The (involuntary) confessions of a confidential informant
Snitches. Rats. Turncoats. Squealers. There’s no shortage of names for people who start their criminal justice career on one side of the law, and then, through a series of self-preserving acts, find themselves working on the opposite side as confidential informants. Police informants get evidence, they help make cases, and they put themselves in danger to do it. Cops and prosecutors call them indispensable.
Not every person who gives information to the police is a criminal. Many are just concerned citizens who report suspected crimes in their neighborhoods. And many people who testify in court are simply witnesses to a crime. But many people who turn informant for the law have motives that are a far cry from justice or community activism; they are, themselves, criminals working off potential charges or even getting paid to inform on other law-breakers.
People who oppose the use of criminal informants argue that offering money in exchange for information may actually lead informants to seek out and encourage crimes that would not otherwise happen. And even police acknowledge that reducing criminal charges for informants, who are willing to participate in or set up other illegal events for law enforcement, can seem to trivialize the initial crime.
For many professionals in law enforcement it comes down to weighing greater and lesser evils against each other. Weighing, say, the value of trading the prosecution of a small-time drug dealer against the prosecution of a medium-sized drug dealer, and maybe eventually an entire drug ring. The identities of these informants are almost always kept secret long after the cases are over. This is both to protect their health and keep them useful. The practice of using criminals as confidential informants is widespread, but at the end of the day is the public really safer, trading one criminal for another?
This is the story of a man who made a short career as a confidential paid informant for the SLO County Sheriff’s Department. Despite the short length of his service, he became a key figure in one of the most notorious recent cases originating in this county, the federal prosecution of medical marijuana dispenser Charles Lynch. His name is Daniel Victor Lee, and over the course of seven months he worked on ten cases, being paid a total of $8,185 for his participation, according to correspondence from the district attorney’s office. Despite following tips that led to three different states, New Times was unable to find him to seek his side of the story. For that matter, court records show a defense attorney who sought to depose him for a case couldn’t locate him either. Nonetheless, court documents collected from several cases tell Lee’s story.
The first case Lee worked on for the sheriff led to a search warrant on a house where less than an ounce of marijuana was recovered. The defendant in that case was put on probation. Lee’s final case was to set up the delivery of 20 pounds of marijuana. One of the defendants in that case killed himself.
Four days after Lee’s last job with the sheriff, SLO County court records show he was arrested for impersonating a police officer. When the courts tried to bring him back to the county as a witness in another case, he was kicked off a commercial airline flight. Who is this guy?
Meet Daniel Victor Leeof those involving drug deals arranged by the sheriff’s department as part of their investigation of Charles Lynch, the owner of Central Coast Compassionate Caregivers. He appeared in police reports and the Lynch indictment as a “confidential source.” Those documents provide detailed accounts of his missions, including dates, names of several individuals who would be charged with crimes, and the amounts of contraband involved, but not his name. When his name was released with a list showing the cases he worked for the sheriff, several details and dates matched up. Lee was that ubiquitous confidential informant.
Lee is someone whom Sgt. Rick Neufeld of the SLO County Sheriff’s Department’s Narcotics Task Force would call a mercenary: an informant who works numerous cases, setting up drug deals and getting paid for his work. Court documents include a picture of Lee smiling wide, red hair and light eyes, about 30 years old. He worked on at least two prominent cases locally—both
Records don’t say exactly where he got his start as an informant. But Lee’s own criminal history goes back years before he snitched in SLO.
Orange County court records show he was arrested several times in 2002. Though he faced three felony charges that year for possession of a controlled substance and possession with intent to sell stemming from two separate incidents, he wound up walking, pleading guilty to one misdemeanor charge for possessing a switchblade knife. All of the felony drug charges were dismissed.
Records aren’t clear about how Lee got in touch with SLO sheriff’s deputies either, but federal documents from Lynch’s indictment said he was “a person who approached the sheriff’s department and offered his assistance.” The indictment also said Lee has a criminal history with narcotics-related offenses and the police-impersonation incident. Neufeld would not comment on the specifics of Lee’s informant career, though records show he oversaw Lee’s work. Lee worked from April 2006 until November that year on drug cases that ranged from very minor to very big. He was taken to Los Angeles County twice as an informant and sent on several trips to buy marijuana from the Morro Bay dispensary. Records do not reveal how much he was compensated for those missions.
SLO County court documents show that Lee eventually left the area. He stayed in contact with SLO officials and remained cooperative, despite several threats made against him by defendants in cases he helped make.
Lee’s very first case involved a “controlled” buy of five grams of marijuana, worth about $50. Based on that transaction, sheriff’s deputies obtained a warrant to search a home. They found about 20 grams of pot as a result of the search, an amount so measly that if a sale had not been involved, possessing that quantity would not carry any jail time, only a $100 fine. Normally a person charged with possessing less than an ounce would not even be arrested. But the sale made the man’s crime a misdemeanor or possibly a felony with the potential for incarceration. He was arrested, pleaded guilty to a possession charge, and was put on probation. Lee was paid $200.
Lee’s next three cases went like this: He would arrange the delivery of between 230 grams (about 8 ounces) and 450 grams (close to one pound) of marijuana. Deputies would do a traffic stop while the car was en route to a meeting place. The busts sent four people to county jail, and Lee was paid a total of $1,100.
This is where Lee was proving to be a reliable informant. Neufeld said informants have to establish themselves, have to show that information they give is real and will lead to arrests. Most important, he said, the information must be corroborated with evidence. Lee proved himself and soon began working on bigger cases, including the investigation of medical marijuana provider Charles Lynch.
In June that year, sheriff’s deputies drove Lee to Los Angeles County, where he was given $200 to pay for a questionable medical marijuana recommendation, provided by a physician who was later indicted on federal marijuana charges. Court documents show that Lee said he smoked pot with the doctor during that visit and introduced the doctor to an undercover sheriff’s deputy. Lee bought the recommendation, which he later used to purchase marijuana from Charles Lynch’s dispensary several times. Lee and the deputies returned to San Luis Obispo County where he was paid $725 for the trip, according to court documents.
It was during the sheriff’s investigation of the dispensary that Lee met one of Lynch’s employees, Abrahm Baxter. The two arranged to consummate a sale of marijuana outside of the dispensary. Lee set up the deal in the Big 5 parking lot in San Luis Obispo. Lee, with an undercover agent in the passenger seat of his car, bought 362 grams of marijuana from Baxter for $3,200. Baxter made the front page of New Times when the district attorney bungled this case, offering him a plea meant for someone else, then taking it back after the mistake was discovered. Baxter was sentenced to 120 days in jail. Lee was paid $300.
The rest of Lee’s cases were similar; he would arrange a sale and deputies would arrest drug dealers while they transported the contraband. One case involved 120 grams of cocaine. Lee was paid $1,500 for that one. The last case was the most ambitious, in which Lee set up the sale of 20 pounds of marijuana. Police seized 25 pounds of marijuana and four pounds of hashish from four men. One of them, Elbert Shoemate, committed suicide, according to county records. Lee was paid $3,660.
What’s wrong with this picture?
Ironically, Lee was called to testify as a witness on behalf of Abrahm Baxter, one of the people he set up. It was in this case that the details of Lee’s informing became known; they became accessible to the public probably because of a mere oversight. A series of correspondence from the SLO County district attorney’s office outlined all the cases he worked on with the sheriff, including dates, some defendants’ names, and the outcomes of those cases. Lee was described as having always provided reliable information and having been cooperative. Still, Deputy District Attorney Jerret Gran, who speaks for the prosecutor’s department, in an interview wanted to make clear that Lee was the sheriff’s informant and was not engaged by the district attorney. Court documents show that the DA opposed a defense motion to summon Lee as a witness.
In Baxter’s case there were several points on which the defense disputed details presented by the prosecution. For example, police reports say that Baxter sold the marijuana directly to the undercover officer. Photographs of the transaction, however, reveal at least part of the exchange happened between Baxter and Lee. It was an illegal transaction nonetheless, but an important detail because both Baxter and Lee were medical marijuana patients.
Lee was called to be a witness for Baxter. He could potentially have cleared up those and other conflicting details, but he never appeared at the courtroom to tell his side. According to correspondence from the DA, Lee boarded a plane—paid for by the county—that would take him to San Luis Obispo for an in-camera hearing but was kicked off for allegedly stealing from another passenger’s purse. No charges were filed.
Who’s a rat?
Chris Bleicher runs the website whosarat.com, which allows people to post photos and information about informants. He’s a critic about the ways in which informants are used. He said paying for information creates a conflict of interest for the informant.
“It creates incentive for these people to go out and commit crimes,” Bleicher said in an interview. “You offer money to an informant to bring back information on criminals, and these people are going to go out and create scenarios to bring back information. It’s like job security for them.”
Bleicher said that’s exactly what happened to a friend of his.
“The informant created a drug deal that never would have happened otherwise,” he said.
Bleicher didn’t start the website, which he said has become equivalent to a full-time job; his friend did. The site’s creator, Sean Bucci, has been in jail for two years for selling marijuana to a mercenary informant. Bucci claimed the men barely knew each other and hadn’t seen each other for a decade when the informant approached him about making the sale.
During his trial, Bucci set up the website and outed the informant. Two years ago, Bucci was found guilty and sentenced to 12 years in jail. He’s appealing the severity of that sentence on the basis that it was punishment for starting the site.
There are now more than 5,000 profiles of alleged undercover agents and formerly confidential informants on the site. The one who Bucci said brought him down is featured as the permanent “Rat of the Week.”
Distasteful, but widely used
Neither the cops nor the district attorney like working with informants. Neufeld said as a person charged with upholding the laws, he struggles with the bargain of forgiving the crimes of one criminal to catch (and presumably punish) another.
“One of the hardest things a new detective has to learn,” Neufeld said, “is how to handle informants. It’s not pleasant, no one enjoys it, but it’s part of the way we do business. If you didn’t have informants, then a lot of major case would go unsolved.”
When it comes to the criminals and the mercenaries, he said, “Generally, these people are druggies.
“Everybody that comes through here as an informant has to be approved by me, and I don’t approve everyone.” He added, “Sometimes I see someone, and I say, ‘No way.’”
So what makes a good informant? Neufeld said there is no archetypal squealer, merely someone who can infiltrate a criminal organization and is willing to do so. Druggies, it seems, make good mercenaries because they need money. Felons guilty of such violent crimes as rape or murder are generally excluded from working off their crimes, leaving druggies as the population most available to be turned by law enforcement. When a person decides to work for the DA or law enforcement, they can’t legally get a guarantee the information they provide will result in a reduced sentence. Still, Neufeld said he’s not surprised what an informant will do or who they will snitch on.
“If someone has prison hanging over their head,” Neufeld said, “if they know something, and they know they’re facing prison, that’s pretty good incentive to be an informant.”
Mercenaries do it just for the money.
Gran said the district attorney works differently than the sheriff. His office does not pay people for information, though they may pay for travel expenses, or the cost of relocating a witness. As prosecutors, they are concerned more with compelling people to testify and organizing available information, than building cases from the ground up, the way cops do. Gran said he sometimes cuts deals to get one gang member to testify against another member, for example, but wouldn’t pay someone to testify. Unlike Neufeld, Gran said he is still shocked by some people’s willingness to turn witness, when one family member testifies against another member of a family, for example. The scenario leading up to the squeal is typically something like this:
“Usually the person already has a case,” Gran said, “or they’re on probation and they get picked up for some offense. Then they’ll go to whoever arrested them and say ‘OK, I’m dirty, but I can give you four people dealing drugs.’”
Once a person is on the hook, they might work off their crime helping the cops or receive a reduced sentence for assisting the district attorney, Gran said. In either scenario, the person has to perform before they can be rewarded.
“I wish all my witnesses were Boy Scouts and went to church and were upstanding citizens,” Gran said, “but they’re not. The important thing is to corroborate what they say with evidence.”
Bleicher said an informant is only as valuable as their connections to illegal activity. Informants, he said wind up telling on their friends and acquaintances when they get in trouble.
“How do you get information about a drug crime?” Bleicher asked. “By being part of a drug crime.”
There is no reason to think that Lee is unique or extraordinary as an informant, except that his work became public. Gran said it was probably an oversight that left Lee’s record in the public domain. There was a motion by the district attorney to seal several documents, but for some reason, it was never followed up with an order to seal, or a motion to deny sealing; it was just left hanging in public space. Now Lee’s records are squealing on him.
Thu, 09 Jul 2009
New Times (San Luis Obispo, CA)