First in a series
By Lawrence Messina
Ronald Dean Hicks saunters up the stone steps of the Kanawha County Public Library. He won't be checking out a book or browsing the newspaper racks. He's looking to get paid.
The space behind the building's Greek pillars had become a frequent meeting spot between Hicks and some gruff-looking, rough-dressing men. The men aren't friends. They are local drug agents. Hicks is their "CI": cooperating individual or confidential informant - also known as "snitch," "rat" and "narc."
Behind the pillars, the agents quickly pat down Hicks before sliding a thin, wireless microphone into his shirt. They hand him a wad of cash, after writing down the serial numbers from the bills.
The drug agents send Hicks to the bus station at Slack Plaza. There, he'll step up to an old friend, a relative, a passing acquaintance. Hicks signals the agents that he is about to buy drugs.
The agents are watching nearby, listening with the hidden microphone. Hicks and his target soon move out of sight, perhaps entering the men's room at the depot. The microphone hisses with static. What Hicks and his target say is difficult to hear.
After a while, Hicks reappears. Minutes later, he'll meet the agents behind the library pillars. He hands over some drugs and either some or none of the money the agents gave him. As far as the agents are concerned, Hicks has done his job.
Hicks is paid in cash for his work, and paid well. He works an hour or so at a time, sometimes getting more than $100 per session. He's received at least $16,500 in about three years' work as an informant, according to police records.
After he leaves the agents, Hicks might go to an area store and shoplift some cartons of cigarettes, or a radio. Maybe he'll beat up somebody, perhaps his current girlfriend. He might break into a neighbor's house and rob it, or commit another of the 30 offenses listed on his rap sheet during his years as a paid informant.
Hicks' typical day as an informant, drawn from interviews, trial testimony and court records, paints him as the poster boy for what is wrong with the use of paid informants in the "war on drugs." He commits crimes with near impunity while he is in the employ of drug agents. His extensive criminal record easily eclipses that of any of his targets. His credibility and reliability is in question.
Hicks is not an aberration. Of 34 confidential drug informants named in Kanawha Circuit Court records, at least 22 had prior criminal records. At least eight committed crimes during their time as informants. Some of them received thousands of dollars for their informant work.
Their crimes affect their credibility in court. Their rap sheets can be used against them at trial, lessening their usefulness to prosecutors. Drug cases have been dismissed or ended in acquittals in both state and federal court because the informant could not be believed, court records show.
Most people become informants for the money or to "work off" criminal charges pending against them, drug agents say. The pressure to deliver information, for cash or to escape serious punishment, apparently compels these informants to target friends and even relatives. It might even prompt them to deliver exaggerated or false information.
Drug agents say that they independently confirm what informants tell them. Court records show that false allegations from informants can snowball into felony charges against innocent people.
Police and prosecutors continue to employ informants. They insist that without paid informants, the war on drugs could barely be fought, if at all.
"I just know that this is the only way that this unit operates, with informants," said Lt. Steve Utt of the Metropolitan Drug Enforcement Network Team, or MDENT, the area's drug enforcement unit.
When Hicks approached MDENT to become an informant, he signed an agreement. "I may not engage in any illegal or improper conduct so long as I am working with" drug agents, the agreement said. All informants sign such an agreement.
Hicks apparently forgot about that part of the agreement. Perhaps the drug agents who handled him forgot as well. A comparison of his rap sheet and his pay receipts from MDENT shows:
Hicks was on parole from prison when he signed up to become an informant on June 30, 1990. He had been arrested a week earlier on a battery charge, which was later dismissed. He was arrested and convicted for shoplifting the following month, while still on parole.
Hicks received $105 the same January 1991 day he shoplifted from a Charleston store. He was paid $650 that month, during which he was also arrested on a battery charge. He was later convicted on the shoplifting charge, while the battery was dismissed.
Hicks received $60 the same day he was arrested on a malicious-wounding charge in July 1991. The charge was later dropped.
Hicks was arrested in a malicious-wounding case in January 1992. He later pleaded guilty to a lesser misdemeanor charge in the case. He received $240 that month.
Hicks earned no informant's pay from MDENT between December 1993 and December 1995. He was in prison for a grand larceny committed in January 1992, the month he received $240. He was paroled on Jan. 19, 1995, and resumed his informant work six days later.
Hicks was arrested three times while on parole and in the pay of MDENT. One charge, shoplifting, was dismissed. A daytime burglary charge and another shoplifting charge were never pursued. He received $6,829 during that time.
A magistrate ordered Hicks' arrest on burglary and stolen-property charges on Oct. 10, 1997. The magistrate may not have known where Hicks was, but MDENT did. Hicks received $40 the day before the warrant was issued and $150 the week after. He received $530 that month, all told.
Hicks was arrested 30 times while a paid informant. He was arrested seven times while both an informant and on parole. Normally, only one arrest prompts a parolee's return to prison. Police or prosecutors never requested Hicks' return to prison for a parole violation, according to court records.
Because of all the money that Hicks received and all the crimes that he committed while in MDENT's pay, his value as an informant may seem questionable, particularly considering that he is named as an informant in just two Kanawha Circuit Court drug cases. Informants are not always identified in state court records, and are not named in federal drug case files.
The defendant in one of the state drug cases pleaded guilty to a marijuana charge and received probation.
The other case is set for August, following a January mistrial caused by a jury problem. In that case, the defense lawyers have listed a number of people as witnesses who say they were victims of crimes committed by Hicks while he's worked for MDENT.
During the January trial, the case's prosecutor told the jury why police need people such as Hicks, despite his record.
"Hicks is the sort of fellow who can infiltrate the drug world for cops," Assistant Prosecutor Sam Marsh said. "We have to have someone who is able to purchase drugs from drugs dealers, either volunteers or someone working off charges."
Some shady characters
The fact that many, if not most, confidential informants are criminals should surprise no one, say the drug agents who use them.
"We don't find too many pillars of the community coming in here to help us find where the drugs are," said Lt. Steve Utt of MDENT. "People with prior records are the types of people we have to deal with."
Utt's point echoes Marsh's statement to the jury: Without informants, drug agents believe they cannot penetrate the drug underworld to secure arrests and convictions. The shadier the character, perhaps, the better the credentials in the drug and crime subculture.
"I can state without a doubt that without confidential informants, this unit would not be able to operate," Utt said.
According to Utt, most informants sign up because they want help with pending criminal charges. Pay is the second most popular motive for informants.
Volunteers, especially ones without criminal records, are rare, Utt said.
Utt said that MDENT checks the backgrounds of all informants before they use them. Agents also try to screen out dealers trying to eliminate rivals or people bent on revenge.
MDENT pays informants with cash seized from drug dealers, Utt said. The unit funds most of its budget with cash and other assets forfeited by suspects in federal and state drug cases, he said.
Nationally, the payroll for informants has nearly quadrupled in the last 13 years, according to a 1995 series of articles in the National Law Journal. Drug informants received $25 million in 1985, the journal found, and $97 million in 1993.
Besides getting cash, informants are often allowed to "work off" criminal charges.
Utt said that no one receives too much of a break. "We're not in the business of turning drug dealers loose to get other drug dealers," he said. "These people come in looking for assistance at sentencing. They all pretty much end up pleading guilty to something."
Money for his crack addiction
Informants are often able to avoid pending charges altogether because they work for MDENT, court records show. One informant, Alicia Stroble, did not have to worry about a drug charge or several employment-fraud counts, according to documents in the case file of a defendant she targeted.
"Because Alicia worked for the drug unit, a charge of simple possession was not brought against her," the records said. As for the fraud charges, "the case will be jointly continued while Alicia works for the drug unit."
Notes from another drug case file reveal a similar deal for informant Sammie Robinson Jr.
"Robinson was working as a confidential informant only after he had previously been arrested for allegedly selling cocaine to an undercover informant," the case file said. "If he would act as a confidential informant in selected investigations ... he would not be prosecuted for that charge."
Robinson's cooperation paid off for drug agents. His testimony helped convict one drug suspect in state court, while two others targeted by Robinson pleaded guilty to drug charges, records show.
During Hicks' years an informant, at least two charges were withdrawn. He was allowed to plead guilty to lesser charges in two cases. Charges were dismissed against him 16 times. Eight of the charges listed on his rap sheet have no outcome listed.
Ernest Edward Ray explained the pressures on informants to deliver when he testified in the state drug case against William Walls in January. Ray became an informant against Walls after he was arrested for allegedly breaking into a residence twice the same night.
Under cross-examination from Walls' lawyer, Ray testified that drug agents did not say how long he would have to serve as an informant when he signed up in the early 1990s. Besides working off the break-in charges, Ray said he needed money for his crack addiction.
Ray told the jury that he was afraid to draw the line with the drug agents, believing they would no longer help him with the pending charge against him. Whenever they called him for work on the streets, he responded, even if he had already worked several times that week, he said.
Ray also testified that MDENT's payment plan kept him in the informant business. He said that he realized that the more people he targeted for MDENT, the more money he received. His informant's fee varied with the drug agent involved, Ray said, as well as with the type of drug and the quantity.
Ray received between $6,000 and $8,000 as a paid informant, working on and off for MDENT since 1989. At least a half-dozen of the informants named in circuit court records received more than $1,000 from MDENT, records show.
An 'extraordinary event'
U.S. Attorney Rebecca Betts has concerns about confidential informants. As the chief federal prosecutor in Southern West Virginia, Betts' office handles the lion's share of drug cases in the region.
"The issue for law enforcement is maintaining some level of integrity in our use of CIs, regarding their role in criminal acts," Betts said. "I sometimes worry that CIs are used indiscriminately. They can become part of the problem, rather than part of the solution."
Betts agreed that CIs are "part and parcel" of drug investigations. She also said her prosecutors don't want cases that rely largely on informants who are addicts, dealers or both.
"That's a huge problem," Betts said. "We have tried to get away from cases that are based on the credibility of CIs."
Federal prosecutors learned about bad informants the hard way during a 1993 drug trial.
David Churchill was working as an informant for drug agents in Huntington when he alleged that he had sold crack cocaine for Scott Jones, a Marshall University student.
The allegations from Churchill, a convicted felon, prompted a grand jury to indict Jones, who went on trial in January 1993.
In what the judge called an "extraordinary event," the trial ended when federal prosecutors asked for a dismissal.
The reason: They no longer believed their informant.
Churchill testified that he sold crack for Jones twice. He also said he sold drugs for several other people in the Charleston area while he was a paid informant for drug agents.
Jones' defense lawyer, Hunt Charach, cross-examined Churchill about his drug dealing. Churchill began contradicting himself.
He admitted that he had lied about his criminal record and his background. Charach also cited testimony from a drug agent, who said that Churchill was selling crack outside the supervision and knowledge of his drug-agent handlers.
When Charach finished cross-examining Churchill, Assistant U.S. Attorney J. Kirk Brandfass requested the dismissal. "As a result of the cross-examination of Churchill, the United States no longer has an abiding belief in the defendant's guilt," Brandfass said.
Bad informants can mess up cases in other ways. Kanawha County prosecutors were forced to dismiss two separate drug cases which featured the same informant, Paul Doug Smith, when it was learned that he would not be available for trial in either case. He was in a Florida jail on drug charges.
Though Smith ruined two of only three state cases he was involved in, he did not have to return the $2,175 he received as an informant.
'Criminals, addicts, thugs'
Informants don't necessarily bolster the chances that a drug case will end with a conviction, at least not in Kanawha Circuit Court. Prosecutors aided by informants in drug cases fare about as well as prosecutors who get their evidence from traffic stops, street surveillance and other police techniques, records show.
Confidential informants played a role in about 123 of 234 drug cases filed in Kanawha Circuit Court between 1992 and 1997, according to court records. In 84 of those cases, the defendants either pleaded guilty or were convicted at trial. Two defendants were acquitted at trial, 20 saw the charges against them dismissed and seven are considered fugitives. The rest of the cases are pending.
Of the drug cases without informants, 85 ended in convictions. Judges dismissed 18 of the cases, and 18 defendants are considered fugitives. The rest are pending.
The lawyers who represent drug suspects in court naturally question the worth of confidential informants.
They believe that drug agents wrongly rely on informants to create cases for them.
"The CI is usually an addict and usually has been in trouble before and has a whole lot to lose," said Kanawha County Deputy Public Defender LaDonna Saria. "They're criminals, addicts, thugs, and they have a profit motive. There are just all kinds of problems."
Before coming to Kanawha County, Saria represented criminal defendants for 10 years in Phoenix, where trained undercover officers buy drugs and set up suspects for arrest, she said.
"Elsewhere, the informants make introductions to dealers and then the officer makes the buy," Saria said.
"If cops were doing this here, that would eliminate most of those problems."
Saria contends that to earn their keep, informants will stuff drugs down their pants or hide them elsewhere before they report for duty. They later pull out the drugs and allege that they have bought them from someone, she said.
The trick is to take a quantity of drugs, hide it, take the money and say the guy sold it to me," Saria said. "They call it the snitcheroo."
The drug agents who handle Hicks testified in one trial that while they pat him down, they never search his pants or thoroughly check for drugs hidden on his body.
Saria also says that when informants actually buy drugs from a suspect, they'll chip part away and hide it to use or sell later.
"To send a drug user into a house to come back out with drugs and to believe whatever the person says is outrageous," Saria said. "They get some real low-level thugs who haven't been sober for two hours in a long time."
Prosecutors and juries don't always believe the suspects when they claim that informants have framed them, Saria notes.
"Sometimes the juries mind, and sometimes they don't," Saria said. "When they hear it's a drug case, they just think somebody should go to jail."
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