Tenaha Corruption and Cover-up in Small Town Texas. The FBI steps in when CNN reports that motorists are being targeted on a lonely stretch of highway in rural East Texas. But as Special Agent Stewart Fillmore investigates, the case takes a strange and deadly turn. He uncovers levels of lies and corruption, centering on drug dealing and a mysterious death.
Tenaha was established in February 2, 1886. The community was named by members of the Hicks family (Cherokee) for Tenehaw Municipality, from the Spanish, the original name of Shelby County.
In 2009, Tenaha became a defendant in a class action lawsuit over allegations that local police regularly made improper seizures of cash, jewelry, and property from African-American and Latino motorists passing through the town. Arrested drivers were given a choice of either going to jail on money-laundering felony charges or handing over all their valuables in order to be allowed to walk free. In one case a couple surrendered $6,000 to keep their children out of child protection services. In addition to taking of valuables from motorists who were not criminally charged, Tenaha officials allegedly agreed to lenient sentences for known drug traffickers in exchange for cash forfeitures.
Between 2006 and 2008, Tenaha Police Department used state forfeiture regulations to seize property from nearly 200 motorists. In about 50 of the cases, suspects were charged with drug possession. But in 147 incidents, police seized cash, jewelry, cell phones and automobiles even though no contraband was found and the motorist was not charged with any crime. Many of these were African-American or Latino drivers. At least 150 motorists had property seized by Tenaha police department, totaling more than $3 million USD.
Examples of seizures from non-whites included:
- A mixed-race family of four traveling through Tenaha were pulled over by police for a moving violation. Officers found no contraband but seized $6,037 after a search. The police and the district attorney threatened to take the two children away from the parents and place them in Child Protective Services if they refused to hand over the cash. Tenaha police eventually returned the family’s money without an apology. The parents are now plaintiffs in a federal class action lawsuit.
- Linda Dorman, a great-grandmother from Akron, Ohio had $4,000 in cash taken from her by local authorities when she was stopped while driving through town after visiting Houston in April 2007. Court records make no mention that anything illegal was found in her van. Dorman still hopes for the return of what she calls her life savings.
- Javier Flores and William Parsons were traveling through Tenaha on July 22, 2008 when they were stopped by police for speeding. Both men were arrested, and $8,400 was seized, after a police dog allegedly detected drugs in the vehicle although no contraband was found. The pair were then threatened with money laundering charges unless they forfeited the money. Both men were then released from custody without charge.
- Two men had $50,000 seized even though court records show there was no evidence to indicate the cash was related in any way to criminal enterprise or that the men were engaged in any illegal activity.
The town used the proceeds from the seizures to build a new police station and personally reward high-revenue generating officers. Other purchases included a $524 popcorn machine and $195 for candy. Donations to Little League teams and local chambers of commerce were also made using seized funds. Texas law states that forfeited money can only be used for official purposes by district attorney offices, and for law-enforcement purposes by police departments. Lynda Russell, Tenaha’s district attorney, has denied any impropriety. However, the US Attorney for the Eastern District of Texas re-prosecuted drug offenders after officials in Tenaha and Shelby County gave known traffickers lenient sentences in exchange for cash forfeitures. In 2008, Shelby county was investigated by the Department of Justice‘s civil rights division over an allegation made by its former auditor that seized funds had been used for campaign materials in local elections.
Class action lawsuit
In July 2008, 10 plaintiffs filed suit in federal court against Tenaha and Shelby county officials, alleging that police officers had stopped them without cause and unjustly seized their property. The plaintiffs allege that officers threatened them with criminal prosecution if they did not cooperate. Officials named in the suit included Tenaha mayor George Bowers, deputy city marshal Barry Washington and Shelby County district attorney Lynda Kay Russell. Texas State Senator John Whitmire stated, “If used properly, it’s a good law-enforcement tool to see that crime doesn’t pay. But in this instance, where people are being pulled over and their property is taken with no charges filed and no convictions, I think that’s theft.”
By March 2009, the plaintiff’s attorney Timothy Garrigan was seeking class-action status for the lawsuit, citing many similar reports from other alleged victims. In response the Tenaha police said that would return at least one man’s seized possessions, valued at around $8,500. In August 2011, a judge agreed the case could move forward as a class action because it was part of a larger legal battle “to stop illegal search and seizures and questionable ‘interdiction’ programs”.
In late 2012, the ACLU announced a settlement in the case, under which police must now observe rigorous rules during traffic stops in Tenaha and Shelby County: traffic stops will be videotaped, and the officer must give reason for the stop and for suspicion of criminal activity. Drivers are to be advised that they can refuse a search, and dogs will no longer be used in conducting traffic stops. Property determined to have been taken improperly must be returned within 30 business days. Also, asset forfeiture revenue from traffic stops must be donated to non-profit organizations, or used to pay for the officer training required by the settlement.
Rusy Del Norte – The book “Tenaha” is a book about a corruption scandal that goes from story about people being pulled over to a drug ring in a small deep east Texas town. It is a interesting story of what people will do when they have power in a ‘small vacuum’ & what they will do to take advantage to enrich themselves.
At the beginning, the author takes you through parts of his training, his grandfather’s time in the FBI, & odds & ends about the FBI that has little to do with the story. It does not get going on that until the 2nd chapter with the introduction of Barry Washington – whom the original investigation looked at.
However, the investigation takes a turn after a failed extortion letter that was sent to the two main people the book centers on : 1) Fred Walker & 2) Rod McClure. Terence Ford (the third person of this investigation) inadvertently begins them on this case. And from here, we learn about a staged break-in, fake gang letters, selling seized drugs, illegal guns, & a ‘suicide’ of another man involved named named David Thompson.
The book reads like a condensed crime novel at times, but it’s not always coherent (as the author gets side tracked at times). But the main series of events are clear. Even more so , you get & understand the author’s point of view on certain parts of the investigation & unsolved parts of the case.
If you are interested in this case or corruption that happens in small towns or true crimes, then this might be a book that interests you.
Former Texas District Judge Nacogdoches – Sad that this stuff is so prominent, but it is. I blame it on the lack of local newspapers, newspapers that actually take their role of watch dog serious. Corruption is everywhere in small town Deep East Texas.
Available on Amazon