A North Metro Task Force investigation takes another hit

Just a week before prominent Thornton restaurateur Dan Tang is set to be sentenced for his part in the largest indoor marijuana bust in state history, the lead investigator on the case and a colleague have filed a federal lawsuit alleging that they faced retaliation from their superiors for reporting suspected corruption to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.

On Friday, March 19, Northglenn detective Daniel Joyce and Thornton detective Robert Lopez filed suit against the North Metro Task Force — a drug-investigation team that both served on while working on the case — as well as the cities of Thornton and Northglenn, claiming that their rights were violated and asking for $500,000 in damages. Several of the task force's supervisors are also named in the suit: Thornton police chief James Nursey, Northglenn chief Russell Van Houten, former task force commander Timothy Hersee, and task force sergeants Dante Carbone, Jack Bell and Richard Reigenborn.

While neither Joyce nor Lopez would comment on their lawsuit, the complaint sheds new light on the turmoil behind the scenes during Operation Fortune Cookie, a massive investigation into a ring of marijuana grow houses in the north metro area. Over a marathon, multi-day operation in February 2008, more than a hundred law enforcement officers and DEA agents raided innocent-looking ranch houses on suburban cul-de-sacs and came away with more than 24,000 marijuana plants and $3 million in cash. The investigation had gotten its start the previous summer, when Joyce followed up on a tip. As he realized the extent of the illegal operation, other task force officers, including Lopez, got involved; that September, the DEA signed on.

Among the suspects was Dan Tang, a well-connected businessman whose restaurant, Heaven Dragon, had served mayors, district attorneys, governors and President George W. Bush. Investigators pegged Tang as the ring's kingpin, going so far as to label it "The Dan Tang Drug Trafficking Organization" in search warrants.

But Operation Fortune Cookie's headline-capturing raids had to be launched much earlier than planned, after Joyce and his colleagues learned that someone with intimate knowledge of the case had sent a letter to Tang, alerting him to the investigation. Two months after the raids, the DEA began investigating North Metro, its crime-fighting partner, in order to find the source of the leak. The results of the rancorous investigation have never been revealed, but in the year following the raids, half of the eighteen-member task force left or was reassigned, including Joyce, Lopez, Hersee and Carbone.

According to Joyce and Lopez's lawsuit, "The position of supervisors within the Task Force was not to cooperate with the investigation." The suit claims that in May 2008, Hersee, then the task force's commander, "warned Detective Joyce not to cooperate with federal officials about the leak." Lopez allegedly faced similar warnings.

The rift between local law enforcement and the feds was so great, the suit says, that "after the investigation into the letter was initiated by the DEA, various chiefs of police and other officials, including defendants Hersee, Carbone, Reigenborn and Bell, decided to stop working with the DEA on drug cases."

DEA spokesman Mike Turner, Van Houten and Nursey all declined to comment on the lawsuit, saying they had not yet seen it. Other defendants named in the suit did not return calls.

"I knew officers were unhappy," says Adams County District Attorney Don Quick. "But it wasn't in the sense that I heard anything was being said or done to them. I have no knowledge of anybody telling people not to cooperate with the DEA. Any time I was in meetings, the discussion was always about cooperating with the DEA."

In their suit, Joyce and Lopez claim that task force supervisors "refused to take action in response to allegations of corruption and allowed the main suspect in the federal investigation into the leak in the Tang case to stay in a supervisory position at the Task Force."

While that suspect has never been revealed, several task force investigators say that Dante Carbone, the North Metro sergeant who supervised Operation Fortune Cookie, acted strangely during the case and didn't mention that he was acquainted with Tang. Carbone, who did not respond to an e-mail from Westword, also reportedly downplayed the letter to Tang when it was first discovered.

"Did I have concerns about what was going on at North Metro? Absolutely," says Tom Gorman, director of the federal Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program, which oversees North Metro and other regional task forces. "But as an administrator, given information they had, in my opinion it was insufficient for any kind of action."

Joyce and Lopez voiced other concerns about North Metro, their lawsuit claims. Lopez said that detectives weren't given proper protective clothing against environmental health risks while raiding the grow houses. Joyce complained about Operation Fortune Cookie's "failure to prosecute certain government officials and prominent businessmen." According to investigation records obtained by Westword, after the raids, Tang gave about $400,000 for safekeeping to former Thornton mayor and current RTD vice-chairman Noel Busck and another $400,000 to Adams County Board of Education director Fred Schaefer. Neither have been charged in connection with the case.

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