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Breaking News: Tallahassee’s Incompetent Screw-up Police Exposed In The New Yorker Magazine | “The Throwaways” | The Real Rachel Hoffman Story

A Reporter at Large

The Throwaways

Police enlist young offenders as confidential informants.  But the work is high-risk, largely unregulated, and sometimes fatal.

by   | The New Yorker Magazine |  September 3, 2012

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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.’ ” ♦

Read more:

http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2012/09/03/120903fa_fact_stillman#ixzz25N0ZsHnp

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