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July 13, 2008 -- Tallahassee Democrat (FL)

Friends Provide A Glimpse Into [Rachel] Hoffman's Final Night

By Jennifer Portman, Democrat Senior Writer

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Rachel Hoffman wasn't worried. It was she, two of her closest friends say, who reassured them that nothing bad would happen if she helped the Tallahassee Police Department catch a couple of drug dealers.

She wouldn't go to jail for the less than half a pound of marijuana and handful of Ecstasy tabs police had found when they busted her at her apartment in April and asked her to become a confidential informant. She wouldn't get in trouble for violating the terms of her court-ordered drug diversion program. Her parents wouldn't find out.

The 23-year-old Florida State graduate would finally be able to get out of Tallahassee with her psychology degree and go to culinary school, where she could nurture her passion for food.

"The police told her all she had to do was one big deal; that's all she had to do," her boyfriend said, on the condition that his name not be used. "I told her, 'Don't believe everything they tell you.'"

Her boyfriend, 23, and another close friend sat down with the Tallahassee Democrat last week, two months after Hoffman's undercover work got her killed. As questions about police procedure pile up and two defendants wait in jail for a grand jury to consider murder charges, her friends' recollections shed light on her last night and on the path that led to it.

'Police Will Save Me'

The police told her they'd never lost an informant. She'd be wired, she told her friends, and they'd be watching her all the time. When the deal went down, they'd all come pouring out of unmarked cars like the agents in her favorite reality show, "DEA," which follows federal officers fighting drug crime in Detroit.

"She said, 'Don't worry about it "" the police are going to swoop in and save me,'" her boyfriend said.

Hoffman wanted to watch her own real-life drama go down. Her friend Liza agreed to be there May 7 to shoot video when the bust happened. Except the planned buy at Forestmeadows Park was derailed and no video was shot.

"She wasn't scared, she wasn't nervous," said Liza, who agreed to the interview provided her last name was withheld. "She was like, 'You guys worry too much.' She said the worst thing (the police) said would happen is they might have to tackle her to the ground."

When officers came looking for Hoffman before dawn May 8, about seven hours after she was to have bought drugs and a handgun from Andrea Green and Deneilo Bradshaw at the park in northern Leon County, both her boyfriend and Liza told them the same thing: "I thought she was with you guys."

Hoffman's boyfriend remembers one of the two officers at his door around 2:30 a.m. replying, "She was, until she went crazy."

The following morning police finally found Hoffman, dead of multiple gunshot wounds, 50 miles away in Taylor County woods.

When It All Began

Immediately after Tallahassee police raided her apartment April 17, Hoffman went to her boyfriend's house and told him about the deal she'd cut. Over the next three weeks, she would tell him and Liza all about her work as a confidential informant.

"They wanted her to turn in her friends, and she wouldn't do that," said Liza, a 24-year-old FSU graduate student. "She said she wanted to get some grimy people off the street. She wanted to get bad guys."

At first she agreed to give up a guy she knew who dealt drugs and sometimes bought pot from her, her friends said. But after one controlled call from the police station, she confessed to him she was working for the police and asked him to help her find someone else to turn in.

Her friends said he hooked her up with Bradshaw and Green, who worked at a car detailing shop on Tennessee Street where she'd had her Volvo cleaned. One guy working there had smelled the aroma of pot in her car earlier this year and she'd offered to come back with a joint for a tip, but she never did.

Toward the end of April, she was set to go back to the area of the detailing shop, this time wired by police. Liza was ready with the video camera so Hoffman could see for herself what happened. She was planning to write a book about her life.

But when Bradshaw and Green said they couldn't come up with all the Ecstasy pills she was told to ask for, the bust was called off.

Hoffman liked the officers she was working with. She told Liza that her main contact, Investigator Ryan Pender, was cool. He joked with her; officers playfully teased her for being a hippie. When Pender saw that his real name was listed as a contact in her cell phone, he told her she should change it. He suggested his new handle, her boyfriend said: "Pooh Bear."

The weekend before she was killed, Hoffman hung out with her boyfriend, Liza and other friends at St. George Island and St. Teresa.

"The whole time we were at the beach she was on the phone with Pender," her boyfriend said, working to set up another bust attempt.

She and her boyfriend came back Monday morning. She went to the police station that evening to plan a second try.

Her boyfriend was suspicious of the set-up, the cocaine, the large number of pills, the gun. Hoffman, her friends said, hated guns. She'd told Bradshaw and Green she was trying to get the stuff for friends in Miami, he said. Then he learned she'd have $12,000 to $15,000 in cash.

"I said, 'That sounds so sketchy,'" he said. "I told her she was going to get robbed."

The Last Day

On Wednesday, May 7, Hoffman dropped her car off to be serviced at the Volvo dealership on West Tennessee so she could drive down to southwest Florida that weekend to see her mom on Mother's Day. The courtesy van took her home, and she slept most of the day. Pender called around 3:30 p.m., her boyfriend said. Tonight was the night.

A little after 4 p.m., Hoffman's boyfriend said he drove her to her usual weekly drug test, which she passed by cheating with the help of The Whizzinator tucked under her skirt. Then he dropped her off at the dealership.

"I drove her to her drug test and I drove her to get her car and that's the last I saw her," he said. "She looked over her shoulder and gave me a wave."

Hoffman, her friends said, sent between 50 and 100 text messages a day. The day of the controlled bust was no different. Her boyfriend and Liza got what may have been her last ones. They help fill in the fragmented timeline offered by police in Bradshaw and Green's arrest affidavit.

At 6:34 p.m., she messaged her boyfriend: "I just got wired up. Wish me luck. I'm on my way."

At about 6:40 p.m. police say, Hoffman got a call from Green telling her to forget the park and instead meet him in the nearby parking lot of Royalty Plant Nursery, just north on Meridian Road. Hoffman then called Pender "" the time is not noted in the police affidavit "" and said she was following Green. The officer told her not to go, then the call ended.

At 6:41 p.m. Hoffman's boyfriend received his last message from her: "It's about to go down."

At about 6:45 p.m. police say they lost contact with Hoffman.

Then, at 6:47 p.m., Liza received Hoffman's last message, calling off the video her friend was set to make of the SWAT team charging in: "It's far. I'll call you after."

But Liza was almost at Forestmeadows already, so she kept going. She got to the park about 7:15 p.m. People were playing tennis; kids were in the playground. There was no sign of her friend or police. She decided to drive north on Meridian, past the nursery, past Gardner Road "" where bullet casings and Hoffman's black flip-flop were later found "" all the way to Georgia. She drove with the radio off and windows down, but never saw a cop, never heard a siren.

Neither Hoffman's boyfriend nor Liza was concerned when communication with their friend ended. Liza figured all went well and Hoffman was with her boyfriend. He thought she may have been arrested with Bradshaw and Green as part of the sting.

"I wasn't worried," Liza said. "The outcome that happened never really crossed my mind."

Hoffman's boyfriend messaged her at 9 p.m. but got no reply. He drove by her house around midnight and saw police cars near her apartment, but her car wasn't there. He tried to find out if she had been booked into jail, then fell asleep.

The Day After

Police went to his parents' house around 2 a.m., looking for him. Two robbery detectives in dress shirts got to his place about a half-hour later. He did not let them inside but told them Hoffman wasn't there.

At about 3 a.m. police in bulletproof vests knocked on the door of another friend's house where Liza was spending the night. She, too, told them she thought Hoffman was with police.

Even then Liza didn't panic. Maybe her friend had just been robbed and dropped off somewhere. Maybe she was hiding out in the woods.

"She's really, really strong. I've never seen her cry," Liza said. "If she had a chance (to get away), she would have taken it."

When Hoffman's boyfriend woke up around 9 a.m., he checked and saw the alert that she was missing.

Liza went to Hoffman's apartment in the morning and the maintenance man let her in to feed her cat Bentley. She saw blue vinyl gloves in the trash; the couch cushions were turned over; Hoffman's bong was gone. It was clear to Liza the police had been there that morning.

Her boyfriend, Liza and other friends gathered at Hoffman's apartment that afternoon. Her parents had arrived. They helped clean up the place, did some dishes, ate leftovers out of the refrigerator and talked about Hoffman in the present tense.

"She was such a fantastic cook," Liza said, remembering Hoffman's gumbo and huge dinner parties where she would feed anyone who was hungry. "We were all trying to stay positive."

The friends left around midnight and her father, mother and stepfather slept at their daughter's place. About 9 a.m. the next day Hoffman's mother called Liza, telling her to call everyone else and come back to the apartment.

"I was the first one there," Liza said. "(Her mother) cried to me, 'She's dead!'"

'We Want to Know'

Police say Hoffman violated protocols by not listening to them and following the men who are now charged with robbing her and led police to her body.

But her friends say she was vulnerable, had no training and should never have been put in such a dangerous situation.

"No one should have to bury their daughter for a half-pound of marijuana," Liza said. "We want to know what happened, but her parents have a right to know."

Hoffman's boyfriend hopes he finds out what went so wrong after he received his last text from her: "I think everyone in Tallahassee has a right to know."

Also visit our "Informants: Resources for a Snitch Culture" section.

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