A US law enforcement agent based in Brazil shared sensitive information about international drug-trafficking investigations with his girlfriend — and then, after she ended their affair, pursued a campaign of stalking and harassment that continues to this day.
Even within the Drug Enforcement Administration, an agency frequently criticized for failing to punish misconduct by employees, Special Agent Scott Nickerson’s actions stand out. Months after returning to the United States, he still frequently messages the woman, Larissa Carvalho. He manages to learn her precise location, even seemingly down to her parking spot, while living thousands of miles away. At one point she logged on to her wedding website to find it filled with vivid photographs of her and Nickerson engaged in sex acts.
In WhatsApp messages, Nickerson, 35, mentioned using prostitutes, a violation of DEA rules. From his official Justice Department email, he sent Carvalho secret operational details about major drug cartels.
The DEA told BuzzFeed News that Nickerson has been under investigation for 10 months. But despite numerous complaints that Carvalho, 25, has filed about his behavior — and more than 100 text messages and emails that document his harassment — he has not been stripped of his badge or stopped from harassing Carvalho and her loved ones.
“My bosses don’t give a shit, I told them you’re bad shit crazy and they’re buying that,” Nickerson wrote to Carvalho last August, months after the investigation is said to have started. In a separate note sent only a minute later, he wrote, “Actually I told everybody you’re bad shit crazy and no one will help an insane person.”
Days later, Nickerson, who through a lawyer declined to speak with BuzzFeed News, wrote her: “I can do whatever I want and no one will care about you.”
The US Consulate in São Paulo had always been a beacon of safety for Larissa Carvalho. Growing up around the corner, she could roam her neighborhood at night because of the extra police protection that the diplomats commanded.
Lately, though, the complex, with its high barriers, is a persistent reminder of the gun-packing American special agent who went from being her lover to being her tormentor. Carvalho said her hair is falling out from the stress, her weight has dropped more than 15 pounds, and she can’t sleep without taking a pill.
In 2014, not long after graduating from college, Carvalho met Scott Nickerson, a married special agent with the US Drug Enforcement Administration who worked out of the consulate. The two soon fell into a steamy affair.
After some months, Nickerson asked Carvalho’s help with a work emergency — the first of several jobs translating documents that included operational details of investigations to be shared with Brazilian authorities. She asked if it was safe for him to be sending them to her.
In all, Nickerson sent at least five documents detailing the operations and associates of drug kingpins. One high-level trafficker had personally negotiated sales of hundreds of kilograms of cocaine with a rebel group, then run airplanes brimming with guns, cash, and drugs between Colombia and his personal ranch in Paraguay.
Another, whose name and mobile phone PIN numbers were included in the memo, coordinated half-ton shipments of cocaine across South America and into Europe and Africa.
An additional update listed secret phone and PIN numbers used by a leader of the Gulf Clan, Colombia’s biggest organized crime unit.
Strict rules govern the way details like that are handled, to protect the integrity of an investigation as well as the safety of innocent people. Passing sensitive documents to people who are not meant to see them violates DEA rules and can be grounds for firing; it is not clear whether Nickerson’s actions were unlawful.
In the midst of this ongoing breach, Nickerson made just one passing request:
“I know you will, but please be careful with the numbers,” Nickerson wrote about the telephone and PIN numbers in the memo.
Meanwhile, he and Carvalho were taking short trips out of town together. He frequently joked about “Obama pay,” a reference, she explained, to charging some of their hotel rooms and other travel expenses to American taxpayers. At one couples-only resort on the southeastern coast, according to chat logs, he booked a stay for them in a VIP suite that featured a private Jacuzzi with ocean views and whose website promised “the ideal place for anyone” to “spend a memorable honeymoon.” The suites cost about $300 a night, according to the resort’s website — three times the cost of many lodgings in the area.
The transcripts of their chats contain more than 30 references to “Obama” paying for some of the couple’s travel costs.
In a couple of the chats, Nickerson mentioned using prostitutes. At one point he wrote, “you being with your ex isn’t much unlike me being with my wife here or with prostitutes when I travel."
In the summer of 2015, Nickerson told Carvalho that his wife had learned about the affair and returned to the US.
Back in São Paulo, the affair continued for a time, but eventually Carvalho ended it, telling Nickerson that she was going to marry a German man she had been dating. And that, she said, pushed Nickerson over the edge.
For months, said Carvalho and three of her relatives and friends, he stalked her around the city. He turned up where she least expected him, she said: at the mall, lingering near where she and her friends were hanging out; or sitting two rows behind her at the movies, then waiting for her outside the bathroom. She blocked his number and switched to a different gym to avoid running into him. But driving home from the new location, she said she looked in her rearview mirror and saw Nickerson’s SUV, with its unmistakable blue, diplomatic plates and tinted windows — “for safety and blow jobs,” he had once messaged. Nickerson proceeded to tailgate her, she said. Before long he was emailing threats against her and her fiancé.
Against her better judgment, she remained in occasional touch with him. But eventually, Carvalho decided she had had enough. She blocked him on her remaining social media accounts, writing, “if you don't stop I'm gonna call the police. Leave me alone!"
Yet Nickerson kept an eye on Carvalho even from thousands of miles away — and he made sure she knew it.
“You had fun shopping today?” he asked last August. Another day that month, he told her to send his regards to the friend she had spent the day with. In one week last July, he sent her nearly 40 emails — swinging from demands (“You will talk to me, whether you like it or not”) to sweet talk (“Please talk to me, don’t give up on us”) to threats (“It would be so sad for you to see your German boyfriend wounded, huh”). Their wedding, the still-married DEA agent warned, “will be a disaster.”
Carvalho said she considered approaching local police several times as Nickerson’s abuse escalated. But in the end, she felt the risks were too high: In Brazil, she said, complaints about stalkers and domestic abuse are often ignored, and word easily could get back to Nickerson through his connections in law enforcement.
So, she said, she decided to reach out to reporters. An American named Brad Brooks, who works in São Paulo for the Reuters news agency, was among the first to respond. Brooks interviewed Carvalho and investigated her claims off and on for months, she said. Somehow, Nickerson got wind of that, too. “Maybe your journalist cares but who cares about him?” he emailed Carvalho.
Months later, after her complaints drew a response from the Justice Department's internal oversight office, he sent her three emails in a single day warning her to “keep your mouth shut.” One also included the names of four of Brooks’ female relatives who live in Brazil.
Reuters decided to drop the story. “One of our reporters in Sao Paulo was presented with a lead on a potential story and he looked into it,” Reuters’ spokesperson, Abbe Serphos, said in a statement to BuzzFeed News. “Given more pressing priorities at the time, he didn’t pursue it.” Brooks declined to comment, saying he was not authorized to discuss newsroom deliberations. But newsroom managers sent a letter to the Justice Department expressing concern about Nickerson’s comments, including that he knew Brooks’ travel schedule.
He later employed a similar tactic when this BuzzFeed News reporter began talking with Carvalho. Nickerson sent her messages that included details of the reporter’s personal life, then another that named the photographer, as well as her parents and where they live.
One day, logging on to her wedding website at the suggestion of a concerned friend, Carvalho was shocked to discover sexually explicit photographs of herself and Nickerson splashed across the site.
Carvalho crumpled onto the floor, she said, bawling “like a crazy person.” Out of fear for their safety, and their guests’, she and her fiancé have changed the date of the wedding, she said, and looked into hiring security guards.
The Justice Department has acknowledged receiving numerous complaints about Nickerson’s conduct from Carvalho, her friends and relatives, and Reuters. In the complaints that she filed herself, Carvalho said, she offered to share text messages and emails documenting the harassment.
One of the earliest complaints, which Carvalho’s mother filed in May 2016, detailed Nickerson’s habit of asking Carvalho to translate official documents, saying he forced her to handle “sensitive information about dangerous people that should not be sent to anyone not involved in these operations.” Nickerson’s “irresponsibility and carelessness” put Carvalho “at extreme risk,” her letter stated. She also offered to provide “all the evidence to prove what I report,” via email, in addition to what she said she was sending through the post office.
The Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General, an internal watchdog, is responsible for investigating the most serious allegations of misconduct by DEA employees. Among the issues that the inspector general has flagged as ongoing problems at the agency are sexual misconduct (including hiring prostitutes) and sharing sensitive investigative material.
Carvalho said the inspector general’s office never acknowledged receiving the letter from her mother. Five months later, Carvalho emailed to object that her earlier complaints had been ignored. As a result, she wrote, she had shown Nickerson’s paper trail to reporters. A senior special agent, Michael Fletcher, sent her a few emails seeking to speak with her by phone. Carvalho’s call log shows that she called him at least seven times, but she said they never managed to connect. Fletcher declined to comment on the matter.
At least two other people who filed complaints on Carvalho's behalf received form letters stating that the inspector general “thoroughly reviewed the material and concluded that the issue raised does not warrant an investigation by this office.” The letters conclude: “This office will take no further action regarding your correspondence and considers the matter closed.”
After closing the complaints, the inspector general forwarded them to the DEA, the form letters show.
In response to questions about Nickerson, the Office of the Inspector General issued a general statement affirming its commitment to combatting misconduct, and stating that it could “neither confirm nor deny the existence of an investigation.”
But Rusty Payne, a spokesperson for the DEA, told BuzzFeed News that Nickerson is being investigated: “In June of 2016, the DEA Office of Professional Responsibility began an investigation into the allegations in question. The matter remains pending within our disciplinary process and we cannot comment further.”
The Justice Department had no additional comment.
The Office of the Inspector General has warned on at least five occasions over the past 15 years that the DEA’s disciplinary system is broken, that sexual misconduct by its agents is rampant and often barely punished, and that agents working overseas often are woefully unprepared, lacking even a basic understanding of what off-duty activities are permitted under the agency’s personnel rules. In one case, in 2012, DEA agents in Colombia attended sex parties financed by a drug cartel, yet most of the agents received only minor reprimands or brief suspensions. Some of the agents later got performance bonuses.
Inspector General Michael Horowitz said last year that the Justice Department’s law enforcement units suffered from “failure to report misconduct allegations to component headquarters, failure to investigate allegations fully, weakness in the adjudication process, and weaknesses in detecting and preserving sexually explicit texts and images.”
The inspector general also has criticized the DEA repeatedly for making it nearly impossible to perform rigorous oversight by refusing to turn over documents that it is legally required to share.
Members of Congress, too, have said the DEA treats rogue agents too leniently. Sen. Chuck Grassley, who chairs the powerful committee that oversees the Justice Department, pointed in a June oversight hearing to the need to fix the “DEA’s broken disciplinary system.”
“There have been some black eyes on this agency’s record, and accountability seems to be lacking,” he said, adding that the agency has “a long-entrenched problem” with sidestepping oversight.
In her letter to the Justice Department last May, Carvalho’s mother wrote that she only wanted “to make sure my complaint will be heard and this agent won’t be able to do this again and won’t be able to do anything to harm my daughter."
Twelve months later, Nickerson’s warnings were still coming. Last week, he wrote:
Pay attention, I know you’re stupid, but at least try
You will not communicate with Daniel or with any other journalist. I will tell them you are bad shit crazy and my family will confirm that you’re harassing me because they think you’re the sociopath here…
You made that up, I never sent you anything and you never translated anything for DEA, and they already know you’re dyslexic and stupid
I’m going to say you’re crazy and that’s the end for you…
Unless you decide to be a good girl
Tell them you won’t cooperate anymore and will deny everything
“You know I wouldn’t hurt you,” he told her, but he went on to mention her parents, her boyfriend, and her nephew, who is 5.
Carvalho lamented how much of her life Nickerson’s stalking had overshadowed.
“I want to be a normal bride, someone who cares about flowers looking pretty, not about some crazy person who is hiding behind a tree somewhere,” she said.
“I just want this to be over.” ●
Alexandre Aragão in São Paulo contributed reporting.