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

Danny Johnson's neighborhood used to be quiet. Made up of modest working-class houses and mature trees, it was located right in the heart of Detroit Lakes, about 45 miles east of Fargo. Johnson, a janitor at the county courthouse three blocks away, and his wife Patty, who also worked for Becker County, could run home for lunch. The house was kitty-corner from an elementary school.

One day in the summer of 2000, Johnson came home to discover Police Chief Kal Keena nosing around the vacant house across the alley from his. Keena would later deny saying it, but Johnson swears the chief told him he was looking for a place for his daughter to rent.

In any case, Keena's daughter never materialized. Instead, a man named Michael Felix moved in with his wife and three kids. Fiftyish and short, Felix stood out in the town of 7,500. He was missing many of his front teeth, had a pointy little beard, tattoos on his neck, and growths on his face. Neighbors say he looked a bit like a troll.

It wasn't long before trouble started. When he came home for lunch now, Johnson would later testify in court, he'd watch a long line of cars pull up at the Felix household, or sometimes around the corner in front of Johnson's house. The cars would hover for a few minutes and then leave. During the hour he'd spend at home, Johnson would count 10, 12, sometimes 15 cars, often carrying several teens. Sometimes the people would go into the house, while other times Felix would come out, stick his head in the car window, and then go back inside.

Suspecting Felix was selling drugs, and scared for his own teenaged son, Johnson testified that he and his wife placed the first of at least 150 calls to the police. Occasionally the police would come out, but they never did anything but ask questions, Johnson says. "They'd say, 'Yeah, yeah, we'll think about it,'" he complained later. "'We'll call 'em and check on 'em.'" After a while, they would just ask the Johnsons to take down license plate numbers.

Adding to their troubles, the Johnsons and other neighbors testified, the times the police did come out were enough to make the new neighbor angry, but not enough to stop him from threatening people he suspected of ratting him out. According to court documents, Felix and his oldest son threatened the adults in the families of Danny Johnson and a neighbor, Jeff Johnson (no relation), as well as Danny Johnson's teenage son.

"You were scared to go out of your driveway," Danny Johnson would later testify. "My wife was threatened by Mr. Felix and a son that was there at the time when I wasn't home, swore at her and whatever. I mean, it was a scary place. And we had to come out of that driveway every single day, every time we left our house."

Other neighbors were frantically dialing 911 too. Jo and Jeff Johnson's backyard backed up to Felix's. Jeff Johnson testified that he smelled marijuana coming from the new neighbor's place. He was forced to stop his kids, ages two and six, from using the side of the yard that abutted Felix's because he kept finding glass, eating utensils, and garbage thrown over the fence.

Eventually, Danny Johnson started calling a sheriff's deputy by the name of Patrick Johnson (again, no relation). Both men had worked in the courthouse for a while, and Danny Johnson knew that the deputy was a narcotics investigator. For a while, he didn't get anywhere complaining to the deputy, either. But then, in April 2001, according to both men's testimony, the deputy told Johnson a secret: Felix was an informant buying drugs for a big undercover operation the deputy had set up. The constant parade of cars was people selling methamphetamine to Felix, who was being paid a fee to buy it.

Far from being relieved, Johnson was enraged. Over the previous nine months, the sting had turned his neighborhood into a slum. "What if a deal had gone bad?" he rages. "What if someone found out he was an informant and got angry? Those kids are out there on the playground [across the street] every day. What if something went bad? What if some grade-schooler got shot?"

Two months later, Michael Felix moved out. According to testimony, he left several months' rent unpaid. The house itself was uninhabitable. The floors needed replacing and the walls were pocked with holes. Closet doors had been torn down and nailed to walls on the first floor to keep the family's animals downstairs. There was dog and cat shit everywhere. A contractor who came from Fargo estimated it would cost $34,000 to make the house livable. The landlord didn't have it, so he and his brother gutted the house and fixed it up themselves.

The damage to the neighborhood proved impossible to fix. Jeff Johnson's family moved out a while back, and one by one, the other neighbors up and down Willow Street and Summit Avenue have sold, too. Danny and Patricia Johnson are moving in the spring. "I don't want anything to do with this city now," he complains.

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.

 

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.

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.

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.

Tom Ploof is chief deputy of the Morrison County Sheriff's Department and one of the people who vouched for Felix when it was time to end his Little Falls sting. "We got pretty good recommendations for him and when we used him we didn't have any problems," he says. "Of course, any informant is only as good as your controls on him. And that's what the cops are there for, to do the quality control."

 

In 1988, a New York City police officer named Edward Byrne was killed during a drug raid. Byrne's parents took his badge to Washington and, in a highly publicized display, presented it to Ronald Reagan. Conveniently, Reagan was in the process of declaring war on drugs, and the Byrnes begged him to avenge their son. The result: the U.S. Department of Justice's Edward Byrne Memorial Fund, which last year doled out hundreds of millions to bureaucracies involved in fighting drugs and violent crime.

Although the grants can be applied in some 29 anti-crime "purpose areas," by far the largest single kind of expenditure, accounting for 40 percent of the dollars spent, is funding for regional drug task forces. The Justice Department gives the money to states, which kick in a 25 percent match and redistribute the money.

According to documents obtained from the state Department of Public Safety under Minnesota's Data Practices Act, Deputy Johnson's sting was paid for by a Byrne grant. "In our task force area, at least 80 percent of all drug crime is solved through confidential informants," the task force's 2002 grant paperwork states. "With the development and use of confidential informants, we are able to conduct controlled buys and undercover agent introductions for the purchase of narcotics. This method is highly effective and these informants are crucial to our task for operations."

The paperwork filed by the task force goes on to estimate that Felix, described as "a mercenary informant," would be far more effective than he in fact was. "At this reporting, approximately 72 individuals have sold, on numerous occasions, quantities of methamphetamine, cocaine, marijuana, and other illicit drugs," the documents state. "A majority of these 72 defendants will be charged with mandatory minimum 86-month commitments to prison. Some of these defendants are second- and third-time offenders. This total operation has cost the WCM Task Force and the City of Detroit Lakes $62,780."

Regardless of the final number of cases made by the sting, it's clear the drug agents were pleased. "Even though this sting operation put the West Central Minnesota Task Force in the red, we feel that it was needed to gain back the streets of Detroit Lakes and the county of Becker," the documents conclude. "WCM would also like to have another mercenary informant, such as we had in Detroit Lakes, to be utilized in another portion of our nine-county area in 2002." The task force's activities fit tidily into several of Byrne's "purpose areas," including "drug-free school zone enforcement."

The money kept flowing. In 2003, the task force asked for and received $113,671 in Byrne grant funds and $37,891 in matching state funds. The agency's final progress reports have yet to be turned in, but according to its 2003 application, almost $40,000 of the money was earmarked as "confidential funds" that were to be used to pay for drugs and other evidence and for informants.

The gravy train may be coming to an end, though, because Byrne has increasingly become the subject of critical scrutiny. Rural anti-drug task forces operating with Byrne grants and little oversight have sparked a number of scandals across the country in recent years. To date, the most visible of those scandals centered on a drug sting that took place in Tulia, Texas, in the late '90s.

Based solely on the uncorroborated testimony of a police officer working as a private informant for the Byrne-funded Panhandle Narcotics Task Force, 46 people were arrested. Forty of them were black (representing 15 percent of Tulia's black population), and the remainder Latino or involved in interracial relationships. After the first seven defendants tried received lengthy prison sentences--one of 99 years--14 more defendants quickly pleaded guilty and were sentenced to prison. Still others were sentenced to probation.

The prosecutions unraveled after two of the defendants were able to prove conclusively that they were at work or outside the state at the time the informant said they were selling drugs. After a state judge ordered new trials for 35 of the defendants, Texas Gov. Rick Perry simply pardoned them. The informant, meanwhile, was charged with perjury last April. The prosecutor in the cases is under investigation for possible misconduct.

After the Tulia scandal, the Texas ACLU studied Byrne funding in that state and found scandals involving 17 regional drug task forces underwritten by the grants. "The fundamental problem is that you have these task forces out there operating with little or no supervision and absolutely no state or federal accountability," Texas ACLU President Will Harrell told the Dallas Observer. "No one is accepting responsibility, and the task forces have one motive and one motive only: to produce numbers lest they lose their funding for the next year. But no one questions how they go about their business."

In response to the scandals and the governor's pardons, the Texas legislature recently passed a law saying no one can be convicted based on the word of an informant without strong corroborating evidence. Similar laws have long been in place in many states regarding the testimony of co-conspirators, and police are routinely trained to collect corroborating evidence.

The grants haven't been a problem just for Texas, either. Task forces in Missouri, Kentucky, Alabama, and Virginia have faced allegations of corruption. Many of the operations being scrutinized involved informants located in school zones, public housing projects, or other drug-free zones; paid informants allowed to operate with little or no supervision; drugs provided to minors. Congress's investigative arm, the General Accounting Office, has criticized the program for failing to monitor grant recipients adequately.

"Really the Byrne grant incentives just perpetuate the arrests of small-time, nonviolent drug offenders as opposed to really reducing drug use and the costs associated with drug use," says Bill Piper, associate director of national affairs for the Washington, D.C.-based Drug Policy Alliance. "The feds are passing this anti-drug money out like candy and they are not monitoring what local and state agencies are doing with it. There's little accountability over these regional task forces because they exist in kind of a gray area between the local, state, and federal governments. No one is really watching what they are doing."

The lack of accountability is especially dangerous, he continues, because the grants give police an incentive to make as many arrests as possible, whether or not the arrests will help make the community safer. "The more these task forces fail, the more they get money," he says. "And by fail, I mean that the problem is that to get money they have to go out and make all sorts of arrests. The more arrests they make, the more money they can get in the future. We've been arresting more and more people for 30 years now in the war on drugs and clearly it's not working. Is drug use going down in their district? I doubt it. The Byrne grant just rewards those failed policies."

Ironically, Byrne's biggest enemies may turn out to be the very forces that backed the war on drugs. The right-wing Heritage Foundation has joined the chorus now lambasting the grants as ineffective, wasteful, and too focused on small-time drug sales instead of stemming the flow of drugs into communities. The money would be better used, according to the conservative think-tank and its allies in Washington, to fight terrorism.

Accordingly, the Bush administration plans to ask Congress for $600 million in Byrne money next year. That's one fourth as much money as the program received this year. In addition, it may be merged with another program that provides grants to local law enforcement.

In Minnesota, support for the task forces has softened, too. After funding for the state's gang strike force was nearly eliminated during the last legislative session, officials began discussing consolidating the gang- and drug-fighting agencies.

Patrick Johnson is quick to say that he thinks this would be a mistake. Without the money, he says, operations like his would be finished. As it is, he says, "We don't have as many informants as we'd like, because we don't have the money to pay these people what they deserve."

 

Despite the long line of witnesses ready to testify, the jury that convicted Trent Lederhaus never heard the bulk of the evidence his attorney planned to present. Felix served 34 months in prison following a 1988 felony drug conviction from Rice County, as well as a 1981 burglary conviction in Oregon. But Lederhaus's attorney couldn't use this information to discredit him because his convictions were more than 10 years old.

Much more damning, however, the bulk of the evidence Lederhaus had that alleged Felix was selling drugs was never aired. After presenting its case against Lederhaus, the prosecution asked the judge to "prohibit the introduction of evidence that would tend to show that Michael Felix was either selling, distributing, or using drugs" any time other than during the sales Lederhaus was charged with making.

Lederhaus's attorney protested that Felix's activities were relevant, but didn't offer any explanation why, according to Lederhaus's appeal. The court barred the evidence, and Lederhaus was convicted of all three offenses and sentenced to six and a half years in prison. He appealed to the state Court of Appeals, arguing that he had been denied his right to present a defense. The judges didn't address his claim, however, concluding that he gave up his right to argue the point because his attorney didn't raise it at trial.

Lederhaus was the first of the people arrested in the sting to go to trial. After he was convicted, attorneys representing 20 others jointly requested a court hearing to determine whether the charges against their clients should be dismissed because their right to due process had been violated. The attorneys argued that law enforcement had acted outrageously by setting the operation up in a school zone, by failing to monitor Felix's transactions adequately, and by allowing "the informant's criminal behavior to escalate to outrageous proportions." The judge denied the motion.

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.

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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