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FEATURE The Law West of the Pecos BY NATE BLAKESLEE Midland n a sunny afternoon in October, Alpine Avalanche reporter Ian Talley found himself rid ing in an army surplus jeep through thick brush country on a private ranch in Brewster County, about 30 miles north of Big Bend National Park. For three weeks, the isolated piece of range owned by Midland County Sheriff’s Captain Clayton McKinney had played host to McKinney’s special project: the Sheriffs of Texas Agreed Response, or STAR, a tac tical unit comprised of deputies from up to sixty Texas counties. All week, the group had been training for an open-air drug bust in the backcountry, the type of operation the Border Patrol frequently carries out in the Big Bend. Decked out like national guardsmen, many with painted faces and combat fatigues, the men drilled with automatic weapons, heavy military trucks, jeeps, and an armored personnel carrier. Now Talley was riding along with the “bad guys” toward the ambush McKinney had set up for them. “They all went into the brush with their camouflage gear and their knives and their paintball guns,” Talley recalls. “And all of the sudden people came out of nowhere. They knew who I was and what I was doing there, but I put my hands up just to act like I was a bad guy.” He must have played his part too well. “They opened up the car door, threw me on the ground, and stood on me for about five minutes,” Talley said. In a real drug bust, it could have been worse. “When I stood back up, I looked where my head was in the back window and there was a paintball [splat] there. I said, ‘You guys saw me put my hands up.’ And one of the kids said, ‘Well, you know in a situation like that we have to take out everybody.’ Talley’s brush with STAR left him disconcerted \(although unTexas. In a region crisscrossed by counter-drug patrols from no fewer than five separate law enforcement agencies, officials from several regional authorities including the Border Patrol and current and former county officials from the Big Bend area are skeptical about the methods and motives of the newest posse to arrive on the scene. According to Clayton McKinney, and his boss, Midland County Sheriff Gary Painter, STAR is an “emergency response team,” not a drug interdiction squad. Yet STAR has remained shrouded in secrecy, both in Midland and on the border. At least one border sheriff has confirmed that STAR deputies took part in a drug interdiction operation on the border, without informing local authorities or the Border Patrol. How did STAR move from fighting oil field terrorism and assisting victims of tornadoes, as Painter described its mission to The Houston Chronicle in 1998, to clandestine drug-interdiction operations? The answer may have something to do with the aspirations of Midland County Sheriff Gary Painter. Since his election in 1985, the Drug War has been Painter’s driving motivation and very nearly his downfall. No Texas law enforcement agency embraced the Reagan-Bush War on Drugs with more enthusiasm than the Midland County sheriff’s office, which took advantage of the generous federal grants disbursed through the governor’s criminal justice division to create a multi-jurisdictional counter-drug task force. Other law enforcement officials used the federal money to organize regional drug task forces, but Painter’s Permian Basin Drug Task Force was the biggest, covering a fifteen-county swath of the TransPecos from Andrews to the border. It was also the most controversial. Along with the drug busts that made Gary Painter a star on the local evening news, came persistent questions about corruption: theft of confiscated drug money, missing evidence from the drug vault, political payoffs. A 1991 grand jury investigation resulted in indictments against Hal Upchurch, a D.A. in Ward County who worked closely with the task force, and Ronald Tucker, one of Painter’s many “temporary deputies,” underworld operatives who helped him make drug cases across the state. Then, in June of 1998, after a lengthy investigation by state and federal authorities of allegations ranging from evidence tampering and fraudulent reports to bribery and theft, the governor’s office cut off funds to the Permian Basin task force. Despite the investigation, no indictments were returned by an Odessa grand jury. Now, less than eighteen months later, Painter is back in the drug interdiction business. Following the breakup of the Permian Basin force, Governor Bush commissioned a new, D.P.S.-led task force based in Odessa. Most of the surrounding sheriff’s offices joined, but not Midland County. Instead, Painter mustered a new posse from the remains of his old one, renaming it the Trans-Pecos Drug Task Force. Rather than establish the task force at home in Midland, Painter set it up in Pecos, where Clayton McKinney’s son is chief of police. \(Because Painter decided to go it alone, jurisdiction of the D.P.S.directed West Texas Drug Task Force resembles a doughnut with a Although his new operation is much smaller than his previous force, through the formation of STAR, Painter has extended his reach into counties such as Presidio and Brewster that refused to join his new task force. Back in Midland, however, STAR has become a controversial issue. Painter has been accused of butting into West Texas towns where he is not wanted, sinking money into an expensive fleet of military vehicles he maintains for his part-time army, and neglecting county taxpayers at home. Painter’s opponent in the upcoming Republican primary election is using these issues in the 8 THE TEXAS OBSERVER DECEMBER 10, 1999