MARFA — As the town slept fitfully late Dec. 3, 1991, its single traffic light blinking out a perfect pulse, shadowy figures moved through the streets, while others lurked on the outskirts.
The object of their intense interest was a red horse trailer parked at the county fairgrounds east of town. An informant had told the federal drug agents a tantalizing tale.
But, as they staked it out, they realized they were not alone.
The seized horse trailer. Photo: Big Bend Sentinel Photo: Big Bend Sentinel The seized horse trailer.
“At approximately 1:15 a.m., Agent Fort observed a green Chevrolet Suburban driving east on the Fairgrounds Road with the lights off,” DEA Agent Dale Stinson testified at a later court hearing.
Spotting the same vehicle minutes later, still driving dark, the agent recognized it.
“Agent Fort identified this Suburban as the vehicle usually driven by the Presidio County Sheriff Richard Dee Thompson,” Stinson stated.
About three hours later, the agents moved in to inspect the trailer, parked with the sheriff’s other equipment.
“They discovered what they believed to be a large load of cocaine covered by several bales of hay and empty feed sacks,” Stinson testified.
After field tests confirmed the drug, agents hauled the trailer to Alpine. There, they removed 40 heavy sacks, each marked with a blue polo player, the signature of a Colombian drug cartel.
The 2,421 pounds of cocaine later would test to be 93 percent pure, and was worth about $50 million.
Thus began a shocking small-town drama that quickly turned Marfa on its head and sent the sheriff to federal prison. After serving 26 years, he will be released April 18.
A beloved law officer had betrayed the badge, causing a tragedy of epic proportions for his family and the town.
“The downfall of Rick Thompson was such a devastating occurrence for the people of Marfa and Presidio County, that this phenomenon should be addressed,” wrote the authors of the two-volume history of the community.
“Rick Thompson had charm. A hail-fellow-well met. His attire was perfect — pressed jeans, starched shirt, Stetson tilted and a gun on his hip,” they noted.
And over his four terms in office, Thompson had led a regional drug task force, filmed anti-drug television spots for U.S. Customs and was the president of the Sheriffs’ Association of Texas.
He and Texas Ranger Joaquin Jackson were particularly close. Almost like brothers, one observer said.
After the news broke of Thompson’s possible link to the horse trailer, his supporters, including law officers and judges, rallied around him, convinced it all was a mistake or a setup.
That ended abruptly with his guilty plea Feb. 11, 1992, forcing them to accept that their “Walking Tall” law officer was a drug smuggler.
“The grief and horror of the people concerning this incident appeared to be beyond the normal consternation of people in situations such as this. … The loss of a hero harms a community’s ability to believe in anything anymore,” wrote the historians, Louise O’Connor and Cecilia Thompson, no relation to the sheriff.
While Thompson, 72, is unlikely to return to Marfa, the painful story of his fall from grace soon will be told here again. He did not respond to a letter sent to him in prison requesting an interview.
His plans are unknown, but his place in the annals of law enforcement infamy, as the Texas border sheriff who sold his badge for drug money, will be secure.