ACLU Sues Trinidad, Cops for False Arrests in Drug-Sting Fiasco
The lawsuit claims that Trinidad detectives failed to properly supervise drug informant Crystal Bachicha.
UPDATE: Third Judicial District Attorney Frank Ruybalid has reached a settlement in a state ethics investigation of his office. Ruybalid admitted to thirteen violations of Colorado's rules for professional conduct of attorneys, and received a suspended six-month suspension of his law license and 23 months of probation.
According to a lawsuit filed in Denver's federal district court this morning (see it below), two Trinidad police detectives fabricated and misrepresented evidence in a 2013 drug investigation that led to the arrests of forty people. All forty cases were dismissed last year after defense attorneys raised questions about the credibility of the undercover informants the police used to purchase drugs, one of whom claimed to have bought methamphetamine and heroin on the street from two suspects who turned out to be in jail at the time.
The case is being brought by the ACLU of Colorado and a prominent Denver law firm on behalf of two women, probation officer Danika Gonzales and school employee Felicia Valdez, who were arrested in the sting and subsequently lost their jobs. Both women figure prominently in my November feature, "The Snitch Who Stole Christmas," detailing the sordid saga of the sting and its unraveling.
The suit claims that Trinidad detectives Phil Martin and Arsenio Vigil relied on unsubstantiated accusations by confidential informant Crystal Bachicha while ignoring evidence that demonstrated that Gonzales and Valdez were innocent. Arrest affidavits in the case suggested that Bachicha had been supervised during her supposed drug purchases from the two women, when the police actually conducted no such surveillance; that the drugs obtained field-tested positive for heroin or meth, when in some instances they turned out to be fake; that the informant was thoroughly searched before and after each buy to prevent hanky-panky, when the searches actually were cursory pat-downs; that the audio recordings made by Bachicha contained incriminating evidence that, in fact, didn't exist. The affidavits also omitted numerous material facts, including the payments made to Bachicha for each buy or other possible motives she may have had for setting up people like Gonzales, her former probation officer, or Valdez, who told Westword that she and Bachica have a history of "bad blood" between them.
"At the Trinidad police department, it is standard operating procedure to recruit snitches of unproven and untested reliability and unleash them on the community with money and a directive to buy drugs, without the oversight, control and supervision that is regarded as standard in law enforcement circles," says ACLU of Colorado legal director Mark Silverstein. "The result is an open invitation for an opportunistic snitch to lie with impunity, to pocket the buy money, to skim drugs for personal use, and to settle personal scores by framing innocent people, all while getting handsomely paid by the police."
The lawsuit points out a rash of "red flags" that should have alerted detectives Martin and Vigil that Bachicha was not credible, including her arrest in New Mexico, on charges of trying to fill a forged prescription for painkillers, right in the middle of the sting. (The charges were dismissed a few weeks later.) The Trinidad police do not drug-test their informants, even though numerous cases in a 2012 sting had to be dismissed after it was learned that the informant was using heroin while working for the police.
Bachicha has claimed to be a victim of manipulative detectives -- who, she claims, lied about her degree of involvement in the operation and exposed her identity, leaving her to face the wrath of the suspects. She pleaded guilty to one count of perjury for statements she made in court about her role as an informant and is scheduled to be sentenced next month.
At this writing Trinidad police chief Charles Glorioso hasn't responded to a request for comment about the lawsuit. We'll update this post if we hear from Trinidad officials.
Read the full complaint below.