Mississippi Cops Are Using College Kids As Drug Informants
A small-town narcotics unit has built a team of confidential informants by arresting low-level-offender college students and pressuring them to flip.
I’m fucked, Andy remembered thinking. The agents told him they had photos, and videos too. He wasn’t sure how this could've happened. He’d grown up in Oxford, Mississippi, and only bought weed from friends. Yet the agents were telling him they’d caught him making three purchases for a total of 12.3 grams, enough to send him to prison.
“They made it sound really serious,” said Andy, who, like every defendant in this story, requested anonymity. “For a little bit of pot, I’d be in there for a long time.”
He first thought about his parents, he said, about how mad they’d get, about how awful it would be to call them asking to bail him out. Then he thought about prison, and it terrified him. He was 18 years old, a freshman at a junior college, and he hoped to transfer to a four-year university soon. He smoked weed and ate mushrooms every now and then, but he’d never gotten into serious trouble.
Now here he was, in June 2011, sitting at a table across from two stern-faced agents from the Lafayette County Metro Narcotics Unit, in a small room in a squat brick detention center down the road from Oxford Square, the city’s main hangout spot, where Ole Miss students and young locals gather for Tuesday morning coffees and Sunday brunches and Friday night beers. (BuzzFeed News put together Andy’s story through interviews with him, his lawyer, his father, and a review of court documents.) The agents had not arrested him, he said, and he was not in handcuffs or detained against his will. The agents had simply stopped him as he left a friend’s house and told him they’d wanted to speak with him. They told him they could send him to jail today if they wanted, and Andy said he imagined his future swirling down the drain.
Then the agents gave him an out, one that would spare Andy any punishment.
Each year, the tiny four-person Lafayette County Metro Narcotics Unit recruits on average 30 confidential informants, many of them college students. Around half of those arrested by Metro Narcotics in 2014 were first-time offenders, and the unit made three times as many arrests for marijuana as for any other drug. For two decades those arrests helped win nearly half the unit's total budget from federal grants designed to help fight America’s War on Drugs. When the drug war began to cool down, and the federal funding dried up, local institutions stepped up to keep the unit alive. Thanks to money from the city and county governments and the University of Mississippi, Lafayette County Metro Narcotics continues busting college kids and turning them into informants by threatening them with hard time or the shame and lifelong burden of a drug record.
“Lafayette County Metro Narcotics Unit is a mill that functions exclusively through the recruitment of college student CIs to rat out other students,” said Tom Levidiotis, a former prosecutor who handled drug cases in the local district attorney’s office. “It’s such an enterprise here.”
Andy was about to become the latest recruit.
“They told me, you will go to jail and you will have a felony and you will never get a job,” he said. “But if you don’t want all of this shit to happen, all you have to do is this, and nobody will ever find out.”
A week later, he was wired up, hitting the streets, buying drugs in the service of the Lafayette County Metro Narcotics Unit, and his life would never be the same.
Use of confidential informants is as old as law enforcement. But they’ve played a special role in the drug war. A 1995 study in the National Law Journal found that 92% of search warrants in drug cases filed in federal courts in four major cities used information from a CI.
Narcotics CIs can bring home many busts in a short amount of time. And as long as a suspected dealer has enough customers, the CI’s cover is relatively safe. Ideally, a CI knows the local drug scene well and can lead authorities to new targets, which is especially useful in an insular and transient university community.
Scores of college-age young people in Oxford have sat in the same room as Andy and faced the same choice. The Lafayette County Metro Narcotics Unit has used around 300 confidential informants over the last decade, the agency’s captain, Keith Davis, told BuzzFeed News. And in Oxford, a tightly knit college town, word gets around.
“[I]f a white boy in a polo shirt comes over to your house to try to buy drugs, you make them pull up their shirt,” said one Ole Miss student who requested anonymity because of his involvement in the drug scene.
Metro Narcotics is a multi-jurisdictional task force made up of officials from the Lafayette County Sheriff’s Office, the Oxford Police Department, and the University of Mississippi Police Department. The city, county, and university created the unit to meet “the need for aggressive drug enforcement activity within the county,” according to the agreement signed by the leaders of the three institutions. It was one of hundreds of narcotics task forces that popped up from the 1980s onward as the federal government created new grants to support its escalation of the War on Drugs.
Lafayette County, a sleepy and residential square of land in northern Mississippi with a college town at its center, might seem an odd choice for drug war funding.
“I’d not heard of a particular drug problem out there,” said Leslie Lee, lead attorney at the Office of the State Defender.
To get the federal money, Metro Narcotics has to send a petition each year detailing its crime problem to the Mississippi Department of Public Safety, which slices up a pie of Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant money to distribute among local law enforcement agencies across the state. Last year, the department had around $2 million to dole out. In its most recent petition, the task force noted that Oxford "is experiencing a marked increase in arrests" and listed a detailed breakdown of drug arrests: nearly half of the unit's 228 drug arrests in 2014 were for marijuana, and around half of those arrested on a drug charge were first-time offenders. In the competition for a share of the funding, “you have to show that you have a real problem,” said Michael Levine, a former DEA agent who has written two books about his cases. “To show that you have a real problem, there’s only one way, and that’s to show the number of arrests that you're making.”
Up until recently, Metro Narcotics received around $200,000 annually, which covered nearly half of its budget. “It’s clear local law enforcement agencies have identified the goose that lays the golden egg,” said Ray Strack, a former U.S. Customs special agent in charge of narcotics cases. The unit met the rest of its budget with its other revenue sources. For years, suspects arrested on drug offenses had the option to pay a fine — sometimes as high as $25,000 — directly to Metro Narcotics and plead guilty to a lesser charge, according to court documents. The practice had ended by 2009, after Ken Coghlan, the public defender, threatened to sue District Attorney Ben Creekmore and his office for discriminating against poor defendants. And like other law enforcement agencies, the unit collected money from property seized through civil forfeiture laws. In 2014, for instance, the unit collected $130,701.50 worth of seized assets.
But federal funding was the unit’s lifeblood. “We survived off that grant,” said Metro Narcotics captain Keith Davis.
With just four full-time staffers in the budget, the unit depends on its self-sustaining network of CIs to keep the arrests — and funds — coming. That network includes many of Oxford’s college students, about half of the town’s population.
Police have used this same strategy in poor communities for decades. Alexandra Natapoff, a professor at Loyola Law School and author of Snitching: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice, estimated that 1 in 16 black men in their twenties living in high-crime, poor neighborhoods have served as an informant at least once. In those cases, authorities often exploit a person’s lack of financial resources: They can't afford a lawyer to get them out of it, or they’re eager to accept some cash in exchange for the work. In these cases, authorities often exploit a college student’s insecurity and naïveté.
“What concerns me the most is they work off of fear,” said Dean Worsham, a counselor at Ole Miss. “It happens so fast that the young person doesn’t have a chance to gather their wits. If they talk to their parents and if their parents get a lawyer, that changes the whole situation. You know, what I hear most, over and over, is ‘I didn’t know what I was getting into.'”
A typical deal that gets offered: Make 20 undercover buys, two buys each from 10 dealers, and it all goes away. Those arrests lead to more informants and so on.
Within the last decade, the state's Department of Public Safety shifted away from funding narcotics task forces and more toward rehabilitative programs. In 2009, Metro Narcotics’ allotment began to shrink. Last year, the unit received $54,000. This year, it received nothing. "Funding was not available for drug units after 2014," said Tim Wilkinson, program manager at the Mississippi Department of Public Safety's planning division. At least two drug task forces disbanded when the funding went away, he said.
So Metro Narcotics turned to the local institutions for funding. When the unit was receiving federal grant money, the county, city, and university chipped in a 25% local match, around $20,000 each in the years of peak funding. This year, Oxford, Lafayette County, and Ole Miss each provided $100,000, which in all covered nearly three-fourths of the unit’s current $425,000 budget.
“We have one of the best relationships you’re gonna find with the three [local law enforcement] departments,” said Danny Blanton, Ole Miss’ communications director. “If an investigation occurred that involved students, [local authorities] always let the university police department know and bring them to the table.”
Blanton said he had never heard anything about confidential informants on campus. "I'd be very surprised if that was an issue at the University of Mississippi."
And yet the university has continued to help bankroll the unit that has turned many of its students into confidential informants.
"If Ole Miss doesn't know, it's because they're willfully blind and they don't want to know," said one local defense attorney, who, like several other defense attorneys BuzzFeed News spoke to, requested anonymity to protect his clients from any bias by police and prosecutors. "They're funding it. They're part of the reason their students are in this situation. But you think they want parents to know about this? Hell no."
On his first buy, Andy said, he was sure the dealer would sense his nerves. The agents had not trained him. They offered only instruction about how to ensure the buy went down legally and effectively: Make sure the deal goes down in view of the camera. “The informants are dealing with the same circles they’ve always dealt with,” said Davis, the unit’s captain. “There’s no difference with them continuing to buy, just this time it's through law enforcement. They’re already making this decision.”
Andy met the dealer in front of his house. He waited in his car, nervously crumpling the three $20 bills in his hand. The dealer slid into the passenger's seat of the car, Andy gave him the money, and the dealer handed him an eighth of weed in a small plastic bag. Andy’s heart was still pumping fast as he drove off.
“It was terrifying,” he said. “More than just being scary, it was just a disgusting feeling. How can I put someone in the exact position I’m in now that I hate so much?”
The dealer was an acquaintance. It helped that Andy had grown up in Oxford. He knew a lot of people there, and he figured he could find 10 who would sell him weed or ketamine or pills or coke. When he had a target, he called the agents to let them know who he was meeting, where, and when.
Then he would get wired up, always following the same routine: He met the agents in an office inside the brick federal building on Oxford Square. An agent taped a microphone to his chest then gave him a polo shirt. The agent had pulled the shirt off of a rack filled with perhaps a dozen other polo shirts in many different colors. Inside each shirt, a thin wire ran up the front and into a button at the collar, where it was attached to a camera. The camera was nearly invisible, and even if you looked closely all you’d see was a thin black loose thread hanging out of the button. Another agent gave him something that looked like a lunchbox, the kind with soft, insulating sidings. There was a camera inside that box and it peeked out of a hole on the side. Andy was to place the box on his dashboard. Once the equipment was set, Andy called the dealer to confirm the deal.
He drove off and two agents followed in a car. They would be there to oversee the deal, they told him, and also to protect him. The agents had stressed Andy’s safety from the start. They would keep his identity secret. But Andy knew that was impossible. He figured out the identity of the informant who busted him. An affidavit, which listed the location of his purchases, made it clear. So did the photos and videos. The informant who busted him had been a longtime friend, a classmate from grade school through high school. The kid had spent the night at Andy’s house a few times. Andy was angry at him, but he understood. He had faced the same choice and made the same decision.
“I hate that I had to do it to anybody at all, but it was self-preservation at that point,” he said.
A few months into Andy’s CI work, the agents told him that they had also caught him buying psychedelic mushrooms and what he thought was a tab of LSD but was actually just a drop of food coloring. He assumed the people who sold them to him must have been CIs. The two new charges, the agent said, meant that he now had to make 30 busts instead of 10.
He’d been having enough trouble trying to make the 10. After the first five or six dealers, he realized that he didn’t know any others. He refused to go after any close friends — nobody in his immediate circle. He had to start asking around for dealers, and more and more time passed between his buys. Whenever he went two or three weeks without finding a target, his handler would text him. “Know anything yet?” After a few more days, his handler would call. Then, a few days later, text again.
“They just kept on the pressure,” Andy said. “It was so stressful.”
And so when he had a bust target, he had to jump on it. A few times, the dealer returned his call or text late at night and Andy had to rush out. His parents asked him where he was going, and he’d make up some weak lie. Other times, he was out with friends when he had to bail so he could make a buy.
“I couldn’t live life like a normal human being anymore,” he said. “I was lying to everyone, and I hated myself for it. I was doing this for people I hated and lying to people I love.”
He grew paranoid, he said, and wondered who knew he was doing informant work. Not just friends but strangers, people who looked at him a little too long when they passed on the sidewalk, people who were rude to him for no reason. “I thought they knew,” he said. The chase for more busts consumed him. He wanted desperately to get this all done with, and he grew more depressed with each buy. He had trouble falling asleep and woke up often through the night.
One day, he ran into a high school classmate’s older brother, Lee, who lived in his neighborhood. They chatted for a few minutes, caught up on each other’s lives. Lee mentioned that he’d started selling crack. Andy said that he wanted to buy some. A few days later, he met with Lee and bought about half a gram of crack for $40. Some weeks later, Lee was arrested and charged.
Not long after that, Andy ran into Lee’s roommate at a bar. Moments after they recognized each other, the roommate punched Andy in the face and walked away. Andy told his handler about the incident the next day. “Well, what do you want me to do about it?” the handler replied, according to Andy.
Davis disputed this. “It more than likely didn't happen,” he said. “It wasn't reported to us. If the informant was assaulted by a person they produced a case on and they told us about it, they would be arrested.”
Andy and Lee’s younger brother shared many mutual friends. Two of them told Andy that Lee’s friends and relatives had talked about payback. “My friends told me, ‘Man, we heard from some people you been setting some of their people up. They said they were gonna kill you, man,’” he said. They might have just been joking, Andy remembered his friend saying, just letting off steam. But Andy was scared.
He was at a skate park in his neighborhood one afternoon when he saw a group of eight or nine young men walking toward him, eyeing him as they approached. He recognized a few of them as Lee’s friends. He sprinted to his car and went home. He rarely left the house after that. He stopped responding to the agent’s texts and calls. He had completed 11 busts. He began planning to leave town.
Ole Miss is the preeminent institution in Lafayette County. More than 20,000 students attend the school, which sits in the center of Oxford, between two highways, shielded from passing cars by a wall of tall trees. The regal campus is lined with bright-red brick buildings fronted by thick and pristine white columns. It is the oldest public university in the state, and its past is intertwined with the seminal events in the history of the South. The school’s sports teams are nicknamed the Rebels, and until 2010 the mascot was a Confederate soldier. The university's informal name, Ole Miss, is said to originate from what slaves called a plantation owner’s mistress. But these days Ole Miss is as known for its culture and experience, its student life, as it is for its history: Saturday tailgates in The Grove during football season and fraternity parties in Old South–style mansions, a lively social scene throughout the year.
Days into Mr. B’s freshman year, he’d already started crushing on a girl at Ole Miss, Ms. T. One night Ms. T asked if Mr. B could hook her up with cocaine, which she knew his friend sold. He let her into his dorm building with his key card and brought her to his friend’s room, and the friend sold her a gram of powder for $60.
A few weeks later, a Metro Narcotics agent and a campus police officer showed up at his dorm to arrest him. The way Mr. B remembered it, the campus officer asked the Metro Narcotics agent, “Should I file a report?” and the agent said no.
At the detention center, Mr. B turned down the CI deal. Prosecutors charged him with conspiracy to sell drugs. Mr. B expected to hear from university officials soon. He figured he would get suspended, perhaps expelled, or if he was lucky maybe just placed in some sort of counseling program. Weeks passed. Nothing.
The university didn’t know about his arrest. While campus police accompanies Metro Narcotics agents for an arrest on campus, they don’t inform the school because they’re “not seeing a crime being committed on campus,” said Calvin Sellers, chief of the university police department.
“If we’re not making an arrest, why should we make a report?” Sellers said. “It doesn't have anything to do with the university other than the person lives there.”
They don’t inform the school even, as in Mr. B’s case, when the alleged drug deal took place in a campus dorm room.
Sellers told BuzzFeed News that eight to twelve Ole Miss students complete their CI work every year. One defense lawyer estimated that there were 30 to 40 active CIs enrolled at Ole Miss at any given time. Metro Narcotics declined to provide statistics on its CI program beyond the estimate of 300 informants over the last 10 years.
While the students are legally adults, many of them swapped the safe bubble of their family’s home for the safe bubble of a college campus. “You’re dealing with kids,” said Lance Block, a lawyer who has represented confidential informants in other states. “Eighteen-, 19-, 20-year-old people, as a general rule, should not be doing undercover work. It’s the most dangerous form of police work.”
CI work has ended tragically for some college-age men and women in recent years. Rachel Hoffman, 23, was killed in Florida in 2008 during a failed attempt to buy guns and drugs from two suspects. Her death led the state legislature to pass a law that prohibited officers from promising reduced charges in exchange for CI work. In January, Andrew Sadek, a 20-year-old college student in North Dakota, was found dead with a gunshot wound to the head. He had been working as a CI after getting arrested for selling $80 worth of weed. In October 2013, Eric Sinacori, a 20-year-old student at UMass-Amherst, died of a heroin overdose. He had agreed to work as a CI for the campus police department the year before, after he sold $20 worth of LSD to an undercover campus police officer. Officers searched his apartment and found various drugs and a hypodermic needle. Neither his parents nor the school were notified about his suspected heroin use.
In January, after an internal review of the campus police CI program, UMass-Amherst ended it. The review found that college students were “particularly vulnerable to coercion.” The administration admitted, however, that they had limited control over students getting recruited as CIs for other area police departments. “The university should establish and engage in discussions with law enforcement agencies,” a school press release stated, “about appropriate limitations on the use of UMass-Amherst students as confidential informants.”
Weeks after Andy stopped responding to his handler’s calls and texts, and while he was figuring out how to leave town, two agents walked into his biology class and arrested him right there. He faced a maximum of 16 years in prison for the drug charges. He pleaded guilty, but in a deal for a far lesser sentence: probation and drug court.
That sort of outcome is typical even for those who flat-out reject the CI deal. Mr. B, for example, endured harsh consequences, but not as harsh as what the Metro Narcotics agents threatened. The same went for Chris, an Ole Miss student who was caught selling two grams of weed to a friend. Mr. B and Chris both took plea deals for probation and drug court. They had 10 p.m. curfews every night, a daily check-in call with the court, a drug test at the courthouse once a week, two Narcotics Anonymous meetings a week, and a 10-week outpatient treatment program. They could not leave the state of Mississippi for at least nine months.
Many who do take the informant deal, such as Ms. T, hit their numbers and move on. Some, no doubt, end up like Andy, out of targets and sick of the busts and ashamed of the arrests they had caused.
Andy violated his probation more than once. He skipped a curfew. He missed calls from his probation officer. He was caught with alcohol in his system. He lost two years of credit for drug court and had to start his sentence over. He left Oxford and slept on a friend’s couch in another town. He transferred to another junior college. Then he dropped out of school. He suffered from depression, for which he took medication, he said. He said that he thought about the young men he had helped bust, and about how he had caused them the same anguish he was feeling. He feared some of them might come after him. Some days, his mother stayed in bed and cried through the morning, his dad said. Earlier this year, he violated the no-alcohol rule again and was ordered to live in a rehab facility for 60 days. He has more than three years left on his probation. He has no immediate plans to return to school. It has been nearly four years since he agreed to make drug busts for the Lafayette County Metro Narcotics Unit, and, the way Andy and his family see it, his life has been in a downward spiral since.
“These years have been wasted,” his father said. “He’s got nothing to show for these years. Fucking somebody’s life up for 12 grams of pot. What they did is more criminal than anything he’s ever done.”