A woman outfitted with a tiny microphone and hidden camera walked up to a dilapidated drug house on a chilly afternoon last year looking to buy meth from a dealer known on the streets as “Mississippi.”
But as the informant disappeared inside with a career criminal with a rap sheet spanning three decades, her law enforcement handlers left her undercover on her own — unprotected and unmonitored in real time. And the devices she carried passively recorded a crime far more horrific than any drug buy.
Under threat of violence, the dealer forced the woman to perform oral sex on him — twice — in an attack so brazen he paused at one point to conduct 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 wasn’t authorized to discuss the ongoing case.
“Just the audio from it is enough to turn your stomach,” the official said. “It’s a female being sexually brutalized while she’s crying and whimpering.”
Even as the woman cried and her assailant threatened to put her “in the hospital,” narcotics deputies remained down the block in the blighted neighborhood, unaware of what was going on. That’s because, as authorities told the AP, they never considered such an attack might happen and the devices the woman carried didn’t have the ability to transmit the operation to law enforcement in real time.
“It was recording but not to where my guys were monitoring it,” said Rapides Parish Sheriff Mark Wood, blaming the January 2021 incident on his inexperience from only being in the top job six months at that time. “There are always things you learn that you can do better.”
The case in this central Louisiana city of 47,000 underscores the perils confidential informants face seeking to “work off” criminal charges in loosely regulated and often secretive arrangements with law enforcement. Police rely on informants in a wide range of cases, compensating them with money or leniency in their own cases yet often providing little or no training.
Records show it wasn’t 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 second-degree rape, false imprisonment and distribution of meth after recovering 5 grams of the substance in the sting.
Deputies surveilling the home after the woman went inside assumed she “must be OK” because someone else entered after her to buy drugs, said Lt. Mark Parker, the ranking officer in the operation.
Parker, who retired this month, told the AP that the sheriff’s office didn’t start using equipment capable of monitoring in real time until after the alleged rape, and often would send informants into stings without any recording equipment at all.
“We’ve always done it this way,” Parker said. “She was an 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 not clear what kind of deal the woman struck with the Rapides Parish Sheriff’s Office, her cooperation as an informant didn’t seem to make much difference in clearing her own criminal record.
Just three weeks after her recorded assault, court records show, the woman was charged with possession of drug paraphernalia stemming from an arrest that happened about a month before the sting, and she’s been pulled over and booked on possession charges at least twice since then. The woman, who declined interview requests and is not being named because the AP does not typically identify victims of sexual assault, pleaded guilty to possessing drug paraphernalia last year and was placed in behavioral health court in lieu of jail time.
“It’s absolutely horrible,” said the woman’s attorney, Harold Murry. “She has a drug problem and I don’t know if she’s going to be able to beat it or not. But when you become a snitch, they keep your drug problem going and then they arrest you for it.”
Wood, who worked in the sheriff’s office for two decades before his election, confirmed that the alleged rape has prompted his department to finally update its equipment to keep an eye on undercover transactions as they’re happening.
“That changed everything, the way we do business,” Wood said. “Technology has grown unbelievably. There’s things that we can do to keep the folks safe.”
Experts who reviewed the case for AP noted that the technology to monitor undercover transactions has existed for generations and should have been used to protect the woman in this case. The safety of the confidential informant is paramount, they said, prioritized over evidence collection or any other aim of the operation.
“I see this as a massive ineptitude,” said Michael Levine, a former U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent who worked undercover for years and now testifies as an expert on police procedures. The deputies, he said, should “never in a million years” have sent the informant into such a high-risk setting without the ability to monitor the operation. “They’re cowards.”
David Redemann, a longtime Seattle police officer who now leads training on such stings, said the case highlights the vast disparities in law enforcement’s undercover playbook, with many agencies lacking the resources to properly train officers or monitor informant drug buys.
“We do this 10,000 times a day around the country, and not everybody has transmitting equipment,” Redemann said. “Is this tragic as hell? Absolutely. We need to learn from what happened here.”
Law enforcement’s use of confidential informants is akin to a black market in which “deals are made under the table and often undocumented,” said Alexandra Natapoff, a Harvard law professor and leading expert on informants.
Not only are informants treated as disposable pawns, she said, but qualified immunity has made it very difficult to sue the police when things go off the rails.
“As a matter of common sense and humanity, police should take obvious, straightforward precautions to protect their informants,” Natapoff said, “but there is no law that says they have to.”
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 adopted Rachel’s Law, the first comprehensive legislation in the country governing use of informants, after the fatal shooting of 23-year-old Rachel Hoffman in connection with an undercover drug sting for Tallahassee police. Among other things, the law requires police consider the “risk of physical harm” to the informant.
None of the deputies who arranged the undercover buy in Louisiana were disciplined, the sheriff said, and no other law enforcement agencies were asked to examine the handling of the case. A spokesman for the Alexandria Police Department said the agency had not been made aware of the sexual assault, even though it allegedly happened in the city and the suspect Jones has an extensive criminal history dating to 1992, including convictions in neighboring Mississippi for robbery, car theft, aggravated assault and drug distribution.
Jones is scheduled to stand trial Oct. 17, having refused a plea offer from prosecutors. His attorney declined to comment.
Last month, as AP was reporting this story, prosecutors without explanation reduced Jones’ charges from forcible second-degree rape to third-degree rape, or simple rape, significantly lowering the amount of time he could spend behind bars if convicted.
Prosecutors did not respond to requests for comment on why the charges were reduced or why the informant was charged with drug crimes even after her cooperation in the ill-fated sting.
Weeks before the charges were reduced, Rapides Parish District Attorney Phillip Terrell defended the deputies’ handling of the case, telling AP “there is no indication in my file that law enforcement did anything wrong.” The prospect of any informant coming under attack “had not crossed their mind,” the district attorney said, adding he was “certain they wish this would not have occurred.”
“They never thought of that, and had they known that was occurring they would have certainly stopped it,” Terrell said. “One of their big concerns now is the safety of the confidential informant.”
SOURCE: The Associated Press, Jim Mustian