Wheeler Dealer

How Minnesota cops and the war on drugs made a successful entrepreneur out of a small-time hustler and snitch named Michael Felix

Meanwhile, more than 35 people were facing criminal charges. And because Felix had done business across the street from a school, some could go to prison for eight years or more on charges of selling a quantity of drugs that probably would earn them probation in the Twin Cities.

As police began to arrest the people Felix claimed had sold him drugs, it started to look like the wreckage the snitch had left on Willow Street was the smallest of the messes he made during his year in Detroit Lakes. A parade of witnesses would come forth to testify that it was Michael Felix who had been doing the drug dealing.

He'd sold marijuana and meth, the witnesses said, often to local teens. He'd smoked pot with the kids, and let them do odd jobs in exchange for drugs. Two of the witnesses said he had used a gun to threaten people who owed him money or drugs. And it was hard not to conclude that he'd done it all with police protection.

Tim Okamura


When Michael Felix first turned up, it must have seemed like Patrick Johnson's lucky day. A Becker County sheriff's deputy working for the West Central Minnesota Drug Task Force, Johnson had the job of reducing the level of drug-dealing in the area, a task he believed would be a whole lot easier if he had a paid informant. Johnson had been a narcotics investigator for 14 years and had worked with his share of informants--but never on a large-scale or long-term operation.

In August 2000, a friend of Kal Keena's from the Morrison County Sheriff's Department in Little Falls placed a call to the Detroit Lakes police chief. The department was on the verge of wrapping up a year-long sting operation, he told Keena. He needed to arrest some 25 people, and wanted to get their informant out of town.

Informants have long been a controversial staple in law enforcement's arsenal of tactics, especially when it comes to drug enforcement. Usually the snitches are facing their own criminal charges and readily agree to help police nab the next guy up the supply chain, or offer information about other crimes. Police and prosecutors tend to view them as a necessary evil, and are taught to corroborate their claims with other evidence.

Felix was different. He'd been convicted of burglary in 1981 in Oregon, and on drug charges in Rice County in 1988, after which he'd done 34 months in prison. Ever since his release he'd made his living buying drugs for cops, and drawing Social Security disability payments because of a back injury. In the 12 years before he was introduced to Johnson and Keena, he had worked as a paid informant for 25 different law enforcement agencies throughout Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin. He stuck out in the small towns where he worked, so police kept moving him from one community to another.

Keena called Patrick Johnson, and the two met with Felix and with a couple of his Morrison County handlers. Keena's friend insisted that Felix had been reliable, so the chief and the deputy started looking for a place for Felix to live. After he found the house on Willow, Keena called the landlord and said he knew someone who was moving to town. The chief had a soft spot for the man because he was a disabled vet, the landlord's brother remembers Keena saying. He met with Felix and despite misgivings agreed to rent him the three-bedroom house for $500 a month.

Keena would later insist that the informant ended up in the house because it was the only property available in Detroit Lakes that was both affordable and big enough to house a family of five. No one gave any thought, he would insist, to the fact that it was next door to a school. Never mind that any drug crimes committed there would carry extra penalties.

Deputy Johnson paid for Felix to move from Little Falls and paid his first month's rent. Together, the men talked about how to record Felix's transactions. They placed a camera on a bookcase that afforded a view of the front door and living room. The camera was hooked to a VCR that Felix would need to turn on before each transaction.

When someone came over to sell him drugs, Felix was to record the transaction, show the person out, and, without leaving the camera's view, put the drugs he'd bought into a lockbox and lock it with a padlock. He'd hold the lockbox up, state the date and time and the name of the person who had sold him the drugs. Then he was to meet Johnson behind a health club. Using his key, Johnson would take the drugs out of the lockbox, take the videotape of the transaction, and pay Felix. Supposedly Felix had done this more than 400 times in the past, so things were expected to go smoothly.

Felix took a job as a carny for a brief time as a way of meeting a few people, and was quickly very busy. He earned $50 for each marijuana buy, and $100 for meth. In addition, each time the two met, Johnson would give Felix $300 in unmarked "buy money." Over the nine months the operation lasted, Felix was paid more than $17,000 for making buys. Assuming that money rewarded 170 transactions, he would have received more than $51,000 in buy money as well.

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