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Undercover drug buy leads to 58 shots and changes in Hillsborough Sheriff's policies (w/video)

RUSKIN — It was supposed to be a quick undercover cocaine buy in a Wendy's parking lot. Make the transaction, let the seller walk and arrest him later.

Then, with the cock of a gun, everything changed.

"Just give me the . . . cash," 19-year-old Efren Esparza-Lopez told an undercover Hillsborough Sheriff's Office detective that December day, according to newly released records.

Esparza-Lopez, sitting in the back seat of an old, battered Chevrolet sedan, had pulled a 9mm handgun as the detective leaned into the open passenger door to buy $2,200 worth of coke, the records say. Another suspect, Luis F. Gutierrez, 20, sat in the driver's seat.

When the detective's back-up arrived seconds later, Esparza-Lopez started shooting.

In the next half-minute, Sheriff's Office personnel would fire 58 rounds at the Chevy as it tore out of the parking lot, according to an internal agency report released to the Tampa Bay Times that shed new light on the Dec. 6 incident.

Esparza-Lopez and Gutierrez were both shot and later captured. No deputies or bystanders were hit, and the Sheriff's Office's internal review board and the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office concluded the detectives were justified in returning fire.

But the shooting raised questions about the decision to conduct a drug buy in the parking lot of a restaurant at dinner time. The Sheriff's Office has since amended its policy for undercover operations, a sign that the agency realized it fell short of the planning required to keep the public safe, experts say.

"Any change in policy is an admission you did wrong," said Michael Levine, a former undercover drug agent for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration who has written and taught extensively on undercover operations. "What got you into a position where there was even the possibility of a shoot-out in a public place? It shouldn't have happened."

• • •

The ill-fated drug buy wasn't the first time detectives met Esparza-Lopez at the Wendy's on Sun City Boulevard, just east of Interstate 75.

For three prior drug buys, Esparza-Lopez chose the locations, and one was done at the same restaurant, according to an internal report presented to the Sheriff's Office's Shooting Review Board last month.

Esparza-Lopez asked to meet there again on Dec. 6, saying he would introduce the buyers to his supplier and sell them "a trafficking amount" of cocaine, which state law defines as at least 27 grams, court records show.

About 5 p.m., Esparza-Lopez slid into the passenger seat of an undercover car parked near the drive-through and provided a sample of cocaine. A detective who identified himself as Ryan sat behind the wheel, and another detective, who didn't say her name, sat in the back seat. Both wore hidden cameras that captured video and audio. Detectives in at least two backup vehicles were parked nearby.

In the footage, now part of the case file, Esparza-Lopez told Ryan that the supplier was parked in Esparza-Lopez's car on a nearby access road.

"We're going to go to his car, we're going to talk, you're going to get his number and we're going to come over here and drop you off," Esparza-Lopez said.

Ryan and the other detective expressed reservations.

"I don't want him to jack us," the other detective said.

"Why don't you just have him whip up here and we'll talk to him," Ryan said. "Back there just looks shady."

When Esparza-Lopez got out, Ryan radioed a detective watching from another car.

"Do they have an eye right there in case I gotta go over there?" Ryan asked.

"No. Make him pull over to you," the other detective replies.

Esparza-Lopez and Gutierrez pulled into a space in the first row next to the drive-through window. Esparza-Lopez walked over to Ryan's car, got in and told him the supplier didn't want to get out of his car. He wants Esparza-Lopez to count the money and then bring Ryan over to the car.

Ryan told him he didn't want to get into someone else's car.

"You think I'm gonna rob you, bro?" Esparza-Lopez asked.

The two men got out and walked to the Chevy. Esparza-Lopez got into the back seat and Ryan leaned in through the front passenger door.

A moment later, Esparza-Lopez pulled the gun and cocked it.

"Don't move," he said.

"You got a . . . gun, dude?" Ryan said, tipping off his backup units who are listening. "You ain't gotta . . . shoot me."

"Just give me the . . . money and I won't, " Esparza-Lopez said, grabbing Ryan's left arm and holding it against the back of the passenger seat. Gutierrez tried to grab the cash.

Seconds later, tires screeched as backup detectives in an unmarked Ford Expedition with flashing red and blue lights pulled in behind the Chevy. Ryan broke free from Esparza-Lopez, who started shooting at the Expedition, striking the passenger door where the backup detectives wearing bullet-resistant vests marked with the word "SHERIFF" are taking cover.

In a brief but fierce shoot-out, detectives riddled the Chevy with bullets. Gutierrez backed into the Expedition and then sped out of the parking lot.

Deputy Brenton LeDonne, who was stationed nearby in a marked patrol car, pursued the Chevy onto 33rd Street SE. Esparza-Lopez fired at LeDonne, striking his patrol car with two rounds. A moment later, the Chevy crashed into the tree line near the corner of 27th Avenue and 30th Street SE.

Shot in the head, shoulder and torso, Gutierrez collapsed near the car. He spent a month in the hospital and now faces multiple charges. Esparza-Lopez ran off and was arrested at Brandon Regional Hospital, where he was treated for a gunshot wound in his back.

Esparza-Lopez faces four counts of attempted murder of a law enforcement officer, among other charges. He would later tell detectives that he knew he was dealing with undercover cops and tried to rob them anyway because he had bills to pay.

An investigation found 45 "impact sites" on the Chevy. No rounds were recovered from the Wendy's or surrounding vehicles, according to sheriff's Col. Donna Lusczynski.

• • •

Last month, the Sheriff's Office Shooting Review Board found the detectives were justified in using lethal force. The Hillsborough State Attorney's Office agreed.

But the Sheriff's Office has added a clause to its policy on planning and executing undercover operations to state that "the location and time of day" should be "considered . . . to minimize any dangers posed to the public."

Lusczynski noted that the safety of "third parties" was already included. Neither man had a criminal record in Florida, a factor that detectives consider when arranging drug buys in public places, she said.

"But we felt, based on this incident, we had to delineate it a little clearer in the policy so there was absolutely no question," Lusczynski said.

None of the Sheriff's Office personnel involved were disciplined, but the Tactical Intelligence Unit was advised of the policy change. The Times is not naming any of the detectives involved because they work undercover.

Detectives have to strike a balance when planning drug buys, Lusczynski said. They want to be in a place where they can monitor the transaction undetected. That's why the detective declined Esparza-Lopez's request to walk to the Chevy while it was parked on the access road, which might have been safer for the public. And sellers, fearful of getting robbed, also like to meet in public places.

Experts contacted by the Times said the Sheriff's Office's new language is still too vague.

"If a cop ends up shooting a guy in a public place, are the bosses now going to charge him with 'failure to consider?' " Levine said. "The problem is that the internal affairs division and the bosses, if something goes wrong, will take this SOP and interpret it any way that prevents the responsibility from flowing uphill."

Levine said the policy should state that an operation with "any reasonable potential for gunfire or violence must be planned and executed in areas least likely to attract populations of innocent bystanders."

Asked about this recommendation, Lusczynski said the amended policy "meets our needs."

The irony is that more specific wording makes an agency more vulnerable to civil litigation if a bystander is injured or killed by crossfire, said Charles Stephenson, a former undercover narcotics agent for the FBI. The more specific the policy, the easier it is for a litigant to prove the agency failed to follow it.

It's amazing there wasn't collateral damage at the Wendy's, Stephenson said. If there had been, lawsuits almost surely would have followed.

Said Stephenson: "The injured party is going to say, 'Why here? Why this time of day? You're supposed to be the professionals. You would've, could've, should've known.' "

Contact Tony Marrero at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.

Undercover drug buy leads to 58 shots and changes in Hillsborough Sheriff's policies (w/video) 05/22/17 [Last modified: Sunday, May 21, 2017 8:46pm]
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