Episod 7 Notes

Sheriff Rick Thompson after a year in prison
Sheriff Rick Thompson after a year in prison.

Episode 7: Conspiracy

Please excuse any typos or other errors. Actually don’t excuse them…just give me a heads up about them. Feel free to comment on anything or ask questions below.

May 8, 2022

Details on the trial

The podcast coverage of the legal proceedings is pretty straightforward, but we obviously had to leave out a lot of details. First, after the grand jury indicted Rick Thompson, County Judge Monroe Elms and County Attorney Dan Newsome removed him from office and the Commissioners Court appointed one of his deputies–Abelardo “Abe” Gonzales–as sheriff. The move caused quite an uproar, and Monroe told me that he received an onslaught of angry calls from Thompson’s supporters, including Thompson’s wife and oldest son. There also were threats of legal action to keep Thompson as sheriff.

When Rick Thompson agreed to plead guilty, the tone of Thompson supporters changed dramatically. They couldn’t believe that their hometown hero was admitting to the smuggling, and their objections faded. Behind the scenes, Rick and his attorney had crafted a plea deal with the prosecution. Rick would agree to the crimes cited (a couple counts would be dismissed), agreed to cooperate with the feds in ongoing investigations, and thus, would receive 10 years in prison. Prosecutors sealed the plea deal–likely fearing a lot of residents would question such a light sentence for a bad cop. The Dallas Morning News sued to open the plea deal, and it eventually was made public.

As noted in the podcast, Rick somehow still believed he could get off on probation. So, he launched his campaign trying to get supporters to write letters to the judge.

Sheriff Rick Thompson letter to friends
Sheriff Rick Thompson asks friends to write a letter of support for him to the judge

We ultimately hear this backfires, and Rick gets life in prison. Before sentencing there were some interesting things that came out in objections to the prosecutions sentencing report made by the defense. (Those reports outline basic facts the defendant is admitting to in their guilty plea, and defense attorneys often file objections to try and clarify certain allegations/facts.)

Objections to the Pre-Sentence Report

I had heard that Robert used a technique to ensnare the sheriff into his circle: giving him money to hold for a bit at the county jail, then telling Rick to keep a bit of it for his trouble when Chambers came to retrieve it. The example above from notes a box with $1 million–which kinds of sounds like the cut Thompson and Chambers were due from the last attempt at smuggling. I had heard of much lower amounts, e.g. $30,000, but I never found any direct evidence of this kind of arrangement other than the notation in the sentencing report.

The objection to the nature of a visit Thompson had with drug lord Pablo Acosta also was interesting since it shows they did meet–although with Rick claiming here that it was with other law enforcement.

Objections to the Pre-Sentence Report

The reference to a rancher observing the sheriff loading marijuana is another story I had heard from multiple sources–an event down near Ruidosa on the Rio Grande where Thompson was allegedly seen stuffing pot into a trailer.

The conspiracies

Everyone out in the Big Bend thinks there’s more to Rick Thompson’s involvement than what has come out publicly–and yes, beyond what I’ve reported. That’s why we included very brief accounts of three conspiracy stories as a way to acknowledging how widespread they are while not providing conclusive evidence that they were true.

Here’s what we said about Jack McNamara, the muckraking journalist, and his beliefs:

The first theory: Maybe the sheriff was protecting corrupt federal officials. That was the thinking of local journalist Jack McNamara, the muckraking journalist and founder of the NIMBY News. He thought maybe the sheriff knew too much…about shady dealings in Central America. I think of this as the Iran Contra, Oliver North, something something theory.

My co-writer came up with that last line on “Iran Contra, Oliver North, something something theory.” It’s pretty funny to me, because “something something” takes the place of what would have been exhaustive reporting and probably a full 8-episode podcast on its own. But the line does a great disservice to Jack McNamara. I spent days worth of phone calls on the phone with Jack, and we became good friends at a distance. He lives in Medford, Oregon, now in house still packed with paper documents from the drug bust and other investigative reporting.

Jack spent years (10, I think) fighting to get records released both on the big drug bust and on the operations of the multi-county drug task force that Thompson played a huge role in. The U.S. attorneys beat him down again and again and buried him in motions. Eventually, worn out and nearly bankrupt from the legal battles, Jack gave up. That battle, however, seems to signal that indeed U.S. authorities are hiding something about Rick Thompson–beyond piddly things like unaccounted for and wasted task force money that Jack uncovered.

Jack’s reporting–in his Nimby News and later in columns for the Big Bend Sentinel--were intense investigations and reporting on everything from the Drug War to hospitals, prisons and other government initiatives. This one piece alone on a whistleblower for a drug task force shows you the effort he put into everything he did.

Alpine Nimby News Jack McNamara on Sheriff Rick Thompson and Robert Chambers
An issue of the Nimby News with a story on one of Robert Chambers’ bond hearings.

I put a lot of credence in Jack’s belief that Rick Thompson was involved to a great extent in operations to fund/arm the Contras and other Central American initiatives involving the drug trade, the CIA, and the DEA. But again, that would be a whole ‘nother podcast, and any records on those allegations likely will be shuttered from the public view for a long time.

As for theory #2 that the sheriff was protecting political benefactors and conspiring with them on smuggling, well, I think there’s a kernel of truth here. But when feed-store owner Herb Serber tells me about “27 sealed indictments” against ranchers in the case, I don’t buy it for reasons mentioned in the podcast: officials I talked to would have known about them, and no one else was ever indicted. I do believe that some ranchers might have been letting the sheriff move drugs through their land and knew what the Thompson was doing. Whether they profited in any way from this, I don’t know.

Godbold Mill Marfa Texas
I never found any evidence that coke was taken to the Godbold feed mill in Marfa before being shipped out in cattle feed bags!

We didn’t mention another belief among some in Presidio county, that a “Marfa Investment Club” met in town to pool their investments, with some of those going to the sheriff to smuggle. When the sheriff later profited from a successful smuggle, the club members would get dividends. Well, it seems far-fetched. Why would the sheriff trust so many people with his activities and why would he need any upfront money? There was a Marfa Investment Club that advertised its get togethers in the Big Bend Sentinel at the time. The principle leaders of the club had all died, so I couldn’t check with them on this outlandish story.

As for theory #3 that minimalist artist Donald Judd was involved in the smuggling, I never saw any evidence of this. One local even thinks Judd could have had drug money used to buy some of his works for outrageous values, and thus, he would be setting the stage for future works to sell at higher prices. Again, no evidence, and people who knew Judd thinks it’s absurd. Although, I will note that Judd owned huge tracts of land down to the border, so it’s possible he could have fallen into a category of ranchers who knew what Thompson was up to. Judd died in 1994.

When we hear at the end up the episode that Rick Thompson was a changed man when he came back after a year in prison for DEA debrief….here’s that look…

Sheriff Rick Thompson after a year in prison
Rick Thompson after a year in prison.

But as we note in the podcast, the DEA said he didn’t give any new information and said there was nothing more he could give.

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