Shooting the Messenger

by Katherine Harrington

Peaceful Seguin, Texas, with its stately courthouse graced in front by a statue of the “World’s Largest Pecan,” seems an unlikely setting for a drug war skirmish. And Bill O’Connell does not easily fit the bill of a drug war victim. But he is. O’Connell is not a drug dealer or an addict. He is a journalist. Until recently, O’Connell worked at the Seguin Gazette-Enterprise, where his tough-minded reporting exposed problems with the local regional narcotics task force. After a series of articles sparked the ire of the Guadalupe County sheriff’s office, O’Connell found himself the target of a campaign that forced him from his job.

O’Connell came to the Seguin Gazette-Enterprise with over 10 years of journalism experience. His entry into the profession came by way of the Navy. After graduating from high school in Pennsylvania, he joined the service, where he worked in radio and as a videographer for TV news on various bases. He left the military to pursue a career in investigative journalism and started out working in small-town newspapers. In 1997, he moved to Texas and came to the Gazette-Enterprise in 2000.

O’Connell’s voice rings with enthusiasm as he describes his work as a reporter at the Gazette-Enterprise. He loved his job, even the routine stories about court cases and high school football victories. Yet the dangers that can await a small-town reporter who aggressively seeks the truth were never far away. “The thing is, Guadalupe County is a rural community and in a lot of aspects you’re talking about a community that is run by old money,” says O’Connell. “There are interests who do not want the community to be perceived in a negative way. So if I write a story and point to a problem, many times their reaction is to shoot the messenger rather than address the problem.”

In July 2003, O’Connell wrote an article about an inmate awaiting trial for murder who allegedly had sexual contact with a jailer in Seguin. That was followed by a story about a lawsuit filed against a sheriff’s deputy. Soon after the Gazette-Enterprise published these stories, Guadalupe County Sheriff Arnold Zwicke showed up at the Gazette-Enterprise offices and asked that O’Connell be restricted from covering the sheriff’s department. “I had some problems with the way he wrote his articles, that they were not accurate, and I asked prior to his departure that someone else cover the sheriff’s department,” recalls Zwicke.

O’Connell’s editors did not reassign him, however. He went on covering the sheriff’s department. And within a month, the conscientious reporter had unearthed troubling activities by the Seguin-based narcotics task force.

O’Connell had first decided to look into the Seguin NTF after reading about the Tulia trials. During routine visits to the courthouse, lawyers started pulling O’Connell aside and passing along fragmentary information about the task force. They talked of missing evidence and clashes with the Department of Public Safety. The rumors persisted and O’Connell began to dig in earnest. He requested records from the DPS, as he and other Gazette-Enterprise reporters made a project of learning about the task force. The vague courthouse gossip proved true. The DPS documents revealed a task force in disarray.

Wanting to be sure of the facts, O’Connell went to the courthouse in Seguin and requested the task force case logs. There he met with his first resistance—no one wanted to give him the records. Eventually though, the persistent efforts of O’Connell and other Gazette-Enterprise reporters paid off, and the case logs fleshed out a disturbing story.

O’Connell’s August 6 article on the Seguin NTF broke the news that the DPS had taken control of the task force from the city of Seguin after several audits revealed missing evidence and sloppy management. By the time the article was published, the city of Seguin had turned over control of the task force to Guadalupe County Sheriff Zwicke’s office. All task force employees were required to reapply for their jobs and a DPS lieutenant had been assigned to command the unit. All finally seemed to be in order. Yet task force irregularities continued to affect Guadalupe and neighboring counties. DPS reviews found that the Seguin NTF had given drugs to the Cuero police department for K-9 drug training without authorization and had mysteriously drained Goliad County of over $5,000.

On September 7, O’Connell followed up with another story on the Seguin NTF. The article detailed threats made against the DPS by former Seguin Police Chief Gary Hopper. O’Connell reported that the NTF had been asked by law enforcement officials in Goliad and DeWitt counties to stay out of those counties, citing the unit’s reputation for “unprofessional police activities,” according to DPS documents. O’Connell quoted Goliad County Sheriff Robert DeLaGarza as saying, “That’s the most disorganized task force I have ever seen. Tell them I still want the money they took from Goliad County,” in reference to money withdrawn from drug seizure funds without his approval.

Sheriff Zwicke feels that O’Connell unfairly targeted the task force. “There are no major problems any different than any other task force,” Zwicke says.

For his part, O’Connell did not anticipate that his NTF stories would get him into trouble. “There were times when I would consider if I was getting in over my head, but I never thought anyone would come at me,” says O’Connell.

Almost immediately after his first story, Zwicke took the offensive. “Sometime in August my publisher… told me that the sheriff had come to his office and said that he had heard from someone else—he wouldn’t tell my boss who—that at an August 12 city council meeting that I attended, I supposedly reeked of marijuana,” says O’Connell.

According to O’Connell, the Seguin Gazette-Enterprise publisher, Tommy Crow, refused to credit the sheriff’s claim. “In his words, he threw the sheriff out of his office… My editors, my publisher, everyone was completely supportive of me and at that point I thought it was a dead issue,” says O’Connell.

Zwicke refuses to comment on the rumors of O’Connell’s marijuana use.

In early September, after the second article on the NTF, O’Connell began to get phone calls from people he knew in Seguin, warning him that he should lock his car doors and be careful. When he brought up these warnings to his publisher, Crow suggested that O’Connell get a drug test in response to the sheriff’s accusation. Both Crow and Zwicke started talking to Southern Newspapers, the owners of the Gazette-Enterprise in Houston, and within the space of several days, the suggestion turned into a demand. “They were concerned that someone would put something in my car, maybe at a traffic stop,” says O’Connell. “In talking with my boss, there was a suggestion that in light of the accusation the sheriff had made as well as this possibility, as far-fetched as it may seem, that a good idea would be for me to go and get drug tested. It suddenly turned from ‘how would you feel about taking a drug test; this is one way we might protect ourselves or clear this up’ to ‘you will take a drug test.’” Neither Crow nor the Gazette-Enterprise assistant managing editor, Chris Chase, will comment on the situation.

O’Connell refused to take the test, insisting that he hadn’t been doing drugs and that he would not lend credibility to the rumor. “I felt that I was in a no-win situation,” he says. “If I don’t take the test, of course I’m going to be fired. If I do take the test, then what? I take the test, I pass it, and what’s going to be my frame of mind?…I knew that I would feel demoralized because I would always wonder, did they suspect me? ”

On September 9, O’Connell resigned from the Gazette-Enterprise, but leaving the newspaper has not stopped his dogged pursuit of the Seguin NTF story. He is currently waiting on an open record request to the DPS, asking for all investigative case files in which evidence is missing.

Observer intern Katherine Harrington is a freelance writer in Austin.

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Published at 12:00 am CST