Psst, buddy, wanna buy a shit farm? Observer readers should be more than familiar with the west Texas town of Sierra Blanca. County seat of Hudspeth County, 80 miles southeast of El Paso, population about 700, the tiny town has spent the past decade alternately courting and resisting the economic pull of other people’s crap. Most prominent in this see-saw was the long fight, finally settled in October 1998, over a proposed nuclear waste dump. Anti-dump activists won a long-shot victory in killing the proposal (see “The Woman Who Slew Goliath,” by Ayelet Hines, February 5, 1999).
But through it all, from 1992 until July 2001, Sierra Blanca was on the receiving end of what came to be unaffectionately known as the “poo-poo choo-choo”–a train delivering hundreds of tons of toxic New York City sewage sludge per day to be spread over 80,000 acres of Chihuahuan desert. Local activist Bill Addington agitated against the dump for years, but it was cold hard cash that finally shuttered the operation in July 2001: New York City decided that the 2,500-mile shipment was no longer cost-effective.
Merco Joint Ventures, which held the contract to spread the sludge, was left holding the bag and declared bankruptcy. Now Sierra Blanca Ranch Partners–the Merco subsidiary which owns the 128,000 acre parcel encompassing the sludge site–has put the property on the block to satisfy outstanding debts of $4,367,229.77. Addington found the notice of sale at the county courthouse, where the auction took place at 10 a.m. on September 3. The 40-some pages of the notice describe in great detail the legal boundaries and definitions of the property. They do not include any mention of the fact that more than half of the 120-square-mile property has been caked under thousands of tons of shit, but perhaps that’s reflected in the relatively modest per-acre asking price of $34.
As this issue of the Observer went to press, Addington called from the courthouse steps to report that the auction had just been completed, with the property being sold to the sole bidder for $3.3 million. The sole bidder, as it turns out, is John Picone, a New York City contractor and early partner in, that’s right, Merco Joint Ventures. Even the bulldoggish Addington hasn’t had time to figure out exactly how Picone managed to structure a deal in which he apparently purchased the land from himself, and for a discount, but he thinks it smells funny, if not downright shitty. Picone, after all, has been linked to New York’s Luchese crime family by Newsday–a link that Picone has denied. Local rumors have focused on the fear that the property might next be used for dumping dairy waste, but only Picone knows for sure. Maybe he just wants to try his hand at organic farming.
At the very least, credit Tulia law enforcement with being consistent: They appear to discriminate equally against both blacks and Hispanics. First there was the now well-publicized bust of nearly 10 percent of the town’s small black population in 1999 (see “Color of Justice,” by Nate Blakeslee, June 23, 2000) based on the testimony of a single narc with a questionable history. Then last May, at the invitation of Tulia police, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission busted up a predominantly Hispanic backyard high school graduation party. The officers had no warrant but insist they saw minors drinking from beer cans in an alley adjacent to the property. According to the owners of the home, there was a keg in the backyard but no beer cans at the party. They insist no minors were drinking alcohol.
Agents forced about 50 guests at the party, including a pregnant woman and children as young as six, to kneel with their hands above their heads while the officers checked identification cards. When the mother of the house, Silvia Rosales protested, an officer handcuffed her and hustled her to a squad car. Rosales was driven to the county jail but then quickly returned to the house. A total of 22 minors were cited for illegal possession of alcohol and three people were jailed for disorderly conduct. None of the kids at the party were tested for alcohol despite the requests of at least one parent present. Residents say at least two Anglo children from prominent local families were allowed to leave without being ticketed.
After listening to testimony from victims of the TABC raid, Swisher County District Attorney Terry McEachern wisely declined to prosecute any of the cases. Tulia authorities are already facing investigations from the U.S. Justice Department and the State Attorney General’s Office for the 1999 drug busts. Both LULAC and a local civil rights organization called Friends of Justice have mobilized to protest the TABC raid, and now to have the arrests expunged from the records of the victims.
In a public letter released August 15, TABC Executive Director Rolando Garza insisted that, while the agency should “have done things differently,” race wasn’t a factor. Nonetheless, two TABC agents who participated in the raid were fired. (They are appealing their dismissals.) Garza also promised that he would review how the agency conducts “future investigations of this nature.”
BAYTOWN BRUISER STRIKES AGAIN
On August 30, the Baytown Police Department belatedly announced that not a month after the brutal killing of Luis Torres, Bert Dillow, one of the officers involved, was caught using excessive force in another case. As with Torres (see “Are You Experienced,” by Jake Bernstein, March 29, 2002), this incident was captured by a camera mounted on the dashboard of a squad car. A police supervisor who reviewed the film of the arrest brought it to the attention of Internal Affairs.
After an investigation, Baytown Police Chief Byron Jones suspended Officer Dillow for four days without pay for the February incident, which began as a traffic stop. Dillow and his partner Officer Shawn Fischer had detained Derrick Monroe for an illegal turn and unsafe lane change. When the officers tried to handcuff Monroe, an altercation ensued.
According to the Baytown Sun, the officers are accused of striking Monroe with batons after he had been pepper sprayed and had assumed a cowering, defensive position. The investigation found that the officers had not allowed enough time for the pepper spray to take effect before beating Monroe. (In the Torres case, there were also allegations of improper use of pepper spray.) The Houston Chronicle reported that Dillow urged his partner to shoot Monroe, but fortunately Fischer didn’t comply. Internal Affairs also found Dillow to have committed an illegal search and seizure. According to police reports, Dillow had no justification for detaining Monroe except to write him a traffic ticket.
Fischer was suspended for one day without pay for the incident. Both officers are appealing their suspensions. Monroe pled guilty to attempting to take a weapon from a police officer and is currently serving an 18-month jail sentence. The Harris County District Attorney’s Office, which declined to press charges in the Torres case, determined there was insufficient evidence for criminal charges against the officers this time as well.