Episode 5: The Informant
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January 9, 2022
More on Dale Stinson
You heard some about DEA agent Dale Stinson in Episode 4 notes. But I’ll add a few fun things here. I think we gave an impression that Dale is stuffy, all business. Actually, he’s got a great sense of humor and is quick to crack a joke and laugh with others at theirs. I ribbed him a lot about his contention that he never had smoked pot. He finally responded with a story about an undercover operation in El Paso where he met a seller who came out with a long strand of buds and asked everyone in the room to join him in partaking.
Dale interrupted the main narrative to ask, “You remember the warm smell of Colitas?”–referring to the Eagles song Hotel California. “Colitas” means “little tail” in Spanish and can refer to a tail of marijuana buds or a woman’s butt in sexual slang. The dope seller lit the end of the tail and started waving the smoke through the room.
“What did you do?” I asked Dale.
“I didn’t inhale.”
“No, seriously. I got the hell out of there as quick as possible before I passed out.”
Dale’s reticence for doing any kind of drug isn’t just related to his role in fighting the War on Drugs. He related to me some experiences with other people in his life that had gotten in too deep with them. To him, they were dumbing down a lot of potential they had for their interests in life. I think we’ve all seen “stoners” who are a lot of fun initially, but eventually you get to thinking about if that’s all there is to their lives. Dale took that a step further and abstained. Dale is in love with German beers, and good beer in general.
Dale’s partner Kelly (retired U.S. Customs) is a bit harder of a nut to crack. He’s got a great, dry wit, and carries the appearance akin to a middle-age Iron Maiden fan, with shoulder length hair and a thick goatee.
He was the perfect partner for Dale to connect with because Kelly was an Alpine native. It had to be a tremendous asset to have someone who knew the people and culture of the area. However, my co-writer, Eric Benson, noted the difference in their personalities and penned them as: “buddy-cop odd couple. Lethal Weapon on the borderlands.” That’s a bit of an exaggeration, since their professionalism was foremost in their relationship. I think they recognized quickly how to draw the strengths from their personalities to get the job done.
One key thing to keep in mind is that Dale and Kelly hadn’t heard about most of Robert Chambers’ exploits that we reported in the podcast–at least at the time they were doing their investigation. They were focused on one thing–developing a historical conspiracy around Robert’s smuggling with events happening at the time.
I met with Dale and Kelly in Marfa/Alpine several months before I ever found a production company and funding at Campside/Sony. At the time I was working with a friend who had a music and reporting background, Jesse Basham, on the podcast. So, Jesse and I dived in and learned the ropes on audio equipment/recording and did all the recording in Alpine.
We all spent three days together and it was crucial for the podcast, because the buddy cops were quick to admit that they had a hard time remembering events from some 30 years ago. But as we retraced their steps of old in Alpine and Marfa they their memories started coming into sharper detail. They were able to bounce remembrances off one another to expand on what happened.
We taped the entire time together, and although the podcast has some of that time in Alpine, it’s disappointing that we couldn’t fit in our trip to Candelaria–to the spot where the coke actually came across the river. Two retired feds crammed into my little Mitsubishi Outlander with two progressive-minded Austinites rumbling along the rough roads of the border. If you were to head west from Presidio towards El Paso, Candelaria is literally a dead end of the highway, with only rugged dirt roads traversing the ranches to the west.
Candelaria was famous for the footbridge across the Rio Grande that allowed the Mexican residents of San Antonio del Bravo to cross back and forth for supplies and to send their kids to the schoolhouse where Robert Chambers’ mother taught. Sadly, it was demolished after 911 with the crackdown on informal border crossings. We visited the new “bridge” of sorts, two metal cables across a might 10 feet of the river. One cable to walk on. One to hang on to.
The “main dirt road” heading west is Chispa Road.
Turning on to Chispa road…
Dale: “You know what Chispa means?”
Me: “Wasn’t that a Taco Bell menu item?”
Kelly: “Chispas Doritos Locos?”
The main translation is actually “spark,” but it can be used for countless other meanings, everything from “tipsy” to yes, “rumor,” depending on where you are in Mexico or Latin America. I kind of liked “rumor” for the context of our conversations in the Borderlands. Since I had previously found the location for the coke crossing, I was able to get there fairly quickly. Dale and Kelly had never been there; there wasn’t ever any reason to go with their case. So, they really enjoyed walking along the shallow river and imagining what happened the night Chambers met Amado Carillo Fuentes’ men at the crossing.
The trip together also cemented our relationship with the feds; they realized they could trust us to tell their account of the story. In addition to the seven or so hours of sit-down taping and hours of travel taping on our trip, I would end up doing about 12 more hours of remote taping with the buddy cops.
Sam Thomas, Jr. (The Informant)
The show gives you a pretty good account of the informant, Sam Thomas, Jr. What you don’t hear is what happened to him afterwards. I would have liked to delve more into Sam, but his relatives were not willing to talk. I heard later from a relative that I corresponded with that family members still had fears of retaliation for him being a snitch. It seems highly unlikely that they would face this 30 years after the fact, but I can understand their concerns.
I did talk to Sam’s second wife (who he married shortly after the bust) at length, but she wasn’t so sure she wanted to be in the podcast. She loved Sam dearly, and told of how she had to finally leave him because of his obsession of repeating his performance as an informant.
After the bust, Sam and his second wife moved to Colorado, and Sam began hanging out in rough biker bars trying to insert himself into conversations about drug dealing. It started slowly, but eventually Sam began going out and drinking heavily every night at the bars. Aside from being a lifelong heavy drinker, Sam had another motivation–money.
The DEA had paid Sam $200,000 (about $400,000 in today’s dollars) and a monthly stipend for his informing, so it was a dangerous but lucrative pursuit. After his wife left, Sam went downhill drinking. But eventually he got sober and became a counselor for substance abusers in Amarillo, where he eventually died.