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The Thin Purple Line

After a controversial raid on a West Texas smoke shop, nothing is hazier than the truth.
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An Alpine police officer stands watch outside the Purple Zone smoke shop during a federal raid in May.
Tom Cochran
An Alpine police officer stands watch outside the Purple Zone smoke shop during a federal raid in May.

 

Until recently, you could expect that Texas’ Big Bend region, in its vastness, afforded you a good chance of being left alone. Old-timers there have a reputation for a strong independent streak, even among Texans, and the region seems to attract people grateful, at last, to live life on their own terms. But many have arrived in the past few years expecting a scenic spot to retire in arid mountain peace only to find the federal government moving in too. The Big Bend has become a front line in the national war on drugs, and many of the officers from various federal law enforcement agencies have settled in Alpine, an old railroad town cupped in a valley horseshoed by foothills of the Davis Mountains.

Ilana Lipsen came to Alpine to study horses. Her family never thought she’d last long out here. Lipsen grew up in the wealthy Houston enclave of Bellaire, where she attended a private Jewish school and spent her Saturdays looking forward to Sunday, which she spent riding and looking after her Arabian horses. She came to Sul Ross State University to study equine science in 2003, making the long drive west with her Arabians in tow. Her best high school friend moved with her, and one evening shortly after arriving they clambered up a brown ridge with a crumbled white “A” branded on the side, a local landmark known as A Mountain. The lights of town glowed below them, with the surrounding desert darkness stretching on forever and a sea of stars above. In the wide open space, Lipsen felt at home.

On a Friday in mid-May, Lipsen found herself contemplating one of the Big Bend’s less dramatic views: the interior walls of the Presidio County Jail, and her own yellow jumpsuit, which she’d spent three days in. Outside, the press was buzzing about the raid on Lipsen’s store, a hookah lounge and smoke shop called the Purple Zone. A task force of at least a dozen federal agents and local police—some said as many as 30—broke down her front door hunting for synthetic drugs. Shouldering rifles and wearing bulletproof vests, they hauled off the store’s merchandise and loaded it into a line of unmarked trucks along Holland Avenue, one of the busiest streets in town. Rumors flew about the altercation during the raid between Lipsen’s sister and an agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), each of whom claimed they’d been assaulted by the other. Some Alpine residents wondered how Lipsen could have so royally pissed off the local district attorney that she got her shop raided four times in two years. Now she sat in jail facing a federal weapons charge for possessing 9 mm bullets that are, in most cases, legal. 

Sitting in county jail, Lipsen was convinced the town was simply trying to chase her out—because some locals didn’t approve of her business, or because she was Jewish, or even because of her Arabian horses—and she told local reporters as much. In a town full of libertarians who’d grown wary of the police presence near the border, Lipsen’s cause struck a chord. The allegations of a ham-handed raid by federal agents riled crusty libertarians who might otherwise have been glad to see Lipsen pack up her shop and leave town. The federal officials who helped carry out the raid weren’t pleased.

So that Friday afternoon, Lipsen’s public defender visited to convey an unusual proposal from the U.S. attorney, the terms of which were detailed in the court record: If she recanted her complaints about the federal agents, admitted that her sister had assaulted the DEA agent, and asked a local blogger to delete photos from the raid he’d posted online, Lipsen could get out of jail. If not, she’d face months in jail until her trial. Her lawyer produced a typed apology with Lipsen’s name at the bottom and a blank line. Lipsen signed.

Officials trumpeted her apology in the press and on Facebook. They claimed it was proof that Lipsen had lied, that there was nothing to see here. But news of Lipsen’s letter had the opposite effect, drawing national attention from First Amendment scholars, libertarian press, and even the actor Wil Wheaton, best known as the starship Enterprise’s ensign. As with so much else where the Purple Zone was concerned, the truth depended on whose side you took. Lipsen hadn’t exactly been a popular figure in town. But in Alpine, where many had tired of the DEA, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Border Patrol, state troopers, city police and university cops, there was plenty of support for someone who dared to speak out. By trying to undermine Lipsen, the feds may have created a martyr.

Ilana Lipsen behind  her shop counter.
Patrick Michels
Ilana Lipsen behind her shop counter.

On a Thursday morning in June, Lipsen meets me at the Purple Zone’s new front door. (The old one, busted up in the raid, still sits in the front lawn.) She’s been up since early this morning watching the latest episodes of Orange is the New Black. Lipsen shows me to one of the tables in her small smoking lounge, then takes a Red Bull from a small fridge by the door, drops into a chair across from me and produces an electronic cigarette, which she twiddles as she talks. Though Lipsen won’t talk about her legal issues, she’s agreed to discuss her shop and her time in Alpine. She speaks fast, joking about how unprepared this town was for her shop or its owner. 

Like towns all over Texas, Alpine is enjoying a vaping fascination in 2014; I count at least two other shops in town advertising e-cigarettes. When I ask, she tells me the black stick in her hand is a Chinese-made Innokin e-cigarette loaded with a fruity flavor called “Headhunter’s Revenge.” A flat screen behind her lists the dozens of other e-juice flavors she sells. “I have love for this industry,” she tells me. “People know that smoking is a thing of the past. It’s just not cool anymore. Go back to the 1920s, go back to Prohibition, you weren’t cool unless you had a Lucky Strike hanging from your lips. Now it’s the same with electronic cigarettes.”

A box of Bob Marley posters sits on the floor, across from a selection of psychedelic wall hangings. In another corner she’s got lotions and oils. Shelves lining the walls are full of cigarettes, hookahs and water pipes—a sign by the register makes it plain that in this shop, you had better call them water pipes.

Lipsen hadn’t even planned to sell this stuff in the first place. After a Sul Ross equine science instructor left the program, Lipsen decided to quit school. But having fallen in love with the town, she decided to stay in Alpine. She had been working at a Mexican import shop called Texas Treasures, selling home décor and furniture she brought in from Laredo. She basically ran the place herself for an absentee owner, she says. Lipsen eventually bought him out, but took on a hefty debt in the transaction—more than she’d agreed to, she says—and needed a quick way to boost her bottom line.

“I started thinking, ‘Ilana, use your head. What can you do to attract new business?’” she recalls. “I love animals obviously, so I thought, ‘Let’s do pet supplies.’ A couple years later, True Value opens up.” She couldn’t compete; her pet supply business went flat. She tried selling saddles and tack for other horse enthusiasts, but nobody was interested.

“So it was back to the drawing board. ‘What do people in Alpine want to buy? What do people do?’” In the retelling of her internal dialogue, Lipsen pauses here for dramatic effect. “‘Well shit, everyone loves sex toys, let’s do that.’ Sex toys take off with a boom. ‘Well shit, people in Alpine love smoking accessories, let’s do that.’ So a smoke shop with sex toys, that worked. … So here we are.”

It took less than a week for the first church lady to come huffing into Texas Treasures, breezing past the wrought-iron bed frames and back to the walled-off adult section, which she paced briefly before marching back out the door with the parting words, “This is fucked up!”

“I always bought stuff that was like ladybugs and cutesy stuff,” Lipsen says. “I never had the 12-inch, or the 24-inch double-ended black thing. I knew it wouldn’t sell. It was just kind of subtle—you know, cock rings, very basic things.” She says at least seven women in town were already hosting private get-togethers where they’d sell sex toys through a direct mail supplier—“like a Tupperware party.” But by selling out in the open, and undercutting the sex- toy-party prices by 75 percent, she drew the ire of Alpine’s moralizers. At one meeting of the Alpine City Council, Lipsen recalls, one woman complained that she’d walked into Texas Treasures expecting to peruse the imported knick-knacks and instead found herself “tripping over dildos.” An anonymous email sent to Lipsen through her website reads, “Satan Dwells at places such as this!!!! Quit polluting our town with your filth!!!!”

Along with her pipes, papers and hookahs, Lipsen began cashing in on other trends. Lipsen traveled to trade shows, kept up with catalogs, and began stocking her shop with new entrants to the market, like kratom, a legal stimulant with effects similar to coffee. According to records from police raids, Lipsen also sold packets of herbal “incense” sprayed with chemicals engineered to simulate pot—legal just a few years ago by virtue of complete lack of regulation, but now, depending on the chemical makeup, often just as illegal as meth or cocaine.

Lipsen found a new location a few minutes’ walk from the Sul Ross campus. She liquidated the Mexican imports and began mixing her own hookah cocktails bestowed with locally appropriate names like “The Lobo”—for the Sul Ross mascot—and the “Marfa-Light-It-Up.” She brought in tables and chairs, board games and free Wi-Fi. Students came in to study or smoke a hookah between classes, and on Thursday and Friday nights they filled the small house. Lipsen dropped the Texas Treasures name and christened her new shop after a room in her childhood home, a place with a dartboard, a purple-felted billiard table and purple walls, where she and her friends hung out. “It was always like kind of a joke, like, ‘Hey, let’s hang out in the purple zone,’” she remembers. “That’s the way I felt here. It was comfortable like in my old game room growing up.”

Purple Zone merchandise on the shelves.
Tom Cochran
Purple Zone merchandise on the shelves.

Julie Vega knew what it looked like when one of her English students would show up high: the quiet reserve, the pained attempt at nonchalance. It happened once a month or so during her classes at Sul Ross. But in fall 2009 it was different. Some days she’d get one in every class, jittery and amped-up, constantly messing with their hands. When Vega would confront them after class, they didn’t mind telling her they’d just been smoking spice—one common name for the synthetic pot that was just becoming popular—nor that they’d bought it at the Purple Zone. “I think because it was such a new drug to Alpine, and the fact that it was legal, everybody was smoking it,” Vega says. “That was their argument: ‘Ms. Vega, who cares? It’s legal.’”

One day in spring 2010, a student fell out of his desk in a seizure mid-class. Later he told Vega he’d been high on salvia divinorum—a plant that can cause hallucinations, but remains legal in many states—from Lipsen’s shop. Vega had once wandered into the Purple Zone a year earlier by mistake; since purple and gold are the Alpine High School colors, she thought it was a school T-shirt shop. Now Vega planned a protest outside the store, and invited her students to join in; for extra credit, they could either join her demonstration against the Purple Zone’s synthetic drug sales, or they could join a counter-protest supporting Lipsen’s right to sell things like spice and salvia, which were still legal at the time. Vega held the protest on April 20—doing it on 4/20 was her students’ idea—and her side was dwarfed by a crowd across the street supporting the Purple Zone.

Vega followed her protest with more agitation at the City Council, and others joined her, hoping to shut Lipsen down or ban the synthetic drugs. Parents came into the store to confront Lipsen—one even shoved her against the wall, Lipsen says—because they said their kids had been caught with synthetic drugs she had sold them. Lipsen says she uses an ID scanner to ensure nobody in the store is under 18. But according to one Alpine police officer’s affidavit in 2012, an underage informant reported buying synthetic pot called K2 at the Purple Zone. Around the same time, a man staying at a motel in town ended up in the hospital with an irregular heartbeat after smoking spice he said he bought from the store.

In March 2012, officers from the Alpine Police Department and the Brewster County Sheriff’s Office poured into the Purple Zone. They came ready with a warrant, picked up 60 of Lipsen’s products, and left. Then, for eight months, nothing happened. Lipsen wondered what the trouble had been all about until November 2012, when officers came back to raid her shop again. They picked up more foil packets, along with other products that apparently seemed suspicious, including roasted hemp seed snacks and hemp lotion. An Alpine PD inventory of the raid lists products including “Dr. Feelgood Original,” “Orgazmo Vanilla,” “Bomb! Marley,” “OMG,” “Scooby Snax Kush” and “Captain Kratom Gold.”

This time they arrested Lipsen, along with her mother, Rosa, who’d moved to Alpine in 2007. Rosa Lipsen’s name doesn’t appear on any of the Purple Zone’s business filings, nor do court records suggest she’d sold contraband to any informants, but she was apparently implicated by family relation. A grand jury indicted each of them on three charges of possession of illegal drugs with intent to distribute.

One morning in February 2013—a day Lipsen says she was scheduled for a bond hearing—police called Rosa Lipsen to tell her that the Purple Zone had been robbed. Ilana went to the store to find spice packets on the floor, and while she was cleaning up the mess an officer arrived with a search warrant, arrested her again and took packets of “Diablo,” “King Kong” and “Dr. Feelgood Original” for the evidence room.

The Purple Zone's wrecked front door following the federal raid in May.
Tom Cochran
The Purple Zone’s wrecked front door following the federal raid in May.

Nobody knows how much of what the police took from the Purple Zone—in three visits over less than a year—was illegal to sell. Court records suggest a small fraction of what they took has been tested, probably because the testing is so expensive. Lipsen says it costs her $1,000 a test to send new products to a lab for an independent analysis to ensure she’s not selling anything with illegal chemicals. In a marijuana or cocaine case, the district attorney could usually send samples to a Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) crime lab to be analyzed for free. But as of this spring, DPS labs apparently wouldn’t test for the illegal chemicals in spice. At a March 2014 meeting of the Brewster County commissioners, District Attorney Rod Ponton arrived, hat in hand, asking for $6,000 to cover testing he’d already commissioned months earlier. “My office does not have the budget to pay this bill,” he told them. Commissioners denied his request.

Court records show that Ponton got 73 samples analyzed by a suburban Fort Worth lab. Thirty-one of the tests have returned results, with 14 of those testing positive for chemicals similar to those on the state’s list of banned substances. The legal term is that they’re “chemical analogs” to something illegal, which prosecutors say is close enough to the real thing to make distribution a first-degree felony.

If it seems like the lawmen in Alpine are hung up on hunting synthetic drugs at the Purple Zone, well, they probably are. And they’re not alone. Since a shipment of Chinese spice first turned up in a 2008 raid by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the drug has bedeviled every level of law enforcement. In 2011, the DEA issued rules banning its first synthetic cannabinoids, and Congress passed its first ban of 26 of them in 2012. But dodging the law is as simple as tweaking the chemical structure just enough to register in tests as a different compound. Spray the same shredded leaves with a slightly different chemical, slap a new label on the same old foil pouch, and you’ve got a product you can legally sell, at least for a while, out in the open at gas stations or smoke shops or through the mail. Some even boast (falsely) that they’re “DEA Approved.” Because there’s such variety between products, and because spice packaging often cheekily warns that it’s not meant to be ingested at all, it’s easy to smoke too much. After years of horror stories about heart attacks and overdoses on synthetics, their popularity may be waning. According to this year’s Monitoring the Future report, a University of Michigan survey that tracks high school drug use nationwide, spice use dropped among 12th graders from more than 11 percent in 2012 to just under 8 percent in 2013. Vega says she didn’t have any problem with spice use in her class this year. She figures it’s gone out of fashion.

I asked Lipsen for her reaction to hearing that some of her products had tested positive for spice, knowing she might avoid answering something so close to her case. She replied with a non-answer that also neatly captures the legal fight she faces: “Well, what is spice? You know?”

When I drop by DA Ponton’s office on a Friday afternoon, he sounds much more certain. “That stuff fries your brain,” he explains. Ponton was raised in Alpine, a doctor’s son who finished law school at Texas Tech University and returned to practice around the Big Bend. In 2012, he narrowly won a runoff election for DA after reports surfaced that he had a DWI on his record from 1977. His legal history remains the object of local fascination, particularly among those who see a conspiracy behind his dogged pursuit of Lipsen’s shop. Ponton wouldn’t discuss the Purple Zone case, but he agreed to speak generally about his work to curb spice sales, which he says began after locals were hospitalized after using the drugs. In the last few years, he says, his assistant district attorney has become one of the state’s few synthetic cannabinoid experts. “Synthetic drugs have been sold as if they’re harmless, and they’re not,” he tells me. “I don’t see this as a civil liberties problem. I see it as a public health issue.”

His absolute certainty also shows in the court record of the cases against Lipsen and her mother. In a motion from spring 2013, Ponton describes an investigator’s offer to leave Lipsen alone if she’ll stop selling spice as an “extraordinary act of mercy.” Ponton and his assistant DA express shock at Lipsen’s persistence, her “singular incorrigibility,” and her “shocking arrogance about the entire process” despite the officer’s offer “to let criminal bygones be bygones if only she would stop poisoning our children.”

But Lipsen’s lawyer has made what seems like a pretty compelling argument: that the chemicals found in the Purple Zone samples were only added to Texas’ banned substances list in mid-2013—well after they were seized at Lipsen’s shop. To convict Lipsen, Ponton’s office might have needed yet another raid on the Purple Zone, and yet more testing he evidently couldn’t pay for—unless he could find some other agency to foot the bill.

 

My first night in Alpine, I meet Bryon Garrison, an Austin-born and Midwest-raised journalist who runs the online Big Bend Courier, which he recently founded along with a county fair and a community theater program. On Friday nights this summer, they put on a Wild West-themed dinner show for tourists. “People come out here looking for cowboys,” he tells me, “so we give ’em cowboys!”

Strolling along Holland Avenue downtown, under its sagging awnings, past art galleries and thrift shops and the town’s only movie theater, Garrison points out notable locals and recounts small-town stories. Garrison says he left Illinois in 2013 and moved to Alpine without ever having seen it. I ask if he likes the town. “I’m gonna die here,” he replies enthusiastically. Garrison is in his mid-30s, but the sentiment seems common among committed Big Bend transplants.

Garrison and other locals I spoke with say the atmosphere has changed in Alpine over the past five years. Alpine may be in the middle of nowhere, but it’s also 75 miles from the Texas-Mexico border. As state and federal agencies expand their lumbering attempts to secure the border—along with their definitions of “secure”—this old libertarian town is feeling more and more like a police state. Along the country’s southwestern edge, the U.S. Border Patrol alone has grown from 8,580 agents in 2000 to 18,611 in 2013. In Big Bend it expanded from 196 agents to 623 in that time. Marfa is home to one of the Texas Rangers’ Joint Operations and Intelligence Centers, hubs where state, local and federal officers coordinate anti-smuggling efforts and hope to prevent “spillover” violence from Mexico. In practice, that often means stopping drivers along the highways between towns and patrolling private ranchland near and along the border. This year, in response to the influx of refugees from Central America, state and federal officials are planning even greater deployments. 

Tom Curry, an artist in Alpine who moved here in 1993, says he hears the complaints most from tourists who’ve been stopped on the highway that links Alpine to Marfa—some even avoid visiting now because they’ve been hassled so often by state troopers. “When I first moved here, I didn’t remember that being an issue at all,” he says. “It’s not a high crime area. It just seems kind of weird for there to be so much law enforcement.”

Sul Ross State University student Nicholas Branson, standing behind the apartment he rented from Lipsen, says federal agents had no reason to rope him into their raid.
Patrick Michels
Sul Ross State University student Nicholas Branson, standing behind the apartment he rented from Lipsen, says federal agents had no reason to rope him into their raid.

On May 7, the DEA announced it had conducted a massive one-day operation, raiding around 200 targets across the country under what it called Project Synergy Phase II. It claimed more than 150 arrests and “hundreds of thousands of individually packaged, ready-to-sell synthetic drugs” netted in 29 states. It was a massive drugs-on-the-table operation meant partly as a public-relations stunt to show just how many illegal drugs are being sold over the counter.

When Nicholas Branson came home from an errand that morning, he stepped right in the middle of Project Synergy Phase II. The 30-year-old Sul Ross geology student lived in a detached garage apartment rented from Lipsen, just behind her shop. Branson was a little frayed already—he’d been up all night studying for a final exam—and another raid on the Purple Zone wasn’t enough to keep him from his bed. But he noticed the gate to his yard was open, then saw agents from the DEA’s multi-agency task force coming out his front door. He explained that his house had a different address from the Purple Zone—his was 705 1/2 East Holland Ave.—and asked to see a warrant to search his place, which they didn’t have. After Branson insisted it was his right not to have his home searched without a warrant, he recalls, one DEA agent fingered the trigger of his gun and rebutted: “What are you, a fucking lawyer?”

DEA spokesperson Laila Rico told the Observer that it’s standard for agents to secure all the buildings on a property during a raid, simply to prevent an ambush. Once they recognized Branson’s place as an apartment and not a Purple Zone storage unit, Rico says, the agents quit searching until DA Ponton could get a warrant for it too, which he did shortly before noon.

Walking back toward the street, Branson found Lipsen’s sister, Arielle, losing patience. She’d been the one who’d arrived at the shop in the morning to find the task force—a dozen or more from DEA, Customs and Border Protection, Alpine PD and Brewster County Sheriff’s Office—trying to get into the shop. While she spoke with the agents—Rico says Arielle was only stalling—agents broke through the door with a metal battering ram. Arielle called Ilana, who came to watch along with their mother. After hours of watching the agents haul merchandise, computer equipment and record books into trucks, Arielle got into a shouting match with a DEA agent, who asked her to leave the Purple Zone’s front yard. As Branson recalls she replied, “What are you gonna do, shoot me?”

Arielle Lipsen
Tom Cochran
Arielle Lipsen shows the mark on her neck after the May 7 raid on the Purple Zone. Lipsen says it’s from the butt of a federal agent’s gun, but the DEA denies it.

Branson says he was in the front yard to see what happened next: The agent grabbed Arielle by the shoulder, guided her to the yard next door, and pushed her to the ground. Arielle’s leg flew up as she fell, hit the agent’s leg, Branson says, and the agent retaliated by pinning her throat to the ground with the butt of his rifle. Ilana Lipsen told local reporters the same story shortly after the raid. No video has surfaced of the incident, but Rico, the DEA spokesperson, can explain. “What I can say is that’s a complete lie,” she says. A photo taken later shows a long red rectangle-shaped bruise on the left side of Arielle’s neck, with two shorter ones below it. Rico doesn’t believe that’s what the butt of a gun would do. “It looks like a scratch to me,” she says, figuring Arielle got it while she was on the ground getting cuffed. But Rico says the most preposterous part of Lipsen and Branson’s story is that an agent threatened Branson by fingering the trigger of his gun, which she says goes against everything agents learn in training. “It’s like, ‘God almighty, you’ve been watching too much TV,’” Rico says. “There’s just no way, no way that anything like that happened.” The accusations are all neat deflections, Rico says, of the fact that Arielle repeatedly kicked a DEA agent, the offense for which she was arrested that afternoon.

Tom Cochran, a local gadfly who runs a screen-printing shop in Alpine, had been checking on a T-shirt order from the Purple Zone when he heard about the raid. He came by too late for the incident with Arielle, but in time to photograph agents in the front yard and the mess they left behind—and he posted the photos on Facebook.

As Branson recalls the state of his own place after the raid, he sounds a bit like Jeff “the Dude” Lebowski mourning his stolen rug—baffled but resigned to the peculiar injustice. He says agents destroyed a homemade beehive he kept outside, broke the doors on his grandmother’s bookcase, and emptied bags of rice and beans onto his kitchen floor. Branson says some of his computer storage drives were missing after the raid, and that they wound up on the evidence list for the Purple Zone. Branson isn’t facing any charges because of the raid, but he is concerned—the evidence list from his apartment shows two items: his grandfather’s shotgun and a bag of “suspected mushrooms.” Branson says he didn’t have mushrooms and guesses the reference is to a bag of frankincense missing from a drawer beside his bed, where he’d kept it along with his rocks of myrrh.

Ilana was booked for a federal weapons charge after agents found three boxes of 9 mm ammunition in the back of her shop, apparently with a receipt showing she’d bought it after her state felony indictment. If not for her local drug charges—for which she hadn’t been tried, let alone convicted—her gun and ammunition would have been legal in Texas. Now, though, possessing ammunition amounted to a federal crime.

After the raid, but before learning about the weapons charge, Lipsen related her version of events to a local TV station and two newspapers. Now that Lipsen was stuck in jail, U.S. Attorney Jay Miller offered her the chance to get out—but only if she issued an apology for what she’d already told reporters. Her apology, according to court records, would have to admit that the “DEA had a legitimate reason” to search her shop and recant her suggestion that she’d been targeted “because she was Jewish, owned Arabian horses, is of Turkish decent [sic] or visited Chinese websites.” Lipsen would also have to claim her sister instigated the fight with the agent, and ask Cochran to “retract his blog on Facebook.”

On May 21, Garrison’s Big Bend Courier ran a story about the letter, which the actor Wil Wheaton shared on Tumblr later that day. First Amendment scholar and Washington Post blogger Eugene Volokh found the story from there and published a takedown calling Lipsen’s bond conditions “clearly unconstitutional.” “The legal system shouldn’t be able to pressure defendants to surrender their free speech rights this way,” Volokh wrote.

The DEA’s Rico says it was frustrating to watch news reports after the raid that featured Ilana Lipsen and Branson’s claim that a DEA agent had committed such a blatant assault. “I worked in Alpine, so I know the place very well, and it’s a small town so sometimes things get completely blown out of proportion,” she says. “I dealt with it for like two straight weeks, I was like, ‘Wow.’ The story just kept changing and getting bigger and bigger. I can tell you our agents just would never do anything like that.”

The Big Bend chapter of the National Border Patrol Council—a union of Border Patrol agents—seems frustrated too. Though they’d never done business with Cochran before, they announced a boycott of his print shop. But Cochran, who’s even appeared on Fox Business Channel’s The Independents to tell his side of the story, has said the attention has all been good for business. He’s selling shirts in support of the Purple Zone, screened with a rallying cry for the people. The shirts say, “What are you gonna do, shoot me?”

Ilana and Rosa Lipsen are scheduled for a trial in late September on the lingering state charges from 2012, but according to court records, they’ve got till mid-July to accept a plea deal. If they don’t take the plea deals, Ponton’s office has already indicated its intention to pursue a higher bond for both of them, specifically because Lipsen is still running her shop.

Arielle and Ilana Lipsen are set for trials on their federal charges later this fall as well. And though Ilana Lipsen isn’t facing any drug charges based on the raid in May, agents collected more than 100 samples from the Purple Zone, which Rico says are still out at the lab. It’s possible that even more charges could be coming Lipsen’s way.

Lipsen is leaving the Purple Zone, at last, but says she’ll hire someone else to keep it open, pipes, oils, hookahs, kratom and all. She’s signed a lease for a new shop in Houston, which she’ll call VapeRx, to focus on the e-cigarette business. Folks have been trying to run her out of town almost since she arrived, Lipsen says, and now they’ll finally get their wish. She may go to Houston or she may go to prison, but one way or another Lipsen is getting out of Alpine.  

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Correction: This story has been corrected from an earlier version to note purple and gold are Alpine High School’s colors, not Sul Ross State University’s, and to correct Branson’s account of the raid—that a DEA agent threatened him, not Arielle, with his gun.

Patrick Michels is a reporter for the Texas Observer and a former legislative intern. He has been a staff writer and web editor at the Dallas Observer, and a former editor of the Texas Independent. He has a bachelor's in journalism from Northwestern University, a master's in photojournalism from the University of Texas at Austin, and is a competitive eating enthusiast.

  • 1bimbo

    so the zombie apocalypse is underway and ground zero is alpine.. how on earth any ‘journalist’ could attempt to romanticize a woman who sells poison to young people defies reason.. i hope law enforcement gets more funding and resources to dismantle those synthetic drug peddlers.. if it were my son or daughter having epileptic seizures in a classroom because of sh*t they bought from the purple zone, d*mn straight i would kick in the door myself.. those people whining about law enforcement are nothing more than disgusting immoral predators of the soul

    • jason

      And you are apparently blind to the fact that the federal govt. Kicked her door in and stole products that were at the time legal. Just wait till the govt finds something they dont like about you and comes to kick your door in. I hope you have the same support.

    • Quiet man

      I evidently missed where she had been found guilty. The militarization of our police force is endemic to the U.S. now; armed by Homeland Security better than some our military troops. The citizenry should not be afraid of its civilian police force, but it has become a “them vs us” mentality on the part of our police. Many are unfit mentally for police work, and there seems to be an unusually high number of bullies being recruited. You are now considered guilty until proven innocent.

      • http://www.bigbendcourier.com/ Maria

        Exactly, we have dumbed down the entry levels into all professions until anyone can qualify. Look up jack booted thug and find a picture of these guys next to the definition. This is not a defense of the business they were in, only an expose of how the government agencies treat people who have not been found guilty of any crime.

    • bob roberts

      Zombie apocalypse?! Poison?! Think of the children! The only reason our precious snowflakes are using this “poison” is because good old-fashioned harmless cannabis is illegal. A wave of change is coming. People like you are already the minority. By the way, I love that your name is bimbo. Keep it forever.

      • 1bimbo

        how about some good old-fashioned opium .. or mushrooms.. or peyote .. f’n druggies

        • fatibel

          If the cops had found any of those things the tests would have come back quickly and she’d be in jail now. They were fishing and now they’re stalling.

        • Havoth

          If your f’n teenage children are having seizures because if something they bought, smoked and/or ate a lot of, then you failed as a parent to teach them the prudery you wanted to instill and they wanted to get high anyway. So, kick your own door in, bimbo. Nobody is selling anything smokable in a legit shop to babies. You don’t like drugs? Then don’t use them. But leave other people out of it and if your children won’t mind you, look to yourself as the cause.

        • Sue Neie

          More sarcasm from a bimbo–laughable:)

          • 1bimbo

            you already posted that.. did your drug-fogged brain forget?

          • Sue Neie

            And you know I do drugs how??? See, more make believe in your useless life–nothing you post is true or accurate, nothing–no, bimbo, I know exactly what I posted and you responded in a predictable way—baseless and brainless without fact–love the way you have taken focus off of the subject of abusive law enforcement—you are soooooo dumb and a waste of time—if you want a dog fight, why don’t you reveal your identity and let’s get after it–cowardice usually goes hand and hand with brainless—you are a waste of time and accomplish nothing in life with your drivel!!!

          • Sue Neie

            Just wanted to thank you for showing everyone posting on this issue how you make assumptions and accusations based on nothing. Your post accusing me of being a drug addict for simply disagreeing with you is proof that you are just stupid and mean hearted. In fact judging by you ridiculous posts I would say that you are a narcissistic sociopath and a nightmare parent, wife, sister and daughter—thanks again for showing the world what a truly horrible person you really are!

      • fatibel

        You forgot to clutch your pearls.

    • http://www.bigbendcourier.com/ Maria

      Well, a Nazi in our midst. Ever hear of due process? Some people have seizures after eating peanut butter, should we arrest Jimmy Carter? I am always amazed at the number of people who cannot think deeply. Read all the related articles here http://www.bigbendcourier.com/87889

      • 1bimbo

        laughable

        • Sue Neie

          Sarcasm from a bimbo—laughable:)

    • Eris de Suzerain

      Do you feel this passionately about liquor and the thousands of people who end up in ERs due to alcohol poisoning and the other lovely side effects of that legal poison??

    • Sue Neie

      You would kick the door in yourself—laughable:)

  • RangerJay

    Texas is fucked up, and I should know…

  • Stan Astan

    I love this story! It drips in irony and nuance like a crepe taco. I laughed, I cried, then I started laughing again.

  • Humberto Martinez

    Bimbo is as always, a bimbo. Blindly and without any direct evidence he defends all of those wearing a badge that are accused of serious violations of the constitution and may have committed serious crimes under the color of law while at the same time convicting those arrested and who have not been tried yet. If, in writing this story, the journalist seems to be “romanticizing” a woman that is accused (not tried nor convicted yet) of illegal distribution of allegedly (also not proven yet) controlled substances, then could it be that the journalist is raising a very strong basis for several violations of due process, the code of criminal procedure and constitutionally granted rights by law enforcement agents. It also appears (remember Bimbo, I said “appears”) that all of the law enforcement agencies involved are acting like a bunch of keystone cops who cannot figure out what serious crime is nor how it should be fought. And this Rico from the DEA, is she blind, naive or just plain ignorant? DEA agents can do no wrong? Give me a break! All law enforcement needs to be watched because simply put they often go after easy prey, violate the law themselves, and make sure they parade their glorious arrests before the public to cover up their too widespread incompetence.

    If, after investigation (if anyone bothers to investigate this case), these so called law enforcement officers are found to have acted improperly and even illegally, the public needs to realize that if they get away with a slap on the wrist, they can violate anyone elsel’s rights and right to due process under the law and the constitution.

    Oh and Bimbo, if you have a son or daughter that bought sh*t from the Purple Zone or anyone else, your first action should be to determine why they did it even after being raised by such a perfect parent like you would claim to be. Secondly, after discovering that you have failed as a parent, you should then proceed to make sure that your kids never again commit such an act by holding them accountable. Law enforcement and even those that provide these substances are not responsible for raising or the behavior of your kids. You are! Maybe the reason some kids use drugs are their ignorant parents.

    • 1bimbo

      as a woman, a mother, a wife, a sister, a daughter, i find it extremely insulting yet typical that morally bankrupt individuals would come on this website and attempt to justify bad behavior.. however, i can understand the tendency for lawbreakers to defend other lawbreakers as well as their propensity to demonize law enforcement.. although good parenting isn’t rocket science, it is challenging and takes effort and persistence.. but i do understand how parents without morals, parents who are permissive and parents who are narcissists themselves would defend and justify dangerous behavior.. the glaring misunderstanding about negative consequences in which a number of people find themselves are many times rooted in difficult experiences with bad parenting.. bad parents reap what they sow – in essence – bad children who turn into bad adults who make poor decisions which is obviously the affliction from which humbertomartinez suffers..

  • Sue Neie

    I live in Alpine Texas and can tell you that the way the Lipsen women were treated is absolutely unforgivable. Ms Rico and her band of thugs behaved badly and used their power in an abusive manner–her statement”I worked in Alpine, so I know the place very well and it is a small town, so sometimes things get blown completely out of proportion—I dealt with it for like two straight weeks, I was like “Wow”. The story just kept changing and getting bigger and bigger. I can tell you that our agents just would never do anything like that”. The only thing that she left out was that this had to be Obama’s fault in some way—Ms Rico is like ,wow, a liar, like, wow—hell, she can’t even speak English properly. She and her crew did, indeed, physically abuse Arielle for protesting the way they were behaving. The abuse heaped on Nick Branson, did, indeed, happen just like he said.Ms Rico insinuates that since we live in a “small town” that this somehow diminishes the credibility of the citizens that live here “cause, like, wow, we really ain’t nothin but small town hicks” and who can believe anything we say, like, wow”!! Ms Rico and her gang of out-of-control ego-maniacs busted down the door to the Purple Zone and the first thing they did was turn all video surveillance up toward the ceiling. Of course, Ms Rico states that the cameras were already turned up toward the ceiling, which is a blatant lie—why would a business owner pay for surveillance and then turn the cameras toward the ceiling??? SEE, just makes no sense!!! They did search Nick’s apartment and then got a search warrant TWO hours AFTER the fact. He was threatened with being shot if he interfered with the raid— according to Ms Rico, ” God almighty, he is watching too much TV, why we would NEVER do anything like that”” Really?? Then this power loving moron states that the statements by Branson are just “deflections” to take the heat off of them for physically abusing Areille, another”DEFLECTION” from Ms Rico. I attended the bond hearing at the federal court house for the girls and it was as unbelievable as the raid!!! First, the judge told Areille that she could not use her lawyer of choice because he would possibly create a conflict of interest, effectively taking away her 6th amendment right!! He did appoint a less competent court attorney for her. The judge also told Ilana that the ONLY way she would get out of jail would be for her to sign a statement stating that Ms Rico and her band of thugs did nothing wrong and that it was all just a big misunderstanding, effectively taking away her voice in her own self defense. The Purple Zone has been raided four times in the last two years by city police, the sheriff’s department, the USBP as well as the DEA, a useless organization. This type of harassment speaks volumes about the abuse of power by law enforcement, the DEA in particular. What I have learned about this event is that the people we pay to protect us from, well, people like them is an illusion. Freedom in America is also non-existent—if law enforcement decides that they don’t like you or want you in a community, then those folks will stop at nothing to make that happen. I also learned that the federal courts are in bed with law enforcement, so when you are arrested , for any reason, no matter whether you are guilty or not, you have no rights to defend yourself. Innocent until proven guilty is bullshit and is not how the judicial system really works. Abuse by law enforcement is epidemic nation wide, not just in Alpine Texas,however, we do not have to tolerate this abuse in our society—we must speak up and stop this behavior from the very people that are paid to “protect and serve”, not harass and beat you up to make you comply. While Ms Rico is complaining about the public outcry condoning her abuse for “like, wow, like two weeks” , IIana, Areille and their mother have had to endure abuse from her,people like her AND the federal courts for more than FOUR YEARS!!!!! So, Ms Rico, like, wow, like needs to get over herself!!! And as for Rod Ponton, he actually DATED Ilana for about a year and he, himself, has had run-ins with the law for DUI and other things, so he really has no room to throw rocks at the Lipsen’s—something else going on there for sure. Bad, bad deal all the way around.

  • John Q. American

    Here’s a novel idea: Don’t break the law. When you sell drugs, expect law enforcement to go after you. We have laws in this country. Obey them instead of trying to divert attention. We know you don’t like the DEA and drug laws. Tough. Obey the law or face the consequences.

    • 1bimbo

      rule of law is eroding away and democrats are the biggest advocates for it

      • Sue Neie

        And Obama is to blame for everything–typical head-in-the-sand bullsh-t from a dumbass bimbo—mission accomplished, bimbo–now all of us know you are really, really dumb!!

        • 1bimbo

          shocking anyone still defends the worst president since carter

          • Sue Neie

            The only thing shocking here is how dumb you are—you are soooooo dumb!! Oh and a waste of time:)

    • pressednews

      That’s right, obey prohibition. Worked last time right? Is that the American way John Q. Bootlicker? Maybe you come from a family that obeyed the British crown because you sure don’t understand this country.

    • Patricia Garvin Fox

      Here’s a novel idea Mr. Self-righteous Anonymous: learn to read. What she sold was legal at the time and other charges seem based only on being similar to banned substances not those explicitly illegal. Law enforcement is one thing but absurd Gestapo tactics another. We have laws about warrants as well, why aren’t you pontificating about the disregard for those? If you had something reasonable to say perhaps you wouldn’t need to hide behind a lame pseudonym.

  • Tricky Rick

    It is odd that the report left out an interesting fact: Rod Ponton and Ilana Lipsen were recently lovers. Ol’ Rod even gave her some gifts. And now he wants to prosecute her in the “name of the law”. I guess the prosecutors and law enforcement officials all attended the same training school for jackassery.

    • 1bimbo

      more druggie nonsense

      • Tricky Rick

        Its a fact. Ask Ilana or Rod. They hooked up prior to his election and as soon as he got into office he started having the store searched. Does he want some kind of revenge against her or is he helping the “locals” get rid of competition?

      • Sue Neie

        After reading your completely dumb ass comments that you must have pulled out of your “bimbo” asshole, I can conclude that you are talking about something you know nothing about, so, in this case, bimbo actually fits you to a tee. Yep, Rod actually dated Ilana for about a year and she is not selling “poison” to the public—have you checked out the new vapor shop in town??? Do you feel the same way about that shop or do you just have a dumb ass hardon for Ilana?? Have you ever had a drink of alcohol??? Drug!! Ever taken a prescription narcotic for pain?? Drug!! Did you know, dumb ass, that alcohol and prescription drugs kill more people every year than pot, spice and K2??? Texting is the top killer of teenagers today, so do you take their cell phones away and take on the phone services that provide them with the ability to text and kill themselves??? Do your kids have cell phones?? You being the perfect Mom that you are, do you let them have cell phones, knowing the danger you place them in??? I think that you have too much time on your hands and are talking thru your ass when you pretend to know what is actually going on in the real world—get a life, bimbo, and leave the real thinking to people that are informed and know the facts–oh, and I bet your kids text and drive—good luck with that, perfect Mom!

        • 1bimbo

          you write like you’re drinking the bong water

          • Sue Neie

            So, 1bimbo, answer the questions… or is that just a little too hard for you??Typical deflecting dumb ass reply” you’re drinking bong water” from a completely clueless moron—I know, lets blame everything on the democrats–you are sooooo dumb!!! The bottom line is this—let’s see if you can follow—law enforcement that use abusive power to attack the public with out cause is the problem—they have become a military entity and shoot first and ask questions later, that is the issue. The harassment heaped upon Ilana and her business is wrong, plain and simple. If law enforcement had actually FOUND anything illegal, then why has the Lipsen family been left hanging in a legal limbo for over four years?? Why do law enforcement continue to raid her shop?? Hoping that they finally catch her selling illegal substances ?? They got nothing, just like you, 1bimbo, have nothing!! If that gang of thugs,led by Ms Rico, did nothing wrong, then why are they trying to squash this story?? But,thanks to judgmental, self righteous, self loving, think-they-know-everthing folks like you, bimbo, the story is alive and out in the public eye just where it needs to be… the abuse by law enforcement will not be tolerated by the public it abuses anymore. So, do you drink and do prescription narcotics?? Your total “dumbness” and avoidance in answering the questions”leads me to believe” that you are doing both—betcha your kids text and drive too. So, keep up the good work, bimbo, you are doing a heck of a job keeping the story alive—-other than that, you are irrelevant in society!

          • 1bimbo

            obviously, you have a personal stake in the purple zone.. nonetheless, either you will understand my next statement or you don’t simply because we speak two completely different languages.. i come from a perspective which values a clear head and heart.. one that rewards clean living, moralism and selflessness.. i offer my sympathy to you because i understand it’s difficult for someone who comes from a culture of narcissism and nihilism to understand my perspective – as is evident from your constant rants advocating for ‘justice’ for a drug peddler and demands for a checklist of behaviors from your adversaries.. your confessions to me amount to nothing in furthering your own self-denial and desperation for acceptance.. i agree my life is of no ‘relevance’ ——— to you.. but it means everything to my faith, my family, my career, my children and my community.. so your incoherent ramblings do nothing more than offer insight into your lost soul, clinging to inconsequential battles, blindly searching to make sense of the ineffectual battle you undertake for the ‘right’ to live in a mind-numbed stupor.. if i have a choice between law enforcement and your messianic worship of the stupefacient.. i pick the cops every time