Second witness in Purple Zone raid speaks out
By JOHN DANIEL GARCIA
ALPINE – “I’m fairly certain I’m going to get arrested for talking to you,” Alpine resident Nicholas Branson told the Big Bend Sentinel Tuesday afternoon.
“My lawyer has advised me to keep quiet, but I can’t stand by without saying anything with all that’s going on: officers beating citizens, suppressing free press, boycotting small businesses, and forcing an indicted woman to recant her statements to get bonded out,” Branson added.
Branson, who rents an apartment from Purple Zone owner Ilana Lipsen located behind the shop – which is separated by a fence – was present at the scene, he said, when the DEA raid on the business occurred on May 7.
The raid was, ostensibly, a part of a national crack-down, given the title “Operation Synergy II,” on synthetic drugs known as “spice” and “bath salts,” respectively. “Spice” drugs are synthetic psychoactives chemically designed to mimic the effects of marijuana and “bath salts” typically mimic methamphetamines.
His apartment, he also claims, was raided despite being listed as a separate domicile with a separate address. The search was made without a warrant. A warrant was eventually presented, but had been issued after the DEA Multi-Agency Task Force forced their way into his home and searched the premises.
“I showed up at around 11 to see a bunch of officers at my house. I told the officers that that was my apartment and asked to see a search warrant. One of the officers came up to me and told me ‘I don’t need to show you a (expletive) warrant.’ When I protested, he said ‘we could do this the hard way,’ and put his finger in the trigger guard of his assault rifle. I grew up in gun culture, and the third rule is to never put your trigger on the finger unless you’re ready to shoot. I backed off.”
Though a neighbor informed Branson that the raid on his apartment began at around 10am, a search warrant for Branson’s apartment was signed by City of Alpine Magistrate Rebecca Schlosser with a time of 11:58am recorded – two hours after the search allegedly began.
The search warrant return and inventory of items seized during the raid of apartment shows the search turned up one shotgun and two plastic bags of psilocybin mushrooms in the property.
Branson denies the allegations of being in possession of the drugs.
“They took my grandfather’s shotgun, which I’m sure I’ll never see again, claimed I had mushrooms, and seized some of my memory cards, my hard-drive, and an old cell phone – which they put under the inventory of items seized from the Purple Zone,” the Sul Ross geology major said. “A bag of geologic crystals also went missing, meaning they had also rummaged through my drawers. The only thing they would say was that they were looking for ‘documents,’ but they had a dog there. Unless they trained the dog to search for certain pieces of paper and hardware, I don’t know why they’d bring it along. When they finally brought the search warrant, it was only the first page. There wasn’t an affidavit or an address listed on it.”
Branson was also on the property when the apparent excessive use of force on Lipsen’s younger sister, Arielle, occurred.
“I saw them throw her on the ground and hit her with a rifle. It was nothing short of an assault,” Branson alleges. “It was [the same officer] that told me they didn’t need a warrant to search my apartment who attacked her. He’s about 6’4” and 230 pounds and he said he felt threatened? You’re telling me a little unarmed Jewish girl is a threat? She can’t be more than 5’5” and 135 pounds.”
In a letter this week to the Sentinel, the Alpine Avalanche, and NewsWest 9 TV, Ilana Lipson recants her allegations against the agents in the search warrant raid:
The full text of the letter reads:
“I am Ilana Lipsen, the sole owner of the Purple Zone, in Alpine, Texas. I am writing this letter for several reasons: one, there has been quite a bit of disinformation that has been relayed to the press in which I am responsible; Two, it is part of my conditions of release on federal charges; and three, it is the just and right thing for me to do which I hope will bode well for me in the resolution of my federal case.
“First and foremost I apologize to the Drug Enforcement Administration HIDTA Task Force. They had a legitimate and lawful basis for being at my business on May 7, 2014. I was not present when they entered my business and do not know the circumstances as to the full story as to why entry had to be done by force. Information disseminated by Tom Cochran on his Facebook account about the actions of the DEA is completely inaccurate.
“I was present when my sister was arrested. No law enforcement person beat or choked my sister either with or without the use of an M-16 or any assault rifle. No weapon was used in her arrest. The mark on my sister’s neck that was published on Tom Cochran’s Facebook page was not caused by agents, it was incidental to her arrest which could have been caused by scraping on the neighbors fence, tree trunk, or debris in the yard. The photographs of blood at the scene of my business which were also published on Tom Cochran’s Facebook was the blood of an agent that was injured on the scene.
“I apologize for claiming that the basis for the search warrant had anything to do with my ancestry, my faith, my collection of Arabian Horses, or my doing business with China. The agents that executed the warrant were unaware of any of these allegations I claimed.
“My words to the press and others were said in frustration and without a cool-mind. I sincerely apologize to all.
May 16, 2014”
Rod Ponton, the 83rd District Attorney, who will prosecute Ilana Lipson and her mother Rosa Lipson on felony drug distribution charges stemming from a 2012 raid when the Purple Zone was in another location, also issued the following news release:
“The assertions previously made by Ms. Lipsen or Mr. Cochran are not true. The substances previously seized from the Purple Zone, pursuant to three prior state search warrants, all tested positive by DEA labs for synthetic meth, a second-degree felony under Texas drug laws (enhanced to a first-degree felony for being sold in a school zone). This drug, commonly called Spice, is not synthetic marijuana or marijuana, it is an analog of meth sprayed on plant material. It is illegal. It has caused numerous Big Bend area residents to have severe reactions, they have gone to the emergency room, one man hallucinated, stole a Ford Ranchero, then flipped it, killing himself. This illegal drug is worse than meth, similar to cocaine, meth, or heroin.
“The material seized on 5/7/2014 from the Purple Zone was not an herb, its exact chemical compound is being tested by a DEA laboratory.
“Agents did not behave badly during the lawful search on 5/7/2014.
“The State of Texas will present this evidence to a jury when this matter is tried in the 394th Judicial District Court in September 2014.
“The Office of 83rd District Attorney is proud to work hard with the United States Attorney’s Office, with federal, state, and local law enforcement, and the good law abiding citizens of the Big Bend, to help keep these communities safe and drug free for our residents and their children,” Rod Ponton, 83rd District Attorney.
After the most recent raid, Ilana was charged with possession of ammunition, which under the conditions of her 2013 indictment and bond, she is not allowed to possess. Arielle was charged with assaulting a police officer and resisting arrest.
The letter appears to be a condition of release on bail for both her and her sister. It was presented by federal prosecutors at the bond and detention hearing last week before U.S. Magistrate B. Dwight Goains.
Conditions of Lipsen’s release states that she (all sic) “will request Tom Cochran retract his blog on Facebook. Will provide a letter of apology to both local newspapers in Alpine, TX, advising DEA had a legitimate reason to execute a warrant at her business. Will advise newspapers A warrant was not executed at her business because she was Jewish, owned Arabian horses, is of Turkish Decent, or because she visited Chinese websites. Will advise media (KWest9 news) that he sister, arrielle lipsen was not beaten by agents carrying/using a M16 rifle, and her sister instigated/assaulted agents.”
Branson said Lipson’s letter and Ponton’s news release smacks of coercion.
“The first time I read the letter, I read it incredulously,” Branson said.
“It’s utter falsehood that ‘no law enforcement officer person beat or choked my sister…’ that’s completely false. He grabbed her by the neck. The only true part in the letter is that her sister was arrested. I don’t believe she wrote this and I believe she was coerced into signing it.”
Lipsen, whose attorney was changed by the judge during the bond hearing due to a possible conflict of interest, was unable to comment further to the media on advice from council.
Her current lawyer, Houston-based James Stafford, was also unable to comment on the details of the case due to the transition of council.
“I did watch the [NewsWest 9 report] and there were some questions brought up which are interesting,” Stafford said. “I’m interested in how she got the bruise, which was not there before the raid. It seems consistent with the butt of a rifle. Another interesting tidbit is, if it was a national raid, why were they there with a state warrant?”
Alpine businessman and citizen reporter Tom Cochran, who was on the scene near the end of the raid and posted photos on his personal Facebook page and whose business – Big Bend Screen Printing is the target of a boycott organized by the National Border Patrol Council Big Bend Local 2509 – also commented on the recent developments, writing:
“I was disheartened, but not surprised to see the heavy-handed tactics the government is willing to use in order to obfuscate what really happened on May 7th. Both the implied threat of listing my name in the bond document and the Border Patrol Union’s attempts to accuse me of libel and defame my character show you what lengths they’re willing to go to in order to hide an embarrassing story, as well as demonstrate a stunning lack of respect for the press, and the right of citizens to hold the government accountable. It also bothers me that this has obscured the main issue – that the DEA, BP, and DHS saw fit to engage in violent and confrontational paramilitary actions when there was a non-violent alternative. There’s no reason to break down doors and attack people, especially when the victim is a member of the business community, and someone with no history of violence and regular business hours in which they can be reached. There’s also no reason to publically attack my character for exercising my rights to document government employees from a public sidewalk, and to try to damage me economically and socially for bringing light to these issues of police misconduct.
“On the plus side, the national response to this has been overwhelmingly on our side – this story went viral last night, and I’ve been besieged with requests for comment from a number of national media outlets. While the Border Patrol’s boycott was shameful and misguided, I should probably thank them – without their actions and the federal prosecutor’s unethical bond requirements this issue would have never gone national. It’s also been great for business – I’ve taken over 20 orders since Monday, which is about 10 times my normal business volume. We have new customers from all over the country that have chosen to do business with Big Bend Screen Printing because they heard about the boycott and wanted to show their support.
“At the end of the day, the issue here is about fairness. Is it right for a business to be raided 4 times in 2 years, and the owners indicted for substances that were not illegal at the time of the raid? Is it right for law enforcement to force confessions and require someone to implicate a family member in a crime in order to get out of jail?”
As for Branson, who may be facing some sort of charges, it has been both a relief and a burden to tell his side of the story.
“I didn’t say anything before because I’m very afraid of retaliation,” he warily said. “I’m about 80 percent sure that I’m going to be arrested after these stories come out. I don’t feel safe in my own house and I haven’t been able to sleep since the raid. I didn’t really want to come out, but I had to after doing some soul-searching. It’s like that saying ‘all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing