Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Tulia, Texas Scandal

Tom Coleman

From an early age, Coleman had aspirations of working in law enforcement. It was likely that he wanted to follow in the footsteps of his father, Joe Coleman, who was a highly respected Texas Ranger in Pecos County. It was a dream he strived for throughout most of his adult life.

According to a 2001 Amarillo News article by Greg Cunningham, Coleman's first law enforcement job began in the mid-1980s when he was hired as a jailer in Reeves County, Texas, shortly after passing his high school equivalency test. After several years, he quit his job when he was offered a better position as a deputy in Pecos County. At the time, he was married and had a son, whom he was struggling to support. Over the years he accrued massive debts that he was unable to repay and in 1994 Coleman abruptly fled from the town with his family.

The family moved to Denton County where Coleman found work as a jailer. The job paid little and he found himself once again strapped for money. The financial burden caused tremendous problems within his marriage, which eventually led to the couple's breakup. Later that same year, while in the midst of a divorce, Coleman walked out on his job with no notice. During Kossey's interview with Coleman, he claimed that he quit because, "his soon to be ex-wife was threatening to ruin his career" by sending restraining orders to his workplace.

Coleman then moved to Cochran County, where Sheriff Ken Burke hired him as deputy sheriff. While there, he continued to add to his financial problems by running up approximately $6,700 in debts, which he was unable to pay off. In 1996, after only 11 months on the job, Coleman again abruptly left town without paying back the money he owed.

Coleman moved to the Odessa area, where he found a temporary job at a pipe company. At the time, he tried to apply for a job at the local police department but was turned down because of accusations that he stole government gasoline from Cochran County and abused his position by failing to repay money he owed to local merchants. Coleman realized that his financial problems were obstructing him from achieving his dream and he set about looking for a more effective way to pay off his debts.

In the meantime, his ex-employer Sheriff Burke wrote a letter to the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement stating his views about Coleman's conduct. In the letter, he explained how Coleman abruptly left his job with no notice, leaving behind massive debts. According to Mongold, he also said, "Mr. Coleman should not be in law enforcement if he is going to do people the way he did in this town."

Road marker, Tulia, TX
Road marker, Tulia, TX
However, despite the letter, alleged background checks and a blemished reputation, Coleman was able to get a job when he applied for the position of a narcotics agent in Tulia in the late-1990s. Mongold claimed that Sheriff Larry Stewart hired him because he was "so impressed with his father's background and Coleman's own demeanor that he hired him without bothering to ask too many questions."

Not long after he was hired, Coleman took on the undercover assignment with the Panhandle Regional Narcotics Task Force, who supplied federal grant money to fund the drug operation. Just five months into the Tulia sting, Coleman learned that his previous employer had an arrest warrant against him for stealing gas and abuse of power for failing to repay his debts. Sheriff Stewart had no choice but to arrest his new narcotics agent.

To avoid disrupting the ongoing drug operation, Stewart decided not to fire Coleman. Instead, he gave him one week off to organize his affairs and pay off what he owed. If he did, all the charges would be dismissed and he would be allowed to continue with the investigation. Coleman followed through and paid up. He then promptly returned to the work at hand, that of infiltrating Tulia's black community and buying drugs from those he allegedly befriended.

During the operation, Coleman used unconventional methods to compile evidence. He didn't wear a wire to tape any of the alleged drug deals, he never took fingerprints and he worked completely alone. The only evidence that the drug deals took place were the bags of drugs he purported to have bought that contained a minute quantity of cocaine, notes he had taken of the transactions, which he wrote on his arm and leg, and his word of honor, as far as that went.

Nevertheless, despite the lack of corroborating evidence, he was able to secure arrest warrants for the "Tulia 46," most of who were set to spend the better part of their lives behind bars. Coleman had no regrets. When interviewed by Kossey, he said "I believe we did everything right in Tulia, everything. I don't think there is anyone in jail that don't deserve to be there." However, there were many who disagreed with Coleman and his methods. More people than he likely ever imagined.

 

 

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