Busted

Julio Mercado is Dallas' brand-new DEA boss, and he's inherited kilos of trouble. His city is about to be declared a drug disaster zone, but all his narcs seem to care about is snitching on each other.

To some degree, Administrator Constantine is a victim of demographics. The generation of agents hired when the DEA was born are now hitting their 25-year anniversaries--retirement time. And since agency hirings waxed under Nixon and waned under Carter, the agency is currently undergoing something of a mass exodus.

But many agents insist that internal agency turmoil is the real root of the problem. "Constantine forced a ton of retirements by transferring people against their will," explains Mark, the California agent. "Agents used to stay at DEA until 55 or 56. Now they hit 50, they're gone. The agency has lost an invaluable amount of experience because of it."

Others say the transfers were simply the new ruler's prerogative. "I think Constantine clearly transferred people to force them out, because he wanted his own people in key slots," says the local head of one federal agency that works closely with the DEA. "It's not that unusual."

There's a second way that agents perceive Constantine has forced people out, and in their minds it's even more nefarious. Under the guise of "raising ethical standards," Constantine beefed up the Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR), the DEA's own in-house ethics police. "We had problems, don't get me wrong," says Tony Ricevuto, who until 1995 was the head of the DEA's Los Angeles OPR office, one of three in the country. "But we were never as bad as the other agencies--as the FBI, much less the CIA.

"Constantine wanted a clean agency," continues Ricevuto, now retired and living in Los Angeles. "Which is good. But I think he went a little overboard. I saw lots of micromanaging. Cases would be reopened, reports kicked back because you didn't talk with the girlfriend's mother. It had to be a real hard-nosed line. And if they couldn't get 'em on the underlying complaint, they'd get 'em on something administrative--failure to fill out a report properly. That sort of thing. The investigations dragged on forever."

At least, those were the rules for the rank-and-file. "The feeling in the agency was that OPR was used politically," says Norm, a former Houston agent who retired earlier this year.

It is an assessment with which Tony Ricevuto agrees: "The politics definitely came in. Certain people got favored treatment. Certain people didn't get touched."

In September 1994, the highly respected Phil Jordan became a political casualty of the new forced transfer policy. Jordan was transferred from his position as Dallas SAC to head of the DEA's El Paso Intelligence Center. His family stayed behind; a year later, disgusted by the unwanted transfer, Jordan retired and moved back to Dallas.

True, the decade under Jordan had by no means been trouble-free. He'd been dealt the usual personnel problems: drunken DEA agents being stopped for weaving in traffic and taking swings at local cops; agents ticketed for violating open-container laws. (DEA regulations prohibit agents from drinking and driving in their government cars.)

But post-Jordan, things definitely took a turn for the worse. Since his 1994 departure, the Dallas office has had three different bosses--that is, when there was a boss. The results have been predictable: Ego-driven men with high testosterone levels and licenses to carry don't fare particularly well under wobbly leadership. Which brings to mind the infamous Cookie--as in DEA agent Morris "Cookie" Walters.

"I think it really kind of began with Cookie," recalls a DPD narcotics officer assigned to a DEA joint task force. "Cookie had been out of control for a long time." Walters, who couldn't be reached for comment, reportedly had pulled a gun in a Fort Worth strip bar--an indiscretion for which he wasn't even written up. And then came "that deal in Dallas," the DPD officer says.

At 3 a.m. on August 3, 1994, agent Walters and Dallas District Attorney's office investigator George Espinoza went to a house near Bachman Lake occupied by one Fernando Perez, a dealer who had turned confidential informant and was trying to sing his way out of a 10-kilo cocaine bust.

According to Dallas police reports, Walters "started knocking on the front door and yelling that he needed to talk." When Perez opened the door, Cookie "pulled a pistol and pointed it at [Perez] and [a female friend] and told them he could kill them and nobody would ever know." To emphasize the point, Cookie "then ejected live rounds from his pistol while pointing it at [Perez] and then put in another loaded clip."

Having had their fun, Walters and Espinoza then turned around and left. (Although Dallas police filed charges against Walters, Assistant District Attorney Mike Gillett says he can find no evidence that the case was ever presented to a grand jury.)

It was Cookie's Last Stand. OPR agents flew to Dallas, investigated, issued a report. Walters got the obligatory termination notice. But he wasn't going down without a fight. "Cookie told on everyone," recalls the DPD narcotics officer. "Everyone who was going out drinking in their G-cars, everyone who was messing around. Even supervisors. A lot of people went down when Cookie went down."

"They investigated 23 of us because of Cookie," says Steve, a Dallas DEA agent. "The allegation against me was that two years before, I had a beer in a restaurant at lunch. And down they came--seven of 'em--to investigate the charge.

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