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Relying on work of informers can be risky

TAMPA — Law enforcement officers wanted three things from Luis "Danny" Agosto: guns, drugs and Latin Kings.

In exchange, the confidential informer received probation instead of prison, a cell phone, a rent-free apartment and a monthly stipend.

The officers set two important ground rules: Don't lie, and don't commit unauthorized crimes.

Agosto, a seventh-grade dropout with 17 felony convictions and a penchant for stealing motorcycles, didn't obey. Court records and testimony show he brazenly broke the law while on the government dime, and his FBI and Tampa police handlers did little to stop him.

A Hillsborough judge found that mix unacceptable. Monday, Circuit Judge Daniel Sleet dismissed racketeering charges against 23 alleged Latin Kings gang members arrested during a highly touted August 2006 raid.

The decision drove a dagger into the Hillsborough state attorney's case and raised questions about the largely secretive practice of employing criminals to do police work.

"When you're trying to beat organized crime, you have to deal with these kinds of folks," Stetson College of Law professor Charles Rose said. But, "If you don't follow them religiously, you get burned."

• • •

The marriage between Agosto and law enforcement was rooted in mutual interest: his to avoid prison, theirs to arrest gang members.

Agosto, 30, is a habitual felony offender with a record in Florida, New York and Puerto Rico. He says he has been a member of the Latin Kings since 1995.

When FBI Agent Dan Wierzbicki and Tampa police Officer Matt Zalansky suggested he become an informer in November 2005, Agosto was sitting in jail for hitting his baby's mother with a telephone and was looking at no fewer than 25 years if convicted on charges of grand theft and armed burglary of a dwelling.

The Latin Kings had been dormant in Tampa since that August, but Agosto said he would get elected as the gang's "enforcer" to require attendance at meetings.

After he agreed to cooperate, the State Attorney's Office dropped his armed burglary charge and Agosto pleaded guilty to the theft charges.

Then, on Jan. 30, 2006, he was let out of jail and put to work.

The FBI gave him a cell phone. The calls were supposed to be recorded. But two weeks passed before anyone listened in.

That's when agents realized that Agosto was stealing motorcycles and using his government-issued phone to send pictures to potential black market buyers.

Sleet said Agosto should have been either terminated as an informer and jailed or be more closely monitored.

Neither happened.

Agosto continued to deal in stolen motorcycles and counterfeit money, carried a gun and threatened to beat up his baby's mother, evidence showed. When he worried that she had exposed him as an informer, officers allowed him to drive to Miami on a suspended license.

The FBI cut Agosto loose on March 22, 2006, after he refused to stop contacting his ex-girlfriend. Tampa police decided to keep using him, but the recording of his cell phone calls ended.

Attorney Lyann Goudie and her colleagues don't know the full extent of Agosto's actions. The FBI, which served as record-keeper, has refused Sleet's orders to turn over all investigative materials.

• • •

With societal pressure to lower crime, police use of informers has become more pervasive.

The practice lacks scrutiny and allows for a culture of rule-breaking, said Alexandra Natapoff, a Loyola Law School professor who has called for more accountability.

"Our criminal justice system is not well-designed to uncover criminal activity" by informers, she said. "In fact, it's very well-designed to hide it."

In his ruling last week, Sleet noted that Florida courts permit wide latitude for confidential informers.

The Tampa police agreement with Agosto said he would be prosecuted if he broke the law.

But Zalansky did not include Agosto's criminal behavior in a letter telling prosecutors how he helped nab gangsters, which helped him avoid prison on the old theft charges. He drew 10 years of probation instead.

When he violated probation in spring 2007 by driving on a suspended license in South Florida, the Sheriff's Office flew him to Tampa for his court hearing on the agency's plane.

And when he later was stopped for driving a used police cruiser and appearing to impersonate an officer, Hillsborough and Tampa detectives persuaded other agencies not to arrest Agosto. But a day after Sleet's ruling, Agosto was jailed in Tampa on a probation violation charge for the traffic infractions. He was released on his own recognizance.

The FBI did not make a full break from the case. The federal government continues to pay Agosto $2,400 a month and gave him a $5,000 bonus late last year. He testified in November that he had not paid taxes on the money.

Goudie was most troubled by Agosto's testimony that he could earn a bonus of more than $100,000 based on Latin Kings convictions and pleas.

The Florida Supreme Court has forbidden criminal prosecutions based on the testimony of vital state witnesses with a financial stake in criminal convictions.

With Agosto's help, law enforcers arrested more than 50 alleged gang members on racketeering charges in 2006. Nearly half accepted plea deals of probation, sometimes for agreeing to testify for the state.

Of 28 defendants remaining when Goudie filed her motion last fall charging police and prosecutor misconduct, just six still face racketeering charges after Sleet's ruling.

The judge took particular offense that Agosto was allowed to revive a gang and then threaten reluctant members with beatings if they did not show up.

"Law enforcement's goal of eliminating gang violence is commendable," Sleet wrote, "but its trust in this C.I. was misplaced and ill advised."

Colleen Jenkins can be reached at cjenkins@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3337.

Relying on work of informers can be risky 04/11/08 [Last modified: Sunday, April 13, 2008 11:53am]
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