Since he took on the role of district attorney for the state's 29th Judicial District in 2007, Mike Burns has prosecuted numerous defendants involved in the manufacturing and distribution of methamphetamine in Palo Pinto and surrounding counties.
At Monday's Palo Pinto County Commissioners Court meeting, Jack Webster commander of Texas Department of Public Safety Region 1 recognized Burns' work with a “Regional Commanders' Award.”
Webster said that Lt. Doug Wood of the local DPS Criminal Investigations Division – a unit that investigates narcotics cases, mostly in a six-county area – nominated Burns for the special award, which is only given periodically.
“It's the first this year and probably the only one. We just don't hand this out,” said Webster.
The award reads, “Between 2007 and 2009 DPS CID in Mineral Wells and Weatherford targeted five separate drug trafficking organizations involved in the manufacturing and distribution of methamphetamine in Palo Pinto and surrounding counties. Palo Pinto District Attorney Michael Burns had been instrumental in the indictment and prosecution of 63 defendants in these cases. Mr. Burns has also been instrumental in allowing the DPS Criminal Investigations Division to be very successful in their mission and also to further the goals of the State Drug Strategy. Michael Burns is recognized for his outstanding efforts by receiving this Regional Commander's Award.”
“It is extremely flattering and gratifying,” Burns said of the award. “The rewarding point of it is the ability to work in conjunction with such professional people. We're able to achieve these successes because of the dedication and perseverance of the narcotics officers.”
This recognition joins one Burns received in May at the law school's 20th anniversary celebration, where he was honored as the distinguished alumnus for the graduating class of 1993.
Burns began his law enforcement career 36 years ago, serving first as a police officer in Dublin, Texas. Before heading to Texas Wesleyan University to be in the law school's first graduating class, Burns rose to chief of police for Mesquite, Texas. In February 2007, he began his prosecuting career after being appointed by Gov. Rick Perry as district attorney for the 29th Judicial District in Palo Pinto County.
“As prosecutor, I have worked with some of the finest law enforcement in the area,” he said. “You are only as good as the officers who bring cases.”
Much of the success for which the DPS awarded Burns hinges on a Texas Penal Code statute focused on engaging in organized criminal activity, or OCA, that ups the ante on offenses and punishment.
Burns said one of his goals has been to target organized crime related to the manufacture and distribution of methamphetamine and cocaine in and coming to Palo Pinto County. He said part of his plan targeting these crimes is “to cut the head off the snake” and slow down the incidences of organized crime.
“I think it is well deserved,” said DPS Sgt. John Waight of the DPS honor. “Mike serves a capacity that is invaluable to us as investigators. We put in the work and effort and he's the one who makes it all come together. He puts the glue to it and holds it together.”
He added that what stands is Burns' “ability to file and prosecute the 'engaging in organized crime' [statute, which are] time consuming and complex cases. It's a tool and Mike uses it to its fullest.”
According to Wood, Burns is one of only a few Texas district attorneys who take on the OCA prosecution.
“We've been able to target a different kind of criminal, [those engaging in] organized crime,” said Wood. “Most state DAs don't take on organized crime or conspiracy cases. You throw a bigger net and catch a few more.”
“It makes a difference because you're able to reach out and get everyone involved [in the crime],” said DPS Sgt. Darla Dowell. “I like the type of investigation. It's a little more challenging and requires more hours of work.”
But the pay-off, she said, is that “the 'engaging' offense enhances it one degree” for all involved.
“It goes from two years to 15 like that,” Precinct 5 Constable Gary Morris said of the difference between independent possession of under a gram of narcotics compared to possessing the same amount combined with participating in organized crime.
He said if a person is involved in OCA they become part of a “combination” even though they are not necessarily directly related to or know others involved in the criminal activity.
If an individual performs “an overt act within an OCA case, where they are proved to be a part of a combination – whether buying pseudoephedrine or selling small amounts of narcotics – from top to bottom, everybody gets the same charge,” Morris said.
“[OCA prosecutions] are hard to beat because the investigation is so thorough,” he said, adding that the narcotics officers rely on local authorities to make these case.
Before Burns came on board as a prosecutor, officials said the county was prosecuting offenders for “possession” and “distribution” cases.
Wood said that if area investigators had not been able to work with Burns specifically on targeting “organized criminal activity,” or OCA, associated with drugs, “We'd have had one-third of the defendants that we did and would be doing things the old way – [getting individuals on] delivery and possession.”
In a two-year period Burns prosecuted cases such as the “Boggy Bottom Boys,” “Pappa Smurf,” the “Ice Road truckers” and the “8th Street Gang.”
He said the 29th District Court no longer offers probation for this type of organized crime.
In the first case, he said Kip Gillmore (“Boggy Bottom Boys”) received a 55-year sentence in front of a jury. In a following case, Phillip Hanna, accused of bringing crystal meth, or “ice,” into the area – heading the local distribution – pleaded to 50 years after a cohort, Timothy Morris, was sentenced by jury to a 50-year prison stay. Burns said that now those facing a jury are pleading guilty for sentences of 25-30 years.
“They're seeing what the jury is doing,” said Burns. “Once they see it happen and it gets media coverage, a defense lawyer asks, 'Will you give us 25?' … instead of doing a life sentence.”