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

Jefferson Roussopoulos was the next defendant to go to trial. Like Lederhaus, he claimed in his defense case to have bought marijuana from Felix on a regular basis, and to have smoked it with him. He also testified that he watched Felix sell it to others. He was convicted of four felonies and sentenced to a total of 98 months in prison. Roussopoulos appealed his conviction; a decision is expected sometime in the next month.

Two more people caught up in the same sting were convicted shortly thereafter. Most of the rest of the defendants who'd asked for the due process hearing were quickly convinced to accept plea bargains. One defendant, Richard Variano, won an acquittal when the prosecution created an opening for the defense to present its evidence about Felix. Another received a continuance for dismissal, a legal maneuver in which charges are essentially dropped.

In the later trials, Becker County had Felix brought back to Detroit Lakes from Missouri, where he was said to be working as both an informant and a carpenter. (City Pages was unable to locate Felix for this story.) One case had to be dismissed when the informant didn't show up.

Tim Okamura

Last September, Lederhaus's appeals attorney, Davi Axelson, asked the Court of Appeals to reconsider his case. Lederhaus's first attorney was wrong not to argue in favor of letting the evidence about Felix in at trial, he argued. If the jury had heard the testimony he, too, would have been acquitted. He also argued that Lederhaus should not have been sentenced to additional time in prison because the alleged transactions had taken place in a school zone.

Lederhaus may have better luck this time: In October, the appeals court overturned the conviction of another man fingered by Felix, Thomas Royal Renny. Renny had been convicted of selling marijuana based solely on Felix's word, which the judges found insufficient.

Informants often have incentives to lie, the judges in that case noted: "Other jurisdictions have adopted the rule that the testimony of an informant, like that of an accomplice, must be corroborated, and cannot sustain a conviction on its own. This argument is not without merit...The informant's success depends on the defendant's failure--arrests and convictions must occur for an informant to receive the benefits with which law enforcement rewards 'good snitches.'"

"It is overall a bad policy to rely upon informants to make your case, primarily because they get paid to send people to jail," says the Drug Policy Allliance's Bill Piper. "And so they have an incentive to manufacture evidence, which is what we're seeing around the country. It's endemic to the drug war. We've become a nation of informants, actually." If the federal government does keep the Byrne grants, Piper's organization would like to see the law rewritten to require that states receiving the grants demand corroboration of all evidence obtained from informants.

As for Deputy Pat Johnson, he's anxious to learn whether he'll still have the money to run informants next year. "You can get involved too much, turn a blind eye or close an eye because you want an operation to be successful," he admits. But if you're careful, a good snitch can work out well, he adds. "They're all pieces of shit, but they're needed in this business."

 

City Pages news intern Peter Cole contributed reporting and other research for this story.

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