Dirty or Duped?
Almost without warning, she bursts into a flash flood of tears. All it takes is for you to gently scratch the surface of her memory of the time she spent behind bars for a crime she did not commit. Her soft eyes redden easily; her high-pitched voice at times grows incomprehensible, hindered by her thick Honduran accent and uncontainable emotion. "I never sell drugs to nobody," she says. "I swear I am innocent. I swear to God."
She riffles through some papers scattered on her desk until she finds what she is looking for: a crumpled sheet of lined notebook paper. On it is a green crayon drawing, a sad stick figure sitting behind bars, and scribbled across the top are the words "My grandma is in jail."
Yvonne Gwyn, grandmother, naturalized citizen, detail shop owner, takes a deep breath, hoping to calm herself so she can tell her story--an Orwellian nightmare if you believe her--whose particulars hold some of the clues to the enigmatic "fake drug" busts that have scandalized the city, undermined the integrity of the Dallas Police Department and called into question the ethics of the Dallas County District Attorney's Office.
On September 7, Gwyn had been in business for a few months and was struggling to pay rent. To cut costs, she had moved into the back of her detail shop on Fort Worth Avenue in Oak Cliff. She believed it was just a matter of time before Gwyn's Auto Service Center would be making money. "I love to work, and cleaning is my hobby," she says.
At around 11 a.m., a customer came into her office claiming he had just purchased a car from Silva's Auto Sales, also on Fort Worth Avenue. The Honda Civic was for his brother, who wanted it detailed and tuned, or so she was told. Gwyn didn't know the customer, whom she describes as a "clean-cut Spanish guy," but found it odd that someone claiming to be his brother phoned her shop three times while the customer was in her office. He filled out a work order, writing only the initials "D.J." and an address and phone number that would prove fictitious. The customer seemed nice enough; he said he would return for the Honda in the afternoon. But five uniformed Dallas police officers arrived first, guns drawn, handcuffing Gwyn, planting her in a chair while they obtained a search warrant.
"I kept saying, 'What's going on? What's going on? I'm a 52-year-old woman. I've never been arrested before,'" she recalls. "One of the officers, he said, 'You, Ms. Gwyn, you want to be rich too fast. You are going to jail for the rest of your life.'"
She was at once terrified and outraged. There had to be some mistake. She had always respected authority; she had even cooperated with the Dallas police. When her son was arrested on drug charges, she gave an undercover officer information about her son's supplier, whatever it took to help her family, she says. One former narcotics officer even claims Gwyn had signed on as a confidential informant.
Strangely, the police never searched her business; the warrant was issued solely for the 1984 Honda Civic parked beside her shop. According to arrest reports, Officers Mark DeLaPaz and Eddie Herrera, undercover officers within the Dallas narcotics unit known as the "street squad," were working with an informant who claimed that he had purchased a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of cocaine from Gwyn earlier that same day. Although a kilo has a wholesale street value of about $16,000, no money changed hands; the transaction between dope dealer and customer apparently was done on credit. To corroborate his informant, DeLaPaz claimed he had placed Gwyn under surveillance. Through binoculars, he observed her remove a package from the Honda--the same package the informant would later claim she sold him. A third undercover officer field-tested the package for cocaine with positive results. That was all the information Judge Jay Robinson needed to sign a warrant, which when executed at 2 p.m. uncovered a cache of 30 kilos of what appeared to be cocaine hidden inside the backseat and speakers of the Honda. All but a small amount of it would later turn out to be gypsum, commonly found in Sheetrock.
The case had uncanny similarities to a spate of unusually large busts that had recently begun to wind their way through Dallas County courts: same two undercover officers, same confidential informant, multi-kilo dope deals conducted on credit, no guns, property or cash confiscated, no audio or video surveillance, no FBI or Drug Enforcement Administration involvement despite the mega-quantities of drugs seized. Most of those arrested were auto mechanics, day laborers and construction workers who possessed none of the trappings of high-rolling dope dealers. Many of them were undocumented or recent Mexican immigrants who had no criminal records, no money, no English proficiency, and whose fears of deportation might make them less likely to protest too loudly.
Because the Dallas County District Attorney's Office had a policy that no drugs would be analyzed by its forensic lab unless the case was going to trial, any defendant unwilling to risk a jury verdict and long sentence would never know if the drugs he had just pleaded guilty to selling were, in fact, drugs. The only forensic evidence that he possessed a controlled substance would be a simple field test that was never intended by its manufacturer to resolve the issue of guilt or innocence.
That no one had earlier snapped to this systemic problem either spoke volumes about the purity of drugs that plague our city streets or the number of people who have been wrongfully convicted because they chose to settle for a lighter sentence. But in August, when several Dallas defense attorneys--Cynthia Barbare and C. Tony Wright the most vociferous among them--began comparing notes, seeing "red flags" and sloppy police work in bust after questionable bust, they demanded the drugs be analyzed.
Lab results from at least 20 multi-kilo cases--two of them the largest busts in the history of Dallas police--revealed defendants possessed either tiny amounts of cocaine or no drugs at all. The common threads linking these defendants together were Officers DeLaPaz and Herrera, their confidential informant Enrique Martinez-Alonso and the large quantities of gypsum they seized as a result of the information he provided. Police records show that Alonso was DPD's highest-paid informant in 2001, earning more than $210,000 for the seizure of nearly 1,000pounds of cocaine and amphetamines, all of which turned out to be bogus. No other Texas city was as generous with its informants. In early October, attorney Wright filed a motion that alleged: "It appears the district attorney's office is covering up either a dirty snitch or dirty police officers."
Neither would bode well for District Attorney Bill Hill, who was facing a serious challenge from his own Republican Party as he prepared to run for re-election. A narcotics scandal under the watch of police Chief Terrell Bolton would do little to advance his shaky standing with his critics at City Hall, chief among them Laura Miller, who was lining up support for her successful mayoral run from those who saw Bolton as an embarrassment to the department. With the media smelling blood, particularly WFAA-TV's investigative reporter Brett Shipp and his producer Mark Smith, who were tipped to the story, all the players were in place for a public corruption scandal the likes of which Dallas has never known.
Small wonder Hill called in the FBI and Bolton called in the DEA--the integrity of both their offices was at stake. By March, Hill had dismissed nearly 70 cases involving the two narcotics officers and at least four of their informants. Bolton placed both officers on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of an FBI investigation and implemented a review of narcotics division procedures. Other than a series of briefings to the media and city council, the department has attempted to shut down the release of information regarding its own investigation, which is now on hold. And the FBI historically never discusses pending investigations, so official confirmation of hard evidence is sketchy at best. But the local press has been so tenacious in its pursuit of this story that it keeps breaking news despite the media blackout.
What is as yet unknown is whether Officers DeLaPaz and Herrera were duped or dirty, conspirators in a scheme to frame innocent defendants or flat-out fooled by a nest of snitches with the street smarts to figure out the vulnerabilities of the legal system. If they were duped, shouldn't they have been suspicious of the glut of sizable busts generated by a lone informant, or were they blinded by their unprecedented success, trusting to the point of being reckless about the way they conducted their undercover operations? In court documents, both officers have denied any complicity and claimed they were just doing their jobs. Either scenario raises the question: How could this have happened?
Consider the slack supervision of these undercover officers, their push for numbers, their willingness to cut corners, their indifferent acceptance of implausible information provided by their informant; consider a district attorney's office that was dilatory in fixing the problem, that may have withheld exculpatory evidence and made the best of dubious cases by pleading them to lesser charges; consider a legal system that places a frightening amount of police power in the hands of known criminals--confidential informants--a system that resents correcting itself even after it has callously placed innocent people behind bars, and the answer becomes obvious: What happened was inevitable.
Making the transition from beat officer to narcotics squad is not easy. A rookie undercover officer has to unlearn practically everything he was taught at the police academy about officer safety. He has no gun, no badge, no lights and sirens to protect him. He has to lose his cop persona. He better be willing to turn his back on a doper and work with little or no supervision. He's in plain clothes now, playing a part, living a lie on the streets.
He may join narcotics because he gets to be a cowboy, riding his own adrenal high by busting down doors and taking down people. If he joins because he wants to make a difference in the drug war, he will quickly be disabused of that notion. For every drug house or corner pusher he pops, another will rise to take his place. Yet his job is based on numbers, the push for arrests, the competition for funds to justify a task force or a drug court. It's easy to get frustrated when the dealers are winning, when the prisons are full and the drugs keep flowing, when the bad guys have all the toys and the good guys have to work off-duty jobs to pay bills.
Temptation is everywhere. Where there are drugs, there is money and lots of it, and it's his job to trick people out of both. He gets to pretend he's a crook; he gets to drink beer, shoot pool, hustle women and make dope deals. He better believe in his work and in himself because his character will be tested.
When the officer goes undercover, he has two ways to deal. He can make the transaction himself or play it safer by letting a confidential informant, or CI, make a controlled buy--keeping the informant under tight surveillance, giving him marked money to make the purchase, searching him thoroughly for drugs (so he isn't setting anyone up) and money (so he isn't making any purchases on his own account). Of course, now his snitch is a material witness to a drug delivery and the courts will require his testimony, which compromises his confidentiality. DPD field operation procedures certainly encourage undercover officers to make purchases themselves. It's better practice to use the informant to introduce the cop to a dealer and then cut him out of the investigation as soon as possible. It's also more time consuming and much riskier.
"It's just lazy police work to let an informant make the buy," says Barbara Markham, who worked as a deep-cover narcotics officer for 11 years, including a stint on the Denton County Narcotics Task Force. "You don't want your informant seeing how you conduct your business. They're still crooks, and you always have to worry about them."
In the early '90s, Mark DeLaPaz joined DPD's street squad, a new narcotics unit that recently had been set up partly to combat the crack epidemic. Its targets were neighborhood drug houses and street dealers openly peddling their product to drive-up customers. Other DPD narcotics units such as the enforcement squad and the joint federal and city task force directed their efforts at midlevel dealers who traded in larger quantities of drugs. Their investigations took longer and were more complex; their informants were higher up the food chain. But the street squad responded to resident complaints and wasn't set up for long-term, deep-cover operations. Its investigations were brief encounters--get in, get out, get the stat.
"An officer might receive as many as 60 complaints a day," says one former street squad detective. "We produced the numbers that support narcotics, and we were always under pressure to produce arrests."
DeLaPaz generated the kind of stats that his supervisors loved, racking up repeated commendations, though he was once reprimanded for raiding the wrong house. "There are so many officers in narcotics that just like looking scruffy and laying out in bars. They don't like buying dope," says a police source close to DeLaPaz. "But every glue-sniffing, paint-snorting thug in East Dallas knew Mark. He worked as hard as anyone in the division."
Stature in narcotics comes from cultivating deals, not by arresting the corner crack dealer selling $10 rocks but from busting bigger players in the drug trade, midlevel wholesalers who can supply ounces, a pound, maybe even a kilo of cocaine or speed. "If an officer is able to buy a kilo by himself without an informant around, he is a good officer," Markham says. "He has done some real infiltrating."
Those sorts of deals, however, take time to develop, particularly if the undercover officer is making the buy. The higher up you go in the drug world, the more businesslike the transaction. There are negotiations, there are associates, there are guns. And often there is lunch. "The first meet is just an introduction from your CI," says one former Dallas narcotics officer. "The guy wants to meet on neutral ground--a public place or restaurant--unless he is fixing to hijack you." Maybe the CI makes a buy, but the officer doesn't act on it; and maybe beeper, cell phone numbers and code words are exchanged. "You've got to work your way into his trust."
For larger quantities of drugs, you need a well-connected informant, someone who can introduce you to more than just your neighborhood dealer. "Officers are taught they are only as good as their CIs," Markham says. "An informant will get you there a lot quicker and safer because you don't have to spend as much time building trust."
Officers develop informants by arresting them and convincing them to snitch on their sources. Generally, if they do three deals bigger than their own, they can work off their cases. If they want to keep working, they do it for money. DeLaPaz couldn't develop an informant with much horsepower by busting dime-rock dealers, but over time the line between the targets of the street squad and other narcotics units began to blur. "Spanish-speaking officers were pushed to work Spanish-speaking informants into bigger seizures," says one former narcotics officer. DeLaPaz and his partner Herrera began working with a formidable informant, a referral to the street squad by someone in the federal task force, says another former narcotics officer.
On June 16, 1999, DeLaPaz and his informant negotiated the purchase of a half-pound of cocaine from a man who went by the street name David. The informant handed him $4,400; David handed the informant 252 grams of cocaine. No arrest was made on this "buy-walk" because officers anticipated a bigger kill. A month later, the informant and DeLaPaz convinced David--Enrique Martinez-Alonso--to sell them 3 pounds of methamphetamine for $19,500. Patrol officers stopped Alonso en route to the deal; his passenger Jose Guadalupe Ruiz was carrying more than 1,100 grams of speed in his crotch. Alonso was good for two charges, Ruiz for one, and both would later agree to work off their cases and become confidential informants.
"One day you're buying dope from a guy and sticking a gun in his face, and the next day he is working for you," says one former narcotics officer. "Then the legal system gives them tremendous power. It lets them walk into a courtroom and put other people away."
Enrique Martinez-Alonso acted as though he knew every Hispanic in Oak Cliff, East Dallas and Pleasant Grove. He had a large family himself, and though he seldom held a job, he would buy and sell cars, according to one acquaintance, attending car auctions with his friend Antonio Silva, owner of Silva's Auto Sales. As far as DeLaPaz was concerned, Alonso was just a street-smart hustler, a bit too grandiose, bragging about how he would go into a bar and drop $2,000 in an evening. He enjoyed flashy jewelry and cars, which only attracted people to him--the wrong people. That's what made him a good informant.
In July 2000, Dallas criminal defense attorney Eric Smenner represented a man accused of delivering 3 kilos of cocaine to Alonso. Alonso actually purchased 4 kilos and kept one for himself, Smenner claims. His client might have been guilty, but he was also angry, and he demanded a jury trial just so his lawyer could ask the informant one question: "What did you have down the front of your pants when you left?" Without police surveillance to corroborate what took place inside the client's condo, there was just the word of Alonso, who denied he had stolen anything. He did admit, however, that undercover officers hadn't searched him, which directly violates police procedure.
"The correct way to do a controlled buy is to search the snitch before and after he makes the buy," says Smenner, a former prosecutor and Irving police officer. "If you don't, how can you be sure the informant didn't take drugs inside someone's house just to set them up?"
After his client received a 15-year sentence, Smenner approached DeLaPaz and attempted to warn him. "I used to be a police officer, and you have a dirty snitch," Smenner recalls telling him. "You better watch him. He's going to get you into some serious trouble down the road."
By February 21, 2001, Alonso had worked off his two cases, which were dismissed by the district attorney's office at the request of the head of narcotics. He then turned paid informant and received a commission based on the value of the drugs, cash and property he helped confiscate. Money was paid based on field tests, long before the drugs were analyzed by the lab, if they ever were. The rule of thumb was 10 percent of the value of the booty: The more drugs seized, the more money he made.
"If someone is working off their cases, you can still control them, threaten to send them to the penitentiary," Barbara Markham says. "But once they become a paid informant and get a slice of the pie, they are motivated by nothing but greed."
Alonso was prolific, bringing in case after case, month after month--6 kilos, 12 kilos, 14 kilos, 24 kilos, one cocaine bust bigger than the next, each one field-testing positive for cocaine. DeLaPaz thought he was just a super-snitch, even though friends warned the officer that no informant had that many sources or could be that well-connected.
"When a person rolls and begins to work, you want to get the biggest person he's got first," Markham explains. "Because once word gets out on the street that everyone around this guy is getting busted, no one is going to deal with him anymore."
But Alonso claimed to have numerous contacts in San Antonio, Houston and Laredo, making things more difficult to verify. Then again, the big drug cases he was making might have been verification enough. Alonso was making DeLaPaz shine, and the officer needed to treat him with respect. Good informants are gold; undercover officers build entire careers around them. A "stout" CI who feels neglected or underpaid may latch on to another undercover officer.
But Alonso appeared loyal to DeLaPaz. He even brought him other informants: his brother Luis "Daniel" Alonso, who was interested in making extra money. Another friend, Roberto Gonzalez, also wanted to work, but DeLaPaz turned him down because he had some immigration problems. He had also served a federal sentence for drug conspiracy. And Jose Ruiz turned paid informant after his methamphetamine case was dismissed, at times working with his former partner in crime Alonso as a second CI, according to a source close to DeLaPaz.
Two informants working the same case seemed a recipe for disaster, requiring twice the control, twice the surveillance, twice the trust. The chance that informants who all know each other and work together might try to scam the officers increases dramatically. "Informants will turn on a narc in a heartbeat," Markham says. "After they start producing, things start to get looser, get all buddy-buddy. That's when they start to learn the work habits of the officer, the inside tricks of the operation."
Enrique Martinez-Alonso acted as though he knew many dope-dealing auto mechanics, which made perfect cop sense: Hispanic-owned auto shops might be fronts for narcotics traffickers. Dope travels in cars up from the border; mechanics have the tools to remove it from hidden compartments. Both businesses are cash-and-carry.
Jesus Mejia owned a small auto repair shop on Singleton Boulevard in Oak Cliff. Husband, father of three and legal U.S. resident, he lived peacefully in this country for 11 years and had never been in trouble with the police, his attorney claims. On August 16, when nine officers converged on his shop and placed him under arrest, he thought they were joking. "Why are you taking me?" he asked in Spanish. But the police just told him, "You know."
The arrest warrant was a bit more detailed, charging that a confidential informant (Alonso) met Mejia in his office and Mejia handed the informant 2 kilos of cocaine saying, "Bring me back the money for them, and I'll give you more." Mejia then stated he had more cocaine in a red pickup truck parked outside. As the informant was leaving to bring the 2 kilos to DeLaPaz a short distance away, he claimed he "observed" several packages in a duffel bag inside the pickup. That information was used to obtain a warrant for the vehicle, which when searched uncovered another 12 kilos inside the duffel bag.
"Just didn't happen," says Mejia's attorney C. Tony Wright. "There was never a first delivery inside, and the informant or the cops could have planted those drugs outside."
DeLaPaz had set up no surveillance of any sort, instead relying solely on the uncorroborated word of his informant. But Alonso's rendition of the facts strained credulity. Drugs aren't sold on consignment; they're sold for cash. A dealer might front drugs to someone in his organization, someone he trusted, but rarely to someone with whom he had no prior relationship. A dealer who voluntarily discloses where he keeps his stash--12 kilos in plain view--is just asking to be ripped off. Instead, he would have had good eyes watching his back, accomplices with guns, and plenty of cash from other transactions.
Yet in case after case, the same scenario played itself out. Informant goes inside an auto mechanic's shop, undercover cops set up outside, informant brings them dope. One time DeLaPaz was late to the scene, other times he was blocks away, unable to "observe the informant enter the premises where the controlled purchase is made," which Dallas narcotics procedure requires "whenever possible." The narcotics standard operating procedures are more onerous for "buy-busts," in which the arrest occurs when the buy is made, than "buy-walks," in which the arrest occurs after the buy is made, but the distinction seems artificial. Buy-busts require that a supervisor direct the operation at the scene, though most of these auto shop cases had no supervisor present; they require visual observation, a rudimentary safeguard that might ensure the wrong person is not arrested. When a suspect is arrested after the execution of a search warrant "a sergeant will ensure that after suspects are secured, they will be...interviewed/recorded as appropriate."
That just didn't happen.
"The name of the dope game is to get the big fish, and no one was willing to swim upstream," says attorney Wright. "To my knowledge, none of these people were questioned, none were interviewed."
Alonso claimed he had connections to high-level dealers in Mexico, but his biggest strikes turned out to be day laborers, Mexican immigrants who congregated at the intersection of Ross and Carroll looking for work, say their attorneys.
On July 19, Emigdio Esparza stood at the intersection, just as he did every day, hoping to find work as a painter. According to his attorney Bill Stovall, at approximately 2 p.m. two Hispanic men approached him, offering him $8 an hour to paint a room. Esparza agreed and stepped into their vehicle, but after traveling a few blocks, the men claimed they needed more painting supplies. A second vehicle, a Ford Escort, was parked nearby and the men wondered if Esparza would drive it to a 7-Eleven on East Grand. That's where their boss would be waiting, and they could then caravan to the job site.
When Esparza arrived at the convenience store, Alonso and DeLaPaz pulled up in a white Lincoln Continental. Alonso approached Esparza out of the earshot of DeLaPaz, who remained in the car. Esparza gave the car keys to Alonso, who immediately opened the trunk of the vehicle, according to Stovall, and looked inside. As they both peered at four black trash bags inside the trunk, Esparza grew suspicious. "Does this have anything to do with drugs?" he asked Alonso, who brushed aside his fears and told him to follow them to the job site. Using the pretext of a traffic violation, patrol officers detained Esparza long enough for Herrera to obtain a search warrant. Confiscated were 68 kilos of what police claimed to be cocaine, though the arrest affidavit does not reflect whether any field tests were performed.
On August 6, Stovall scheduled an examining trial, a proceeding used by criminal lawyers to discover evidence. Greg Long, the chief prosecutor of the District Attorney's Organized Crime Division, called Officer Eddie Herrera to present his case. Herrera testified he had set up visual surveillance at the convenience store because a confidential informant (Alonso) had given them information that a suspect was "bringing a large amount of cocaine to Dallas" from Houston.
"But I mean, there is no way we could exactly be sure where it was coming from," Herrera testified. Since the informant wasn't wearing a wire and the police were in no position to hear, Herrera was relying on the informant's word that when Esparza was in the parking lot, he had told the informant, "It's in the trunk [referring to the cocaine]." Herrera also testified that the informant was being "fronted the 60 kilos," meaning no cash was required for the $6 million worth of drugs, even though the informant had never dealt with the suspect and had only made the deal that day.
"Is this one of the largest cocaine seizures you are aware of in the history of the city of Dallas?" Long asked.
"It's one of the largest that I have been involved in in my nine years as a police officer," Herrera said.
That is, until two weeks later.
On August 19, a light brown car followed by a Chevy Astro minivan approached Denny Ramirez and Daniel Licea, also day laborers, also standing at the intersection of Ross and Carroll. According to Ramirez's attorney, Adrianna Martinez Goodland, each vehicle was driven by a Hispanic man, one of whom said his name was Enrique and asked Ramirez and Licea if they wanted a job building houses. The pay would be $40 a day. The men said they had to buy more construction supplies at Home Depot and asked them if Licea would drive the van to a Jack in the Box restaurant on West Illinois Avenue where they would meet and go to the house. The two laborers agreed, arriving at the Jack in the Box first, Goodland says, going inside to eat lunch and leaving the van unattended with its windows down and doors unlocked.
The narcotics division treated this as a major buy-bust operation. Ten narcotics detectives, two narcotics sergeants and five patrol officers staked out the Jack in the Box. DeLaPaz wore a wire; a police helicopter flew overhead, and a surveillance team was set to capture the transaction on videotape. If DeLaPaz knew this was a bogus bust, his attempt to pull it off so openly was either daring or foolish.
DeLaPaz denies knowing that Ramirez and Licea were day laborers who had been duped into driving vehicles loaded with drugs, fake or otherwise, according to sources close to DeLaPaz. He insists that both suspects knew they were in the middle of a dope deal and claims he was only acting on information supplied by Alonso, who said he was expecting a large shipment of cocaine from one Jose Luis, someone he claimed to be dealing with in Laredo. Alonso also claimed that he and Luis once had a falling out but had now patched things up. DeLaPaz spoke to a man on Alonso's cell phone; he said he was Jose Luis, though the caller ID was blocked. When DeLaPaz approached Denny Ramirez in the Jack in the Box parking lot, according to the arrest report, Ramirez said that Luis had sent them, although there is no audio recording of this part of the conversation.
The videotape makes Ramirez and Licea seem unaware and unfocused, more interested in finishing a soda than delivering 76 kilos of cocaine. Even if these were mules, employees of Jose Luis hired to deliver his dope, losing $7 million in drugs could cost them their lives. Yet Licea handed the van's keys to Alonso, offering to let him drive. It seemed surprising that he would surrender control of the drugs without word from Luis that he had money in hand. Unless, of course, Luis was willing to deal on credit with Alonso, someone with whom he once had a falling out, and with DeLaPaz, someone he had never met. That is, if Jose Luis even existed.
Not that it made a difference that day. Herrera had field-tested the powder and, according to police reports, it proved positive. The operation was a huge success. The media were alerted that the narcotics unit had made one of the largest drug busts in the department's history. Seventy-eight green packaged bricks of cocaine--76,512 grams--were wheeled out for display. Partly on the strength of busts like these, Officer DeLaPaz would be nominated for Officer of the Year; his lieutenant, William Turnage, would receive a promotion to deputy chief. The streets were just that much safer. The Dallas Police Department was on the job.
Two weeks later, on August 27, Assistant District Attorney Long phoned DeLaPaz, say police sources close to the officer. There was a problem with one of his bigger seizures from yet another day laborer, Hugo Rosas. His attorney filed a motion to analyze the 42 kilos of purported cocaine. So far only 1 kilo had been analyzed. It was fake.
Even though District Attorney Bill Hill would later praise his staff for exposing the injustices of the fake-drug scandal in a timely, ethical fashion, in several instances, prosecutors hustled pleas on lesser offenses in an apparent attempt to salvage something from these cases weeks after they knew they were problematic. Defense attorneys would also accuse prosecutors of withholding exculpatory information about their clients' cases, information that assailed the credibility of undercover officers and their informant, information prosecutors had a duty under the law to disclose.
Truth is, if not for the work of a few determined criminal lawyers, these defendants would have languished in jail much longer than the several months they had already spent. One of these attorneys was Cynthia Barbare, who had little more to go on than a gut feeling, she says, a strong hunch that things didn't add up. But there was something about her client Jose Vega that convinced her that he had been framed. It might have been the distraught plea of Adriana Vega, who swore her husband was innocent when arrested for possessing 25 kilos of cocaine on his job as a mechanic in Oak Cliff. Or it might have been the look of Vega's hands when Barbare visited him in jail--greasy fingers, broken nails, the look of a working man, not a drug dealer.
The facts of the case made no sense: a credit buy, no guns or cash seized, no accomplices, just a lone mechanic working under his car charged on the uncorroborated word of a confidential informant. And with 25 kilos, why weren't the feds called in? The DEA or FBI might be interested in knowing a little more about Vega.
By the end of August, Barbare had voiced her concerns to Chris Woodward, the prosecutor assigned to the case. But this wasn't the first time Woodward had heard these complaints. Attorney Nadine King-Mays represented Victor Alvarado, who was accused of selling 4 ounces of cocaine to a confidential informant, the entire transaction allegedly witnessed by Officer DeLaPaz. Alvarado, a Mexican national, claimed he was simply getting his car repaired at an auto shop near Fair Park when the police raided the shop and arrested him. Despite positive field tests, King-Mays insisted the forensic laboratory test the drugs. On August 21, the Southwestern Institute of Forensic Sciences mailed prosecutors its results. The 4 ounces contained a trace amount of cocaine but not enough "for quantification." Prosecutors refused to dismiss the case, choosing to proceed on a lesser charge. When the case was called for trial on September 10, however, it was dismissed. Undercover officers couldn't locate their informant, Roberto Santos, despite him being a friend of Enrique Martinez-Alonso.
"The cops lost the money [$2,500 in buy-bust money was not recovered]. They had fake drugs, and they had no informant," King-Mays says. "I couldn't understand why no one was acting suspicious."
To convince prosecutors of Vega's innocence, Barbare had her client polygraphed by examiner Joe Morris, a former Dallas police officer. Not only did Vega pass the polygraph, but the examiner was stunned by the similarities between his case and the case of Jesus Mejia, another Hispanic auto mechanic who had passed one of his polygraphs. Same credit buys, same two undercover officers, same implausible facts. Morris was so suspicious of these coincidences, he met with producer Mark Smith at WFAA in early November and tipped him to the story. And once Barbare and Mejia's attorney, C. Tony Wright, compared notes, they spread the word among other criminal lawyers: Ask for drug tests in your big seizure cases; don't plead anyone busted by DeLaPaz and Herrera; there may be an outside investigation. The FBI may be involved.
But at this point the only investigation was internal and remarkably well-contained. A source close to DeLaPaz says that after Greg Long phoned him about the problems in the Rosas case, DeLaPaz immediately notified his chain of command. On September 11, he was summoned to a meeting with Sergeant Jack Gouge, Lieutenant Turnage and Deputy Chief John Martinez, who helps oversee the narcotics division. DeLaPaz had learned about the final lab results in the Rosas case. All but trace amounts of the remaining 41 kilos was gypsum.
"Martinez instructed DeLaPaz to find out how bad things were," says a source close to DeLaPaz. "He told him to take all the drugs on the big seizure cases to the lab for analysis...He said he didn't want this getting to 106 [meaning Chief Bolton, who claims he didn't learn about any fake-drug case until Christmas Eve, more than three and a half months later]." After all, the damage could be limited to an isolated case; and these supervisors had some exposure themselves, paying Enrique Martinez-Alonso more than $210,000 for his work as an informant. The Jack in the Box bust alone netted Alonso $50,000, and Martinez had authorized all informant payments above $5,000--even before the drugs were analyzed.
Between September 25 and October 9, the district attorney's office received lab reports that found trace amounts of cocaine or no cocaine in at least four more cases. According to DPD, an assistant district attorney in September told "a narcotics supervisor" that the largest bust of the batch--the arrest of Denny Ramirez and Daniel Licea at the Jack in the Box--contained nothing but gypsum.
Alonso claimed he didn't know anything about fake drugs. "He said you must have a problem with your lab," says a source close to DeLaPaz. And DeLaPaz claimed he was just doing his job, seizing the dope that his informant had brought him, relying on the positive field tests conducted by at least a half a dozen other officers that showed the seized drugs were cocaine.
Martinez and Turnage told DeLaPaz to polygraph Alonso, who passed the examination given by a police operator on October 12. "What that meant to DeLaPaz and his superiors was that someone either hijacked the real load or was trying to sell bad drugs," says DeLaPaz's attorney Bob Baskett. Prosecutor Greg Long told Cynthia Barbare that he now thought a big supplier in Mexico was testing the informant, supplying him with fake drugs to see if he was a snitch. "But I wasn't buying it," she says. "In my client's case, the informant didn't buy dope from Mexico; he supposedly bought it from my client in Oak Cliff." And besides, dope dealing is a business. If you put 1,000 pounds of fake drugs on the street, you will either lose customers or your life.
The polygraph results were all the justification his supervisors needed. DeLaPaz was instructed to keep working his informant Alonso. That DeLaPaz might have to swear under oath in a search warrant that the information Alonso had provided in the past proved "true and correct on each and every occasion" didn't seem to matter. It did matter, however, to Estanisleo Mendoza, accused of possessing more than 28 pounds of methamphetamine in a raid that netted narcotics officers 28 pounds of gypsum--a week after Alonso took the polygraph.
Seven weeks after Yvonne Gwyn was arrested, she bonded out of jail, her bail lowered from $2 million to $4,000. Of the 30 kilos of cocaine seized out of the Honda Civic parked in her detail shop driveway, all but a nominal amount, says her attorney Andy Konradi, was analyzed as ground gypsum. Although District Attorney Hill contended his office stopped taking "pleas" in the "fake-drug cases" by November 12, prosecutors offered to plead Gwyn to probation on a lesser charge in mid-December. She refused.
Awaiting trial, she returned to her shop and found the Honda still parked outside her business. The police had neither seized it nor sold it. Her son had learned the car had been purchased from Silva's Auto Sales on the same day she was arrested. She knew Antonio Silva, knew that he was the friend of a man named David--one of her customers who drove a white Lincoln Continental. She had cleaned his car as well as his boat and recalled Silva coming to her shop, looking for David so they could attend a car auction.
A week after her release, Gwyn heard that someone else, "a Spanish man" named Jorge Hernandez, had been arrested for drugs at Silva's, even though he was just a customer, trying to get parts for his pickup truck. She drove the few blocks to Silva's, hoping to learn more, and there, sitting outside the garage in his Lincoln, was David. "I don't want to be close to you because you're a big-time drug dealer," he joked. But Gwyn wasn't laughing, particularly when she later identified David as Enrique Martinez-Alonso, the man she believes framed her.
But that wasn't Silva's only connection to a vehicle planted with fake drugs. In the days before the Ramirez-Licea arrest at Jack in the Box, Silva says he repaired the same Chevy Astro minivan that allegedly carried a large shipment of cocaine from Mexico. "The same for the Honda is the same for the van," Silva claims. "Someone brought it in and paid me money to fix it up. A thousand dollars for the van." He refuses to identify who hired him to work on the vehicles. "I am clean. I just fix the car."
By mid-December, lab tests were routinely coming back negative or close to it. Prosecutors dismissed charges on a dozen or so defendants, offering cut-rate deals to others. The Internal Affairs and the Public Integrity divisions of the Dallas Police Department had begun to investigate. WFAA's Brett Shipp and Mark Smith, as well as The Dallas Morning News, were snooping around, filing open-records requests with the police department, asking for narcotics procedures, informant payments, disciplinary records on all narcotics officers. WFAA broke the story on December 31, a week after Bolton says he learned about the problems. In what appeared to be a preventive strike, Bolton called a news conference just before New Year's Eve. He wheeled out dozens of kilos of fake cocaine mostly packaged in green cellophane-wrapped bags. Next to the fake drugs was a large stockpile of guns, few of which could have been seized during the fake-drug raids since only two weapons were taken in those cases. Bolton said he did not believe the problem was the informant or the officers, but rather drug dealers who were selling large quantities of fake drugs. It was "a blessing," he said, that drug users weren't seriously harmed by ingesting gypsum.
"I think the system worked," he said. "We discovered it."
Chief Bolton was right about one thing; the system did work. It worked too slowly, too casually, too callously. It worked to deprive too many innocent people of their liberty for far too long. His news conference placated no one: not his critics on the city council, not the media, not even police officers, some of whom found the idea that he had saved drug users from a pitiful fate almost laughable. Others just believed he raised more questions than he answered: How could drugs that tested positive in the field then test negative in the lab? Were the officers lying, the tests not conducted or flawed? And if the officers were lying about the field tests, what else were they lying about? Hijacking real drugs? Planting fake ones? Shaking down informants by getting kickbacks on their bounty?
In November, DeLaPaz filed for bankruptcy, which raised the possibility of money as motive. He and his wife had been living above their means, servicing $62,000 of credit card debt, $41,000 of car loans and a $224,000 mortgage. But bankruptcy brings the government into your finances. Why draw that kind of attention to yourself unless it's a calculated ruse to throw investigators off track? Why would somebody who was dealing in cash or drugs, stealing large shipments of cocaine, have credit card debt in the first place?
On January 15, Bolton placed DeLaPaz and Herrera on paid administrative leave pending the results of DPD's internal investigation. An outside investigation, however, would avoid the appearance of impropriety that results when the police investigate themselves. And with front-page headlines and scandalous revelations stoking public interest, Bolton put his own investigation on hold after Bill Hill asked the FBI to intervene.
Lawyers for DeLaPaz, however, claim the FBI hasn't bothered to approach them. "The police put my client on administrative leave; he gets beaten about the head and shoulders by the media; he even passes a polygraph proving he knew nothing about fake drugs," says attorney Bob Baskett. "And I still can't get the FBI to tell me what they say he did."
The FBI seemed more concerned with interviewing the several informants in the fake-drug cases, particularly Enrique Martinez-Alonso, who not only claimed the drugs in his busts were real, but also that someone was trying to kill him. He filed two police reports--on January 10 and January 21--claiming on each occasion that an unidentified driver had shot up his Lincoln and sped away. He even had the bullet holes to prove it. "He said it was Jose Luis [the alleged Mexican drug dealer who had lost his shipment in the Jack in the Box bust]," says a source close to DeLaPaz. "He had come to his friend's shop on Fort Worth Avenue and was looking to kill him...But he [Alonso] might have made up the whole thing."
Although Alonso wanted to sue WFAA for displaying his image on television, he quickly became something of a media darling, speaking on the condition of anonymity and granting interviews with broadcast and print media alike. He claimed the police still owed him money, that snitching was more enjoyable than drug dealing, that he only made good cases. He continued to grant interviews even after the FBI jailed him for fraudulently obtaining a Social Security card. He also began to do what informants do best: inform.
According to a source close to Alonso, he told the FBI that he hadn't done all the deals that the police claimed he had done. Many he knew nothing about, some he had subcontracted out: a few to his brother Luis "Daniel" Alonso, whom DeLaPaz had signed up as an informant, others to his friend Roberto Gonzalez, who had too many federal problems for DeLaPaz to work. Alonso used him anyway, even though subcontracting would be a flagrant violation of proper narcotics procedure. Based on information Alonso provided, federal authorities arrested Roberto Gonzalez on February 25 and charged him with illegal re-entry into the United States.
It was now Gonzalez's turn to roll over on Alonso. According to a source close to Alonso, Assistant U.S. Attorney Rose Romero phoned Alonso's attorney John Key and told him she thought his client was lying. She said another informant (Gonzalez) admitted setting people up with fake drugs and implicated Alonso. "She indicated that the fake drugs weren't Sheetrock at all but pool-hall chalk," the source says. "It came in big 4-inch cylinders that were shaved down to look like kilos."
Much of this would later be confirmed by Gonzalez's attorney Karl Rupp in interviews he gave to WFAA and the Morning News in mid-April. Based on his client's cooperation, the FBI had confiscated billiard chalk cones from the home of Jose Ruiz--the man with speed tucked down his pants who was arrested with Alonso. Investigators also discovered invoices for large amounts of chalk from Billiards and Bar Stools, a Lewisville billiards supply store. The cones, used by players to dust their hands, contained gypsum, the same substance found in the fake-drug cases. The store's invoices reflected that someone who represented himself as "Luis Alonso"--the name of Enrique's brother and a paid informant--purchased 234 pounds of chalk on three different occasions over the summer. One purchase was the day before Ramirez and Licea were arrested at Jack in the Box; another was the day before Emigdio Esparza was arrested after meeting Enrique and DeLaPaz at 7-Eleven. Luis Alonso would later deny he purchased the billiard chalk.
Rupp maintained that informants had also purchased at least two vehicles at Silva's Auto Sales, a common meeting place for the informants. The vehicles were then loaded with the fake drugs to set up unsuspecting defendants. This, of course, was no news to Yvonne Gwyn.
There are those who refuse to believe that any of this could have occurred without dirty cops. "No way these cops were duped. This was a money deal," claims attorney Barbare, who believes that undercover officers were either splitting seizure payments with informants or pocketing the payments themselves.
These were veteran narcotics officers, she adds, how could they not know the difference between gypsum and cocaine? Cocaine is flaky and has a crystal-like sheen; gypsum is dusty and dull. And once you smell methamphetamine, you'll never forget it. Its harsh odor leaps right out of its packaging. Didn't anyone bother to cut open a kilo, hold it in his hand, take photographs so he could brag about the bust of a lifetime?
"Even if you believe the cops were duped by their informants, you can't get around the field tests," says Dallas attorney Don Tittle, who represents several of the fake-drug defendants in their federal civil rights action against the city and the officers. "That's the biggest weakness in their story."
Turns out, however, field tests are far from infallible. The tests, which contain packets of chemicals that change color to indicate the presence of drugs, can register false positives, reacting to acetone, alcohol and certain soaps and detergents, though there is no positive response to gypsum. "If anything, the field tests are super-sensitive," says Dr. James Woodford, a forensic chemist and expert witness. "So if you salt or spike a larger sample with a tiny amount, you can get a positive result." If the informants "salted the mine" before they packaged the fake drugs, that might account for positive field tests.
Arrest reports reflect that at least six different officers performed the field tests in the 20 or so cases where the lab analysis found large quantities of gypsum. So if they lied about the field-test results or didn't perform the tests, they, too, might be implicated in a broader conspiracy.
"Of all the cases we dismissed [69 cases on 46 defendants]," says District Attorney Bill Hill, "only six or seven defendants had no controlled substances whatsoever." The rest of the cases had trace or small amounts of drugs--or were dismissed, Hill says, because they were tainted by questions regarding the credibility of the officers and their informants.
Following the money may be the only way to connect DeLaPaz and Herrera to any wrongdoing. Enrique Martinez-Alonso and Jose Ruiz now claim the police forged their signatures on informant pay vouchers, allegations attorneys for DeLaPaz adamantly deny. Alonso says he received only $50,000 of the $210,000 police records reflect he was paid. Ruiz's attorney claims he was never a paid informant. A handwriting expert could resolve the swearing match if and when the FBI decides to take sides.
The same swearing match would occur if the feds went after the officers for conspiring to deprive these former drug suspects of their civil rights. For the other informants, Alonso was the gatekeeper to the police, jealously guarding his position with them, says one source close to the investigation, because that was his connection to the money. Ironically, if Alonso implicates the police, he will have to offer more than just his uncorroborated testimony. That corroboration might come from a money trail or the factual coincidences among the fake-drug cases: no follow-up investigation to get to the source of the drugs, no confiscated vehicles to expose their true owner, no FBI or DEA involvement, which keeps DeLaPaz and Herrera in control of the cases.
But if these officers were dirty, they were dirty and dumb. They would have to know it was just a matter of time before they got caught. Eventually an innocent defendant would insist his lawyer plead him not guilty. Eventually a prosecutor would make a plea offer so high that the case was going to get tried. Eventually the drugs would be analyzed and the scam exposed, which is exactly what happened.
But if an informant learns that the dope he helps seize isn't being analyzed, and he gets paid anyway, he might try to play the cops, plant some fake drugs in a small amount, see what he can get away with. Since it worked the first time, he might do it again and again, each time in larger quantities, each time earning more money--until he gets caught. "That's how they become informants in the first place," says one former undercover officer. "They keep doing it until they get caught."
It seems easier somehow, more comforting, to blame this scandal on shoddy police work, on cranking out numbers, on willful blindness, on a super-snitch who controlled a narc rather than a narc who controlled his snitch. That way we can content ourselves by tightening a few procedures, making certain that drugs are now analyzed before indictment, that the rank and file is better trained in field testing, that supervisors have more checks and balances over financial matters. That way we don't have to look at how we encourage greedy informants to lie for a living. That way we don't have to look at the reasons why the drug war muddies everything it touches. That way we can kid ourselves like Chief Bolton did and proclaim the system works.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Observer's biggest stories.