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December 12, 2004 - The Fresno Bee (CA)

Hidden Role In Drug World

Informants Used In Most Narcotics Busts In Fresno This Year

By Tim Eberly

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

The short man with the thick mustache is a liar. His life depends on it.

He tells people he works as a gardener, a rancher -- anything that pops into his head.

"I say whatever's on my mind at the time," the 30-year-old Fresno man says.

Except for the truth.

He makes his living as an informant for the Fresno Police Department's narcotics unit, lurking in Fresno's drug underworld, posing as a drug dealer or buyer looking for the next big score. Informants are valuable tools for law enforcement, acting as middlemen between criminals and narcotics officers to build cases. When informants vouch for undercover agents, it gives officers street credibility -- a free pass to mingle among criminals.

To protect their identities, informants are not named in this story.

As of Thursday, the narcotics unit reported seizing $4.5 million worth of illegal drugs this year, including 470 pounds of marijuana and 122 pounds of methamphetamine. In at least 90% of those approximately 85 cases, informants were used to set up the drug dealers, says Sgt. Alex Flores, the unit's supervisor.

"They're a vital part of narcotics work," Flores says. "The stats speak for themselves. Without them, it would be nearly impossible."

Most informants work for cash. The bigger the bust, the more they get. About 50 of them work for the narcotics unit. For the Fresno man and about a dozen other informants, it's their only source of income.

Informants are mostly used in drug investigations, but other police units employ them, too. Fresno police Sgt. Daryl Green, supervisor of the vice unit, has two paid informants, both men, who help him with undercover stings targeting prostitutes and exotic dance companies.

"You can't take an officer and just inject him in a group of people," Green says.

The Fresno man became a drug informant 13 years ago because, he says, "it's a good way to make money, to clean up the streets."

Compared to him, the 35-year-old woman with long dark hair and soft features is a rookie. A part-time paid informant, she works full time in food service. But she has shown potential as a "helper," the nickname the narcotics unit uses for informants.

She became an informant several months ago after her live-in boyfriend sought treatment for his meth addiction. She has seen drugs ruin other lives around her; last year, her 17-year-old brother died from a meth overdose.

"That's why I hate these people," the woman says of drug dealers. "When my kids is big, I don't want them to use drugs. I hate that my brother's died."

In three months, she has worked four cases -- all of which ended with arrests and drug seizures. One was in early November, when she met a drug dealer in the parking lot of a Fresno restaurant.

"He had a gun!" she exclaimed after the bust. "That was my first time with a gun. I couldn't believe it."

But she wasn't frightened. Once the man flashed his methamphetamine, undercover officers swooped in and arrested him. They put her in handcuffs too, so the man wouldn't suspect she was a snitch.

"I don't get scared too much, because I have these guys covering me," she says afterward.

Flores declines to say how much informants earn, and does not want his informants to discuss it. When asked whether it is good pay, he says: "From their perspective, they probably think it is."

Veteran attorneys say informants can make tens of thousands of dollars a year. Anthony P. Capozzi, a longtime defense attorney and former federal prosecutor, knew of one who made $250,000 over 10 years.

"I remember looking at those numbers, and I just couldn't believe it," Capozzi says. "Not a bad deal."

The 30-year-old Fresno man is the unit's most prolific informant, averaging four successful drug busts per month. He targets drug dealers through his vast list of contacts. Others are uncovered with the help of anonymous tips or police investigations. His objective is to earn the trust of drug traffickers, and introduce them to undercover officers.

Flores says the seasoned informant is unflappable when meeting with people who may be within arm's reach of a loaded gun. He's also keenly observant, and knows how to control situations without being obvious: "He pretty much has all the qualities that you're looking for in an informant."

The most dangerous part of the job is the drug transaction. With drugs and money changing hands, criminals become jumpy. To put dealers at ease, the Fresno man says he cracks jokes: "We try to play with the crook to get him to relax."

In recent history, no Fresno police informants have been killed because of their work. But in the past decade, two were assaulted by people associated with dealers who were arrested, Flores says.

The Fresno man is well aware of the risks. "My life is different. I can only go to a couple places with my family. I can't show myself in public."

Though he pretends he's a dealer, he says he's never been one in real life. He also says he's never used drugs: "My life is clean."

Flores confirmed the man doesn't have a criminal history, but about one-third of Flores' informants have been involved in the drug trade. Five are "contract informants," working for free to get out of their own criminal charges or as a term of their sentence after they've been convicted.

Often, they stay on when their contracts run out, becoming paid informants.

"They're in the drug environment working for police, rather than being in the drug environment hiding from police," Flores says. "They consider it the better way to be in that kind of business."

The average work span for informants is three to five years. Flores says most move on to full-time jobs outside the realm of law enforcement.

"By far, they end up leaving because they move on to bigger and better things," he says.

Yet Flores says some revert to their old lifestyles in the drug trade; at least five have been arrested in the past decade. That's why police keep those with shady pasts at arm's length.

"You can never let your guard down with them, no matter how many big cases they've done for you," Flores says.

Law-abiding people become informants, too. Most of them call Flores' office, offering their services. Or they have been pulled in by friends or relatives who already are informants.

"It's kind of a word-of-mouth thing," Flores says.

In a first conversation with a potential informant, Flores tries to determine motive and competence. Occasionally, drug dealers try to become informants to wipe out rivals.

"You really give them the 21 questions," he says.

If all goes well, Flores sets up a face-to-face meeting. When new informants are brought on board, narcotics officers prepare them for what is ahead, and each is assigned to an officer, who provides training on safety and entrapment.

An informant could be accused of entrapment for enticing or encouraging someone to commit a crime he or she was not predisposed to commit, says Dr. Richard Greenleaf, associate professor of criminology at California State University, Fresno.

But "if you give an individual an opportunity to commit the crime that they were predisposed to do so, it is not entrapment," says Greenleaf, a criminology professor for 14 years.

Says Flores: "You don't go out there and create a drug dealer."

Rarely do informants testify in court, in part to protect their identities. Flores keeps them out of a courtroom by having his undercover officers take the lead after being brought into the case by the informant.

"We want the middleman gone as quickly as possible," he says.

With police as primary witnesses, most defendants in major drug cases plead guilty before their cases go to trial. If a case is built solely around an informant, it can open the door for the defense to attack credibility.

"Any time you can eliminate that bias issue that the defense can raise, it's a positive thing," says Fresno County Assistant District Attorney Bob Ellis, who has handled and supervised drug cases.

When informants do testify, defense attorneys often dig into their criminal pasts, and find out whether they are on contract or paid by police.

"Wouldn't that give them incentive to lie?" Capozzi asks.

A defense attorney since 1979, Capozzi has damaged prosecutors' cases when he proved informants lied about how drug deals unfolded. Sometimes, he says, informants sabotaged their cases by using drugs before -- or even during -- a staged deal.

Rick Berman, another veteran defense attorney, calls informants "professional liars."

"Generally, they're crooks -- bad crooks who have gotten caught," he says.

When he was a Fresno County prosecutor in the 1970s, Berman says, the county called an informant to testify and paid for his hotel stay. That night, Berman got a call from a hotel staffer, who told him the man was trying to pay for a prostitute on the county's tab. Berman then had a word with the informant.

"I told him he was nuts," Berman says.

No matter what their motivation in the work, informants need supervision and guidance. In addition to teaching them what to say and how to position themselves, Flores' narcotics officers also warn them of the risks.

"There is a lot of danger involved, and there is a lot of potential danger that could come your way," he says.

The 30-year-old Fresno man thrives in that environment. He just doesn't like to talk about it.

"You never know what's going to happen. You never know what's behind each door," he says. "This is my job."

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