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Guilty Before Proven Innocent

How police harassment, jailhouse snitches, and a runaway war on drugs imprisoned an innocent family

(Page 3 of 6)

In the years between the alleged buy in 2001 and the Colomb trial in 2006, Charlot changed his story several times. In 2002 he told a private investigator hired by Colomb’s defense lawyers (in a recorded conversation) that the buy never happened at all, that he’d made the entire thing up to appease law enforcement officials. Charlot himself was facing a host of drug charges at the time. But Charlot soon was back to his original story, telling the grand jury that “everyone in Church Point dealt with the Colombs,” though he couldn’t provide authorities with the name of a single Colomb drug customer other than himself.

Minutes after Charlot’s alleged drug buy, the local drug task force raided the Colomb home in full SWAT attire, taking down the unlocked front door with a battering ram. They handcuffed Ann Colomb at gunpoint and rummaged through her belongings. James Colomb had to be taken to the hospital with a panic attack and heart palpitations. In a guest room dresser (not Ann Colomb’s panty drawer, where Charlot allegedly told police the drugs were stored), police found 72 grams of crack cocaine, not in rock form, as Charlot alleged, but in round, uncut “cookies,” along with a handgun. The amount of cocaine was significant; a typical “hit” of two to three rocks weighs only a fraction of a gram.

At the time, Ann and James Colomb’s daughter, Jennifer, was staying in the guest room with her then-boyfriend (now husband) Timothy Price. Price, now 26, immediately said the drugs and gun were his. He still does. “I was dealing crack on the side,” Price says. “It wasn’t anything major. And it was stupid. But that stuff was all mine. After we took Jennifer’s dad to the hospital, I heard that they had taken Miss Ann to jail. I can’t tell you how bad I felt. Miss Ann wouldn’t allow a single joint in that house. And because of me, they were trying to say she was some kind of drug dealer.”

Price drove to the police station to turn himself in. “I told them the dope and the gun was mine,” he says. “My mom is a police officer. The gun was hers.”

But Price says the sheriff’s deputies wanted nothing to do with him. “When I told them it was all mine, they put me in a holding cell for about 15 minutes,” he recalls. “Then they came and told me to go home. They said, ‘The dope’s not yours. Tell Edward to come get his momma.’ After that, I didn’t really know what to do.”

Several months later, Price says, Assistant U.S. Attorney Brett Grayson sent him a letter asking him to come in for questioning. By that time, police had traced the gun found with the cocaine to Price’s mother. Nevertheless, Price says, “Mr. Grayson was surprised when I told him the dope was mine.” Grayson and U.S. Attorney Donald Washington did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.

Later, Price says, Grayson tried to convince him to say his girlfriend, Jennifer, had cajoled him into taking a fall for the drugs. When Grayson threatened Price with 10 to 15 years in prison if he continued to claim the cocaine as his own, Price says he decided to get an attorney. When later called before the grand jury, Price acknowledged the gun was his, but on the advice of his lawyer he pled the Fifth Amendment when asked about the drugs.

Today Price says the drugs definitely were his, just as he did immediately after the raid. “I lost a lot of friends and relatives over all of this,” he says. “People looked at me like I was a ghost.” Price was never charged for the cocaine. Five years later, Ann Colomb would take the hit for the cocaine in federal court. Although Price and Jennifer are now married, the Colomb family still hasn’t completely forgiven him. Normally warm, Ann Colomb cools at the mention of Price’s name. Her sons Edward and Sammie roll their eyes when asked about him. But all seem to hold back their disdain now that he’s family.

“He did what he had to do,” Edward says, referring to Price pleading the Fifth. “The drugs were his and he tried to take credit for them. I guess you can’t blame a guy for not wanting to go to jail.”

“He brought drugs into my home,” Ann says. “We can move on from that. Timmy’s going to have to live with what he done. That’s probably enough punishment for him.”

Although the raid was a local police operation, its results soon attracted the attention of Assistant U.S. Attorney Grayson. With the aid of more than 30 jailhouse informants, he would grow it into a major federal drug conspiracy case. The first federal indictment against the Colombs came down in May 2002. Subsequent indictments continued through 2004. The final indictment sought to seize Ann and James Colomb’s home.

One other charge resulted from the raid. When the police came in, they say they found Sammie Davis in a room where an unloaded shotgun was stored in a closet. A police officer at the scene says Davis immediately admitted to him that the gun belonged to him. Davis denies this, explaining that he didn’t even live in the house at the time. (All of Ann’s sons had moved out by then.) Although there was nothing illegal about the gun itself, Davis was a convicted felon, the result of his no-contest plea in the 1993 incident. He’d later be convicted in a separate trial of being a felon in possession of a firearm. The Colomb family’s lawyers believe that news of Sammie’s conviction spread through the federal prison system, inspiring a second wave of jailhouse informants to come to Grayson with new allegations of selling drugs to the Colomb family.

The Government Builds Its Case
Brett Grayson had made a name for himself by bringing down the drug empire of Houston kingpin John Timothy Cotton between 2000 and 2004. But after Cotton’s conviction, defense attorneys alleged that Grayson had relied on improper jailhouse snitch testimony, testimony they say ranged from inconsistent to provably false. One attorney alleged he had proof that a network of federal prison inmates called the “Hot Boyz” were trading and selling information about pending drug cases, including notes from the prosecutors, photos of the suspects, and even grand jury testimony.

But Grayson had collected boxes and boxes of other evidence against Cotton and his associates, so any problems with the snitch testimony, courts later ruled, were “harmless error”—not enough to overturn any convictions. Still, the testimony coming from the inmates at the federal penitentiary in Beaumont, Texas, known as Beaumont Low, troubled U.S. District Court Judge Tucker Melancon (no relation to the Acadia Parish sheriff), who would develop similar misgivings about the jailhouse witnesses Grayson called to the stand to testify against the Colomb family.

It is rare for a sitting federal judge to agree to an interview about one of his cases. Melancon says he can’t remember ever previously speaking with a journalist about the events in his courtroom. But this case bothered him. “I saw some of these [informants] in previous cases,” Melancon says. “It was like revolving-door inmate testimony. The allegation was that there was in the federal justice system a network of folks who were trying to get relief from long sentences by ginning up information on folks being tried in drug cases. I’d heard about it before. But it all culminated in the Colomb trial.”

By the end of 2002, Grayson had found 16 prison informants to testify against the Colombs. According to post-trial motions, Grayson says the informants came to him voluntarily, without solicitation. During the trial, Grayson argued that the informants were credible witnesses because it wasn’t necessarily in their interest to testify. Snitches, Grayson argued, aren’t treated well in prison.

But Grayson’s witnesses had clearly benefited from their testimony when he’d used them in the past, in the form of reduced sentences. One career criminal, Reginald Milstead, had testified for Grayson in a prior case in addition to the Colomb case and in exchange had his life sentence cut down to 10 years—of which he’d already served seven. Another of Grayson’s witnesses had a life sentence reduced to 15 years, according to defense briefs filed after the Colombs’ conviction.

Between June and September 2004, a second wave of inmates sent Grayson letters asking to testify against the Colombs. It began shortly after Sammie Davis was convicted on the gun charge. Grayson signed up an additional 16 witnesses. “Grayson’s home phone number must have been written all over the walls at Beaumont Low,” quips Steve Shapiro, Edward Colomb’s trial lawyer. “He had that whole prison jumping to tell him whatever he wanted to hear.”

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  • ||

    If he does not stop causing trouble at the TJ memorial he will really find out what police harassment is!

  • ||

    Please allow me, once again, to thank you Radley for your diligent efforts in exposing prosecutorial incompetence and criminal(?) misconduct.

    I'm going to go throw up in disgust now.

  • ||

    I'm from Louisiana, and I can tell you that the "War On Drugs" has corrupted law enforcement there; in the town my parents live in, (about 40 mi. from New Orleans) the sheriff threatened to plant weed on the newly-elected mayor, before said-sheriff was caught running guns he probably got from drug-busts.
    Stories like Jena 6 are milked for drama by the Mainstream media, but it's stories like this that are much more common; thanks for covering it!

  • ||

    What I really wanna know is if one of the loyal H&R readers is moved to take up arms and plug a few crummy D.A.s (as daily does seem more and more likely) whether Radley would be brought up on incitement charges.

  • ||

    LMNOP,

    No. Reporting facts does not constitute incitement to violence.

    Yet.

  • ||

    No. Reporting facts does not constitute incitement to violence.

    And it won't get you a job at ABC News, The New Republic, The New York Times (unless you are Bill Kristol) or a lot of other places too.

  • ||

    another Reason i'm proud to be an american

    oh wait

  • ||

    Was it Jefferson who said, "I believe that Liberty from time to time must be refreshed with the blood of patriots and tyrants"? Or something like that.

    Would Bill Kristol be considered at tyrant?

  • ||

    Would Bill Kristol be considered at tyrant?

    No. Well, maybe to the meekest of shadow fearing webheads, or some of the writers and editors of his magazine.

  • ||

    I find it difficult to believe that Assistant U.S. Attorney Brett Grayson would knowingly seek out a conviction on these people. He, and his superior, based on his statement, still think the Columbs are guilty of drug trafficking. They are clearly delusional and therefore, I suggest, that they both be removed from office due to severe mental incapacity.

  • ||

    They are clearly delusional and therefore, I suggest, that they both be removed from office due to severe mental incapacity.

    And people scoff at Berlusconi's call for regular mental evaluations of prosecutors.

  • LarryA||

    "If you haven't done anything wrong, what do you have to worry about?"

  • ||

    Shit! Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit! The fact that the 'legal' system finally worked -- the Colombs have their lives back, with prejudice (literally and legally!) -- hardly imbues one with hope for a fine-tuned 'justice' system. Someone's head needs to role on this one -- and DA Washington and/or assistant DA Grayson seem front-and-center.

  • ||

    I'm pretty sure if Radley Balko ever decided to turn his attention to the "War on Sexual Predators," he'd find an equal number of egregious prosecutorial misconduct cases.

    However, I have to wonder if those cases would meet with as much sympathy, since drugs are cool.

  • Radley Balko||

    Michael,

    You haven't been reading this site long, have you?

  • RED GREEN||

    "Snitches"... has been a very popular strategy with the Feds...thats an old NAZI/Stalinist tactic,isn't it?

  • Angry African||

    Man, man, man. I have been in the US for 18 months. Before that the UK for 4 years, but I am a South African working on sustainability and African investment. I have been crying about the lack of good media out here in the US. I found it. Thanks for this piece. It reminds us what the media can be if they really want to be...

  • ||

    I was extremely disappointed in Mr Balko's article. What a disappointment! As a member of this family, this article presented false statements and inaccuracies. I think Mr Balko needs to check out Webster's and look up the definitions of "racist" as well as "prejudice", there are vast differences between the two. This only proves to me that crooked journalists are no better than crooked cops and prosecutors. Report the TRUTH, don't FABRICATE it!

  • ||

    bookworm333,

    As a member of what family? The Colombs? The Bookworm family?

    What are you talking about?

  • ||

    Time to bring in the feds and clean up law enforcement in this area. Also time for a lawsuit to drain the town dry of funds for allowing these racists to do this to these people. Make every person who turned a blind eye pay their taxes to reimburse the Colombs for what was done by their town to them.

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  • Alrazaak.com||

    If he does not stop causing trouble at the TJ memorial he will really find out what police harassment is

  • Alrazaak.com||

    As of press time, none of the Colomb lawyers, the Colomb family, or anyone else affiliated with the case were aware of any such investigation. Melancon says he’s confident it’s being done, although he’s heard nothing about the investigation since his December 2006 ruling. Phone calls to U.S. Attorney Washington, Assistant U.S. Attorney Grayson, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Texas inquiring about the status of the investigation were not returned.

  • ||

    As of press time, none of the Colomb lawyers, the Colomb family, or anyone else affiliated with the case were aware of any such investigation. Melancon says he's confident it's being done, although he's heard nothing about the investigation since his December 2006 ruling. Phone calls to U.S. Attorney Washington, Assistant U.S. Attorney Grayson, and the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of Texas inquiring about the status of the investigation were not returned.

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