This story originally appeared on Marfa Public Radio.
In the predawn hours of Dec. 3, 1991, a few miles from the border town of Presidio, federal agents said that a pickup truck with more than a ton of cocaine had forded the Rio Grande.
Those agents, it later turned out, had been tipped off by an informant. The next day, the then sheriff of Presidio County, Rick Thompson, parked a horse trailer at the County Fairgrounds in Marfa. That trailer had been forfeited to the sheriff’s office in a previous case.
Inside that trailer? 2,400 pounds of pure cocaine.
The sheriff who had been a media darling in the war on drugs was later arrested, charged with drug trafficking, and sentenced to life in prison.
The edition of Presidio County’s Big Bend Sentinel which reported the “billion dollar coke bust in Marfa” that led to Thompson’s arrest, also featured an article about the sheriff announcing his re-election bid on the same front page.
“The quantity was real big, it was a lot of cocaine,” says Liz Rogers, former Assistant U.S. Attorney in El Paso and current criminal defense lawyer.
Rogers is also a current member of the Board of Directors at Marfa Public Radio.
She says Thompson’s status as a law enforcement official is the key reason that he was sentenced to life.
“You have to remind yourself it was in the early days of the war on drugs where everybody believed you could send a strong message and make drugs not be prevalent in American life.”
Rogers notes that Rick Thompson was a first time offender. That alone, she says, might have mitigated against a life sentence. But she notes he did something else that often staves off a life sentence, especially for a first time offender.
“He pled guilty. And if you’re going to get life in prison, you know, most people want to get something for pleading guilty and saving the gov’t the expense of going to trial. So it was really, really a harsh sentence for someone going up on a guilty plea,” Rogers says.
“Many people felt that no matter what he’d plead guilty, life is too much.”
Thompson initially denied the charge, saying he was merely transporting cocaine seized in a narcotics investigation. He has now served 24 years. Although his sentence has now been cut to 30 years, he may be released sooner under federal parole guidelines.
Rick Thompson was by no means the first Texas sheriff busted for drug running, but he was one of the best known because of his publicly strident stance against illegal drugs.