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Special Report

Lawyer in Anthrax Case: “I Never Had a Client Commit Suicide –It’s a Terrible Experience”

Anthrax Suspect Bruce Ivins

Anthrax Suspect Bruce Ivins

By Allan Lengel
For AOL News

WASHINGTON — Just weeks before government scientist Bruce Ivins’ suicide, a grand jury was convening on the third floor of the federal courthouse, near the U.S. Capitol, looking into the 2001 anthrax murders. Things weren’t looking good for Ivins, the only suspect in the case.

It was July 2008. His attorney, Paul F. Kemp, according to court documents reviewed by AOL News, had just filed court papers to become a death-penalty-certified attorney in the case — a little-known fact. And the chief U.S. District judge in Washington, Royce C. Lamberth, had approved the request.

“I thought this was a precaution to take. My job is to anticipate anything,” Kemp said.

He said he had told Ivins the investigation could turn into a death penalty case. “At some point in the near future I felt the government was probably going to the grand jury and would issue an indictment.”

What Kemp — and the government as well — didn’t anticipate was the unthinkable. On July 27, Ivins, 62, loaded up on Tylenol with codeine in a suicide bid. Two days later, he died.

“I was disturbed over it,” Kemp said in an interview this week . “I never had a client commit suicide. It’s a terrible experience. I’m much more distraught for his family.”

With the suicide, so died the chance for the government to prove its case before a jury or for Ivins to prove his innocence. No charges were ever filed in the case, in which letters containing anthrax spores were mailed to five media outlets and two senators. Five people died and 17 others were sickened.

On Feb. 19, the Justice Department officially closed the case and issued a 92-page summary stating why Ivins not only did it, but acted alone. It concluded that his lab notes showed he “could, and did, create spores of the concentration and purity of the mailed spores.”

Kemp, a suburban Washington attorney, said he read the report, but didn’t buy into it. Not at all.

Kemp said Ivins repeatedly denied that he sent the letters or that he developed the deadly anthrax spores. And Kemp cited Ivins’ fellow scientists, who insisted he was incapable of making such a high-grade, dried anthrax with the equipment available at his workplace at the Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases in Frederick, Md.

“There’s not one shred of evidence to show he did it,” Kemp said.

Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., echoes some of that skepticism. Last week, he called for a congressional investigation into the anthrax probe.

“We don’t know whether the FBI’s assertions about Dr. Ivins’ activities and behavior are accurate,” Holt wrote in a letter to the chairmen of the House Committees on Homeland Security, Judiciary, Intelligence, and Oversight and Government Reform.

Government investigators disagree with the skeptics.

“Suggestions that this is an entirely circumstantial case are not accurate,” said Dean Boyd, a Justice Department spokesman. “We are confident Dr. Ivins acted alone in carrying out this attack. There is the direct physical evidence. The murder weapon was created by Dr. Ivins and solely maintained by Dr. Ivins.

“We wish we had the opportunity to present this case and all the evidence to a jury, but we were not able to, given the circumstances.”

A Justice Department source familiar with the case insisted Ivins was “singularly capable” of producing the deadly product. The person said investigators spent an “extraordinary amount of time” researching who in the science world was capable of producing the high-grade anthrax used in the deadly letters and “Dr. Ivins came up as one of the pre-eminent anthrax researchers.”

Regardless, in his final weeks Ivins had been thinking about the prospect of facing the death penalty. News reports said that during a July 9, 2008, group therapy session, he mentioned that if he faced the death penalty he would go out with a blaze of glory and shoot some of his co-workers.

Kemp acknowledges the government contacted him in the final weeks to say they were concerned about Ivins’ state of mind and well-being.

To many in the public, Ivins’ suicide was viewed as an admission of guilt. But others — particularly some who knew him — saw a man who collapsed under the mighty weight of a government determined to indict him.

Kemp says he still thinks about the suicide and wonders if he couldn’t have conveyed the prospect of a death-penalty case to Ivins more gently. He won’t get into specifics of the conversations with Ivins, citing client-attorney privilege. But he does share this much.

“I question myself. Maybe I was too strong,” he said. “I second-guess a lot the wording I used.”

Read Story on Scientist  Steven Hatfill Breaking Silence

For a Calif FBI Agent: When a Beer is Neither Here Nor There

beer

A Los Angeles Times report stirred up a lot of angry reader comments about an FBI agent shooting his gun at men who were trying to steal beer. The problem was: there was no beer and the real story appeared to be far more serious than reported. Here’s a detailed account.

By Allan Lengel
ticklethewire.com

The brief story posted on the Los Angeles Times web page last month said two men, who were being sentenced, had broken into a garage in Yorba Linda, Calif., looking to steal beer.  The garage happened to belong to an off-duty FBI agent, who confronted the men around 2 a.m.

One of the men struggled with the agent, who had identified himself as law enforcement. Afterward, both men fled in a car.

The agent,  identified as “James M” ,  “shot at the car as it drove away but neither man was injured,” the paper reported on its online edition on Jan. 5.

The paper also reported that the two men –Jeffrey  Michael Drach, 20, and Justin Wesley Case, 21 — were sentenced to two years in prison for residential burglary for the Nov. 18 incident.

The LA Times account was enough to trigger a barrage of negative comments online from agitated readers.

“So the FBI agent shoots at their car as they flee after trying to steal beer, and nothing happens to him? This is ridiculous,” read one of the typical reader responses.

Another reader wrote: “The FBI officer shot at their car as they drove away?! From an attempted beer-heist? Sounds like the FBI officer should be brought up on charges next.”

Perhaps the comments would have been totally justified, except for a few key facts:

For one, there was never any beer involved in the case, period, said the prosecutor and FBI. The door leading from the garage to the house was ajar. The agent’s wife and young child were inside.

Plus, after one of the men attacked and struggled with the agent, both men fled and hopped into a Ford pickup with the agent in pursuit.

“The driver of the vehicle allegedly turned his truck toward the agent,” according to the Orange County deputy district attorney Keith Bogardus. “The agent was acting in self defense.”

The article also failed to mention that the FBI has launched an internal review to determine whether the agent was justified in discharging his gun.  Had some readers known that, perhaps they may not have suggested that the matter was being swept under the rug.  (FBI policy essentially says agents can fire a gun if they fear that their life or others are in immediate danger).

The story is an example how the media in the Internet era can trigger an instant outpouring of online criticism in the community —  in this case against a federal agent — and how those quickly formed opinions often rely on a collection of facts,  which can sometimes be incomplete or not quite right.

Granted, any reporter will tell you it’s nearly impossible — particularly in this era of online immediacy — to always get things 100 percent, 100 percent of the time, and capture all the nuances. To boot, sometimes key details are not always available to a reporter.

That being said, the story caused some heartburn for the FBI, an agency hyper-sensitive about its image ever since the J. Edgar Hoover days.

“The public perception based on the coverage was that this was an out of control FBI agent rather than a victim who was home who happened to be an agent who was trying to protect his family, including his wife and baby,” said Laura Eimiller, a spokeswoman for the FBI in Los Angeles.

The Los Angeles Times reporter for the story said she would consult with her editors before commenting, but did not respond after that. And the attorney who made the comment about the beer did not return a phone call for comment.  Eimiller said she called the paper to complain about the story, but declined to get into details.

The original story, first posted at 9:02 a.m., stated that officials had said the men were looking to steal beer from the Orange County home.

About 90 minutes later, at 10:37 a.m., the paper — instead of posting a correction- simply posted an “updated” version,  which said: “A previous version of this story stated that officials said the men were stealing beer, but it was an attorney who made the comment.”

The headline for the updated version read like this:  “Two O.C. men sentenced to prison for trying to steal beer from FBI agent’s garaged (Updated).”

Meanwhile, some agitated citizens continued to post critical remarks about the FBI agent and the beer.

“So the FBI agent shoots at their car as they flee after tying to steal beer, and nothing happens to him? That is ridiculous….The agent should be sentenced to prison for endangering the community and attempted murder.”

Not all the comments were critical of the FBI.

“I have no problem with the FBI agent(‘)s action,” wrote one reader. “He found strangers in his garage, he had a physical confrontation with one…..shoot away.”

In the mean time, the agent remains on active duty.

A request made to Eimiller to speak to the agent was declined. She said the matter is under internal investigation and it wouldn’t be wise for him to comment. She also asked that his name not be disclosed for his and his family’s safety.

“I can say he’s an agent with a great reputation,” she added.

Agent Tangles With ATF Over Troubles With Hells Angels

Jay Dobyns/his website

Jay Dobyns/his website

By Allan Lengel
For AOL News

WASHINGTON — From one vantage point, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agent Jay Dobyns still worries about the Hells Angels coming after him. From another, it’s his employer he’s more concerned about.

Dobyns infiltrated the Hells Angels from 2001 to 2003 in Arizona and wrote a New York Times best-seller about it last year. But now he’s locked in major legal fisticuffs with the ATF.

A $4 million lawsuit filed by the 23-year ATF veteran says the agency failed to abide by a 2007 written contract to protect him and his wife and two children against death threats from the Hells Angels. The suit, unfolding now in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, also says the agency failed to stop subjecting him to a hostile work environment for complaining about his safety.

In August 2008, Dobyns’ Tucson, Ariz., home burned to the ground in an apparent arson. Two months later, he filed the breach of contract lawsuit. He currently lives out West with his family and works for the ATF as a program manager in the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network.

“I honestly think at this point ATF has no idea how to handle threats against employees,” the 48-year-old agent said in a phone interview with AOL News. “Their solution is to write a check and transfer the agent.”

“I’ve been harassed since I voiced a complaint with the agency that they were ignoring their obligations” to protect him and his family, he said.

On Jan. 15, Judge Francis Allegra ruled that the breach-of-contract case should move forward. The Justice Department and the ATF filed a counterclaim two weeks later saying it was Dobyns, not the government, who was in violation of the contract and asking that the case be dismissed.

The counterclaim said Dobyns had violated agency rules by failing to get permission before he published a book in 2009, “No Angel: My Harrowing Undercover Journey to the Inner Circle of the Hells Angels,” and signed movie rights with MGM. The Justice Department has asked the judge to rule that Dobyns must forfeit all the proceeds from his outside projects to the government.

Dobyns insists he had been given approval.

The ATF declined comment. A Justice Department spokesman said today that the department had no comment.

The fall from hero to heel in the ATF came in measured steps. In 2001, Dobyns, with shaved head and a generous stream of tattoos, went deep undercover — meaning he stayed in character 24/7 and didn’t go home at the end of the day. He infiltrated the Hells Angels in what was called “Operation Black Biscuit.”

“I wanted to do it,” he recalled. “No one held a gun to my head. I jumped at the job.”

From 2001 to 2003, he barely saw his wife and two children. Every day was frightening, he said.

“Absolutely. You have never-ending paranoia: ‘Have I made a mistake that I’m not even aware of?’ These are violent dudes, and if they find out that you’ve betrayed them, they’re going to put a box cutter to your throat and that’s the end of that.”

The gang was about to make him an official member, he said, after he and a colleague staged a fake murder of a rival bike gang member. Instead, the probe ended with indictments of more than a dozen Hells Angels. The charges ranged from murder to rape.

The prosecution was less successful. Some pleaded guilty, and lesser sentences were handed down. In some cases, the charges were dismissed altogether. Dobyns said internal disputes between prosecutors and the ATF over presenting evidence and exposing informants weakened the case.

After coming out of the deep undercover role, Dobyns said he became the ATF’s “golden boy” for his heroic work. But when he started complaining about the ATF’s lax response to threats, he suddenly became a malcontent and traitor.

The first reported threat came in 2004, according to his lawsuit, when a Hells Angel member in Tucson saw him on the street and said that he knew where Dobyns lived, that he had a wife and kids and that he was “going to get hurt.”

The same year, the suit says, a confidential source had a cellmate in Arizona, a Hells Angel whom Dobyns had put away, who wanted to murder Dobyns. In another instance, Dobyns said, prison officials intercepted a letter from a gang member who said he wanted to rape Dobyns’ wife and make Dobyns watch the videotape before he killed him.

Dobyns wanted the ATF to act, but he said the agency told him not to worry and that the man was behind bars.

“ATF didn’t not only knock on the guy’s jail bars, they ignored it,” he said. “Their response to me was ‘Don’t worry about it, this guy is locked up.'”

Dobyns said his reaction was “Are you kidding me? This guy has connections on the outside.”

By contrast, he said, the FBI would send someone to top mob guys after undercover agents were done with a case and say, “Those are our guys. They’re hands off. They better not receive a call at the house.”

Dobyns filed grievances internally, complaining of ATF’s lax response to the threats. He said the government moved him four times. He moved an additional seven times with his family at his own expense, “hoping to break the paper trail as to where I was at.”

Allegra, in his January ruling, noted that the Office of Inspector General at the Justice Department “opined that ATF should have taken threats against Agent Dobyns and his family ‘more seriously'” and that the agency “needlessly” delayed responding to them.

In 2007, ATF entered into a contract with Dobyns that promised to provide better protection and a hostile-free environment. It also agreed to give him $373,000 for all his troubles.

The next year, his Tucson home burned down at 3 a.m. one August night. His family escaped unharmed. He was in Phoenix at the time. In his suit, he says the ATF took over the case from the local sheriff’s department, but it did hardly anything before turning over the matter to the FBI.

Dobyns is quite certain it was the work of the Hells Angels. Since then, he said, he hasn’t received any real threats.

“I have concern for my life,” he said. “I’ve seen firsthand the violence and intimidation. I lived with it. I do not underestimate them. I don’t slough them off. But if I allow them to have me live in fear, then they’ve won. Then I’m Osama bin Laden living in the cave.”

As for his $4 million lawsuit, he said, “There’s not enough money in ATF’s budget to repay me for how my family has suffered.”

Are We Overreacting to Suspicious White Powder Letters?

powderBy Allan Lengel
For AOL News

WASHINGTON — All U.S. mail — about a billion pieces every 36 hours — passes through a sophisticated biohazard detection system at about 270 processing centers around the country. The U.S. Postal Service says no item with anthrax or any other dangerous substance has passed through the screening since it was put in place seven years ago.

Yet suspicious letters and packages continue to prompt panic, evacuations, decontaminations and fear-provoking headlines in post-Sept. 11 America.

Earlier this month, nine threatening letters with white powder were sent to congressional offices in Alabama. One letter to Sen. Richard Shelby’s office in Birmingham ended up temporarily shutting down a federal building.

Last month, about 500 people were evacuated from the Bank of America tower in Tampa, Fla., after the company received threatening letters with white powder. And in November, about 40 people were decontaminated after suspicious white powder letters postmarked from Texas were sent to New York to United Nations missions of France, Germany, Austria and Uzbekistan.

In all these instances, as well as thousands of others investigated each year by U.S. Postal inspectors and the FBI, the material was found to be harmless.

Are we overreacting? The Postal Service won’t flat out say that. But it will say this: “The (biohazard) system has been tested and tested and refined and found to be foolproof,” says Deborah Yackley, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Postal Service. “The equipment is very highly advanced.”

U.S. Postal Inspector Peter Rendina says protocol for some first responders — often hazmat teams from fire departments — hasn’t changed much since 2001 when deadly anthrax letters killed five people and sickened 17 others.

“Most of the first responders, when they hear about an incident, they go with the worst-case scenario, causing evacuations,” he said.

One of the real anthrax letters in 2001/fbi photo
One of the real anthrax letters in 2001/fbi photo

“The odds of anthrax showing up are very slim,” Rendina said. “I really feel the mail is the safest form of communication around. Since 2003, there has not been one positive result or one false positive (at mail facilities) for a dangerous biological substance.”

Alan Etter, who served several years as a spokesman for the District of Columbia Fire Department, said it was heartening for the hazmat teams to know that the suspicious white powder letters had already gone through the postal facility biohazard detectors — essentially vacuum hoods that constantly test the air and sound audio and visual alarms if a suspected biological agent is detected in a letter.

“But just because it’s gone through the mail doesn’t mean we don’t have to do a job,” Etter said. “The first responders have to investigate and determine what the material is. You’re in a situation where you have to react to a worst-case scenario. You have to use whatever resources are available to you to investigate it as the real thing.”

Rendina concurs that authorities need to take the white powder letters seriously. But he said there are steps to be taken before one gets to the decontamination or evacuation stage. He said postal inspectors, if called to a scene, might first see try to see whether they can trace a letter to the sender.

“We don’t jump all the way to the top of the ladder” at the beginning, he said.

If the materials are “field screened” on site, that can take up to a couple of hours. In the meantime, he said, people immediately exposed are isolated.

Since the 2001 anthrax mailing, the only other instance that seemed to raise concerns was the discovery in February 2004 of traces of the biological agent ricin, which was found on a letter-opening machine in the Capitol Hill office of then Sen. Majority leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn. No one was harmed, and federal investigators weren’t able to determine whether the substance came from a letter or something else.

Months earlier, authorities discovered two letters with ricin at mail facilities in South Carolina and Washington, D.C. One letter was addressed to the White House and another to the “U.S. Department of Transportation,” which was marked “caution RICIN POISON.”

The writer claimed to be a “fleet owner of a tanker company” protesting a change in government regulations for drivers. Though ricin can be deadly, authorities found that the ricin in this instance was not considered a dangerous biological agent. The ricin cases remain unsolved.

Despite the Postal Service’s screening system, some government agencies take extra precautions with the mail. For instance, mail addressed to Capitol Hill and the White House goes to a New Jersey postal facility, where it’s irradiated to make sure there are no harmful anthrax or biohazard materials inside.

And in Lansing, Mich., mail gets an extra layer of scrutiny before it’s delivered to state agencies and the governor.

“Without getting into specifics, we do have some additional scrutiny that is applied to the mail that comes through the system, and there’s safeguards if anything is suspicious,” said Jason Nairn, head of security and management for the state government facilities.

He said it’s not that the state of Michigan doesn’t trust the Postal Service system. It’s just good to be careful. Plus, he said, it’s tough to tell a panicky employee in the government mail room who’s exposed to a mysterious white powder, “Yeah, the Postal Service takes care of that, I’m sure it’s fine.”

Rendina recommends the following if you get a suspicious letter:

* If smoke or vapors are coming from the letter, or if you’re feeling ill, call 911.

* If you see a little powder, and nothing is happening, leave it be and warn anyone else to stay away. Try to remember what’s on the front of the envelope in case you’re asked to describe it. Make sure there are no fans blowing in the direction of the envelope. Wash hands with copious amounts of water and call U.S. Postal inspectors at 877-876-2455 and select option 2.

Criminals Who Alter Face and Fingerprints Don’t Always Have Luck

John Dillinger/fbi photo

John Dillinger/fbi photo

By Allan Lengel
For AOl News

WASHINGTON — Plastic surgery is not just for the vain at heart. Recent cases show that criminals still use flesh-altering procedures to try to dodge the law. But it doesn’t always help.

Just in the past two weeks, drug traffickers from Detroit and Phoenix whose fingerprints had been surgically altered in Mexico were both sentenced to life in prison. The Detroit dealer also underwent multiple surgeries to change his face.

Meanwhile, Eduardo Ravelo, a suspected drug trafficker and hit man indicted in Texas, remains on the loose after apparently having surgery to avoid capture, authorities say.

The practice is hardly new. In the 1930s, legendary bank robber John Dillinger had plastic surgery to alter his appearance. He also used acid to burn his fingerprints. But he was gunned down and killed by FBI agents on July 22, 1934, in Chicago.

ice photo

ice photo

But veteran Assistant U.S. Attorney J. Michael Buckley, who prosecuted the Detroit case, said the willingness to self-mutilate “shows a higher level of desperation.” Other authorities say it’s difficult to discern whether there’s been an uptick in the practice among high-level dope dealers simply based on the recent cluster of cases that have come to light.

In the Detroit case, 38-year-old Adarus Mazio Black was convicted of trafficking millions of dollars of cocaine. He used a number of aliases and obtained fake driver’s licenses in Michigan, Arizona and California. Then, authorities say, after he paid someone to knock off a federal informant in 2005, he underwent nine surgeries for his face. He also had his fingerprints altered.

“He had his fingerprints surgically removed, which the doctor said is a form of skin graft, which is very painful,” Buckley said. “He could have had the skin taken from his buttocks, but that would have alerted authorities.

“He took his toe prints and put them on the tips of his fingers,” the prosecutor said, explaining that Black wanted his fingers to look as natural as possible and have fingerprint ridges. “It’s a very painful process, and it takes a long time to heal.”

Buckley said the surgeon, a doctor from Nogales, Mexico, a town bordering Arizona, performed the surgery and testified in court in Detroit. The same doctor was sentenced last year in Pennsylvania to 18 months in prison for altering a drug dealer’s fingerprint. He was charged with hindering efforts to apprehend the drug dealer..

The prosecutor said DEA investigators did have difficulty identifying Black through fingerprints. But he said all the surgery didn’t help.

“It wasn’t effective for him,” Buckley said. ” DEA developed so much evidence against him” that they were able to nail him. Black was sentenced to life on Dec. 14.

A fingerprint specialist for the DEA in San Diego, who worked on the recent Phoenix case, said surgeons have to cut deep into the layers of the skin to obliterate the fingerprints. If not, the same distinct fingerprint ridges can regenerate and resurface. He spoke on the condition his name not be used.

In that case, evidence in trial in June showed that 62-year-old William Wallace Keegan of Palm Harbor, Fla., had all 10 fingers surgically altered in 1993 in Mexico to obliterate his fingerprints above the first joint, according to the DEA.

The DEA fingerprint specialist said the fingerprints were cut “and pretty messed up” and difficult to read. Normally, that would have been the end of the story, since in most cases authorities just take fingerprints of the first digit of the finger.

But, the fingerprint specialist said, by “happenstance the lower joints (of the fingers) happened to be on both (fingerprint) cards.” That allowed him to match the prints of Keegan, who used the alias of Richard Alan King. Keegan received five life sentences for trafficking on Dec. 10.

The FBI is still looking for Eduardo Ravelo, who was added to the agency’s Top 10 Most Wanted List in October. Ravelo is suspected of working as a hit man for the Juarez drug cartel in Mexico. He is believed to have altered his face and fingers, according to FBI agent Andrea Simmons of the El Paso office.

She said authorities don’t know for sure, but they base their suspicions on “source information”.

Obviously, altering fingerprints won’t guarantee criminals a free pass. But it can help sometimes, authorities admit.

For example, if a wanted drug dealer gets picked up for a minor offense and is fingerprinted at a police station, he may walk free hours later because the prints don’t match the ones in the database. “It’s probably going to walk them out of the first casual law enforcement encounter,” one veteran DEA agent said.

But in the end, some like the Detroit drug dealer get caught anyway, and they end up being disfigured for life from the surgery.

Said prosecutor Buckley: “He ended up with what they call drumsticks finger; his fingers were curled up and he was unable to extend them.”

Fed Agents Behaving Badly in 2009

By Allan Lengel
For  AOL News

WASHINGTON — The Inept Criminal is by now a well-established and extensively chronicled archetype, with whole Web sites devoted to the misadventures of dumb, stupid and just plain crazy law-breakers. But law enforcement has its own share of bunglers, and Sphere believes they deserve attention, too. Herewith, a sampling of some of the federal officers who ran afoul of statutes, and common sense, this past year.

FBI Agent Shot A Chihuahua Just Like This One/istock photo

FBI Agent Shot A Chihuahua Just Like This One/istock photo

Yo Quiero Peace and Quiet
Even their biggest fans would concede that those lovable Chihuahuas (Taco Bell pitchmen and otherwise) can be a little annoying at times. Well, Waco, Texas, FBI agent Lovett Leslie Ledger decided to put a stop to the yapping of his neighbor’s Chihuahua, Sassy, in 2008 by shooting Sassy with a pellet gun. The barking ended, but Ledger’s troubles had just begun. Earlier this year, he pleaded no contest to a felony charge for animal cruelty and was put on two years’ probation and given 300 hours of community service. He also became the target of an internal probe and left the FBI in October.

Agent Slep with FBI Informant Lori Mody

Agent Slept with FBI Informant Lori Mody

Internal Affairs
Unlike Tiger Woods, FBI agent John Guandolo actually went to the trouble of making his own record of his extramarital relations, compiling a list of the indiscretions at the suggestion of his therapist, who thought the exercise would help Guandolo assess the damage his philandering had done to his marriage. As it turned out, said list included female FBI agents, as well as a key witness in the public corruption case of ex-Rep. William Jefferson. Worse still, a co-worker found the list and turned it over to a supervisor late last year. Guandolo quit, but in June, the U.S. attorney’s office learned of the memo and notified the court shortly before the Jefferson trial began, which in turn led to the memo’s going public in September.

phoenix-map

External Affairs
In 2002, in the line of duty, FBI agent Joe L. Gordwin of Phoenix arrested a man as part of gang investigation. Then, stepping way over the line, he started having an affair with the man’s wife. Two years later, the husband got out of prison, and the affair was briefly put on hold; when it resumed, Gordwin tipped off Scottsdale, Ariz., police that the husband was again up to no good. The husband, along with his son, was arrested for a robbery at a Radio Shack; Gordwin, now fearing the husband was going to rat him out, decided to confess the sordid sage to his supervisor. Told to end the affair, Gordwin instead told his mistress to lie to investigators. Gordwin pleaded guilty earlier this year to charges linked to covering up the improper sexual relationship and received four years probation.

Linda Fiorentino

Linda Fiorentino

Not a Hollywood Ending
Dapper FBI agent Mark Rossini leaked a secret FBI document to his girlfriend, actress Linda Fiorentino, who in turn gave it to the attorney for rogue detective Anthony Pellicano, who went on trial for illegally wiretapping some of Hollywood’s biggest stars. Pellicano was convicted anyway; Rossini lost his $140,000 a year FBI job, and, contrary to the stereotypical celluloid plotline, also lost the girl: Eventually it was splitsville for him and Fiorentino.

drunk driving

Spinner Out of Control
FBI spokeswoman Lori Bailey was the voice of the bureau down in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, but on this case, she had little to say. In September, she pleaded guilty to drunk driving charges stemming from a 2008 arrest, which KRLD news radio reported came after she caused a wrong-way crash on the Dallas North Tollway while driving at a high rate of speed. Having stepped down from her post shortly after the arrest, she was sentenced to probation and fined $900.

Testing Their Luck

Cheating on an exam is one thing; cheating on an open-book exam, quite another. But such is the focus of an internal investigation into whether three top agents in the FBI’s Washington field office — head of the office Joseph Persichini Jr. and special agents in charge Keith Bryars and Andrew Castor — worked together on the test and also got help from an FBI lawyer, in violation of bureau policy.Persichini, who was already planning to retire soon, is leaving Dec. 25. Word has it the two other agents may get demoted and reassigned to offices in Virginia and Maryland.

ice cube


Hold the ICE

Richard P. Cramer was a high-ranking Immigration and Customs Enforcement official who worked along the border between Arizona and Guadalajara, Mexico. Unfortunately, say the feds, he was also working for the wrong side. Cramer left ICE in 2007, but in September, authorities arrested him for allegedly having helped large-scale drug traffickers smuggle cocaine into the U.S. by providing them with inside info. Authorities also allege that it was the drug smuggling organization that convinced Cramer to retire — so he could get directly involved with its drug-running and money-laundering businesses.

ATF’s Cavanaugh Talks About The KKK, Obama, Church Burnings in the South and David Koresh

James Cavanaugh/ticklethewire.com photo

James Cavanaugh/ticklethewire.com photo

DENVER— Inside the cavernous Colorado Convention Center here at the recent International Chiefs of Police Annual Conference, veteran agent James M. Cavanaugh, an affable and personable man, who heads the ATF’s Nashville Division, took time out to talk to ticklethewire.com editor Allan Lengel.

Cavanaugh, whose territory includes Tennessee and Alabama, touched on such subjects as hate groups in the South, church burnings and President Obama — who he doesn’t believe has become much of a rallying point for recruiters in the white supremacist world. “I see if differently,” he says.

In March 2010, after 33 years as an ATF agent, Cavanaugh plans to retire. With that in mind, he also talked about his career and some of the intriguing cases he’s worked, including the D.C. Sniper investigation in 2002, the Unabomber and the conversations he had with David Koresh, the head of the Branch Davidian religious sect, during the 1993 shootout in Waco, Tex.   “Ninety-nine percent of him thought he was David Koresh, but the 1 percent of him really knew he was Vernon Wayne Howell, just a two-bit thug from the country in Texas.”

Eventually, during the shootout, four ATF agents and 6 Davidians were killed. “We just walked into an ambush,” he recalled.

The FBI  took command of the standoff  and eventually the compound caught fire, killing 76 Branch Davidians and the  rest they say, is history.

The following answers were condensed and the questions were edited for clarity.

How big a deal are the hate groups, the skinheads, the Klansmen down south?
We have a lot of it, because we have Klan, we have Aryan Nations, we have neo-Nazis. We have skinheads, we have the Council of Conservative Citizens and the reason they’re active is because the roots are deep there. It’s not that there’s necessarily more of them there. You could look on the data charts and you’ll see a lot in California, you’ll see a lot in populated states. But the roots are so deep in the South. When you look at the history of the civil rights era, so much of it is Alabama and Mississippi. The South is not that way now. So it’s unfair to characterize it that way. But the roots are there. The roots haven’t died.

Is the younger generation looking for alternatives, something cooler than the KKK, something a little more relevant?
The KKK now, a lot of times the membership is old and fat and slow. The hate is just as deep. But if they’re old and fat and slow, the 20-somethings, they’re young and skinny and full of vinegar. They want to go hurt somebody. And so they gravitate toward these skinhead groups. They do merge, they do support each other. It’s not to say all the Klansmen are old and all the skinheads are young.

How do they reconcile this: They hate the Jews and they don’t care for the Muslims.  But I once covered a rally at the Israeli Embassy and the white supremacists said they  supported the Palestinians and they were chanting all these Anti-semtic things.
That’s an interesting phenomenon. I think their hate is so deep they can’t even reconcile it with themselves. They hate everybody so much. We just got our final guilty plea on the firebombing of the Islamic center in Columbia, Tennessee. They painted swastikas on the Islamic center to firebomb it. They hate everybody.

Do you have a lot of active investigations into these groups?
It ebbs and flows. We don’t work the group because of their beliefs, of course, because it’s free speech and it’s protected,  as disgusting as it may be and as evil as it may be. But if we get information that the Klaverton (a group of Klansmen) has machine guns, that group’s making hand grenades, pipe bombs, that’s a whole other game now. We’re going to really aggressively pursue you.

Can you penetrate these groups? Is it easy?
It is. We use to make jokes years ago in the federal service, saying if you pull out all the federales out of the Klan there wouldn’t have  been anybody left because we had all infiltrated them. They’re always trying to recruit because they need members and the members pay dues to keep their organization going. They’re not hard to infiltrate.

Do they get much financing? Are there some wealthy folks who help them out or are they just scraping?
I’d say mostly they’re scraping. They like to brag and put up anybody that they have in their movement that has means or had means, they’ll always feature those guys. The guy who started the National Alliance is William Pierce and he was a physicist. And so he was intelligent and of course they would always feature Dr. Pierce . But that’s more the exception than the rule that they have education and wealth. That’s not to say there’s not other groups, that are sort of the white-collar Klan. They’re not really doing bombings or anything, they’re just bigoted, hate speech and so forth. But we don’t have much work with them. They exist, and we know they’re there. They don’t do things that ATF investigates.

Is it common to have cross burnings.
Yeah. They have one in Kentucky called Nordic Fest that the skinheads sponsor. They have different rally days.
What they do is (rail) against something that gives them legitimacy. The Klan takes Christianity for legitimacy. They’ll talk about Jesus while they’re burning the cross. So what they do is they sort of hijack Christianity, which is not a religion of hating and killing of people. It’s the complete opposite. The violent government militia men, they hijack the Constitution. David Koresh,  he hijacked the book of Revelation, the book of Revelation allowed him to kill our agents, do what he wanted, rape little girls.

All the groups try to get legitimacy from another cause besides the main hijacking of religion or constitution. Or the Koran. They try to tie their wagon to something that’s legitimate in the public. Let me give you an example. Eric Rudolph. Eric Rudolph wasn’t really about abortion clinics. That’s just a lie. He was a bigot, he had went to the Aryan Nations church in Missouri.

He railed against television, the Jewish interests. But yet, when he writes his public treatise  after he’s arrested, it’s now ‘I was against abortion.’  Now why is he trying to do that? There’s a legitimate debate in America about abortion, about sanctity of life, about whether the government should be involved. That’s why he attacked the gay club, that’s why he attacked the abortion clinic.


Is Obama one of those rallying points for white supremacist groups or has that been overplayed in the media?

It’s really been played a lot in the media. I see it differently. I may be alone on that. He, to me, seems to have changed the country where everybody’s more together. I don’t know if you remember the feeling right after he was elected president; you could go into a store, certainly you saw a person of color, it was just a different feeling. Everybody was walking on air.

That feeling doesn’t help white hate groups recruit. I just don’t think that’s bringing in new blood. I think what’s bringing in new blood is the economy. Three things. The economy, immigration and the Internet. Those are the three legs of the stool for the white hate.

All the hate groups, they hate every president. There’s never been a president they liked. They don’t like any president, because they’re all in charge of the ZOG; the Zionist Occupation Government. I don’t know that it helps their recruiting. But that’s just me.

Are you seeing growth in these groups?
The private research and intelligence anti-hate groups like ADL (Anti-Defamation League) and the Southern Poverty Law Center, they track the groups. They say they’re growing quite a bit. We don’t really do that. We don’t try to track people who just hate. That’s not our mission. We don’t have a like-a-jerk section. You got to violate the law with us.

In the last year or two, have there been any plots that you’ve uncovered that you saw as scary?
We have the one in Tennessee and the skinheads Nazis, we arrested and charged with the plot where they were going to break into gun shops … and they had a plot to shoot 88 school children and then they wanted to go on and attack President elect-Obama.

How serious of the plan was that?
Well,  it’s pending trial so I can’t say much about it. I think there’s more to come out of trial, but I’m kind of limited on that. We did say originally that 88 in the white hate world, is the eighth letter in the alphabet and it means “Heil Hitler.”

Is there one particularly group that’s growing more than others.
It’s sort of sporadic. I guess the good thing is they’ve never been able to ever cement themselves together probably because they’re such a bunch of loons. In the civil rights era, the Klan was very organized. And they could make things happen and make some people get killed and hurt. It was stronger, it had more money, it was more organized. It’s not been that way.

You mentioned David Koresh. Did you work on that case?
Yeah. I was at the shootout there and I talked to Koresh for a week.

What was your impression of him?
Ninety-Nine percent of him thought he was David Koresh but the 1 percent of him really knew he was Vernon Wayne Howell,  just a two-bit thug from the country in Texas. He was raping those little kids, he planned it, nobody was ever going to get away from there. We made a lot of mistakes there, certainly, and walked into an ambush and all that. Nevertheless, he was going to do it no matter what happened and he was going to make it happen. On the phone he used to say, you know Jim I’m 33 and I’m a carpenter (Jesus died at 33). He would never say he was Jesus.

You said you had conversations with him. Did you call him by phone?
We were in the shootout that morning and they fired 13,000 rounds at us that morning in three hours. A lot people don’t know that. They see a little clip on TV and they think that was the shootout. The shootout was three hours. And all these machine guns, they were shooting our wounded on the ground, they were throwing hand grenades out the windows at our agents. It was a brutal thing; I was there in the shootout. I was in the house at the end of the driveway with some long rifle teams and we were watching the compound from there. When the long rifle teams started shooting at the towers, the towers would start shooting back at the walls in the house. We were in  better shape than our guys who were up in the front. They were getting really hurt. We had enough cover. We were all pinned down, we were all shot up.

There really wasn’t any way out. I was a trained negotiator and I called into the compound, during the middle of the shootout. I remember they answered the phone and the guy’s screaming. He said ‘Hello, hello’ and I said ‘This is Jim from ATF and I want to talk to David.’ I found out later it was a pay phone in the hall in the compound, the guy who answered the phone, he just dropped the phone. Of course it was the middle of a shootout, I think he was surprised to be called from ATF.

Anyways, he dropped the phone and he ran. I could hear him running down the hallway and of course all our windows were open. And we’re all shooting. I’m hearing the shooting over the phone and I’m hearing the shooting out the window. It was just sort of a surreal thing and Koresh picks up the phone and he’s screaming. You know, very animated.

‘You got to get off the property, I’m David Koresh, the Lamb of God’.  He was wounded. We had shot him on the side. He was just screaming, sort of out of control. When you’re a negotiator what you’ve got to do is try to drop the emotion, you just talk in a slow voice, a calm voice. You don’t yell back. You try not to hurry. David this is ‘Jim and you know we’re going to have to talk about this. Why don’t you try to calm things down for a minute and stop the shooting and see what we can work out.’

What did he say?
‘No’, of course no. It took a long time. The cease-fire broke off four or five times. We’d agree to a cease-fire and when people started moving they’d open up from the tower and fire a few hundred rounds and we’d fire a few hundred back. We’d try to get the cease-fire again, it was really kind of tough to get it to happen because there were so many people shooting. Anyways, then we negotiated the wounded out. And got the ambulance in there.

And I remember telling him: I said ‘David, here’s what we’re going to do.’ I said: ‘We’re not coming in, but you’re not coming out.’ I said because ‘we’re all over out here.’ Of course we were pretty thin because we’d been shot up so bad. But he didn’t know where we were. I said ‘I’m going to call you back at this number at 2 o’clock. EXACTLY at two o’clock and you need to answer the phone.’ And he said ‘OK’ and so then when we called back at 2 o’clock. We started to negotiate for the children. We got six children out by playing his message on the AM radio. It was about figuring out what he wanted.

He wanted national publicity. He was preaching to us, preaching the Bible, the book of Revelations, it was clearly a need to preach, get his word out.

I remember saying ‘David what if I told you we could get your word out to the whole world.’ ‘Well how could you do that?’ I said ‘Well, what if we could get it put out on the radio?’
‘You can do that?’ I said ‘what if I could?’ He says, ‘yeah’. I said ‘will you send the children out?’ And then he said ‘two by two’; Noah’s Ark, the symbolism of Noah’s Ark. We made an agreement that we’d play this rambling thing that he read to me. ‘I’m the lamb of God.’ It was just a bunch of gibberish and I read it back to him and he agreed that was it. And the Christian radio played it and then we picked up the first two kids and then we played it again, we got two more, and played it again and got two more. We got 21 people out the first week.


This was through your negotiations?

Yeah, the FBI came in that night and the negotiations are never one person, it’s a team. I was the primary negotiator that week on the phone. At night there would be another negotiator, it was teamwork throughout. It’s a law enforcement process, it’s not one person.


Do you look back and wonder whether it could have been done differently by ATF?

Oh yeah, sure. I mean hindsight is always 20-20. And we made plenty mistakes. Of course we were castigated for many of those.

What do you think the biggest mistake was?
The ambush, we just walked into the ambush.

And when the compound burned down?
Oh yeah, that was later. He set it on fire.

Were you there?
I wasn’t there when it burned down. You know he named the place the Ranch Apocalypse. And after it burned down one of the members had come out and told us that they had practiced lining all the cars up in front of the compound before we ever went there with this group — Koresh’s sort of elite bodyguard he called the Mighty Men, which was eight or 12 of the top  men, and they would practice running out and jumping in these cars with rifles, and their plan was to go to the McDonald’s in Waco and kill everyone and come back to the compound so law enforcement would have to come.

Because it was Ranch Apocalypse. He was 33. So he was going to fulfill the destiny. You know, we just interrupted the destiny. There was a lot of anti-ATF sentiment in Washington at the time.

That was an era when we got the brunt of a lot of that because we enforce the gun laws. So all the lunatics, they’ve got to have their bombs and machine guns, so obviously they’re not going to like us. So there was that. That was the era where there was an NRA advertisement in a Washington newspaper, a full page, claiming ATF was jackbooted thugs. That caused President Bush 41 to resign from the NRA. The NRA later apologized.

What are some of other things you’ve dealt with?
Gun traffic. Last week we charged a solider from Fort Campbell with stealing an anti-tank rocket and four hand grenades. He wanted money for it. A long rocket will penetrate one foot of steel and two feet of reinforced concrete. Also last week we did a gun trafficking case (tied) to Guatemala where we indicted five people. One of them was a Metropolitan Nashville police officer. We identified two drug cartels that they were going to.


Does it hit a nerve when you’ve got a law enforcement officer involved in gun trafficking?

Oh yeah, that always hurts. That hurts everybody. It just makes us sick to see it. The metropolitan police were working with us on the case. When it surfaced,  I talked to the chief. Of course they’re a 1,000 percent with you on that. They don’t want the guy in their department.

We have arsons, church arsons. We did a bombing last month, a remote-control bomb put on a car in Alabama. The bombers actually tracked the victims with a GPS tracker and they were hired killers. They detonated the bomb, remote control.

Did they kill him?
No, the guy’s the luckiest guy in the world. Serious injury.  A  hole was blown right through the bottom of the truck under his seat.

What was the motive?
Sort of narcotics-involved and a whole lot of intrigue.
But we were able to catch them in about a week. We charged two men in that case, making the bomb, planting the bomb.

Do you feel some of the anti-government sentiments in some parts where you are?
I think it’s picking up a lot.

Are you seeing any difference in guns out there?
The guns haven’t changed much

Has the price changed much?
A good quality handgun still cost you $500 to $800, could be even a little more or less. When you have drug cartels involved, they have so much money that they’ll pay for any gun. They want high-end guns. Sexy guns, camouflage painted guns, guns with laser sites. These guys aren’t looking for a cheap throw-down Saturday night special as we used to call them.

What are some of the other interesting cases you’ve come across?
I was the original case agent on Unabomber when he sent a bomb to Vanderbilt University in 1982. I was involved in that case on and off for all those years.

Did you ever think they’d solve it?

Like an FBI friend said one time, if he was an only child, he’d still be out there because his brother gave us the letter.

About the D.C. sniper case. Did you think from the very beginning that there was a white box truck they should be looking for when in fact the real car was totally different?

I think when you go back and look at some of the public statements that were made by the leadership there, you’ll find many times there was the caveat given publicly; Don’t just center on the white truck. Once it’s out in the world, it’s hard to make anybody realize that.

Talk about some other things we did wrong with the sniper. When the man was shot down there in Virginia at the steak house, there was a note found in the tree. And of course we went into the American police forensic mode. And now without being sarcastic here, but we put on a moon suit and eight pair of gloves and we go take this letter at 6 a.m. and we take it to the lab because we’re going to get DNA and fingerprints and we’re going to get all this microscopic evidence and when we open it up at 10 a.m.,  it says ‘I’m going to call this pay phone at 8 o clock. And you better be there or there’s going to be more bodies.’

So by us going into our paradigm of CSI, we missed the message. Luckily they didn’t kill anybody in the meantime. What we then did, was once we got the letter, we crafted a public message, we wanted to talk to the sniper, get the message out.

If you put the phone number out — we were getting 15,000 tips a day — you’re going to get people calling from Belgium saying ‘I’m the sniper.’ So the way we did it, we crafted a careful message that said ‘call us on the phone number that you provided.’ Then we knew that only us and the sniper knew it.

There were so many agencies out there working the case, there was so much information circulating,  good and bad. Was it a hindrance or did it work well?
It was a like a war. Information is flowing everywhere. What you’re trying to do is make organization out of chaos.

I still think it’s a miracle we were able to catch these guys in 3½ weeks. I mean these guys were two ghosts floating around the capital area. They had no connection to any of the victims. A stranger-murder is the hardest murder to solve. Most homicides, there’s some connection.

Was it also a little harder since most assumed it was an ex-military white guy?
No, it didn’t hurt us because what we did at the command desk there, we worked from a foundation of facts. It’s OK to speculate in your investigation, in fact I would say it’s a requirement. If you don’t speculate you’ll never get ahead of the criminal. You’ve got to know  where the foundation of facts are. You can’t ever leave those.

The church fires in 2005 down in Alabama, tell me about those?
The church fires in 2005, there were about a dozen churches burned in the region at the time, black and white. Of course the black community was all upset because they thought the Klansmen were back. Who wound up doing it were these three college student who were drunk.  The motive in the first five fires was thrill. And then when we put the big command post investigative team out,  they tried to throw us off so they drove 120 miles away and burned another four churches. The only problem is when we saw that, the first thing we thought was they’re trying to displace us.

Why?
Just the way it was. They were trying to put us off the trail. We were able to catch them. We did that through some vehicles and some tire tracks. We actually matched the tire tracks we plastered in the mud to the tires.  We set a thousand leads to that case. And we were cross-referencing the vehicles and the tires and the tire shops.

It got down to really just no phone call, just exploiting the evidence, the manpower. We pulled out all the tire store. We already had thousands of vehicles in the data base and we were sending agents. If you owned a dark-colored SUV in this 12 county area, the feds were coming over with a deputy sheriff or a state trooper and they were going to ask you where you were. Who are you? Where you been? We were just going to eliminate the thousands we had if we had to.

And then we were able to manipulate the plaster cast on the tire, we were able to actually identify the tire. So we went to the tire plant and we said, ‘OK, exactly what is this tire?’ And we said ‘OK, and can you tell  us how worn it is?’ And they were able to tell us how much by the tread depth. So we were able to get an approximate age, we knew the type. So then we identified 120 tire stores. So while we had these thousands of leads on vehicles, we had leads on tire stores, we also had many leads on tips, citizens calling in, he did it, she did it. We had people confess to it.

But then we sent a team to one of the tire stores. Our orders were, if you hit on a dark-colored SUV that bought this tire, the first thing you’ve got to do is call into the command post and have intelligence run that against our data. So this team, a state fire marshal and an ATF agent go to a tire store, they hit on the tire. They call it into the command post in Tuscaloosa, and they say, Hhey we’ve got this tire, it was purchased by this man.’  When the intelligence agent puts it in the computer, hey that SUV lead, that man’s name is in here. Well, we went to the house, it was a doctor’s house.

And we talk to the parents and we asked them about the car and they said ‘Well, our son drives that.’ They called him on the phone and when she said there are some ATF agents here, he just hung up. And he was very abrupt.

What did the parents do?
They were scared. They were very helpful but they were scared. Then we went to the college and got the players involved. Of course we had the evidence. Got some statements. We got them all convicted. Of course they’re all in prison now. Most got seven to 10 or 11 years.

In the late ’90s when we had the big church burning episode,  I had like 55 of those in Alabama, Mississippi. I can remember going to churches driving all night to get to a burned out church in Mississippi. It was the same pastor who the Klan had burned that same church in the ’60s. The same pastor. That was in ’95, ’96.

What did the pastor say?
Well, he was kind of a little standoffish from the police. I mean this happened when the Klan burned it in ’63. The police were members of Klan in ’63 and you weren’t getting much help in the community. I remember saying to him — he was every bit the gentleman — but he was very reluctant to speak with us; I said ‘look we’re here for you. We’re your police,’ and he was a little unsure.

I remember saying ‘I don’t care if a thug down the street did it, the mayor did it or the grand wizard did it, we’re going to catch him and he needs to go to jail.’ And when I said that, I remember he just sort of turned slowly and kind of like (motioned with his hand) and we walked together. You can understand that. We were able to make a lot of arrests in those cases. I had about 55 in my two states, but there were hundreds around the country over two, three years.

The motive?
They were mixed. In South Carolina, the grand wizard had conspired with the Klan to burn churches there.


Were these all black churches?

It was mostly black churches, there were some white churches, there were some mixed congregations. We had bigoted motives, individual bigots, we had volunteer firemen, we had arson to cover burglary, we had embezzlement. It was any and everything. The devil worshiper, one of them had traveled from Indiana through Tennessee and Alabama and Georgia. I think he was convicted of burning more than 50. You had all kinds of motives.

After all this time in the business, have you been able to get a better understanding of the criminal mind?
We don’t fancy ourselves as psychologists, but we do like to go with what we’ve seen in the past behavior. Human beings are limited by gravity, physics, oxygen, and we like to make them sort of super criminals, super beings, but they’re as limited as the police in what they can do. There’s sort of a logic maybe in trying to get ahead of them. You’ve got to be thinking where are they going to be next.

One last question: When you look back at your career, what do you think?
It’s been a great career, it’s been interesting. Sad. Fun. Challenging. I don’t know how I would have done it differently. It’s been good.

How the Fed’s Case Against a Suspected LA Gangster Imploded After Convicting Him on 50-Plus Counts

George Torres/la city beat photo
George Torres/la city beat photo

By Jeffrey Anderson
For ticklethewire.com

The defense lawyer for accused racketeer George Torres smelled blood. Torres, a self-made grocery store magnate and suspected drug kingpin, who was both feared and revered in the barrios of South Los Angeles, was on trial in federal court.

Prosecution witnesses were lined up waiting to testify that he was a brutal gangster, who exploited immigrants, cheated on his taxes and ordered gangland murders.

Yet at the trial in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles in April it was Torres’ attorney, Steven Madison, a former federal prosecutor, who went on the offensive, insisting that a rogue L.A. detective had a vendetta against his client.

The detective, Greg Kading, was making promises and threats to witnesses and withholding evidence from the defense in his zeal to see Torres convicted, Madison argued.

U.S. District Judge Stephen Wilson had made no effort to hide his disdain for the government’s case that finally came to fruition after 20 years of failed drug investigations of one of Los Angeles’ most elusive underworld figures.

Still, on April 20, the jury delivered a resounding victory for the prosecution, convicting Torres on 50-plus counts including two of the most critical ones: RICO counts (Racketeering Influenced And Corrupt Organizations Act) that involved criminal conspiracy and solicitation of murder.

In June, within two months of the verdict, the case unraveled and became a growing embarrassment for the U.S. Attorney’s office. The government voluntarily dismissed the two major RICO counts after serious flaws in the case were exposed.

Judge Wilson ordered Torres released from prison, where he had been held without bail since his arrest in June 2007.  And Torres decided to sell  his grocery chain to an L.A. based equity firm with a Houston partner, according to the L.A. Business Journal.

Last month, the judge delivered the final blow to the prosecution in a blistering 147-page order: “The court is disturbed by the conduct in this case,” he wrote of the government’s handling of key witnesses involving a pair of murders allegedly directed by Torres. He then ordered a new trial on remaining tax and bribery counts for Torres, whom the government was never able to catch with drugs or drug money.

“The Court finds it likely that the jury could have been improperly influenced by the subtext of the entire case, which was that George Torres was somehow involved in drug-trafficking,” Wilson wrote in his September 18 order.

Now, despite a jury verdict that once threatened to put him away for life, Torres, a fruit truck operator turned owner of the multi-million dollar Numero Uno supermarket chain and vast swaths of real estate, is a free man.

The case is perhaps another cautionary tale of how complex cases can go so wrong for a U.S. Attorney’s Office.

But the big question is: How did this one implode?

The Los Angeles media followed Madison’s lead and blamed L.A.P.D. Det. Greg Kading, the lead investigator on the case. The reality is far more complicated: a perfect storm of questionable witnesses, fallible detectives and a bold strategy advanced by Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy Searight, who succumbed to an unusually assertive and skeptical judge.

The outcome has been a clear embarrassment for the U.S. Attorney’s Office and tarnished both Kading, who was dropped from the DEA task force, and Searight, chief of his offices’ narcotics division, who was replaced on the case by a superior.

Neither Searight nor Kading would comment for this story. The U.S. Attorney’s Office says it is prepared to re-try Torres on the non-RICO counts.

Torres’ attorney Robert Eisfelder remarked: “We’re extremely grateful for the time and effort the court put into this opinion.”

For decades, law enforcers suspected Torres as a drug kingpin with ties to the Sinaloa Cartel, a Mexican organization known to have tentacles in Southern California.

Unsolved murders in the graffiti-scarred area around his flagship Numero Uno supermarket in South Los Angeles, along with an eerie deference by the locals, caused L.A. homicide detectives to regard him as a dangerous man.

Torres’ tendency to use coded language over the phone when talking to associates who were major drug traffickers, his preference to meet them to talk in person, and his use of a Puerto Rican bank known for its lack of cooperation with government investigations convinced drug investigators that he was a kingpin.

A father of five with a wife and a female companion who both bear his last name, Torres also earned a reputation for hard work, good customer service and fair prices at his 11-store chain of supermarkets, which he launched in the early 1980s.Until his indictment he perhaps was best known as the real estate partner of Horacio Vignali, father of Carlos Vignali, a drug dealer set free by President Clinton in the 2000 Pardongate scandal.

Torres’ indictment in 2007 on RICO charges stemmed from wiretap investigations in 1998 and 2004 of two associates and drug dealers, Derrick “Bo-D” Smith and Raul Del Raul.

The two were serving lengthy sentences for drug trafficking when they agreed to testify against Torres, who Del Real referred to as “boss,” even though Del Real never worked at Numero Uno. Del Real, Smith and others would finger Torres during trial in three unsolved murders in South L.A.

But while the 2004 wiretap investigation aimed to prove Torres was involved with Del Real’s violent drug trafficking conspiracy, which extended from Mexico to the East Coast, a tap of Torres’ phone yielded evidence of other crimes. Still, investigators never seized drugs or drug money in the case.

In February, during a pretrial hearing, Judge Wilson remarked: “It’s been pretty clear to me that the government’s strategy is to try a drugless drug case. Why wouldn’t a jury who is not deaf and dumb figure that out?”

At trial, Searight decided not to focus in on Torres as drug kingpin. Instead, he embraced the idea of him as a racketeer, a man who ran his supermarkets as a criminal enterprise in which he extorted money from helpless immigrants, bribed public officials and hired drug dealers to intimidate and sometimes kill those who crossed him.

The theory was fraught from the start. Judge Wilson distrusted the government’s use of the criminal RICO statute, which was enacted in the 1970s to disrupt the activities of the Mafia. By the time the case went to trial in March, the judge put Searight on notice that he was going to watch the government like a hawk.

During the trial the judge ended up suppressing evidence, throwing out some counts and accusing L.A. Det. Kading of acting with “reckless disregard for the truth” by misquoting conversations from a wiretap on Torres’ phone in a search warrant affidavit.

Seizing on the judge’s disdain, defense attorney Madison hammered away at Detective Kading’s credibility. Tapes of jailhouse conversations showed Kading resorting to inducements and threats to keep in line star witnesses and convicted drug dealers Del Real, who was serving 14 years and Smith, who was serving 24-years.

One call showed Kading offering to help Del Real’s brother stay out of trouble with the police. Another made it look as if Kading was supplying the answers to questions for Smith to say yes to.

Madison also complained of evidence that had not been turned over, such as police logs of witness interviews. He accused Kading of being obsessed with destroying Torres, and with bribing witnesses to corroborate a phony story.

The jurors didn’t buy it, convicting on more than 50 felonies that included Torres ordering the murder of an L.A. gang member named Jose “Shorty” Maldonando, who had tried to extort a tax from him. They acquitted him on one of the serious RICO counts involving the murder of Torres’ former right hand man Ignacio Meza.

Then Madison really went to work, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office saw its case come apart at the seams.

After the trial, Madison asked Judge Wilson to toss the verdict on grounds that Kading had tainted the entire case with lawless tactics. Madison turned up more tapes of jailhouse conversations that the government had not previously disclosed involving Kading, drug dealers Smith and Del Real, and other informants.

The tapes showed Detective Kading reminding one witness that he could face charges for other crimes if he refused to testify against Torres. The tapes also showed that Del Real and Smith expected early release and perhaps financial gain for testifying against Torres. No such deals could be confirmed.

Madison also discovered that Los Angeles defense attorney Wayne Higgins, a lawyer for Smith, allegedly received a free navigational system from a used car salesman with Kading’s help. Higgins had no comment.

Under the landmark 1963 U.S. Supreme Court case Brady v. Maryland, a failure to turn over such information – on the part of the prosecutor – can be grounds for a new trial or dismissal if the information is favorable to the defendant and may have prejudiced the outcome of the case.

On June 9, Wilson ordered Torres released from prison, after the U.S. Attorney’s Office dismissed the RICO case against Torres.

“Torres is clearly entitled to a new trial,” Thom Mrozek, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office told reporters at the time. “And after a review of the totality of the case we decided not to pursue the RICO case any further.”

Madison moved in for the kill, arguing that “inflammatory” racketeering evidence tainted the jury in weighing the remaining bribery and tax counts, and asking the judge to dismiss the entire case.

While the judge in his lengthy September order manages to deny most of the defense requests, he also manages to drive a stake through the heart of the United States v. Torres. And he reserves his harshest comment for federal prosecutor Searight:

“A prosecutor who does not appreciate the perils of using rewarded criminals as witnesses risks compromising the truth-seeking mission of our criminal justice system.”

Wilson ordered the new trial for the remaining non-RICO charges primarily on the spillover effect – essentially that the questionable RICO charges had tainted the other charges.

He also said the non-RICO guilty verdicts against Torres on tax, harboring illegal immigrants and bribery were based on a “weak” case and bolstered by witnesses who were “not credible” because they had not been prosecuted for their part in Torres’ tax crimes.

In issuing his order, the judge clearly had little regard or respect for the jury’s judgment. Many of his findings are prefaced with the words “No reasonable juror could conclude …” He questioned whether jurors were paying attention, or blinded by the lurid details and hardened witnesses from Torres’ inner circle.

“The jury was undoubtedly given the impression that George Torres was an unsavory character in light of his longtime friendship and associations with these despicable human beings,” Wilson wrote.

Of such a thorough undoing of such an overwhelming guilty verdict, veteran defense attorney Mike Stone, a lawyer for Detective Kading said, “I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a case go like this.”

Asked why he thought the government dismissed the RICO counts without a fight Stone said, “I don’t think they’d have rolled over like that if they didn’t think they had a chance of keeping the other counts.”

Judge Wilson wondered the same, and speculated in his order: “Perhaps [the prosecution] concluded they could not proceed in good faith. If they had dismissed the RICO sooner, Torres would’ve enjoyed a trial that was free from the spillover prejudice of the RICO counts. Because of the government’s own failures, however, this information was not revealed until after the trial began.”

Defense attorney Steven Madison thinks he knows why the government caved. “My sense is that the government has concluded it cannot trust Kading,” he said in June, after the government dropped the meat of its case. “Searight relied on an unreliable guy.”

Madison’s focus on Detective Kading as the scapegoat in the case may have been unfair considering there were other investigators who failed to disclose certain conversations they had during the probe.

Veteran investigators familiar with the case are displeased with the way Kading has been dragged through the mud.

Speaking on background, a number of law enforcers said that Searight was cowed by the judge and was not aggressive in refuting the defense’s broadside attacks against Kading. Several said that Searight should have made sure that all Brady information was turned over to the defense.

Others see Judge Wilson as the wildcard. “A good defense attorney is going to sense a sympathetic judge and argue every technicality he can,” says a federal prosecutor familiar with the Torres case. “Federal judges are powerful. Maybe Wilson was stunned by the jury verdict. Judges can’t control jury deliberations but they control post-trial motions.”

The veteran prosecutor concedes, “It is virtually impossible to control every asset or agent in a case, and sometimes the cumulative effect can look bad.”

Not to mention the value of a stellar defender who appreciates when conditions are ripe for upheaval: “Madison kept pushing to see how far he could go in taking apart the case,” the veteran prosecutor says, “and he went pretty far.”

Read Previous stories on Torres by Jeffrey Anderson

Los Angeles City Beat (2/18/09)

Pasadena Weekly (4/2/09)

LA Weekly (6/14/07)

Read the Judge’s Ruling