Prosecutors are dropping or reducing felony drug charges against more than a dozen people who bought Oxycontin from an undercover detective, after learning that the police informant who set up the drug deals had sex with some of the defendants.
Defense attorneys claim the informant had more than just sex with their clients. They say he lavished them with gifts, dinners, drinks and took one on a vacation — allegations that the informant denies — before luring them into buying drugs from police.
The informant crossed ethical and legal boundaries in what is already a murky world, defense attorneys say, where people involved in the drug trade work with undercover officers in seedy bars and strip clubs to target both sellers and buyers of drugs.
Among the issues raised:
‒ Having sex with the suspects in the cases constitutes entrapment and violates the defendants’ due process rights, according to Florida case law cited by defense lawyers. Also, any sexual relationship between an informant and a target violates the rules of nearly every law enforcement agency, federal, state or local. The informant admitted in interviews with the Herald-Tribune that he had oral sex with several of the women before he convinced them to arrange drug buys between dealers and undercover officers.
‒ Defense attorneys say the informant, a married father of two from Charlotte County, spent taxpayer money on drinks, lap dances and food to lure in dancers from strip clubs who he then convinced to aid him in setting up drug buys for detectives.
‒ The informant says the Sarasota Police Department detective assigned to monitor his activity, Robert Armstrong, never asked whether he was having sex with the targets.
‒ Department to stop using the informant. They are now “mitigating” the criminal cases, says Assistant State Attorney Earl Varn.
“Initially, the allegation was he was engaging in sex acts with targeted individuals,” Varn said. “That was brought to our attention, we started looking at that, trying to determine whether to substantiate it or not. There was enough info to determine to stop using this guy. Based on the info we had, we said no more, don’t use this guy.”
As to the actions his office took on individual cases, Varn said, “Some have been dismissed. Some are mitigated. Some targets have been involved in other criminal activity too. We’re working with defense attorneys or we’re in the process of doing that.”
Most informants agree to work with the police to reduce criminal charges related to an arrest. Confidential Informant #1528 volunteered for undercover work. He says he found it exciting.
The Herald-Tribune is withholding the informant’s name because of concerns for the safety of his family.
Fourteen people — eight women and six men — were charged with drug trafficking and other felonies as a result of his investigative work. Eight people are scheduled for trial, three pleaded guilty, one had charges dismissed and two are awaiting sentencing.
Attorneys for three of the women have raised an entrapment defense because of the sexual allegations.
Sarasota attorney Liane McCurry maintains that her client’s federal due process rights were violated because of “egregious police misconduct,” which she says allowed the informant to have sex with the defendants, take advantage of their weakness, and then coerce them into buying pills, court records show.
“This was not an isolated incident involving this confidential informant, but an ongoing and systemic use of the CI, who had a method of targeting people who were not engaged in criminal conduct, who law enforcement did not know or investigate to determine if they were involved in criminal activity,” McCurry said. “The CI targeted women after he’d been in a relationship with them for weeks if not months, after the women were dependent upon him.”
After being paid $4,025, usually $325 per arrest, for the two and a half years he worked with the department, the informant has since been disavowed by Sarasota police. He says Det. Armstrong, his former handler, empathized but offered little help.
“The music stopped. They all grabbed chairs, and I’m the last man standing,” the informant told the Herald-Tribune.
Sarasota Police Lt. Pat Ledwith, who oversees the Vice and Narcotics unit, says none of the women told their arresting officers they had sex with the CI.
“I can’t say whether this informant had sex with the targets. I’ve asked him personally and he tells me no,” Ledwith said. “If the allegations are true, we certainly didn’t instruct the CI to do that, nor would we condone that type of behavior.”
The informant, who told the Herald-Tribune that he did have sex with several of his targets, admitted that he did not disclose that when questioned by Ledwith.
“I did not have intercourse. I had oral sex, with a condom, with several, maybe three out of the women, some fondling, no kissing,” he said. “I never paid. They assumed it was some type of favor.”
The informant said he never lied to Armstrong about the sex: “He never asked. It took place over a year’s time. The oral may have been eight months prior to the deal.”
This is not the first time he had worked with law enforcement.
The informant was referred to the Sarasota Police Department by the Drug Enforcement Administration. He worked for a DEA task force in Lee County in 2008, where his participation led to several arrests. But he said that relationship was not a good fit.
“The DEA does these long-term investigations, that can take years,” he said. “My stuff is more quick-hit.”
The informant began working for Armstrong in October 2009. Lt. Ledwith said his background was checked and police found several arrests but just one conviction, for driving on a suspended license.
Before the police signed him up as an informant, the man had been arrested on a felony charge and lost his job at a local school after a girl alleged he had pressured her for sex. She said she refused his advances, prosecutors declined to file charges, and the case has since been expunged.
That same month, Sarasota County Sheriff’s deputies arrested the informant for violating a temporary protection order related to the case.
These charges too were later dropped.
The informant said he began his undercover work at a house on Siesta Key.
“I was hanging out there, constantly writing things down, making my connections,” he said. “Everyone around just assumed I was in the loop, on their side. Just spending my time there I got to know the who’s who of the drug world of meth, coke, crack and prescription drugs.”
His goal was to have the suspects contact Det. Armstrong on a special cell phone reserved solely for targets, and buy pills, known as “beans,” from the undercover officer.
“He’d stress over and over again they had to be a dealer,” the CI said. “If someone just used — was an addict — don’t take them.”
What troubles McCurry and other defense attorneys is that the informant was allowed to choose his own targets, such as her client, Janis Williams.
In a sworn deposition, Det. Armstrong told McCurry that Williams was unknown to his department.
“So all the information came from him?” McCurry asked, referring to the informant.
“Yep,” Armstrong replied.
Williams was arrested in February 2011 and charged with trafficking Oxycodone.
According to her sworn affidavit, she danced at two strip clubs in Manatee County, and struggled with depression and an Oxycontin addiction.
Williams said the informant sought her out whenever he came to the clubs, and tried to engage in a sexual relationship, which the 29-year-old dancer said she initially refused.
She says the informant lavished her with gifts, including meals, drinks, flowers and a vacation to Orlando, claims the informant denies.
Williams said the informant suggested they go on vacation to Puerto Rico, but only if she would pay some of the costs.
The dancer refused to buy the drugs for several months. A cocaine deal that she was supposed to have arranged with a buyer from one of the clubs fell through, she said in a deposition.
After the cocaine deal fizzled, Williams said the informant began pestering her to arrange an Oxycontin deal. She eventually found a buyer, Marcus Smalls, her co-defendant in the drug trafficking case.
On Feb. 8, 2011, Williams drove Smalls to a parking lot on Beneva Road in Sarasota, thinking she was going to meet with the informant’s brother.
She handed Det. Armstrong $3,250 for 500 pills of Oxycodone for Smalls. Armstrong gave her $250 and 20 pills for brokering the deal. A police team swooped in. She and Smalls were arrested.
The informant defended his choice of targets.
“These are not the cream of our society,” he said of Williams and other targets. “These are drug dealers. I never pressured or yelled at anyone. The lure of money enticed them.”
Williams admitted her addiction, but told her attorney, McCurry, she was not a dealer. She also said she had intercourse with the informant frequently during the months before her arrest.
Williams is serving a five-year sentence at the Gadsden Correctional Institution, near the Florida-Georgia state line, after taking a plea deal in the case that the informant helped build against her.
Sarasota Police are no longer using CI #1528, but he is still on their rolls. Lt. Ledwith said he has not been officially “deactivated” as a confidential informant.
“At this point, we have an issue where someone is saying one thing, and he’s saying another,” Ledwith said.
Reverse stings, when police sell pills to suspects and then arrest them for trafficking, are good for the community, Ledwith said.
“They’re keeping pills off the street. These pills eventually go to dealers,” he said. “They’re going to get the pills from somewhere. We’re getting the dealers off the street.”
Ledwith said there are no allegations that any other informant has had sex with a defendant.
Det. Armstrong, who according to Ledwith works with two or three active informants, declined to comment.
CI #1528 says he regrets his decision to work for Sarasota police.
“I was working out of someplace away from my home,” he said. “This is encroaching on my family now. I did something good for society here. I felt as if I did something good.”
But what can you do to stop snitches? Control of Information so you can stop snitching on yourself. Also: SNITCHES pictures and locations and 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