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Throwaways: Recruited by Police & Thrown into Danger, Young Informants are Drug War’s Latest Victims

StoryFebruary 20, 2013
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New Yorker staff writer Sarah Stillman has just been awarded a George Polk Award for her article, “The Throwaways,” which investigates law enforcement’s unregulated use of young confidential informants in drug cases. Stillman details how police broker deals with young, untrained informants to perform high-risk operations with few legal protections in exchange for leniency — and sometimes fatal results. Stillman joins us to discuss her eight-month investigation, which has spurred calls for reform in several states. We’re also joined by Margie Weiss, the mother of Rachel Hoffman. After police found drugs in her apartment, Hoffman agreed to assist Florida officers in a major undercover deal involving meeting two convicted felons alone to buy two-and-a-half ounces of cocaine, 1,500 ecstasy pills, and a semi-automatic handgun. Within days, her body was found shot five times with the gun that the police had sent her to buy. We also speak with Alexandra Natapoff, professor of law at Loyola Law School and author of “Snitching: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to a remarkable investigation into law enforcement’s unregulated use of young confidential informants in drug cases. On Monday, New Yorker staff writer Sarah Stillman won a George Polk Award for her eight-month investigation on the topic. Her article is called “The Throwaways,” and it’s spurred calls for reform in several states, including, most recently, Washington state, where new legislation regulating the use of drug informants in underway.

In her article, Stillman describes how police broker deals with young, untrained informants to perform high-risk operations with few legal protections in exchange for leniency. The results can be fatal. One such informant, Detroit teenager Shelley Hilliard, was murdered after being caught by police with less than an ounce of marijuana and agreeing to set up her drug dealer in order to avoid prosecution. This is Shelley’s mother, Lyniece Nelson.

LYNIECE NELSON: It’s like they just threw her away. They didn’t even care, because—it’s just the way she said it to me, the way her tone. She was like, “Mama, I’m scared. What do I do?” I said, “You’ve got to protect yourself,” because I knew they didn’t care about her. They wouldn’t—she could have went to jail for that ounce, but she said, “They made me sign my name. They made me be an informant.” I was like, “So where’s the police now?” She said, “They’re gone.” They made her do that, and they left her in the room.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Lyniece Nelson, the mother of a teenage informant who was murdered when trying to set up her drug dealer in order to avoid prosecution for less than an ounce of marijuana possession. By some estimates, up to 80 percent of all drug cases in America involve such informants.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Journalist Sarah Stillman writes about another confidential informant, Rachel Hoffman, a 23-year-old Florida State student who had just earned admissions to a master’s program in mental health counseling when cops found drugs in her apartment. To get off the hook, she agreed to assist the cops in a major undercover deal involving meeting two convicted felons alone in her car to buy two-and-a-half ounces of cocaine, 15,000 ecstasy pills and a semi-automatic handgun. Within days, Rachel Hoffman’s body was found shot five times in the chest and head with the gun that the police had sent her to buy.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined right now by Rachel’s mother, joining us from the Tampa studios, PBS studios of WEDU.

If you could tell us, Margie Weiss, what happened to your daughter. Go back to 2007.

MARGIE WEISS: 2008 is when she was murdered. And in 2007, she—just before she graduated FSU, and she also had a major in criminal justice as well as psychology—they stopped her because she had been driving eight miles over the speed limit. She went to FSU, Florida State University. And they arrested her because they found 25 grams of pot, which is less than an ounce. And the law is if you have over 20 grams, I believe, it’s a felony. And she went into drug court. And she was to graduate in April, and—of 2008. But when she graduated and was ready to come home in August, her lawyer told her—told us—he called us two days before she was supposed to move home—that she had to stay in Tallahassee to get her—to be able to get her record expunged, which is what we wanted, because she was going to go on for her master’s degree in counseling and be a—and work towards becoming a psychologist and work with kids.

And that never got to happen, because they raided her apartment, and apparently she was getting pot for her and her friends. And they found five ounces, which is less than what this cup would hold. And we, her father and I, were unaware of any of this going on. And when they raided her apartment, the officer said, “We can make all this go away if you work for us.” And she said, “OK,” because she did not want to shame her family.

The problem with—I want to digress and give you my opinion about it. But after that, they used—she called me, and I had just come back from Passover. She was supposed to come with me, but she was in a home at a funeral, and she missed a urine test. And they threw her in jail that weekend, which was the month before they raided her apartment. And I think it was like to scare her, so that later down the road, before her probation was complete, they could do something like this. I don’t know. It’s just—I became suspicious after she was murdered. And—

AMY GOODMAN: So tell us what happened when—

MARGIE WEISS: —she called me after that, and she said, “Mom, I want you to surround me with your love and light, because I’m thinking of doing something dangerous.” And I paused, and I said, “Rachel, did you just hear what you said? You know, what are you talking about? Don’t do it. But what is it that you’re talking about? If you know ahead of time that you’re going to do something dangerous, that’s enough evidence to tell you not to do it.” And she goes, “Well, you know how I’m a criminal justice major? I thought it would be really cool to like write a book about, you know, working undercover and exposing what it’s all about.” And I said, “That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard you tell me.” I said, “Don’t do it.” And she said, “Mom, don’t worry. I’ll be fine.” And I said, “Don’t do it.” And all I knew was the word “undercover” at that time; I didn’t know “informant.” I didn’t know the word “snitch” for like at least two years after that. And she said, “Well, I’ll call you on Monday. We’re going to do it on Monday, and I’ll talk—you know, I’ll tell you what’s going on the whole way through.” And apparently that was the first time and the only time that they used her before she was murdered. And when she called me, the policeman was there in the car. His name was Pooh Bear. And she was talking to him and giggling and acting like it was just an adventure, and that he had her back and he would keep her safe, and then it was all over. And I was certain that since she told me about it, and he knew that I knew, that it really was all over.

So when they called me a month later at 3:00 in the morning and said my daughter was missing, I thought, well, maybe she’s at a festival, or maybe she’s with a friend, because I had been called by her father at Thanksgiving time, and she was at a festival, and I found her through her friends. So I started calling her friends. And I said, “Do I need to come up to Tallahassee?” And they said, “No, not at this time.” Now, she had been murdered at 7:00 on Wednesday, and they were calling me at 3:00 in the morning on Thursday. And I just went into shock, and I was like in shock for probably the next two years. But at about 8:00 or 9:00 in the morning, Officer, I believe his name was Odom, called me and said, “You can come up now.” And I didn’t get out of the house 'til 11:00. And, you know, what was weird was, a half year before my father died, and they called me, and I was out of the house in 15 minutes. So that's why I think I was in shock. And I told my husband, and he was ready to follow me up there. And I said, “No, she’s going to be OK. She’s going to be OK.” And I talked to her father. I talked to her best friends. I was searching for her. And so, I drove up, and when I got near Perry, which is where they found her body in a ditch, which was another county out of Tallahassee, the victim’s advocate was talking to me, Kim Powell, and she said—I can’t remember the exact words, but she said they might find Rachel’s—you know, with her missing, they might just find her body. And I said, “Are you saying that that’s a possibility or probability?” meaning one would mean yes and one would mean no. And I had to hang up the phone, and I just screamed as loud and as long as I could. And I was hoarse from it.

And I drove up to the—and then I called my husband, and I said, “Come.” So he hurried up, and the rabbi hurried up. And her father was a half hour behind me. And I got to the police department in Tallahassee, and the victim’s advocate, Kim Powell, was there, and she saw me in. And there were four or five police officers escorting me into the narcotics division. And I thought that was odd, because she was a missing person. And we sat down, and they asked me if I wanted to, you know, wait for Irv to show up, her father, before I spoke with them, and I said, “Yes,” because he is more clear about following the conversation, and I didn’t want to say, you know, anything that I didn’t have a witness to. Anyway, I was just—I was just numb. I was just in shock. And they said, “Well, she’s missing.” And they didn’t tell us anything about what had happened, that they had used her as an informant, how she had died. I found out about the gunshot wounds six weeks later on her death certificate. I didn’t know where. I didn’t know how many. I found that out two years later during Deneilo Bradshaw’s—the accomplice, I believe—

AMY GOODMAN: Margie, I want—I want to turn to—

MARGIE WEISS: —who had a speedy trial, because he felt that he was innocent, because it was his stepbrother-in-law that they found the blood on his pants. Hello?

AMY GOODMAN: Margie, I want to turn to Tampa Police Officer David McCranie. Here’s how he described what went wrong in your daughter Rachel Hoffman’s case.

OFFICER DAVID McCRANIE: She was told to stay in a certain location. We have protocols that were in place that would keep her safe at that location. She then decided to leave and meet them on her own. And the investigator of the case, investigator in charge, communicated with her on the phone and told her, “Do not leave,” pleaded with her not to leave, “Do not [inaudible] them.” Our stance is, your safety, the safety of the public, is far more important than any drug deal. We can always make another drug deal. So we pleaded with her not to leave. She was able to leave before we could stop her and decided to meet them on her own.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn now to Sarah Stillman, who is a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine. She just won a George Polk Award for Magazine Reporting for her piece, “The Throwaways,” that came from an eight-month investigation into how law enforcement uses young confidential informants. Talk about how Rachel’s story, as her mom, Margie Weiss, describes it, fits into this bigger picture and what you learned happened with Rachel. What was the encounter that led to her death?

SARAH STILLMAN: Yeah. Well, part of what really stood out about Rachel’s case is that, you know, here she was, this young woman found with some pot and, I believe, a small handful of ecstasy pills. And she was sent off ultimately to buy 1,500 ecstasy pills, a stash of cocaine and handgun from two convicted felons. Ultimately, in the midst of the sting, the police lost track of her, as often happens in these situations. She was told to go to a second location. And when she did that, ultimately, one of the men found the wires, the surveillance wires that the police had hidden in her purse, and shot her.

AMY GOODMAN: In her purse?

SARAH STILLMAN: Exactly. They were hidden in her purse, which some—some police would argue was sort of against the conventional protocols of, you know, the safest place to put the wires. But they opened the purse to—essentially, to stage a robbery, to steal the money in the purse. And then she was killed.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Sarah Stillman, how different is Rachel Hoffman from the typical confidential informant whom you profile in your New Yorker piece?

SARAH STILLMAN: You know, I think, demographically, she may not be the most representative insofar as, you know, many of the people who are—who find themselves in these very vulnerable situations do not necessarily kind of have a college education, do not necessarily have parents who are looking out for them, who also, you know, afterwards really stand up and speak out, as Margie and Irv Hoffman have done, really getting out there to really fight for reforms, to say, you know, “We’ve heard so many stories from people around the country who have faced really similar things without protection,” young people, sometimes teenagers, sometimes people as young as, you know, 15 years old, going out there into these very dangerous situations, and ultimately kind of—Rachel’s parents have really fought for legislation to try to change this in Florida and, you know, hopefully at some point, around the country.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to break and then come back to this conversation, and we’ll be joined by a professor who has written a book on this subject and staying with Sarah Stillman as we hear the story not only of Rachel Hoffman, but of other young people who become informants and what happens to them. Who is responsible for them? Who is responsible for their lives? This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. Back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: Our guest is Sarah Stillman, staff writer for The New Yorker magazine. It was just announced that she’s won a George Polk Award for this piece that she wrote called “The Throwaways,” an eight-month investigation into law enforcement’s unregulated use of young confidential informants in drug cases, that has led to calls for reform in four states. Sarah, how did you discover this story?

SARAH STILLMAN: I came upon this issue a number of years ago. I had been looking into a case of murder in Florida, and when I found this young woman’s family, who had been killed, she told me that—they told me that she had been working as an informant for the police, that she had been getting threats on her life, and that, ultimately, she wound up, you know, dead in a lake with no sort of accountability. And I began looking at this issue of, you know, what protections exist for informants, and I found out about Rachel’s case and Rachel’s Law. And as I began looking around the country, I started finding other cases in Kentucky and in Washington state and in Detroit with all kinds of people of varying levels of education and varying geographies who had had their lives put at risk in this way.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined by Alexandra Natapoff, who is a professor of law at Loyola Law School and author of the book Snitching: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice, who runs a snitching blog, as well. But before we go to her, Sarah, tell us about a few more of these cases that you profile in your piece, “The Throwaways.”

SARAH STILLMAN: Well, at the beginning of the show, you mentioned Shelley Hilliard, who was a young woman in Detroit, a transgender teenager, who was found smoking a bit of pot on a motel balcony. She was basically told, you know, by the police that if she didn’t call her dealer immediately and have him come back to the scene and bring some more drugs, that she would be incarcerated, which, you know, was particularly troubling for her as a transgender person, obviously the implicit threats of sexual violence for someone such as her. You know, she agreed to do this, called the dealer back, and he came and was arrested. And ultimately, it’s alleged that the police revealed Shelley’s identity to the dealer, who was then let out, I believe the next day, and came back and smothered her to death with another man and dismembered and set her on fire. So it was a very brutal and traumatic death, really for this young woman to escape having been found with an ounce of pot. So, that was a very common theme I found, was sort of the risks involved in these cases were often very incommensurate with the charges these people were facing.

That was also the case of a young man in Washington state. His name was Jeremy McLean. He was found selling eight methadone pills, a controlled substance, to a friend, who it turned out was working as a confidential informant also. And, you know, he signed a contract, under pressure, to become an informant. And he agreed to do four stings, ultimately, to get him freed of the charges. And not only did he do those four stings, but he did another sting after that, and another and another and another after that. Ultimately, he did 14 stings, and he was still not let off. At one point, you know, he got a heroin trafficker behind bars. That guy got out, began threatening his life. Jeremy went to the police for protection and received none and ultimately was violently murdered, as well. So, there are just so many instances of people actually crying out for help and protection from police after doing this dangerous work and not receiving it, and then you see these tragic outcomes.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: I want to bring Alexandra Natapoff into the conversation. Alexandra, you’ve written extensively on this issue. Can you talk about the increasing use of young confidential informants in American law enforcement, especially when it comes to the war on drugs?

ALEXANDRA NATAPOFF: Well, it turns out that the use of criminal informants is a massive part of the way we run our criminal justice system, in ways that the public almost never gets to see. It’s one of the reasons that this New Yorker article by Sarah Stillman is so important. It really draws back the curtain on a particularly shocking aspect of this larger phenomenon, which is that we permit vulnerable people, like young people, even children, people with substance abuse problems or mental health issues, people who don’t know their rights, to be pressured by police and prosecutors into becoming informants in ways that are terribly risky to their health and well-being. This is part of a larger phenomenon: We accord vast discretion to police and prosecutors to create, use, pressure, as well as reward, criminal informants in order to gather information and make cases in ways that are almost entirely unregulated, secretive and unaccountable.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And Alexandra, can you talk about some of the states that have passed legislation to protect informants and what kind of legislation is set to be introduced this month in Washington state?

ALEXANDRA NATAPOFF: So there are a number of states that have looked at different aspects of informant regulation. The increased focus on the risks to young and juvenile informants, in particular, has sparked a great interest around the country. The legislation that is being introduced in Washington state at the moment would, among other things, prohibit the use of informants under the age of 16. At this time, only California has a law that prohibits the use of juveniles under the age of 14. In other states, we permit police and prosecutors to make the decision about whether children should be used as informants and whether they should be exposed to the kinds of risks that Sarah Stillman documents in her New Yorker article. States around the country have also considered other kinds of legislation, not only to protect informants, as does Rachel’s Law in Florida as a result of the efforts of Margie Weiss and her family, but also to improve the transparency and the accountability that attaches to police and prosecutorial use of informants. Right now, again, it’s a largely unregulated and secretive world in which these deals are made at great risk often to the informants themselves and great risk to other members of the community when these deals are made.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Brian Sallee, a police officer who’s president of BBS Narcotics Enforcement Training & Consulting, a firm that instructs officers around the country in drug bust procedures. He said, quote, “There’s no such thing as training an informant. … You direct them what to do, and if they follow those directions that will make it safer for them. There’s always going to be a risk, but when things go bad it’s usually because they didn’t do as they were told to. They get themselves hurt, not the officers. The informants cause their own dilemma.” Your response to that, Professor Natapoff?

ALEXANDRA NATAPOFF: So, the law is extremely cavalier about the well-being of informants. Essentially, American law treats informants as assuming the risk of anything that might happen to them in the course of this deal. Again, Sarah Stillman has uncovered how shocking and inappropriate that can be, particularly for vulnerable people who are brought into the criminal system. But the law provides very few protections for people who take this risk, and provides vast resources to the government by which to pressure individuals into taking such risks.

And it’s not only risks to personal health and well-being that the law permits. For example, the law permits the government to pressure individuals, women in particular, into having sex with targets in order to bring people into the criminal justice system so that the government can file charges against them for prostitution and other related charges. In other words, the law says that almost anything is negotiable, nothing is off the table. Parents can become informants and take risks in order to work off the charges of their children. Girlfriends can become informants to work off the charges of their boyfriends. Children can be turned into informants to work off the most minor of charges. In effect, we’ve—

AMY GOODMAN: We have five seconds.

ALEXANDRA NATAPOFF: In effect, we have left this arena entirely unregulated, and it’s time to bring it into the light.

AMY GOODMAN: Alexandra Natapoff, we want to thank you very much for being with us, professor of law at Loyola Law School, author of Snitching: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice , runs a snitching blog at snitching.org. She testified before the House Judiciary Committee on law enforcement confidential informant practices. And thank you so much to Sarah Stillman. Congratulations on winning the George Polk Award. We’ll link to your piece, “The Throwaways,” at democracynow.org.

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