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Told to inform on bad guys, they put lives at risk

Rachel Hoffman's death this month in Tallahassee came during one of police work's most dangerous operations: a drug buy involving an untrained civilian informer.

Law enforcement officials say such work is necessary to get drugs and bad guys off the streets.

"The drug world is subversive, and there is no way to penetrate it without confidential informants," Tallahassee police Officer David McCranie said.

Statistics are hard to come by, but officials in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties say the use of informers is common, and sometimes they get hurt.

It can be further complicated because a potential informer might face a harsh dilemma: Cooperate, and get less jail time or none at all. Refuse, and face the consequences.

In Hoffman's case, it was the work of another informer that led to her own work for the police.

On April 15, an informer told Tallahassee police that Hoffman had sold marijuana in the past but hadn't done so recently, according to police records.

At the time, Hoffman, 23, was in a pretrial drug diversion program because of charges of possession of marijuana and resisting arrest in February 2007. To stay in the program, she had to stay out of trouble.

Two days after police got the informer's tip, a Tallahassee police officer stopped Hoffman as she was getting into her car.

The officer asked Hoffman if she had any drugs in her apartment. A quarter-pound of marijuana, she said, plus two ecstasy pills and four Valiums, according police records.

While she waited, police obtained a search warrant and found the marijuana and ecstasy in the apartment. She wasn't arrested.

Instead, with the prospect of serving time for more serious charges, the graduate of Countryside High and Florida State University agreed to work with police.

So on May 7 Hoffman was scheduled to meet Andrea J. Green, 25, and Deneilo R. Bradshaw, 23.

Her mission: purchase 1,500 ecstasy pills and 2 ounces of cocaine or crack.

And buy a gun — something experts say is risky because it ensures the bad guys will come to the deal armed.

"Most drug deals are just robberies waiting to happen," said retired Drug Enforcement Administration agent Dennis Fitzgerald, who said he was robbed several times while working undercover.

"A buy-bust is one of the most dangerous operations to run," he said. "You are breaking into the drug deal as it occurs and when the drug meets the money, it's the most dangerous time because neither side knows if it's a rip off or not."

Carrying between $12,000 and $15,000 in cash, Hoffman met Green and Bradshaw in a city park, according to her boyfriend. Just before leaving, she text-messaged the boyfriend and said she had been wired for the operation.

Police defended their use of Hoffman, but said she didn't follow protocol. Instead of staying where investigators told her to go, they said, she accompanied Green and Bradshaw to another location.

She disappeared, and her body was found in rural Taylor County two days later. She had been shot, according to her lawyer. Green and Bradshaw have been charged with kidnapping and robbery, but not murder.

Since Hoffman's death, Tallahassee's police chief has asked the Florida Attorney General's Office to review his agency's procedures for dealing with informers.

Tallahassee police have said Hoffman brought Green and Bradshaw to their attention. She appeared to be a good informer because of "her maturity, her intelligence and her ability to follow directions, combined with her knowledge of the drug trade," Officer McCranie said.

"We were not asking her to do anything that required specialized training," he said. "We were asking her to do what she was already doing and that was to purchase narcotics."

But Fitzgerald, the author of Informants and Undercover Investigations: A Practical Guide to Law, Policy, and Procedure, said he thinks police bullied Hoffman into acting as an informer.

Hoffman's father said his daughter was too young for the operation. He said he plans to push for legislation to put an age limit on informers.

"It's a sin to use kids to do that," said Irv Hoffman of Palm Harbor. "Some of these kids have a brush or two with the law, then they are thrown into these dangerous situations without fully understanding the ultimate outcome."

Rachel Morningstar Hoffman isn't the only informer who has been killed.

Robin Lee Welshons, 35, was killed while cooperating with the DEA in Aberdeen, Md. She was making recorded calls and drug buys to reduce an 18-month prison sentence. She was shot to death at a motel in February 2006, just two days before she was scheduled to start her sentence.

This month, Gary B. Williams Jr., 28, was linked to her death during a sentencing hearing after his conviction on crack and cocaine distribution charges in Baltimore.

According to the Baltimore Sun, Williams asked Welshons, "You ain't working with no feds, are you?" He warned he didn't "play games" while negotiating for crack, a transcript of their telephone conversation said.

In addition to getting killed, informers also can hurt a case.

"The majority of informants are trying to work off a sentence or a charge and it is someone who is jammed up," said Ron Kurpiers, a Tampa lawyer and a former federal prosecutor. "That mind-set is dangerous because they will do anything to keep from going to prison."

But law enforcement officials say informers are vital to fighting crime. For example, in 2006, federal prosecutors in Tampa relied heavily on informers to build a case against Cali drug cartel leader Mario Valencia-Trujillo, who was convicted and sentenced to 40 years in prison.

"Confidential informants are as critical to me as news is to reporters," said Capt. Michael Platt, the narcotics division commander for the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office. "You can't cast a play in hell with angels."

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. De­morris A. Lee can be reached at (727) 445-4174 or dalee@sptimes.com.

Told to inform on bad guys, they put lives at risk 05/16/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 20, 2008 4:34pm]

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