‘Drug war insurgent’ flees U.S. claiming death threats
Activist, filmmaker and former narcotics cop Barry Cooper, a self-styled “drug war insurgent” who in recent years attempted to catch police misdealings on camera for an online reality show, has fled the United States with his family claiming their lives were threatened.
A highly divisive figure whose antics enraged police and made him a martyr among drug reform activists, Cooper decided to disappear after police in Williamson County SWAT-raided his home and took away his autistic step-son on a Class B misdemeanor charge. After Cooper and his wife, Candi, got nine-year-old Zack back, they began plotting to ensure that nothing like that could happen again.
Cooper swore off his “KopBusters” show after a misdemeanor charge brought no less than the Texas Rangers to his Austin home, where they tricked Candi into coming outside and arrested her on the spot. Cooper gave himself up days later at the capitol, but ever since his release he's stayed largely off the radar and out of the news.
But as it turns out, that wasn't the end of Cooper's weird tale, which I covered on and off for about two years at The Raw Story and True/Slant. As I discovered recently, there's still a lot more to be said of the strangest, most brazen activist America has seen in decades.
Barry, Candi, their two adult daughters and young son, quietly departed the United States in December 2011, selling all of their belongings and boarding a cruise ship to Aruba, which Cooper said was opportune because it allowed them to take Zack out of the country without a passport. They disembarked from the cruise ship and never returned, having arranged for travel to Venezuela by speedboat. Cooper said they were able to stay in Venezuela for seven months by bribing local officials, before ultimately escaping into Brazil where he said the family now legally resides as political refugees.
Details of the Coopers’ flight have long been known to family friends, but Barry chose to keep it quiet due to the threat of prosecution in Texas, where Candi is still engaged in a custody battle with her ex-husband over their son. “We fled for two reasons,” Cooper said. “One, because I believe the police were determined to kill me or put me in prison; and two, because we felt very unsafe after Zack was taken by his father because the police set us up and raided us for our activism.”
Cooper’s home just outside of Austin, Texas was raided by Williamson County police on March 3, 2010, days after Cooper confronted the chief of police in Liberty Hill with a video purporting to show one of his officers stealing money otherwise meant for the evidence locker. The video was a sequel to Cooper’s prior stunt in Odessa, where he duped police into raiding a fake marijuana grow house rigged with cameras and sound recorders.
Both stunts drew criminal charges, too: each a single count of making a false report to a peace officer, a Class B misdemeanor with up to a year in jail attached to it. Although Cooper was at one point facing up to two years in prison, the charge from Odessa -- which actually brought the Texas Rangers to the Coopers’ doorstep to arrest his wife -- was ultimately dropped. On the same charge in Williamson County, prosecutors offered Cooper a deal. To avoid possible jail time, Cooper pleaded guilty and agreed to pay $500 in court costs, but he never sent the money and a warrant for his arrest remains open in Texas to this day.
Even though he was financially struggling toward the end of his time living in Texas, and admits that it's much cheaper to live abroad, Cooper says he didn’t flee the U.S. for lack of funds.
“I received several specific threats against my life that came through emails,” he insisted. “Police officers saying they wished and hoped that I end up in prison along with Candi, and hoping that Candi and I get raped in prison. But I also received information from two different lawyers that they heard, from people in the courthouse, that police were gunning for us. That was easy for me to believe because we’d just suffered the worst two years of my life, with my house being raided full SWAT-style, me being jailed three times and Candi being jailed twice, all because of my activism and all over misdemeanor charges.”
Cooper's words aren't just the ramblings of a chastened man suddenly terrified that he's brought the heat down on his wife and children. I once spoke to a former intelligence official who played a key policy role in the Bush Administration, who said he was certain authorities would resort to any legal means to shut Cooper down. While my source claimed to have no direct knowledge of the investigations into Cooper, the implication was that if Al Capone can be brought down for tax evasion, so can this puny drug war insurgent.
In June 2011 an anonymous source gave me an FBI memo allegedly swiped by hackers from an Arizona law enforcement database. The memo acknowledged Cooper’s “technical ability” to fool police given his knowledge of police procedure. But the memo set his “threat level” as “low,” and suggested that local law enforcement should take the lead in busting Cooper’s strange new form of activism. I later learned that very group of hackers had already been infiltrated by the FBI by the time they were combing through Arizona law enforcement emails. The federal investigation culminated with the arrests of hackers said to be responsible for ripping open Austin-based global intelligence firm Stratfor. Whether law enforcement was directly involved in leaking that memo to me remains a mystery.
Although the Coopers could have faced parental kidnapping charges for taking Zack out of the U.S., the boy’s father, David Johnson, has not pressed charges. Austin attorney James Gill, who is representing Candi in the dispute, said he believes the case is on the brink of amicable settlement that could allow the Coopers to return to the U.S. without fear that Zach may be taken again.
“Circumstances have changed since he left,” Gill said. “There was a much more apparent and serious threat of there being problems with the child custody dispute [then]. But due to things that have happened over the last year, we’ve been able to work things out with the father to prevent any type of charges going forward and reach a resolution about the child’s custody that everyone can be happy with and live with.”
Cooper, however, said he’s not sure a return to the U.S. is in the cards for him immediately, although his two adult daughters have already returned independently. “I cried and cried -- we all cried -- when we got to the border of Brazil,” he explained. “And the officials there initially didn’t believe us, because we didn’t have any documentation whatsoever. We actually stayed with a policeman there in Brazil for three days while the papers were being worked out. It was the first time we really felt protected and safe and were with people who really understood what we went through.”
Houston defense attorney Bobby Mims, who Cooper partially blames for converting him from what Mims called “a redneck semi-racist” to “a flaming liberal,” explained that he wrote a letter to Brazilian officials on Cooper’s behalf, not as his attorney but as a friend and a respected third-party who could vouch for Cooper’s admittedly bizarre situation. “I met Cooper after he come out of the right end of a bar fight and got charges on him [about 10 years ago],” he said. “We ended up getting not guilty on him... even though Barry whipped the guy pretty good. So he thinks I’m a great lawyer, and for years when something happened he would call me.”
Mims added that, as he has done in the past, Cooper reached out before making the journey to Brazil. “Once they got my videos and read the letter from my lawyer, they understood why I was seeking political asylum,” Cooper said. “The asylum isn’t stamped yet, but we’re considered political refugees.” Despite living abroad, Cooper has kept up his work as a legal expert advising criminal defense clients in the U.S. on police procedure, particularly in drug prosecutions. He’s also become friends with local law enforcement, and on Friday he published a video to his YouTube account which features him running a gun range obstacle course with Brazilian police.
Of course, Cooper is still pursuing media stardom: a symptom of his uniquely American form of entrepreneurial activism. After a movie deal with director Brett Ratner fell through, screenwriter Evan Georgiades came to stay with Cooper in Brazil for a week, bent on actually making the project work. He’s still shopping the idea around. Cooper also claims to be in talks with a well-known reality show producer about a series with him as the central character, but it’s unclear how far those talks have progressed or even what such a show would look like.
Movie-going audiences are also going to get a dose of Cooper in director Matthew Cooke’s upcoming film “ "How to Make Money Selling Drugs,” which features stars like Woody Harrelson, Susan Sarandon and rapper 50 Cent. The documentary will be screened Thursday, April 25 at the Tribeca Film Festival ahead of its public release through video-on-demand services on June 18.
“I just tell a little bit of [Barry’s story] -- what was it exactly that turned him around -- and I don’t think it was just his experience with marijuana,” Cooke said. “I think it was his experience doing drug raids.” He added that Cooper’s activism had a big impact on him because it offered a rare look at what police experience firsthand as the tip of the spear in America’s drug war.
“The fact that he left the United States because he was under so much pressure, I did mention that at the end of the film,” Cooke concluded. “He was one of the top narcotics officers in Texas and blew the whistle on what’s going on there. You know, I think Barry’s a saint. He makes some salient points that people need to know.”
Stephen C. Webster is an Austin-based journalist and senior editor of The Raw Story, one of America's top progressive news websites. His work has previously appeared in publications such as The Dallas Business Journal, Fort Worth Weekly, Austin Monthly and The Lone Star Iconoclast, among others.
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