ALEXANDRIA, La. (AP) — A woman with a small microphone and a hidden camera walked into a rundown drug store on a cold afternoon last year, looking to buy meth from a dealer known on the street as “Mississippi”.
But as the informant disappeared inside with a career criminal with a rap sheet spanning three decades, her law enforcement officials left her undercover all alone – unprotected and unsupervised for a while. real. And the devices she was passively carrying recorded a crime far more gruesome than any purchase of drugs.
Under threat of violence, the trafficker forced the woman to perform oral sex on him – twice – in an attack so brazen he stopped at one point to run a separate drug deal, according to interviews and confidential law enforcement records obtained by The Associated Press.
“It was one of the worst depictions of sexual abuse I have ever seen,” said a local official who viewed the footage and spoke to AP on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss. of the current case.
“The mere sound is enough to make your stomach turn,” the official said. “She’s a woman sexually abused as she cries and moans.”
Even as the woman cried and her attacker threatened to put her “into the hospital”, narcotics deputies remained at the end of the block in the devastated neighborhood, unaware of what was happening. Indeed, as authorities told the AP, they never considered such an attack could occur and the devices the woman was carrying did not have the capability to transmit the operation to security forces. the order in real time.
“He was recording but not where my guys were watching him,” Rapides Parish Sheriff Mark Wood said, blaming the January 2021 incident on his inexperience of only serving the top job for six months at that time. “There are always things you learn that you can do better.”
The case in this central Louisiana town of 47,000 underscores the dangers faced by confidential informants seeking to “solve” criminal charges in loosely regulated and often secretive arrangements with law enforcement agencies. order. The police rely on informants in a wide range of cases, compensating them with money or leniency in their own cases, while often offering little or no training.
Records show it was not until the woman left the area on her own and contacted her handlers that deputies searched the single-family home and arrested Antonio D. Jones, 48, on charges of rape in the second degree, false imprisonment and distribution of methamphetamine. after recovering 5 grams of the substance from the bite.
Deputies monitoring the house after the woman went inside assumed she “must be fine” because someone else came in after her to buy drugs, Lt. Mark Parker said, the senior operation officer.
Parker, who retired this month, told the AP that the sheriff’s office only began using equipment capable of real-time monitoring after the alleged rape, and often sends informants into bites without any recording equipment.
“We’ve always done it this way,” Parker said. “She was a drug addict and we just used her as an informant like we’ve done a million times before. Looking back, it’s easy to say, ‘What if?’
And while it’s unclear what kind of deal the woman made with the Rapides Parish Sheriff’s Office, her cooperation as an informant didn’t seem to make much of a difference in clearing her own. criminal record.
Just three weeks after her taped assault, according to court records, the woman was charged with possession of drug paraphernalia following an arrest about a month before the sting, and she was arrested and convicted for possession at least twice since then. The woman, who declined interview requests and is not named because the AP does not generally identify victims of sexual assault, pleaded guilty to possession of drug paraphernalia last year and was placed in behavioral health court instead of a jail sentence.
“It’s absolutely awful,” said the woman’s attorney, Harold Murry. “She has a drug problem and I don’t know if she will be able to get out of it or not. But when you become a snitch, they feed your drug problem and then they arrest you for it.
Wood, who worked in the sheriff’s office for two decades before his election, confirmed the alleged rape prompted his department to finally update its equipment to keep tabs on undercover deals as they unfold. they happen.
“It changed everything, the way we do business,” Wood said. “The technology has seen incredible growth. There are things we can do to keep people safe.
Experts who reviewed AP’s case noted that the technology to monitor undercover transactions has been around for generations and should have been used to protect the woman in this case. The safety of the confidential informant is paramount, they said, overriding evidence collection or any other objective of the operation.
“I see this as huge nonsense,” said Michael Levine, a former US Drug Enforcement Administration agent who worked undercover for years and now testifies as an expert in police procedures. Deputies, he said, should have “never in a million years” sent the informant into such a high-risk environment without being able to monitor the operation. “They are cowards.”
David Redemann, a longtime Seattle police officer who now leads training on such stings, said the case highlights the wide disparities in law enforcement’s undercover playbook, from many agencies lack the resources to properly train agents or monitor informants’ drug purchases.
“We do this 10,000 times a day across the country, and not everyone has transmission equipment,” Redemann said. “Is it tragic as hell? Absolutely. We have to learn from what happened here.
Law enforcement’s use of confidential informants is akin to a black market in which “deals are done under the table and often without papers,” said Alexandra Natapoff, a Harvard law professor and expert in matter of informants.
Not only are informants treated like disposable pawns, she said, but qualified immunity has made it very difficult to prosecute police when things go off the rails.
“For reasons of common sense and humanity, the police should take obvious and simple precautions to protect their informants,” Natapoff said, “but no law requires them to do so.”
With few exceptions, states have been slow to track or regulate law enforcement’s use of informants, even in the wake of high-profile oversights. In 2009, Florida lawmakers passed Rachel’s Law, the nation’s first comprehensive legislation governing the use of informants, after the shooting death of 23-year-old Rachel Hoffman in connection with a drug sting under cover for Tallahassee Police. Among other things, the law requires police to consider the “risk of physical harm” to the informant.
None of the deputies who organized the Louisiana undercover purchase have been disciplined, the sheriff said, and no other law enforcement agencies have been asked to review the handling of the case. A spokesperson for the Alexandria Police Department said the agency was not made aware of the sexual assault, even though it allegedly occurred in the city and the suspect Jones has an extensive criminal history dating back to 1992, including convictions in neighboring Mississippi for robbery, car thefts, aggravated assault and drug distribution.
Jones is due on trial Oct. 17, after declining a plea offer from prosecutors. His attorney declined to comment.
Last month, as AP reported the story, prosecutors without explanation reduced Jones’ charges from second-degree forcible rape to third-degree rape, or simple rape, dramatically reducing the time he could spend behind bars s he was found guilty.
Prosecutors did not respond to requests for comment on why the charges were reduced or why the informant was charged with drug-related crimes even after her cooperation in the ill-fated sting.
Weeks before the charges were dropped, Rapides Parish District Attorney Phillip Terrell defended deputies’ handling of the case, telling AP “there is nothing in my file to indicate that the forces of the order have done something wrong”. The prospect of an informant being attacked “didn’t cross their minds,” the district attorney said, adding that he was “sure they wished it hadn’t happened.”
“They never thought about it, and if they had known it was happening, they definitely would have stopped it,” Terrell said. “One of their big concerns now is the safety of the confidential informant.”
Contact AP’s global investigative team at Investigative@ap.org. Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter at @JimMustian.