Deception, Corruption, and Wrongful Convictions of the 1999 Tulia Drug Bust
I saw the headlines on the local news, and then the national news.
10 Alleged Drug Traffickers Charged in Operation Tulia Takedown
Feds bust alleged drug operation in Tulia, 10 charged
Another drug bust in Tulia, with 10 arrested and charged. You know what that little voice in my head said each time I saw a headline about the latest Tulia bust?
"Boooooooooyyyyy, I sure hope you did it correctly this time around."
Why? Well, if you don't recall....there was a slight incident with Tulia and a drug bust, way back in 1999.
Ever hear about that? Let me tell you a little story about a tiny Texas town and one heck of a conman cop.
One Lone Law Dog Brings Down 46 Alleged Drug Dealers In Tulia, TX
At least, that's what we were supposed to believe. It sounds like the plot from a cheesy '80s cop thriller. Supposedly, an undercover cop in Tulia, TX singlehandedly brought down a massive drug ring. Serpico style.
It's the kind of story I could see Mel Gibson starring in, if he passed up Lethal Weapon.
Believe it or not, this is only where the story begins. From here, it gets completely unbelievable.
Tom Coleman Takes On A Town Of Five Thousand
Tulia, at the time, only had a population of around 5,000 people. The late 90s were when the War on Drugs was waged without mercy, and itty bitty Tulia was supposedly the sight of an insanely large drug ring.
Tom Coleman was the man called in to go undercover and clean things up.
He displayed an almost superhero like ability to bring down the bad guys when he brought down 46 people in his investigation.
In one fell swoop, Tom Coleman arrested around 10 percent of Tulia's black population on various drug charges. Crime stood no chance against the mullet-wearing super cop from Texas.
Tom Coleman And An Inconvenient History
He had a somewhat "checkered past," as 60 Minutes would later call it, but that simply makes him an anti-hero. Right?
Despite his slightly sketchy past, Tom was momentarily hailed as a hero. During this entire spectacle, the Texas Attorney General at the time honored him and his mullet as outstanding officer of the year.
That was until the trials started.
Tom's Cases Start To Fall Apart
I suppose, and this is purely hypothetical, that if people weren't skeptical at first, they had to start questioning Tom's work when one of the defendants didn't even look like the suspect described by Coleman.
Also, several defendants had rock solid alibis. When they were supposedly selling cocaine to Tom they had actually been at work, a fair, and even another state.
The alleged kingpin was a hog farmer who lived in what 60 Minutes referred to as a "one room shack." He's no Tony Montana or Frank Lucas.
So what the hell was going on?
Things Continue To Get Worse For Tom Coleman As Things Unravel
Many have characterized what happened to the Tulia 46 as a miscarriage of justice. That might be putting it lightly.
There was no corroborating evidence presented against the Tulia 46. No wire had been worn by Tom. No photos had been taken.
During the arrests, there were no drugs. There was no drug paraphernalia. No weapons or stacks of cash.
Not even a pet tiger a la Scarface.
It soon became apparent that it was only the word of this one detective, against the Tulia 46. Tom's word, it has since been pointed out, had some inconsistencies in it.
The Governor Pardons The Tulia 46
While many of the Tulia 46 were proven innocent, others spent the next few years in prison fighting for their freedom..
After years of fighting, Governor Rick Perry pardoned the Tulia 46 in 2003.
Tom Coleman was referred to by one judge as "the most devious, non-responsive law enforcement witness this court has witnessed in 25 years on the bench in Texas."
The FBI began investigating him for a possible hate crime. He was indicted on perjury charges.
The Unfortunate Legacy Still Lives On Today
While we all can celebrate the fact that the Tulia 46 were pardoned, it doesn't change what happened. It doesn't change the fact that the 46 have to live a life with the shadow of these events looming over them.
Some have called it an indictment on the war on drugs and institutional racism in the justice system.
In an interview with 60 Minutes, Tom says he's definitely not a racist. The case just led him to arresting around 10 percent of a small town's black population.
Of the 46 arrested, almost 40 of them were black.
Whatever the case, one can't help but wonder the impact that the 1999 Tulia Bust had on those people wrongly convicted and what their lives would be like if Tom Coleman had never come to town.