Retrieving property challenging for TCU students caught in drug sting

Posted Friday, May. 16, 2014  comments  Print Reprints
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On a February morning two years ago, police entered Scott Lee Anderson’s fraternity house room before dawn and handcuffed him on his bed. The then-TCU student was arrested on suspicion of selling pills and marijuana based on detailed accounts of his deliveries to an undercover officer. Police had tangible, hand-to-hand evidence.

But what happened next was carried out on a mere assumption.

The arresting officer knew “that those involved in narcotics sales sometimes use data processing equipment, such as a computers, smart phones and iPads to … facilitate drug transactions,” the 2012 affidavit said. “Therefore, the computer, iPad and iPhone were sought after and seized.”

And so began a winding legal road for Anderson, one of 23 people arrested as a result of a months-long investigation of a campus drug ring that came to a head Feb. 15, 2012. Almost all were current TCU students or had close ties to the university.

The criminal cases would end in a fizzle — Anderson got 48 months’ probation for two counts of delivery of marijuana, and the others all received probation, often followed by deferred adjudication, or a lesser punishment.

Still, as Anderson and other former students would find, the economic penalties of the drug arrests could far outweigh the results of the criminal cases.

The haul seized by police through civil asset forfeiture was substantial: $46,243 in cash; 15 cars, trucks and SUVs valued at more than $250,000; and nine weapons, according to an after-action report released five days after the slew of arrests.

Other assets picked up by police included iPhones, iPads, MacBooks and an assortment of cellphones — 36 items totaling around $17,650.

The items were seized before formal charges were filed and months before any convictions. Under state law, police have the power to seize items that might have been used in a crime or paid for with money from a crime.

A person doesn’t have to be convicted, or even formally charged, for police to take their assets and for the county to keep them.

“They make the arrest and ask questions later,” said Tim Evans, the attorney for Matthew Davis, one of the TCU students arrested.

‘I didn’t understand why’

In each case stemming from the TCU drug bust, the state charged defendants in criminal court. A student who couldn’t afford a lawyer was entitled to have one appointed.

But property seizures are a civil matter, meaning that the defendants who can’t afford a lawyer aren’t entitled to one. In many cases, the state files suit against the property itself.

“I didn’t understand why my possessions were being taken from me,” said one of the students arrested in the sting. “They left me totally out of the picture the whole time.”

Losing her car was the worst part.

“Having your parents take you to work every day — it’s like you’re back in high school,” said the student, who asked to remain anonymous because she wants to put the incident behind her. “This was your possession. You worked hard for it, and now you’re back to depending on others for transportation.”

Some people got their vehicles back in three months, but it took more than a year for others. Some were able to negotiate directly with the Tarrant County district attorney’s office; others had to go to court.

“We can’t try every case that comes before us because we just don’t have that kind of time,” said Ann Wright, the Tarrant County assistant district attorney who oversees forfeiture cases. “So in some cases, we’ll go ahead and make a settlement offer.”

There was one consistency: For the most part, seized items such as laptops and cellphones are rarely worth trying to recover. A lawyer’s hourly rate might be higher than the value of an iPhone. And many people simply can’t go months without a phone or a computer.

Anderson, though, was an exception. He petitioned to get his iPhone back, along with an Apple laptop, an iPad and his 2011 Ford F-150, according to court documents.

In August 2012, a judge ordered that his iPhone be forfeited to the state, but the iPad and laptop were returned to him. He had to pay $17,500 to the Tarrant County Narcotics Unit to get his truck back.

Repeated efforts to reach Anderson, his family and attorney were unsuccessful.

‘A case-by-case deal’

Police decide what to seize at the time of the arrest. Some of the TCU students lost bank accounts, vehicles and computers. Others had only drugs and paraphernalia taken.

“It’s a case-by-case deal,” said Patrick Jordan, the attorney for Richard Clay Putney, whose four charges of marijuana possession were dismissed, according to Tarrant County records. Police seized 0.98 ounces of marijuana and a digital scale from Putney, but nothing more.

Attempts were made to reach each student who had a vehicle seized, but in many cases, neither the student nor the parents wanted to discuss the civil asset forfeiture case. Others could not be reached.

The Star-Telegram obtained information for some of those arrested in the TCU drug bust through court documents or their lawyers.

Those who did have stuff seized found that the process and cost of getting their items back varied.

During Davis’ arrest, his car and $155.72 from his bank account were seized. Police took an iPhone, an Apple laptop and an iPad for evidence.

The state eventually kept the $155.72, plus $130 that Davis had to pay for towing fees, according to court documents. Evans, his attorney, got the Trailblazer back after negotiating with Wright.

One thing in Davis’ favor was that the car legally belonged to his mother, Juliana Iarossi, who lives in Georgia. Iarossi signed an “innocent owner” petition, swearing she had no knowledge that the property was used to commit a crime, according to court documents.

Iarossi then submitted the car’s title, proving she was the owner. Evans said a receipt from an Atlanta-area mechanic shop, showing that Iarossi had paid for repairs to the car, was also used in the negotiations. Finally, Davis signed a disclaimer of interest in the vehicle.

More than three months after his car was seized, it was released to Davis, according to court documents.

“We worked it out — like a plea bargain,” Evans said. “It was more than just [Iarossi] saying, ‘Hey, that’s my car, give it back to me.’ And clearly there was no evidence that she had any idea from Atlanta, Ga., that her son in Texas had marijuana in that car.”

Davis’ four criminal charges were dismissed.

An ‘economic agreement’

In the arrest of Earl Patrick Burke, police seized his 2007 Cadillac Escalade, $300 in cash and an assortment of guns, electronics and paraphernalia from his home, where Bud Pollard Dillard, Eric Lodge and Cameron Patrick Forgie were also arrested.

Burke reached an “economic agreement” with Tarrant County to pay $7,500 to regain his Escalade, his lawyer Dan Cogdell said.

Cogdell, a high-profile Houston attorney, said Burke didn’t bother trying to get back other miscellaneous items seized during his arrest.

“I’m 600 or 700 bucks an hour, so it’s not really cost-effective for him to try and get [smaller items] back,” said Cogdell, who called the TCU bust “a little over the top.”

“Do I think if my client had been some 35-year-old guy rolling down the street, would he have gotten busted?” Cogdell said. “I think it just made for good copy more than anything.”

Although he said police officers “were in their legal rights,” he added that he finds the process behind civil asset forfeiture to be “no more esoteric than ‘they can, so they do.’ 

On the criminal side, Burke received three sentences of 36 months’ probation for three counts of delivery of a controlled substance and 12 months’ probation each for two counts of possession, one for a controlled substance and one for marijuana, according to Tarrant County records.

Taylor Cowdin was charged with one count of marijuana delivery and one count of marijuana possession, according to Tarrant County records. He was sentenced to 36 months’ probation for each charge, both of which were resolved months before Cowdin received the 2000 Ford Explorer that was seized during his arrest.

Police also seized $2,784 in cash from Cowdin’s bedroom, according to an arrest warrant affidavit.

Cowdin’s father, Justin P. Cowdin, joined his son as a co-defendant in the civil asset forfeiture case and filed a response in March 2012, denying that the SUV was used to commit a crime. The state argued that it still had rights to the property.

On June 19, 2012, Taylor Cowdin failed to appear for a court hearing, forfeiting the vehicle. Then, in spring 2013, the case came back up again. That May, a judge signed the vehicle over to Justin Cowdin. The $2,784 was forfeited to the state.

Cowdin and his mother both declined to comment. Calls to his father were not returned.

A college loan, not drug money

Devin Johnson, who had moved into a starting role on the Horned Frog football team in October 2011, received three sentences of 36 months’ probation for three counts of delivering marijuana. When he was arrested, police confiscated items including Johnson’s 2006 Chevrolet Impala, $262 in cash and bank statements.

Johnson’s car was towed but later released to an unspecified person, according to an arrest affidavit, “due to a high lien amount.”

The same affidavit states that officers “were able to develop probable cause for the issuance of a search and seizure warrant” for Johnson’s bank account. Six days later, a cashier’s check was cut for $4,237.42 to the Tarrant County Narcotics Unit.

Johnson and his attorney, Natherral Washington, began working toward getting Johnson’s seized money back, saying the $4,237.42 was a refund from his school loan “and not the proceeds of illegal drug activity,” according to court documents.

About 4 1/2 months later, a judge ruled that Johnson would forfeit the $262 in cash but regain the $4,237.42 from his bank account. Johnson declined to comment.

Two other football players, Tyler Horn and David Yendry, lived together at the time of their arrests. Both had iPhones seized and each lost his truck: Yendry’s 2001 GMC and Horn’s 2005 Chevrolet.

Six months later, Horn and his mother, Lisa Horn, agreed to pay $2,500 to the Tarrant County Narcotics Unit in exchange for his vehicle. Yendry signed a similar agreement four months later.

Neither Horn nor Yendr could be reached for comment. Horn received 36 months’ probation for delivery of marijuana, and Yendry was handed four sentences of 36 months’ probation and two sentences of six months’ probation for varying counts of delivering marijuana.

‘A difficult experience’

A technicality kept Eduardo Hernandez from getting back his 2001 Ford pickup. His father, Jose, owned the truck, and the county notified the father about the seizure. When Jose Hernandez missed a deadline, Eduardo Hernandez’s attorney, Jim Shaw, made an attempt to get the vehicle back, according to court documents.

But the vehicle’s lending company has a “greater right” to the vehicle than the owner, Shaw said. The truck was released to Storehouse Lending LLC.

A year later, Shaw was able to recover money seized during Hernandez’s arrest. Tarrant County paid Hernandez $619 plus interest, according to court documents.

Hernandez’s criminal case was dismissed after he completed a county-run drug rehabilitation program, Shaw said. Hernandez declined to comment.

Peter Signavong was given four sentences of 120 months’ probation and three sentences of 60 months’ probation for delivery and possession of controlled substances. His 1999 Acura was towed and was later released, according to court documents.

Police seized $3,948 during Signavong’s arrest, then later $1,088.95 from Signavong’s bank account. Signavong forfeited the $3,948 to the state, but it was unclear in court documents whether the $1,088.95 was also forfeited. Signavong declined to comment.

Cynthia Zambrano had her 2008 Mitsubishi and her iPhone seized. Zambrano confirmed that she got her car back after paying towing fees but never saw her phone again. She declined to say more.

Police “have a license to take whatever they want,” said Shaw, who also represented Zambrano and Cowdin. “If you find somebody that’s selling drugs and they’ve got a 60-inch TV or a nice computer or something else, then they seize it, because how could a person have such a nice thing unless they’re getting it with drug proceeds?”

For those affected, the process of losing possessions was mysterious and unsettling, especially on top of a criminal charge.

“You don’t know where it’s been taken to and then who gets it, and how quickly it can be turned around and put into auctions and things like that,” said a woman whose relative had a car, thousands of dollars in cash and other personal items seized during the TCU arrests.

“I think the process is set up to make it a difficult experience.”

TCU students/correspondents Tori Cummings, Sarah Greufe and Mary Muller contributed to this report.

Ryan Osborne, 817-390-7760 Twitter: @RyanOsborneFWST

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