TAMPA — Lax police oversight of a rogue informant during an investigation of the Latin Kings gang stands to cost Tampa taxpayers $260,000.
That's how much the city proposes to pay four men and one woman to settle a federal lawsuit alleging false arrest and violations of their civil rights.
In 2006, after 15 months of investigation, more than 100 officers raided the Caribbean American Club, arresting 52 people on racketeering charges.
The meeting was organized by Luis "Danny" Agosto, a felon turned confidential informant for the FBI and Tampa police. Police called the investigation "Operation Down Crown," a reference to the gang's crown symbol.
Nearly half of those arrested accepted plea deals for probation, and some agreed to testify for the prosecution. (Three later were sent to prison for violating their probation. In one case, the violation consisted of leaving the county to spend a day at the beach.)
But in 2008, Hillsborough Circuit Judge Daniel Sleet threw out charges that 23 more had planned, conspired or committed crimes together. And because simply attending a Latin Kings meeting is not a crime, he threw out the racketeering charges.
Sleet also criticized Agosto's "outrageous" conduct and the "ill-advised" trust that investigators placed in him.
For one thing, the judge determined, the gang had been dormant for several months before law enforcement encouraged Agosto to revive its meetings.
Moreover, Sleet heard testimony that investigators did nothing to stop Agosto from threatening people to attend the meetings, stealing motorcycles, driving without a license, carrying a gun or dealing in counterfeit money. The FBI gave him a cellphone that he ended up using to send photos of stolen motorcycles to prospective black-market buyers. Later the FBI stopped using Agosto, but Tampa police continued.
"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.
The Tampa City Council is scheduled to consider approving the settlements Thursday, with individual payments ranging from $26,000 to $91,000.
The biggest settlement would go to Mitchell Bernier, who spent 152 days in jail, saw his wife leave him, lost his job as an assistant manager at Walgreens and later sought therapy for depression.
"This isn't what it was made out to be," Bernier told the Times in 2008. "A lot of people's lives were ruined."
City attorneys say the city continues to deny any liability in the case, but they recommend approving the settlements because it is likely the city could lose more if the case went to trial. In court pleadings, Matthew Zalansky, now a Tampa police corporal, has denied allegations that he mishandled the investigation.
In addition to Bernier, the city would pay $26,000 to Carlos Verestin, $35,000 to Reinaldo Arroyo, $35,000 to Jessica Cintron and $73,000 to R.C. Adams III.
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Richard Danielson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3403.