Toni Coleman David Bowser lia, continued from page 11 a Christian man,” is an expression often heard in discussions of the controversy that has roiled this town for the last four years. Stewart, 60, is a deacon at the Church of Christ in Tulia. He smiles often and prides himself on his civility and gentle manner. He is tall and cowboy-thin, with long jowls and sunken eyes that give his face a friendly hound dog affect. Zamoff began by showing him a portion of a trial transcript in which the sheriff testified that Massengill had not shared anything “negative” with him about Coleman’s background. Confronted with the information in Massengill’s notes, Stewart insisted that he could not recall having heard any of those statements during the hiring process. Would he at least agree that “needs constant supervision,” for example, was a negative comment? “Not necessarily,” Stewart contended. After five minutes of questioning, Zamoff got Stewart to concede that “needs constant supervision” was a negative quality for an undercover officer assigned to work by himself for months at a time. Stewart had more difficulty explaining the circumstances surrounding Coleman’s arrest in Swisher County in August of 1998, about five months after the undercover operation began in earnest. The sheriff of Cochran County, where Coleman had worked as a deputy until 1996, had filed a theft charge on Coleman for stealing county gas for personal use. Cochran County was also after Coleman to repay almost $7,000 in debts he had left behind in Morton. When Stewart discovered the charge that August, he had to arrest Coleman himself, which he did in the quietest manner possible. \(And, the defense team convincingly demonstrated, in a manner had a decision to make: fire Coleman and forfeit all of the time and money invested in the operation, or allow Coleman to “resolve” the issue. Theft, Zamoff pointed out, is a crime of dishonesty, and a good sheriff wouldn’t prosecute cases made by a dishonest officer. Stewart agreed that he would not. He also would not allow Coleman to make cases with a charge pending. In the end. Coleman took a week’s vacation, during which he was allowed to pay restitution for both the gas and the debts; the Cochran County case was dismissed. Stewart was satisfied, he said, that Coleman had not done anything dishonest. But Coleman had in fact lied to Stewart, Zamoff insisted. Coleman had acted surprised, Stewart testified, when told of the arrest warrant in August of 1998. In fact, Coleman had signed a waiver of arraignment form acknowledging the charges the previous May. Wasn’t that dishonest, to not tell his superiors about a criminal charge, and then act surprised when confronted with it? As the four shackled defendants watched from their seats in the jury box, Stewart struggled to recount Coleman’s recent explanation for the discrepancythat he had signed a blank waiver of arraignment because he feared that charges might soon be filed. Coleman did not know for certain that there would be charges filed when he signed the waiver, so he had not, technically speaking, lied to Stewart. “Do you find that plausible?” Zamoff demanded. The sheriff was clearly exhausted, but Zamoff would not let it go. “It’s a little bit hard to believe,” Stewart finally admitted. Tom Coleman kept it together for three-and-a-half hours Thursday afternoon, long enough to reach the end of the day. Most of his past employment troubles he blamed on a vindictive ex-wife and dishonest colleagues. Everyone, it seemed, was out to get him, but he was not ashamed of his record. His responses were occasionally bizarre, as when he told Zamoff that he was “pretty sure” everyone he put behind bars was guilty, or when he recalled his response to being told he got the job in Swisher County. “Did you do the background check?” he had asked. Friday morning, however, things began to deteriorate. Zamoff confronted Coleman with the waiver of arraignment he had shown Stewart the day before. As expected, Coleman insisted that the waiver had been blank when he signed it, and that he had not known about the charges in Cochran County until Stewart informed him on August 8. He had signed the waiver because he thought trouble might be coming, and it would save his lawyer from having to find him in Tulia. But Coleman admitted he had known since at least 1997 that Cochran County was accusing him of stealing gas, because his former boss 18 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 4/25/03
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