Liar, Liar

A top DEA informant makes cases--and $200,000 a year--while breaking a few laws himself.

In the fall of 1995, Kenneth Allen Coleman made the mistake of his life. Flush with cash from an insurance settlement, the 28-year-old parolee got mixed up with a flashy dope peddler named Andrew Chambers, who was eager to sell him a kilo of cocaine for $16,500. When Coleman showed up at an Aurora motel with the money, he was promptly arrested, even though he'd never even touched the dope he was supposedly buying.

Last week Coleman, who has two prior felony drug convictions, pleaded guilty in Arapahoe County District Court to one count of possession with intent to distribute a controlled substance. The plea will net him a prison sentence of twelve to fourteen years. If he'd risked a trial and been convicted on all the charges in the case, he would have faced from 24 to 48 years.

As for Chambers--a forty-year-old con artist with an arrest record in three states, a hefty income derived largely from drug money and a history of lying on the witness stand--he collected his share of the cash seized at the bust and headed off to parts unknown. Nothing bad, it seems, ever happens to Andrew Chambers. He works for the government.

A top informant for the Drug Enforcement Administration, Chambers travels the country setting up people like Coleman. He's been involved in more than 150 federal drug cases in the past thirteen years, resulting in more than 300 arrests and the seizure of 500 kilograms of cocaine. His specialty, though, is the reverse undercover sting, in which he offers to sell drugs (usually "sham" crack or powder cocaine manufactured in a police lab) and police swoop in to arrest the suspects and seize their cash.

Chambers works on a percentage basis, collecting up to 25 percent of the take, and it's a highly lucrative arrangement. Since 1984 the DEA has paid him between $1 million and $1.5 million for his efforts. He has testified to making as much as $200,000 a year from his traveling narc show; one 1992 case netted him a reward check of $150,000.

Brought to Colorado in 1995 as the point man in a joint DEA-Aurora Police Department undercover investigation, Chambers was provided with a rental car, $500 a week in expenses, and enough fake cocaine to produce ten arrests, four federal drug cases and the seizure of more than $100,000 in cash. His share of the take was reportedly between $10,000 and $15,000--not bad for a few days' work.

But Chambers's visit wasn't entirely a happy one. Shortly after the operation in Aurora was completed, he wandered into a prostitution sting conducted by the Denver Police Department on East Colfax. According to the arrest report, he told an undercover police officer he wanted "some ass for $20," attempted to flee when confronted by the cops, then claimed to be a DEA agent. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of soliciting a prostitute and was fined $450; a charge of impersonating a police officer was dropped.

Truth has never been Chambers's strong suit. In previous cases he's testified that he's never been arrested or convicted, despite a 1985 arrest in Paducah, Kentucky, on a forgery charge (later dropped) and a 1978 conviction involving a fugitive warrant in St. Louis. In a Minnesota case, defense attorneys presented evidence that he not only had lied on the stand about previous arrests but had failed to file federal income-tax returns for six years while he was pulling in hundreds of thousands of dollars from the DEA. Despite such revelations, a federal appeals court ruled that the informant's perjury (for which he's never been charged) wasn't sufficient proof of government misconduct to overturn the drug conviction of the defendant in the case.

"He's a horrible blight on the whole system," says Paul Grant, Kenneth Coleman's attorney. "The DEA doesn't test him for drugs. They don't care if he pays his taxes; they usually pay him small amounts of cash, under the threshold of [bank] reporting requirements. They don't care if he's a liar, either, unless it causes them a problem."

In affidavits filed as a result of the Aurora sting operation, law enforcement officers acknowledge that they're aware of Chambers's past misdeeds but say they have no reason to believe he behaved improperly in conducting the local drug deals. DEA spokesman Carl Hinds says that agency policy prevents him from discussing the particulars of Chambers's cases, but he defends the entire Aurora investigation, which resulted in the arrests of several felons with prior drug records, as a credible one.

"Is it DEA policy to bring liars in front of the court?" No, Hinds says. "We have to use our discretion about what we bring to a prosecutor. In this case, the rest of the criminal justice system agreed that the charges brought against these folks had merit."

Yet the cases arising from the sting have taken a curious path to court. Last year prosecutors abruptly dismissed the federal charges in all four cases Chambers had initiated, citing unspecified "new information" that had come to light. (Three of the cases, including Coleman's, were subsequently refiled in Arapahoe County.) Grant and other defense attorneys suggest the feds washed their hands of the affair after U.S. District Judge Edward Nottingham indicated he would grant the defendants wide latitude in exploring Chambers's conduct in previous cases, as well as his tax problems.

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