New podcast revisits Presidio County’s shocking billion dollar drug bust, 30 years later

FAR WEST TEXAS — When Austin-based journalist Rob D’Amico started calling West Texans in 2017, asking what they knew about Robert Chambers, Rick Thompson and the 1991 billion dollar bust of a cocaine-filled horse trailer in Presidio County, many “quite frankly said, ‘This is done, you don’t need to dredge it up,’” D’Amico said in an interview this week.

He was insistent though, staying in contact with folks through text, email, phone calls and Facebook, seeking the firsthand stories that surrounded the infamous drug bust that divided the area. When DEA Agent Dale Stinson, who had at first been distrustful and hesitant to talk about the case, told D’Amico he would only talk in person, the reporter drove 15 hours the next day to Stinson’s doorstep.

His persistence paid off, yielding an eight episode podcast, WITNESSED: BORDERLANDS, that dives into the stories and dispels some of the rumors that have spread in the aftermath of the drug bust. The first two episodes of the podcast were released Tuesday by Sony Music Entertainment, and the following episodes will debut every Tuesday for the next six weeks. 

D’Amico himself heard about the bust four years ago from a local — over drinks at The Lost Horse — who knew a few details and told him to pursue a retelling. In the first episode, he introduces his quest to understand Chambers and former Presidio County Sheriff Thompson, through scraps of information he found around town, within the pages of local newspapers and among those who lived through it all.

Then he poses his thesis to listeners, saying, “My task seemed simple enough: piece together the lives of Chambers and Thompson. Try to make sense of why they joined forces. But I discovered their bond was something nearly everyone wanted to bury, because it forced the tight-knit communities of Far West Texas to question who they could trust — their government, their law, even one another.”

D’Amico starts his series with Lico Miller who runs a native plant wholesale business in Terlingua. As a teen, Miller recounts, his father was a small-time drug runner in the area, which culminated in Miller coming home to his father being held hostage in their home by Chambers, before ultimately escaping. Who was Chambers, and how did he get to that point?

Attorney Rod Ponton, who spent part of his career providing defense to drug traffickers, as well as two women Susan Woodward Spriggs and Nancy Burton, who were close with Chambers, fill out the first episode, sharing stories of Chambers’ demeanor, activities, and what they believe motivated him to entangle with drug kingpin Pablo Acosta.

Burton recalls the early “outlaw” status of Chambers, recounting the baggies and bundles of cocaine and marijuana that filled his home when she dated him — and the pet mountain lion Chambers flaunted around town. The sources talk about affairs, parties and a route for drugs that plowed straight through Ojinaga and into the Presidio County border. Then Spriggs tells D’Amico that her first sign that the party days along the remote border were turning sour was when Chambers began driving a truck with a bullet hole in it.

The story only escalates from there, and D’Amico believes those in West Texas will be surprised to learn details shared with him from people in Terlingua, Alpine and Marfa, which he pieces together into a tale of the bust that toppled a beloved sheriff. Martha Stafford of Shafter, Enrique Madrid of Redford, former County Judge Monroe Elms and the sheriff’s secretary, Katherine Palmira (then known as Kitten Love), are familiar faces who appear as characters later in the saga. D’Amico hesitated to give any spoilers of what surprised him during his investigation and talks with locals.

“I was interested in the motivations of why this upstanding icon of the law would do this, would fall into this trap?” Was it money, securing protection for someone else or something else entirely, D’Amico wondered in a call with The Big Bend Sentinel. “How did he get from this height of being such a well-respected lawman, that was possibly going higher up the chain, to someone sitting behind bars for life?” 

Marfa is almost a character of its own in the podcast, the host said. The cattle industry was shifting, Donald Judd had arrived, and once the fallout from the bust made impact, D’Amico said, “I think the overall impact to the town is that there were such extreme reactions from people here –– people that just felt betrayed and thought the sheriff was a disgrace and people that still supported him and believed in him ’til the very end.”

The day he pled guilty, “I think that just really drove a stake into the heart of Marfa for a lot of people,” D’Amico said this week.

Though some told D’Amico they wished the story would remain in the past — to let the sheriff live in peace after he served his time and to let Marfa move forward — he rebuffed the opinion. “People are telling these stories in bars from time to time, spreading all kinds of rumors that are so nefarious of what the sheriff did. These are happening anyway, and you need to get out and tell the facts and relive this experience,” he believed. “That’s the healthy thing to do, instead of trying to bury it.”

WITNESSED: BORDERLANDS is available on Apple, Spotify and other podcast streaming services.