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Dirty or Duped?

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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."

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Mark Donald
Contact: Mark Donald