DEA Harassment Dispute Spurs Tensions in West Texas

DEA agents and local law enforcement raided the Purple Zone in Alpine as part of the nationwide Project Synergy Phase II (Tom Cochran)

DEA agents and local law enforcement raided the Purple Zone in Alpine as part of the nationwide Project Synergy Phase II (Tom Cochran)

Law enforcement and some private citizens at the center of a recent raid on a West Texas Hookah Lounge are at an impasse – did federal drug agents assault a woman and search a home without a proper warrant, or are witness accounts from the scene simply not accurate?

We spoke with people on both sides of the story, one that began as part of a nationwide crackdown on people suspected of selling synthetic drugs – usually herbs laced with chemical concoctions and sold under names like “Spice” or “K-2.”

They’re supposed to mimic the effects of pot and other drugs, but they’ve been linked to overdoses and possibly some deaths.

Ilana Lipsen, the owner of the Purple Zone in Alpine, was already under indictments for synthetic drug charges from the past couple of years when Drug Enforcement Administration agents raided her shop on May 7th. They found ammunition at the scene that she’s not allowed to have and filed charges.

Her sister Arielle was at the shop when agents showed up, and she’s being charged with intentionally assaulting a federal officer.

It’s a charge that carries up to 20 years in prison, and it’s also where the story of what exactly happened that day starts to get murky.

A day after the raid, Arielle claimed she was the one who was assaulted. Nicholas Branson, a geology student at Sul Ross State University, is now backing her up.

He claims he watched the scene unfold as he was coming home to his small apartment located just a just a few feet away from the Purple Zone on the same property.

The way he tells it, Arielle was frustrated with the agents, telling them to leave, that they had bigger fish to fry and that they were wasting their time on a small business.

At some point a scuffle ensued with one of the DEA agents, who said she was resisting arrest. Branson claims she was pushed to the ground, and as she was trying to get up her foot grazed the officer. He says he then saw the officer use the butt of a rifle to subdue her.

The agency is adamantly denying any allegations of abuse, and DEA Public Affairs Specialist Laila Rico says Arielle was never harmed or assaulted by any agents, and says specifically that nobody used a rifle to subdue her.

“She was kicking the agent,” she says, “and that’s why she was arrested.”

The DEA also denies Branson’s claims that he was harassed when agents entered his apartment.

 

Some of the products sold at the Purple Zone in Alpine, TX. DEA agents raided the shop on suspicions the shop was selling outlawed synthetic drugs. (Tom Cochran)

Some of the products sold at the Purple Zone in Alpine, TX. DEA agents raided the shop on suspicions that outlawed synthetic drugs were being sold. (Tom Cochran)

Court documents show the DEA only showed up with a warrant for the Purple Zone (located at 705 East Avenue E.) and not Branson’s apartment (located at 705 ½.)

According to narratives from the search warrants, the agents quickly realized the error and called in a second warrant for the apartment. Rico confirms the agents did enter Branson’s residence, but didn’t immediately search it, and she says they had the right to do that.

“For agent security, we are allowed to secure the premises,” she says.

Branson and Rico’s stories match up when it comes to the fact that the agents entered the apartment, and that an officer instructed them to head back outside, but the story splits again on what happened next:

“I was like well, if you don’t have a warrant you need to get out of my house,” Branson says he told an agent, “at which point he responded ‘I don’t need to show you a fucking warrant.’”

We called Branson back just to make sure we had that allegation correct.

“When I asked to see a warrant his response was to me was ‘You don’t need to see a fucking warrant,’” Branson told us.

“Never was he told that,” says Rico. “No agent ever spoke to him that way or cursed at him – that is just untrue.”

The Accuser, the Accused, and Some Very Specific Bond Conditions

The case is in some ways a standard he-said, she-said story. The Lipsens are both free on bond, but the terms of Ilana’s release are drawing some scrutiny.

Rosa, Ilana, and Ariel Lipsen at the Brewster County Jail, May 8, 2014. (KRTS/Tom Michael)

Rosa, Ilana, and Ariel Lipsen at the Brewster County Jail, May 8, 2014. (KRTS/Tom Michael)

Ilana spoke to KRTS and other media outlets after the raid, claiming the agent did indeed assault her sister. But as part of her bond conditions, she agreed to send a letter to the media and retract those statements.

Among other conditions, the bond terms required that Ilana “provide a letter of apology” to local newspapers, tell them agents didn’t execute a warrant at her shop “because she was Jewish, owned Arabian horses, is of Turkish decent, or because she visited Chinese websites” – all statements she made to news outlets.

The terms also called for her to contact a local TV news station and say that her sister was not assaulted by agents, and that Arielle was in fact the one who instigated and assaulted an agent – the very federal charge she is now facing.

UCLA Professor of Law Eugene Volokh says that’s likely a violation of the 1st Amendment. Volokh has taught law for the past 20 years, and is an occasional legal columnist for the Washington Post.

He recently offered his take on the case for the Post. He says prosecutors and defense teams can agree on special bond terms – that’s nothing new – but those terms can’t require that a defendant say something or not say something.

“Otherwise the government would have a great deal of power to essentially force people to give up their 1st Amendment rights as a condition of being released on bail,” he says.

Volokh says prosecutors often agree to more lenient charges in exchange for testimony, but in this case, Lipsen hasn’t yet been tried or convicted.

“Her liberty can’t be conditioned on her saying something or her not saying something,” he says.

Outside the Courts, the Case Sparks Tensions

The office of the U.S. District Court’s Western District of Texas wouldn’t comment on the conditions, saying the document “speaks for itself.” The state district attorney and the county sheriff’s office insists there was no coercion involved, and that the letter was not edited.

But it does raise some questions, mainly since the letter reads almost word for word alongside the specific retractions that were called for in the Conditions of Release.

Whatever the jury decides about the facts of the case, it’s created a noticeable tension in a community where law enforcement employs a large portion of the population. Alpine businessman Tom Cochran has become the focal point of that tension.

Tom Cochran, inside his shop Big Bend Screen Printing in Alpine. (Travis Bubenik/KRTS)

Tom Cochran, inside his shop Big Bend Screen Printing in Alpine. (Travis Bubenik/KRTS)

He snapped pictures the day of the raid and shared them on Facebook. Since then he’s become a sort of crusader for Branson and the Lipsens, spreading the story on the Internet as far as he can.

“These sort of things get swept under the rug so often,” he says, “because we have a tendency to discount anything people say when they’re accused of a crime.”

The local union chapter of national Border Patrol union voted to boycott his screen printing shop, calling him a “purveyor of misinformation” and asking others to join them.

Cochran says the community’s largely been on his side, but he’s had at least one ugly encounter.

“Some guy in a kind of Toyota Camry pulls down his window and flips me the bird,” he says. “I feel like I’m being portrayed as some sort of anti-authoritarian type, and that’s really not the case.”

Lady Justice Will Decide, But She May Be Wary

For those who believe Branson and the Lipsens’s side of the story, the case has become a shining example of an overzealous law enforcement culture in a region where any hour of the day you’ll see just as many Border Patrol, DPS or sheriff’s authorities as tumbleweeds.

For others, it’s a frustrating example of how facts get distorted and public servants get demonized on a whim.

Professor Volokh has faith in the justice system. Despite the unusual and possibly unconstitutional bond condition, he feels Ilana Lipsen at least can still get a fair trial – he says that’s what the jury selection process is designed for.

But he also thinks Ilana’s letter and the prosecution’s efforts to sort out what they see as the facts are shaky.

“We can’t believe a word this person is saying,” he says, “precisely because it was essentially either you stay in jail, or you say these things. Why should we believe that?”

Whatever side the public takes on the case, the courts won’t decide for a couple months. Jury selection is set to begin on July 22nd.

About Travis Bubenik

Morning Edition Host & Reporter

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