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Raid(s) Of The Day: The Capital Area Drug Task Force Edition

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In 2003, Time magazine ran an article on a federally-funded anti-narcotics unit in Texas called the Capital Area Drug Task Force. Made up of cops from police departments in and around the Austin area, the task force had a bad reputation in many of the communities it served -- locals referred to them “Rambo wannabes." In one 11-month span, the task force would embark on three badly botched-raids, two of them resulting in fatalities.

The first came in February 2001, when the task force raided the home of Edwin Delamora, his wife, and two children. As two officers attempted to break open the door with a battering tram, Delamora fired his gun into the door. He would later say he thought his family was under attack. One bullet penetrated the door and struck Deputy Keith Ruiz, killing him.

Delamora had no prior criminal record. His attorneys claimed the raid was based on a confidential informant who turned out to be the brother of two sheriff's deputies -- information that was suppressed at Delamora's trial. Delamora was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to life in prison. Police found less than an ounce of methamphetamine and an ounce of marijuana in the mobile home. Prosecutors declined to seek the death penalty because of substantial doubt about whether or not Delamora knew the people outside his door were police. Of course if there was doubt about that, there should have been doubt about whether Delamora was guilty of murder.

That decision drew heavy criticism from Texas Attorney General John Cornyn -- now a U.S. senator. In response, Cornyn pushed for law requiring that juries be always be given the option to administer the death penalty in any murder case in which the victim was a police officer, regardless of whether judges or prosecutors believe it's appropriate.

Four months after the Delamora raid, members of the task force were riding in a Texas Department of Public Safety helicopter when they spotted what they thought was marijuana growing in the yard of 56-year-old Spicewood resident Sandra Smith. The helicopter landed, and the cops stormed the house. Smith had three visitors at the time. One, a Vietnam vet, said the helicopter was flying so low he flashed back to his time in combat. Another was napping, and opened his eyes to a machine gun pointed at his face. After kicking Smith's dog, ransacking her house, and holding her and her guests at gunpoint, the officers discovered their mistake. The alleged pot plants were ragweed.

The following December, the same task force raided another mobile home on a no-knock warrant. As they rushed into the home, they encountered 19-year-old Tony Martinez, who sleeping on a couch. Martinez was the nephew of the man named in the warrant. He wasn't suspected of any crime. As Martinez rose from the couch, Deputy Derek Hill shot Martinez in the chest, killing him. Martinez was unarmed.

That raid occurred less than a mile from the raid in which Deputy Ruiz had been killed ten months earlier. Both Edwin Delamora and Deputy Derek Hill claimed they made errors in judgment. Both said they thought at the time that the man they shot in the midst of a volatile drug raid posed a threat to them. Delamora was convicted of murder, and is still in prison today. Deputy Hill was cleared by a grand jury in April 2002.

(The "Raid of the Day" features accounts of police raids I've found, researched, and reported while writing my forthcoming book Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces. It's due out in July, but you can pre-order it here.)

(Sources: John Cloud, "Guarding Death's Door," Time, July 14, 2003; Jordan Smith, "Another Drug War Casualty," Austin Chronicle, July 19, 2002; "Delamora attorney says key facts were withheld," Austin American-Statesman, July 29, 2002; "Cornyn: Death penalty must be option when officer killed," Associated Press, July 25, 2002; "Survivors sue Travis county over fatal raid," Austin American-Statesman, May 10, 2003; Claire Osborn, "Deputy not indicted in drug raid death," Austin American-Statesman, April 4, 2002.)

Filed by Radley Balko