The American Justice System – Where the Rat is King.
by Michael Levine
“Gentlemen, in this business, you’re only
as good as your rats.”—Lecture on the Handling of
Criminal Informants (CIs) from U.S. Treasury Law
Enforcement Academy, August, 1965
“I’m looking for Mike Levine, ex-DEA,” said the man’s voice.
“How’d you get this number?” I said. It was close to midnight and my wife and I were in a San Francisco hotel on business.
“Man, you don’t know what I went through to find you.”
The voice belonged to a well known California defense attorney who said that he’d tracked me through my publisher.
“I’m in the middle of trying a case,” he said. “I need you to testify as an expert witness. The judge gave me over the weekend to find you and bring you here—”
“Whoa! Whoa!” I said. “Back up. I’m not a legal consultant—”
“—But you’re a court qualified expert. I checked you out. I read your books.”
“You read them?”
“Well, I just got them. . . ”
“When you get around to reading them, you’ll know I don’t work for dopers. Nothing personal counselor.”
“Don’t give me that,” he said. “I read some interview you did. Didn’t you call the drug war a fraud?”
“A huge fraud,” I said. “But because I talk about thieves, crooks and dopers inside the government doesn’t mean I’m gonna work for them on the outside.”
Days before this phone call I had turned down a six figure offer to work as a consultant for a Bolivian drug king pin whom I’d spent half my life trying to put in jail. I was a firm believer in if you can’t do jail, don’t do the sale.
“Look, I’m defending the guy for expenses,” snapped the attorney, annoyed. “The guy’s been working sixty hours a week for the last three years parking cars—does that sound like a Class One, fucking cocaine dealer to you?”
Class One was DEA’s top rating for drug dealers. You had to be the head of a criminal organization and dealing with tens of millions of dollars in drugs each month to qualify as a Class One—Pablo Escobar and the fabled Roberto Suarez were Ones.
He had my curiosity.
“You can prove your guy’s a parking lot attendant?”
“I’ll Fedex you his time sheets. Better yet, I’ll send you everything— undercover video-tapes and DEA’s own reports. You tell me if the guy’s a Class one.”
“Why me?” I asked.
“DEA couldn’t get any dope from Miguel (not his true name)—not even a sample. So they charge the poor bastard with a no-dope Conspiracy—did you ever hear of anything like that? A parking lot attendant on a no-dope Conspiracy? Then they bring in a DEA expert from Washington to testify that a true Class One doper doesn’t give samples. You and I both know that’s bullshit, don’t we?”
His words flashed me back to an incident I described in The Big White Lie . It was July 4, 1980, and I was in a suite at the Buenos Aires Sheraton, sitting across a table from one of the biggest dopers alive, Hugo Hurtado Candia, as he handed me a one ounce sample of his merchandise—ninety-nine percent pure cocaine—as a prelude to a huge cocaine deal. The man was part of a cartel that was two weeks away from taking over his whole country.
The lawyer was right: it was pure bullshit, but it was the kind of bullshit I had always been aware of. There’s enormous career pressure on street agents to make as many Class One cases as they can, for a simple reason: Federal agencies justify their budgets with statistical reports to Congress and Congress loves to see Class Ones. The agents with the highest percentage of Class Ones are the guys who get money awards and promotions. And over the years the professional rats, who originate more than 95 percent of all drug cases, had learned that selling a Class One to the government was worth a much bigger “reward” payment. A lot of them knew the DEA Agents Manual criteria for a One better than a lot of the agents.
Unfortunately in DEA and other Federal agencies—where agents are trained to be duplicitous to begin with and then exposed to deceitful, lying, scumbag politicians and bureaucrats who want results that make them look good and don’t give a damn how you get them as long as you don’t embarrass them by getting caught —there were agents who would bend the facts in their own favor. They’d write up a mid-level doper, or sometimes a street dealer as a Class One based on “evidence supplied by a previously reliable informant,” without corroborating the rat’s information. If it got by the reviewing process the worst that happened was that some mid or low level doper was called a Class One.
To me that kind of bullshit was no different than all the Federal prosecutors with an eye on public office who exaggerated the importance of their cases to a media that will swallow just about anything, as long as it sold papers and got ratings, and downright harmless compared to some drug czar facing 20 million Americans on Larry King Live and saying “We’ve turned the corner on the drug war,” to further his political career. If you put all the dopers whom the press had reported as “linked to the Medellin or Cali Cartels” hand-in-hand, they’d circle the fucking earth.
But DEA flying an expert witness across country to make a parking lot attendant look like a Class One coke dealer in a Federal trial, was something I’d never heard of—unless things had changed drastically—and I had good reason to suspect they had. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
“You didn’t answer me. What do you think I can do for you?”
“When I cross-examined the DEA expert he named your book—Deep Cover—as one of the books he read to qualify as am expert. Now I want you to testify that he’s full of shit.”
“There’s gotta be something your not telling me.”
“If I’m telling you the truth, will you be here on Monday?”
Just the thought of me going head-to-head against a small elite agency that I’d been a part of for almost a quarter of a century put knots in my stomach. Outsiders only hear about the blue of wall silence, but no description I’ve ever heard ever really did it justice. To most guys in narcotic enforcement the scummy bottom of life’s barrel is the CI, the criminal informant—the rat. There’s only one thing lower: a cop who turns rat on his own. And to me, going to work for a doper was exactly that.
“How did the thing get started?” I asked.
“A CI approaches DEA with a deal. He’s wanted in Argentina and Bolivia. He says, ‘If I get you a Class One arrest here, will you get the charges dropped against me over there?”
“How much did they pay him?”
“Over thirty thousand, fucking dollars. And they admitted that he’s gonna get more when the trial is over.”
Thirty thousand was not all that much for a Class One, but I wasn’t going to say anything to him.
“And Mr. Car-parker, what kind of rap sheet does he have?”
“Nothing!” shouted the attorney. I held the phone away from my ear. “This is his first, fucking arrest.”
“What kind of rap sheet does the rat have?”
He laughed. “This guy’s been busted all over South America for every kind of con job in the book. He even tried to sell his wife’s vital organs while she was in a coma dying.”
“Come on, counselor,” I said.
“If I’m telling the truth, will you be here Monday?”
“I listened this far,” I said. “If you want to send me your stuff, I’ll look at it.”
The telephone woke me early the next morning. It was a retired DEA agent with whom I’d worked the street for two different Federal agencies.
“People called me, Mike” he said. “And I said, ‘No way, not Mike Levine.’ You ain’t gonna testify for some fucking dirtbag.”
“I’m not doing anything yet” I said, marveling at the speed of the Federal grapevine. “I just agreed to look at the case file.”
“The guy’s a scumbag, piece-of-shit, dope lawyer. He’s like all these guys—every time his mouth moves he’s lying. The case was righteous, Mike. Don’t fall for it—not you. ”
When I hung up my sweet wife and partner, Laura, was studying me. “You’re as pale as a ghost.”
“He’s someone I really respected. Did I sound as mealy-mouthed as I think?”
“No, just really shaken.”
The FedEx package was delivered to my room on Saturday morning. I opened it to find a stack of reports, including “Miguel’s” work records, the transcripts of audio-tapes, the rat’s file (much of it blacked out, as I expected) and a video-cassette—DEA’s whole case.
The work records were straight forward. Miguel worked for a large parking lot chain punching a time clock for an average of sixty-plus hours a week for the past three years, at minimum wage. He also had a little side business of delivering lunches to workers in the area. And, as the attorney had claimed, he had no prior criminal record.
The CI, whom I’ll call “Cariculo—Snakeface” on the other hand was wanted in both Bolivia and Argentina for bad checks, petty theft and every kind of con job in the book. He had a total of seventeen charges outstanding against him. His favorite scam was selling cars he didn’t own. His other part-time source of income during the last four years, was selling drug cases to DEA.
Snakeface first comes to Washington,D.C. from Bolivia, bringing with him a wife and a couple of kids whom he promptly abandons and returns to South America. Things don’t go too well and in a short time he’s back in the U.S. on the lam from police and scam victims in two countries. Miguel, a family friend and fellow Bolivian, tries to help out by giving Snakeface part of his lunch delivery business.
In the meantime, Snakeface’s wife suffers a cerebral hemorrhage and falls into a coma. While she lays dying her “grieving” husband—just as the attorney said— tries to sell her vital organs. When the sale of his dying wife’s heart, lungs and kidneys doesn’t work out, Snakeface decides to sell Miguel, organs and all, to DEA, as a Class One cocaine dealer.
Snakeface’s first move showed me that he was no novice in playing the Federal rat system. Instead of calling the local Washington, D.C. office of DEA or the FBI—where he and Miguel lived— he called DEA in California. He described Miguel to the California DEA agents as someone called “Chama,” the “east coast distributor for a huge South American cartel dealing in shipments of thousands of kilos of cocaine into the U.S.” and “the head of his own criminal organization”—a description that just happened to fit the criteria for a DEA Class One violator.
The reason Snakeface approached a DEA office in Southern California, as far away from Washington, D.C. as he could get, is a thing of sheer conman beauty. His experience as professional Federal rat had taught him about the insane competition for headlines, budget and glory between the myriad of American Federal enforcement, spy and military agencies—53 at last count— involved in some form of narcotic enforcement or another. He knew that the California agents, afraid that the East Coast agents or some other agency would steal their case, would keep Chama King of Cocaine a secret.
California DEA reacted exactly as Snakeface had predicted. Instead of calling the Washington, D.C. office and asking them to check out the information, they sent Snakeface airline tickets and money to fly to California from where they could get their first “evidence” —a recorded telephone conversation—locking the case in as a “California case.”
Next Snakeface tells Miguel, “Look, I’ve got this American Mafiosi in California who is dumber than a guava. The guy’s so dumb he’s even sent me airplane tickets to fly out there and set up a cocaine deal. I’ll tell him you’re the capo de tutti frutti of all Bolivian drug dealers. You tell this boludo that you can deliver all the cocaine he wants. He’ll give you a couple of hundred thousand dollars out front. Then you and me take off back to Bolivia rich men and open up a chain of drive-in theaters.”
So Miguel-the-Car-Parker went along with the deal. He had failed the U.S. government financed test of his honesty, a test that, according to my training, was called Entrapment.
Now we cut to Snakeface in Southern California making his first phone call to “Chama King of Cocaine” with DEA agents listening in and tape-recording the call. He makes the call to the parking lot where Miguel works and is supposed to be waiting, prepared to play the role of Chama King of Cocaine for some capo di tutti dummo who he knows will be listening in, only Miguel isn’t there.
“He’s home sick,” says the woman who answers the parking lot phone.
Do the DEA agents stop here and say, What the hell is the east coast distributor of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of cocaine, and the head of his own criminal organization doing parking cars all day long? No. They call his house and tape-record the call.
Miguel answers. He’s in a bad way. He apologizes to Snakeface explaining that he’s home with a terrible hangover. Then he tells this long, confused story about some friend of his getting drunk in his room, stealing his pants and then wrecking his car.
“Shit,” says Chama King of Cocaine, “in the morning I come out and I didn’t see my car. Man!. ‘That son-of-a-bitch’ I said. ‘Shit! Where’s my car?’ Shit! I was sad. . . .Shit! It’s like the only one I have to go to work.”
Snakeface, with some effort and doing all the talking finally steered the conversation into some garbled code-talk, that sounded more like Roberto Duran trying to explain the Monroe Doctorine to Mario Cuomo than a drug deal:
Snakeface: “Yeah, what I’m trying to is, since it’s a matter which is quite serious, big, and from the other things that I’ve seen like this, when we can’t be playing with, with unclear words and. . .that’s why what I, what you did, and I asked you if you’d spoken with him, because I know that he has the financial capacity and after all he’s, he’s a partner of, of, of, [name of major drug cartel leader] and, and in the end anything will yield a profit if we’re hanging on to a big stick that’s on a big branch and, and we won’t have any problems. right?”
Chama King of Cocaine: “Of course.”
That was about as clear as it ever got. If it was a dope conversation, the fact that he was talking across three thousand miles of telephone wires from his home telephone—something a high-school crack dealer wouldn’t do— didn’t seem to bother Chama or the agents in the least.
At the end of this conversation, did these experienced, highly trained agents say: “Hey this guy doesn’t even sound smart enough to be a Washington Heights steerer?, or, “Hey let’s pull the autopsy report on the rat’s wife?” Nope! They opened a Class One investigation targeting Miguel the parking lot attendant, and paid the rat his first thousand dollars. And there was plenty more to follow.
The packet of reports indicated that the “investigation” lasted about eight months during which time Snakeface successfully pimped the DEA agents about “Chama King of Cocaine” and at the same time pimped Miguel about “Tony,” (a DEA undercover agent), whom he described as the Dumb-and-Dumber of the Mafia. During that time California DEA did no investigation of Miguel whatsoever.
The record showed: No telephone investigation to ascertain whether Miguel was making telephone calls to any real drug dealers, no financial investigation to see what he was doing with his drug millions, no surveillance that would have revealed that Chama King of Coke was a working stiff who lived in a one-room apartment. They did nothing but write down whatever their rat told them as “fact.”
For eight months Snakeface stalled the California agents reporting that Chama was in the process of putting together a major shipment of cocaine, and the agents continued to pay him. In all,he received another $29,000 in “rat fees” plus expenses, which included periodic trips back to California from Washington to be “debriefed” on his “progress.” For eight months the agents nagged Snakeface into trying to get Miguel to deliver a sample of cocaine, any amount. Just something to prove that he was really in the business.
The sample never came. Miguel—surprizing for any Bolivian— didn’t know anyone in the business to even buy a small amount. And even if he did, he didn’t have the money. And Snakeface was afraid that if he paid for the sample even these California agents might get wise to him, so he came up with a clever solution: he told the agents, Hey, Class One dealers don’t give samples, only small dealers give samples. When, to his astonishment, they believed him, he took it one step further: Miguel, he said, was not going to do the deal unless the agents put part of the money out front—$300,000—another sign that he was a “true Class One dealer.”
Snakeface had enough experience selling cases to the Feds to know that they would never front that kind of money. He also knew that the Fed’s indecision and the slow moving bureaucracy, plus agents who didn’t really know what they were doing, could give him quite a few months on salary—which is exactly what happened.
After eight months, the California agents finally decided that, since “Chama” wouldn’t deliver drugs to them without front money, they ‘d get him on video-tape promising them cocaine and accepting the money—all they’d need to prove him guilty of Conspiracy to possess and distribute cocaine—and bust his ass. Miguel would face enough charges to make him a guest of the American taxpayers for more years than he had left on this earth. The no-dope conspiracy arrest would also give them the agents their Class One stat and maybe a headline from the ever gullible press.
By this time Snakeface had not only received $30,000 in “Informant Fees” but all charges against him in South America had been “disappeared.”
What a country!
Now Snakeface had two final duties to perform for his masters: bring Miguel to California for his arrest and then testify in court. More money was even promised after his conviction. How much? We’ll never know.
Now the stage was set for the final act—the video-taping of the “crime.” Only there was still one remaining snag. Miguel didn’t have the money to come to California for his own arrest. In a final irony, the California DEA agents had to pay for his trip.
Finally, dressed up in his best Sears casuals and prepared to play the role of a Class One cocaine dealer for a live audience of Mafia retards. Miguel was on his way to California like a big Bolivian turkey on his way to enjoy Thanksgiving dinner.
It was close to midnight when I keyed the video-tape of the climactic undercover meeting between Chama King of Cocaine and “Tony” capo of the Three Stooges Mafia family.
The screen flickered to life.
A hotel had been rigged with hidden video cameras. Center screen was “Chama” and “Tony” facing each other across a table. Between them was a piece of hand luggage containing $300,000 in hundreds and fifties.
There were several problems that were immediately apparent. First, they hardly shared a language in common. Tony’s Spanish was rudimentary at best and Miguel spoke only a few words of English. Tony for example kept referring over and over to the “Percento” until Miguel finally figured out he was trying to say “purity”—a word anyone who did drug deals in Spanish should have known in his sleep.
Second, neither man knew his role. It was like Peewee Herman and Gnewt Gingrich playing dress-up and pretending to do a drug deal. “Chama” was dressed like the hotel maintenance man, and “Tony” was dressed like an Elvis impersonator.
Neither knew the mechanics of a real Class One drug deal, or any real drug deal for that matter. There was no discussion of specific amounts, prices, weights, meeting places, delivery dates, provisions for testing the merchandise before delivery , methods of delivery or prearranged trouble signals. Nothing happened that even resembled a real drug deal, which is typically paranoid event that is all about specifics. What the agents had on video wasn’t authentic enough for a Stallone movie.
The only thing clear was that “Tony” was asking Miguel to promise him that, if he was allowed to leave the room with the $300,000 he would, within 20 to 30 days, deliver an unspecific amount of cocaine, to an unspecified location—pretty good for a parking lot attendant.
Miguel eagerly assured his new benefactor that he would make said delivery. He was then allowed to examine the money, which he eagerly did, after which the undercover DEA agent asked him if he was “happy,” with what he saw. Miguel, thinking that America truly was a land of gold paved streets guarded by idiots and that his friend Snakeface was a genius to be compared with Einstein, or at least Howard Stern, assured “Tony” that he was very happy.
With all the elements to the crime of Conspiracy recorded on video-tape Tony concluded by saying “…Whew! Thank you very much and I’ll wait for your call.”
“O.K.,” said Miguel, his eyes bugged out with disbelief as he got to his feet holding the money.
“Hey! Dude,” said Tony, “I’ll be here a little while. I have to make a few calls. Bye.”
Miguel’s look as he started to leave with the money only lacked the line: Feet, don’t fail me now. His feet didn’t have far to go—only about a half dozen steps before he was arrested.
I clicked off the video. If DEA stood for the Dumb Enforcement Administration, then Miguel undoubtedly was a Class One violator—but a drug dealer he was definitely not.
Had the agents responsible for this case been working for me during the seventeen years I was a supervisory agent, I would have jerked them into my office for a private conference. “There are a million fucking real drug dealers in this country,” I would have told them. “There’s probably a couple of hundred working within a square mile of the office. If you’ve gotta go 3,000 miles to D.C. and spend a quarter of a million in taxpayer bucks to turn a fucking parking lot attendant into a Class One doper, you oughta be working for the CIA, or Congress, or wherever else you can convert bullshit to money.”
I would have put them on probation and moved to fire them if they couldn’t do the job. I had done it before. It wouldn’t have been anything new to me. But was that any of my business now that I was retired? If Miguel wasn’t a doper he was certainly a thief, wasn’t he?
“What are you going to do?” asked Laura.
“I wish I knew,” I said. “It’s pure entrapment, but the idiot did his best to sound like a doper. If I’m gonna go against DEA, I don’t want to lose.”
But there were things happening to me and in the news, that had been on my mind during the days leading up to this phone call that would keep me up for the rest of the night.
The first was the shooting of the wife and son of Randy Weaver by FBI agents during a raid at Ruby Ridge. The guy was supposed to be a white supremacist and I’m a Jew, but we both had something powerful in common—the unbelievable pain of having our children murdered.
What had my head spinning in disbelief was that the case against Weaver that provoked the raid in the first place—possession of a sawed-off shotgun—had been set up by a professional rat like Snakeface and that Weaver had been found innocent by reason of entrapment.
I kept flashing back to an incident that had happened at the beginning of my career while I was serving with BATF, enforcing the Federal gun laws.
The rat’s name was Ray. He had a glass eye, no front teeth and a rap sheet as long as a cheap roll of toilet paper. He was my first CI and would be the prototype for many hundreds to follow.
“I met this guy who wants to sell a sawed-off shotgun for sixty bucks,” said Ray flashing me his goal post smile. “His name is Angel. He’s a black Porto-Rican. One a them Young Lords,” he added, naming the Mao-spouting Latino organization that was so popular to arrest.
“How do you know it’s a violation?” I asked. A shotgun had to have a barrel length of less than 18 inches to be a violation of the National Firearms Act—the law we enforced.
Ray winked his good eye at me. He knew the law as well as any agent. He made a living selling drug and gun cases to the government.
“When the dude left the room to go to the john, I measured it. How much is it worth if I duke you into the guy?”
I explained that if Angel delivered the gun in a car, we would seize it and the “informant fee” would be raised according to the value of the car. Or if Angel was somebody “news worthy” it would be worth a couple of hundred. But Angel Nobody with one gun was only worth a hundred bucks, then twice the average weekly income in the U.S.
Ray already knew all this. Like all professional stools he just wanted the arrangement spelled out beforehand. If I didn’t take the case,or he didn’t like the deal, he knew he might still be able to sell it to the FBI or another ATF agent.
“But the dude is a Young Lord, that got to be worth something extra.”
People can say they’re anything. We’ll see who he is after I bust him.”
Following my instructions, Ray set up a buy/bust meet. Later that night, covered by a team of about a half dozen undercover agents, I met Angel, a nervous eighteen year old, on Bruckner Boulevard in the South Bronx. The kid had the gun in a paper bag just the way Ray said he would. I handed him the sixty bucks, took the gun and busted him.
On the way back to headquarters in lower Manhattan, something happened that Ray didn’t count on. When I told Angel that possession and sale of a sawed-off shotgun carried a sentence of 25 years in Federal prison he blinked a few times and turned rat himself.
Angel claimed that he had a “partner” on the deal—a guy named Ray he’d met on an unemployment line a few days earlier.
“The guy tol’ me he knew a sucker who’d pay sixty bucks for an old shotgun that he could get for ten in the pawn shop. Alls we got to do is cut the barrel. He say if I cut it and make the delivery, he puts up the ten for the gun and we split the profit. He was right there when I cut it. He even marked it.”
What Angel had described, without realizing it, was a crime that never would have happened if it hadn’t been provoked by a paid government rat—entrapment. In those years the rule was that simple: if the crime wouldn’t have happened without a CI or an undercover agent planting the idea, there was no crime. The Justice Department wouldn’t prosecute it. In fact, an agent could get himself into serious trouble bringing an entrapment case to the U.S. Attorneys office.
How things have changed.
It took me two days to corroborate Angel’s version of events and get all charges dropped against the kid. The Federal prosecutor thanked me and told me that I had just learned the most important lesson I would ever learn as a Fed: “Never trust a criminal informant, Mike,” he said. Over the next twenty-five years I would hear those words repeated thousands of times, by agents, cops, training instructors and prosecutors, yet I never heard a prosecutor say them to a jury.
Everyone who’s ever carried a Federal badge knew how easy it was to convict someone who’d been entrapped on little more than an informant’s testimony, as long as the informant was clever enough to hide his tracks, the victim gullible enough to fall for the trap and the agents and prosecutors ambitious and immoral enough to go for the headlines, statistics and win at any price.
Until recent years I had believed that most of us in Federal law enforcement were people whose pride and consciences would not allow that to happen.
I was no longer so sure.
After the Ray-Angel case, I continued on with BATF for three more years before transferring into narcotic enforcement. During those years I never saw another sawed-off shotgun case involving a CI, accepted for prosecution by the two Federal courts in New York City. There was just too much possibility of Informant Entrapment.
Yet, in the Randy Weaver case, the question, How the hell was a CI entrapment, sawed-off shotgun case ever allowed to become a military invasion of an American citizen’s home? was not even being asked—either by our political leaders or the media. The question in my mind was, What happened to the people of conscience in the Weaver case? You can’t just blame it on the rat—a professional rat can’t entrap anyone unless a government rat with more ambition than conscience is willing to look the other way.
The other thing going on in my life that would affect my decision was that—as a result of my books—I’d been receiving letters from Federal prisoners who claimed that they had been “set up” by lying criminal informants working for the various, competing Federal agencies enforcing the drug and money laundering statutes. Guys like Lon Lundy, a once successful businessman, husband and father from Mobile Alabama, a man with no criminal record who was set up by a CI in a no-dope Conspiracy case and received a Life-with-no-parole sentence, or Harry Kauffman from Cleveland, a once successful used car dealer, husband and father, who was conned by a CI into accepting cash, alleged to be drug money, for some cars and charged with Money Laundering, and many others. And many others.
They were men of every race, religion and national origin in the Federal prison system. Most had no previous criminal records, most had had their homes, businesses and financial assets seized by the Federal government leaving their families destitute, all had received more than twenty year prison sentences. In many cases the rats ended up with a percentage of the assets seized as a “reward” for their “work.” These were men whose lives and families had been destroyed. Their letters to me were desperate cries, that affected me deeply.
My twenty-five years in the justice system had taught me that there were plenty of bureaucrats and politicians whom, if they didn’t like the way you exercised your rights as a citizen, or if they thought they could make headlines, political hay or a promotion by your arrest and prosecution, would not think twice about targeting you with the government’s legions of paid belly-crawlers. Few people have the money of a John DeLorean to adequately defend themselves against a slick rat.
The only thing, in my experience, that stopped these rats with badges and rats in public office, were people of conscience in positions of authority and a knowledgeable and watchful media. For several years I had been seeing no evidence of either. And as publicly outspoken as I had been about the phony drug war bureaucrats and politicians, I found this all personally threatening.
Finally, the most painful issue of all was the murder of my son Keith by a man who had two prior murder convictions in New York State; a man who was on the street—according to our political leaders—because there is just not enough money to put everyone in jail that belonged there, yet I was looking at a file in front of me that spoke of Federal law enforcement spending many hundreds of thousands of dollars to arrest and convict a parking lot attendant as a Class One drug dealer.
“I’ll do it,” I heard myself say the next morning. “I went over all your stuff. You’ve got a better entrapment defense here than John DeLorean had.”
There was a long silence on the phone. “I didn’t claim entrapment as my defense theory,” said the attorney.
I started to ask him why and stopped myself. It no longer mattered. The attorney’s opening statement claimed Miguel was innocent of all charges—not that he had been entraped by a government rat working on commission, into committing the crime. Miguel, on camera, had done his best to play the role of Chama King of Cocaine; he had promised to deliver drugs and accepted money on camera—all the government needed to prove Conspiracy. If a judge didn’t explain to a jury what entrapment was, not even Johnnie Cochran could get him off. And once the trial had begun no judge would allow a change in the defense theory—it was a simple matter of law.
But Miguel’s guilt or innocence no longer mattered to me. I had somehow committed myself mentally and emotionally to go to war. I wanted to try and make the growing power of rats—those with and without badges—as public as I could. They weren’t only hurting people who had failed an honesty test—they were spending billions in taxpayer dollars for nothing but phony show trials, and filling the jails with people who were, at worst, non-violent dupes, while our nation’s streets ran with the blood of innocents.
My testimony as a defense expert witness, lasted all day Monday and into Tuesday morning. A couple of guys whom I used to work with sat with the prosecution watching me with looks of disbelief. During a break one of them came up to me, stared at me for a long moment and said: “It’s a shame you had to go that way.”
I said nothing. There was nothing I could say. I had known the guy for more than twenty-five years. We had served together in two Federal agencies. He, I was sure, was not capable of bringing a mess like Miguel Car-parker into Federal court, but he would not violate the blue wall of silence, he felt the need to protect people whom I thought didn’t deserve it. When you become a Fed you take two oaths, one to protect the bureaucracy and the other to protect the Constitution and the people who pay your salaries. No Federal agent can live up to both.
We would never speak again.
During my testimony I pointed out the dozens of places in the tapes that both Miguel and Tony spoke and acted in ways that indicated that neither knew what a real drug deal was like, and that in my opinion the crime never would have happened if it were not for the CI’s actions and the agents’ failure to control him and properly investigate his allegations. I even got to testify to my opinion that “if the Federal government is going to use suitcases full of taxpayer dollars to test the honesty of American citizens, instead of working the parking lots of America, they ought to be running their tests in the halls of Congress where it might do us some good.”
As soon as I got off the witness stand I headed back to New York. The whole thing had been a traumatic, shitty experience for me. The attorney said he’d call to let me know the verdict. The judge had refused to instruct the jury that they could find the defendant innocent by reason of entrapment, but the attorney was still hopeful.
In New York a message was waiting for me from another California attorney that would quickly take my mind off, what I had begun calling “The Beavis and Butthead case.”
The attorney represented a forty-five year old executive for a Fortune 500 computer company named Donald Carlson. A Federal task force of Customs, DEA, BATF and Border Patrol agents, just graduated from a paramilitary assault school the week before, wearing black ninja outfits, helmets and flack vests, using flash-bang grenades and automatic weapons had invaded Mr. Carlson’s upscale, suburban, San Diego home, shooting the corporate executive three times and leaving him in critical condition. They were executing a search warrant based on the uncorroborated, uninvestigated word of a professional rat.
Miraculously, despite the best efforts of the this newly formed, suburban assault squad—one of the invading feds did a Rambo-roll, firing fifteen rounds from his submachine-gun hitting everything in Mr. Carlson’s foyer, but Mr. Carlson—Mr. Carlson was going to survive and wanted to sue the government.
“We’d like to retain you as our consultant,” said the attorney, a soft-spoken, thoughtful man with an impeccable reputation for integrity.
” How did this happen?” I said.
“That’s what we’d like you to tell us. It seems that this task force had a search warrant seeking for 5000 pounds of cocaine and four armed and dangerous Colombians in Mr. Carlson’s garage. The warrant was apparently based on the word of a criminal informant.”
I immediately started pouring over the reports and statements. Dawn had begun to light the sky before I realized that I had read the whole night through. It was one of the most frightening examples of an out-of-control, almost comically inept Federal law enforcement that I had ever seen or heard of in my twenty-five year career —if it weren’t for the fact that these guys carried real guns and badges.
In short, a low-level professional rat/petty thief/druggie who’d been selling street-level dope cases to a local south Florida police department, convinced a team of California Federal agents representing four Federal agencies, that he had become a trusted member of a major South American drug cartel.
They overlooked the fact that the rat spoke no Spanish and seemed to have a hard time putting together an intelligible sentence in English; that most of the people he was implicating as “members” of this Colombian drug ring weren’t even Spanish speakers; that the rat’s credit was so bad that the phone company refused to furnish him with a telephone (the agents had to give him a cellular phone, which they took back when he started making unauthorized phone calls); that a local cop had called the rat a liar. Even the rat’s story, that he was doing pushups in a California park when he was first approached by a stranger to join one of the notoriously paranoid, Colombian Cartels, would have been dissed at a UFO abduction convention.
But none of this bothered these feds.
For three months the agents put the CI on the payroll, accepted everything he said as “fact,” implicated dozens of innocent people in government files and computers as “drug traffickers,” belonging to a drug trafficking organization that didn’t even exist, and even obtained four search warrants—including the Carlson warrant— on nothing more than the rat’s uncorroborated words. And then, ignoring the words of a San Diego cop who called the rat a liar, they “Ramboed” the suburban home of a computer company executive like it was Desert Storm, only to find that the Colombian Cartel didn’t even exist.
Holy shit! I thought. What is going on here?
The Federal grapevine must have been buzzing. I was contacted by cops and agents who wanted to see some of these guys go to jail. A San Diego cop who had taken part in the investigation—but not the raid— was quoted as saying that the feds shouldn’t be carrying guns and badges. A lot of feds felt the same way, but they weren’t going to break the blue wall of silence. One did, however, send me a copy of Congressional Report of hearings chaired by Congressman John Conyers Jr. that he thought “might be helpful.”
The title of the report tells its story: Serious Mismanagement and Misconduct in the Treasury Department, Customs Service and Other Federal Agencies and the Adequacy of Efforts to Hold Agency Officials Accountable.
The hearings not only found evidence of all of the above, they also found there was “a perception of cover-up” in these Federal agencies for all their misdeeds. In spite of this report being issued within months of the Carlson shooting, the killings at Ruby Ridge and the massacre at Waco, Texas, it went virtually ignored by the media.
I had served part of my career as an Operations Inspector and began doing what I used to do for the government—documenting violations of rules, regulations and Federal law on the part of agents. I began what would become two reports (160,000 words) noting hundreds of instances where these feds violated their own rules, dozens of indications of federal felonies—false statements, perjury, illegal tampering with evidence and coercion of witnesses— and violations of the U.S. Constitution. I also found and noted in my reports—just as Congressman Conyer’s report noted—powerful indications of cover-up going right to top level management of DEA, Customs and the Justice Department. Powerful people wanted the Carlson incident to “disappear.” I was not going to let that happen.
Or so I thought.
A couple of days into my work on the Carlson case I got a call from Miguel’s attorney. The jury had found him guilty of “attempted possession of cocaine.” The charge carried a mandatory minimum of twenty years in Federal prison.
“The jury said they weren’t very impressed with either your testimony or the government’s” he said. “They voted on what they thought was the law. Miguel promised he’d deliver the coke for the money, so he’s guilty.”
The attorney said he was appealing the conviction. The CI, in the meantime, was paid whatever he’d been promised and was probably off selling more cases. I mean, even I had to admit, it was a good living. I hung up feeling like shit.
Weeks later, after I had submitted the Carlson shooting report, recommending that the agents and prosecutors involved in the case be fired and prosecuted. I was full of hope. A rat cannot be king unless the people who are supposed to control him become as immoral and corrupt as he is and I was going for their throats. The Carlson case would be the example that all Americans should see of what was going wrong all across this country.
I looked forward to the civil trial and testifying publicly to my reports. It wouldn’t be a congressional hearing, where facts the facts testified to are usually the ones the politicians want to hear, so that they could comfortably reach the “conclusion” they’d already agreed upon long before the hearings began. I was even going to call Court T.V.
I was at war.
Miguel’s attorney called me again. “The judge reversed himself. He’s granted a new trial on the basis that Miguel should have had an entrapment defense. Will you be available to testify?”
“Sure,” I said.”I’d love to.”
It would be months before I learned that the attorney and the Federal prosecutor had worked out a plea bargaining deal. I’m not sure what Miguel pled guilty to, but he ended up with a ten year prison sentence. I suppose it could have been a lot worse.
It would be more than a year before I would learn that the U.S. government in the person of San Diego U.S. Attorney Allan Bersin, had decided to settle with Mr. Carlson, avoiding a trial and the public revelations of my reports. Mr. Carlson’s attorney made a public statement that by settling without a trial the misdeeds of the government were being covered up. The government paid Mr. Carlson 2.75 million. Part of the final agreement was that the government’s reports of its own actions, be classified.
The U.S. Attorney of San Diego, made a public statement exonerating the agents and prosecutors of all wrongdoing. He said that “the system” failed Mr. Carlson, but that the agents and prosecutors were to be commended for having done their jobs.
Within weeks the government would also settle with Randy Weaver, paying him $3.1 million. Once again the legality and morality of the government’s actions in entrapping Weaver in the first place were never even questioned.
This was also the year that Quibillah Shabazz, Malcolm X’s daughter would be charged with conspiracy to murder Louis Farrakhan, the man who was alleged to be behind the murder of her father. The young woman, according to the press, had been set up by her fiance, who also happened to be a long time professional rat for the FBI and who was reportedly paid $25,000 for his “services.”
It seems though that once the prosecutor and the FBI got their headlines they lost all stomach for their case against Ms Shabazz and agreed to a plea bargaining deal that freed her. My long experience told me that allowing a woman whom they had publicly charged, with great media fanfare, with conspiracy to murder and spent an enormous amount of taxpayer dollars to bring to “justice,” to simply go free without a trial was not out of any pity for her—they were protecting their own butts and covering up perhaps one of the ugliest cases of rat entrapment on record.
I flashed on another professional rat I knew in DEA who had turned every friend and relative he’d ever had into government cash as if they were deposit bottles. One day he came crying to me, actually bawling big wet tears, that he’d met a woman and for the first time in his life was in love. She lived in California and he was broke. He needed enough money to get him there. “I’m a piece of shit he said. Please don’t deny me a chance to turn my life around, Levine.” I bought him a one-way ticket. He was there a week when I got a call from a Los Angeles DEA agent checking on the guy’s record. The rat was trying to broker a deal on his fiancé.
I watched the Senate hearings into the Federal government’s actions in both Waco and Ruby Ridge and heard, for the first time in my life, liberal Democrats and the liberal press, who for decades were criticizing the tactics of Federal law enforcement suddenly referring to them, as “our Federal agents,” and defending their actions. It was clear that their real interest was to protect the President and Attorney General for their actions in two of the worst screw-ups in law enforcement history. At the same time the conservatives and Republicans, who for decades had defended Federal law enforcement, no matter what they did, were now attacking the Feds as racists and “jackbooted stormtroopers.”
And somewhere in the middle of this political shit-storm the truth was lost and, as usual, all the rats—those with badges, those in appointed and political office—came out smelling like roses, while the walking around, taxpaying, hard-working American and his Constitution took it up the ass.
The other day I read an interview of Sammy “the Bull” Gravano, who, in payment for turning rat against his lifelong partners in crime, was “forgiven” for the murders of nineteen human beings (that we know about) and an uncountable number of felonies. He was allowed to keep the millions he had earned as a murdering thug plus a pile of taxpayer dollars for “expenses,” and received a taxpayer-paid ride in the Federal Witness Protection program for life. Gravano, speaking from what he described as a “nice little apartment complex” said he was enjoying his new life as a bachelor millionaire.
“There’s a pool, racquetball courts, gym, tennis courts and a lot of single women who don’t have the slightest idea who I am,” he said. “It’s nice. I sit down and relax under some trees.”
God bless America, I thought. The land where the rat is king.
 Published by Utne Reader and Prison Lif e Magasine. Reprint Rights available.
The incident was written about in The Big White Lie (Thunder’s Mouth Press)