of those present might have been using drugs. But Jefferson says if anyone was dealing dope, it was news to him.

Law enforcement paints another picture of Wallace’s average-looking brick home in southwest Mineral Wells. Officials say Wallace turned his home into a drug brothel where anyone with the right combination of bills could get laid, high, or both. Even worse, this neighborhood nuisance was just up the street from an elementary school.

A little before midnight on the day after Christmas, 1998, Price, a second officer, and Newman huddled in Price’s car in the school parking lot just up the street from Wallace’s house. The cops searched Newman, put a running microcassette tape recorder in her coat pocket, then sent her inside to buy what she could with two $50s, two $20s, and two $5 bills. She emerged a few minutes later and returned to Price’s car with, about $150 worth of crack — and the case that would take Jefferson off the streets.

Police couldn’t arrest dealers immediately after Newman’s buys without blowing her cover. Jefferson and other alleged sellers remained free while Newman kept making cases at $50 a pop. Newman eventually made about 40 buys for Cross Timbers, including cases against Wallace and another man who police said lived in a second drug house, Jon E. Brooks. Months later, indictments were unsealed and warrants issued, including one that resulted in Jefferson’s arrest.

Newman, meanwhile, continued to have problems of her own. When she testified in Jefferson’s trial this spring, she was living at a Dallas halfway house after being charged yet again in another drug case. This time, she was accused in Parker County of fraudulently obtaining a prescription for hydrocodone, a morphine-like painkiller which, coincidentally, a law enforcement official said could be purchased at the very crack house where Newman said she bought drugs from Jefferson. Parker County officials said she was placed on probation for 10 years and ordered into a state-run drug treatment program last year. She could not be located for comment for this story.

Earlier this year, the Drug Reform Coordination Network itemized problems plaguing about a dozen narcotics squads in Texas. Time and again, prosecutors were forced to drop charges after discovering that their informants had themselves lied, made up evidence, or peddled drugs to children.

All told, the center identified almost 200 bogus or suspect task force drug cases made during the last few years. The most egregious cases cited by the network involved highly publicized operations in Dallas and Tulia, a small town in the Texas Panhandle.

In Tulia, 41 persons were arrested based solely on the word of a white undercover cop. The case drew national attention, because the sting seemed to unfairly target Tulia’s tiny African-American population. Of the 41 people arrested, 35 were black — a jaw-dropping body count in a county where fewer than 400 of 5,700 residents are black.

The Tulia sting led to legislation that eventually unraveled an even more embarrassing operation. In Dallas, officials discovered that the “drugs” used by a confidential informant, who had been paid $200,000, were actually powdered Sheetrock. The discovery came about in part because the Tulia law change banned dope prosecution based solely on the uncorroborated word of a snitch. Dozens of prosecutions were foiled. Other task forces around the state have also been plagued by questionable shootings and an officer’s suicide.

Cross Timbers isn’t among the troubled task forces cited by the drug reform organization. But the agency has problems, though they appear minor. Records obtained by the Weekly under the Texas public information law show the organization has been cited by officials for incomplete record-keeping, failure to promptly deposit seized drug money, and failure to obtain a receipt for money paid to an informant. Those problems, officials said, have since been corrected.

Disclosures about task force improprieties led Gov. Rick Perry last year to order the Department of Public Safety to assume oversight of the groups. Mike Dunn, commander of the DPS narcotics service, said folding 500 or 600 task force staffers into the state organization has been a “daunting task.” The stickiest challenge was persuading three or four organizations that they could no longer conduct drug raids with their faces masked — like the black-tobogganed narcs on the TV show Cops.

Problems with a few task forces unduly tarnished the reputation of others, Dunn said. “We are addressing those key areas that need to be addressed so we can restore that confidence,’’ he said. “Not only do we have to worry about doing something wrong, we have to worry about perception.’’

Commander Wright said Cross Timbers has avoided problems that have befallen other organizations by being cautious: “Our people never go out there by themselves,” he said. “They are always going to have a supervisor with them or easy access to one — just a phone call away. We’ll pass something up before we get involved in something that is problematic down the road.” Of the problems in Tulia and Dallas, he said, “When you do something like that, you’re asking for trouble.”

Alan Bean is a strange choice to become a task force reformer. He’s a Canadian preacher who followed his wife, a schoolteacher, back to Tulia just before news of the drug sting broke there. He founded an organization, called Friends of Justice, dedicated to healing the racial divide in Tulia, and is writing a book about the task force’s questionable cases and tactics. “It’s sort of like the situation on Wall Street,’’ Bean said. “You have a sufficient number of these big companies accused of accounting malfeasance, it affects public confidence. We’re not there yet with the task forces, but we’re getting there.

“To get that money, you have to show results. To show results you have to go after the most vulnerable people. ... If someone fits the profile — if they are poor, are minimally employed, if they are a person of color, not well educated, have no friends with pull in the community, if they look scruffy, if they have a criminal record — all you have to do with that person is arrest the person. The jury will find them guilty.

“If you’re innocent, it’s irrelevant as long as you fit the profile.’’

Bean doesn’t know Jefferson, but the profile he described fits Jefferson like a glove. He is poor, black, a high school dropout with a criminal record and no powerful friends.

When Jefferson went to trial in the Palo Pinto courthouse in April, Newman was the star witness against him. She told jurors that she walked from Price’s car at a nearby school, to the garage entrance of Wallace’s home knocked on the door, and was greeted by Jefferson.

“I told him that I wanted to purchase $150 worth of crack,” Newman testified. “He motioned for me to follow him (into a bathroom). ... Aaron had the crack that was laid out on the counter. ... And he told me, you know, ‘Here it is.’... And there was a bunch of crumbs all over the counter, and so Aaron said, ‘Let me help you.’ And so he took a razor blade and scooped it up and put it in the baggie for me. ... I handed him the $150. ... I left the house.’’

Price testified that Newman was searched before and after she entered the house and that he kept her under constant surveillance except for the few minutes when she was actually inside the house.

Jefferson said Price would have had to have “x-ray vision’’ to keep Newman under such surveillance because a wooden privacy fence and two homes hid much of the route the informant took. A Weekly reporter went to the neighborhood in question. A large fence, in fact, blocks most of that sight line. Newman herself testified she could not see Price all the time she was out of his vehicle. The home in question is owned by Clarence F. Holiman, the newly elected mayor of Mineral Wells. He said he was living in the house in December 1998 and that the fence was there at that time.

Then there’s the tape made of the “buy.” The recording lasts about 16 minutes. Price and Newman can be heard clearly in the police car. So can Newman’s footsteps, her knocks on the door, and the barking of a neighborhood dog in the night. Once she goes inside, there’s a conversation between Newman and an unidentified man about the holiday just past.

“Did you have a Merry Christmas?” Newman asks.

“Uh huh,’’ the man responds. “How about you?”

“Pretty good,’’ she says. “My little one had a good one. Got a bicycle and a bunch of clothes.’’

But the words Newman says she and the dealer exchanged — I wanna buy some crack. Here it is. Let me help you — were not discernable to the Weekly in several listenings.

Curiously, the only name Newman is heard to utter inside the house is that of another man. As she’s preparing to leave, Newman says, “I’ll be back, Carlos” — presumably Carlos Wallace, who lived in the house.

When the narcotics officer and his informant are back in the car, it is Price — not Newman — who identifies the dealer as “Aaron.” Price declined to talk about the case with the Weekly. “He’s done been found guilty,” is all he offered, referring other question to prosecutors.

Prosecutors, in fact, didn’t use the tape Newman made of her drug buy as evidence against Jefferson. Jefferson’s own lawyer, Denise Campbell, played it for the jury.

Nonetheless, prosecutor Ford remains certain the right person was convicted. “This is stuff I hear all the time, ‘It’s not me! It’s not me!’ ’’ he said. Tape recordings made by undercover informants sometimes don’t capture conversations about drug transactions. And officers sometimes move their vehicles to keep informants under surveillance, he said.

“If you’re running around with Carlos Wallace and Jon Brooks, you’re more than likely in the dope business,’’ said Ford. Newman made cases against both those men as well.

Though Jefferson was only tried for the dope deal the day after Christmas, he was also indicted for an earlier transaction — with Newman, on Dec. 15, at around 8:45 p.m.

Newman has testified that it was during that transaction that she first met Jefferson. The meeting allegedly occurred at another modest home in southwest Mineral Wells, which police said was a second crack house being run by Jon Brooks.

“I have no doubt about they identified the right guy,’’ Ford said. “Pam knew him and recognized him and already knew who he was.’’

Jefferson has acknowledged being in Mineral Wells on Dec. 26, but he says he never left Dallas on the 15th.

A copy of Jefferson’s time card for the week in question shows that he began a 10-hour shift at 8:30 a.m. on Dec. 15 and another 10-hour shift the following day at the same time.

The drug transaction at the Brooks house took place between 8:45 and 8:50 p.m. If Jefferson had left his job in far northeast Dallas promptly at the end of his shift at 6:30 p.m., he would have had about two hours and 15 minutes to make the drive to southwest Mineral Wells.

A reporter recently accompanied Jefferson’s uncle, Charlie Jefferson, on a direct route between the two points — 96 miles from the office supply parking lot to the front door of the Brooks home. Traffic was light, which sped things up. Trouble finding Brooks’ home in the thatch of numerical streets in southwest Mineral Wells delayed the arrival. The trip took two hours and five minutes — in daylight with light traffic.

Could Jefferson have made the trip on Dec. 15 from Dallas to Mineral Wells in time for the drug deal? Prosecutors say it would have been no problem. But Jefferson, unlike his uncle retracing a path, would have been driving in darkness and fighting rush-hour traffic for at least the first 30 minutes of his trip.

Aaron Jefferson didn’t have to wind up in prison. Long before his trial, Jefferson said, a Mineral Wells attorney who represented him early in the case relayed an offer similar to the one made to Newman.

“First time I had a face-to-face meeting with her [his attorney], she said the D.A. would like you to come back to Mineral Wells as an informant and your case will go away,’’ Jefferson recalled. “That was her words, to that effect.’’

But Jefferson said no — that he wasn’t selling drugs on his own and wasn’t going to get involved for the cops.

Jefferson’s conviction is on appeal. Ken Tarlton, a Mineral Wells attorney, has been appointed to represent him. He’s got an uphill battle.

“You’ve got to realize,” Tarlton said, “in Palo Pinto County, most of the time it’s easier to defend someone charged with murder than someone charged with a drug offense. It goes across all lines and classes of people. It’s just drugs. It sort of doesn’t matter what the D.A. says or what the defense attorney says—they [the juries] are going to do a number on them.”

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