Undercover cop's death highlights high risk/reward of 'reverse stings' - East Valley Tribune: Arizona

Undercover cop's death highlights high risk/reward of 'reverse stings'

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Posted: Monday, March 21, 2011 3:00 am | Updated: 4:20 pm, Mon Mar 21, 2011.

Chandler police Detective Carlos Ledesma was sitting at a card table when the drug bust went sour. He did not even have time to stand before being cut down by four rifle shots to the chest, and he died a short time later.

When the carnage ended, two other Chandler narcotics detectives lay bleeding on the floor of the home in west Phoenix. One suspected drug peddler died by the front door, another a short distance away in the back seat of a getaway car.

Chandler police were not after drugs when the undercover operation went terribly wrong. They were after cash - a quarter million dollars the violent and heavily armed men they were dealing with agreed to pay for 500 pounds of marijuana the detectives said they could supply.

Police were running a "reverse sting," a controversial and high-risk tactic in which undercover officers pose as sellers of large quantities of marijuana or other drugs.

In a traditional drug sting, the cops pose as the buyers and show up with the money. If successful, they walk away with nothing but suspects and evidence.

But in a reverse sting, the police get to keep the cash they seize under Arizona's forfeiture law, which allows them to take property they say has been used in certain crimes and keep it for their own use. Police can spend the money to buy equipment, build new buildings, travel, or hire outside help. They can even use it to pay for more police to bring in more money.

Critics warn the built-in profit motive of forfeiture laws distorts priorities of police, enticing them to pursue risky operations in far away cities rather than more destructive street crimes in their own communities.

The most blatant example of abuse cited by critics is reverse stings.

"This has become a very sophisticated, very dangerous and very high revenue-generating speed trap," said Tucson attorney Richard Jones, who has handled more than 100 forfeiture cases in his 27 years of practicing law in Arizona. "That's really all it is. You are taking a less effective, more problematic law enforcement technique and choosing that because of the money it generates."

Defenders of the law say money is not the motive in forfeiture cases. Police use the money to break up criminal gangs and strip them of their financial resources, they say.

Chandler has made extensive use of Arizona's forfeiture law. In the last five years, Chandler police raised more than $6.8 million through forfeitures, according to reports from the state Attorney General and the Maricopa County Attorney's Office. The current balance in Chandler's forfeiture accounts is about $5 million.

Chandler's favored technique for seizures is the reverse sting, according to a review of all cases that resulted in forfeitures for a one-year period that ended in July 2010.

Of the $3.2 million Chandler police raised through forfeitures in those 12 months, more than $2.7 million came through reverse stings, court records show. That is the equivalent of about one-fourth of Chandler's annual budget for its entire criminal investigations bureau, which includes its narcotics unit.

There were 35 forfeiture cases in all. Twenty of them were reverse stings.

High-paid police informants typically put the deals together. They are sometimes paid based on the amount of money that is confiscated.

The operations almost always take place far away from Chandler, most often in west Phoenix. In the year's worth of cases involving reverse stings reviewed by the Goldwater Institute, only one resulted in the seizure of a large amount of drugs, which turned up in a vehicle search after the transaction was complete.

All 20 reverse stings targeted would-be marijuana peddlers, according to court records. Chandler police rarely go outside the city on traditional undercover operations to buy large amounts of marijuana. Last fiscal year they only did it twice, city reports show.

Money raised through forfeitures goes into special accounts for the exclusive use of the agency that recovered it. It is controlled by agency administrators, and kept separate from the money they receive through the normal budget process. Forfeiture money can only be used to supplement regular agency spending, not to replace funds appropriated in annual budgets for agency operations, under federal and state guidelines.

The financial incentive created by forfeitures heightens the risk for undercover officers, and the chances agencies are willing to take, Jones said.

Because the police will keep the cash, there is always the incentive to put together the largest deal possible, he said. That raises the risk that the buyers will show up with guns to protect it.

The deals are normally set up by informants who live in the drug underworld. If they are paid on a commission, they have an incentive to lure people into larger drug deals as well, Jones said.

When the deal goes down, it is unlikely the major players of a drug organization are the ones who end up getting arrested, he said, adding the suspects tend to be low-level and easily replaced middlemen or hired help.

"You are getting the more amateurish guys," Jones said. "They are not hitting the big targets. The big targets know where to go to purchase marijuana. They don't have to meet a guy in a bar where these things are set up."

‘It's not about the money'

Chandler police insist they are not going after money when they run reverse stings, such as the one in which Ledesma was killed. They describe the tactic as an effective tool - one of many they use - to target high-level dealers who use the Valley as a hub to distribute marijuana and other drugs across the country.

Drug dealers do not respect city boundaries, said Commander Dale Walters of the Chandler Police Department. Closing down a would-be smuggling operation in Phoenix helps dry up the supplies throughout the Valley, which ultimately benefits the citizens of Chandler, he said.

Walters disputes the notion that people caught in reverse stings are small players, saying drug kingpins do not entrust low-level functionaries with hundreds of thousands of dollars.

"It's not about the money," said Walters. "For us, the ultimate goal is the disruption of drug organizations. If you take a large amount of money and a large number of people and put them in jail, that sends a significant ripple effect through a drug organization. The ultimate goal for us is to put bad guys in prison."

Chandler does follow through by bringing criminal charges, negating the frequent criticism that police take property in forfeiture operations without prosecuting anyone for committing a crime. Charges were filed in every case involving a reverse sting in Chandler during the period reviewed.

Of the 87 defendants, 42 received prison terms, typically because they had prior convictions or were carrying a firearm during the transaction. Another 42 received probation. Cases against two defendants are still open and a third was sentenced to a drug diversion program, according to court records.

Chandler seemed to have perfected the reverse sting, a tactic that has been used by the agency at least since the early 1990s. A series on state forfeiture laws published by the East Valley Tribune in November 1993 shows it was the agency's mainstay at that time, and had been for years.

There is a pattern to the way the deals go down, according to court records.

A confidential informant arranges the deal, working his own sources outside of direct control of police to find people who want to buy large quantities of marijuana. Once the buyer is found, the informant contacts detectives who get the marijuana out of the department's evidence room and pose as the suppliers.

Most of the reverse stings take place in Phoenix. Of the 20 reverse stings Chandler police ran in a year, only four of them had any connection to Chandler.

Terms are often discussed at an initial meeting between the buyers and undercover detectives. Police provide a sample. A price is agreed to and arrangements for delivery are made.

When the sale takes place, the undercover detective will often check the money before calling fellow officers to deliver the drugs. Money and marijuana exchange. A few minutes later, Chandler's SWAT team moves in to arrest the suspects.

Chandler police are so efficient at running reverse stings they sometimes rent a building in the city to make sales. All four reverse stings in Chandler occurred at that location, according to court records related to the year's worth of forfeiture cases.

When they do go to other cities, Chandler police do not bring in the local police department to assist in the reverse stings, according to the cases reviewed. They also use the city attorney, rather than the Maricopa County Attorney's Office, to bring the civil forfeiture cases in superior court. Bringing in another agency would mean that Chandler would be expected to split the money.

The operation Ledesma died in followed that pattern precisely until the shooting started.

Predictable pattern

The deal was put together in a day through an informant Chandler police used for about two months, according to a heavily redacted Phoenix police report on the shooting, which deletes the names of the undercover officers and the informant.

The informant contacted narcotics detectives on July 28, 2010, and told them he had gotten a phone call the previous evening from a man named "Chris." Chris was a middleman, the representative of several prospective buyers who wanted to purchase 500 pounds of marijuana and had "cash on hand." The price they eventually settled on was $250,000.

Detectives agreed to supply the drugs, and told the informant to set up a meeting. The police report makes no mention of how much money, if any, the informant was to be paid.

They arranged an initial meeting for the informant to verify the buyers had the cash. It took place in a parking lot near 19th Avenue and Baseline Road in south Phoenix.

After the informant reported back to Chandler police that he'd seen the bundles of $100 bills stuffed in a bag, he set up a second meeting at the same location. This time two undercover detectives showed up with the informant, carrying a bale of marijuana from which they provided a sample.

The operation was planned that afternoon, according to the Phoenix police report. One detective would accompany the informant to the sale location, a house in the 2300 block of West Maldonado Drive in Phoenix. Two others, including Ledesma, would be in a second car with the marijuana in the trunk, acting as delivery men.

They would come to the house only after a phone call from the first detective confirmed the money was there, and it was safe to deliver the marijuana.

Early signs of problems foreshadowed the dangers detectives would face.

The buyers controlled the events, dictating the location of the meetings and ultimate delivery. Police watching the house on Maldonado about 4 p.m. reported six cars parked there and "a lot of activity" with people coming and going.

At one point the deal seemed to collapse. About 4:30 p.m. the detective posing as the lead seller showed up at the house with the informant. The buyers' front man became upset because the "sellers" did not bring the marijuana.

The delivery vehicle was called in, and the buyer saw the marijuana. But the sale still did not go through because the buyer did not have the cash.

After the undercover officers drove away, the informant received a call from Chris, the middleman for the buyers, who said the money had arrived, and that the sale would take place at his house.

The location was later changed again, back to the house on Maldonado. Again, police agreed.

About 6:30 p.m., a single undercover detective and the informant arrived at the house. Two other detectives were in the delivery vehicle nearby, waiting for a call that the money had arrived.

Accounts vary as to how many suspects were there. The informant later told police he counted seven. Others said there were as many as 12. Several cars were parked out front. It is unclear from the police reports whether they saw any guns at that point.

Chandler's Special Assignment Unit, the agency's special tactics squad, waited nearby. The plan was to have them leave the staging area and speed to the house as soon as the delivery vehicle arrived and the garage door closed, allowing them to move in, arrest the suspects and confiscate the cash.

At least one of the undercover detectives was wearing a microphone monitored by other units watching the house.

In all, about three dozen Chandler police were involved in the operation.

Raising the stakes

Had the deal gone as planned, it would have been one of Chandler's biggest cash seizures in a year, according to city and court records. Only two other forfeiture cases brought in more cash for the agency, both reverse stings in Phoenix.

The first was a 750-pound marijuana deal which led to the seizure of $371,386 and two guns. The second started as a deal to sell 500 pounds of marijuana for about $195,000. During the subsequent search of a suspect's vehicle, police found about 40 kilograms of cocaine and additional cash, raising the total seizure to $329,736.

In both cases, several defendants were sentenced to prison, including one suspect who got more than nine years, in part because he had a prior conviction.

A confidential informant arranged both of those deals, and both followed the typical pattern in Chandler's reverse stings.

With so much money at stake, police have an incentive to gear law enforcement toward crimes that will result in forfeitures, and to take chances they might not take if they could not profit from their efforts, said David Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh whose areas of expertise include criminal law and police procedures.

The prospect of a big payoff has a corrupting influence on police priorities, Harris said. It entices police to go outside their city boundaries to put together high-dollar transactions, sometimes to the detriment of targeting less lucrative but more damaging street-level crimes within their communities, he said.

The most important question for police agencies is whether they would be so anxious to go outside of their city limits and put officers in those dangerous situations if they were only going after drugs rather than cash they are allowed to keep, Harris said.

"That has the potential to warp the judgment of the people in charge in deciding who are their targets, what are their targets," Harris said. "It's a loaded gun waiting for the wrong thing to come along.

"You are left at a minimum with the question of would you do this, would you be engaging in these high-risk activities, were it not for the money at stake? Would seizing their money just to bring them down be enough for you to commit the personnel and resources, and put those people at risk, just for that if you didn't have the money there?"

Walters, the Chandler police commander, says the answer for his agency is "yes."

"Would I go over to west Phoenix to seize 500 pounds (of marijuana) and arrest a number of drug organization key players in doing so? You bet. A hundred times over," Walters said.

But a review of large drug busts made by Chandler police shows marijuana traffickers are not frequently targeted in traditional undercover operations outside the city's boundaries. The agency made significant drug seizures in other cities 19 times last fiscal year, which ended June 30, according to city reports.

Nine of those were parcel intercepts, part of a program that encourages the operators of private postal stores to notify police of suspicious packages.

Of the remaining 10 cases, two targeted marijuana suppliers. Another was the reverse sting in which bundles of cocaine were discovered in a subsequent search. The remaining seven cases involved methamphetamine distributors.

Unlike reverse stings which typically involve dozens of narcotics and SWAT officers, the exchange of drugs and money in traditional undercover drug buys normally occurred in the parking lots of supermarkets and retail stores. Five of them were in Phoenix and four were in Tempe.

There is no shortage of traditional crime inside Chandler's borders. Last year there were eight criminal homicides, 61 forcible rapes, 195 robberies and 429 aggravated assaults in the city. All of the murders were solved, but clearance rates for other violent crimes ranged from a low of 13 percent for rapes to 62 percent for aggravated assaults, according to city reports.

Big payoffs

Forfeiture money obtained by police is kept in separate accounts they maintain with the state attorney general's office or their local county attorney. It is extra money that can only be used by the agency for law enforcement purposes, not part of their regular budget.

The money Chandler raised through forfeitures last year is the equivalent of about 5 percent of the agency's total budget, and about a fourth of its annual appropriation for the Criminal Investigations Bureau, which includes the narcotics unit, according to city records.

The state's forfeiture law imposes few limits on how the money is spent. In Chandler, the biggest expense in the forfeiture account last year was paying informants, according to city records. Last year, Chandler police paid more than $518,000 to confidential informants, payments classified as "professional services" in quarterly disclosure statements.

Being an informant for Chandler police is lucrative work. In an 18-month period that ended in November, one confidential informant was paid $248,598, according to documents obtained through state public records laws. Another received $193,568 and a third $81,575 during that same time frame.

Chandler spent just under $1 million from its forfeiture accounts last fiscal year, according to city records. Forfeiture money has bought a new vehicle for its SWAT team, computers and surveillance equipment, even a new police dog.

Unspent money remains in the forfeiture accounts for the exclusive use of the agency. Chandler does not use forfeiture funds for personnel costs, though other police agencies do.

Salaries, benefits and overtime were the largest expense category for state and local spending from forfeiture accounts in the last five years, state disclosure reports show. Since the beginning of the 2006 fiscal year, the combined total spending for state and local departments with forfeiture accounts was $91 million. Of that, almost $27 million went toward personnel expenses, according to quarterly reports posted by the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission.

In the last five years, state and local agencies in Arizona have raised about $204.5 million through forfeitures.

Whether paying the salaries of officers or buying expensive equipment, police agencies become reliant on the money to maintain their operations, said Harris, the Pittsburgh law professor. Because the money is outside the normal budget process, it can be used to buy expensive equipment or fund special projects that agencies could not afford otherwise, he said.

"It becomes something rapidly that you don't want to do without," he said. "Your motivations change when you have this other reason to go after this particular enforcement tactic."

Though Commander Walters would not comment on the operation that led to Ledesma's death, he did say money was not the motive for the investigation, and that "nothing was forced" to close the deal.

"We do not force things for money," he said. "We do not force things unnecessarily for arrests. When you are dealing with that element, sometimes bad things happen."

Police face dangerous situations every day, Walters said. Officers die in traffic stops, executing search warrants, high-speed emergency responses and checking on domestic violence calls, yet no one questions whether those aspects of police work are too dangerous, he said.

The risks of reverse stings and other undercover narcotics operations are something officers understand when they take the job, he said.

"This is an inherently dangerous job," Walters said. "Unfortunately, horrible things happen sometimes."

Deadly shootout

Horrible things happened quickly at the house on Maldonado.

A single detective and his informant arrived about 6:30 p.m. The buyers' middleman, Chris, came with them. Several suspects were scattered throughout the house. The police reports do not make clear how many in all.

The undercover detective checked the money, but apparently did not count it. He called in the other two officers who posed as the delivery men, giving them the signal to bring the marijuana to the house and back into the garage. When the delivery car arrived, the detective noticed more men get out of another car parked nearby and walk inside, according to an account he later gave to Phoenix police.

As several suspects checked the marijuana, the officers were told to come inside the house to count the money. Ledesma and a second officer wound up in the living room. The detective who had been posing as the seller followed one of the suspects into the pool room to count the money.

As he approached the pool table, the detective said "esta bien," Spanish for "it's good." At that point, one of the suspects walked toward the garage, looked out at the load of marijuana - briefly going out of sight - then came around the corner armed with an AK-74 rifle.

The lead detective ran into the kitchen and toward the living room. As the gunman rounded the corner he fired four times, mortally wounding Ledesma.

"Detective Ledesma never even had an opportunity to pull out his weapon to defend himself," prosecutors later stated in a court filing. "He was shot in cold blood."

The other two detectives pulled their pistols from their waistbands and began firing at the cluster of men who poured into the room. The lead detective later recalled at least two suspects shooting at him.

He said there were five to seven suspects in the house during the gun battle. During the exchange, the detective could not hear the gunshots, he later told Phoenix police. But he could see the muzzle flashes and the smoke. The detective was hit in the abdomen and fell to his side, but continued firing. He said his fellow officer also was shooting, but soon he got hit and fell to the ground.

The SAU team sped toward the house, but was still 30 seconds to a minute away.

When the shooting stopped, Ledesma was dying and one of the suspects was dead inside the home. The two surviving officers were badly wounded. Another suspect stumbled out of the house and was helped into a car by his fleeing cohorts, and was dead by the time they were stopped by Chandler police a short distance away.

Chris, the middleman for the buyers, had multiple gunshot wounds to his legs and a shattered pelvis.

Inside the black bag on the pool table, police found bundles of $1 bills stuffed into counterfeit $100s. The total take from the operation: $999.

Prosecutors noted the deception in court documents, saying it shows the drug deal was a rip-off from the start.

"This was a planned event, not something that went wrong at the last second," they wrote.

Eight suspects were charged for the events that transpired that night. The Maricopa County Attorney's Office is seeking the death penalty against two of them, including the man accused of shooting Ledesma.

The two Chandler detectives wounded in the shootout returned to limited duty.

Ledesma, who was 34 years old when he died, is survived by a wife and two young children.

Chandler police officials say they are reviewing the policies and events related to the shooting, as they do after any major incident. The criminal investigation is being handled by the Phoenix Police Department.

For rank-and-file Chandler police officers, the death of Ledesma is a stark reminder of the dangers they face in their jobs, said Shawn Hancock, president of the Chandler Law Enforcement Association, the city's police union.

But, like their commanders, front-line officers still believe the reverse stings favored by the agency are effective in taking drug pushers off the streets, he said.

Ledesma believed the risk was worth the reward, Hancock said.

"I will with 100 percent confidence tell you that if he himself could make the choice today, he would do it again," Hancock said.

Breaking the connection

The Goldwater Institute recommended repeal of Arizona's civil asset forfeiture laws in a November 2004 report [2]. At a minimum, the state should require money raised through forfeitures be deposited into a neutral account, such as the state or county's general fund, the report concluded.

Originally, Arizona law limited the amount of forfeiture money that police could keep to $25,000, with anything above that going into the state's general fund. That limit was later raised to $50,000 by the Legislature, and limits were eliminated entirely in 1987.

The most dubious use of the forfeiture money is to pay the salaries and benefits of the very people responsible for working forfeiture cases, the Goldwater Institute report concluded. That directly ties the jobs of police to the amount of money they bring in through forfeitures.

Reporting requirements are minimal. Quarterly disclosure statements compiled by the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission do not list the amount of money collected by each agency, or details on how it is spent beyond broad categories.

Agencies also are not required to report details of individual cases, including whether criminal charges were filed.

The end result is that police have a financial incentive to target certain crimes, there is little control over how they spend the money, and there are inadequate safeguards to protect innocent property owners from abuse, the Goldwater Institute's report concluded.

That is a dangerous combination, said Clint Bolick, director of the Goldwater Institute's Scharf-Norton Center for Constitutional Litigation.

"Police work is inherently risky," Bolick said. "But profits from asset forfeiture can distort priorities and magnify risk, both of which are unacceptable trade-offs."

The most basic reform of forfeiture law is to break the financial connection between law enforcement and forfeitures, said Scott Bullock, senior attorney at the Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm based in Virginia.

Bullock agreed that money raised by police through forfeitures should go into a neutral account, such as the state's general fund. That allows police to continue using forfeiture laws to break the finances of criminal organizations while taking away the incentive to go after crimes that have the potential of a financial payoff, but have little impact on public safety, he said.

"What should be driving law enforcement in all their decision making should be justice and not whether we are going to take money off all of this," Bullock said. "If you removed the profit incentive, then you would go far in assuring that if the police have to go so far outside of their jurisdiction, they will be doing it for reasons related to public safety and they will make decisions based on that."

Some states have reformed their forfeiture laws, either by adding protections for innocent property owners or limiting the amount of money police departments are allowed to keep for themselves, according to a March 2010 study by the Institute for Justice [3].

Eight states bar the use of forfeited money by law enforcement agencies, the study reported. The other 42 states allow at least half of the money to be kept by those agencies. Most states, including Arizona, allow all of the proceeds from forfeitures to be used by law enforcement.

The report singles out reverse stings as the most blatant example of the "addiction" law enforcement has to forfeiture money.

Supporters of the existing law say prohibiting police from using the money they seize could damage legitimate law enforcement efforts because it takes away the incentive to target certain crimes.

Forfeitures allow police to use the assets of a criminal organization to go after other criminal operations, they say.

There are protections built in the law to prevent police from using forfeitures as a revenue-raising tool, said Peter Spaw, head of the Asset Recovery Bureau at the Maricopa County Attorney's Office. The federal government has published a model code of professional conduct in asset forfeiture cases, which law enforcement agencies in Maricopa County abide by, Spaw said.

The first item in that code is law enforcement has to be the principal objective, and "potential revenue must not be allowed to jeopardize the effective investigation and prosecution of criminal offenses, officer safety, the integrity of ongoing investigations, or the due process rights of citizens."

Allowing agencies to keep the assets they seize may create an incentive to go after certain crimes, said Spaw, adding that is not necessarily a bad thing. Police departments with limited resources might not otherwise have the capacity to target more sophisticated organizations, including drug rings, without the money they get through forfeitures, he said.

"I really see it as knocking the feet out from under forfeiture," Spaw said of severing the connection between the money police seize and the amount they are allowed to keep. "Will it go away if the money goes into the general fund? I think some folks who know a lot more about it would say yes. Is that a loss? I think it is."

Harris, the Pittsburgh law professor, said putting the proceeds into the general fund of the state or county would not solve all of the problems with forfeiture laws. But it would ensure that police set their priorities based on crimes that have an impact on the communities they serve, rather than the potential profits they will reap.

If forfeiture laws are an effective mechanism of dismantling the financial resources of criminal gangs, then that alone should justify the operations, Harris said. It should not matter to police who gets to keep the money, he said.

"You want them to try to break the drug mobs and the drug gangs," Harris said. "But if enforcing the law and breaking the gangs is not enough incentive, I don't know what would be. That's their mission."

Former East Valley Tribune writer Mark Flatten is an investigative reporter for the Goldwater Institute, an independent government watchdog organization based in Phoenix.

 

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