Police enlist young offenders as confidential informants. But the work is high-risk, largely unregulated, and sometimes fatal.
On the evening of May 7, 2008, a twenty-three-year-old woman named Rachel Hoffman got into her silver Volvo sedan, put on calming jam-band music, and headed north to a public park in Tallahassee, Florida. A recent graduate of Florida State, she was dressed to blend into a crowd—bluejeans, green-and-white patterned T-shirt, black Reef flip-flops. On the passenger seat beside her was a handbag that contained thirteen thousand dollars in marked bills.
Before she reached the Georgia-peach stands and Tupelo-honey venders on North Meridian Road, she texted her boyfriend. “I just got wired up,” she wrote at 6:34 P.M. “Wish me luck I’m on my way.”
“Good luck babe!” he replied. “Call me and let me know what’s up.”
“It’s about to go down,” she texted back.
Behind the park’s oaks and blooming crape myrtles, the sun was beginning to set. Young mothers were pushing strollers near the baseball diamonds; kids were running amok on the playground. As Hoffman spoke on her iPhone to the man she was on her way to meet, her voice was filtered through a wire that was hidden in her purse. “I’m pulling into the park with the tennis courts now,” she said, sounding casual.
Perhaps what put her at ease was the knowledge that nineteen law-enforcement agents were tracking her every move, and that a Drug Enforcement Administration surveillance plane was circling overhead. In any case, Rachel Hoffman, a tall, wide-eyed redhead, was by nature laid-back and trusting. She was not a trained narcotics operative. On her Facebook page you could see her dancing at music festivals with a big, goofy smile, and the faux profile she’d made for her cat (“Favorite music: cat stevens, straycat blues, pussycat dolls”).
A few weeks earlier, police officers had arrived at her apartment after someone complained about the smell of marijuana and voiced suspicion that she was selling drugs. When they asked if she had any illegal substances inside, Hoffman said yes and allowed them in to search. The cops seized slightly more than five ounces of pot and several Ecstasy and Valium pills, tucked beneath the cushions of her couch. Hoffman could face serious prison time for felony charges, including “possession of cannabis with intent to sell” and “maintaining a drug house.” The officer in charge, a sandy-haired vice cop named Ryan Pender, told her that she might be able to help herself if she provided “substantial assistance” to the city’s narcotics team. She believed that any charges against her could be reduced, or even dropped.
Hoffman’s legal worries were augmented by the fact that this wasn’t her first drug offense. A year earlier, while she was a senior, police pulled her over for speeding and found almost an ounce of marijuana in her car. She was ordered into a substance-abuse program, which required regular drug testing. Later, after failing to report for a test, she spent three days in jail.
Hoffman chose to coöperate. She had never fired a gun or handled a significant stash of hard drugs. Now she was on her way to conduct a major undercover deal for the Tallahassee Police Department, meeting two convicted felons alone in her car to buy two and a half ounces of cocaine, fifteen hundred Ecstasy pills, and a semi-automatic handgun.
The operation did not go as intended. By the end of the hour, police lost track of her and her car. Late that night, they arrived at her boyfriend’s town house and asked him if Hoffman was inside. They wanted to know if she might have run off with the money. Her boyfriend didn’t know where she was.
“She was with us,” he recalled an officer saying. “Until shit got crazy.”
Two days after Hoffman disappeared, her body was found in Perry, Florida, a small town some fifty miles southeast of Tallahassee, in a ravine overgrown with tangled vines. Draped in an improvised shroud made from her Grateful Dead sweatshirt and an orange-and-purple sleeping bag, Hoffman had been shot five times in the chest and head with the gun that the police had sent her to buy.
By the evening of her death, Rachel Hoffman had been working for the police department for almost three weeks. In bureaucratic terms, she was Confidential Informant No. 1129, or C.I. Hoffman. In legal parlance, she was a “coöperator,” one of thousands of people who, each year, help the police build cases against others, often in exchange for a promise of leniency in the criminal-justice system.
Informants are the foot soldiers in the government’s war on drugs. By some estimates, up to eighty per cent of all drug cases in America involve them, often in active roles like Hoffman’s. For police departments facing budget woes, untrained C.I.s provide an inexpensive way to outsource the work of undercover officers. “The system makes it cheap and easy to use informants, as opposed to other, less risky but more cumbersome approaches,” says Alexandra Natapoff, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles and a leading expert on informants. “There are fewer procedures in place and fewer institutional checks on their use.” Often, deploying informants involves no paperwork and no institutional oversight, let alone lawyers, judges, or public scrutiny; their use is necessarily shrouded in secrecy.
“They can get us into the places we can’t go,” says Brian Sallee, a police officer who is the president of B.B.S. Narcotics Enforcement Training and Consulting, a firm that instructs officers around the country in drug-bust procedures. “Without them, narcotics operations would practically cease to function.”
Every day, offenders are sent out to perform high-risk police operations with few legal protections. Some are juveniles, occasionally as young as fourteen or fifteen. Some operate through the haze of addiction; others, like Hoffman, are enrolled in state-mandated treatment programs that prohibit their association with illegal drugs of any kind. Many have been given false assurances by the police, used without regard for their safety, and treated as disposable pawns of the criminal-justice system.
The recruitment of young informants often involves risks that are incommensurate with the charges that they are facing. And the costs of coöperating can be high. A case that has dragged on for years in the courts involved LeBron Gaither, a sixteen-year-old student at a public high school in Lebanon, Kentucky. One afternoon, Gaither, who, according to his family, was generally mild-mannered, had an outburst in which he punched the school’s assistant principal in the jaw. He was taken into custody for juvenile assault. An officer from the Kentucky State Police came to see him, and told him that he could face a prison term or he could agree to become a local drug informant.