TAMPA — A Hillsborough judge gutted the state's highly touted racketeering prosecution of alleged Latin Kings gang members Monday, citing "outrageous" conduct by a police confidential informant.
Circuit Judge Daniel Sleet dismissed charges against 23 defendants arrested during an Aug. 20, 2006, raid of a statewide gang leadership meeting by the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office, Tampa Police Department and Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Some of those defendants have been jailed since the raid and may now have civil rights claims.
Sheriff David Gee had called their arrests "tremendous for the state of Florida." Investigators said they had disrupted a well-organized, violent group.
But Sleet found that the gang was dormant for several months before law enforcement encouraged a confidential informant — a felon with multiple convictions — to revive it, then stood by as he committed new crimes and threatened people with violence if they did not attend meetings.
"Unfortunately, this C.I. was left to his own devices, to scheme of ways to entrap reluctant suspects and to brazenly weave a web of deception in the face of his police handlers," Sleet wrote. "Dismissal is an extreme sanction; however, an extreme sanction is warranted to punish extreme conduct."
Legal experts said the ruling was unusual given the wide latitude the law allows investigators in organized crime cases, an indication of just how egregious the confidential informant's behavior was.
Defense attorney Lyann Goudie, who led the effort to get the charges dismissed, applauded Sleet's decision.
"Overall, I'm very happy that Judge Sleet had the courage to do what others wouldn't do," she said. "In this particular case, with these particular defendants, this was much ado about nothing."
The Hillsborough State Attorney's Office will seek a rehearing before deciding whether to appeal. The Sheriff's Office and Tampa police declined to comment.
It wasn't all bad news for the state. Sleet did not find evidence of misconduct by prosecutors.
Six defendants still face racketeering, kidnapping with a firearm and aggravated battery and assault charges because the judge found they were not coerced. They include Michael Lugo and Edwin Deleon, who authorities say both served as the Latin Kings' First Crown or Inca, the gang's top leader in Florida.
Lugo's attorney, DeeAnn Athan, said a gang detective from his home base of Orlando had never heard of Lugo.
Investigators initially charged more than 50 defendants with racketeering and conspiracy to commit racketeering, felony charges punishable by up to 30 years in prison. To prove their case, prosecutors had to show that two or more people conspired and committed at least two criminal acts. Membership alone in the Latin Kings is not a crime.
Early on, every criminal defense attorney in Tampa seemed to have a client in the case. The pack thinned as nearly half the defendants tired of waiting in jail and accepted plea deals of probation, sometimes in exchange for cooperating with prosecutors.
Those who entered into agreements and have not been sentenced could now try to withdraw their pleas.
Twenty-eight defendants remained when Goudie filed her motion last fall charging police and prosecutor misconduct. Sleet heard 51 hours of testimony over nine days between November and February.
He learned that Luis "Danny" Agosto, 30, avoided prison for charges of armed burglary and grand theft by signing on in December 2005 as a confidential informant for the FBI and Tampa police.
The FBI dropped Agosto a month after he was caught stealing motorcycles and trying to sell them on the black market, but the federal government continues to pay him $2,400 a month for living expenses.
Agosto said law enforcement told him to expect a $100,000 bonus at the end of the case.
Sleet said the enormity of the 15-month investigation and the gang label was not lost on him.
But he took issue with a range of Agosto's actions while he worked as a confidential informant: traveling to Miami on a suspended license, driving a used police cruiser with the hopes of looking like a cop and threatening to physically harm the mother of one of his children.
In a recorded phone call on his government-issued phone, Agosto said he would "beat her so bad that her brain will seep from her ears."
Agosto's most troubling offense, in the judge's eyes, was his repeated threats to beat reluctant Latin King members if they did not attend meetings he had scheduled.
In one instance, on Aug. 6, 2006, a member was beaten for three minutes in Agosto's government-funded apartment. Police caught the beating on audio surveillance but did not intervene, which "appears to cross the line between permissible and impermissible police conduct," Sleet said.
Sleet said Agosto ordered the beating to send a message to members about what would happen if they didn't attend the Aug. 20 meeting that he planned at law enforcement's request. He also told people to arm themselves for the meeting, an order that led to gun possession charges.
"He was allowed to threaten these defendants, most of whom did not exhibit any inclination or desire to become active with the Latin Kings," Sleet said.
The judge continued: "Would these defendants have shown up at the meetings absent (the) C.I.'s actual and implied threats? This Court is confident they would not have."
More than 100 officers from at least six agencies swarmed the Aug. 20 Latin Kings meeting at the Caribbean American Club. The club had been rented and wired by law enforcement.
The audio and video surveillance showed members holding hands in a circle inside the meeting hall, discussing how to raise bail money for Lugo, obtain legitimate jobs and educate themselves.
Like all the previous gang meetings arranged by Agosto, there was no discussion about committing any crimes.
Colleen Jenkins can be reached
or (813) 226-3337.