Police admired Barry Cooper when he lied to put drug dealers in prison. Then he flipped the game on them.
By Michael May
Barry Cooper should know better than anyone that you don’t mess with the police. He was once a cop, and a dirty one at that. But for the past three years, this former narcotics officer has been irritating the hell out of law enforcement, and he’s been steadily raising the stakes, damn the consequences.
Michael May tells the story of Barry Cooper on This American Life.
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It began in 2007, when Cooper gained some notoriety for releasing a self-produced DVD series called Never Get Busted Again. In it, Cooper shows pot smokers ways to outsmart the cops and their drug dogs. He says that if you have marijuana in the car, it’s a good idea to also bring along a cat, since that will distract even a drug dog. Got cops knocking on your door? Cooper says it’s best to lock it shut, and then tell them through a closed window that you won’t let them in without a warrant. The Never Get Busted DVDs have a low-budget charm, especially when Cooper uses footage taken from his own patrol-car camera to illustrate a point. Back then, in the mid ’90s, Cooper had short cropped hair. Cop mustache. He liked to lean into suspects and intimidate them until they did what he wanted. On his DVDs, Cooper will freeze the patrol-car video to point out the ways he got people to confess they were carrying drugs or money. (“Don’t ever touch your face when you are talking to a cop. It’s a sign that you’re lying.”)
Cooper dropped out of college at age 20 to join the police force in the small East Texas town of Gladewater, where he trained his own drug dog and started making big busts on the highway. Cooper was talented enough at seizing drugs that he was eventually hired by the Permian Basin Drug Task Force, a West Texas unit that became notorious for using unscrupulous tactics and was eventually shut down by the FBI in 1998. To Cooper, being on the task force was a great assignment; he learned all the ways to bend the law to rack up arrests and chase down suspects. Cooper was young, and he says the thing he loved most about being a cop was the adrenaline rush. One of his favorite things was to pull people over on the highway and then, just for kicks, incite a chase.
“They taught us at the academy that once we found drugs on someone, we should handcuff them immediately,” he says. “Instead, I would look at the suspect and say, ‘That’s some crack cocaine I found in your pocket. That’s a felony, you’re going to prison for life.’ And I would just turn around and walk to my patrol car to fill out my paperwork, giving the suspect time to run, and they often did. And then the foot chase would be on and the fight would ensue. And that would get my adrenaline fix.”
Some of Cooper’s former colleagues have become notorious. Cooper says one mentor was Barry Washington, who is named in a class-action lawsuit that’s been filed against the city of Tenaha, Texas. He’s accused of stopping dozens of black and Latino motorists, taking their cash and valuables and telling them to keep driving or face arrest. It’s an extreme version of asset seizure, a Texas law which allows police to take property they suspect was acquired illegally without charging anyone for a crime. In Tenaha, the city took more than $3 million in assets, and the DA is accused of giving $10,000 to Washington as a kickback for making the arrests, which is illegal. Cooper says Washington taught him all kinds of tricks to invent probable cause, like how to train a drug dog to false alert, as an excuse to search a vehicle.
In a preview of the Never Get Busted Vol. 1: Traffic Stops DVD Canine section, Barry Cooper explains more about the habits & training of narcotic detector dogs. Check out more at www.nevergetbusted.com.
“I was the biggest asshole you would ever want to meet in a drug deal,” says Cooper. “I was doing illegal searches, such as making my dog false alert. Or I would say I had an informant to raid a house, when I never did. It’s called using a ‘ghost informant.’ It also includes stealing money. I never planted drugs, but I often threatened to, in order to scare citizens into becoming an informant.”
Cooper served eight years on the force, but after he was caught doing an overzealous search of a black man’s underwear, looking for drugs, his department was sued in federal court. The department settled, but Cooper left the force anyway, frustrated and angry that his superiors hadn’t defended him. He bounced around for a few years after that, opening several used-car lots, founding a church and even starting a cage-fighting business. But his life truly changed when he fell in love with his present wife, Candi, and began smoking the substance he’d spent years arresting people for.
“I literally spent the next year literally in her bedroom, her and I growing closer together, talking and smoking pot,” he says. “I’d never eaten a pizza in bed before in my life. We would order pizza and smoke marijuana, and the first thing I’d do was laugh and laugh and laugh. I couldn’t believe the joy I was feeling. Then that would turn into crying. Candi knew I had a lot of guilt. I would start talking to her about how bad I felt about the stuff I did to people for having this marijuana, which I was enjoying and was healing me. She would say, ‘Yeah. It’s rotten what you did, Barry. But you were doing what you thought was right. The important thing now is people can change, and people will forgive you.’ ”
Cooper wanted to atone. So he created the Never Get Busted DVDs. He says he’s sold more than 50,000. But Cooper’s next big idea was even more outrageous. He decided he wanted to do more than just help potheads. He wanted to expose and punish the cops that put them in prison. And Cooper was just the guy to do it. He knew exactly how cops bend the law to put people in prison. So he decided to set up elaborate stings to catch cops doing illegal stuff, and film it for a reality TV show he wanted to create, called Kopbusters.
Behind the scenes with Barry Cooper and Jello the pig.
In 2008, Cooper targeted cops in Odessa, where he once worked, for his first Kopbuster sting operation. He believed the cops were still corrupt there, and he had a plan to prove it. And Cooper had a secret weapon—an unlikely benefactor, one with deep pockets. His name was Raymond Madden, and he was a conservative middle-aged businessman who, for most of his life, trusted the police and voted tough on crime. Then his daughter Yolanda was arrested for having an ounce of methamphetamine and sentenced to eight years in prison.
Madden was sure the police had planted the drugs on her. He claims it was a botched attempt to frame a dealer known as the Ice Queen, who, like his daughter, had moved to Odessa from Fort Worth. Madden has evidence to show the police haven’t been straightforward, to say the least. They contended that when they stopped the car, Yolanda immediately started crying and told them where the drugs were. Raymond Madden was told a patrol-car video of the stop didn’t exist—but then, through his connections, Madden got a copy and it showed Yolanda had in fact denied she had drugs and did not give permission to search the car. Then, at her trial, a police informant testified that the police had made him plant the drugs on her.
Madden spent years trying to get activists and reporters interested in the case, to no avail. Then he came across Cooper on the Internet. “The first thing I saw of Cooper was his video,” says Madden. “I thought, ‘What a nut job this guy is!’ But I was desperate. I knew the truth, but I was running out of options.”
So Madden flew to East Texas with a suitcase full of papers related to the case. Cooper spent a few hours looking through them and became convinced that Yolanda had been framed. He told Madden that he couldn’t get Yolanda out of prison, but he could embarrass the police and get the press to look into her case. And, sure enough, an unlikely partnership was born. “Barry knew a lot of the players in this deal because he’d been involved in the Odessa scene,” says Raymond. “And he had a knowledge that I didn’t have. He knew how cops think. … I said, ‘Let’s do it.’ ”
Observer original video of the Odessa Kopbuster sting.
Cooper’s plan went like this: He would set up a fake marijuana grow house and get the Odessa police to raid it illegally. Inside he’d put a single grow light over a couple of tiny Christmas trees—Cooper’s idea of a punch line. He’d invite local reporters along to catch the police looking like fools when they busted in. Madden spent more than $30,000 setting this all up. Cooper rented a house, wired it with four cameras, bought laptops to watch the video streaming live, hired a crew and a lawyer and put them all up in hotels while they set the trap. To bait the police, Cooper’s crew arranged for an anonymous letter to be sent to a local church, where they knew it would be promptly given to the police. The letter promised a house full of pot plants and $19,000 in drug money that would be gone by the next day. An anonymous tip alone is not enough for a search warrant; the police have to have hard evidence that something illegal is going on. Cooper was hoping they’d search the house illegally while he filmed everything.
So the letter went out. Fourteen hours later, Cooper and his team were sitting in the hotel room watching the webcams when the cops burst in the back door of the house with guns drawn. The police walked into the living room and stood in front of a poster Cooper hung on the wall that told them they’re on Kopbusters. They lowered their guns. One said, “We’ve been set up, huh.” Cooper jumped in the car to go confront the cops before they left. He was hyped up, swearing at traffic lights, clearly high on adrenaline, just like the old days. Finally, he and his camera crew arrived and jumped out of the car, yelling, “I’m Barry Cooper with Kopbusters. What are you doing in my house?”
Cooper ran into the street wearing a bright red T-shirt with “Free Yolanda” printed on it. He started hollering at the police about how they clearly lied to get a search warrant. A comical scene unfolded. At one point, the cop told him he would be arrested if he didn’t get out of the street, and said, “We’re cooperating here, we’re not trying to give no one no hassle.” To which Barry replied, “Yes you are! You planted drugs on Yolanda and she’s in prison because of it. That’s giving people a hassle!” Eventually, the local news crews arrived and the cops just left.
That night, the local TV news was full of coverage of the sting, with reporters examining whether it was legal to enter a home on such flimsy evidence. The police alienated even more residents when they threatened to subpoena the local paper, the Odessa American, to get the names of people posting anti-police comments on articles about the sting. An informal poll done by the paper found 79 percent thought the sting had exposed problems with the Odessa Police Department.
Raymond got the publicity he was after. A quarter-million people watched the raid on YouTube. Newspapers started covering the Yolanda Madden case. A year and a half later, a judge released Yolanda from prison, on the grounds that the prosecution had withheld documents that could have helped the defense. She’s now awaiting a retrial scheduled for July 26. For their part, the Odessa Police Department released a statement saying the house raid was a waste of law-enforcement time and taxpayer money. The police threatened to charge Cooper for staging the sting. But they never did.
After Odessa, Cooper went looking for more dirty cops to bust. Without Raymond’s money to spend, these were low-budget affairs. Cooper dressed up a duffel bag to look like something a drug dealer would tote around, including a crack pipe and $45 in cash, hoping cops would find it and take the money. He did this sting three times. In one case, the officer brought the bag to the station as he was required to. In another, Cooper put the bag on the edge of school grounds in Florence at midnight; the spot was in a clearing that was easy to film from a distance, but Cooper now acknowledges it wasn’t a good spot. He says the cop who found that bag treated it like a possible bomb, calling in backup and watching the bag for close to an hour.
The third time, Cooper shot video of a cop in Liberty Hill apparently taking the money and throwing the bag in a dumpster. He brought the video to the police chief, who seemed underwhelmed but did thank Cooper on camera for bringing it to his attention, adding that “watch groups are necessary.”
On Feb. 25, Cooper posted the video of the Liberty Hill sting on YouTube, with the title Finders Keepers. Six days later, the cops struck back. Williamson County police arrested Cooper, and they did something police almost never do: raided his home on a misdemeanor charge. The charge was: “false report to a peace officer,” for a phone call made to police about the duffel bag left at the school. Cooper’s wife Candi, his 14-year-old daughter and his 8-year-old stepson were home during the raid. Cooper was in handcuffs, but he wasn’t broken. He was sure he knew what this was all about.
KopBusters Liberty Hill Sting–”Finders Keepers”
“I talked to those cops like they needed to be talked to,” Cooper says. “After they had pointed those guns at my wife, I said, ‘Before any of you motherfuckers are going to search any bit of my house, you are going to have to listen to me.’ One of them tried to quiet me down. And I said, ‘Motherfucker, are you kidding me? This is a misdemeanor raid, I’m in handcuffs, are you kidding me?’ So they stood down, and I went one by one, shaming every one of them … explaining to them that we were nonviolent, that this is activism, and we know this is retaliation.”
Cooper proved his point about what police are capable of, in a way he never hoped for. The raid squad included narcotics officers, who obviously hoped to find drugs in the house, but all they found was enough pot for a misdemeanor possession charge. On March 3, Cooper went to jail for two nights. The police also referred Cooper and Candi to Child Protective Services, saying they found a photo showing they were giving pot to their 17 year-old daughter who, Cooper says, is in college and not living at home. CPS dismissed the case after one visit, but the investigation took its toll. Two weeks ago, Zach, Cooper’s stepson, visited his father for spring break and hasn’t been able to return. Zach’s father heard about the raid and filed for custody.
At first, Cooper told me he would keep on stinging cops, just not with anonymous tips. But then he called to tell me he wanted to talk. As soon as we sat down for the interview, it was clear that the experience of losing Zach had stripped away his cocky, unstoppable gusto. “Our son being taken from us was so hard,” he said, choked up, tears flowing. “So for the safety of my family I’m not doing any more cop stings. I never would have done bag drops if I would have known it would have led to this. I’m looking forward to getting my son back. Getting him back. After that, I don’t know, we’ll see.”
Kopbusters was over. Cooper had thought his first-hand knowledge of the system would keep him a step ahead. But the cops didn’t need an elaborate ruse to sting Cooper. They didn’t need to plan for months and set a trap and get it all on video. They just needed a reason to come bursting in the front door.