Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Tulia, Texas Scandal

The Tulia Sting

Texas map with Tulia marked
Texas map with Tulia marked

The nightmare began in the early morning hours of July 23, 1999. Before dawn, Tulia, Texas, police arrested 46 men and women in the biggest drug bust in Swisher County 's history. The "Tulia 46," as they became known, were rousted from their beds in the before dawn and taken to jail while still in their pajamas.

Thirty-nine of those arrested were black, approximately 10 percent of Tulia's small, black population. The remaining seven were whites and Hispanics who had ties to the black community. From the beginning the families of the defendants believed that the drug bust was racially motivated. They just couldn't prove it, at least not yet.

Tom Coleman
Tom Coleman
However, Tom Coleman, the agent who single-handedly carried out the 18-month sting, vehemently denied race had anything to do with the takedown. According to Leeann Kossey's I-Team Interview, Coleman, 42, said that he wasn't prejudiced against black people, "or any other origin of person." He claimed he was just doing his job, that of weeding out the town's criminal element.

Sheriff Larry Stewart
Sheriff Larry Stewart
Swisher County Sheriff Larry Stewart and Lt. Mike Amos of the Panhandle Regional Narcotics Task Force hired Coleman in January 1998 to conduct an undercover drug operation. In preparation for the sting, he assumed a new identity by growing his hair long, changing his style of dress from clean-cut cowboy to biker and using the alias T.J. Dawson. He then set about going undercover in the town's poor black community.

While incognito, Coleman claimed that he was able to gain the trust and friendship of many within Tulia's black population. According to Tom Mongold's article "The Rogue Cop of Tulia, Texas," Coleman suggested that some actually felt comfortable enough with him that they sold him drugs, such as cocaine and crack, when he said he wanted to get high. Mongold said that he used the clever excuse of being on probation and subject to urine tests to avoid taking drugs in front of people.

Every time Coleman scored a bag of powdered cocaine or other drug, he would turn it into his superiors who then gave him money to make more drug buys. In total, Coleman claimed to have made more than 100 purchases from Tulia residents. The sting eventually earned Coleman an award for "Outstanding Lawman of the Year" and most of the town's white citizens hailed him as a hero.

However, the town's black community was devastated by the arrests. Most of "Tulia's 46" received extremely harsh sentences ranging from three to 434 years in prison. According to Nate Blakeslee's article "Color of Justice," "the disproportionate number of African-Americans targeted by the operation" led to an NAACP investigation of the cases. Moreover, defense attorneys representing those convicted, conducted their own investigation into Coleman's background. What they learned was surprising.

Details emerged that Coleman's investigative methods were at least highly dubious. Moreover, his credibility was also thrown into question when it was learned that he had a criminal history and a reputation as a liar and bigot. Civil rights activists believed that the sting operation led by Coleman was in fact a scheme to rid the community of the black population. The more informed people became about Coleman, the sting and the trials of those arrested, the more it became increasingly clear that Tulia had a huge scandal on their hands.

 

 

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