Playboy Article on Local Corruption

Chuck Metcalf







Local Corruption Case involving retired Richland County Deputy?



Geneva France remembers vividly the day a task force of federal narcotics agents came pounding at her front door. It was six A.M. and she was about to get her kids ready for school. Her third child, 21 months old, was barely out of the crib. Once she woke the kids and sent them off, France would head to her part-time job at a nursing home, where she emptied bedpans and cleaned and fed old people for a living. Just 22 years old, an African American single mother struggling to raise three children on a subsistence income, she had a difficult enough life without a swarm of lawmen arriving at her house.“It’s the sheriff ’s department. Open the door or we’ll kick it in.” France opened the door. A stream of cops flooded through, in uniform and carrying guns. They fanned out around the house, opening drawers and turning everything upside down.“They went rambling,” France recalls. “They weren’t searching for anything in particular, so I didn’t know why they were there until one of the officers asked me, ‘Where are the drugs?’ ” “Drugs?” she said. “What drugs?”A female cop made her stand against the wall and spread her legs. France was searched, cuffed and told, “We’re taking you in.” “One of those officers threw my baby on the sofa, and the baby started crying. The female officer said, ‘We’re taking your kids to child welfare.’ I said, ‘The hell you are.’ ”Luckily for France, her sister Natasha was there. Natasha lived at the residence and was 18, old enough to serve as legal guardian.She missed school that day to stay with the kids so they would not be seized by the government.

No one told France what she was being charged with. She was led out into the predawn darkness, loaded into a sheriff ’s car, driven to a holding cell 70 miles away in Cleveland, booked, photographed, fingerprinted and shuffled off to arraignment court. “I was more shocked than frightened,” she says. “I remember thinking, This will all be over soon. They made some kind of mistake. They gonna have to let me go.” France had no way of knowing, but her long nightmare had only begun. She had become a small fish caught in a big net. Her arrest on federal narcotics charges was part of a massive drug sweep in Mansfield, Ohio, an economically depressed industrial town of 50,000 inhabitants in the Northern District of Ohio. On the same morning France was arrested, nearly 30 drug busts took place in the area, the culmination of a six-month investigation known as Operation Turnaround. The case was spearheaded by veteran DEA agent Lee Lucas. In Mansfield Lucas was dependant on local informant Jerrell Bray, a thug, convicted criminal and diagnosed schizophrenic. Together Lucas and Bray made street-level crack deals around town for two months, with Lucas often posing as a friend of Bray’s. Bray would make the overture by phone or in person, allegedly with someone interested in buying or selling crack or powder cocaine. A location would be set, and sometimes a surveillance team recorded the transaction. Then one morning in November 2005 the arrests went down in dramatic fashion—doors busted open, drug-sniffing dogs let loose in people’s homes, occupants commanded to “get on the fuckin’ floor!”  No large caches were netted by the investigation, but it didn’t matter. Informant Bray and Agent Lucas were prepared to identify each and every defendant in court if necessary. The busts made headlines in Cleveland and the surrounding area; Operation Turnaround was touted as a major success. The star of the show was Special Agent Lucas, a Cleveland boy made good. In his career Lucas had handled major drug cases in Miami and South America; now he was back home serving as a white knight in the war on drugs. Unfortunately this scenario was seriously flawed and built on a tissue of lies. It will take years to calculate the collateral damage—the mess challenges not only a star DEA agent and those who supervised and prosecuted his cases but the entire criminal justice system in which he operated and the nature of the war in which he served. Law enforcement personnel in the Northern District of Ohio will tell you it’s not difficult to make dope cases in the town of Mansfield. In 2008 Oprah Winfrey devoted an entire hour to Richland County’s drug problem, using a panel of local addicts, former dealers and cops to illustrate her point. As one attorney remarked, “Making dope busts in Mansfield is like shooting fish in a barrel.” The fruits of the Mansfield arrests were numbingly familiar—poor blacks (25 of the 26 people arrested were African American), marginally educated, some with previous legal troubles, swept up in a collective show of force. Most people quickly copped a plea. Some defendants had been out on parole and were now facing life sentences. Pleading guilty in exchange for a lesser sentence was par for the course, part of the give-and-take that keeps our judicial system from collapsing under the weight of more drug cases than any city, district or state can handle.There was one small glitch: A startling number of the people charged—including Geneva France—claimed they weren’t present during the drug transactions. They had been

misidentified, and they could prove it. Their protests were met with a collective ho hum by the authorities. Don’t criminals often plead innocence? Assistant U.S. Attorney

Blas Serrano, lead prosecutor for Operation Turnaround, was surprised some defendants opted to go to trial. That was unusual, but if they wanted to go through the time and hardship of adjudication, facing sentences of 10 years to life in prison, the

government was ready to take them on. One parolee defendant was wearing an ankle monitor when his drug transaction supposedly took place, and he could prove he wasn’t there. Another was on a plane to Chicago and had a boarding pass and flight records to back that up. The U.S. attorney’s response was “So what?” They had Bray and Lucas, who would swear the defendants engaged in drug transactions. France said she was home braiding a friend’s hair at the time Bray and Lucas alleged she climbed into their 1997 Chevy Suburban and sold them more than 50 grams of crack. Who was going to believe a single mother and her friend in the face of a star DEA agent? In February 2006, after a four-day trial, France was found guilty. Even though she was a first-time offender, mandatory sentencing dictated that she serve 10 years behind bars. When she still maintained her innocence at the sentencing, U.S. District Judge Patricia Ann Gaughan berated her and called her a pathological liar. All these plea bargains, claims of innocence and guilty verdicts stemming from Operation Turnaround would normally have gone unnoticed. It is a truism of the drug war that arrests and indictments make headlines, but what follows unfolds in obscurity deep within the bowels of the criminal justice system. If it’s not a celebrity or a wealthy white

defendant, then who gives a damn? No one beyond France’s lawyer and family would have lost a moment’s sleep over her conviction, were it not for an unexpected bombshell delivered by Bray. In May 2007 the rat who pointed his finger at so many fellow African American citizens turned against his white overseer, Lucas. “Everything I tell you may spin your head but it’s true,” Bray told Carlos Warner, a criminal defense

attorney with the federal defender’s office in Ohio. Bray claimed he and Lucas had railroaded nearly 30 people on fraudulent drug charges. Bray’s confession sent shock waves that reverberated throughout the country—particularly in jurisdictions where Lucas had made cases and put people behind bars during his 19-year career. In January 2008 then–U.S. attorney Greg White announced that in light of Bray’s confession and after review of the evidence, many convictions could not stand. To date 23 people have had their convictions overturned and been released, including France, who served 16 months in prison for a crime she didn’t commit. In May 2009 Lucas was charged in an18-count federal indictment with knowingly making false statements in DEA reports, obstruction of justice, perjury and multiple civil rights violations. The events playing out in Ohio are similar to those in Tulia, Texas, where many of the town’s African Americans had been rounded up and convicted on drug charges based on the uncorroborated testimony of Tom Coleman, a highly decorated undercover agent and son of a Texas Ranger. It took years to prove Coleman was a liar. Eventually, in August 2003, 35 of the 38 people convicted were pardoned by Governor Rick Perry but only after an NAACP call for an inquiry exposed Coleman’s malfeasance. In Mansfield, as in the Tulia scandal, there were early signs that many cases were rotten. Yet prosecutors still sought convictions based on weak evidence supplied by Lucas and the task force. They put the agent on the stand and let him use the full authority of his position as an officer of the law to sway juries. Working as a DEA agent must have felt perfect to Lee Michael Lucas. At St. Edward High School the star wrestler often talked about becoming a cop. After graduating in 1986 he enrolled at Baldwin-Wallace College and worked part-time as a bouncer. While in college

Lucas interned with the DEA, the preeminent federal agency in the government’s

war on drugs. Unlike the buttoned-down types at the FBI, DEA agents tend toward

improvisation and daring undercover operations—men of action versus intellectuals or crime analysts. Lucas graduated from college in 1990 with a degree in criminal justice; within months he was accepted into the DEA and was trained at its academy in Quantico, Virginia. In 1991 Lucas received his first assignment, to the hottest spot in  the drug war: Miami. With his stocky wrestler physique Lucas looked more like a biker than a federal agent. He exhibited an enthusiasm for undercover work—he wore his hair long, sometimes in a ponytail, and dressed like a man of the streets. Occasionally he grew a goatee or handlebar mustache. If he wanted, Lucas could look like one tough hombre. In the Miami DEA office agents considered him to be a valuable asset.

“He was an excellent agent,” said Frank Tarallo, Lucas’s supervisor in Miami. “He

worked really well undercover and did everything. Today no one wants to do undercover work, but he did. He did surveillance, handled seizures and worked

well with informants.” Tarallo became a mentor to Lucas. A former Los Angeles police officer, Tarallo had been a member of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, a precursor to

the DEA. He was old school. Says Gary McDaniel, a Florida-based private investigator,

“To understand Lucas, you have to start with Frank Tarallo. He comes from a law enforcement culture that believes the end justifies the means. Tarallo is partly

responsible for having created Lucas.” With Tarallo as second in command in Miami, Lucas received plum assignments. In his early 20s Lucas became a special agent in a major cocaine case right out of Miami Vice. The coke deal in the case involved many moving parts. Two Cuban drug dealers were sprung from prison so they could circulate as CIs (confidential informants) in Miami’s cocaine underworld. The two were paid $20,000 each to relocate their families, then assigned to a joint task force that included Miami police officers, agents from Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and young Lucas of the DEA. Setting up a coke deal in Miami in the early 1990s was not difficult. The task force soon organized a major transaction: More than 400 kilograms of Colombian coke, with a street value of more than $10 million, would be shipped via speedboat from the

Bahamas to a place called Manny’s Marina. (Manny’s owner, a convicted dope dealer, was to receive $500,000 for cooperating.) That many of the major players were convicted felons working for the government wasn’t unusual. But it was unusual to

have a rookie agent who spoke no Spanish at the time, fresh out of Quantico, to be

working on this case. Clearly Lucas was being groomed to be a frontline soldier in

the war on drugs. The cocaine arrived in U.S. waters on the night of September 4,1992. After the bales were transferred to a boat manned by task force members the drugs were then taken to a government warehouse. The shipment was supposed to be delivered to a local smuggler named Gilberto Morales, but Morales was having trouble

finding $600,000 to close the deal. The Colombians and the Bahamians grew concerned; they suspected Morales and his partners were planning to rip them off. Two contract killers from Colombia were dispatched to get to the bottom of things. Morales became terrified. And that’s when Peter Hidalgo got involved. Hidalgo had sold Morales boat equipment.“I dealt with many shady characters,” says Hidalgo. “Sure, I knew people used powerboats to smuggle cocaine. I don’t get to choose my customers, but I was careful. There was a sign on the wall of my store that said IN GOD WE TRUST, EVERYBODY ELSE PAYS CASH. I was not in the cocaine business and made sure I could not be implicated in any way—or at least that’s what I thought.” Morales knew that Hidalgo had sold boat parts and equipment to the Bahamians who were now threatening to have him killed. The Bahamians trusted

Hidalgo. Morales asked Hidalgo to call them and reassure them he was not seeking to cheat them, that he was a man of his word. Says Hidalgo, “I knew the Bahamians

from the boat business. They knew I was an honest businessman. If I didn’t do this for Morales, he might wind up dead with his body floating in the Miami River. I defused the entire situation.” Today, speaking by phone from the Federal Correctional Institution in

Coleman, Florida, Hidalgo realizes that making the call was the biggest mistake

of his life. It made it possible for various informants and Special Agent Lucas to set him up as a major player. On the night of September 8, 1992, Hidalgo was arrested and charged with being the kingpin of the entire operation. Hidalgo was stunned: “I had heard of things like this from movies and TV shows; now I was living it.” Hidalgo was offered a deal. If he pleaded guilty he would receive an 11-year sentence and likely be released in nine. He was also asked to testify against others with a chance to become a paid informant for the DEA. Remembers Hidalgo, “I turned them down. I was innocent. And it would go against everything I believe to become an informant for any government, even the United States, a country I love.” Though prosecutors had no evidence other than his phone call and the testimony of Lucas and a fellow agent, Hidalgo was found guilty and given four life sentences. Throughout the case Lucas misstated the criminal histories of his CIs. Hidalgo and other convicted defendants

in the case tried unsuccessfully to use Lucas’s misrepresentations to get their convictions overturned. In 2001, commenting on another case in which Lucas was accused of making similar misrepresentations of CIs, the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals noted, “It is unclear how Agent Lucas could have made such statements of an affirmative character for which there is no basis without having acted either deliberately or recklessly.…Accordingly, we will assume that this was a deliberate or reckless misrepresentation.” For more than 15 years Hidalgo has been confined to various prisons in the U.S., fighting to get his conviction vacated. Recent developments in Ohio have raised his hopes. Says Joseph Rosenbaum, Hidalgo’s attorney, “If you look at the actions of Lucas in our case—allegations of evidence tampering, perjury, withholding evidence in relation to criminal informants—you will see all the patterns that are coming out in Ohio. There’s a timeline in Lucas’s career of misrepresenting the truth, an uninterrupted trail of deceit. And he’s been able to get away with it for a long time.”

The use of criminal informants—rats, snitches and stool pigeons—has been part of the prosecution of the drug war since its inauguration in the late 1960s. Its defenders contend it’s necessary to use unsavory characters to catch other criminals. But in many cases the CIs are professional con artists whose experiences in the criminal underworld far outstrip those of the agents and prosecutors who are their overseers. The instances of case agents and government lawyers being played by crooks

are far more prevalent than the Department of Justice cares to admit. One person who has been a vocal critic of the DOJ’s dependence on CIs is Michael

Levine, former DEA agent and author of the best-selling memoirs Deep Cover and The

Big White Lie. “I can’t tell you the number of times,” he says, “I’ve heard fellow agents, cops, training instructors and prosecutors say, ‘Mike, never trust an informant.’ But I have never once heard a prosecutor say that to a jury.” He adds, “Over the years I have seen the DEA and other law enforcement agencies become more and more dependent on rats. The question is: Do you have to put yourself in league with the devil for some higher good? I think the net balance is we lose.” Still, Levine does not blame the informants themselves, noting, “A rat cannot take control of an investigation unless the people who are supposed to control him become as immoral and corrupt as he is.”

The career of Lee Lucas has been particularly dependant on the use of rats in general

and one rat in particular. In the early1990s Lucas formed an alliance with Helmut Groebe, a charming German-born con artist who would become his informant benefactor. Some of Groebe’s scams resulted in prison stints, and he had been convicted of fraud in Bavaria. Lucas and Groebe launched criminal stings around the globe, making Groebe rich and adding international luster to the unpolished former bouncer from Cleveland. As a young man, Groebe once bilked hundreds of thousands of dollars out of a wealthy German widow and a doctor he’d known for years. Groebe slipped out of Germany to Rio de Janeiro in the mid-1980s. He promptly ripped off his own 20-year-old daughter, whom he hadn’t seen in 18 years, for $100,000. During the next decade Groebe lived the life of an international playboy and predator in Brazil and south Florida. It is not clear exactly when Groebe signed on as a paid informant for the DEA, but he met Lucas for the first time in the early 1990s. This was a pair made in heaven, or maybe hell: an experienced con man and a young, gung ho agent. One Lucas-Groebe sting involved German businessman Wolfgang Von Schlieffen. Von Schlieffen had achieved great wealth as an investor in real estate, construction and the

import-export business in the Miami area. He lived the good life, owned a yacht and

luxury vehicles, a Rolls Royce among them. Von Schlieffen trusted Groebe, who had a

polish and mastery of English that he admired, and agreed to meet with Groebe’s business associates (Lucas and another undercover agent) interested in condos and cars. At the meeting, much to Von Schlieffen’s dismay, the men spoke rapid-fire English and kept steering the conversation to the subject of narcotics. They even flashed a small package he thought was cocaine. A transcript of the conversation shows Von Schlieffen, in fractured English, struggling to explain he was not interested

in a cocaine deal. Nonetheless, he accepted a $10,000 down payment from Lucas for what he thought was an automobile transaction. He was arrested on the spot and charged with money-laundering conspiracy charges. Lucas testified at Von Schlieffen’s trial, referring to him as “the Count.” He claimed the Count “pacified the thing and put the deal together.” Von Schlieffen was found guilty and was sentenced to eight years.

Von Schlieffen spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on lawyers to clear his name. After serving seven years in prison, he was released when U.S. District Judge Wilkie Ferguson ruled in his favor, dismissing the conviction as fraudulent. The judge was especially critical of the prosecution’s lawyers and agents, who he determined had acted in bad faith by using a “treacherous” informant, adding, “The only people who

can protect the system against the rogue actions of confidential informants are those

who use them: the government.”Von Schlieffen died in 2003, but his estate was posthumously awarded $356,000 in damages. Some DEA officials contend that our narcotics problem is less the result of excessive demand or porous law enforcement than it is corruption among foreign public officials. To illustrate this point, in the early 1990s the DEA focused on Faustino Rico Toro, a controversial figure in the Bolivian military. Colonel Rico Toro had been accused of human rights violations and aiding drug smugglers, and after he was named the country’s drug czar he was targeted by the DEA. In 1994 Bolivian police arrested Rico Toro on an extradition request from the U.S. attorney in south Florida. Extradition proceedings dragged on for months until Rico Toro agreed to enter a federal detention center in Miami, where he learned that federal prosecutors had linked him to drug deals, citing 500 audiotapes and 14 videotapes. His primary accuser was a man he had never met: Helmut Groebe. The case was weak. Rico Toro had never been caught with drugs, there was no physical

evidence, they found no hidden assets typical of a drug kingpin, and he was not on the surveillance tapes. Other than Groebe, who said he met with Rico Toro in Bolivia, there were no witnesses against him. In 1995 Lucas, now stationed in Bolivia, sought to rectify that. He and other agents paid a visit to Juan Padilla Burela, a farm manager who had met Groebe through a relative. According to Burela’s sworn affidavit, Lucas

offered him money for testifying against RicoToro. Burela had already stated at a previous trial that he didn’t know the colonel, but Lucas didn’t seem to care. Reacting to their pushy behavior Burela became angry and asked the agent to leave. He later learned Groebe and additional agents offered cash for testimony to other co conspirators. While detained in Miami, Rico Toro hired private investigator Gary McDaniel of Pretext Services in North Palm Beach to help his defense. McDaniel was the first person to unravel the Lucas-Groebe relationship. He uncovered a mountain of incriminating evidence known to various prosecutors but never turned over to defense

lawyers, in violation of the law. McDaniel was astounded that a case as sensitive as

the prosecution of a foreign official would be handled by an agent in his mid-20s, especially one who was “being led around by the nose” by a con artist like Groebe.

Eventually a financially destitute Rico Toro pleaded guilty to a minor drug charge. But the battle had only begun for McDaniel. During the next decade he sought the attention of Lucas’s supervisors in the DEA and DOJ. Says McDaniel, “I’m an old military man, so I made sure my various letters and inquiries went up the chain of command to supervisors of divisions and ultimately to the DOJ’s Department of Professional Responsibility. I made sure everyone signed off on those letters. In some cases I was told, ‘Gary, we are aware of the problem.’ But nothing was ever done.” A 1997 German documentary, King Rat, detailed the life of Groebe and his relationship with Lucas. McDaniel was interviewed, as was Michael Levine. On camera Levine refers to Groebe as “a danger to democracy.” As to why “reprehensible” CIs are used to make cases, Levine says, “It’s done for one reason: to make the agent look good, to make the DEA look good, to make the U.S. drug war look good.” It is not clear why Lucas wound up back in Cleveland. In courtroom testimony Lucas would claim that nearly five years in Bolivia—known in the DEA as a hardship post—gave him the choice of his next assignment. Others claim Lucas left a paper trail that was potentially embarrassing to the DOJ and was buried in a low-profile regional division. Whatever the reason, Lucas returned home in 2000 as a star agent, a big fish in a small pond. The DEA’s regional office isn’t even basedin Cleveland; it’s in Detroit and had a reputation for lethargy. Lucas sought to change that. According to a prosecutor who worked with Lucas, “He was tireless. Some of us wondered if he had any kind of personal life. He fed more drug cases into the system in a year than some agents do in a lifetime.” There were some complaints about Lucas’s cases. In a July 2003 confidential memo, FBI agents detailed an interview with Joseph Pinjuh, an assistant U.S. attorney in the Northern District of Ohio. Pinjuh had concerns about the “quality and truthfulness” of Lucas’s investigation. In many cases a startling number of incriminating conversations that Lucas attested to were mysteriously not recorded due to equipment malfunction. Many supposedly occurred just before, after or even between recorded conversations. Pinjuh also found that claims crucial to establishing probable cause for warrants were not backed up by facts or evidence. Also, the FBI memo maintained Lucas and his sometime partner, Detective Jamal Ansari of the Cleveland narcotics squad, had beaten a suspect in custody. Turns out Lucas was being investigated by the FBI on charges of official misconduct and excessive use of force. Lucas would eventually be cleared in 2005 but only after his DEA supervisors complained to the DOJ about the FBI’s investigation and successfully shut it down. In June 2003 Pinjuh and another assistant U.S. attorney met with Lucas and Cleveland narcotics cops and criticized the “lack of probable cause in law enforcement stops, lack of control in drug buys and a continuing theme of poorly handled recorded conversations.” The meeting, according to Pinjuh, was “somewhat heated.” Lucas bridled at the questioning. But Pinjuh wasn’t the only one. In a pretrial correspondence U.S. District Judge Peter Economus all but called Lucas a liar. Pinjuh’s superiors were worried about the judge’s denigration of Lucas’s credibility, most likely because he’d created an issue that would be used against Lucas in future cases. So Pinjuh was instructed to approach thejudge. According to the FBI memo, “Judge Economus did agree to reword the opinion

and dropped a sentence from the opinion regarding Lucas’s lack of candor.” Pinjuh told the FBI agents he did not believe the issue of Lucas’s problematic testimony was ever forwarded to the DOJ’s Office of Professional Responsibility. The FBI agents filed their memo, and it was forwarded to U.S. attorney Greg White. In January 2004 White spoke to Lucas and stressed that he could not make cases stick without collaborating witnesses available at all his drug buys. Little more was done to restrict the activities of

an agent who was so prodigiously feeding the beast, making federal prosecutors

look busy and effective by handing them a steady stream of dope cases. In mid-2005 the Richland County sheriff ’s department contacted the DEA office in Cleveland.

Months earlier the sheriff ’s department had picked up local thug Jerrell Bray holding

stolen diamond rings bought from a burglar. Bray was a career criminal and none too

bright. He’d served 14 years in prison and did not want to go back. He offered his services as a snitch, claiming he could make undercover crack buys all over Mansfield.

Lucas didn’t know much about Mansfield, but he agreed to meet. Sheriff ’s Deputy

Charles Metcalf, who championed using Bray as a drug informant, was excited. If Lucas got involved, it would lead to the formation of a task force, which meant federal funding—money allotted for the U.S. government’s war on drugs—money to make dope buys, to purchase fancy surveillance equipment, to pay agents working long overtime hours on the company tit. They met with Bray in the county hoosegow. Thirty-two years old and overweight, Bray was skittish and lacking in self-confidence, a grade school dropout who had been diagnosed early as a schizophrenic. During his incarceration Bray was cited for 22 violations and served weeks in solitary confinement. On the street he was thought of as someone who acted out of fear instead of toughness, the kind of homeboy who shoots first and asks questions later. Bray’s value as an informant was evaluated by a group known as the Metrich Enforcement Unit, an organization that fostered cooperation between various law enforcement agencies in Richland County. Bray was rejected by Metrich analysts. City police reached the same conclusion and told the sheriff ’s office he shouldn’t be deployed and was not to be trusted. The task force proceeded anyway. Lucas had handled Cuban refugees and international playboys; surely he could handle a

bottom-feeder like Jerrell Bray.To begin, Lucas, Bray and the task force made a

list of targets. Many of those falsely accused say task force members gave the list of suspects—and quite possibly the entire investigation—the informal name Niggers With Rims, as inblack males with no discernible income driving around in cars with expensive hubcaps. The theory was they had to be drug dealers—or close enough to be guilty by suspicion. According to Bray, Lucas set the tone by telling him “We get them any way we can” in order to“get the motherfuckers off the street.” Lucas

accompanied Bray on many undercover buys. He knew how to act and talk like a thug; it was part of his repertoire.The buys went off without a hitch. People knew Bray well; he was an established dealer in town. Later they’d say the reason Bray went into business with the law in the first place was to eliminate his competition. Operation Turnaround was not designed for random buys; as with any big drug case, the agents needed to establish a conspiracy that connected various suppliers and sellers. They focused on Dwayne Nabors, a 33-year-old businessman and father of three who owned Platinum Status, a custom-made rims and auto accessories store. To the agents it made sense. If you were going after niggers with rims, why not go after the man who sold them the rims? Nabors often saw Bray around his shop. “I called him Mister Talk-a-Lot,” says Nabors, “because his mouth was always running.” Nabors even knew that Platinum Status was under surveillance. He saw what he assumed

were narcotics agents’ cars parked in a lot across the street. He figured they were tracking Bray. “I used to say, ‘Let them watch,’ ” remembers Nabors. “There was nothing going on here.” A sociable type with an easygoing manner, Nabors had once pleaded guilty to drug possession. He was 18 at the time, “young and stupid,” he says. After serving three and a half years, he married, started a family and built a successful business, which he first ran out of his home before moving to one of Mansfield’s main thoroughfares. By all accounts Nabors was an exemplary citizen and a shrewd businessman. He rose early, worked six days a week, paid his taxes promptly and spent much of his free time being a father to his children. Then in November 2005 the foot soldiers of Operation Turnaround descended on his home at 4:30 A.M. and arrested him on federal narcotics charges. His house was searched. There were no drugs, but cops found two handguns that belonged to Nabors’s brother, so illegal possession of a firearm was added to the charges. While in county jail, Nabors was astounded to hear that Lucas and Ansari claimed he had been involved in directing the sale of $10,000 worth of cocaine to Bray. Before a grand jury, Ansari claimed he saw Nabors and a dope dealer named Albert Lee pull something out of a secret compartment from the door of a Buick before Bray went inside a house to finalize the deal. Nabors was portrayed as the kingpin of a cocaine conspiracy, with Platinum

Status as a front for the sale of dope and laundering of profits. At trial he was able to show he was nowhere near the coke transaction, and little evidence was produced to prove him a drug kingpin. The trumped-up charge was likely a ploy to force him to plead guilty in exchange for a reduced sentence. Nabors took a huge risk by turning down the plea bargain. He was facing a life sentence. “I was scared,” he remembers.  “I got kids who were maybe never going to see their father again. I didn’t know if I was doing the right thing, but I knew I was innocent.” After a one-week trial Nabors was acquitted of the narcotics charges but found guilty of gun possession. He was sentenced to five years in prison. Operation Turnaround was like a sick tree, with long branches and plentiful foliage but rotten roots. Investigators knew early on there was reason to believe Nabors was not a coke dealer. Three days before the trial Ansari and Blas Serrano interviewed Lee. After pleading guilty and being sentenced to 10 years, Lee told investigators Nabors hadn’t given him cocaine and gave them the name of the person who had. By law, Ansari and Serrano were required to record Lee’s statement and put it in a memo, which they did. They were also required to turn such evidence over to the defense, who never received it. “That’s the kind of conduct that could cost

you your ticket to practice law,” said Sam Shamansky, Nabors’s attorney. “That’s the kind of conduct that costs a person his freedom.” Of all the criminal tactics used in Operation Turnaround, the most egregious was the use of stand-ins, willing or unwitting substitutes for the marks Bray, Lucas and other cops later fingered for crimes. One of the first stand-in cases to be exposed involved Roosevelt Williams, who was on a flight to Chicago—and had documents to prove it—at the time Bray testified he participated in drug transactions. Lucas and Bray swore under oath that Williams was their man, though, again, they had been warned they had the wrong person. On the night one transaction took place, a Mansfield police undercover squad just happened to have the same location under surveillance for another investigation.

Perry Wheeler, a veteran Mansfield police detective with a long history of investigating

dope and gun cases in north central Ohio, saw the deal go down. Wheeler was familiar

with Williams, and he knew the man Lucas and Bray identified as Williams was somebody else. Wheeler met with Lucas, cop to cop, and told him so. He sent Lucas a photo of Williams, all to no avail. Lucas said he was positive he purchased crack from Williams. When Wheeler attempted to investigate further, detective Metcalf called a police sergeant and left a message: Word on the street was that if Wheeler kept prying

he would be shot at by a Mansfield hood who went by the name of Uncle Wee Wee.

Wheeler knew Uncle Wee Wee as an associate of Bray’s. The stand-in used to get Williams indicted was actually a thug named Robert Harris. Bray was slick—he staged the event so that Harris sold $2,000 worth of crack to him and Lucas. Bray identified the dealer as Williams, then Harris gave the money back to Bray. Another innocent Mansfield man, Lowestco Ballard, was almost framed this way. A crack transaction was videotaped by a backup unit, though it was done so the participants’ faces were impossible to identify. At trial Lucas testified that he was face-to-face with the dealer, who he swore was Ballard. Fortunately for Ballard the man they used was five-foot-nine, while Ballard is a lanky six-foot-four. Ballard was able to show he wasn’t on the tape. He was found not guilty but only after he spent nearly a year in pretrial detention. Geneva France was not so lucky. She was framed by Karmiya “Shay-Shay” Moxley, a female friend of Bray’s girlfriend. France knew Shay-Shay, and she had also met Bray a few times. Bray once tried to get France to go on a date. When she turned him down, he told her he could put her in the trunk of his car. “I’ll take you to Cleveland,” he said, “and nobody will ever find you.” When France heard Bray had said she’d sold him crack, it sent a chill up her spine. At trial she was fingered by another man, a person she had never seen before in her life: Lee Lucas. In order to verify France had sold them crack, Lucas and the task force claimed to have used a photo of France for positive identification. The photo they used was not entered into evidence at trial, so ruled by presiding Judge Gaughan. Only after France had been convicted was it revealed that the photo they had was a school photo from the sixth grade, when France was 11 years old—a picture that bore little resemblance to the woman they framed on drug charges. “When I finally saw the photo they used to frame Geneva,” says France’s attorney, Edward Mullin, an ex–Cleveland cop, “it made me sick to my stomach.” By mid-2007 Operation Turnaround had seemingly run its course. As with most federal narcotics busts, the fear of severe mandatory minimum sentences led to plea bargains in the majority of cases (the Drug Policy Alliance estimates that 95 percent of all federal narcotics cases are plea bargained). The Nabors and Ballard cases resulted in acquittals, as did two others, but 23 people, a good number, had been incarcerated, which justified the federal expenditures and manhours.

Niggers With Rims was a success. It all began to unravel in May when Carlos Warner of the public defender’s office came to handle the case of Joshawa Webb, the only

white defendant. Webb had been convicted on minor narcotics charges twice before. In

fact, he told Warner, “I’m a drug dealer. I’ve sold marijuana and powder cocaine to my

friends, but I’ve never sold crack. I didn’t do what they said I did.” “Of course I was skeptical,” says Warner. “But Josh is the kind of person who, in the past, when guilty of something would cop a plea and seek the best deal for himself. Here he was saying

no to a plea deal even though he was facing a possible life sentence. He insisted he was innocent and that Bray and Lucas were lying.” The task force had submitted audiotapes as evidence in the Webb case. Warner listened to them and became convinced the voice identified as Webb’s was not his client’s. Furthermore, the

tape had strange gaps and elisions. The lawyer had the tapes analyzed by two separate experts; each concluded they had been altered. Warner had questions, and only one person could give him answers: Bray. Since Operation Turnaround concluded, Bray had reverted to form. He had been paid at least $8,450 for the Mansfield drug busts and was back on the street. Emboldened by his Justice Department training, he set up a $700 marijuana purchase. Midway through the deal someone pointed at Bray and shouted, “Hey, that’s the guy who set up my bro.” Bray allegedly pulled out a .38-caliber handgun and opened fire, hitting a person in the back and stomach. He was caught and charged with attempted murder. According to Bray, he immediately placed a call to his benefactor, Lucas. Bray filled him in and insisted that Lucas help him out. After all Bray had done for him, Lucas had to take care of him. Lucas reassured Bray, telling him he was like a brother to him. The next day Lucas contacted Bray’s brother and told him the wounded man was the stepson of a police officer. There was nothing he could do for Jerrell. By the time attorney Carlos Warner arrived at Cleveland City Jail, the former star CI had been stewing in lock-up for a week. In a visiting room Warner told Bray, “I believe this audiotape has been tampered with.” Responded Bray, “You’re only scraping the surface with that tape stuff.” In two meetings Bray poured his heart out to Warner and another investigator. Bray claimed that at least 30 people were put in jail for crimes they hadn’t committed. Even some of the people who had pleaded guilty were innocent. He had been encouraged to make cases by Lucas, Serrano and the task force. Bray’s confession bordered on hysterical. He cried, pounded the table and told Warner that by telling the truth his life was in danger. Lucas and Ansari, he said, were bigger than the government, and he was afraid of them. He said, “I’m letting you know, man to man, everything I tell you may spin your head, but it’s true. Go look up Dwayne Nabors’s case, go look up Geneva France’s case, go look up—what’s the other?—there are just so many of them.” “We will investigate what you tell us,” said Warner.“There’s no investigator that can protect me and my family,” said Bray. “I am a nogoodlying scum that slept with this shit.” Bray claimed that when he was on the stand at the France trial, he looked at her face and realized for the first time what he was doing was wrong: “It was just my thirst for money, and I couldn’t get a job.” He said prosecutors and agents had told him they could help him out, and Serrano prepared him for trial by telling him if he ever felt like he was lying to say “I don’t understand.” Warner mentioned how federal prosecutors would come down hard on Bray. “They want to shut you up. They don’t want you to talk.” “Let me tell you something,” said Bray. “From me to you, this might be the universe punishing me for the shit that has happened to other people’s lives, not being able to see their kids, their mothers, their sisters, their brothers. Understand what I’m saying; this might be it right here.” After Bray’s confession became public, naysayers went on the offensive: Bray was seeking to save his own skin. He had turned on Lucas because Lucas would not help him beat an attempted-murder rap. He was a stone-cold liar. But on a taped recording of Bray’s second interview with Warner the anguish and regret in his voice are palpable and real. Bray was now the proverbial hot potato. Federal authorities placed him in protective custody and assigned as his counsel John McCaffrey, a former FBI agent turned criminal defense attorney. McCaffrey tried to verify many of Bray’s claims. It was at first a bumpy ride. Bray failed two polygraph tests. “It was in his nature to withhold information,” says McCaffrey. “He kept wanting to keep things to  himself thatVhe could use for bartering purposes down the road.” Eventually McCaffrey and other investigators obtained signed confessions from many of the people Bray used as stand-ins. Concurrently, the FBI reopened an investigation into the career of Lucas. Throughout 2008 and into 2009 the dominoes began to fall. First eight people convicted via Operation Turnaround were released from prison, then 15 more. Bray pleaded guilty to lying on the witness stand and committing civil rights violation; he was sentenced to 15 years in prison. In May 2009 Sheriff ’s Deputy Charles Metcalf pleaded guilty to one count of civil rights violation for his role in the Dwayne Nabors case. Later, Ansari agreed to cooperate with federal investigators; he will not be charged with any revealed crimes relating to the investigation. In June three men convicted by Lucas in a separate case involving the sale of PCP demanded and received a hearing into circumstances surrounding their trial. Under questioning from a special prosecutor, Greg White, Joseph Pinjuh and others in the U.S. attorney’s office took the stand. Some acknowledged that Lucas made cases too quickly and was sometimes sloppy. “He was running at 150 mph,” said one assistant U.S. attorney. Pinjuh described Lucas as “a loose cannon.” However, none of them said they doubted his truthfulness or veracity. One assistant U.S. attorney who tried to sound alarm bells about Lucas was Thomas Gruscinski, a man who felt the consequences of challenging the productivity of the golden goose. Gruscinski met with Lucas for a 2003 investigation of Akron grocers who were suspected of laundering black market proceeds. Lucas bragged to Gruscinski that “he could make trees talk” and told the AUSA that he planned to pull over a grocer on a routine traffic stop. He would take a drug sniffing dog so he could claim probable cause to search the grocer and seize his assets. Gruscinski felt the scheme was illegal and wanted no part of it. He later was told that Lucas went over his head to a supervisor for approval to make the stop. When Gruscinski wrote an interoffice memo complaining about Lucas, he was taken off the case. At the hearing for the three PCP dealers, Gruscinski took the stand and testified that he believed his criticism of Lucas was the reason for his dismissal. Lucas’s trial is scheduled to begin in January 2010. He has pleaded not guilty. It will be one of the most significant criminal prosecutions ever in the Northern District of Ohio. Testifying

against Lucas will be his former CI Bray and his former partner Ansari, not to mention

untold agents, deputy sheriffs, cops, prosecutors, dope dealers and others involved in cases overseen or facilitated by Lucas. The man has his defenders. At his indictment

in May the courtroom was filled with fellow DEA agents, police officers, prosecutors and friends, people who contend Lucas is a crackerjack agent who is being used as

a scapegoat. A prosecutor who worked with Lucas on numerous drug cases says, “He is the hardest-working law enforcement official I’ve ever known. These people criticizing Lee don’t know the kind of work he put into his cases. He made solid cases and put a lot of bad people behind bars. He did what a law enforcement official is supposed to do.” The defense of Lucas as a good cop is a slippery slope. Even if Lucas were to be found not guilty, Bray has already pleaded guilty to fabrication of evidence, which calls into question a lifetime’s worth of criminal cases. Many people currently incarcerated are likely to be set free—not just innocent people but actual

criminals and dope dealers Lucas knowingly or unknowingly convicted using bogus

evidence. Whether Lucas was corrupt or merely ignorant, his actions will lead to the release of hardened criminals. What kind of law enforcement is that? His wayward trajectory was charted long ago. Back in 1995 at the trial of Peter Hidalgo, Lucas testified that he was, if anything, overly cautious when dealing with informants. “With

everyone I deal within my job, besides my partners, I am careful,” he said. When it

came to informants, “You watch them from the nature of what they do. They’re

informants.… They’re involved with other drug dealers. That is their whole function.”

The defense attorney interjected, “You want to corroborate as much as you

can, correct?” “Exactly,” answered the agent. “The whole reason you do surveillance is corroboration. It’s a large part of our work.” In the Mansfield drug cases, there was

little corroboration. The reason a sixthgrade photo of Geneva France was used

was because there were no surveillance photos. That may have been intentional.

James Owen, a renowned criminal defense lawyer representing France, Nabors (who was released after two and a half years), Ballard and others in a civil lawsuit against Lucas, the DEA and Richland County sheriff ’s deputies sees the trial as a possible cover-up. Says Owen, “How was an agent with a checkered career like Lucas—a man whose work had been called into question numerous times in the past—set loose in Mansfield to make wrongful conviction cases, and who knew about it?” To Owen, Lucas was aided and abetted by a criminal justice system that allowed him to operate and encouraged his behavior. With Lucas exposed, the same system seeks

to protect itself by cutting off a rogue agent. “Why wasn’t Blas Serrano indicted? Why

was Deputy Sheriff Metcalf allowed to plead guilty to a minor charge and return to his job, free of any punishment? Why is Greg White allowed to retire into a cushy job as a federal magistrate without having to explain what he knew and when he knew it?” In August Owen’s clients delivered a letter to Special Prosecutor Bruce Teitelbaum, who

is handling the Lucas investigation. The victims demanded to see documents currently

under seal by a federal order. They wrote, “We view any refusal to allow us access to this information to be a cover-up that simply continues the crime committed against us.” Owen argues that a federal judge needs to appoint an independent commission to investigate Lucas’s career, why he was allowed to make cases and how those cases were facilitated by others. Nabors remembers when he took the stand and prosecutor Serrano demanded, “Why? Why on earth would a federal agent like Lee Lucas frame you on drug charges? What could possibly be his motive?” Nabors did not have a good answer, and he is still baffled by the question. What did Lucas have to gain by framing

a bunch of innocent African Americans in Mansfield? The answer is to be found in the

inverted morality of the war on drugs. In the Northern District of Ohio Lucas had an exalted reputation as an agent who delivered a high volume of cases; he made

the world go round. With narcotics charges you don’t need much of a case. Lucas was

good at securing an indictment (his word and the word of a CI was usually enough),

and severe mandatory sentencing ensured a wealth of plea bargains. Lucas wasn’t so good at producing evidence for trial—surveillance videos, corroboration, even believable photos to verify identities. There is a temptation to be sloppy with dope cases because you can be. Lucas and his team could easily have made a dozen legitimate arrests in Mansfield, but that wasn’t enough to justify the allocation of federal money and the formation of a federal task force. The day after the announcement that Lucas had been indicted, the new U.S. drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, made the startling declaration that the DOJ would no longer use the phrase war on drugs. In The Wall Street Journal Kerlikowske is quoted saying, “Regardless of how you try to explain to people that it’s a ‘war on drugs’ or a ‘war on product,’ people see a war as a war on them. We’re not at war with people in this country.” Kerlikowske’s statement seemed to suggest a shift in how the DOJ views narcotics prosecutions. But in the following months he appeared to backtrack by announcing, “We will continue to vigorously prosecute any violations of the drug statutes in this country.” When contacted to comment on drug policy in general and, more specifically, the Lucas case, a spokesperson for the U.S. Office of National Drug Policy responded that Director Kerlikowske could not “fit it into his schedule.” Official spokespersons for the DOJ, DEA and U.S. Attorneys Office also declined to comment. Whether the drug war is over or even in remission remains to be seen. But if anyone wants a clear assessment of how

narcotics prosecutions have skewed criminal justice and subverted the notion of due process, they don’t need to look far. Innumerable federal agents, cops, U.S. attorneys, prosecutors and judges facilitated and benefited from the efforts of Lucas. Every case he supervised over the years is now tainted. In a courtroom in downtown Cleveland it

is DEA agent Lucas who will stand accused, but his co-conspirators are legion.

By T.J. English

Playboy Article 2010

(Why is it, knowing these facts that Mr. Chuck Metcalf was allowed to retire quietly with a disability from the local Richland County Sheriffs dept.?)

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14 Responses to Playboy Article on Local Corruption

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    and people wonder why our local taxes are getting RAISED!

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