A Reporter at Large
Police enlist young offenders as confidential informants. But the work is high-risk, largely unregulated, and sometimes fatal.
by Sarah Stillman | The New Yorker Magazine | September 3, 2012
On the evening of May 7, 2008, a twenty-three-year-old woman named Rachel Hoffman got into her silver Volvo sedan, put on calming jam-band music, and headed north to a public park in Tallahassee, Florida. A recent graduate of Florida State, she was dressed to blend into a crowd—bluejeans, green-and-white patterned T-shirt, black Reef flip-flops. On the passenger seat beside her was a handbag that contained thirteen thousand dollars in marked bills.
Before she reached the Georgia-peach stands and Tupelo-honey venders on North Meridian Road, she texted her boyfriend. “I just got wired up,” she wrote at 6:34 P.M. “Wish me luck I’m on my way.”
“Good luck babe!” he replied. “Call me and let me know what’s up.”
“It’s about to go down,” she texted back.
Behind the park’s oaks and blooming crape myrtles, the sun was beginning to set. Young mothers were pushing strollers near the baseball diamonds; kids were running amok on the playground. As Hoffman spoke on her iPhone to the man she was on her way to meet, her voice was filtered through a wire that was hidden in her purse. “I’m pulling into the park with the tennis courts now,” she said, sounding casual.
Perhaps what put her at ease was the knowledge that nineteen law-enforcement agents were tracking her every move, and that a Drug Enforcement Administration surveillance plane was circling overhead. In any case, Rachel Hoffman, a tall, wide-eyed redhead, was by nature laid-back and trusting. She was not a trained narcotics operative. On her Facebook page you could see her dancing at music festivals with a big, goofy smile, and the faux profile she’d made for her cat (“Favorite music: cat stevens, straycat blues, pussycat dolls”).
A few weeks earlier, police officers had arrived at her apartment after someone complained about the smell of marijuana and voiced suspicion that she was selling drugs. When they asked if she had any illegal substances inside, Hoffman said yes and allowed them in to search. The cops seized slightly more than five ounces of pot and several Ecstasy and Valium pills, tucked beneath the cushions of her couch. Hoffman could face serious prison time for felony charges, including “possession of cannabis with intent to sell” and “maintaining a drug house.” The officer in charge, a sandy-haired vice cop named Ryan Pender, told her that she might be able to help herself if she provided “substantial assistance” to the city’s narcotics team. She believed that any charges against her could be reduced, or even dropped.
Hoffman’s legal worries were augmented by the fact that this wasn’t her first drug offense. A year earlier, while she was a senior, police pulled her over for speeding and found almost an ounce of marijuana in her car. She was ordered into a substance-abuse program, which required regular drug testing. Later, after failing to report for a test, she spent three days in jail.
Hoffman chose to coöperate. She had never fired a gun or handled a significant stash of hard drugs. Now she was on her way to conduct a major undercover deal for the Tallahassee Police Department, meeting two convicted felons alone in her car to buy two and a half ounces of cocaine, fifteen hundred Ecstasy pills, and a semi-automatic handgun.
The operation did not go as intended. By the end of the hour, police lost track of her and her car. Late that night, they arrived at her boyfriend’s town house and asked him if Hoffman was inside. They wanted to know if she might have run off with the money. Her boyfriend didn’t know where she was.
“She was with us,” he recalled an officer saying. “Until shit got crazy.”
Two days after Hoffman disappeared, her body was found in Perry, Florida, a small town some fifty miles southeast of Tallahassee, in a ravine overgrown with tangled vines. Draped in an improvised shroud made from her Grateful Dead sweatshirt and an orange-and-purple sleeping bag, Hoffman had been shot five times in the chest and head with the gun that the police had sent her to buy.
By the evening of her death, Rachel Hoffman had been working for the police department for almost three weeks. In bureaucratic terms, she was Confidential Informant No. 1129, or C.I. Hoffman. In legal parlance, she was a “coöperator,” one of thousands of people who, each year, help the police build cases against others, often in exchange for a promise of leniency in the criminal-justice system.
Informants are the foot soldiers in the government’s war on drugs. By some estimates, up to eighty per cent of all drug cases in America involve them, often in active roles like Hoffman’s. For police departments facing budget woes, untrained C.I.s provide an inexpensive way to outsource the work of undercover officers. “The system makes it cheap and easy to use informants, as opposed to other, less risky but more cumbersome approaches,” says Alexandra Natapoff, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles and a leading expert on informants. “There are fewer procedures in place and fewer institutional checks on their use.” Often, deploying informants involves no paperwork and no institutional oversight, let alone lawyers, judges, or public scrutiny; their use is necessarily shrouded in secrecy.
“They can get us into the places we can’t go,” says Brian Sallee, a police officer who is the president of B.B.S. Narcotics Enforcement Training and Consulting, a firm that instructs officers around the country in drug-bust procedures. “Without them, narcotics operations would practically cease to function.”
Every day, offenders are sent out to perform high-risk police operations with few legal protections. Some are juveniles, occasionally as young as fourteen or fifteen. Some operate through the haze of addiction; others, like Hoffman, are enrolled in state-mandated treatment programs that prohibit their association with illegal drugs of any kind. Many have been given false assurances by the police, used without regard for their safety, and treated as disposable pawns of the criminal-justice system.
The recruitment of young informants often involves risks that are incommensurate with the charges that they are facing. And the costs of coöperating can be high. A case that has dragged on for years in the courts involved LeBron Gaither, a sixteen-year-old student at a public high school in Lebanon, Kentucky. One afternoon, Gaither, who, according to his family, was generally mild-mannered, had an outburst in which he punched the school’s assistant principal in the jaw. He was taken into custody for juvenile assault. An officer from the Kentucky State Police came to see him, and told him that he could face a prison term or he could agree to become a local drug informant.
“Our mom had a drug problem,” his older brother Shawn, who subsequently became a corrections officer, recalled. “I think LeBron wanted Mom to be off drugs so bad that when they approached him he saw it as an opportunity to go after the guys who were selling her drugs.” Gaither signed the paperwork, and soon found himself performing undercover drug stings in two counties.
After one of these stings, Gaither, by then eighteen, was called upon to testify before a grand jury against Jason Noel, a local drug dealer whom he’d set up. The next day, the police sent Gaither out with a wire and cash to buy still more drugs from Noel—a decision that one state attorney later called the most “reckless, stupid, and idiotic idea” he had seen in his nineteen years of legal work. The meeting was to take place in the parking lot of a local grocery store; Gaither was instructed to say, “This looks good,” once he had the drugs in hand. At that point, the police would move in for the arrest. If something went wrong, he was to say, “I wish my brother was here,” and officers would hasten to his aid.
Shortly after the sting began, however, detectives lost track of Gaither when Noel, who had learned of the teen’s testimony from a grand juror, drove off with him. Gaither was tortured, beaten with a bat, shot with a pistol and a shotgun, run over by a car, and dragged by a chain through the woods.
When his family learned what had happened, they sued. In 2009, after years of bureaucratic delay, they won a hundred and sixty-eight thousand dollars in a wrongful-death case, but the award was vacated; this past May, the state court of appeals ruled that although Gaither’s use as an informant was “tragically flawed,” the police could not be held accountable, because the “execution of the undercover operation was left to the judgment and discretion of the detectives.” The family hopes to take the case to the state supreme court.
“I’ve been waiting for someone to call!” the family’s lawyer, Daniel Taylor III, exclaimed when I phoned him to ask about the lawsuit. During his career, Taylor has worked on a hundred and forty-six cases involving homicide, but he describes Gaither’s, which he has worked on pro bono, as “the single most important one.” He added, “I’ve been wondering when the hell the rest of the world was going to wake up to this.”
I heard some version of Taylor’s statement dozens of times in the course of more than seventy interviews with people whose lives have been shaped by America’s growing reliance on young drug informants—narcotics officers, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and the friends and families of murdered C.I.s, as well as some former informants. Occasionally, concerns about the practice were prompted by law-enforcement agents who fear that pressures to rack up revenue-generating drug busts pose challenges with which their departments can’t keep pace. (According to Shawn Gaither, the detective responsible for LeBron’s recruitment told the family that it will haunt him for the rest of his life; the detective declined to comment.) More often, questions about why informant use remains so unregulated came from parents who have lost a child to the practice. Within their ranks, the parents of Rachel Hoffman have become folk heroes of sorts. After Rachel’s murder, more than four years ago, Irv Hoffman, a mental-health counsellor, and Margie Weiss, a registered nurse and massage therapist, joined together in order to reform the way young amateurs are used in the war on drugs—first in the state of Florida, and now, if they and parents like them have their way, across the country.
By the time Rachel was twelve, she had been a ballerina, a Brownie, an equestrian, and a Weeki Wachee Springs Little Mermaid contestant; by eighteen, she had learned to play the flute and the piano, gone skydiving, and hiked the Grand Canyon. By twenty-three, she had completed an undergraduate degree in psychology, interned at a mental-health institute, and travelled internationally. She loved to cook—she’d prepare elaborate multicourse meals for friends and deliver homemade matzo-ball soup to an ailing classmate. She was given to hatching big plans: She had initially dreamed of going into counselling, but decided to apply to culinary school. She would invent a new form of therapy, she told her dad; perhaps troubled kids who hated talking to a therapist from an overstuffed couch would open up as she taught them how to bake cakes and make spaghetti carbonara.
“Rachel was conceived on a Windjammer,” Margie Weiss told me one night, sifting through photographs of her tropical honeymoon with Irv Hoffman on a sailboat in the Caribbean. In the photographs, the couple look sun-glazed and blissful, Margie’s slender arm draped around her new husband’s broad shoulders. Within a year and a half of Rachel’s birth, they had separated. Margie was a hard worker, but also something of a stargazer, who wore long, flowing skirts and burned sage smudge sticks in the living room. Irv, the child of Hungarian-Czech Holocaust survivors, was more of a straight arrow, who placed a premium on stability and structure.
Margie worries that growing up between the two households took a toll on Rachel. By the end of high school, she had been voted “Party Animal of the Senior Class,” a title that prompted some parental angst about her impending departure for Florida State. “If you’re ever lonely or bored, or just miss my wonderful self (haha), well the phone is just a few ft. away and so am I,” she wrote in a five-page letter to Irv that she left for him on the kitchen counter before he drove her to college. She assured him that she would be “just fine.”
Despite Hoffman’s legal problems, in the months before her death she earned admission to a master’s program in mental-health counselling, with an essay about how her grandparents, “who witnessed the murder of their family and who were severely and emotionally scarred,” had taught her “the importance of family, hard work, and economic survival.” She still made a habit of smoking pot, and she sold it in small quantities to friends.
The police were able to use Hoffman’s stash as leverage. The day after her apartment was raided, she arrived at Police Headquarters to initiate her C.I. contract. Panicked and eager to coöperate, Hoffman first tried to set up a student at Florida State who was a small-time campus dealer. But guilt quickly set in, and soon afterward she contacted the student to confess what she’d done. He not only forgave her but agreed to help her out with the police. Together, they would come up with someone to bust. In return for the favor, Hoffman promised to pay his overdue utility bill.
According to a confidential deposition from a friend of Hoffman’s, the police made it clear that run-of-the-mill pot busts wouldn’t be sufficient to work off her charges. Instead, the friend said, the cops were looking for large quantities of “heroin, cocaine, crack, Ecstasy, guns.” The Florida State student told her about a young man he’d seen dealing drugs at a car-detailing shop near campus—the man, whom he knew only as Dre, might have access to Ecstasy and cocaine, and possibly more. Hoffman, it turned out, had just had her Volvo worked on by Dre at the same shop, and he had joked about the car’s pungent marijuana smell. Soon, she was wired up and dispatched to the shop, where, using her friend’s connection, she put in a request to Dre’s brother-in-law, Deneilo Bradshaw, to buy a stash of cocaine, fifteen hundred Ecstasy pills, and, as she described it, a “small and pretty” handgun. The order was large, by any standard. She wanted the drugs for friends who would be visiting from Miami, she explained. And the gun? “I’m a little Jewish girl,” she told Bradshaw, as police listened via a surveillance device. “I need to be safe.”
By early May, the deal had been arranged. She was to show up with thirteen thousand dollars, and they’d make the swap—at Bradshaw’s parents’ house, in a quiet green neighborhood on the outskirts of Tallahassee. Behind the scenes, the police worked up an Operational and Raid Plan, which involved more than a dozen local and federal agents.
On the afternoon of the drug bust, Hoffman drove to Police Headquarters. Officer Pender placed a surveillance wire and a recording device in her purse, along with stacks of money for the buy. Dre, who was later identified as Andrea Green, a twenty-five-year-old local man, had changed the site to a nearby park called Forestmeadows—one unfamiliar to Hoffman. Hoffman’s boyfriend had sent off a good-luck text message: “I kinda like you so be safe!!” he joked. She took off for the park.
After some fifteen minutes on the road, Hoffman neared the entrance of Forestmeadows. But she turned too soon, into the wrong park. Over the phone, Pender redirected her to the venue slightly farther north.
After this, Pender lost track of her. Other officers later reported that they had all thought that he—or, at least, someone—“had eyes” on Hoffman. She began driving toward a plant nursery just a mile and a half north, evidently thinking that the police were still monitoring her. Within minutes, her audio surveillance equipment went dead. (“Uh, I lost her over the wire,” Pender said to colleagues at 6:46 P.M.) She wasn’t answering her cell phone. According to Pender, Hoffman managed to reach him a few minutes later, saying, “I followed them from the nursery. We’re on Gardner. It looks like the deal is going to go here. It’s a dead-end street.” Pender later said that he told her, “Turn around! Turn around! Do not follow them!” Then the phone cut off. “I had no response from her,” Pender told investigators, “which meant, you know, either she hung up on me or we lost the signal.”
Officers began frantically searching the area, trying to find Gardner Road. The D.E.A. plane circled haplessly overhead, its agents unable to see, owing to the dense tree cover. By the time a police team arrived at the narrow turnoff, Hoffman and her car were no longer there. Instead, they found a spent .25-calibre round, two live ammunition rounds, six cigarette butts, and a single black flip-flop.
The encounter had never really been a prospective drug deal. Green was apparently planning a con: he was going to hand Hoffman a bag full of aspirin in place of the Ecstasy, a relative of his told me, and take off with the money. When investigators spoke to Green’s wife in the days that followed, she acknowledged that her husband had called on the night of the botched operation. She described what had taken place: “They found a wire in her purse, and shot her.”
In the mid-nineteen-eighties, Congress enacted federal sentencing guidelines that imposed harsh mandatory minimums for drug offenses, even petty ones. The results of these and similar measures were striking. Over the course of that decade, the U.S. prison population doubled. In Florida, incarceration rates for drug crimes increased nearly twentyfold—with some sentences for marijuana sales surpassing those for murder. The new approach codified a long-standing escape hatch for the accused: to provide “substantial assistance” to authorities in exchange for the possibility of early release or dropped charges. The use of drug informants surged. Soon, legal experts say, the trend swept through state and local law-enforcement agencies across America. Rachel Hoffman was, in this respect, a typical conscript in this country’s numbers-driven war on drugs.
But Hoffman, with her middle-class background, was in some ways not a typical C.I. Generally, it is young people from lower-income communities—often black and Latino—who are under pressure to be informants. It is in their neighborhoods, too, that a serious backlash against the practice has occurred. For one thing, the snitch-based system has proved notoriously unreliable, fuelling wrongful convictions. In 2000, more than twenty innocent African-American men in Hearne, Texas, were arrested on cocaine charges, based on the false accusations of an informant seeking to escape a burglary charge; the incident, and a number of others like it, prompted calls for national legislation to regulate informant use.
In many urban neighborhoods with heavy police presence, the anti-C.I. backlash has taken a more virulent turn: “Stop snitchin’ ” and “Snitches get stitches” are popular mottoes. Police departments have responded with counter-propaganda, which is meant to bolster both their own C.I.s and routine criminal witnesses. (In Baltimore, “Keep talkin’ ” is the official slogan of choice.) These campaigns have raised prickly questions. If the high stakes of snitching are so readily apparent, and so hard to mitigate—if, as the rapper Master P has it, “bitches talk shit and snitches get killed”—should the practice be encouraged among vulnerable populations, at least in the absence of clear rules about how informants are to be protected? In particular, should there be any conditions governing the enlistment of the young and inexperienced in high-risk sting operations?
One day last spring, Irv Hoffman spoke with me about the legal concept of parens patriae, and the broad notion that the state has an obligation, when dealing with those in need of special protections—the young, the mentally ill, and perhaps even the drug-addicted—to act as a parent would. “Have you heard about the girl in Detroit?” Irv Hoffman asked me.
He was referring to a nineteen-year-old informant who had been killed several months earlier. I had in fact just visited her mother at her squat brick house off Detroit’s Seven Mile Road. Together, we attended the pretrial murder hearing of James A. Matthews, a stocky man with a long blond ponytail. Matthews, clad in an orange jumpsuit, was in court to face felony charges that he “did mutilate, deface, remove, or carry away” the young woman’s body.
One night in the fall of 2011, Shelly Hilliard, an African-American teen-ager in Detroit—her family called her Treasure—went to her mother’s house for a plate of macaroni-and-cheese. Hilliard, who was transgender (born male, with the legal name Henry Hilliard, Jr.), left the house and didn’t come back that night or the next. Before long, one of her older sisters, Mechelle, noticed a disturbing trend on Facebook. “Everybody started posting, ‘Rest in Peace, Shelly,’ and ‘She’s with God now,’ and this and that,’ ” Mechelle recalled on a recent afternoon, as she sat with her mother, Lyniece Nelson, at a bright-red kitchen counter. “And we were like, ‘Hold on, we didn’t even get a call.’ ”
Nelson, a devout Christian who sometimes writes Bible verses along her doorframe in blue chalk, sighed. “I guess the streets talk,” she said.
Shelly was dance-obsessed (“She loved Beyoncé!”), with hazel eyes and long straightened hair that seemed to be a different color every time she came home. She spent much of her time singing, doing friends’ hair and makeup, and, like many teens, documenting her life with cell-phone snapshots.
On October 23rd, at around 4:30 A.M., a torso, later identified as Shelly’s, was found ablaze beneath an old mattress on an I-94 service road. In March, the rest of the body, except for her hands, was found. By this point, her family had long since begun to surmise what had happened.
At first, because the victim was transgender, local officials believed that the murder was a hate crime. But several weeks later it became clear that Shelly’s death was connected to work she had done as a police informant. Just days before she was killed, cops had spotted Shelly and a friend smoking a blunt on the balcony of a Motel 6 in a Detroit suburb. When they raided the room, they found a sandwich bag with half an ounce of marijuana in the toilet tank. One of the officers threatened Shelly with prison—a particularly terrifying prospect for a transgender woman, who would be sent to a male facility—and then offered her a way out: she could set up her dealer, Qasim Raqib, and walk free that same day. She agreed.
Raqib was arrested after Shelly arranged the sting. Several hours later, he was released. He then tracked her down and, with the help of James Matthews, strangled, mutilated, burned, and dismembered her. (Both men have since pleaded guilty to murder; in court, one witness testified that the police had revealed Shelly’s identity.)
“Now I lost my baby for an ounce of weed,” Nelson said at her kitchen counter. “It’s like they just threw her away.”
When I asked Lieutenant Joseph Quisenberry, the commander of the local sheriff’s Narcotics Enforcement Team, about the case, he said, “I don’t have a written guideline that governs every situation.” He continued, “I have heard that this was someone living in a more dangerous context.” He declined to discuss the specifics of the case.
“More than anything,” Nelson says of the police treatment of her daughter, “I want to know, Why would you all not protect her?”
Like Lyniece Nelson, Rachel Hoffman’s parents were concerned that authorities weren’t telling them the full story behind their daughter’s disappearance. At around two-thirty on the morning after the bungled sting, Margie received a call from the police at her home in suburban Safety Harbor. “Your daughter’s missing,” she was told. A few miles away, in Palm Harbor, Irv also received a call, asking if he’d heard from Rachel or knew her whereabouts. The department called again later that morning, urging both parents to come to Tallahassee; Rachel still hadn’t been found, they said, making no mention of the botched drug bust or of Rachel’s recruitment as a C.I. Within the hour, Margie and Irv were driving north on U.S. 19, in separate cars. Their rabbi, Gary Klein, followed close behind.
When Rachel’s parents arrived at the headquarters of the Tallahassee Police Department, they immediately grew suspicious. “I remember noticing that they weren’t taking us to the missing-persons unit,” Margie recalled. “Instead it was like, ‘Come over here to Narcotics.’ ”
There Police Chief Dennis Jones, a middle-aged man with a thick mustache, repeated what they already knew: “Rachel’s missing.” (A victims advocate had already alerted them to the possibility that she might not be found alive.) Jones then assured them that an aggressive search was under way, and instructed them to go to their daughter’s apartment and await further updates.
Margie and Irv opened the front door to Rachel’s place (which she often kept unlocked) and sat down among scented candles and posters of John Lennon and Johnny Depp. Only then, when they turned on the television and scanned the news for updates, did they discover that Rachel had “provided assistance during a police operation” the previous day, and that officials suspected “foul play” in her disappearance. Police were looking for two suspects, Andrea Green and Deneilo Bradshaw, according to a departmental press release.
The news shows relayed that Rachel’s Volvo had been found in Perry. The car was empty, parked beneath a tree outside a welding shop. Her phone was discovered by a roadside, which gave Irv a “dark, ugly feeling.” “She loved that iPhone,” he told me. “I gave it to her as a gift, and someone would have had to pry it away from her to get it.”
Just after dawn the next day, Margie and her husband, Mike Weiss (who had arrived to join her), drove down the road to get some coffee and bagels. Margie was standing alone in the parking lot of Publix Food & Pharmacy when she got a call from Irv. “You need to come back to the apartment,” he said. She ran back into the grocery store, searching the aisles for Mike, screaming to the cashier, to random shoppers, “Where’s my husband? My daughter was just murdered!” Back at the apartment, Rabbi Klein confirmed her fears: Rachel’s body had been found. It was lying in a dry creek bed near Cabbage Grove Road, in Perry.
Later that morning, journalists descended on a forest clearing where Tallahassee Police Department officials were holding a press conference, not far from where Hoffman’s body still lay. (The two suspects had been apprehended, and, at around 6:30 A.M., they had led police to the site.) “We had established protocols in place to insure her safety,” Officer David McCranie told the crowd. “At some point during the investigation, she chose not to follow the instructions. She met Green and Bradshaw on her own. That meeting ultimately resulted in her murder.”
Rachel’s parents watched the coverage on the television in her apartment. It marked, for Irv Hoffman, the beginning of what he sometimes refers to as “the smearing”—the period following Rachel’s murder during which their daughter was portrayed in police statements and front-page news stories as, in his words, “this horrible drug-dealing monster.”
Rachel’s friends started coming by her apartment, and they, too, were almost as shocked by the initial coverage of the murder as by the death itself. “That was devastating for so many of us,” one of Hoffman’s childhood friends recalled. “The first stories tried to paint Rachel as a low-life druggie drug dealer.” Two months later, in a TV segment on Hoffman’s death, the ABC News correspondent Brian Ross interviewed Police Chief Jones. “I’m calling her a criminal,” Jones told him. “That’s my job as a police chief—to find these criminals in our community and take them off the street, to make the proper arrests.” Ross asked about the department’s accountability. “Do we feel responsible?” Jones said. “We’re responsible for the safety of this community.”
On the advice of a mutual friend, Irv Hoffman arranged a meeting with Michael Schiavo, a neighbor who had a great deal of experience with hostile media attention. He was the husband of the late Terri Schiavo, the brain-damaged woman who spent fifteen years in a vegetative state, and whose parents instigated a lengthy and highly public court battle with Michael when he wished to discontinue Terri’s life support. Michael became the target of a steady stream of media attacks, and even death threats.
At the meeting, which took place in their friend’s living room, Hoffman asked Schiavo what lessons he’d learned from his experience with the press. “You need to understand that if you speak out you’re opening Pandora’s box,” Hoffman recalled being told. “You’re going to be out of your comfort zone real quick, and some people are going to support you and other people are going to come out against you. And you just need to decide: ‘Am I ready to step through that door?’ ” Hoffman knew that he was. So he and his ex-wife hired a lawyer and wrote up a plan.
Across the country in Vancouver, Washington, another set of parents, Shelly and Mitchell McLean, have tried to take on the C.I. system. Shelly works as a manager at a Fred Meyer grocery store just across the Oregon border; Mitchell works in construction. On the morning that we met, at a restaurant in Longview, Shelly wore a thick gray sweater, pink lipstick, and gold eyeshadow. Mitchell, a rugged, genial man, arrived soon afterward from his construction job “out in the boonies,” wearing a mud-flecked leather jacket.
The couple hauled in wicker baskets and bright-colored plastic containers from their car and carried them to the table. They had brought along all these relics—photo albums, golf trophies, wrinkled report cards, Hot Wheels cars, baby teeth, baseballs, and short stories written in cursive with titles like “The Adventures of the Wild West”—in order to offer a glimpse of their son, Jeremy. Waggish and affable, he was the kind of guy who, if you dared him, wouldn’t hesitate to eat more than twenty Big Macs in a sitting. But he also loved going antiquing with his mom, who called him Bubbers as a kid. Growing up, Jeremy and his younger sister Jenny attended a local Christian school, and Mitchell insists that they never rode the bus. “That’s how protective we were,” he said. “I was the bus,” Shelly added.
Jeremy was an avid weight lifter and wrestler in high school, and, after he graduated, his father got him a construction job. He liked the heavy lifting, but eventually he hurt his back and started taking pain pills. “That’s what did it,” Mitchell recalled; Jeremy began using painkillers for which he had no prescription. In his mid-twenties, he was struggling to figure out what he should do with his life—perhaps go into law enforcement, or the military—when, one day in 2006, he agreed to sell eight methadone pills to a friend.
The friend, it turned out, was wearing a wire; he had drug charges of his own that he was trying to work off as a C.I. Jeremy faced a possible prison sentence—and feared that he would bring shame to his family, since nothing stayed quiet in their small community. According to Mitchell McLean, an agent from a federally funded narcotics task force laid out Jeremy’s options, saying, “You can sit down with us and make a deal. Or you can go upstairs, get a lawyer, and get ready to be ass-rammed in prison.” Jeremy signed a contract to “make purchases of controlled substances from four individuals,” in return for which his charges would be reduced, “with a recommendation of no jail time.”
Before long, using a camera hidden in his baseball cap, Jeremy had set up at least five local drug suspects. But, according to his parents, he was told that he would need to keep going, because the cases had led to plea bargains rather than to convictions. (No such stipulation appeared in his contract.)
Seeing no other choice, Jeremy proceeded to conduct, in all, more than a dozen operations for the regional task force, which placed him in increasingly dangerous situations. “In their mind, the police just had an open-ended contract,” said Mitchell, who at the time knew nothing of the arrangement.
Jeremy’s fourteenth undercover sting led to the arrest of a heroin trafficker, William Vance Reagan, Jr. After a day in jail, though, Reagan was out on bail.
A week later, Reagan, a burly, balding fifty-one-year-old with a dense gray beard flecked with red, phoned Shelly McLean. “Tell your son I’m out of jail and that he better watch his back,” she recalls him saying. Jeremy immediately told his police handler, but the officer, according to Mitchell, seemed unconcerned, saying, “Don’t worry about it—the guy’s harmless.” (The handler declined to discuss these events, citing a pending lawsuit.)
Friends began to call with warnings. “Vance is hunting for you,” they’d say. “He’s offering good money to lure you to the woods to polish you off.” One friend saw Reagan holding a pistol, saying, “I’m going to use this gun on Jeremy.” According to Jeremy’s parents, he reported all this to his handler, and the handler responded, “It’s just hearsay.”
By then, Jeremy had told his parents about his undercover activities and was trying to lie low at his mother’s house. He hung a towel over the half-moon window above the door, and made sure that no one could see inside the house from other vantage points. He spent several months this way, under virtual house arrest. “We’d make dinner together at night, stir-fry,” his mother recalled. “We’d watch movies. He loved ‘It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.’ ” She added, “But when you have to hang things over your window?”—that, she explained, is when you know you’re in trouble.
After several months, Mitchell went to the police station to issue an ultimatum: “If anything happens to my son, it will be on your hands.” He said that he was told not to worry; the guys Jeremy had busted were “small fries,” not the murdering type, just low-life drug runners. “But any bonehead can get a gun and shoot someone!” Mitchell recalled telling them. “It doesn’t take Pablo Escobar—it can be a guy who’s got the I.Q. of a head of lettuce.”
On December 29, 2008, Jeremy left the house after a snowstorm to buy some milk. He didn’t return. Reagan had paid an accomplice to bait or kidnap Jeremy and bring him to a nearby motor home, where he was waiting with a .22-calibre pistol. He shot Jeremy three times in the back of the head, then once, at close range, in the face.
At the trial, Reagan boasted to the judge that he had done the world a favor, by eliminating a snitch. According to a news account, he told the court, “Anybody that Jeremy knew or came into contact with would have been suffering for it,” and declared, “The good of the many outweighs the good of the few.” He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Mitchell McLean has come to see his son’s death as the result of an equally cynical and utilitarian calculation. “The cops, they get federal funding by the number of arrests they make—to get the money, you need the numbers,” he explained, alluding to, among other things, asset-forfeiture laws that allow police departments to keep a hefty portion of cash and other resources seized during drug busts. “It’s a commercial enterprise,” he went on, citing a view shared by many legal scholars and policy critics. “That’s how they pay for their vans, for their prosecutors—they get money from the war on drugs. They put zero dent in the supply. They just focus on small-town, small-time arrests.” He continued, “I understand using C.I.s to get information on who is a mid-level dealer, or to go after the big guys. That’s the information that I, as a taxpayer, would love to see them do—cases that have some significance. I still remember the big busts from the eighties and nineties, where they’d nail a heroin kingpin.”
Now, he said, the threshold for putting an informant’s life at risk is dramatically lower, and small cases to rack up arrest rates are the order of the day. It’s little fish chasing other little fish, like Jeremy and his eight methadone pills. This argument is at the heart of a lawsuit that Jeremy’s parents decided to file last December. They allege that the regional drug task force and the agents handling their son’s case showed “deliberate indifference” to an “obvious danger.” They also charged the cities of Longview and Kelso, whose police departments were involved, with failure to create “appropriate procedures and regulations concerning the recruitment, training, retention and protection of confidential informants.” The opposing lawyers deny most of the McLeans’ account and assert that Jeremy failed “to exercise reasonable care for his own safety.” The suit is ongoing.
At around 2 A.M. one morning a few weeks after Rachel Hoffman’s death, her father, Irv, began jotting notes. Almost daily since his daughter’s murder, he had woken up in the early hours, turning over the details of the botched drug bust in his mind. He began typing out a list: Why was Rachel used in such a high-risk police sting when she had no training, when she couldn’t even find her own socks in the morning? Why was she sent to buy a semi-automatic pistol when she had never even fired a weapon? Why was she pressured into taking part in the operation before she consulted a lawyer?
Hoffman set about turning his questions into a wish list of policy reforms. “I’d write something, throw it away, write something more, throw it away,” he told me. Margie Weiss had also been thinking about policy reforms. They began working on what they called Rachel’s Law. Weiss proposed that the two of them appeal to the father of one of Rachel’s friends, a Florida attorney named Lance Block, to guide them through the process.
Block, a trim, tanned man with thick brown hair, was intimately familiar with the state’s legislative process. A former president of the Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers, he had helped advise Al Gore’s legal team during the 2000 Presidential recount, and seemed to be on first-name terms with half of Tallahassee, from smoothie-store clerks to state-capital legislators. He agreed to lead the push for Rachel’s Law pro bono, and to represent the family in a civil suit against the city.
Block immersed himself in a study of the informant system, both in Florida and around the country, searching for model legislation, some sort of template that he could use to give shape to Weiss and Hoffman’s late-night brainstorms. “I began talking to legal experts, but almost all of them had focussed exclusively on how to impeach C.I.s, not protect them,” he recalled, referring to efforts by civil-liberties groups to combat jailhouse informants’ false accusations. California, he later learned, was one of the few states that had rules governing the use of teen-age informants, and prohibiting recruits younger than thirteen. Those rules had been devised after a seventeen-year-old named Chad MacDonald was brutally murdered and his fifteen-year-old girlfriend raped and shot in retaliation for Chad’s work as a low-level drug C.I., in 1998. Yet when it came to putting together a comprehensive, realistic version of Rachel’s Law, he said, “we were in totally uncharted territory.”
Block, Hoffman, and Weiss would be starting from scratch, but they swiftly worked out the particulars. First, all C.I.s should be given the right to counsel; Miranda and Sixth Amendment rights often don’t apply to informants, since they may never be formally arrested or charged with a crime. Second, there should be a provision banning the use of juveniles altogether. Third, there should be “offense parity”—nonviolent, low-level drug offenders should not be used in apprehending traffickers with histories of violence. Fourth, people who are in drug-treatment programs, as Rachel Hoffman was, shouldn’t be used at all. A range of other provisions were also suggested.
In August, soon after they’d begun putting the bill together, they got a dramatic boost. A grand jury charged with reviewing the facts of the Hoffman case not only indicted the two murder suspects, Green and Bradshaw, but also took the highly unusual step of issuing a scathing condemnation of the police department’s conduct. (Green and Bradshaw are now serving life sentences for the Hoffman murder; Bradshaw recently appealed.) “Letting a young, immature woman get into a car by herself with $13,000.00, to go off and meet two convicted felons that they knew were bringing at least one firearm with them, was an unconscionable decision that cost Ms. Hoffman her life,” the grand jury declared. “Less than fifteen minutes after she drove away from the offices of [the Tallahassee Police Department], she drove out of the sight of the officers who assured her they would be right on top of her watching and listening the whole time. She cried out for help as she was shot and killed and nobody was there to hear her.”
After this, the police department began to acknowledge that it had made mistakes. An internal-affairs investigation revealed that police officers had committed at least twenty-one violations of nine separate policies in Hoffman’s case. “I didn’t think it would be so many policies not being followed,” Chief Dennis Jones told the Tallahassee Democrat, which covered the case extensively. He admitted that it had been wrong to blame the victim, and expressed regret.
This was an ideal moment for Hoffman’s parents to make a bold proposal. Two Republican politicians, State Senator Mike Fasano and Representative Peter Nehr, agreed to sponsor Rachel’s Law, and committee meetings were held. Yet the reforms proved to have formidable opponents. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the Florida Sheriffs Association, and other groups lobbied against the law, and more than a hundred law-enforcement agents packed the meetings.
Many vice cops, in particular, argued that forbidding the use of juveniles as C.I.s would force them to turn a blind eye to young people committing adult crimes. More record keeping would only increase the risk of C.I.s’ identities being disclosed. The right-to-an-attorney clause, they contended, would make it far too cumbersome to catch and “flip” a drug suspect on the spot, effectively nullifying a valuable, real-time tactic for fighting crime. Sheriff Larry Campbell, of Leon County, declared that the bill, if passed in its original form, would be “the end of law enforcement.”
Behind many of these arguments was the belief that C.I. use shouldn’t be subject to uniform regulation, since the practice is inherently unsystematic and improvisatory. “There’s no such thing as training an informant,” Brian Sallee, of B.B.S. Narcotics Enforcement Training and Consulting, told me. “You direct them what to do, and if they follow those directions that will make it safer for them. There’s always going to be a risk, but when things go bad it’s usually because they didn’t do as they were told to. They get themselves hurt, not the officers. The informants cause their own dilemma.”
Eventually, a compromise bill was put forward, stripped of several of the earlier provisions, including the informant’s unequivocal right to legal counsel and the measure to exclude juveniles. But even the revised version promised groundbreaking rights and regulations for informants; officers were now required to undergo special training, and to take into account a new recruit’s age and emotional state and the level of risk involved in a given operation. And, in all operations involving C.I.s, safety had to be the first priority.
The revised bill passed both chambers of the Florida legislature unanimously. On May 7, 2009, the anniversary of Hoffman’s murder, Governor Charlie Crist signed Rachel’s Law. It became the first comprehensive legislation of its kind in the nation. Even so, Hoffman’s parents have vowed to continue working to strengthen it. This summer, they spoke out about the case of a twenty-seven-year-old mother of two who was murdered after working as an informant in Citrus County.
Earlier this year, Weiss and Hoffman won another major victory: a $2.6-million settlement from the City of Tallahassee in a wrongful-death lawsuit—along with a formal apology. Now they hope to take their campaign beyond Florida and broaden their push for regulations of the kind that might have saved their daughter. In the meantime, their public example and the media coverage surrounding it—including accounts by Jennifer Portman in the Tallahassee Democrat, segments on ABC News, and a substantive report by Vince Beiser for the Huffington Post—have inspired other family members of victimized C.I.s across the country to seek redress.
“Why is it that we only seem to regulate in the wake of tragedies?” Lance Block asked recently from the porch of the Black Dog Cafe, a coffee shop near Tallahassee Police Headquarters. “We took on all of the major forces in Florida, and we won. But it’s going to take a lot more than the three of us to carry this issue beyond state boundaries—to say, ‘Untrained civilians should not be performing the duties of law enforcement.’ ” He added, “They should not be treated as throwaway people.”
Margie Weiss did not expect the settlement or the resolution of the murder trials, or even the passage of Rachel’s Law, to bring her peace. Nothing has. “Some days, I can’t shampoo my hair, I can’t drive my car,” she says. “I’m proud if I can just get up and do what I have to do. I mopped the floor today. That was good.” On other days, though, she stays up late making plans for the Rachel Morningstar Foundation, an organization she is launching to advocate for C.I. reform. (Irv, for his part, has started a scholarship in Rachel’s name.) On those days, she says, between contacting politicians and corresponding with parents across the country who have lost their children to untrained-informant work, “I feel confident that we are going to go on a crusade to take the law national, that we’re going to save other kids.”
Margie has built a small memorial garden outside her office window. There she has planted flowers of persecution—crown of thorns, bleeding heart—alongside what she considers to be foliage of resilience: purple passionflowers, an angel-trumpet shrub that bloomed, she says, on the afternoon that the legislature passed Rachel’s Law. She counts the monarch butterflies around the milkweed. Their color reminds her of Rachel’s hair.
Irv Hoffman, too, has his rituals. Every morning, he drives to Rachel’s grave, carrying his supplies in the trunk: a bottle of water for Rachel’s flowers, a pair of scissors to freshen their stems, a beach chair to sit in and read beside his daughter’s memorial bench. At home, some nights he revisits an injury, replaying the ABC News interview with Police Chief Dennis Jones on YouTube, watching as Jones says, “Yes, I’m calling her a criminal.” At other times, he reads from the letter that Rachel wrote him on the evening before she left for college. On a recent afternoon, he showed me the letter, which he had laminated and placed on his coffee table. He picked it up and began to read: “ ‘To my hero, Dad, where do I even begin?’ ”
Irv paused to collect himself. The house was quiet, except for the sound of Rachel’s tabby cat, Bentley, snoring on a nearby chair. It’s this letter, more than almost anything else, that makes Irv feel the weight of the years ahead, when he expected to be an active father and grandfather but instead finds himself endlessly turning over the details of a botched C.I. operation. “ ‘Dad, please don’t worry about me,’ ” he continued to read aloud. “ ‘I’m a very smart, independent girl and I do have morals and ethics you’ve taught me, which will not be left at home. Have Faith, Old Man, I’ll be just fine.’ ” ♦