By Megan O'Matz and John Maines
Photos and videos by Susan Stocker
SUNRISE — Police in this suburban town best known for its sprawling outlet mall have hit upon a surefire way to make millions. They sell cocaine.
Undercover detectives and their army of informants lure big-money drug buyers into the city from across the United States, and from as far north as Canada and as far south as Peru. They negotiate the sale of kilos of cocaine in popular family restaurants, then bust the buyers and seize their cash and cars.
Police confiscate millions from these deals, money that fuels huge overtime payments for the undercover officers who conduct the drug stings and cash rewards for the confidential informants who help detectives entice faraway buyers, a six-month Sun Sentinel investigation found.
Police have paid one femme fatale informant more than $800,000 over the past five years for her success in drawing drug dealers into the city, records obtained by the newspaper show.
Undercover officers tempt these distant buyers with special discounts, even offering cocaine on consignment and the keys to cars with hidden compartments for easy transport. In some deals, they’ve provided rides and directions to these strangers to Sunrise.
This being western Broward County, not South Beach, the drama doesn’t unfold against a backdrop of fast boats, thumping nightclubs or Art Deco hotels.
It’s absurdly suburban.
Many of the drug negotiations and busts have taken place at restaurants around the city’s main attraction, Sawgrass Mills mall, including such everyday dining spots as TGI Fridays, Panera Bread and the Don Pan International Bakery.
Why would police bring criminals to town?
Under long-standing state and federal forfeiture laws, police can seize and keep ill-gotten gains related to criminal activities, such as the money a buyer brings to purchase cocaine and the car driven to the deal.
Sunrise is hauling in three times as much forfeited cash as any other city in Broward and Palm Beach counties, the Sun Sentinel found. Last year, the city raked in $2 million in state and federal forfeiture funds. The year before, in 2011, the figure was twice that — nearly $4 million.
HOW WE GOT THE STORY
Read about our examination of Sunrise’s undercover narcotics unit.
Police generate much of their forfeiture money through reverse stings. The reverse sting, in which the police pose not as buyers, but as suppliers of cocaine, is a legitimate tool used by numerous law enforcement agencies.
“Is it illegal? No,” said Miami attorney Joel DeFabio, who represented a southwest Florida man busted in a Sunrise cocaine sting. “Is it improper? Not under our current law.”
But it is unusual. Other law enforcement agencies don’t consistently bring in suspects from outside their jurisdictions, the Sun Sentinel found.
The newspaper looked at cocaine trafficking arrests by all law enforcement agencies in Broward County over the past five years, and found that Sunrise made three-quarters of the busts involving suspects from other states or countries.
Since 2009, Sunrise has arrested at least 190 people on cocaine trafficking charges: more than any other municipality in the county and nearly twice the number of the only police agency that comes close, Fort Lauderdale. Only seven of those arrested by Sunrise lived in the city.
Top cities in Broward and Palm Beach counties for forfeiture revenues, 2011 and 2012.
- Sunrise: $5,882441
- Fort Lauderdale: $1,830,164
- Coconut Creek: $1,516,229
- Coral Springs: $1,507,646
- West Palm Beach: $1,292,251
- Hollywood: $1,007,948
- Miramar: $695,857
- Pembroke Pines: $650,094
- Boca Raton: $516,300
- Boynton Beach: $424,057
“Sunrise is extraordinary in the amount of cases they produce,” said Fort Lauderdale defense attorney Martin Roth. “That might be a good or bad thing depending on your point of view.”
The forfeited money is poured into the Police Department for new guns, radios, protective gear, computers, training and other crime-fighting expenses.
It also has covered huge overtime payments for the officers who work the undercover stings. The Sun Sentinel obtained city payroll data and found a dozen undercover narcotics officers since 2010 have collectively earned $1.2 million in overtime. A sergeant who has run the stings collected more than $240,000 in overtime during that three-and-a-half year period.
“We’re not talking about a few hours overtime,” said Miami attorney Alan Ross, who has dissected Sunrise’s practices in his defense of clients. “We’re talking about police officers who are now making hundreds of thousands of dollars.
"In my view, it’s all about the money.”
Sunrise police leaders disagree.
“Our job is to put bad guys in jail, and we do a good job of it,” Criminal Investigations Capt. Robert Voss, who oversees the Sunrise Vice, Intelligence & Narcotics Division, said in an interview earlier this year.
More recently, Voss declined to answer specific questions in an interview or in writing about the department’s stings, its informants, the money or the overtime.
“The Sunrise Police Department respectfully declines to participate in any further question/answer communications, whether by way of written correspondences or oral communications,” he wrote in an Aug. 29 email to the Sun Sentinel.
Manuel Acosta of Rhode Island traveled to Sunrise in 2011 to do a drug deal, police reports state. The agreed-upon meeting spot: Sam’s Club.
He and an accomplice from Homestead pulled into the parking lot at mid-afternoon.
They met with an undercover cop, exchanged about $21,000 cash for a kilo of cocaine and began to walk away.
Police cars with blue lights flashing moved in, and officers wearing tactical vests emblazoned with the word “POLICE” swarmed the lot.
“Get down! Get the f--- down!” the cops yelled at the men.
Acosta, 30, ran away, and was chased by a police K-9. The dog brought him down in a nearby field.
Acosta never made it to trial. Free on bond, he cut off his ankle monitor and vanished. His partner got probation.
The cops’ take: the $21,000 and the 2008 Honda Accord.
The Acosta bust unfolded as Sunrise drug stings typically do, police and court records show.
A target is identified, usually by a confidential informant. The informant makes contact with the prospective buyer and they arrange a “dry meet” to talk quality, quantity and price. At some of these meetings, an undercover officer will be introduced as the supplier.
The first meet-and-greet sessions don’t happen on dark street corners or in seedy motels, court records show. They take place inside popular family restaurants: McDonald’s, Steak ‘n Shake, Chili’s.
Once a buyer is on the hook, a meeting is scheduled to conclude the transaction. Police come with at least one real kilo of cocaine and additional fake kilos, all shaped like bricks.
Undercover officers with assault rifles wait in unmarked cars, watching for the signal for the takedown. While the busts are tightly controlled, some can get messy. Some buyers bring guns along with their cash.
A few have run away; police have released dogs and fired Tasers. One man nabbed at TGI Fridays threw a gym bag containing the cocaine on the ground, and his partner fell and dropped a gun he had in his waistband.
In a 2010 deposition, one defense attorney asked a Sunrise cop: “Would you take your wife shopping in that plaza if you knew a deal was going down that afternoon?”
The reply: “Probably not.”
TGI Fridays managers at the restaurant in Sunrise, 13350 W. Sunrise Blvd., and corporate relations representatives declined to comment about the numerous stings staged on their property.
Until mid-2011, records show, undercover busts frequently took place at the chain restaurants just south of Sawgrass Mills mall.
Since then, records indicate, police have shifted many of these operations to the Shell gas station at Commercial Boulevard and Hiatus Road in Sunrise. Undercover officers have buyers show the money at the station, then take them to a warehouse covertly operated by police to finish the deal and make the bust.
The informant and undercover officer always insist that the buyer come to Sunrise — otherwise Sunrise does not have jurisdiction to make the arrest.
Since 2009, nearly four out of every five suspects booked for cocaine trafficking by Sunrise police listed home addresses outside Broward County. They have come from three of New York City’s five boroughs; 13 other cities in nine states; four countries and Puerto Rico; and nine Florida counties besides Broward. Police brought many drug buyers into the city from Miami-Dade.
The Broward State Attorney’s Office, which prosecutes most Sunrise reverse sting cases, said the Police Department should be congratulated for bringing in and busting traffickers.
“The fact that someone travels from a different state to buy large amounts of cocaine shows the type of drug trafficker you’re dealing with,” said John Gallagher, the chief of the drug trafficking unit.
Getting these visitors into and around Sunrise can require extra effort.
A Pennsylvania woman and her associates drove to South Florida from Philadelphia, then advised the informant “they were lost on Sunrise Boulevard next to an Applebee’s,” according to a sworn police statement.
Last year, a New Jersey man flew to South Florida, took a taxi to the initial meeting with the informant at TGI Fridays, then was met the next morning at his Sunrise hotel by an undercover cop, who drove him to the secret police warehouse.
Dozens of buyers have found themselves in this warehouse. There, undercover officers have led them to a van with a secret compartment for cocaine and invited them to test the goods.
Jose Pena was one of those buyers, police records show. The 48-year-old from the Bronx had wired $23,000 to an undercover police account last year for a kilo of cocaine, according to court documents.
Jose Pena of the Bronx met an informant and undercover cop in June 2012 at a food court in the Sawgrass Mills mall to discuss buying kilos of cocaine, according to a Sunrise police report. He was arrested about a month later in the sting and is awaiting trial on trafficking charges.
Outside the warehouse, sitting in an eight-year-old Volvo, was Edison Veras, 26, of Massachusetts, who had driven Pena to Florida to earn some extra money, said his attorney, Ken Padowitz.
Police wrote that both men came into the warehouse; Padowitz said police demanded that Veras come inside.
“He thinks his life is in danger, he’s handed a knife and told to taste the cocaine,” Padowitz said.
Sunrise arrested both men for cocaine trafficking. Both await trial, with Pena in jail and Veras free on bond.
Police confiscated the cash that was wired, the Volvo, and four cellphones, plus another $670 Veras had on him and $19 found on Pena.
Veras’ family was able to get the Volvo back by paying Sunrise police $500, Padowitz said.
Florida law allows people to contest seizures in civil court. To avoid litigation, especially when an item isn’t worth much, police departments will return belongings for a negotiated fee, which can include the cost of storage or towing.
Police must go before a judge to make final claim to someone’s property, but forfeiture cases can be decided before criminal charges are resolved and police can win forfeitures even when defendants are acquitted.
While the criminal case against Pena is pending, Sunrise already has won the right to keep the $23,000 he allegedly wired for the drug buy, court records show.
“In criminal cases, you’re presumed innocent until proven guilty, but in forfeiture cases you’re presumed guilty unless you can prove you’re innocent,” Padowitz said.
“This is a very lucrative business.”
The Sun Sentinel closely examined the arrests of more than 100 people busted for buying coke from undercover Sunrise officers in the past five years, obtaining police affidavits, court filings, depositions and other documents.
In those arrests, police seized nearly $3 million in cash plus scores of vehicles, phones and other items, the Sun Sentinel determined. Yet, of the convictions prosecutors secured, only two led to the 15-year mandatory minimum sentence for cocaine trafficking in Florida.
“It’s always hard to deal with cases where the police are posing as drug sellers instead of drug buyers,” said Gallagher, the top prosecutor in the drug trafficking unit. “They’re legally allowed to do it. But jurors have a hard time grasping it.”
Most buyers were men: young guys in their 20s, middle-aged men, a couple approaching Medicare eligibility.
The overwhelming majority were Hispanic.
In a deposition for a 2012 case in which police used three informants, two of them Hispanic, to nab a buyer from Kentucky, a Sunrise sergeant said it was more believable to have Hispanics pose as suppliers of cocaine from south of the border.
While the tactic has been successful in seizing millions of dollars, it could backfire on the city, some warn. If Sunrise is ensnaring predominantly one minority group, it is vulnerable to costly civil rights lawsuits, said Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.
“This is a lousy way to fund a police department,” Simon said.
Sunrise police, in many of their affidavits and arrest reports, state that they are apprehending significant members of drug trafficking organizations who want large sources of cocaine to expand their illegal businesses. But those same reports quote culprits saying they were recruited to be lookouts or mules or brokers — middlemen earning only hundreds or a few thousand dollars to deliver the money or collect the cocaine.
Defense attorneys say the stings have swept up people who are not in the drug trade but are down on their luck, persuaded by informants to do a deal to earn fast money in hard times.
Sunrise informants “tend to go after people who they know are in financial distress and they offer them a deal that they can’t resist,” said Broward defense attorney Kevin Kulik, who has represented defendants arrested in Sunrise stings. “They offer them the deal of a lifetime.”
One of Kulik’s clients, Blake LaRocca, 36, of Clearwater, had a prior drug conviction and filed for bankruptcy in early 2009.
Later that year, a female informant working for Sunrise police reached out to LaRocca, Kulik argued in a failed motion to dismiss the case.
“The informant knew that Mr. LaRocca had lost his job and was suffering extreme financial difficulties,” Kulik argued.
LaRocca, a real estate agent, told the informant he “had all of his money in a house,” and that he’d been unemployed for more than a year.
Kulik said Sunrise police agreed to “front” LaRocca eight kilograms of cocaine, worth $200,000, in return for all the money LaRocca could borrow: $19,000.
LaRocca handed the informant a bag with $16,000 cash, police records state. That wasn’t even enough to buy one kilo.
As collateral for the remaining kilos, which he said he planned to sell in the Tampa area, he brought bracelets, earrings and a necklace, the title to a Lexus, and an IRA money market account statement in his name showing a balance of $25,247, a police property report states.
Police charged LaRocca with cocaine trafficking. They seized the $16,000, the jewelry, and another $3,340 they found in his pants.
Sunrise police offer cocaine for bargain-basement prices, records show. Coke on consignment. Bulk-buy discounts. Two-for-one deals.
"So you guys were giving him ‘buy one get one," attorney Michael Rocque asked a Sunrise undercover detective in a 2010 deposition involving a case in which Sunrise sold a St. Petersburg man two kilos for the price of one: $23,000.
“He was supposed to bring the money back in one week,” the detective replied.
“That is a pretty good deal,” Rocque said.
“I know,” said the detective, who later explained: “I go by what the law is.”
According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, the market rate in Miami for a kilo of cocaine since 2010 has ranged from $25,000 to $37,000. Sunrise police have offered far better deals:
— Jose Luis Verduzco-Avendano of Mexico came to the Don Pan bakery in Sunrise in 2011 with $18,000 for partial payment for one kilo, wanting more on credit. The undercover officer’s car was stocked with one real and four fake kilos. The cop told Verduzco-Avendano to take the car with the cocaine and return in two hours with payment for all of the cocaine.
Pedro Paulino was arrested in March 2012, and his cocaine trafficking case is pending. Take a look at more arrest mugs from the Sunrise reverse stings.
— Anthony Revelo of Queens and Pedro Paulino of Brooklyn traveled to a Shell gas station in Sunrise in March 2012, as agreed, with $15,000 as “partial payment for the two kilograms of cocaine with the remaining balance being paid within a couple days,” the police report states. The total price per kilo was to be $23,500.
— Tyrell Brown flew from New Jersey to Sunrise to do a deal for five kilos in 2012, but had only enough money for one, a police report states. Police agreed he could take one for $25,000 and have four more for only $1,000 each, repaying the debt once he sold the coke in New York and New Jersey.
“I can see the police buying drugs from people, but the police selling drugs at discounted rates and (offering) buy-one-get-one (free) and with super deals, it just seems wrong,” Rocque said.
Defense lawyers have argued that such deals are improper under a 1999 ruling by the Fourth District Court of Appeal in West Palm Beach, which found that the “consignment arrangement for the sale of drugs represents governmental conduct which this court cannot condone.”
But Broward prosecutors and judges consider other factors as well, and have allowed such cases to proceed.
To succeed with an entrapment argument, attorneys must show outrageous government conduct, or convince a jury that the defendant was not inclined to buy cocaine prior to the police setting him up.
Said Rocque: “It’s a tough defense because many people think, ‘Well, I would never do that so I can’t imagine why they would do that.’”
Engineering the busts is the Police Department’s Vice, Intelligence & Narcotics Division, or VIN. It investigates prostitution, gambling, liquor law violations and drugs.
The division is composed of three units: one with street level dealers and drug houses, another that loans detectives to federal task forces, and the unit that targets drug distributors and conducts the reverse stings.
Cash, cocaine and cars: Sunrise police invite out-of-town drug buyers into the city to buy kilos of cocaine, then bust them and seize the tens of thousands of dollars they bring to the deals and the cars they arrive in. Cars are towed to the Sunrise police forfeiture lot.
By design, most of the activities of the VIN unit are hidden from the public. Many of its officers are undercover, their identities shielded by the department.
The VIN unit itself is not housed at police headquarters. The team has been working behind a locked, unmarked door in an office plaza, near an air-conditioning repair company and a medical supply wholesaler.
“They’re police, but they’re secret,” said a woman at a neighboring business, who didn’t want to be identified.
Because of the Sun Sentinel’s reporting of this story, the police said they’re now relocating.
In 2010 a Florida company, Casino Marble International Inc., was set up at the address of the narcotics unit, the newspaper found. Whoever set up the company used the addresses of two unsuspecting Broward property owners in Casino Marble’s corporate filings.
“That’s not nice of them,” said one, Ivette Doria of Sunrise.
The other, Oscar Guardado of Hollywood, said he runs a landscaping business, “nothing that says Marble” and knew of no link to him.
Police records show that at times cocaine buyers wired money to a police undercover bank account.
How much money has gone in and out of any bank account linked to Casino Marble and for what purpose is unknown. The city denied the Sun Sentinel's request for financial records, and the company was recently dissolved.
In a deposition, a commander of the VIN division described his role in the reverse stings: “I count the money most of the time,” he said.
Another officer is the “tech guy,” who sets up video and audio surveillance, outfits informants and undercover officers with recording equipment, and watches live video of deals.
Two Spanish-speaking undercover officers repeatedly portray dealers.
Crucial to the success of the unit: Sgt. James Hughes. “He handles all of the daily operations regarding drug investigations,” his 2012 performance review states.
Sunrise hired Hughes as a public service aide in 1984, paying him less than $20,000 a year. He was 19.
In just three years, he made detective in the narcotics unit. In 1989, he was recognized for his “ability to work in an undercover capacity.” By 1993 he was a assigned to a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration task force and was named Sunrise Officer of the Year.
One of his strengths, noted by his bosses as early as 1990: developing and handling confidential informants. By 1991, that was listed as one of his chief duties.
Hughes’ annual salary now: $107,461. Like other VIN Unit members who participate in the city’s reverse stings, Hughes makes considerably more than that. He’s paid time-and-a-half for the extra hours he works.
In 2012, Hughes’ total pay with salary and overtime was $183,156 — more than his boss, Voss, and more than the police chief.
In a three-and-a-half year span, from January 2010 to mid-June of this year, Hughes earned more than $240,000 in overtime alone, payroll records provided by the city show. His total compensation in that period — including salary, overtime, holiday and vacation pay — topped $630,000.
Hughes did not respond to requests for comment.
The Sun Sentinel obtained payroll records for another 11 undercover officers assigned to the unit who frequently work on reverse sting cases, according to court records. Those payroll records show those officers in the past three-and-a-half years taking home — in salary and overtime — between $317,549 and $621,514 each.
In the forfeiture hunt, Sunrise police don’t always reach very far outside city limits to make a bust and seize a car.
In November 2012, city detectives learned from an informant that a 21-year-old man was selling ounces of cocaine out of his home in Plantation and that he “drives a new 2013 black Cadillac CTS 2 door,” a Sunrise police report states.
Sunrise did not hand the tip to Plantation police. Instead, Sunrise arranged for the informant to contact the man and convince him to come to a home in Sunrise to sell the informant an ounce of cocaine for $1,050, a Sunrise police affidavit states.
After the bust, Sunrise police did not take him straight to jail. They accompanied him to his Plantation home where he directed them to a gram of cocaine in a box in the bathroom and $7,152 in a drawer in the bedroom, according to a Sunrise police report. A Plantation officer was present for the search, the report states.
Sunrise police seized the cash, the cocaine and the Cadillac, worth about $40,000. After learning the Cadillac had a lien on it, however, Sunrise returned it for about $500 — the cost of towing and storage, said the man's attorney, Jason Kreiss.
"They were hoping to hit a jackpot," he said.
Rocque, the defense attorney, has argued unsuccessfully in court that Sunrise alone does not have authority or jurisdiction to call people outside of Sunrise, record their conversations, and coerce them into the city to sell them cocaine.
“What the city of Sunrise is doing is giving themselves international jurisdiction for the war on drugs,” he said. “Shocking actually.”
Sunrise conducts some stings jointly with the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, which has far-reaching authority and power. But in other instances in which people from outside Sunrise have been lured into the city by the police, federal agents have not been involved or their role appears to be minimal and designed only to give Sunrise wider jurisdiction, defense attorneys say.
In a 2010 court hearing, Sgt. Hughes testified that a sting involving a St. Petersburg man was a joint operation with the federal drug agency from the start, so Sunrise had the right to record a phone conversation with the man. But the federal agent testified that he became involved in the case only on the same day as the arrest and his only role was “perimeter surveillance.”
If Sunrise suspects someone in Tampa is a drug dealer, they’re supposed to call the Tampa police, Broward defense attorney Kulik said.
The DEA declined to comment on any specific case. As long as drugs are involved, “the DEA can work with any state and local agency,” said spokeswoman Mia Ro.
When local police assist federal agencies in catching drug traffickers, the federal government seizes cash and other assets associated with the deal, then divides the proceeds among all the agencies involved, as federal forfeiture laws allow.
Even when a bust goes bad, police can profit nicely.
Each year the U.S. government shares hundreds of millions of dollars with state and local law enforcement agencies. The money is the result of money and property seized in the Asset Forfeiture Program, which is designed to deter crime by taking property during investigations into crime around the country. Search our database to see the funds Florida agencies received.
In a 2010 case with tentacles far outside Sunrise, a Sunrise informant and undercover detective met a representative of a reported Colombian cartel at El Balcon De Las Americas restaurant in Plantation, with federal surveillance, according to police records. Eventually, a deal was reached in which the Colombians agreed to deliver $300,000 in Chicago and pick up 15 kilos in Sunrise.
An undercover federal drug agent in Chicago collected the $300,000, and sent it to the Sunrise Police Department, according to records.
Meanwhile, Sunrise arrested the man who came to collect the cocaine, Massimo Nicoletti of Alberta, Canada.
Seeing the cocaine in the car, Nicoletti expressed disappointment that it wasn’t packed in a suitcase, according to a police report. He’d told the undercover officer: “I’ll open the window, just throw it in.”
The officer instead offered to let Nicoletti leave in his car with the cocaine hidden inside. But Nicoletti, perhaps smelling a trap, never took possession of the car or the cocaine.
Broward prosecutors declined to prosecute, and Nicoletti went free.
The DEA wouldn’t say whether it kept any of the money.
But court records show Sunrise was $241,627 richer.
IN ONE CASE
A $96,000 mystery: Where did the money go?
Time and time again, people trekked here from other cities to buy cocaine from undercover cops only to find themselves in handcuffs.
But on one Friday in September 2010 the sting didn’t end the way so many others had.
Sunrise police nabbed two South Florida men with $20,000 for a kilo in TGI Fridays’ parking lot — then let them go.
Many of the drug negotiations and busts have taken place at restaurants around the city's main attraction, Sawgrass Mills mall. They include everyday dining spots such as this TGI Fridays on West Sunrise Boulevard.
It wasn’t until two years later, in October 2012, that federal drug agents arrested the pair for the deal at TGI Fridays. The men were surprised: they said they had been promised liberty in exchange for helping police.
As part of that cooperation, the two men told their lawyers, they led authorities to a house in Miami where $96,000 was stashed and handed the cash over.
What happened to the money after that is a mystery — as is often the case in undercover drug stings, where inconsistencies frequently arise about the amount of cash involved.
In the world of phony drug sales, where tens of thousands of dollars in cash float hand to hand, accountability and transparency are hard to come by.
Sunrise police told the Sun Sentinel that federal drug agents took the $96,000. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration won’t comment. The defense attorneys for John Marlon Gaviria and Wilson Otalvaro told the Sun Sentinel they saw no paperwork from any law enforcement agency showing that the $96,000 was seized.
The money “has never shown up,” said Otalvaro’s attorney, Fred Haddad of Fort Lauderdale.
In asking for leniency, Haddad wrote in a federal court filing that Otalvaro helped authorities shortly after the sting recover additional money “and was advised by Sunrise Detective James Hughes he would not be charged as a result of this assistance."
Otalvaro in court told the judge police broke their pledge not to arrest him in return for his assistance. “I did what was within my grasp to help law enforcement get me out of the situation I was in,” he said. “I was promised freedom by Sgt. Hughes. I did what I could.”
Mia Ro, Miami spokeswoman for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, said Otalvaro’s allegation seemed dubious. “That’s not how the system works,” she said. “Nobody buys their freedom.”
Haddad and his co-counsel, Todd Omar Malone, were bothered enough by the alleged events that they discussed it with the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
“We asked the feds to investigate it,” said Haddad, a criminal defense attorney for some 38 years. “There’s something rotten in this whole thing.”
The U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment to the Sun Sentinel.
Sunrise police told the Sun Sentinel federal drug agents took the money as part of an expansive investigation into the two offenders and others. Ro declined comment, citing an ongoing investigation.
Federal court records show the informant in the sting at TGI Fridays worked for Sunrise, Sunrise detectives monitored meetings between Gaviria and the informant, and the deal went down in Sunrise in the presence of Sunrise detectives and federal agents.
Sunrise seized the $20,000 brought to the deal and secured a court order allowing the city to claim the money in forfeiture.
Hughes did not respond to messages left at his home and office seeking comment and his boss, Capt. Robert Voss, did not answer questions posed about the alleged promise Hughes made.
Gaviria was sentenced to 30 months in prison and Otalvaro 15.
Part II: Snitches can haul in riches
They have guns, fast cars and special training. But when it comes to catching cocaine dealers, the Police Department’s greatest asset is a secret lady informant.
For the past five years, an unnamed woman — reportedly a beautiful, buxom brunette — has coaxed dozens of men to come into Sunrise with tens of thousands of dollars to buy kilos of coke from undercover cops.
She’s so successful that Sunrise police have paid her $806,640, city records obtained by the Sun Sentinel show.
Without her contacts and her charms, the police would be far poorer. In a May deposition, Sgt. James Hughes cited her assistance in 63 stings that netted the city more than $5 million in cash and cars seized from duped drug buyers.
Here are her 63 stings:
CASE Cash seizedValue of cars seizedTotal assets seizedPaid to informantPercent to informant“She’s paid to hustle drugs for the city of Sunrise,” said Broward defense attorney Fred Haddad, who has represented clients caught in her web.
1$34,800$25,675$60,475$1,0001.7% 2$0$4,300$4,300$1,50034.9% 3$45,000$0$45,000$1,0002.2% 4$23,833$6,145$29,978$4,80016.0% 5$26,278$0$26,278$5,20019.8% 6$108,700$9,952$118,652$39,74033.5% 7$25,114$4,669$29,783$2,5008.4% 8$31,000$2,388$33,388$6,00018.0% 9$185,985$4,604$190,589$37,00019.4% 10$0$5,028$5,028$1,50029.8% 11$5,000$2,439$7,439$1,00013.4% 12$44,000$15,456$59,456$4,0006.7% 13$40,000$4,000$44,000$4,0009.1% 14$29,000$0$29,000$6,00020.7% 15$15,000$0$15,000$3,00020.0% 16$241,627$12,067$253,694$56,00022.1% 17$20,695$0$20,695$4,50021.7% 18$30,300$18,015$48,315$6,00012.4% 19$111,135$2,594$113,729$22,00019.3% 20$43,860$26,070$69,930$9,00012.9% 21$12,000$6,434$18,434$2,40013.0% 22$28,750$0$28,750$2,5008.7% 23$73,825$17,785$91,610$14,70016.0% 24$22,000$0$22,000$1,5006.8% 25$22,535$4,216$26,751$6,90025.8% 26$10,155$13,967$24,122$2,50010.4% 27$25,111$0$25,111$5,00019.9% 28$25,149$2,803$27,952$5,00017.9% 29$14,145$7,497$21,642$3,00013.9% 30$410,000$0$410,000$85,00020.7% 31$47,832$7,197$55,029$10,00018.2% 32$349,943$0$349,943$7,5002.1% 33$62,600$5,415$68,015$13,00019.1% 34$85,000$32,580$117,580$2,5002.1% 35$38,500$1,681$40,181$6,50016.2% 36$45,725$17,739$63,464$5,2008.2% 37$106,107$23,161$129,268$16,00012.4% 38$26,094$14,909$41,003$5,20012.7% 39$84,700$2,300$87,000$13,00014.9% 40$41,100$0$41,100$8,00019.5% 41$18,000$9,476$27,476$5,00018.2% 42$10,506$6,724$17,230$2,00011.6% 43$18,000$0$18,000$1,4007.8% 44$12,097$11,643$23,740$1,0004.2% 45$39,000$0$39,000$7,80020.0% 46$26,600$8,898$35,498$5,00014.1% 47$28,398$9,100$37,498$5,00013.3% 48$19,513$4,669$24,182$4,30017.8% 49$108,311$27,131$135,442$20,50015.1% 50$15,000$13,439$28,439$3,00010.5% 51$21,000$20,159$41,159$4,0009.7% 52$14,065$68,903$82,968$1,5001.8% 53$100,000$26,015$126,015$20,00015.9% 54$166,344$19,101$185,445$31,00016.7% 55$22,000$12,613$34,613$4,00011.6% 56$438,732$0$438,732$72,00016.4% 57$19,000$19,756$38,756$2,0005.2% 58$24,000$10,000$34,000$2,5007.4% 59$83,000$21,541$104,541$5,5005.3% 60$214,466$11,152$225,618$47,00020.8% 61$16,909$24,061$40,970$1,5003.7% 62$83,318$32,309$115,627$7,0006.1% 63$290,690$7,885$298,575$7,0002.3%
She is the star player on a team of paid and unpaid informants who play a crucial role in helping police lure high-volume drug buyers into the city.
To understand how Sunrise police entice criminals into the city’s borders, the Sun Sentinel went behind the curtain of this secret world, where cops and courts protect the identities of confidential informants and the details of what they do to earn their rewards. In this world, the cash flows with little oversight.
Many informants do it for the money. The Sun Sentinel obtained Police Department records showing its narcotics unit has paid more than $1.2 million to 79 informants recruited by the city since 2007.
Even more do it for mercy, snitching on others in hopes of receiving lighter court sentences for their own misdeeds. Those who succeed can turn a 15-year sentence for cocaine trafficking into a stint of probation and a sealed record that forever hides their crimes. Those who don’t go to prison.
Women play a special role in this realm, where men dominate the ranks of drug dealers and undercover detectives. The newspaper’s investigation found Sunrise police have used female informants to ice deals with hesitant cocaine buyers in the undercover stings.
None has been as effective as Sunrise’s secret weapon, a middle-aged, sometime model with no apparent criminal record.
“It’s disarming to bring in a woman,” said Miami defense attorney Alan Ross, who handled a cocaine case in which Sunrise police used both a male and a female informant. “People are less afraid when a woman’s involved.”
Sunrise police declined repeated requests from the newspaper to answer specific questions, but noted that informants have helped them make many arrests and bring in money for guns, computers, and other vital crime-fighting tools.
“You really can’t do drug work without informants,” said Capt. Robert Voss, head of the department’s criminal investigations division. “They’re a necessary component of narcotics work.”
Developing a pool of informants in cocaine stings starts with paperwork. Sunrise police require prospective informants to complete and sign a one-page form.
Read the Cooperating Individual Document, which all prospective informants complete and sign.
This isn’t the typical employment application: It requires the applicant’s code name, the names of criminal associates, and “source of supply.”
And while typical job seekers might sweat the “Have you ever been convicted” question, these applications require that rap sheets be attached.
Once enlisted, informants are given a code of conduct detailing actions they cannot take. Among them: searching a suspect’s house, disclosing details of investigations, and “any activities that would constitute entrapment.”
“We basically explain to them … what entrapment is … that this person must be, at least appear to be, predisposed to commit an offense as it establishes or relates to the investigation,” Sgt. Hughes said in a March 2012 deposition.
WHAT IS ENTRAPMENT?
Police can use “tricks, decoys or subterfuge” in their efforts to expose criminal acts, according to standard jury instructions. This includes posing as drug dealers or sellers.
However, law enforcement is not allowed to target a person who was not ready to commit the crime.
Additionally, cases can be dismissed if it’s established that the conduct of police or an informant is so outrageous it violates a person’s constitutional rights.
Asked if there was any training for informants before they actively involve themselves in criminal investigations, Hughes said: “No formal training, no.”
Does the city make sure informants pay taxes on their income? “We do not provide any type of W-2 form to any informant,” Hughes said in another deposition.
Informants are paid by cash or check, according to the city. Sunrise police keep handwritten logs of the payments, which the Sun Sentinel obtained through Florida’s open records law.
By far, the greatest earner was the star lady informant, who took in two-thirds of the total payments the city made to all informants — not just those in cocaine stings — since 2007, the logs show.
In a rare disclosure, Hughes was forced by court order in the May deposition to reveal her cut in each job.
In the most lucrative case for the city, in which police confiscated $438,732 in cash, she was issued three payments totaling $72,000, Hughes testified. That was about 16 percent of the amount seized.
In a case in which only a $4,300 car was taken, she earned $1,500, he said. That was about 35 percent of the haul.
Broward prosecutors told the Sun Sentinel many informants across the country make more than $1 million in their careers.
“People do this as a living,” said John Gallagher, chief of the State Attorney’s Office drug trafficking unit. “They’re professional informants.”
The second highest paid Sunrise informant also happens to be a woman, the Sun Sentinel determined. Police paid her $81,500 between April 2008 and January 2009, according to a court deposition.
She was half of a male-female duo that actually approached Sunrise police and asked to work as confidential informants in narcotics trafficking on a payment basis, Hughes testified in the 2010 deposition.
The total police seized in the cases she worked, Hughes said, was about $554,303, plus 12 vehicles.
Other informants have earned far less. The city’s payment logs showed that about a dozen collected between $10,000 and $53,000 each since 2007. Most made less than $10,000, and one as little as $20.
Sometimes using informants to lure criminals into the city comes with an unintended price tag — botched cases.
An informant’s mistakes — captured on video — compromised the case against Gustavo Borjas.
In December 2011, the southwest Miami-Dade man found himself in an undercover police warehouse in Sunrise, with two informants, staring at cocaine.
Borjas brought $23,000 but repeatedly refused to open the kilo or test it, indicating it was the male informant’s deal, not his.
Police video showed the female informant grab Borjas’ shoulder bag. She opened it and looked in, prompting him to remove two envelopes of money. He handed them over as she continued to rummage through the bag.
She then can be seen “stuffing” the cocaine into the satchel, defense attorney Ross said in court records — an assertion a Sunrise detective did not dispute in a March 2012 deposition.
Prosecutors told the Sun Sentinel the woman “rushed” Borjas into completing the transaction, rather than letting him finish the deal himself.
In addition, in a memo, the State Attorney’s Office wrote that it appeared on the recordings that Borjas was not knowledgeable in the “area of cocaine” and was looking for guidance from the informants.
Borjas said he was duped into the deal by the male informant — a friend who owed him money and promised to repay it by making a quick profit on a cocaine deal, then spent months persuading Borjas to put up the initial buy money.
With Borjas’ lawyer arguing entrapment, prosecutors in September handed Borjas a deal: allowing him to plead no contest to the lesser charge of “solicitation to purchase cocaine,” rather than trafficking.
He was sentenced to 18 months' probation, and police returned his $23,000.
“This case went wrong,” Ross said, “so they gave it all back.”
Other deals have collapsed when informants broke the rules, as happened in a 2009 Sunrise cocaine trafficking case against three Philadelphia men.
The informant in that case didn’t record or have law enforcement monitor any of his phone calls. He continued to change the price and quantity of cocaine in the deal, and he promised to give 11 kilos of coke on consignment, all without police involvement, according to a Broward State Attorney’s Office memo.
Broward prosecutors dropped the charges, the memo states, because the informant’s actions presented “too severe of an entrapment issue.”
Federal prosecutors also declined the case because of “entrapment issues” and because the DEA refused to allow the informant’s identity to be disclosed to the defense, as would be demanded in such a problematic case.
The Broward prosecutor’s memo revealed the DEA’s reason for withholding the informant’s identity: The person was involved in other ongoing investigations.
LET’S MAKE A DEAL
Aside from money, there are other reasons Sunrise informants cooperate and participate in carefully crafted stings.
Judges have reduced their prison sentences to probation, sealed their criminal records, and rejected attorney requests to identify or question them.
A southwest Florida man who brought more than $105,000 to Sunrise to purchase five kilos of cocaine pleaded no contest in state court to cocaine trafficking in July 2012 and was sentenced a year later — after cooperating with authorities — to six years' probation, the Sun Sentinel found. Then the court docket was sealed from public view to protect his identity.
Others who have been caught in the same type of reverse sting but purchased less cocaine — or none at all — have been locked up for years because they don’t have useful information to trade or won’t cooperate.
Anthony Stewart says he’s one of them. The Miramar man has been in jail for five years, awaiting trial. He didn’t buy any cocaine, but introduced informants to buyers, and was charged with trafficking in 2008.
His girlfriend said police and prosecutors wanted him to become an informant or testify against two co-defendants in return for leniency, but he refused, fearing for his life and his child’s life.
“He’s not an informer,” said Nicole Grant, a hairdresser. “(Police) want people to do their dirty work.”
Stewart claims he had no money and was not looking for cocaine but a male informant, and then a female informant, pressured him over four months to find a buyer for the drug and make the introductions.
In a phone interview from the Broward jail, Stewart told the Sun Sentinel that he brushed off the man but the woman, posing as the man’s wife, “was pushing and pushing me.”
In a May 2012 court filing, Stewart’s defense attorney claimed the male informant made veiled threats, telling Stewart if he didn’t help them get rid of their cocaine there would be trouble because he and the woman knew where Stewart and his family lived.
No judge has been willing to allow the defense attorneys to question the two informants about their conduct, histories or motives.
Police have used women informants to launch stings with flirty introductions and to close them by posing as the wives or relatives of cocaine suppliers, the Sun Sentinel found.
Defense attorneys say women can bring credibility to an operation, soothe reluctant buyers, and simply make men do stupid things.
None has been more effective than the city’s highest-paid informant. Defense attorneys have so far failed in their efforts to convince judges to force Sunrise police to identify her.
“They have a very charming, attractive female,” said attorney Martin Roth of Fort Lauderdale. “It’s been my experience as a 59-year-old man that men often act extremely foolishly in the presence of a lady like that. It disturbs me that this lady has such a high monetary incentive to involve people (in drug deals).”
In numerous cases reviewed by the Sun Sentinel, court documents and transcripts of secretly recorded conversations provide details about a lady informant. But exactly who she is in each case — and whether she is the city’s star snitch — are not revealed.
One constant thread in these cases: a flirty woman and a Colombian connection.
A New York man in 2011 met at Bahama Breeze in Sunrise with a woman informant, who told him Colombians were “my people” and explained how “we bring flowers from Colombia and we put it (cocaine) in the flowers and cover it up.” As the pair got up to leave the woman exclaimed: “Gee, I’m drunk!”
In another case, an Oakland Park man told a Broward judge he thought he was dating a woman who proved to be a Sunrise informant.
Cesar Cuellar told the judge in a letter that he was forced to call the woman by gangs who had threatened his life in Colombia years before. Then he fell for her.
She said her name was “Jackie,” Cuellar wrote, and she was “this gorgeous and beautiful woman.”
It was an affair that mixed business with pleasure. In summer 2009, Cuellar and the woman met at a Jamba Juice and a Panera Bread in Sunrise and twice at a Starbucks in Aventura, police reports state, and spoke of possible cocaine deals.
Ultimately, at a TGI Fridays parking lot in Sunrise, he bought one kilo for $5,000 and the titles to two older-model minivans.
Their relationship began and ended in 19 days. He got 42 months in prison.
Jose Quintanilla of Miami, an unemployed truck driver and sometime drug mule, was also duped by a flirty female informant claiming Colombian ties. He's now serving more than six years in prison.
His troubles began when he was given a female informant’s phone number by a Colombian trafficker and was instructed to call her, court records state.
He and the woman took a walk in a park near Griffin Road and Interstate 75 last May, discussing the sale of as much as 150 kilos of cocaine.
The wire she wore captured how she drew in Quintanilla with flattery and affection, then turned sour on him once the deal was done.
“How are you, my love?” Quintanilla asked her in Spanish.
“Bien, mi amor,” she said, or “Fine, my love.”
She told him she was instructed by her associates to give him 150 kilos at $24,000 each “and to see how I feel about you.”
“Oh fine what a good idea, I am ugly…” Quintanilla replied.
“Not so, you’re not ugly,” she told him.
When he told her he was almost 44, she said reassuringly, “You’re young.”
They exchanged Blackberry PIN numbers, and the deal went down a few days later.
The woman told Quintanilla to follow her and her little brother — he was really an undercover cop — from a Sunrise gas station to a nearby warehouse.
“That asshole is scared shitless,” she told the cop in private. “He’s shaking.”
Quintanilla showed them a black bag containing $130,000 for eight kilos. They invited him to take their car, stocked with the cocaine.
Then the police converged: “Get on the ground, get on the ground, get on the ground!”
The woman called out: “I have to leave.” She laughed and cursed him: “Son of a bitch.”
Staff writer Susannah Bryan and staff researcher Barbara Hijek contributed to this report.
Rachel Schallom, design. Susan Stocker, photography and videography. Matthew Haran and Sarah Dussault, video editing. Cindy Jones Hulfactor, graphics.
Contact reporter Megan O'Matz at email@example.com or (954) 356-4518.
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