WASHINGTON, D.C. — Monday 09:00
Gregory Ballentine sat quietly against the wall, away from the table, during the DEA's Monday morning operations meeting. As head of the OPR, the Office of Professional Responsibility—the DEA's label for internal affairs—he attended these meetings to monitor, not contribute. When he had something to say, he said it in private to the Director.
The meeting opened with a statistical summary of the previous week: property forfeiture income, cash recovered, drugs seized, arrests made, and indictments and convictions. Greg considered the summary useless, a time filler.
He perked up at the next order of business, euphemistically called exceptional operations. Here they covered in detail any operation that resulted in a death or any bust in which no drugs were found. This part of the weekly review began after the DEA had been embarrassed by a number of raids in which they had targeted and shot innocent citizens, killing some.
“We had two routine exceptional operations in the last twenty-four hours,” the Executive Director, commonly called the Exec, began.
Greg wondered how any operation could be both routine and exceptional.
“The first was in Houston and resulted in the deaths of two suspects. We seized five kilos of cocaine and three hundred thousand dollars in cash. As you can see from the report, it's a clean bust. We have no exposure.” The exec hurriedly read the report, the others dutifully following.
“The second exceptional operation was in Oregon. Two suspects were killed when they fired on the assault team, hitting the clothing of one of them. We seized half a kilo of cocaine.”
“That's all?” the Director said.
“Yes, apparently a large shipment got by them before the raid,” the exec replied.
The Director grimaced.
The exec started reading the report. An impatient man and a fast reader, Greg raced through it. He didn't like what he saw. Something knocked quietly at the back door of his mind.
“Questions or comments?” the exec finally asked.
“Was this man really eighty-five-years old?” Marshall Pressman, the Chief Legal Counsel said.
“So it says,” the exec said.
“Damn, eighty-five and dealing cocaine. Was he getting laid every night too?” Polite laughter followed, and Greg knew that Marshall now considered himself to have substantially contributed to the meeting.
“This one's a little unusual,” the Director said. “The death of an eighty-five-year-old and his wife won't play well in some quarters even if they did start it. We took a helluva p.r. hit over that eighty-year-old black gal.” [REF0201]
“Yes, but in this case we seized drugs, in that one we didn't find any,” the exec said. “We're covered.”
“True,” the Director said, “but make sure we play down how little ... and play up the fact that they fired on and hit an agent.”
Everyone at the table agreed; Greg remained silent; he needed time and more information. He couldn't yet put it all together.
“Marie,” the Director addressed his secretary, “prepare a letter for my signature to the agent who was hit. Thank him for his continued dedication in a dangerous job, the usual, and tell him we're gratified that the bullet hit only his clothing.”
Then Greg's mind made the connection. His surprise was total. “Impossible!” he said under his breath, to himself, but in the silence after the Director's order, all heard.
“Impossible, Greg? What's impossible?” the Director said.
“Sorry, sir, I allowed my attention to wander. Disregard. My apologies. I was thinking of something else.”
“Hmm, we don't often hear from you in this meeting. We're all ears for anything you wish to say.”
“I'm sorry, sir. My thoughts wouldn't be a proper subject here.”
“Hmm, I hope she's good looking.” Everyone laughed. The Director addressed the exec. “Go on.”
“Our next item of business is allocation of seized assets,” the exec said.
Greg quickly and quietly left the room, but all took note, and some worried. Greg had a habit of seeing things others missed, and that could be embarrassing for those who should have caught what he had seen. The worriers would look again in private at the Oregon report.
The Director wrote a single word in caps on his pad: GREG.
OPR occupied the single belowground floor devoted to offices. Greg had requested that. Out of sight, out of mind, and that made his job easier. It also instilled a certain dread in any agent invited down to the cellar to chat; that also made his job easier. And, since no one voluntarily came down, it allowed Greg to have the most sumptuous offices in the building save for the Director's office.
At age fifty-one, at the zenith of his government career and making the most of it, he enjoyed his job immensely, and his job was his life. Small of stature, he compensated with excellent posture and an appearance of physical strength, which he maintained with a three times a week workout at the agency's health club.
Stepping off the elevator into the lobby, Greg acknowledged the receptionist, and crossed directly to his outer office. No one waited to see him; he was back earlier than expected. He motioned to his secretary to follow him into his office. She knew the look and the manner and closed the door behind her.
Greg started writing names on a notepad. “Hold all incoming calls. Put off anyone wanting to see me for the rest of the day. This may be nothing, but I need time to check it out. If it involves who I think it does, it could be a real mess. Is Brian here?”
“Don't let him leave. No, tell him to go to his apartment and pack a bag and get back as soon as possible. Schedule an aircraft to take him to Eugene, Oregon. Bump anybody you have to in order to get the plane.” He stopped talking and continued writing. When he finished, he tore off the page and handed it to her. “Get me these people on the phone in that order. I'll want to talk to the Director as soon as he gets back from lunch. Tell Marie it's a priority internal affair.”
Greg's secretary monitored his phone line. When he hung up, she automatically called the next name on the list. Five names remained when the Director called. She put him through in spite of Greg's request to hold all calls; a call from the Director required an immediate answer.
“Talk to me, Greg. What the hell was that 'impossible' bit about?”
“I need more time. Besides, it'd ruin your lunch. I've got a request in for a meeting with you this afternoon.”
“Hmm, is it time critical? It's going to be a long lunch.”
“It can wait that long. I'll put my assistant on a plane to Oregon. By the time we meet, we'll be on top of it.”
“Can we contain it?”
There were two names remaining when the short, rotund figure of Brian Killough appeared, bag and attaché case in hand.
“Sit down, Mr. Killough. I'll tell him you're here as soon as he's off the phone.”
Brian sat like an obedient dog. Five minutes later he entered his boss's office.
“Brian, have a seat. Thank you for being so prompt.”
“No problem, sir. I live only a few minutes away.”
Greg rose from his desk with a file in hand, walked around and sat in the chair nearest Brian's, turning it to face him. He handed Brian the file.
“In this file is a report on a bust, an exceptional operation, that took place last night in Oregon. I want you to go there and find out if the report is accurate. Brian, I need somebody I can trust. We have a situation. It may come to nothing, hopefully will come to nothing, but it could become a nightmare. Normally I'd handle something this touchy myself, but someone's in the picture that I was involved with in the past. We may need his cooperation. If we do, I'm not the one he'll give it to.”
“You don't think the report is accurate?”
“I think it's a bunch of bull, but I want you to accept it as the truth and try to verify it. Even if we find out it's bullshit, we may need to defend it. What I need to know is how well the story will hold up. If it's true, no problem. If it's not, can we pass it off as the truth and get away with it?”
Brian raised his eyebrows. “Would that be wise?”
“You and I both know we can't afford more messes like San Diego or Malibu, and something like that is what I think happened.”
Brian winced at the references. He knew both incidents had been public relations nightmares. In August of last year, on the basis of an informant's tip, agents made a no-knock entry to the home of a prominent San Diego businessman, shot him, and then were unable to find any drugs. The man survived, spending six weeks in intensive care. He had a $20 million lawsuit pending against the government. The DEA tried to save face by indicting the informant on a charge of giving false information to federal agents. [REF0202]
Then, in October, agents raided the ranch of a reclusive Malibu millionaire on the basis of an informant's tip. They shot and killed the man but were unable to find any drugs. Matters were made worse when it came to light that the officer leading the raid had lied to obtain the search warrant and later falsified his report in an attempt to make the shooting appear justified. Subsequently, newspaper reporters uncovered the true motive for the raid, a scheme by agents to seize the man's ranch. His survivors filed a civil rights violation lawsuit against the government; a multi-million dollar settlement was expected. [REF0203]
Greg continued. “If we get a bad shot of p.r. now, we're in real trouble. It'll give the vice-president's boys what they need to convince the Hill we should be merged into the FBI. Hell, we don't have one agent in ten that meets FBI standards. It'd be a fucking disaster.”
“They didn't find any drugs in the operation?”
“They claim they seized a half kilo of cocaine, but I don't believe it ... look, there's a lot I'm not telling you, and I won't unless I have to. That's best for you, best for me, best for the agency. You'll have to trust me on this.”
“Sir, is the Director aware of the situation?” Brian began covering his ass.
“We covered the report in the morning's ops meeting. That's all he knows now. I have a meeting with him this afternoon, and I'll brief him then. He'll know everything I know. Brian, I understand your concern, but you should know that I never, never leave somebody who works for me out on a limb.”
“Yes, sir, I've heard that.”
“Good. Now, run the investigation in the usual manner but pass it off as a formality. Tell them having to kill an eighty-five-year-old and a woman raised a few eyebrows—which it did by the way. You heard Oregon was a great vacation place, and you saw a chance to check it out. Hell, man, buy yourself some fishing equipment when you get there.”
“Fishing, sir, while on assignment? Wouldn't that seem a little too casual?”
“That's what we want, Brian, that's what we want. Take a fly rod with you when you inspect the crime scene. There's a great fishing hole off the back of the house and a little downstream—at least there was twenty years ago.”
“Enough said. Get moving. Read the report and call me at this number from a pay phone when you get there.” He handed Brian a small slip of paper with the number. “Oh, the woman in the report, Elaine Harris, the agents assumed she was the man's wife. I've already found out that's wrong. She was his daughter-in-law. She didn't even live there.”
AIRBORNE FROM DULLES — Monday 12:30
Brian unfastened his seat belt when the pilot turned off the sign. He readjusted his weight and took time to look around. His departure had been hurried; he had felt like a small package when they hustled him from his office, drove him to Dulles in a limo, bypassed all the security facilities and deposited him at the aircraft's entrance.
As he had ascended the two small steps into the aircraft, the co-pilot had apologized for the necessity of using such a small plane, explaining that all the larger craft were either on missions or down for maintenance. Brian wasn't fooled; he knew he wasn't high enough in the bureaucracy to rate anything bigger. But that was all right; it would all come in time.
The aircraft was one of many the DEA had seized in drug busts. Most were sold at auction. A few were kept for agency purposes, especially the business jets, which were used to provide on demand transportation to the hierarchy, allowing them to avoid using the airlines. They had kept this one because the previous owners had installed extra long range fuel tanks. It could cross the country without refueling, or fly from Columbia or Bolivia to any point in the southern United States.
He felt uneasy in the business jet; it seemed too little to be safe. The hair of his head brushed the sloping ceiling even though he was short. Most of the time he hated his lack of height, but it was an advantage in this airplane.
He retrieved the report, a pen and a legal pad from his case and started reading. The report seemed unremarkable on its face. An informant gave the local office a lead on a large drug cache at a mountain cabin in Oregon. Agents investigated surveilled the cabin, and concluded they had discovered a major distribution point. On that basis and that of the information given them by the informant, they filled out a search warrant and made a no-knock entry. The suspects engaged them in a gun battle and were killed. One agent had been hit, but only his clothing. Most important, drugs were found. It was a common scenario.
But when Brian focused on the unusual details and considered the likelihood of them occurring in the same bust, the report took on an aura of improbability. The suspect was eighty-five, and the drug business at the distribution level was not an old man's trade, especially considering that most cocaine dealers were also users. Would an eighty-five-year-old man use cocaine? Could an eighty-five-year-old use cocaine and survive? Possible, but not likely. Maybe the woman was the dealer and he was along for the ride. But he was the one who had fired on the agents.
Then you had to accept an old man electing to shoot it out against what he could expect to be an experienced assault team, and using only a .22 to boot. The reported speculated that the .22 was used because there was no ammunition for a .45 automatic. But if so, why would the woman have even picked up the .45? Surely she would have known that doing that would make her a target. And why did the agents put speculation in an operations report? That kind of thing was reserved for intelligence evaluations. And if the suspects had weapons for a possible shootout, would they have neglected to ensure they had ammunition?
And the balance was wrong, too much about guns‑in‑hand and too little about other details, no mention of how long they surveilled, no details on the informant, and it didn't tell how they knew a major shipment had taken place or when they found out.
The more he looked at the report, the more he understood Greg's concern. But it certainly wasn't impossible; it could have happened that way, and Brian saw no reason to suspect that the cocaine had been planted. There had to be something else. Greg had admitted as much. What was it?
“Sir?” said the copilot. He was down on one knee in the aisle; there wasn't room to stand. Brian hadn't noticed him leaving the cockpit.
“We've leveled off. We apologize for the lack of a flight attendant. This baby has extra long-range tanks and we topped them off. The good part of that is that we won't have to stop enroute for fuel. The bad part is that when we put in that much fuel, we're weight-limited to one passenger.”
“Oh, that's fine. Cuts down on the distractions. I'll get more done. No problem,” said Brian. Give me another year and I'll get a flight attendant and a bigger airplane. Meanwhile he would be gracious and get on the good side of the peons.
“We got the best catering we could. There's no way to heat food on board, so we brought aboard hot meals in a cooler, and there are cold meals for later. Would you like your hot meal now?”
“Sure, that'll be fine.” Hot meals in a cooler?
The copilot handed him the meal, neatly packaged, and set a fruit tray on the seat beside him before returning to the cockpit. Brian put aside his work and ate. He had to admit the food was good even if no flight attendant fussed over him.
[REF0201] Annie Rae Dixon, an 84-year-old black woman, was fatally shot by a white police officer in a botched drug raid in Tyler, Texas in the summer of 1992. The New York Times, Aug. 10, 1992, p. A10, col. 4.
[REF0202]The Oregonian ‑ 1994 ‑ Article with Citation
Headline: AUTHORITIES APOLOGIZE FOR DRUG RAID ON INNOCENT MAN
Date: March 3, 1994 Section: WIRE STORIES Page: A13 Edition: FOURTH
Author: SEBASTIAN ROTELLA ‑ LA Times ‑ Washington Post
Summary: In a rare instance, federal agencies accept blame for the operation in which Donald Carlson was shot three times.
Federal authorities made a rare public apology Wednesday to an innocent man who was shot and seriously wounded when heavily armed agents stormed his house in a midnight drug raid 18 months ago.
U.S. Attorney Alan D. Bersin said the government admits liability and intends to pay monetary damages to Donald Carlson, who has filed a $20 million lawsuit against agents of the U.S. Customs Service, the Drug Enforcement Administration and other federal and local forces.
“We were deceived by our informant and must accept responsibility for that fact,” Bersin said.
Carlson, a 41‑year‑old computer company executive with no criminal record, awoke around midnight Aug. 26, 1992, to the sound of violent pounding on his front door, according to his suit. After trying to telephone police and yelling at the intruders to identify themselves, without response, he grabbed a pistol and fired two shots. The agents knocked down the door with a battering ram, hurled an explosive device and shot him three times ‑‑ twice after he had dropped his gun and lay helpless on his bedroom floor, according to the suit.
Carlson suffered serious wounds, including lasting damage to his respiratory system, arm and shoulder, his lawyer said. An agent received a superficial leg wound.
No drugs were found. Carlson was the victim of a bogus tip from an informant, who told wild tales about heavily armed South American traffickers using Carlson's home in suburban Poway as a cocaine warehouse, authorities say. The informant was charged in January with lying to agents.
“The tragedy for everyone involved is that although everyone acted in good faith, Mr. Carlson was still severely injured,” Bersin said. “Law enforcement investigations are designed to be conducted in as fail‑safe a manner as possible. However, in the case of the Carlson shooting, the system did fail.”
Citing a judge's order, authorities did not disclose the results of three internal investigations into the case involving Operation Alliance, a multiagency narcotics unit based at the U.S.‑Mexico border. The incident forced federal drug agents here to toughen rules on using confidential informants.
The lawsuit paints a nightmarish picture, accusing three customs agents, a federal prosecutor and other officials of acting on uncorroborated information, ignoring warnings about the informant's credibility and conspiring to cover up misconduct. The defendants allegedly “misused the search warrant process ... to bolster their own reputations and careers” and “advance the war on drugs,” according to the suit.
Federal officials say they determined that the informant, Ronnie Edmonds, had falsely implicated several other people, including a San Diego County law enforcement officer, in a cocaine ring that did not exist.
The informant, however, asserted that he never gave agents Carlson's address and that he had asked them to delay the raid so he could verify the location, according to the lawsuit. He is imprisoned while awaiting trial on 25 counts of giving false statements to government agents.
It was the first time the government has accepted liability in such a case in the San Diego area and one of just a few similar cases nationwide, officials said.
Copyrigh Copyright 1994 Oregonian Publishing Company
Donald Lee Carlson, a vice president at Anacomp, Inc., a Fortune 500 company based in San Diego, was shot by U.S. Customs agents during a drug raid in August 1992. Thinking he was being robbed, he exchanged gunfire with the agents. He survived, but spent 6 weeks in intensive care. No drugs were found. On January 28, 1993, the government indicted the informant whose tip led to the raid for supplying federal agents with false information. Carlson filed a $20,000,000 claim against the government. The Portland Oregonian, Feb. 8, 1993, p. B7.
“SAN DIEGO - Federal authorities made a rare public apology Wednesday to an innocent man who was shot and seriously wounded when heavily armed agents stormed his house in a midnight drug raid 18 months ago.
“U.S. Attorney Alan Bersin said the government admits liability and intends to pay monetary damages to Donald Carlson, who has filed a $20 million lawsuit against agents of the U.S. Customs Service, Drug Enforcement Administration and other federal and local forces.
““We were deceived by our informant and must accept responsibility for that fact,” Bersin said.
“Carlson, a 41-tear-old computer company executive with no criminal record, awoke around midnight on Aug. 26, 1992, to the sound of violent pounding on his front door, according to his suit.
“After trying to telephone police and yelling at the intruders to identify themselves, without response, he grabbed a pistol and fired two shots.
“The agents knocked down the door with a battering ram, hurled an explosive device and shot him three times—twice after he had dropped the gun and lay helpless on his bedroom floor, according to his suit.
“The Customs agents named in the lawsuit have not been disciplined, said John Kelley, special agent-in-charge for Customs, although he declined comment on the status of the internal investigation.
“Officials said they hope to discuss a settlement with Carlson, but did not specify a dollar amount.” The Register Guard, March 3, 1994, p. 3A.
[REF0203] Donald P. Scott, a reclusive Malibu millionaire, was killed Oct. 2, 1992 in a raid on his Malibu ranch by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. The raid was based on an alleged sighting of marijuana during aerial surveillance and an informant's report that Scott's wife was seen flashing $100 bills. No drugs were found.
On March 8, 1993, Scott's survivors filed a federal civil rights suit alleging the drug agents murdered him and that they faked the marijuana sighting to enable them to seize his 200 acre ranch.
On March 30, 1993, Ventura County District Attorney Michael D. Bradbury blamed Scott's death on the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and called for an inquiry into the conduct of Deputy Gary R. Spencer, the lead investigator in the case. Bradbury concluded the raid was not justified and was prompted, in part, by authorities' desire to seize the $5,000,000 ranch.
Numerous articles appeared in the Los Angeles Times about the affair, including an editorial on April 3, 1993, sec. B, p. 7, col. 3.