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Tuesday, March 21, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Law & disorder in Texas: FBI closes police department

Los Angeles Times

TROUP, Texas — It happened without warning. The FBI swooped in, shut down Troup's five-man police force and jailed the chief and a sergeant — the 2005 Chamber of Commerce Officer of the Year, no less — on corruption charges.

Startled residents watched in silence as authorities secured the tiny station with yellow crime-scene tape and swarmed the building for evidence.

Sgt. Mark Turner, 47, was charged with delivering marijuana and tampering with or fabricating evidence. According to a search warrant, Turner gave marijuana to an undercover agent, assuring him later there was more where that came from: the police evidence box.

Police Chief Chester Kennedy, who led the force for 14 years, also was charged with evidence tampering. He admitted to investigators that he gave Turner 24 cans of light beer from a 30-pack seized in a bootlegging case but said he planned to buy more if the case went to court. "Beer is beer," he said, according to a sheriff's department affidavit.

Events unfolded so quickly in Troup that, weeks after the March 3 raid, stunned residents are still talking about it when they meet on the street. Some are less surprised; rumors of police misconduct had circulated for years.

"Mind you, they're innocent until proven guilty, but I think there was too much temptation," said Addie Herring, 85, who has lived in Troup for 50 years. "This used to be such a good place to live, but now we've got all this dope."

In rural East Texas, methamphetamine labs can operate unnoticed. Misdemeanor drug charges in Smith County, about 100 miles southeast of Dallas, are as common as drunken-driving arrests, District Attorney Matt Bingham said. But in the past six years, the Troup police force sent just 11 drug cases to the district attorney's office.

Maj. Mike Lusk, head of criminal investigations for the Smith County Sheriff's Department, said Troup police had sent just two drug-evidence samples to the Texas Department of Public Safety crime lab since 2000. "We do that much in an hour," he said.

Bingham said: "It appears from the current investigation that the problem is not with the Troup Police Department prosecuting innocent people; it is that they were not prosecuting guilty people."

Lawyers for Kennedy and Turner could not be reached for comment.

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Since the police force was shut down, a notice has been taped to the front door of the station: Dial 911 or call the sheriff in an emergency.

Turner, unable to make $500,000 bond, remains in jail. At an emergency City Council meeting held days after his arrest, he was fired.

Kennedy, 59, posted $400,000 bond and often can be seen at his regular table at the Farmer's Cafe in Troup. He, too, has been fired.

Mayor John Whitsell, 30, has brushed off suggestions that Troup had turned a blind eye to drug dealing. If there was talk of wrongdoing, it was rumor, and "in any small town, you're going to have rumors," he said.

Whitsell said he had no idea there might be a problem with the police until he got a call from authorities about the arrests. "I was shocked," he said.

It took one of the department's own to call attention to the alleged corruption. In January, patrolman Justin Johnson told a Smith County sheriff's investigator that Kennedy and Turner were accepting money or drugs in exchange for covering up crimes. Before long, Johnson was wearing a recorder and talking to Turner about taking drugs from an evidence box for personal use.

Authorities searching the station after it closed found a department in disarray, Lusk said. Drugs were lying in open bags or had not been tagged; some evidence bags were empty; rape kits were stored in a refrigerator next to spoiled food. As the investigation continues, more charges and arrests will come, Bingham said.

Since the FBI raid, Bingham said, the district attorney's office has fielded dozens of calls from citizens complaining of crimes they said were poorly, or never, investigated by Troup police. "People feel like they can come out and tell us things now," Bingham said.

Town leaders are focusing on cleaning up the mess and restoring Troup's reputation. The three remaining police officers have been transferred to the public-works department. County constables and sheriff's deputies are temporarily filling the void, patrolling the town.

"This is the most sheriff-department cars I've ever seen, and I've been living in the same spot for 45 years," one woman said.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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