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In December 2004, Roy Combs, a career criminal who ran a South Dallas car lot, was named as one of 23 members of a criminal organization that smuggled hundreds of pounds of cocaine each month from Mexico to Dallas and beyond, including Oklahoma, Mississippi and Ohio. The U.S. Attorney's Office would later call the case one of the largest prosecutions of a local narcotics ring in recent memory.

Today, Combs, 47, is in a federal penitentiary in El Reno, Oklahoma. Barring early release, he'll be there until he's 72. But he insists he is innocent. Combs admits that he acted as a middleman between drug runners and dealers in the loosely structured Juan Pablo Elizondo organization, but he says he did so because he was working as an informant for the Dallas Police Department. In court testimony, Combs' handler at the Police Department—a narcotics detective named Brenita Dunn—said the DPD had terminated their relationship with Combs before federal agents caught him on a wiretap making drug deals with members of the Elizondo organization. But Combs says that's not true and that he has phone records to prove it. He filed suit against Dallas police in January, and his case is pending.

It all began on October 17, 2002, at Combs' South Side Auto, a car lot near Fair Park. After work that day, Combs told his employees to follow him to the house of another employee where he'd pick up some dog food and pay them their wages. Combs said he and another employee were loading the dog food into his car when they heard DPD squad cars approaching. Combs said he then watched in shock as police officers stormed the house. He'd later admit that guns and drugs were found in the house (cops said it was a known drug house) and that when they searched Combs' car they found a gun and $300,000 in canceled checks, which he said were from his used car lot. Combs, who was on probation, was arrested on drug charges and booked at Lew Sterrett Justice Center.

Faced with the prospect of a long prison sentence because of his status as a career offender, Combs said he agreed to work as an informant with the Dallas Police Department. According to Combs' attorney, Charles Bloeser of Nashville, the agreement was made in January 2003 during a 10-minute conversation with Detective Dunn and her supervisor at a Minyard's parking lot. They told Combs he was obligated to make three felony-level purchases of marijuana or cocaine that lead to three separate arrests, and he would have to do so within a 90-day period, Bloeser said. In exchange, the 2002 drug case against him would be dropped (a case that was ultimately dismissed for lack of evidence).

From the beginning, Combs said it was unclear what he could and couldn't do as an informant. Still, he says he tried to keep in close contact with Dunn, and cell phone records during this period indicate he called her nearly every week. On January 24, 2003, Combs made a buy that resulted in two arrests, Bloeser said, but the DPD only counted it as one. He says Dunn told Combs he had to arrange two more buys that resulted in arrests before they could dismiss the 2002 charge.

"I was trapped, it was like she owned me," Combs wrote the Dallas Observer in a letter.

Dunn would later testify that she had an argument with Combs in March 2003 and stopped taking his calls. It was during this time that Combs arranged a deal with Martin Cruz, an alleged member of the Elizondo organization. Combs says he was setting up this deal because Dunn had told him to, and phone records during this time indicate that every time he called or heard from Cruz, he also called Dunn. His phone calls to Cruz would form the basis of the federal government's case against him.

In court testimony, Dunn said she believed Combs was double-dipping—meaning he was acting as an informant while setting up deals for himself on the side. Combs' former attorney, Sam Hudson, who helped him become an informant, says Combs was simply playing the part.

"My position is that he's got to act like he's in that stuff, you know?" Hudson says. "And he's got to be calling people and acting like he's in that stuff. And they said that some of his calls wasn't authorized or something. But they authorized him to snitch, and to actually perform properly in that respect you've got to ask for calls and make calls at the right time and then give information to them. Well, I don't know to this day why they all the sudden turned on him. Because previously he had taken down some people that they never would have been able to get to."

The use of informants is seen as an essential element of the drug war, but there are few, if any, safeguards in place to protect them. Unlike a plea bargain, which is detailed and public, informants enter into secret agreements that "are vague and open-ended," according to a 2004 study by Loyola Law School professor Alexandra Natapoff. Sometimes the agreement is made in writing, and sometimes it is not. As a result, informants can easily be taken advantage of. A reward for cooperation may range from a clean record to a reduced sentence to nothing at all if the handler decides the information is no good, Natapoff writes. Certain crimes are allowed, while others are not. Sometimes an arrangement can last for years.

It is entirely possible, then, that Combs' story is true, although he does have a credibility problem: Since 1979, he has been charged with murder, attempted murder, aggravated robbery, possession and a long list of other crimes. It is worth noting, however, that the DPD thought him credible enough to use him as an informant.

In the end it's hard to know what to believe. Even one of Combs' friends says she thinks Combs was "up to his eyeballs" in illegal activity when he was acting as an informant, although his former attorney, Hudson, said it was all part of the game of being a snitch.

"This stuff is very, very uncertain," Hudson says. "You don't know when you're all right with [the police] and when you're not, what's authorized and what's not."

Combs has tried repeatedly to have his conviction overturned, but to no avail. His most recent appeal for a new trial was denied, and his attorney now plans to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. The DPD did not respond to repeated requests for comment. The U.S. Attorney's Office also declined comment.

"I did not take thousands of dollars from the DPD nor sell kilos of fake drugs to entrap Mexican people," Combs writes in reference to the 2001 fake-drugs scandal. "I helped arrest real drug dealers and seize real narcotics. And what is my pay? A lifetime behind bars and the ending of that honest life."