Mark Flatten

Suspect in deadly "reverse sting" drug bust was federal informant

Posted on April 28, 2011 | Type: Investigative Report | Author: Mark Flatten
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The man accused of initiating the drug buy that led to the 2010 death of a Chandler, Ariz., police officer made a plea bargain with federal prosecutors four months earlier to avoid a long prison term, and worked as an informant for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration at some time prior to the deal erupting in gunfire.

But Chandler police did not know John H. Webber had been working with federal officials when they ran a “reverse sting” targeting a quarter-million dollars that Webber and his cohorts agreed to pay for 500 pounds of marijuana supplied by undercover officers. Had the deal gone down as planned, the police would have kept the money under Arizona’s forfeiture law.

But after the marijuana was delivered, one of the suspects opened fire with an AK-74 rifle, mortally wounding Detective Carlos Ledesma, according to police reports. Two other undercover detectives were shot, and two suspects were killed during the shootout on West Maldonado Drive in south Phoenix, about 16 miles from the Chandler border.

Chandler police did not bring in the DEA, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, or Phoenix police to help in the operation. If they had, any money obtained through forfeitures would have been split among the law enforcement agencies involved. It also would have given them a chance to learn one of the suspects had been working with federal agents.

Sgt. Joe Favazzo, a Chandler police spokesman, said the agency did run a check of the Phoenix house through a regional database that is supposed to identify potential conflicts between law enforcement agencies running undercover operations. That check did not indicate any other agency, including the DEA, was involved in any investigations in the same area, Favazzo said.

Maricopa County prosecutors said in court motions related to the ongoing murder case that Webber had worked as an informant for the DEA. However, the agency had stopped using him by the time of the shootout, and he had no authority to initiate the drug deal that led to Ledesma’s death, prosecutors argue.

The Goldwater Institute detailed the events that led to the shooting, and the extensive use of reverse stings by Chandler police, in a report published March 14, 2011. The agency raised about $3.2 million through forfeitures in the year prior to Ledesma’s death, more than $2.7 million of that from reverse stings, according to city and court records.

Reverse stings have long been used by the agency, according to a review by the Goldwater Institute of all Chandler forfeiture cases in the 12 months leading up to Ledesma’s death. Of the 35 cases, 20 were reverse stings. Most took place miles from Chandler’s borders, typically in west Phoenix.

The lack of coordination between police agencies is a dangerous consequence of the profit motive built into state forfeiture laws, according to Scott Bullock, senior attorney for the Institute for Justice, a non-profit legal firm based in Virginia. When a police department brings other agencies into an investigation that leads to the forfeiture of money or property, both law and protocol dictate that the assets be split between them. As a result, there is good reason for a police department not to share cases that could produce a high-dollar return, Bullock said.

“It’s a strategic decision based upon what is going to make our agency the most amount of money,” Bullock said. “It’s a financial advantage that is driving decision making … to go it alone in certain instances where they feel like that will be to their advantage or to team up with other agencies if they feel like that would be to their financial advantage.”

Local police in states that prohibit the use of forfeited money by law enforcement often partner with federal agencies to get around those restrictions, the Institute for Justice found in an extensive study published last year. Doing so means the money recovered must be disbursed according to federal rules, effectively allowing limits in state laws to be bypassed and creating an incentive for cooperation, the report found.

The reverse would be true in states like Arizona, where the law provides little protection to innocent property owners and requires that all money obtained through forfeitures goes to the agencies involved in obtaining it, Bullock said.

“If there is a financial incentive to not work together, then they would respond accordingly,” he said. “It’s the fundamental lesson of economics – incentives matter.”

The Goldwater Institute has recommended repealing existing civil forfeiture laws, or at a minimum requiring money police seize in forfeiture cases be put into a neutral account such as the state’s general fund, to sever the connection between agency operations and direct financial rewards.

Chandler police say the prospect of seizing a quarter-million dollars had nothing to do with their decision to pursue the investigation in which Ledesma was killed, nor with their choice to not bring in other agencies. Commander Dale Walters of the Chandler Police Department told the Goldwater Institute in an interview for the story published in March that other agencies are brought into an undercover investigation if it is appropriate.

“It’s our information and we go with it,” Walters said. “They do the same thing. They work their own cases.”

Avoiding Hard Time

Webber is not accused of being the triggerman in the Ledesma shooting. However, police reports describe him as the man who initiated the deal with the confidential informant who was secretly working for Chandler police.

Four months before the shooting, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Phoenix asked a judge in an unrelated fraud case to accept a plea agreement that would allow Webber to avoid any charges in return for his cooperation, court records show.

Webber and seven other defendants were indicted in March 2008 on federal fraud and conspiracy charges related to a home mortgage swindle that cost banks about $9.5 million in losses.

Webber was on parole out of Kentucky when he was arrested in June 2008, court records show. He was convicted in 2002 on state charges that include engaging in organized crime and trafficking in marijuana while in possession of a firearm, and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. He was paroled in 2006 and allowed to move to Arizona, which is permitted under interstate agreements, according to Todd Henson of the Kentucky Department of Corrections.

Conviction on the federal charge in Arizona would have required Webber to return to Kentucky to complete his prison sentence, in addition to whatever sentence he received for the federal crimes, court records show.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office reached a plea deal with Webber in which he would cooperate with federal prosecutors in the fraud case. If he abided by the terms of the agreement, both the plea and the federal charges would be dropped, according to a memorandum from Kevin Rapp, assistant U.S. Attorney in Phoenix, urging the judge to accept the plea bargain. Kentucky authorities were notified after Webber’s arrest, and agreed to allow him to remain in Arizona and cooperate with federal prosecutors.

Rapp noted that Webber had a long criminal history and recommended that he be supervised by the court’s pretrial release services, as well as state parole officers, for two years while he was cooperating with federal authorities.

“A violation of his plea agreement will both result in a lengthy sentence in this case and a parole violation for his Kentucky case,” Rapp wrote in urging the judge to accept the plea. “In the final analysis, Webber has a substantial incentive to comply with the terms of his plea and remain law abiding.”

Rapp filed his motion in March 2010.

Deal Gone Bad

In July 2010, a confidential informant called Chandler narcotics detectives about a group of men wanting to buy a large quantity of marijuana and willing to pay cash. One of those men would turn out to be Webber, identified in police reports as the man who initiated the deal and one of the people who handled the money.

Chandler police told their informant to set up the deal. The plan was to have undercover officers pose as drug sellers, and when the deal went down they would arrest the buyers and seize the quarter-million dollars.

On the evening of July 28, 2010, Chandler detectives entered the south Phoenix home to complete the sale.

Without warning, one of the suspects grabbed a rifle and started shooting, according to police reports.

Ledesma was hit four times in the chest, and died a short time later. Two other undercover detectives were wounded in the ensuing shootout.

The bundles of cash were actually one-dollar bills stuffed into counterfeit $100s, according to police. The total take from the operation was $999.

Webber was in the home during the gunfight, but is not the man accused of killing Ledesma. He has been charged with three counts of felony murder under a statute which allows people involved in certain crimes to be charged with murder even if they are not the actual killers.

Confidential Informant

Webber’s lawyer alleged in a court motion in March 2011 that Webber was working as a confidential informant for DEA agents in Phoenix and the state of Washington at the time of the shooting, and that is why he was at the house on Maldonado when the shooting occurred. A few days prior to the shooting, Webber was contacted by a DEA agent about setting up a drug sting, according to the motion. That is what led to Webber’s dealings with other suspects and, eventually, undercover Chandler narcotics detectives, the motion states.

The motion argues Webber told Phoenix police after the shooting that he was working as a DEA informant, but that information was not conveyed to the grand jury that indicted him.

“John stated that he was in contact with (other suspects) in order to set up a deal for the DEA,” Webber’s lawyer Michael Souccar wrote in the motion to have the case sent back to the grand jury. “He also stated during that interview that the only reason that he was at the house on Maldonado was because of that prior conversation with the DEA agent.”

Souccar filed separate motions asking the judge to compel depositions of two DEA agents and Rapp, the federal prosecutor, who have refused to be interviewed by defense lawyers.

In an interview with the Goldwater Institute, Souccar said Webber’s phone records show he was in contact with the DEA shortly before the shooting. However, Souccar needs to depose the agents and obtain documents from the DEA to determine the extent of the relationship and the level of involvement the agents had in the deal that went bad.

“The U.S. Attorney’s Office and the DEA are stonewalling,” Souccar said. “I can go into court and show there was contact between my client and DEA. I have phone records.”

In their response to the motion to send the indictment back to the grand jury, county prosecutors say Phoenix police were told by the DEA that Webber was no longer working as an informant for the agency. Federal agents told police they found Webber’s information unreliable, and “he had no permission to work for them in a pro-active capacity at the time of this offense and he was aware of that.”

In any case, the county attorney argues, prosecutors say they were under no obligation to disclose Webber’s history with the DEA when the murder case was presented to the grand jury.

Ramona Sanchez, spokeswoman for the DEA in Phoenix, would not comment on the allegations that Webber was working with the agency in July 2010.

“DEA does not as a matter of policy confirm or deny the existence of any potential sources of information,” Sanchez said.

Officials at the U.S. Attorney’s office in Phoenix also would not agree to an interview. They did release a statement acknowledging the plea in the fraud case, but denying federal authorities authorized Webber to engage in the drug transaction. The statement reads:

“Although Mr. Webber had provided the government with information related to his involvement in a mortgage fraud scheme, he had no authority from the U.S. District Court Judge, his supervising pretrial officer, his parole officer or the U.S. Attorney’s Office to work in any capacity as an undercover informant in a drug transaction or any other criminal activity. Any position to the contrary is not accurate.”

Webber is among the eight defendants charged with multiple counts of murder, armed robbery and drug offenses in relation to the shooting that killed Ledesma. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against two of the other defendants.

Souccar, Webber’s lawyer, said he is still trying to determine whether Chandler police and the DEA were both running drug operations that intersected with deadly results. That is something he will not know until the government produces documents he requested, and he has a chance to interview federal agents.

In any case, Chandler’s aggressive use of reverse stings as a revenue-raising tool, and what role the quest for forfeiture dollars played in the decisions made by police that day, will be factors in Webber’s defense, he said.

“That’s going to be part of our case in general, the business aspect of what the Chandler Police Department is doing,” Souccar said. “It’s really sad that they are continuing this after the fact; after this officer was killed, they continue operating this way and doing these reverse stings not only in Chandler but in other cities.”

Mark Flatten is an investigative reporter for the Goldwater Institute.

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