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Drugs, Stings S Profits: The Law in Midland Virtue has never been as respectable as money Mark Twain Midland IAST SUMMER I spent eight weeks covering a series of events that the local .4 media had been describing as a “feud” between the Midland County Sheriff’s Office and County Commissioners’ Court. In midSeptember, I took my 5,000-word first draft in search of a local newspaper, and, after repeated humiliating offers that would not have even covered my expenses, I did what I should have done in the first place and called the Texas Observer. The new editor, Dave Armstrong, offered, to my delight, not only to pay expenses, but a modest honorarium as well. Moreover, said Armstrong, it was no problem that I wished to leave forthwith on my first vacation in four years; I could simply fax him the manuscript and the story would be on the street by the time I got back. When I returned in two weeks, the story wasn’t quite finished; in fact, it had taken on a life of its own. In my absence, Armstrong had driven out here, not once, but twice. And, armed with Open Records Act requests and a gunsblazing big-city investigative reporter’s style that left the locals wondering what had hit them, he had swept through Midland and Monahans, taking no prisoners and obtaining more pertinent documents than I ever knew existed. From there, the story grew apace; and following a marathon of sorts that featured Armstrong locked in his house with little or no sleep, calling out at all hours to me, to the intelligence community noosphere and God knows where else to nail down this quote and that attribution, it soon grew to twice its original size, birthing finally as the Oct. 18 cover story, “Have Badge, Will Travel.” I refer the reader to that issue for detail and specifics of fact; here, I will merely reiterate background. Listen to the Weird: The Iran-Contra Chickens Come Home To Roost In Midland County The conflict between Midland County Sheriff Gary Painter and the Commissioners’ Court, headed by Judge Charles W. “Bro” Seltzer, revolves around the sheriff’s office’s conduct of reverse sting operations undercover police operations in which officers offer drugs for sale, then arrest the buyers and confiscate their money and property. What most observers assumed is that the commissioners were concerned that Nick Johnson is a freelance writer living in Midland. because the Operations Division, headed by fomer Texas Ranger Clayton McKinney, was conducting stings “reversals” outside of Midland County, sometimes as far afield as Arizona, Oklahoma and Indiana, that they were creating an unnecessary potential for liability lawsuits. The Sheriff’s Department, said the county judge and commissioners needed to stay within their own jurisdiction as defined in the Texas Constitution and applicable case law. To this end, the Commissioners’ Court issued a resolution policy and order, stating that the court would neither fund nor assume legal responsibility for operations, particularly drug reversals, conducted out of the county. Sheriff Painter responded by filing a lawsuit in state district court asking for both a “writ of mandamus” requiring the commissioners to cease meddling in his department’s internal affairs, and a grant of injunctive relief from the resolution policy and order, which carried a potential for contempt of court, if not abided by. After attending two sessions of Commissioners’ Court and separately interviewing several commissioners and other county officials, I began to understand that while this conflict contained all the elements of a county-courthouse political feud, it was something much more; in fact, it tended toward the bizarre. As best as I could determine, the burlesque began about the time Sheriff Painter and his operations Captain Clayton McKinney hired as “special deputies” two soldiers of fortune to help them plan and execute reverse drug stings. These mercenaries, Gary Howard and Ronald Tucker, prior to entering the freelance reversesting business, had owned and operated a paramilitary corporation known as Peregrine International. Incorporated in Texas around 1981, Peregrine, according to press reports, operated “like a private CIA, offering counter-terrorist and counterinsurgency assistance to foreign countries.” Among the services they claimed to provide include restraint techniques, interrogation and demolition and sniper marksmanship.” According to press reports and court documents quoted in the previous Observer article, Peregrine personnel had also claimed participation in schemes to abduct and kill drug smugglers in Peru, Honduras, Belize and other Caribbean countries, and in the training of Nicaraguan Contra rebels and elite military commando units throughout Latin America. They were also alleged to have been involved in a fairly strange plot to kill the Ayatollah Khomeini, and in the training of Haitian Dictator “Baby Doc” Duvalier’s state death-squad, the dreaded Ton Ton Macoute. Some of Howard and Tucker’s later freelance projects include a series of arms-deal stings, allegedly conducted in association with U.S. Customs, whom they claim hired them to set up the deals. In one, called “Houston I,” which involved a foiled arms shipment to South Africa, they reportedly received $600,000 in commissions from funds forfeited in the deal. Another, “Houston III,” which specifically targeted British arms merchant Ian Smalley, otherwise known as “Dr. Doom,” was devised as a response to a plot to simultaneously deliver 100 M48 A-5 Tanks to Iran and 8,300 U.S.built TOW anti-tank missiles to Iraq; it came unwound at the last moment, leaving Howard and Tucker claiming a $1.4 million loss, for which they are currently suing the Customs Service. In their suit, Howard and Tucker claim that Customs and the Department of Justice scuttled the operation because Smalley was actually working with the U.S. Government, Britain and Israel as part of the illicit Iran-Contra scheme to deliver arms to Iran in exchange for freedom for hostages. Exactly how Sheriff Painter came to employ the likes of Howard and Tucker is not all that clear. Speaking with this writer in the hallway of the Midland County Courthouse, Painter indicated that he first met them in the mid-1970s through Presidio County Sheriff Rick Thompson’s office, where Painter served as chief deputy from 1973-78. Whatever the connections between the mercenary duo and the Presidio sheriff’s department, Sheriff Painter long has and continues to evince warm feelings for them, having gone on the record more than once praising their “patriotism,” and stating that they are “welcome at his house anytime.” “What one of them can’t do, the other can,” McKinney said in a Dallas Morning News article. “Gary is more df a planner, kind of a layout man. He handles the situation way down the road. Tucker is more like the most of us, he’s handling the problem right at the time.” It was with the help of Howard and Tucker that Painter was able-to embark on what Midland District Attorney Al Schorre characterized as “the first phase of Painter’s international careerIranians and commies; the second being drug. stings.” As the result of a four-month “investigation” for the Midland County Sheriff’s Office in the Big Bend, 200 miles from Midland County, Howard and Tucker reported to Painter the existence of five “terrorist training camps,” where squads of Libyans, Cubans and Colombians were readying for attacks against the United States. With said information in hand, Painter hopped a jet, at taxpayers’ expense, to Washington, D.C., where he met with top federal officials, including Boyden Gray, chief counsel to then-Vice-President Bush; John Savercool, aide-de-camp to U.S. Sen. Phil THE TEXAS OBSERVER 5 -w.tvoydr