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July 17, 2004 - The Houston Chronicle (TX)

Judge Divides Money In Tulia

Defendants Get Share of Drug-Bust Settlement Cash

By Shannon Buggs

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

TULIA - When Billy Wafer fantasized about his share of a $6 million lawsuit settlement, he imagined making the biggest purchase of his life within days of getting the check. Payday came Friday for the 45-year-old, who was ensnared with 10 percent of Tulia's black residents in a now-discredited drug bust.

"At first I wanted to buy a house here in Tulia in the next few days, but now we're going to wait a while," he said on Friday. "We're first-time home buyers, and we just learned that there are a lot of things we need to do before we buy a house."

All but four of the 46 people arrested by a Panhandle narcotics task force solely on the word of one undercover agent received their pre-tax portion Friday of the settlement with Amarillo and 26 counties.

Three of the former defendants, nearly all of whom are black, are still in prison because the drug arrest violated their parole. Their money went into a trust account.

The fourth died before the filing of the civil lawsuit claiming the arrests were racially motivated.

Attorneys took $2 million off the top, and the retired state appellate judge who threw out the convictions divided the rest among the 45 survivors.

"Everybody lost something whether it was time incarcerated, time away from their families, a job or a house or other material things," Judge Ron Chapman said. "I had to be as fair and objective as possible, and, in the end, I had to make some subjective decisions in deciding the amounts."

Crash Course in Cash

Chapman, the lawyers and former defendants won't say how much each person got or divulge a range - just that each got a second chance and enough money to make good on it.

To steer her clients away from future trouble, Vanita Gupta of the NAACP Legal and Educational Defense Fund hosted a financial seminar in Tulia days before the checks were delivered.

Sitting in a meeting room in the Swisher County Memorial Building bearing the last name of two former local sheriffs, about two dozen people got a crash course in money management from a New York-based venture capitalist.

Nine hours stretched over two days, however, is not enough time to teach more than the basics to the few who had never opened a bank account, others in need of general equivalency diplomas and several without jobs or chances of getting one.

But their teacher, Melissa Bradley, a Soros Justice Fellow at the Open Society Institute, refused to accept a lack of formal financial education as an excuse to squander the settlement.

"There is no reason you should not have more money a year from Friday than you do on Friday," she told them. " ... You have the opportunity, if you put in the time, if you put in the effort, to make this money grow."

That will be a self-motivated enterprise since there's little help in the community where many of them grew up and still live.

Small Expectations

Tulia has been a town of just 5,000 people since 1970.

The library has several outdated financial planning books on its shelves, including a tax preparation guide from 1995. Three banks serve the town, and the personal banker at one has not completed college.

And many residents expect the worst of the former defendants.

Although no white Tulia residents agreed to be quoted, all who commented believe most of the Tulia 46 sell drugs despite Chapman's ruling that no evidence supported the accusations.

They also predicted every cent of the money received Friday will be gone in a year.

Given human nature, some probably will be broke again in a year. Considering that most Americans get financial educations exclusively from the school of hard knocks, many may make mistakes that cost them dearly.

Long gone are the settlement payments of between $2,000 and $12,000 that some of the former defendants received from Swisher County last summer.

Dennis Allen got the maximum and bought a 1990 Oldsmobile for $3,000 and treated his two preteen daughters to a $1,700 shopping spree at Mervyn's in Amarillo. The rest bought him clothes, paid his mother's bills and secured anything else he wanted after spending four years in prison.

"I didn't know then what I know now," he said after the first money management session on Monday. "I didn't know about investments, CDs, stocks, bonds and stuff like that."

Despite the odds, many of the former defendants want to improve their lives and give their children more than they had. For some, raising their lot in life is as simple as buying a new truck.

Exits are few and far between on the highways that connect Tulia to the Panhandle towns where folks tend to work, get medical care and visit relatives.

If your car stalls on the interstate between Amarillo and Lubbock, you won't find trees or buildings on the plains to protect you from broiling sun or knife-sharp winter winds.

"If I don't get anything more out of this than a new car, fine," says Tonya White, who got a $40,000 GMC Envoy on good faith weeks before the money to pay for it arrived. "That will get me to and from my job, and I know I will have to work no matter how much money I get."

Investing in Life

Most, however, want to sink their new wealth into something permanent.

Willie Hall plans to open a beauty supply store in Tulia. Others inquired about buying the town's defunct Dairy Queen.

Such dreams have raised the anger of neighbors who can't imagine their dusty downtown being revitalized by people who don't regularly attend one of the two dozen churches in town.

"That people can do wrong and come out of prison with a clean slate and more money than anybody else has ever had, that's not fair," says Dora Benard, a black resident who prayed on the jailhouse steps for many of the defendants.

Gupta, of the NAACP legal defense fund, warned that investing in Tulia is risky.

"By and large, folks need to think about relocating and moving to a place where the stigma of the sting is not always on their backs," she said. "It will be much harder to succeed at using this money to improve their lives as long as they live in a place where everyone else believes they are guilty people and what they are receiving is not deserved."

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