Big drug case derailed by rogue snitch

February 10, 2008 6:26:28 PM PST
Wes Ballard is trying to put his life back together after serving 10 months in jail because of lies told by an informant who was handled by a federal agent now facing multiple investigations himself. Ballard and 25 other people were arrested in a sting meant to clean up the drug trade in Mansfield, about halfway between Cleveland and Columbus. Many of those arrested were convicted.

Now, though, prosecutors are asking a federal judge to dismiss charges including conspiracy and cocaine trafficking against most of the defendants, even some who pleaded guilty.

"I don't trust these people here," Ballard, 33, said of the authorities.

The sting was based on a tips from Jerrell Bray, a small-time operator who was supervised by Drug Enforcement Administration Agent Lee Lucas.

The 34-year-old Bray, enlisted as an informant in 2005, has admitted concocting a fabric of lies to polish his informant credentials and keep suspects flowing through the court system. He's serving 15 years for perjury and civil rights violations against the individuals targeted in his role as an informant.

Ballard, an unemployed father of six children, said Bray's allegations against him came out of the blue. He said he once saw Bray at a church-sponsored auto show but never met him.

After spending nearly a year in jail awaiting trial, Ballard was acquitted last year by a jury skeptical of Bray's testimony. For one thing, Bray's description of Ballard's height was off by 8 inches.

Others didn't fare as well: Geneva France was convicted of being a drug courier and spent 16 months in prison before her case was dismissed last May. By the time the 25-year-old was freed, her 3-year-old daughter no longer recognized her, she'd been evicted from her home and all her belongings had been thrown out.

The botched cases highlight the risks of working with informants, said Lewis Katz, a law professor at Cleveland's Case Western Reserve University. He compared them to unreliable jail snitches who hope to win shorter sentences.

While police sometimes must rely on informants, "It is very disturbing that they simply accepted this person's claim against so many defendants," Katz said.

Katz said prosecutors sometimes fail to assess an informant's reliability in their zeal to lock up criminals.

"Once they get in the competitive atmosphere of a prosecution, unfortunately too many prosecutors fail to second-guess their own evidence," Katz said.

U.S. Attorney Greg White, whose staff of 75 federal prosecutors in northern Ohio prosecuted the tainted drug cases, said he was satisfied that his staff had acted in good faith.

Once wrongdoing was disclosed, prosecutors asked the judge last month to undo the charges. "Our feeling was, as a matter of fundamental fairness we needed to do this and we did," White said.

Bray's drug agent handler, Lucas, is being investigated by the Justice Department and the DEA, and a grand jury being directed by a prosecutor brought in from Pennsylvania also is reviewing his cases.

Ballard and others have filed a civil lawsuit against Lucas, a 17-year veteran who has worked in Bolivia battling drug traffickers.

Lucas' attorney, Joel Kirkpatrick of Farmington Hills, Mich., said Lucas would defend himself in court on the civil matter but he would not comment on the reviews under way into the drug investigation.

The DEA won't comment on Bray or Lucas.

"This is a very good agency," said Michael Sanders, a DEA spokesman in Washington. "We have a very good record with confidential sources but every once in a while you will get a bad one out there."

Drug cases pose a special problem for investigators, since drug dealers wary of undercover investigators typically won't have anything to do with anyone they don't know, Sanders said.

That often leads to the government's reliance on informants who often agree to snitch on people in return for lenient treatment in their own legal problems.

"We use them extensively, as do all of the other federal agencies," Sanders said. Most field agents are expected to have at least one informant, he said.

Sanders said the case in Mansfield, a blue-collar city best known as the home of the old Ohio State Reformatory, where they filmed "The Shawshank Redemption," may lead the DEA to review its policies on handling informants.

John McCaffrey, an attorney for Bray, said his client is doing his part to make amends.

"He has been sentenced. He has accepted responsibility for his involvement in these Mansfield cases and he is cooperating with the special assistant U.S. attorney who is conducting an ongoing investigation," McCaffrey said. Bray won't give interviews, McCaffrey said.

White, the federal prosecutor, cautioned against concluding that "everyone was wrongfully charged," but he would not detail how many of the 13 who pleaded guilty were innocent.

"This is not the finest hour of the justice system for sure. However, I think we've done our best to make that right," White said.