Unlawful Entry

The high price of Denver's drug war: lies, bad busts, cops in harm's way - and the death of an innocent man.

"The real issue is that the information is coming from someone who may not exist," says criminal defense attorney Phil Cherner. "In many cases, I think the police just make these things up."

Cherner recalls one case he defended in which every member of the household testified that no one had visited the address in the hours prior to the raid, contrary to the information on the no-knock warrant, which stated that an informant had recently witnessed drug sales there. Such a defense may have little hope if dope is actually found on the premises, however. In many cases, a defendant's best bet may be to turn informant as well, swelling the ranks of the confidentially reliable in what has become a war of shadows.

The credibility problems in no-knock cases have been compounded by the growing role of street-level police officers in the drug campaign. Increasingly, the warrants are being written by relatively inexperienced Weed and Seed officers or neighborhood cops like Bini rather than veterans assigned to the Vice and Drug Control Bureau. The shift is part of the police department's push for less centralization and more intensive community policing. Although Cherner is contemptuous of all no-knocks, regardless of who prepares them -- "The difference between the veteran cops and the young guys may be simply that the veterans are better liars," he says -- there tends to be a marked difference between the affidavits written by top vice cops and those put together by street officers.

Safety manager Butch Montoya stays on, appointed by the mayor to a panel reviewing no-knock policies.
David Rehor
Safety manager Butch Montoya stays on, appointed by the mayor to a panel reviewing no-knock policies.

The career narcotics officer's affidavits are usually more detailed and show a zest for legwork. Suspects are identified by multiple record checks, their rap sheets combed for prior weapons or assault charges. The targeted address is staked out and meticulously described, its ownership and occupants thoroughly researched. The informant's track record is prominently displayed. The narc swears to his facts with a kind of confidence approaching certainty, and the result is often a better haul and a case that might actually stand up in court.

By contrast, many of the street-officer warrants are as hinky as the small-time dealers they seek to nab. The targets are identified only by their street names -- Bubs or Silk or Black or Coolio -- and sometimes by no name at all. The suspect is confined to a wheelchair but "possibly armed with a knife at all times," or she is nine months pregnant or missing a hand, or he just happened to inform some anonymous source that he would "go to war with the police." The surveillance is perfunctory, the informant full of interesting but uncorroborated gossip. In some cases, the informant is considered so terribly reliable that no drug buy is considered necessary before seeking a no-knock raid.

The failure rate of no-knocks is depressingly high. For every search that turns up something impressive -- a cache of guns, a major meth lab, a wad of cash -- there are half a dozen others that yield minuscule quantities of dope or nothing at all. Inventory of items seized from a house on Humboldt Street last November: a Public Service bill, an ID card and "miscellaneous paperwork." Seized from a house on West 44th Avenue in December: a crack pipe, a spoon with suspected narcotic residue, a small baggie of marijuana, a "plastic baggie containing smaller ziplock baggies" and an inmate ID card. Seized at a house on Gaylord Street in October: drug paraphernalia and a cell phone. At a house on Downing Street, also in October: "nothing recovered."

The reasons for this litany of futility are not hard to figure out. They include the delay in obtaining warrants (some raids occur several weeks after the controlled buy), the transient nature of dealers and of crackhouses, the low-level status of most of the targets, the tendency of crackheads to consume any excess product they might have around the place, the exaggerations of informants -- and sometimes, quite simply, bad information.

Joe Bini had more experience with drug cases than many street officers, but he hit his share of dry holes, too. Last August he requested a no-knock warrant on a house where, a few months earlier, he and his partner had recovered $4,000 and a little pot. A SWAT raid at the same address in May had come up empty, though, and this time around was no different. Items taken: a VCR, hats, a compact disc player.

The following month produced an even worse bust. Items taken from 3738 High Street: miscellaneous papers, a gun box, a box of ammo -- and the life of Ismael Mena.

In December, acting on a fresh batch of anonymous tips, Denver police officers returned to the 3700 block of High Street to deal with a crackhouse -- the one directly to the north of Mena's place, the one they'd missed on that deadly afternoon in September. On December 7, an undercover cop walked up to the front window of 3742 High and bought $60 worth of crack from a twelve-year-old boy. A SWAT team hit the house that evening.

Seized in the raid were three baggies of crack, twenty dollars in cash and a crack pipe, which was reportedly found on the person of 24-year-old Robert Foster, the only adult on the premises. Foster pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and received probation; the juvenile who'd sold the crack to the cop was bailed out of jail by his mother and dropped out of sight.

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