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

On November 21, Felix paged Johnson and drove to the health club. There, court documents say Felix claimed, he told Johnson he had just bought an "eight ball of crank" from a man named Trent Lederhaus, and handed over the lockbox. Johnson sent the baggie inside to the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, which determined that the contents weighed 1.9 grams and contained methamphetamine.

The lab did not check to see how much of the eight ball was meth and how much was cutting agent. The record does not explain why not, but for Johnson's purposes it can't have mattered: Under Minnesota law, the sale of any quantity of methamphetamine in a school zone is a felony.

The videotape was terrible. Felix hadn't started the VCR right away, and the TV was so loud that Felix's and Lederhaus's conversation wasn't audible. Worse, Felix's back was facing the camera, and no hand-to-hand transaction was visible. After Lederhaus left, documents filed in his case say, Felix held up a baggie and explained to the camera that he'd just bought crank.

Tim Okamura

Felix would tape Lederhaus four more times during the next three weeks, and each time, he would produce a tape that showed little, according to Lederhaus's appeal. Felix's back often blocked the camera and the conversation was always drowned out by background noise. Sometimes Felix could be seen digging in his own pockets. As far as the drugs turned over to Johnson after each "buy," only one more of the baggies actually contained any meth; the other three contained only cutting agents.

The following June, Lederhaus was charged with three second-degree felonies. The offenses normally would be punishable by up to 68 months in prison, but because the transactions had taken place in a school zone, Lederhaus faced 10 additional months.

Thirty-five other people faced similar charges as a result of Felix's activities. In each instance, the tapes were just as bad. In fact, Johnson would testify later that he repeatedly told Felix the tapes weren't up to snuff, and that the two adjusted the camera. Somehow, though, the tapes never got better.

 

When he went to trial in November 2001, Trent Lederhaus offered a ready defense: The murky tapes actually showed Felix doing a brisk business selling marijuana and other drugs. Lederhaus insisted at his trial that he had been buying marijuana from Felix for months before the videotaped meetings. Sometimes the two hung out, smoking and drinking beer. Most often he'd buy the pot outside Felix's house, Lederhaus said, but sometimes he'd come inside.

In fact, Lederhaus's wife would later testify that she had caught them smoking together a couple of times. She also claimed that Felix once asked her husband to hold a shopping bag containing a number of smaller baggies of marijuana. She and Lederhaus argued bitterly over his marijuana use; long before he was arrested, she had grown so angry she started divorce proceedings.

Plenty of other people testified that they watched Felix smoke pot and saw him sell marijuana and meth. In addition to the defendants fingered by the informant, half a dozen adults eventually testified to having witnessed these transactions, as well as Felix's personal drug use.

In addition, three teenagers, ages 14 to 16, came forward to testify that they'd used Felix's drugs in his house and had gotten marijuana from Felix, sometimes for doing odd jobs around the house. The teens and their friends would sometimes smoke marijuana at the house and watched Felix smoke it and sell it to others. One of the teens says he once watched Felix threaten another teen with a gun.

Felix's neighbors testified that they'd repeatedly reported the constant parade of kids to Deputy Johnson and to 911. "It didn't concern me because it confirmed what I believed to be happening down there and that was that an informant was purchasing drugs for the police," Keena would later testify. "The descriptions that I received of the activity that these neighbors were observing was consistent with what I knew was going on there."

But by spring, Keena had become very concerned that Felix was in fact selling drugs. "The number of complaints became more frequent," he testified. "The behavior described became more specific. And the behavior, if it was described accurately, was a violation of our city ordinances...complaints that he had too many dogs. Complaints that he played his stereo too loud. There was a complaint that either he [drove] or he was allowing his children to drive a four-wheeler on the city sidewalks. There were complaints that he was using marijuana...outside the house."

Keena asked Johnson whether he had lost control of the snitch, but Johnson assured him everything was fine. The deputy failed to add that, although he might see Felix on a steady basis when the two met to swap videos and buy money, he rarely visited the Willow Street house. Once, he told Felix he was going to search the house. But when the informant didn't protest, he dropped the plan.

He never asked Felix to take a drug test, never considered taping the phone calls in which Felix supposedly arranged to buy drugs. He never asked Felix to wear a wire, never marked the money he gave Felix for drug buys. And he never conducted surveillance on the house. Felix's landlord's brother testified that the informant and the house both reeked of pot, but even though Johnson saw the snitch frequently over the course of almost a year, he never smelled a thing, he would later admit in court. When the cases went to court, Johnson would explain that he trusted Felix.

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