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Snitching game: Confidential informants risk danger on the front lines of SLO County's war on drugs

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A group of men met among the tombstones of a Paso Robles cemetery sometime in 2014. 

Two of them were lawmen from the SLO County Narcotics Unit, a multiagency group dedicated to tackling drug crime in the county. The third was a civilian. A man with a wife and kids and a past checkered by drug use and criminal charges.

IN PLAIN SIGHT:  A Paso Robles cemetery was the meeting place between two members of the SLO Sheriff’s Narcotics Unit and a confidential informant who was asked to participate in an undercover drug buy to work off a criminal charge. - PHOTO BY DYLAN HONEA-BAUMANN
  • PHOTO BY DYLAN HONEA-BAUMANN
  • IN PLAIN SIGHT: A Paso Robles cemetery was the meeting place between two members of the SLO Sheriff’s Narcotics Unit and a confidential informant who was asked to participate in an undercover drug buy to work off a criminal charge.

They were there for different reasons. The lawmen knew drugs were flowing into the county. They wanted to root out the criminals responsible for selling them and put the dealers behind bars. The third man was just looking to stay away from the wrong side of those same bars.

It was this last man who would be sent to make an undercover drug buy from dealers he didn’t know as part of an operation that would later be criticized by the narcotics unit’s own officers. 

He was a confidential informant. He’d made a deal, was given a number, and sent out to work off criminal charges with the possibility of jail time looming over his head. 

He’s not alone. The narcotics unit, and nearly every law enforcement agency in the nation, rely on confidential informants to gather intelligence, participate in undercover operations, and help them build cases that lead to arrests and convictions. The details of the county’s informant program are closely guarded to protect those very informants. But the recent trial of a former narcotics unit investigator shed light into the dark corners of that world, illuminating the men and women who decide to “snitch” and end up on the front lines of SLO County’s war on drugs. 

Making a deal

The man on the witness stand wore a black shirt and jeans. Speaking in short, clipped sentences, he showed discomfort when answering questions from the prosecution and defense attorneys. Occasionally, he turned his head to look at the jurors, who watched and listened intently while taking notes.

No one in the courtroom knew his name. When he agreed to become a confidential informant for the narcotics unit, he was designated “CI-1425,” but to the jurors, attorneys, and audience members in the courtroom, he was called “John Doe.”

The identities of confidential police informants are supposed to be a carefully guarded secret. Both informants and their handlers live with the very real fear that they will be outed to the criminals they tell on and face violent reprisal. But that day in court marked the third time that John Doe appeared in person, in public, to tell others about his work for the narcotics unit. Each time, he was called to testify about the investigator who’d been his handler on that day in the cemetery: August “AJ” Santana. 

Santana was on trial for perjury (and has since been acquitted), accused by his former peers of falsifying information in a narcotics arrest warrant based on an undercover drug buy operation. Santana, an investigator for the SLO County District Attorney’s Office who was assigned to the narcotics unit in 2013, claimed that any errors in the warrant were innocent mistakes, but his peers said the entire buy operation was flawed and that Santana falsified information about what happened to make a judge more likely to grant his search warrant. John Doe, the very man Santana and others in the unit vowed to protect, was stuck in the middle of it all.

John Doe’s path to becoming a police informant is a common one. At the time, he was married and a father, but he was also into doing not-quite-legal things. 

“I think it’s very fair to say they’ve done something in their past that put them in a position to make the choice,” Santana said in his testimony to the jury. “They can work off their sentence and work off their charges, or go to jail.”

According to his testimony, John Doe said he’d abused drugs “for a period of time” in the past and had been arrested for drug violations twice prior to becoming an informant. He was on probation for receiving stolen property and was arrested for violating his parole. Facing the possibility of jail time, John Doe said he decided to become an informant.

“I was in custody, and they made a deal with me,” he told the jury. “I’d make some buys for [Santana], … he made the case go away.”

Sheriff’s Office officials said people become confidential informants for a variety of reasons.

“Sometimes confidential informants get paid for their services, and sometimes they’re working time off their criminal case,” Tony Cipolla, spokesman for the Sheriff’s Office, wrote in an email response to questions from New Times. “In some cases they’re being altruistic and simply provide information for the betterment of the community.” 

According to the testimony of Sgt. Eric Twisselman, a senior supervisor who has spent more than 10 years with the narcotics unit, informants usually assuage their criminal charges under a “three-for-one” agreement, meaning they have to help investigators make three cases against other criminals to work off a single charge against them. Commonly, this is done by asking the informant to participate in an undercover drug deal called a controlled buy. In a controlled buy, the informant sets up a drug deal with a suspect or target, then makes an exchange while being watched and monitored from afar by a team of officers.

“The bottom line is he leaves with the money and comes back with the drugs,” Twisselman said. 

Twisselmen’s testimony during the trial hinted at just how common the use of such informants was in the department. He said he’d handled between 40 and 50 informants in his career, and participated in “dozens if not hundreds” of controlled buys. Wade Moxley, a sheriff’s deputy who’s been assigned to narcotics for eight years, testified to the role informants in the estimated 100 to 140 narcotics cases the unit handles each year.

“The goal is to get to street-level narcotics dealers and move up to bigger dealers,” Moxley said. “The use of informants is very important for us in conducting our business.”

Those controlled buys are critical to the unit’s ultimate goal: to nab dealers operating on a larger scale. In order to do that, law enforcement agents like Twisselman need to find out where those dealers keep their drugs stashed and obtain probable cause for a search warrant to recover the drugs and arrest the dealers. Kristy Imel, a SLO County deputy district attorney, testified that she reviewed more than 200 affidavits for search warrants from the narcotics unit, vetting them before they were sent to SLO County judges for a signature. Imel told the jury that more than half of those warrants were based on a controlled drug buy.

“I’d say about 70 percent of them were controlled buy,” she said.

When the process works well, the use of confidential informants and controlled buys can result in major arrests and the recovery of large amounts of cash and drugs, such as an August 2015 operation that resulted in the seizure of more than 5 kilograms of cocaine worth an estimated $200,000, multiple firearms, and the arrest of nine people.

Perhaps that’s what Santana and his then-coworker, a SLO County probation officer named Noah Arnold, hoped would be the eventual result of the controlled buy they kicked off in the cemetery in 2014. They’d heard reports that someone was dealing meth in the small North County town of San Miguel, and John Doe had a connection to someone who knew a dealer who could hook him up. So they’d grabbed John Doe and a cadre of narcotics unit officers to conduct a small controlled buy. With the possibility of eventually putting a dealer behind bars and bringing in a massive haul of drugs, they gave John Doe $60 cash and sent him into the fray.

Nothing’s perfect

Throughout the trial, nearly every member of the narcotics unit called to testify stressed the “control” element of a controlled drug buy: not only to preserve the chain of evidence and probable cause that would eventually make it into a request for a search warrant but also for the informant’s personal safety. In a standard controlled buy, the informant would be searched before and after the buy. During the buy, the informant has to be closely monitored—preferably “wired” with a hidden audio or video recording device while the officers in charge of the operation watch and listen out of sight. 

But the operations don’t always go as planned, and according to many of the officers who testified at Santana’s trial, the operation involving John Doe had several problems.

“Nothing’s perfect,” Twisselman told the court. “It doesn’t always go that way.”

Twissleman, Arnold, and other members of the narcotics unit were all called to testify against Santana during his trial. Each of them said that the San Miguel operation had problems. 

“It was a strange meet,” Arnold said. “Not according to plan.”

FIGHTING THE WAR ON DRUGS:  The SLO County Narcotics Task Force is a multi-agency group dedicated to tackling the drug problem in SLO County. - PHOTO COURTESY OF SLO COUNTY SHERIFF’S OFFICE
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF SLO COUNTY SHERIFF’S OFFICE
  • FIGHTING THE WAR ON DRUGS: The SLO County Narcotics Task Force is a multi-agency group dedicated to tackling the drug problem in SLO County.

For example, John Doe was supposed to go to the meet alone, but his then-wife, identified in court only as “Jane Doe,” also showed up. While John Doe was subject to a pat-down search before and after the operation, prosecutors said that Jane Doe was not searched because there was no female officer to do so. John Doe wasn’t wired, and there was confusion when John Doe’s connection showed up to the meet with another man, then changed the area where they were supposed to meet their dealer. 

“There were so many variables that put that controlled buy in jeopardy,” Moxely told the jury.

There was even testimony that members of the unit assigned to trail John Doe and others as they drove a winding path through San Miguel to the buy’s location lost sight of them for as long as five minutes. 

“It was very troubling,” Santana said in court. “I don’t know if someone is shooting my informant behind a building.”

Despite the problems, the buy eventually went down. The warrant—penned by Santana—based on that buy was signed by a SLO County judge and used to arrest San Miguel resident Tommy Pappas, whom the officers believed was the man who sold Doe the drugs that day. But after questions about the affidavit came to light, the SLO County District Attorney’s Office dropped it along with one other unrelated drug case, and began investigating their own employee, Santana, for perjury. 

Santana beat the charge in court, thanks in part to the testimony of John Doe himself, who attended a disciplinary hearing, a preliminary hearing, and the trial itself to testify, each time exposing himself and risking that someone would find out about his involvement with law enforcement. 

“You did me a solid,” John Doe told Santana in an audio recording between the two made shortly after the D.A.’s Office  started its investigation. “I wouldn’t do it for anybody else.” 

An element of danger

For a confidential informant there is a singular and overriding fear of being outed and facing violent retribution, which can range anywhere from a beating to death.

“It’s not the most common,” Twisselman testified. “Usually they’re physically assaulted, but it can get that extreme.”

Twisselman, the other officers who testified, and Santana all stated that they felt it was their obligation to protect their informants’ identities and safety, even to the point that in affidavits for search warrants, they are often referred only by their numbers or simply as “CI.” The danger was made clear in a graphic video Santana told the jury he watched as part of his narcotics training.

“I remember seeing videos, … they were actually cutting the heads off their own guys who were police informants,” he testified.

Santana said that in his work with John Doe, the informant was “very afraid” of what would happen if people found out that he was helping law enforcement. In the recording between the two played for the jury, Santana repeated a phrase that many a narcotics agents across the county have likely told their fearful informants.

“My main objective through this entire investigation … is to protect you and your family.”

It’s a sentiment Irv Hoffman, a Florida resident and professional counselor, wishes he could believe.

In 2008, Hoffman’s 23-year-old daughter, Rachel, was sent by members of the Tallahassee, Fla., Police Department to meet alone with two convicted felons and exchange $13,000 for cocaine, ecstasy pills, and a handgun as part of an undercover sting. 

Rachel, a recent Florida State University graduate, was already on court supervision for a past drug charge when Tallahassee police caught her with a small amount of marijuana and four ecstasy pills in 2008. She agreed to become a confidential informant and participate in the buy to avoid possible jail time. 

Despite being monitored by law enforcement agents and being wired with an audio recording device, the controlled buy went south. Rachel disappeared from the police’s surveillance and was later found dead, shot five times and left in a ditch in a rural Florida town. Hoffman said he and his then-wife never even knew their daughter had become an informant, and only learned about it from television coverage in the wake of her death.

“The police were not forthcoming about using Rachel,” Hoffman told New Times. “We had no clue about what Rachel was doing.”

The more he learned about the circumstances behind his daughter’s death, the more concerned and angry Hoffman grew. His daughter had a previous drug charge when the police discovered the marijuana, but she was far from someone who could navigate a world of hardened criminals to make a major drug and weapons deal.

“When you’re 23 and you get caught with a baggie of pot and some pills, you think you’re going to prison and your life is over,” he said. “I could live with her in jail, but I can’t live with her dead.”

His daughter’s death launched Hoffman on a crusade to reform confidential informant practices both in Florida and across the United States. He pushed for more oversight, restrictions on how the county’s law enforcement agency could recruit and use confidential informants, and more protections for the informants themselves. 

“There are thousands of Rachels all over the country that are being used and hurt,” Hoffman said. “I feel like they’re pawns in the reckless game of the police.”

Hoffman and other like-minded supporters were eventually able to get Florida lawmakers to pass Rachel’s Law, which required the state’s law enforcement agencies to establish stronger training and guidelines for the use of confidential informants, as well as provide more oversight and protections for informants, including considering their age and maturity, history of drug abuse, and informing them of their right to a lawyer before choosing to cooperate.

California’s laws regarding confidential informants are less comprehensive. There are some laws on the books, including Chad’s Law, which prohibits the use of children 12 and under as informants and requires judicial permission to use informants between the ages of 13 and 17.

Hoffman said even that isn’t enough. He wants to see other states adopt similar protections to those found in Rachel’s Law.

“We’d like to see Rachel’s Law go national,” he said. “We don’t send out civilians to hand out parking tickets, so why do we use them for drug busts? It’s ludicrous.”

Sheriff’s Office Spokesman Cipolla’s statement said that the narcotics unit does give some training to informants and provides comprehensive training to the investigators who work with them.

“All of our investigators receive formal training in handling and dealing with informants, and they abide by the policies and procedures established by the Sheriff’s Office,” Cipolla wrote. “The safety of all those involved is paramount.” 

Bread and butter

Despite pushes from advocates like Hoffman to reform the use of confidential informants, and a recent discussion across the country about the effectiveness of harsh sentences for minor drug offenses, the reliance on individuals like John Doe for the potentially dangerous work of informing is unlikely to change. It’s a sentiment that longtime SLO County Defense Attorney Illan Funke-Bilu puts bluntly.

PHOTO BY DYLAN HONEA-BAUMANN
  • PHOTO BY
    DYLAN HONEA-BAUMANN

“Frankly, if you removed informants from the game of cops and robbers, you’d eliminate about 80 percent of the police work in this country,” said Funke-Bilu, who’s been working as a defense attorney since the late 1970s. “Informants are the bread and butter of law enforcement, the police, and the FBI.”

Even for a seasoned attorney like Bilu, it’s difficult to ascertain the extent to which confidential informants are used to make drug cases in the SLO County court system. For starters, most individuals arrested and faced with an offer to flip are unlikely to even seek an attorney before making a decision, he said.

“Generally not. And by that I mean virtually always never,” Funke-Bilu said. “The police work on fear and pressure, and if an attorney gets in between them and fear and pressure, the willingness of the potential informant evaporates.”

When a confidential informant is used to get an affidavit, which is the basis for a search warrant used to make an arrest, those affidavits can be sealed, making it difficult for attorneys to obtain them in trying to defend their clients.

“What’s been happening in the last 10 to 15 years, exponentially, is narcotics officers are getting a sealing order,” Funke-Bilu said. “And those sealing orders prohibit getting those affidavits without a court order.”

For the rest of the public, finding how heavily law enforcement and prosecutors rely on confidential informants is equally as opaque. In his statement to New Times, Cipolla wrote that the Sheriff’s Office couldn’t provide the number of confidential informants the narcotics unit works with, because the number often fluctuates. The SLO County Sheriff’s Office also denied a public records request for narcotics affidavits and warrants that mention the use of confidential informants, citing a state law that exempts some law enforcement records from the open records law. 

Despite testimony from witnesses in the Santana trial that informants’ names are often not included in affidavits for search warrants, legal counsel for the SLO County District Attorney’s Office also denied a similar public records request under similar exemptions.

“The District Attorney will not be producing any of the requested documents, assuming such documents even exist, or are within the District Attorney’s possession, on a number of grounds,” SLO County Counsel Rita Neal wrote in a response to New Times’ request. 

Case closed

The brief glimpse of the inner workings of the confidential informant program was over as soon as the jury read the not-guilty verdict in Santana’s trial. After a little more than a week, the window into that mostly secret world shut tight. You could almost hear it shutting as the former investigator breathed a heavy sigh of relief at the jury foreman’s words.

Santana walked out of the courtroom an innocent, free man. John Doe left long before the verdict. With his time as an informant likely over, walking into a world where men and women just like him continue that work—for good or ill, an unseen but crucial part of the criminal justice system.

Staff Writer Chris McGuinness can be reached at cmcguinness@newtimesslo.com, or on Twitter at @CWMcGuinness.

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