While the podcast features numerous sources, here are a few of the main players in the story….
Sheriff Richard Dee Thompson
Rick Thompson was widely admired by Marfa residents and was a shoe-in for his upcoming election to a fifth term as Presidio County Sheriff. He took the office after his predecessor, Sheriff Hank Hamilton, was gunned down in 1973 by a mentally unstable man. Thompson was president of the Sheriff’s Association of Texas, headed a multi-county drug task force, and was prominent in working with federal officials in the war on drugs. (He starred in a public service announcement TV ad urging people to call in and help lock up smugglers.)
His arrest for cocaine trafficking shocked Marfa and the law enforcement officers he had befriended and worked with for years. Although many still believe he was not directly involved in smuggling for an extended period of time, the DEA disputes this and pins several more tons of cocaine and marijuana smuggling on him for at least six years before his arrest. Federal agents and others had learned that his nickname in Mexico was “La Puerta,” the door to smuggling.
Thompson was sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole, but a change in sentencing guidelines led to his eventual release in April of 2018. Now 73, he lives in Midland, Texas with his wife, and remains close to his two sons and daughter.
Glyn Robert Chambers
Robert Chambers grew up on the border in south Presidio County, where his mother taught in a small school in Candelaria. He attended school in Alpine, Texas, where he later bought a ranch. Chambers was well acquainted with smugglers from Mexico and eventually became close to Pablo Acosta, the drug lord of Ojinaga. He quickly worked his way up to a key operator in smuggling drugs into the U.S. and after Acosta’s death, he even held the title of “The Plaza” (the kingpin who controlled all drug movement through Ojinaga)–a strange position for an American.
Chambers also was involved in several gun battles on the border, saved six hunters from a fiery plane crash in the desert, and was shot three times in the back in an assassination attempt on a Mexican fishing boat. And he gained notoriety for breaking a man accused of rape in the U.S. out of a Mexican prison, dragging him back across the border and tying him to a tree naked for the local authorities to find.
Chambers, now 65, was quick to cooperate with federal officials and only served 13 years of a life sentence. He now lives in Granbury, Texas.
Stinson was the lead investigator for the Drug Enforcement Agency in the bust. A veteran of the DEA at the time, he had previously served in Mexico and Panama and was partner to Kiki Camarena, the DEA agent violently tortured and murdered in Mexico in 1985. As the cocaine smuggling route changed from Florida to West Texas, Stinson took an assignment in Alpine and began investigating Robert Chambers with the intention of following his drug distribution to higher levels across the U.S.
Stinson and his co-investigator, Kelly Cook with U.S. Customs, cultivated a key informant (Sam Thomas) who turned on Chambers and led agents to the cocaine Thompson stored in the horse trailer at the Presidio County Fairgrounds. For him, the bust was an unfortunate necessity that put a halt to their goals of a much larger bust of key players. Stinson, now 74, lives in Colorado and is writing about his experiences.
Cook, a U.S. Customs agent, was DEA agent Dale Stinson’s partner. The two kept a tight rein on who knew what in their investigation when it became apparent that Sheriff Rick Thompson might be involved with Robert Chambers.
Cook, a native of Alpine, knew the area well and helped manage the surveillance of Chambers and cultivating their informants. Now 56, he lives in El Paso.
Ponton, a defense attorney, was hired by Chambers for a weapons charge and suddenly found himself defending a man busted with a ton of cocaine. A Presidio County native, Ponton dabbled in film in his early days and worked on the crew of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Ponton had to retrieve his attorney fees for Chamber’s defense by traveling to Juarez to pick up $100,000 in cash, which caused a considerable stir at the border when he re-entered the U.S.
Now County Attorney for Presidio County, Ponton was featured in the recent Netflix documentary, Confession Killer, for his role in proving that alleged serial killer Henry Lee Lucas could not be responsible for most of the murders he confessed to. Now 68, he lives in Alpine, Texas.
Photo: Texas Monthly, March 1990
Best described as a muckraking journalist, McNamara launched a scrappy newspaper, The Nimby News, in Alpine to cover stories often left out of the local newspaper, and later wrote a column for the Big Bend Sentinel in Marfa. McNamara reported extensively on Sheriff Thompson’s role in the multi-county drug task force that spent an enormous amount of money producing minor drug busts.
He also was the first to question the close relationship Chambers had with Thompson. McNamara often battled to obtain public records from officials and sued the U.S. Department of Justice in federal court in an attempt to acquire records in the Thompson case.
McNamara, now 82, lives in Oregon with his wife.
The drug lord known as El Zorro de Ojinaga (The Ojinaga Fox) was a mentor to Chambers and played a significant role as The Plaza who controlled all drug movement through the region into the U.S.
Acosta, who was gunned down in 1986 by Mexican federales (with the assistance of the FBI) is featured in the recent Narcos Mexico series and the book Drug Lord, by former El Paso Times reporter Terrance Poppa. After his death, Chambers briefly served as The Plaza before Amado Carillo Fuentes took control of distribution with the Juarez Cartel.