By Mike Carter
The four law-enforcement agencies that make up the Cowlitz-Wahkiakum Narcotics Task Force have agreed to pay the parents of a dead confidential informant $375,000 to settle a lawsuit alleging detectives failed to protect their son after they used him to snare a local heroin dealer.
Jeremy McLean, 26, was a small-time drug dealer and user who agreed to work for the task force in 2006 to avoid drug charges of his own. He was killed Dec. 29, 2008, in a Longview trailer home by William Vance Reagan Jr., a heroin dealer who had been arrested by task-force detectives after McLean — working undercover and wearing a wire — bought drugs from him.
Reagan, who pleaded guilty to the killing in 2009 and was sentenced to life in prison without parole, told a Cowlitz County judge he had an associate lure McLean to the trailer, according to news reports of court proceedings.
When McLean arrived, Reagan — who was out of jail on bond — said he came out of a bathroom with a .22-caliber handgun and shot McLean three times in the head and once in the face.
McLean’s parents, Shelly and Mitchell McLean, filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Tacoma in 2011 alleging that police did nothing to protect their son even though Reagan had told several people that he intended to kill McLean after concluding he was an informant.
It was not a difficult conclusion to reach, the lawsuit alleges, since police had repeatedly used McLean to conduct “buy-bust” operations, exposing him as an informant to an ever-widening circle of drug dealers and users.
Police, in court documents, say detectives warned McLean to keep a low profile and offered to help him leave town, but he refused.
Terry Mulligan, the director of the Cowlitz County public defender’s office, said he doesn’t know enough about the task force program to “have any opinion as far as how they handle people or how they should handle people.”
Yet, he said, “The fact of the matter is, becoming a snitch is dangerous, and I tell my clients that. Of course, I don’t have to tell them — they’re usually the ones telling me that it’s dangerous.”
For example, Mulligan, who represents Reagan, said during Reagan’s sentencing hearing last month: “Another individual working for the task force was shot on one occasion and kidnapped and held at gunpoint on another. Working with the task force is dangerous business, and that’s not something that Mr. Reagan created.”
Court records say an informant helped the task force arrest Reagan, 52, and his live-in girlfriend, Victoria Louise Gatti, 47, last summer. The records identify the confidential informant only as “CI,” but the prosecutor’s office acknowledged last month that the informant was Jeremy McLean.
Authorities and the McLean family have declined to say how Jeremy McLean came to work as a confidential informant for the task force.
Most informants, Mahoney said, “come to us and volunteer information. We rarely recruit.” Many, he said, are facing their own drug charges and “help investigators in hopes of mitigating their punishment.”
The court documents say Jeremy met with detectives several times in June, July and August to help bust Reagan and Gatti. The detectives searched Jeremy, gave him “pre-recorded buy money” and then watched as he bought heroin from either Reagan or Gatti, the documents said. Jeremy then returned to the task force agents and handed over the drugs.
Reagan and Gatti were arrested on suspicion of delivery of heroin Aug. 20. Authorities say Jeremy was scheduled to testify against them in their drug trials in January.
It’s still unclear how Reagan and Gatti learned that Jeremy had set them up. John Hays, a Longview defense attorney who knows the McLean family, said it’s easy for defendants to figure out who snitched on them through the discovery process as they prepare for trial. (The Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution gives defendants the right to confront their accusers in court.)
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However he found out, McLean’s family said, Reagan immediately began threatening Jeremy. The night he bailed out of jail, Reagan called Jeremy’s mother, Shelly McLean, and said Jeremy should fear for his life, according to McLean’s friends and family.
On another occasion, one of Reagan’s friends called Jeremy saying he had a job for him, which was clearly a lie, Mitch McLean said.
Another man tried to warn Jeremy that he was in danger, Mitch McLean said. The man, according to Jeremy’s father, said Reagan was offering people money to lure Jeremy into the woods.
The threats were reported to the Cowlitz-Wahkiakum Narcotics Task Force, Mitch McLean said. A task force agent, he said, told the family that no crime had been committed and dismissed the threats as “hearsay.”
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“The police kept reassuring me he wasn’t in danger,” he said. “Immediately they should have dispatched the officer to come over and talk with Jeremy, verify the phone calls, go out and make contact with the people that were trying to lure Jeremy into the woods.”
Authorities should have “put him in some kind of protective custody if need be,” Mitch McLean said. “To say, ‘Don’t worry, these people are harmless, it’s just hearsay’ — that’s just kind of sweeping it under the rug.”
Jeremy’s father and sister said they are still waiting for the task force to explain what went wrong. Agents, they said, won’t return the family’s phone calls.
Mitch McLean said he does not plan to file a civil liability suit against the narcotics task force. Rather, he said, Jeremy’s family members have decided to focus on ensuring that the people who killed Jeremy are “brought to justice.” In addition, Mitch McLean said his frustration is targeted at the narcotics task force, not the sheriff’s detectives who have been investigating Jeremy’s murder.
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“They have been impressive,” he said of the homicide detectives. “They’ve done an awesome job investigating this and they’re not giving up. … I only wish they were the ones handling the task force. If they handled the task force the way they handled the murder investigation, none of this would have ever happened.”
Sheriff Mahoney declined to discuss in detail measures that are taken to protect confidential informants. In his written statement to the newspaper, he said: “Law enforcement has a very, very limited ability to protect people who choose to be involved in the very dangerous world of drug dealing.”
Detectives discuss the risks with informants, Mahoney said, and many already know the dangers. Each informant, he said, signs an agreement acknowledging “the risks of his involvement.”
Tod Burke, a former Maryland cop and professor of criminal justice at Radford University in Virginia, said confidential informants are not part of a witness protection program. “It’s TV stuff that you’re going to have 24-hour protection,” he said. “That’s not realistic.”
Still, there are some measures police can take to protect their sources. Cameron Campbell, an Oregon police academy instructor, said that when he was a cop he would sometimes get a group of people together, load an informant’s furniture in a truck and “help them move out of town.”
Campbell, who is the director of training for the Oregon Department of Public Safety Standards and Training, said he is reluctant to “Monday morning quarterback somebody’s active case.” But, he said, he advises his students to “assess the threat” if they believe an informant is in danger. If the threat is credible, he said, “they need to bring that to the attention of a supervisor.”
‘Scared for his life’
As the intimidation continued in the months leading up his murder, Jeremy McLean became frightened, his father said. He spent more time around the house and avoided “going off by himself.”
It had become clear that the police weren’t going to help Jeremy, Mitch McLean said.
“He was obviously scared for his life,” he said. “It wasn’t so much what he said as how he was behaving, just like he was in fear. He was always very concerned.”
A fisherman found Jeremy McLean’s body on the morning of New Year’s Eve along the Columbia River in Willow Grove County Park.
“Shelly and I knew exactly what happened and who murdered our son,” Mitch McLean said.
Authorities said that on Dec. 29, a still-unnamed accomplice lured Jeremy to a motor home where Reagan was hiding in a closet with a .22-caliber pistol. When Jeremy, paranoid after enduring months of threats, checked behind the closet door, Reagan leaped out and shot him three times in the top and back of the head.
As Jeremy lay on the floor, still breathing, Reagan shot him once more, then pitched his body into the Columbia River, according to court documents.
Reagan pleaded guilty to aggravated murder last month and will spend the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of parole. Gatti, his girlfriend, has been formally charged with helping Reagan cover his tracks following the shooting, and the prosecutor’s office said she may face additional charges related to the murder. Police continue to round up additional suspects who are thought to be Reagan’s and Gatti’s co-conspirators.
“I have never, ever in my life experienced such horror,” Mitch McLean said. “I would not wish that pain on any man. When I received the phone call that my son was missing and then (was) told two days later that they had found him dead, there’s nothing anybody can ever do that would bring any more pain than that.”
“Obviously I’m angry that I’ve lost my son,” he continued. “I’m angry that I couldn’t have done something to stop this from happening. I’m very upset with the way they handled it.”
But what can you do to stop snitches? Here’s a list of snitches with pictures and locations. Also read: Control of Information so you can stop snitching on yourself. Also: How to find out who’s a snitch and 10 Ways to Spot an Informant and How the cops are tracking you and No Warrant No Problem and Criminal defenses (How to beat your court case) And to inspire you: 7 Fugitives who Became Folk Heroes, How I Lost my friends