Operation Fortune Cookie, a 2008 raid netting 24,000 marijuana plants, was the largest weed bust in state history -- but it imploded among claims of police snitches, paid-off politicians and a secret DEA investigation. Last March, two Fortune Cookie investigators, Daniel Joyce and Robert Lopez, filed a lawsuit alleging they faced retaliation for claiming their superior, Dante Carbone, leaked case information to the drug ring. Now a judge has tossed the lawsuit. So is Operation Fortune Cookie drawing to a close?
The North Metro Task Force (NMTF) an elite drug-investigation team, launched Operation Fortune Cookie in August 2007 when they found inklings of a major drug operation in the suburbs around Denver. The task force later joined forces with the DEA to take down the drug ring, which investigators had come to believe was run by Dan Tang, the politically connected owner of Heaven Dragon restaurant in Thornton, who'd served President George W. Bush, among others. But everything crashed down in February 2008. Someone with intimate knowledge of the case sent a tip-off letter to Tang, setting the raids in motion much earlier than investigators had hoped and triggering a rancorous DEA internal investigation into the NMTF. The results from the DEA probe were never revealed, but in the year following the raids, half of the eighteen-member task force left or was reassigned.
In the meantime, Tang was charged with one count of money laundering, the only one of 21 people charged in Operation Fortune Cookie to not face any drug charges. Then, in March 2010, he took a plea deal and was sentenced to prison for eighteen months. Given that this was considerably less than the seventy to 87 months indicated by the case's sentencing guidelines, investigators who worked on the case weren't happy; the DEA even filed an objection arguing that the feds were under-prosecuting the case. "I agree with DEA that the sentence makes absolutely no sense," task force head Tom Gorman told Westword. "I don't understand why it was so light, and you'll have to ask the U.S. Attorneys Office as to why."
According to the federal lawsuit filed by Joyce and Lopez, it was because Operation Fortune Cookie was corrupt from within, and when they tried to inform the DEA about it, they faced retaliation from their superiors. In particular, the lawsuit casts suspicions on Dante Carbone, a supervisor at the NMTF who reportedly acted strangely during Operation Fortune Cookie and, as it turns out, had ties to both Dan Tang and Wayne Campbell, the U.S. attorney in charge of prosecuting the case.
Earlier this summer, Joyce and Lopez scored a victory in their legal battle: The judge considering the case granted their motion to obtain the top-secret DEA report on the investigation into the police leak, as well as get testimony from the DEA agents who authored it -- information the NMTF and the police departments involved have long refused to divulge. A few weeks later, Thornton Police Chief Jim Nursey, Carbone and Lopez's chief and one of the major players in the legal maneuverings, announced his upcoming retirement.
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But then, last week, Joyce and Lopez's lawsuit crumbled. Federal District Judge Christine Arguello ruled in favor of the defendants' motion to dimiss the case, finding that the two investigators' right to free speech hadn't been violated by their superiors, because they never spoke out as citizens, only as police officers. Lawyers for both sides haven't returned requests for comment, and it's unclear whether or not Joyce and Lopez will appeal the ruling.
To the police departments slapped with the lawsuit, the ruling is surely cause for celebration, allowing them to move on from a record-breaking drug bust that turned ugly and embarrassing and get back to dealing with more pressing matters. To those who believe Operation Fortune Cookie was rotten from within, the motion is a likely a disheartening setback, an indication that what they believe is the truth behind Colorado's largest drug bust might never be revealed.
More from our Follow That Story archive: "Operation Fortune Cookie: Did suspicions about Dante Carbone hurt the case against Dan Tang?"