Ann Colomb scoops a plastic cup of corn from a white pail in her backyard and pours it onto the sod at her feet. A few dozen scraggly chickens scatter as the corn hits the ground, then gather back into a flock to peck up the kernels.
“Grocery chickens are so expensive,” the 57-year-old Colomb explains. “And they’re pumped up with all those hormones. So we raise and butcher them ourselves.” Inside, a less lucky bird stews with gravy and spices in a pot on Colomb’s stove. As she frequently does, Colomb is entertaining guests. She’ll ladle the chicken and gravy over rice for visiting family members, along with a selection of the peppery, butter-laden sides—a mix of Creole cuisine and soul food.
It’s early July in Church Point, Louisiana, and the summer’s bearing down. In front of the Colombs’ modest, two-bedroom bungalow, a large rattletrap fan blows sluggish swamp air across the porch. An unused freezer, an old toaster oven, and a rickety covered swing sit under the driveway carport. Colomb’s husband, James, sits on a lawn chair and dabs the humidity from his face with a handkerchief.
The Colombs live on a mostly black street in a mostly white section of this mostly segregated town of 4,700 in Acadia Parish—the heart of Cajun country. James Colomb spent the bulk of his career working in an oil field, then was injured. The family’s sole source of income now is his disability check. Ann Colomb—“Miss Ann” to those who know her—is a homemaker.
It was from this unlikely setting, the United States alleged, that Ann Colomb and three of her four sons ran one of the largest crack cocaine operations in Louisiana. Over the course of a decade, prosecutors said, the Colombs bought $15 million in illicit drugs with a street value of more than $70 million. Judging solely from the indictments, the government’s case seemed formidable: a trail of police reports throughout the 1990s accusing the Colomb boys of possessing or selling drugs; a 2001 raid on the Colomb home that turned up 72 grams of crack, a Titan .25-caliber pistol, and a rifle; and more than 30 prison informants who were prepared to testify that they had sold crack to one or more members of the Colomb family. In 2006 a jury in Lafayette, Louisiana, convicted the African-American family on federal drug conspiracy charges. Ann and her sons served almost four months in a federal prison while awaiting their sentences, which would likely have ranged from 10 years to life.
But in the ensuing months, the government’s case unraveled, exposing some unsettling truths about the way jailhouse informants are used in America’s courtrooms. In December 2006, all charges against the family were dismissed. The federal judge who presided over the trial was so upset about what happened in his courtroom that he has since taken the rare step of speaking out about it publicly.
The legal fiasco was partly attributable to familiar themes of racism and overly aggressive prosecution. But the Colomb story is mostly about the war on drugs. It shows how the absurd incentives created by the unaccountable use of shady drug informants by police and prosecutors can quickly make innocent people look very guilty.
The case loomed over the family for more than five years. It wrecked their finances. The Colombs’ son Danny was convicted shortly after learning that his wife Elizabeth was expecting their first child. He spiraled into severe depression while incarcerated. He and Elizabeth say they spent their entire savings on attorney’s fees. Ann Colomb had a serious diabetic attack in prison. She too spent her savings on her defense.
Still, the Colombs’ home on Broadway Street is a happier place now, bustling with visiting neighbors and relatives. Ann forges a path through the doddering chickens and makes her way to the front of the house. She sits down in a lawn chair next to her husband and lifts her 3-year-old granddaughter Mariah into her lap. “It’s good now,” she says as she strokes the little girl’s braids. “I’m finally getting to enjoy my grandbabies.”
Ten Years, Four Incidents, One Conviction
Ann Colomb and three of her four sons were indicted, charged, and convicted on federal drug conspiracy charges. The conspiracy indictment allowed the government to piece together a series of disparate events going back more than a decade, only one of which had ever amounted to a conviction in state court.
The indictment lists four “overt acts” over 10 years that prosecutors say indicate a conspiracy. The cumulative amount of cocaine police said was involved in the four incidents amounts to less than a gram. All four incidents also involved deputies from the Acadia Parish Sheriff’s Department, whom the Colombs accuse of harboring a racially motivated grudge against the family, driven in part by the Colomb boys’ history of dating white women. (The Sheriff’s Department declined to comment for this story.)
The only act listed in the federal indictment that resulted in a conviction at the time came in 1993, when a sheriff’s deputy pulled over a car occupied by Ann Colomb’s son from a previous marriage, Sammie Davis Jr., who was 26 at the time; Ann and James Colomb’s son Edward Colomb, then 20; and two other men. A subsequent search found cocaine and marijuana on the other two men and some residue in the car but none on Davis or Colomb. Sammie and Edward were nevertheless arrested and charged with drug possession. Ann and James Colomb say their attorney told Sammie and Edward that if they fought the charges, they would almost certainly be convicted and sent to prison. The two pleaded no contest to a felony possession charge and were sentenced to probation.
“We didn’t know anything about how all of this worked,” Ann Colomb says. “We’d never been in a court before. I didn’t know the first thing about drugs or the law.” The repercussions of that plea would hang over the family for 15 years.
In the other three incidents federal prosecutors claimed were part of the drug conspiracy, state charges were dropped before getting to trial. In one, an undercover police officer alleged that in December 1999 he met Sammie Davis Jr. under the Colomb home’s carport to purchase cocaine. Years later, at the federal trial, the man who built the carport testified that it had not existed in December 1999. It wouldn’t be built for another year.
An assistant to Acadia Parish Sheriff Wayne Melancon referred inquiries to Jerry Stutes, a federal investigator who worked for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Louisiana in the federal case against the Colombs. (Stutes has also worked for the Acadia Parish Sheriff’s Department.) Stutes declined to comment, referring inquiries to the Public Information Office of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s New Orleans field office. That office referred inquiries to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.