MARFA — As the town slept fitfully late Dec. 3, 1991, its single traffic light blinking out a perfect pulse, shadowy figures moved through the streets, while others lurked on the outskirts.
The object of their intense interest was a red horse trailer parked at the county fairgrounds east of town. An informant had told the federal drug agents a tantalizing tale.
But, as they staked it out, they realized they were not alone.
“At approximately 1:15 a.m., Agent Fort observed a green Chevrolet Suburban driving east on the Fairgrounds Road with the lights off,” DEA Agent Dale Stinson testified at a later court hearing.
Spotting the same vehicle minutes later, still driving dark, the agent recognized it.
“Agent Fort identified this Suburban as the vehicle usually driven by the Presidio County Sheriff Richard Dee Thompson,” Stinson stated.
About three hours later, the agents moved in to inspect the trailer, parked with the sheriff’s other equipment.
“They discovered what they believed to be a large load of cocaine covered by several bales of hay and empty feed sacks,” Stinson testified.
After field tests confirmed the drug, agents hauled the trailer to Alpine. There, they removed 40 heavy sacks, each marked with a blue polo player, the signature of a Colombian drug cartel.
The 2,421 pounds of cocaine later would test to be 93 percent pure, and was worth about $50 million.
Thus began a shocking small-town drama that quickly turned Marfa on its head and sent the sheriff to federal prison. After serving 26 years, he will be released April 18.
A beloved law officer had betrayed the badge, causing a tragedy of epic proportions for his family and the town.
“The downfall of Rick Thompson was such a devastating occurrence for the people of Marfa and Presidio County, that this phenomenon should be addressed,” wrote the authors of the two-volume history of the community.
“Rick Thompson had charm. A hail-fellow-well met. His attire was perfect — pressed jeans, starched shirt, Stetson tilted and a gun on his hip,” they noted.
And over his four terms in office, Thompson had led a regional drug task force, filmed anti-drug television spots for U.S. Customs and was the president of the Sheriffs’ Association of Texas.
He and Texas Ranger Joaquin Jackson were particularly close. Almost like brothers, one observer said.
After the news broke of Thompson’s possible link to the horse trailer, his supporters, including law officers and judges, rallied around him, convinced it all was a mistake or a setup.
That ended abruptly with his guilty plea Feb. 11, 1992, forcing them to accept that their “Walking Tall” law officer was a drug smuggler.
“The grief and horror of the people concerning this incident appeared to be beyond the normal consternation of people in situations such as this. … The loss of a hero harms a community’s ability to believe in anything anymore,” wrote the historians, Louise O’Connor and Cecilia Thompson, no relation to the sheriff.
While Thompson, 72, is unlikely to return to Marfa, the painful story of his fall from grace soon will be told here again. He did not respond to a letter sent to him in prison requesting an interview.
His plans are unknown, but his place in the annals of law enforcement infamy, as the Texas border sheriff who sold his badge for drug money, will be secure.
Like the Marlboro Man
Born in Wood County, near the Oklahoma border, on Feb. 23, 1946, Thompson was raised in Marathon, east of Marfa.
In late 1965, he enlisted in the Marines, serving in Vietnam as a radio man and military policeman. He left three years later as a sergeant.
Thompson started as a deputy sheriff in Presidio County, which covers 3,856 square miles and shares more than 150 river miles with Mexico.
In that era, there were many unsupervised border crossings and the Border Patrol was understaffed.
Thompson became sheriff in May 1973 after Sheriff Hank Hamilton was shot to death.
Under any circumstances, safeguarding so vast and wild a county with the help of only two deputies was a daunting job.
Just across the border were powerful drug lords such as Pablo Acosta, the boss of Ojinaga, who was killed in a shootout in Mexico in April 1987. Later came the even more formidable Amado Carrillo Fuentes, leader of the Juárez cartel.
Carrillo earned the nickname, “Lord of the Skies,” by bringing airliners packed with cocaine directly from Colombia to Mexico, with some of it bound for Presidio County.
But Thompson, with brains, nerve and political savvy, proved up to the all-consuming job of being a rural West Texas sheriff.
Standing well over 6 feet, before putting on his hat and boots, he cut an imposing, even intimidating figure. Some folks called him cocky. Others sought his counsel.
“His stature as a political figure and a leader of law enforcement at the time made people seek him out for advice. He was just a phenomenally likable guy,” former District Attorney Richard Barajas said.
For reasons that later became clear, Thompson would have nothing to do with the Drug Enforcement Administration, although he was close to other federal agents.
Barajas, who counted Thompson as a friend, worked closely with him on the notorious Rio Grande sniper case, in which a teenager, shooting from a canyon rim on the Mexican side, killed a tourist rafter and wounded a guide in 1988.
“That was my last case, and Rick was kind of the orchestra leader in trying to coordinate relationships with not only the witnesses, but the local people and federal authorities. There was also a lot of work leading up to that trial that required international relationships,” he said.
Barajas still recalls the general reaction when Thompson was implicated in the cocaine seized at the fairgrounds.
“It was just disbelief. It just shattered people. Someone said it was like seeing the Marlboro Man go up in flames,” he said.
The great size of the load, the property of the Juárez Cartel, raised unsettling questions about what might have occurred earlier.
“No one, even back then, would have trusted someone with that quantity of drugs, unless they had a reliable track record. He had to have demonstrated loyalty to the people who were moving this type of narcotics,” Barajas said.
Thompson was very popular in Marfa, which back then was a gritty, down-in-the-boot-heels ranching town of about 2,500 people, a far cry from today’s hip cultural mecca, popular with wealthy New Yorkers and Californians.
“Rick had such good favor. He got along with almost everybody, except those he locked up. He was the town favorite,” recalled Carl Robinson, 85, a former longtime school superintendent who retired in 1992.
“I thought I knew him extremely well. I had worked with him through the years on different situations with students and parents, and we always had a very friendly and professional relationship,” he added.
Locals recall how Thompson held court over morning coffee with other officials, cops and agents in the cramped 19th-century limestone building that held his office and the county jail.
Jackson was a regular, and he later devoted most of a chapter in his book “One Ranger” to a tortured examination of their relationship.
“Man, I never saw this coming. I couldn’t accept the fact that a man I had worked with and trusted for the last five years could possibly be involved in drugs. I felt this sickness in my gut. But I knew,” he recalled.
The revelation, he said, left him feeling “used, humiliated and dumb.”
Others long had expressed doubts about Thompson, including Jack McNamara, publisher of the “Nimby News” in Alpine, who was critical of Thompson’s leadership of the West Texas Multi-County Narcotics Task Force. It operated along the Rio Grande from El Paso to Alpine, from 1988 to 1992.
“They had a huge drug bust, but the end result was they got a tiny amount of drugs from college kids, cooks and drifters,” McNamara recalled.
According to McNamara, Thompson mismanaged task force funds, illegally destroyed its records and grossly exaggerated its accomplishments.
“He claimed $1.5 million in narcotics seized when in fact $5,000 was seized. Thompson claimed 147 arrests — fewer than 50 were made. Three were for illegal purchases of six-packs of beer,” McNamara wrote in late 1991.
Contacted recently at his home in Oregon, McNamara, 80, said he still is trying to get to the bottom of it all.
“Tell Rick Thompson I’m still investigating this. There are unanswered questions,” he added.
Others in the region had heard unsettling whispers, recalls former Presidio County Treasurer Mario Rivera, who served from 1974 until 2006.
“The nickname some people gave him here was ‘Walking Tall,’” Rivera recalled. “But I had my suspicions. I got involved in politics and in 1976 we had a candidate for sheriff, Manny Rodriguez, a city policeman.”
“At that time Manny told us this guy is involved in the drug business but we didn’t believe it,” he said.
Rivera said he still can’t figure out how Thompson could conceal his illegal activities from other law officers.
“It was amazing. He was hanging around with a Texas Ranger and a well-known Border Patrol agent. He was doing this stuff and they never knew. That’s what’s hard to understand,” he added.
It was one of Thompson’s more dubious associations, a local man named Glyn Robert Chambers, that apparently led to his downfall.
Chambers, a violent, lawless man long suspected of drug trafficking, had a remote family ranch in south Presidio County, across the border from San Antonio del Bravo, a hotbed of narcotics activity.
In 1986, Chambers led a raid on the municipal jail in Ojinaga, kidnapped an inmate wanted in the United States for rape, brought him back to Texas and chained him naked to a tree for authorities to find, according to popular lore.
And not only did Thompson use Chambers as a confidential source, the sheriff went to bat for him over his legal problems.
In the end, it was Chambers who used Thompson. After the fairgrounds drug bust, he cut a deal to testify against the sheriff.
Dealing with a snitch
In December 1991, Thompson already had filed to run for a fifth term as sheriff and tax assessor/collector, joint positions in Presidio County.
That year, he was paid $22,657 for both jobs and he had several small side businesses. His wife, Barbara Jean, worked at the Marfa National Bank. They owned a house on West Washington Street, and the youngest of their three children still was at home.
Thompson remained free after the drugs were seized. When the DEA tried to contact him, he referred them to his lawyer.
In a bizarre news conference held just days later, Thompson admitted the ton of cocaine was his, but he claimed it was part of a one-man reverse sting.
He also made a cryptic remark that wounded every law enforcement agent in the Big Bend.
“Cops and crooks are of the same caliber. The only difference is that cops carry badges,” he said.
A DEA informant had also linked Thompson directly to the drug deal. At one point, he said, when Chambers’ drug-loaded truck stalled near the border, Thompson quickly appeared to give him a jump.
According to the DEA, Thompson had also moved the ton of drugs from the border to Marfa in his green Suburban.
The end came quickly for Thompson: On Jan. 9, 1992, he was indicted on four federal drug offenses, and was suspended as sheriff.
Four days later, he was ordered held without bond, shocking his supporters.
Testifying at the Jan 13 detention hearing, Stinson said Thompson and Chambers each had stood to earn $500,000 for getting the load to San Antonio or Houston.
Soon after, in a sealed plea deal, Thompson pleaded guilty to one drug count and prosecutors agreed to recommend a 10-year prison term.
Thompson acknowledged his guilt and agreed to cooperate with federal investigators.
At his sentencing hearing May 10, Thompson apologized and his wife made a final plea for leniency.
“He’s a good man and has led a good life,” she said to a packed courthouse in Pecos.
“He messed up one time. If we each look into our hearts, every one of us has made mistakes. He’ll walk straight. He’ll walk tall,” she told U.S. District Judge Jerry Buchmeyer of Dallas.
The judge saw things differently after hearing evidence the sheriff had been corrupt since 1986 or 1987.
He took money in exchange for information about law enforcement activities, helping Chambers to smuggle more than 20 tons of cocaine and marijuana through the Big Bend, according to the DEA.
The sheriff had also helped deliver various loads, the agency claimed, altogether earning him $70,000 to $80,000 in drug money.
Buchmeyer gave him the max: Two life terms without a chance of parole. Only a change in federal sentencing law years later spared Thompson from dying in prison.
Chambers, who cooperated with the DEA, got life also but was released after serving 18 years.
‘He was the snake’
Looking back, former DEA agent Stinson said the Marfa drug case neither was the biggest nor most interesting of his career.
And, he said, it is often misunderstood: Thompson never was the primary figure in the investigation of a 10-year drug conspiracy.
“Rick wasn’t the kingpin. Robert Chambers was the head of the organization. He was the snake … he had the contacts in Mexico,” he said.
But unlike Chambers, who was “beating down the door” to make a plea deal, Thompson initially hung tough and it cost him dearly.
The result, Stinson said, was an outcome he did not entirely agree with.
“The head of the organization squeals on people who worked for him, and the DEA gives him a free pass. Rick stays in jail because he believed in certain things,” he said.
“Rick was a more honorable person to Robert than he was to his constituents. And he was making a pittance compared to Robert and ACF (Amado Carillo Fuentes.),” he added.
Years earlier, while serving as an attaché in Mexico City, Stinson had heard Mexican federal police mention Thompson in connection with the Ojinaga drug trade.
“They said the sheriff of that county was “La Puerta,” (the door), that he controls everything,” he noted.
A shadow over Marfa
Now serving his sixth term as Presidio County sheriff, Danny Dominguez, 55, is one of the few in town who had a direct tie to Thompson.
“All I know is I worked for five months for him. The only thing he asked me to do was take care of my people. The citizens,” he said.
Dominguez, who in 1991 was hired to work out of Presidio, said he never saw the crooked side of Thompson.
“The man did what he did. He went to prison for life. He’s made parole. There are people who kill or rape who serve less time,” he noted.
Dominguez said he also has a troubled relationship with the DEA, and that he, too, is whispered by some as being corrupt.
“I caught a load of pot the other day. And we posted it on Facebook. There were comments like, ‘I wonder how much he kept?,’” the sheriff said.
Now, 26 years after Thompson was sent to federal prison, his troubling shadow lingers over Marfa.
“People say that because I worked for Rick Thompson, I was dirty. People who think that are mentally unstable. People who know me, know I’m not that kind of person,” Dominguez said.