By Peter Jamison
Times Staff Writer
The scene beaming from the bedroom television wasn't special, another drug bust in a decaying north Tampa neighborhood. Ronnie "Bodie" Coogle squinted at the screen. He recognized that street, lit by ghostly pulses of red and blue.
"Bodie," his wife said, lying beside him. "You see this?"
Coogle turned up the volume as the 11 o'clock news cut to cops in black ballistic vests, standing amid the inky silhouettes of sabal palms. After a minute he sat up and grabbed his cellphone.
He called the detectives whose numbers he had, whose names he knew, again and again. About 3 a.m. his phone finally began buzzing. Voice hoarse, eyes wild and red-rimmed, he picked up and spoke.
"Did y'all kill Jason?"
• • •
Some call them snitches. The police officers who can't live without them call them confidential informants, or simply "C.I.'s." They're the expendable cogs that make the machinery of America's drug war hum.
Few people who don't wear badges or commit crimes ever see them at work. Distrusted by the innocent and fearful of vengeance from the guilty, informers have no cause to court attention. Some states, including Florida, have special laws protecting their identities.
"It's very unusual for the public to get a glimpse of how active informants interact with their police handlers," said Alexandra Natapoff, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles who monitors informer use nationwide. "The criminal system is designed to make sure we never hear these stories."
Coogle approached the Tampa Bay Times in July, saying he had one such story to tell. His tale offers a remarkable window on the front lines of narcotics policing — and raises troubling questions about the police force that put him on its payroll.
A 50-year-old felon and drug addict, Coogle was the principal Tampa Police Department informer against at least five suspects this year. He conducted nine undercover operations. In their probable-cause affidavits, his handlers called him reliable. Even Tampa's police chief praised his "track record."
Coogle said they were all wrong. He said he repeatedly lied about suspects, stole drugs he bought on the public's dime and conspired to falsify drug deals.
One of those he lied about, he said, was Jason Westcott, a young man with no criminal convictions whom a SWAT team killed during a drug raid that found just $2 worth of marijuana. Critics from across the country condemned the Police Department's handling of the case as an example of the drug war's lethal excesses.
"They're making statements that are lies, that are absolute untruths, that are based on shady facts," Coogle said of Tampa police. "Everything they're saying is based on the informant. And I was the informant."
Coogle said he decided to step forward, exposing his identity and risking retribution from drug dealers, because of his remorse over Westcott's death. "I've got morals, and I feel compassion for this guy's family and for his boyfriend," he said. "It didn't have to happen this way."
Coogle is nobody's idea of a righteous whistle-blower. The only constant in his story is his own dishonesty; even when he confesses to lying you don't know if he's telling the truth.
Much of what he says can be neither proved nor disproved, in large part because of the Police Department's minimal supervision of his work. But Coogle's allegations against the cops who paid him, and even his own admissions of double-dealing, aren't necessarily what's most disturbing about his account.
Most unsettling of all might be what nobody disputes — that police officers were willing to trust somebody like him in the first place.
• • •
Shot through the liver, one arm turned to pulp by a point-blank shotgun blast, Jason Westcott died like a hardened criminal. But he didn't live like one.
Trained as a motorcycle mechanic, Westcott was working with his brother last spring as a cellular tower maintenance man. He was 29, 115 pounds, slim and strong, with a broad grin and restless zeal for fixing up his rented bungalow at 906 W Knollwood St. He was his block's go-to handyman.
"If I needed something, Jason was there," neighbor Greg Woodcock said. "When my truck broke down one day, he came out here and fixed it. He didn't charge me a dime."
His live-in boyfriend, Izzy Reyes, was 22, a laconic, dark-eyed jokester with La familia es para siempre ("Family is forever") inked across his chest. He made sandwiches at the International Plaza food court.
The pair were potheads who sometimes sold to their friends. They weren't troublemakers: Reyes had no criminal record, and Westcott's only non-traffic offense was a decade-old misdemeanor marijuana possession arrest. On the evening of May 27 they had only 0.2 grams, about $2 worth, of marijuana in their home.
But the Tampa Police Department SWAT team that pulled up outside in a BearCat armored transport didn't know that. What the tactical officers knew was that an informer had identified Westcott and Reyes as drug-trafficking suspects. The officers arrived ready for trouble, and when nobody answered their knocks they let themselves in through the unlocked front door.
Reyes had been dozing on the couch, but he woke up and watched wide-eyed over the edge of his blanket as armed men in black moved into his living room. One of them threw him face-down on the floor, shouting.
Police! Search warrant!
Reyes began screaming. Westcott leapt out of bed in pajama bottoms and grabbed his gun, a legally owned Taurus Slim pistol. The door to his bedroom swung open. He stared at the dark figures on the other side, then started to raise his weapon. No one would ever know if he was going to pull the trigger.
Reyes was pinned on the living-room floor, arms behind his back. He heard gunfire: three hollow booms and two high cracks. He turned his head toward the bedroom and bathroom. He didn't see Westcott, just the floor and the walls. They were covered with blood.
• • •
The next morning was cloudy and warm. In downtown Tampa, detectives released Reyes from police headquarters after a night of questioning. They never charged him with a crime.
About 10 miles to the north, a gold minivan pulled up at a Radiant Food Store on Bearss Avenue off Interstate 275. Coogle stepped out and plodded toward an inconspicuous sedan.
He had many questions, but the detectives in the car had few answers. Like him, they hadn't slept much. After a few minutes one of them pressed a wad of folded bills into his palm.
Coogle couldn't help noticing that it felt unusually thick.
Some snitch for revenge. Most do it because they're in trouble, arranging a deal with cops to "work off a case." Coogle belongs to the most traditionally loathed category of informers: He betrayed his targets, including Westcott, for cash.
Last winter, Coogle said, he approached a Tampa Police Department patrol officer outside the North Tampa Branch Library and asked her to give his name to her colleagues in narcotics. He had credentials, having snitched for two other Florida law enforcement agencies.
"It was no different from me going out and doing construction work," he said. "I'm under no illusions. Nobody likes a rat. But I was financially motivated."
Coogle resembles an aging Sons of Anarchy extra, 6 feet tall and 240 pounds, with a gravel-colored goatee and faded tattoos that cloud his forearms. He has always blended in at the dim bars, dark parking lots and curtained living rooms through which Florida's drug trade courses. He can coax or bluster as needed in his bass Tampa drawl.
He had grown used to the life, but Westcott's death rattled him. His wife, now estranged, said Coogle seemed unable to accept that what he saw as a harmless source of side income had ended in bloodshed. "He didn't want anyone to die," she said. "He couldn't believe it."
Coogle said that on the day after the SWAT team killed Westcott his handlers gave him $295 at the Bearss Avenue convenience store. (His wife, who drove him to the meeting, remembers it as $395.)
He said it was the most the police ever paid him. But it wasn't enough to salve his remorse. So several weeks after Westcott was killed, Coogle did something his handlers didn't expect. He snitched — on them.
• • •
Coogle was crying again, blubbering through a beard he hadn't trimmed in weeks, tattooed neck craning as he lowered his head into his hands. "I feel almost as guilty as if I pulled the trigger on that kid," he said. "I set him up."
It was July. Coogle was sitting in a Beef 'O' Brady's outside Tampa, sobbing into his soda and speaking to a reporter. His mea culpa sounded heartfelt. But there was no way to know how much of it was true.
Coogle has flagrant credibility problems. His rap sheet is a minor monument to criminal stamina: As a teenager he went to prison for robbery, and since then he has been arrested for beating a man with a baseball bat and threatening to cut his wife's throat, among other things.
He began working for the Tampa Police Department shortly after spending eight months in the Hernando County Jail for pulling a knife on a woman who had given him a ride to a Brooksville Winn-Dixie. The victim in the case, Sarah Tousignant, summarized her impression of Coogle in an interview with the Times: "Mentally unstable, psychotic, crazy."
Coogle chalked up many of his personal and legal problems to drug addiction. For years he had used the prescription opiate Dilaudid intravenously. He said he was under the influence when he worked with Tampa cops. "I'd shoot up before I went out with them," he said. "I'd have to. I was a full-blown addict at the time."
His heavy drug use could explain why he had trouble pinning down details of what he said: Dates that slid around in his memory, names and places he couldn't quite recall. But some who know Coogle well said his dishonesty is more serious than the self-serving evasions that often accompany addiction.
"He's just the scum of the f------ earth. I hate to say that. I hate to cuss. But it's the truth," said his brother, Mike Coogle. "He is nobody to give information about nothing to nobody, because everything that comes out of his mouth is a lie."
Coogle's dishonesty raises obvious questions about his story, but it is also at his story's heart. It was his willingness to lie, he said, that let him thrive as a drug informer for Tampa police.
• • •
Westcott and Reyes didn't know much about the ingratiating junkie who slept in their neighbors' tool shed. He showed up at their house almost daily last winter, eating their pizza and smoking their pot. As a token of friendship he once gave them a vacuum cleaner he had stolen from Walmart.
"You could tell he wasn't the greatest of people or whatever," Reyes said. "Jason, he kind of befriended everybody, you know what I'm saying? And that's where we went wrong."
One day he asked if they could get him heroin. "I'm like, 'I don't even know what heroin looks like,'" Reyes recalled.
The shed-dweller was Coogle, of course, fresh out of jail and staying with his in-laws. And when he asked for heroin he wasn't asking for himself.
Coogle said his police handlers had urged him to seek heroin from Westcott and Reyes, but Westcott rebuffed him. We're not involved in any s--- like that. We're pot smokers, Coogle remembered him saying.
But Coogle said he didn't think his bosses would like the truth, so he told them the couple was connected to a heroin supplier in New York. He said he picked the state simply because he knew Westcott was born there.
"It was a bull---- story," he said.
Coogle had mentioned Westcott and Reyes when his handlers asked him for a list of everybody who might sell him drugs. From February through May, records show, he paid Westcott and Reyes $160 in Police Department funds for about 15 grams of marijuana.
"He wasn't a drug dealer. He sold a few grams of pot to smoke pot and stay high," Coogle said of Westcott. "If you could even label Jason a drug dealer, he was the lowest level drug dealer."
But Coogle had a problem: Low-level dealers weren't the kind of criminals his handlers wanted to put away. "From day one, they always stressed that they wanted trafficking charges on people," he said.
The solution was simple, he said. All he had to do was lie.
Coogle said he embellished the truth to keep the police interested in Westcott and Reyes. In addition to making up the heroin connection, he said he told detectives he saw a pound of high-quality marijuana inside the couple's house, an amount that could have been worth more than $5,000 had it existed.
Such distortions were possible, he said, because his handlers didn't equip him with the audio or video recording devices commonly used to monitor informers' undercover work. Instead, an officer would wait in an unmarked car while he walked into a house and walked back out with drugs, police reports show.
Police Department spokeswoman Laura McElroy said narcotics investigators sometimes avoid taping informers' conversations because they must share such recordings with defense attorneys, risking the disclosure of an informer's identity.
Coogle said this lack of surveillance played to his advantage, and not only in the investigation of Westcott and Reyes. Several times he stole drugs bought with the Police Department's money from a suspected crack cocaine dealer in Sulphur Springs, he said.
He said he stashed some of what he purchased in a hole in his shirt collar so his handlers wouldn't find it when they searched him, as they did after each undercover drug deal.
"They were easily manipulated," Coogle said of the police. "It wasn't like rocket science or nothing."
Soon enough, he said, he learned they were willing to distort the truth themselves.
• • •
On the night of April 8, Coogle said, he stepped into an unmarked truck waiting for him on Knollwood Street with bad news: Westcott had no pot to sell. But as he started to explain, he said, the detective in the driver's seat glared and cut him off.
"He said, 'No, you got a gram, right?' " Coogle recalled. "You could tell with the body language and the way he was talking that he didn't want to drive away from there without doing a buy."
Back at the rally point where other undercover officers had gathered — the parking lot of a Bravo Supermarket on Sligh Avenue — he said he and his handler sat in the parked truck and talked, the detective's pen poised over a report to which Coogle would eventually sign his name.
"It was almost like he was reading me the Riot Act," Coogle said. "He's like, 'Listen, we've got too much manpower out here tonight for us to come up dry.' And after him saying that in a couple of different ways but saying the same thing, I caught on to what he was saying. And I said, 'Yeah, I bought the gram.' "
Police reports indicate Coogle bought $20 worth of marijuana from Westcott that night.
Coogle said it was one of two times he swore to buying drugs when a target he approached actually had none to sell. The second was a falsified $50 crack-cocaine purchase from the Sulphur Springs suspect, he said.
In both cases, he said, Tampa detectives assured him they weren't doing anything wrong — just guaranteeing the arrests of people they knew were dealers. "Once they determine that there's criminal activity," he said, "after that nothing else counts."
Coogle said another fateful piece of misinformation only became clear to him after Westcott's death. Asked why a SWAT team was sent to arrest somebody who sold such small amounts of drugs, police officials said their informer saw Westcott carrying a gun every time he sold pot. It was a small but consequential detail, elevating Westcott to an armed drug trafficking suspect and triggering the use of the SWAT team.
The team's operations plan mentioned Westcott's firearm as a "special threat." A detective briefed the SWAT team that "every time the C.I. purchased marijuana, the C.I. would see a gun in the subject's waistband or in his hand while they conducted the transaction," one of the two officers who shot Westcott later told internal investigators.
Coogle said it's not true. He said he told his handlers that Westcott owned a gun, but not that he was armed during each drug deal. "I never told them that I saw the gun every single time," he said. "I'm not even sure during any of the buys I made for the Tampa Police Department that Jason had the gun where I could see it."
The Times called Coogle's three primary police handlers on cellphone numbers the informer provided. Two declined to comment and one didn't pick up. The Times is not naming the officers, because they all work undercover, and the newspaper could not independently verify Coogle's specific accusations against them.
Coogle said he hoped to at least partially atone for the role he played in Westcott's death by setting the record straight. But informers usually face long odds in their efforts to blow the whistle on police misconduct, said Scott Greenfield, a New York criminal defense lawyer and editor of the Simple Justice blog.
The police playbook is simple, Greenfield said: Disavow the snitch. He said cops typically prevail because of informers' endemic credibility problems, even when the spectacle of officers attacking their own snitches' truthfulness looks incongruous.
"These are the same guys who are so very truthful that we put other people in life-threatening situations based on what they say," Greenfield said, describing the typical police response. "When the snitch turns, they're a pathological liar and we shouldn't pay attention."
Tampa police officials would hew closely to this pattern, denying all of Coogle's allegations against detectives and even rejecting his assertions that he lied himself. But not until he had turned against them by telling his story to other cops.
• • •
The FBI's Tampa field office overlooks the marshes east of Old Tampa Bay, a boxy building whose subtropical accents — a Spanish tile roof, a facade striped coral pink — don't quite mask its somber purpose. On a morning in October, Coogle asked to be admitted at the front gate.
It had taken weeks for him to get there. He had talked to several lawyers, one of whom referred him to the FBI through the U.S. Attorney's Office.
Coogle thought his first meeting with two federal agents in September had gone well. They had listened to his accusations that Tampa detectives falsified evidence and committed perjury in their reports and affidavits. Then the agents had invited him to another interview where he would undergo the vetting process the bureau requires of many of its cooperating witnesses.
Coogle had high hopes for his second meeting with the FBI that morning: legal immunity, financial assistance, perhaps even relocation through the witness protection program.
Within a couple hours he had dashed those hopes himself.
FBI spokesman Dave Couvertier said Coogle abruptly stopped cooperating during his second interview. As a result, he said, investigators never closely examined his allegations of police misconduct. "The investigation was never started," Couvertier said.
Coogle said he walked out when an agent — a new one he hadn't met, not the friendlier investigators who talked with him the first time — riled him with questions about his drug use and turbulent marriage.
Although he made his choice impulsively, he said it sprang from deeper reluctance. Coogle said he was weary of the double-crossing that defined his life; he no longer wanted to be a snitch. "I'm too old for this," he later explained.
Couvertier said Coogle's claims would have posed a challenge even if a federal probe had moved ahead, because he had no proof for his accusations.
"He might be honest," Couvertier said. "There was just no evidence whatsoever. All he had was an allegation."
Couvertier said the bureau nevertheless forwarded Coogle's accusations to Tampa police Chief Jane Castor, in case she wanted to pursue an internal investigation.
"If she knows something that we're not aware of, she could take steps, if necessary," he said.
• • •
When it came to his accusations against drug suspects, Castor had taken Coogle seriously.
In July, she vouched for his credibility. His statements — specifically those which he later said were lies — were central to her defense of the investigation into Westcott and Reyes. She said an informer had seen a pound of marijuana in their house and learned "additional information suggesting trafficking in heroin."
She said the informer had a "track record" of success and "provided reliable information about dealers," a rare compliment for a snitch from a high-ranking law enforcement official.
After Coogle went to the FBI, however, Castor took a different view of the man whose truthfulness she had endorsed. "I don't believe him at all," she said.
In an interview with the Times several weeks after Coogle met with federal investigators, Castor and her chief spokeswoman, McElroy, savaged the credibility of their one-time "reliable informant." But only to a point.
They said they still believed the information he had fed to narcotics detectives about Westcott. They said it was only his recantation and accusations against his handlers that were untrue.
"You really think that this guy is in a position to question the integrity of police officers?" McElroy said. "A C.I.? Really? I mean, come on, C.I.'s are not upstanding citizens. It's a joke."
McElroy said Coogle's allegations were a routine instance of a snitch going south. She said detectives often have to part ways with informers, inherently unstable people who are usually drawn from the ranks of the criminals they help pursue.
"A C.I. is credible, and their information is verifiable, until they no longer are," McElroy said.
Castor cited the $2 of pot and handgun found in Westcott's house as evidence that Coogle's original statements were true.
"The information that he gave to us for the authorization of the search warrant was credible information, in my opinion, based on what was found when those search warrants were carried out," Castor said.
She said that while she didn't doubt that the facts Coogle provided to detectives were accurate, the department had "red-lined" him — formally deactivated him as a paid informer. She said the move had nothing to do with his complaints to the FBI, but was made out of concerns for his safety amid the publicity over the Westcott shooting.
When she spoke to the Times at the end of October, Castor said she would ask her internal affairs investigators to talk to Coogle. Several weeks later, she said in an email that she had changed her mind. After talking to FBI agents, she said, she had "decided that further investigation is unwarranted." She said she would answer no further questions about Coogle.
"My agency has nothing else to share about this case," she wrote.
• • •
On a December morning, Coogle sat in the bleachers of a baseball diamond in north Tampa, sipping Gatorade and smoking cigarettes with his face turned toward the sun. He was in a mood to appreciate his surroundings. Hours earlier he had been released from jail.
In October a Hillsborough County sheriff's deputy arrested him on battery charges after he got in a fight with his wife and roommate. He sat behind bars for the next two months. Nobody he knew was willing to put up $100 in bail to set him free.
Incarceration had been restorative. For weeks he had eaten and slept regularly, and he had put on some weight. He was off the needle. His close-set hazel eyes didn't look so hollow.
For the time being his efforts to atone were over. He had made his confession, and accepted that no one would likely ever know how much of it was true and how much false. He said his remorse over Westcott's death would never fully dissipate.
"I think I will pay a price for the rest of my life," he said. "But the Tampa Police Department, they deserve to pay a price, too."
One of the attorneys Coogle spoke to before he approached the FBI was TJ Grimaldi, who is representing Reyes and Westcott's family. Grimaldi is now preparing to file claims for wrongful death and excessive force against the Police Department — alleging, among other things, "negligent use of a confidential informant."
Michael Levine, a former DEA agent and veteran drug informer handler, said Tampa detectives' management of Coogle was an invitation to problems.
"The handling of this informant appears to be substandard to the degree that it endangered public safety," Levine said.
He noted officers' decision not to record his interactions with suspects and failure to corroborate Coogle's claims about what he witnessed inside Westcott's home. Small marijuana deals combined with an informer's unverified statements aren't sufficient to send a SWAT team through someone's door, Levine said.
"That is just not enough," he said. "If you think that the informant walking out of a house and saying 'I bought dope' is enough to corroborate what he's saying about the guns and drugs, you're in the wrong business."
Westcott's mother, Patti Silliman, a pugnacious native New Yorker who was once married to a cop, said she wouldn't relent until Tampa police officials admit they made mistakes.
"I'm absolutely appalled that they call themselves police officers," Silliman said. "Everyone that was involved in this situation, they should all be fired."
Of Coogle, she said, "I would like to see him sit in jail for the rest of his life. Or worse."
Coogle's statements could also have consequences for the criminals he helped put away. Judges can throw out arrests and convictions based on questionably gathered evidence, so suspects Coogle informed on could ask for their cases to be reviewed.
As he sat in the bleachers on his first day out of jail, Coogle wasn't sure if he would have a role in the ongoing fallout. He wasn't even sure where he would sleep. His wife didn't want him back. He had visited a homeless shelter in downtown Tampa but didn't like the squalor.
Coogle realized he was just around the corner from Knollwood Street and the tool shed he had called home when he first met Westcott and Reyes. He wondered if his in-laws would again be willing to help him out.
It was the noon hour and Knollwood was quiet, the knife-like fronds of sabal palms reflecting the white winter sun. Reyes had moved out of the house where he and Westcott made their lives. The landlord had scrubbed out the blood stains and found new tenants. Coogle barely glanced at the place as he approached his in-laws' home.
His brother's ex-wife answered the door. Ruth Melveney is 44, tough and auburn-haired. She had been very fond of Westcott, who would sit with her for hours when she walked across the street to smoke pot and talk about her problems.
She stared through the half-open door as Coogle bowed his head and gestured and talked. He finished telling his story. She shut the door in his face.
Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Peter Jamison at [email protected] or (813) 226-3337. Follow @petejamison.