Norman’s Ward 7 council member Stephen Tyler Holman and Friendly Market owner Robert Cox were in court today for a Preliminary Hearing on charges that the pair unlawfully sold drug paraphernalia and acquired proceeds from drug activity.
Between the two raids on Friendly Market during the month of December, Norman Police officers seized about $20,000 in cash and roughly $15,000 dollars worth of merchandise from the business. Special Investigators Rick Newell, Dakota Cook, and Michael Lowe of the NPD narcotics division were responsible for the investigation and subsequent raids on Friendly Market.
On March 28, Judge Michael Tupper heard a full day of testimony from two detectives working for the Norman Police Department’s narcotics division. NPD Special Investigators Dakota Cook and Rick Newell took the stand to testify about the drug enforcement task force actions taken against Friendly Market in December 2015.
Rick Newell (left) and a prosecuting attorney from the DA’s office leave Judge Tupper’s courtroom after adjournment for the day.
Senior Special investigator Rick Newell testified that he began investigating Friendly Market in April 2015.
Newell’s personal crusade against glass pipe merchants and so-called headshops over the past year earned him the nickname ”the glass guru.”
On the stand, Newell seemed unreserved about portraying himself as a crusader in the Drug War. He confirmed he’s been the one heading up NPD’s clamp down on glass pipe merchants.
With a sporty a grey suit, short-styled silver hair, orange tan, and white gold earrings, the 54-year-old Newell would have been well-placed on the cast of a 1980s TV police drama. The detective’s laconic speech, pouty expressions, and fluorescent-seared skin made it easy to draw the comparison to a Donald Trump on horse tranquilizers.
Newell and his colleagues in the narcotics division have undertaken numerous investigations and raids against Norman head shops in recent years. Downtown and Campus merchants Fatt Headz and McCloudz have been run out of town, forced to move their businesses to other US states or Oklahoma cities where the paraphernalia statutes aren’t interpreted so liberally.
Following the raids on other glass retailers, Friendly Market owner Robert Cox got a call from the owner of McCloundz saying, telling him “the Norman Police Department is raiding my shop. They told me to call you. They said tell your head shop buddies we are coming after them next.’”
On the stand, Newell confirmed that he later told Cox in a telephone conversation, “You are my next step.”
Later that same week Cox met with an NPD representative who reportedly told him “we are going to take all the glass pipes and anything else we deem to be paraphernalia. Bottom line, we don’t want that element in Norman.” At a June 2015 City Council meeting, Cox read into the record statements recounting NPD’s intimidating tactics.
Newell’s March 28 2016 testimony confirmed he was the same NPD representative dealing with Cox as well as the other glass pipe merchants, including seven locally-owned convenience stores.
Newell said he received multiple calls from Cox. Initially, the detective didn’t return the calls, but did eventually agree to meet with Cox. Newell suggested the City’s recent emphasis on the Community Oriented Policing initiative had resulted in pressure for him to accept the meeting with Cox.
The tone of Newell’s testimony suggested that when he agreed to meet with Cox, he did so reluctantly; relenting to political pressure from the Norman community. There was a tinge of scorn and resentment when Newell revealed that he not informed Cox and Holman had other meetings with other Norman City Officials, including higher-ups in the NPD staff.
According to Detective Newell’s testimony, he and Cox had a two-hour meeting at the Starbucks on Main st. During that meeting Newell suggests he was very candid about his attitude toward glass pipe merchants in the City. He also informed Cox of his broad interpretation of the paraphernalia statutes. That broad interpretation essentially amounts to ‘everything is prohibited.’
At one point during his testimony, Newell recalled telling Cox “I want you to go away. I want the glass to go away.”
Newell said he told Cox, “If you’re willing to remove the glass, it’s all good. I don’t have a problem with you.” Cox had been advised by former NPD officers as well as former DA Tim Kuykendall that his business would be in compliance with Oklahoma paraphernalia statutes under certain specific conditions.
Friendly Market printed pamphlets–guidelines on what language not to use–presumably for employees and customers, so they could avoid NPD’s creative interpretation of the statutes. The Prosecution seemed intent on using this to suggest proof of wrongdoing.
In the one-on-one meeting with Cox had noted that no other Oklahoma cities enforce the statutes as strictly as the City of Norman.
Newell testified that Cox asked him why that was the case. Newell did not provide a clear answer while on the stand, although his earlier statements and facial expressions suggested an attitude of contempt.
Newlell went on to say that, during their meeting, Cox later asked if he could hold a sale to liquidate the assets. Newell said he advised against it because he considers the items to be strictly illegal.
Newell’s testimony and the cross examination extended well into the afternoon.
Throughout his testimony, Newell emphasized that he’s never seen a glass pipe used for tobacco. Later in the afternoon, the defense’s cross examination of Newell focused on unpacking the detective’s righteously-held beliefs on what does and does not qualify as paraphernalia. More than once, the discussion seemed to take sharp turns into the realm of metaphysics.
Part of the defense’s defense’s strategy seemed focused on picking apart Newell’s personal beliefs and sense of identity. Some other journalists have observed Newell is engrossed in is role; bent on ridding Norman of headshops.
Wagner’s line of questioning seemed to demonstrate that the Detective’s skewed perceptions and role immersion are, in matters of fact, quite at odds with the actual text of state statutes.
Newell rarely appeared anxious or shaken during the cross examination. He did appear to struggle and squirm somewhat when Holman’s attorneys engaged a line of questioning that might lead him to separate his personal mission as an anti-drug crusader from his appointed role as an enforcer of the community standards.
Is that the detective’s appointed role? Does he take opinion surveys of the community? No. His experience a career law enforcement officer is evidently all the self-assurance he needs when it comes to representing the community. At one point during the cross examination, Newell was asked if he’d taken a survey of the community to gauge public opinion. The detective responded by suggesting that his twenty-plus years in law enforcement had enabled him to make certain judgment calls.
During the defense’s cross examination of Newell, Wagner pointed out that online retailers such as Amazon sell similar pipes, grinders, and smoking accessories. Even retailers like Target and Walmart market similar merchandise online. Attorneys questioned NPD investigators on how these retailers are treated by local law enforcement. Do they produced tax receipts as well? If so, is the State of Oklahoma also acquiring proceeds from drug activity or is it just Friendly Market?
Stalling, delays, allegation of misconduct
Earlier this month, shortly after Detective Newell was called in for deposition, Holman and Cox were slapped with 13 additional charges. On March 9, District Attorney Greg Mashburn’s office charged Cox and Holman with twelve new counts of misdemeanor paraphernalia possession, and one new felony count of acquiring proceeds from drug activity. At the same time, the DA’s office dropped the Civil Asset Forfeiture proceedings against Cox and Holman.
A March 12 article in the Norman Transcript quoted Holman’s attorney Brecken Wagner as saying “[my] client was only hit with more charges after he exercised his right to request discovery in the form of a deposition in the civil asset forfeiture case.” Holman’s attorney’s have publicly called into the question the propriety of the DA’s tactics.
Holman’s attorney Brecken Wagner has suggested he DA filed additional charges and dismissed the forfeiture case in order to prevent NPD’s narcotics team from being compelled to testify and give deposition under oath.
Wagner also noted that Mashburn’s office has stated their intention to re-file the civil asset forfeiture. “They dismissed a civil asset forfeiture case simply to stop the process of discovery, simply to stop the citizen’s access to due process.”
Holman’s legal team noted Mashburn’s dismissal of the forfeiture case is temporary since he has stated his intentions to re-file at a later time. And since the seized cash and merchandise are still being held as evidence in relation to both the old and new charges, it is unlikely Friendly Market owner Robert Cox will have his money or property returned to him any time soon.
Wagner suggested these and other stalling tactics employed by prosecutors are actually an abuse of procedure and a serious form of misconduct. “It is misconduct,” Wagner said. “That’s exactly what it is.”
Much of the DA’s time examining their own witness was bogged down in tedious explanations of the functionality and mechanics of certain smoking accessories. On questioning from prosecutors, Detective Newell gave lengthy, detailed explanations of how certain “bongs” “grinders” and smoking devices work. Newell was given the opportunity showcase his expert knowledge of the drug scene and demonstrate his mastery of the new jargon.
Did he succeed?
No. When cross examined by the defense, Newell wounding up having to answer questions and admitting his lack of expertise and authority when it comes to interpreting the paraphernalia statutes. Not a lot of statutory overlap it seems when drug enforcement agents misconstrue brand names of certain products with street-names for certain types of smoking accessories.
On the length and tedium of March 28 Preliminary Hearing proceedings, Attorney Brecken Wagner indicated it was highly uncharacteristic for preliminary hearings to run the entire duration of the court day.
Defendants Holman and Cox exit Judge Tuppers courtroom after adjournment.
The hearing adjourned at 4:50 pm before Detective Newell had left the stand. Judge Tupper had other arraignments scheduled to begin at 3:00pm. Those arrangements had to be postponed or reassigned to another judge due to the length Newell’s testimony and the day’s proceedings.
Wagner said he’s sat through some lengthy preliminary hearings before, but that today’s were unusual. “I’ve been to some long preliminary hearings,” Wagner said, “but to go all day, and get another day on a preliminary hearing where there’s one felony count–it’s rather unusual.”
The proceedings lasted all day, from 9am to 5pm. “Is this the biggest problem the City of Norman and Cleveland County has?” Wagner said to members of the media moments after the hearing had adjourned. “It’s obviously politics.”
“It’s five o’clock and we’re just now breaking for the day,” Wagner continued, “and the prosecution still has its second witness on the stand.“
Cox and Holman’s Preliminary Hearing is scheduled to continue on May 23 in Judge Tupper’s courtroom. There, the prosecution is expected to wrap up Detective Newell’s testimony and call another NPD narcotics officer, Steve Lowe, to the stand. Lowe will be the third of the prosecution’s witnesses to testify on his involvement in the December raids on Friendly Market.
Before Newell took the stand
Earlier in the day, the court heard heated exchanges between Holman’s attorneys and NPD detective Dakota Cook, one of the undercover agents who participated in the controlled buys and sting operations against Friendly Market.
After a brief mid-morning recess following the heated exchanges, Newell had advised Detective Cook to keep his cool during the cross examinations and to “just relax.”
At the mid-morning and afternoon recesses, Detective Newell chided press photographers and attempted to hide his face from the cameras.
Detective Rick Newell scoffs at the press and attempts to hide his face while leaving Judge Tupper’s courtroom.