The Snitch Who Stole Christmas: How Trinidad's War on Drugs Attacked the Innocent

The Snitch Who Stole Christmas: How Trinidad's War on Drugs Attacked the Innocent

UPDATE: The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit against Trinidad police, alleging that two detectives fabricated and misrepresented evidence in the 40-person drug sting carried out in 2013. The organization brought the suit on behalf of two former suspects, probation officer Danika Gonzales and school employee Felicia Valdez, who lost their jobs after being implicated in the case.

Danika Gonzales was driving to work when she saw the police car in her rearview mirror, swooping down on her. She couldn't think of any moving violation she'd committed, but she quickly pulled over, figuring she was about to get a lecture for not wearing her seat belt.

Except for her college years, Gonzales had lived in Trinidad all of her life. She was 38 years old and had worked for the past seven years as a probation officer for the state courts, so she knew many of the members of the Trinidad Police Department -- including the woman who got out of the patrol car, Officer Lauren Riddle. Gonzales asked her what was going on. Riddle informed her that she was being arrested for selling heroin and methamphetamine.

"I thought she was joking," Gonzales recalls. "I kept telling her, 'You're kidding.' Finally, she got upset with me and said, 'I'm not kidding. Get out of the car.'" See also: Bloody Ludlow -- Long Buried in Myth and Neglect, the Story of Colorado's Deadly Coal War Is Worth Remembering

Probation officer Danika Gonzales lost her job after her arrest, even though the charges against her were later dismissed.
Probation officer Danika Gonzales lost her job after her arrest, even though the charges against her were later dismissed.

That same morning, 32-year-old Felicia Valdez was getting ready to go to her job as a teacher's helper for Trinidad School District #1 when she got a call from her boss, saying the police had been at the school looking for her. Valdez decided to go down to the police station to find out what was the matter. She was pulled over on the way there and arrested, charged with two counts of selling meth.

"I didn't even know what I was being arrested for until I was actually in the jail," Valdez says. "They didn't tell me until I had bonded myself out. Then I was in shock."

The law caught up with Vicki Vargas a day later, while she was on her way to Denver to spend Christmas with her son. Outside of Colorado Springs, the local gendarmes pulled her over, checked her license, and told her there was an arrest warrant out for her for selling heroin two times in Trinidad. Vargas, 52, a night auditor for two motels in Raton, New Mexico, was baffled. She had an ex-husband in Trinidad but rarely went there, wary of spending too much money at Walmart. She knew she hadn't even been in Colorado on the dates in question -- and certainly hadn't gone there to peddle smack.

"I don't even know what heroin looks like," she says. "I've never seen it."

And so it went. Starting on December 19 of last year, the Trinidad police began rounding up suspects in a drug-sting operation, eventually arresting forty people. The four-month investigation -- which had involved the use of two female informants to make modest buys of heroin, cocaine, meth, prescription narcotics and even marijuana -- was presented as a joint effort by the Trinidad and Raton police departments, the latest innovation in southern Colorado's war on drugs. Local newspapers and television stations dutifully featured the names and mug shots of the accused and referred vaguely to the smashing of a drug "ring" -- as if the suspects were all part of one vast conspiracy, the purchases more significant than the sort of random, garden-variety street buys they appeared to be.

The Trinidad police had done several such stings before, but none that had involved so many suspects, from so many different walks of life. By small-town standards, it was an impressive haul. Gonzales -- a probation officer! -- was alleged to have sold heroin and meth right in the courthouse, just a few feet from the district attorney's office. Another of those arrested, Anna Ridolfi, the executive assistant to the city manager, was accused of pushing oxycodone from her office in City Hall.

Several of those busted had been caught in previous stings and had lengthy records of drug arrests. Others only had a few traffic or domestic cases but no history of drugs; some, like Gonzales, had no prior record whatsoever. A surprising number were not only loudly proclaiming their innocence, but were insisting that the transactions they were accused of making couldn't have happened at the times and places described. Yet none of this appears to have triggered any skepticism among police or prosecutors -- not until the entire operation began to unravel, just weeks after the big bust.

As it turned out, two of the accused had the perfect alibi: They were in jail at the time they were supposedly selling drugs on the streets of Trinidad to the police's informant. In both cases, the informant was Crystal Bachicha, a 34-year-old woman with a lengthy criminal record. Bachicha also claimed to have bought drugs from Gonzales, her former probation officer; from Valdez, who says she and Bachicha have a history of "bad blood" between them; from Vargas, who insists she's never met the woman; and from Ridolfi and twelve others, including a woman that Bachicha was once accused of trying to murder.

Defense attorneys probing the case soon discovered numerous misleading or false statements in the sworn affidavits submitted to obtain the arrest warrants. The affidavits routinely stated that the dope purchased by the informants had field-tested positive for heroin, meth or some other controlled substance; in several instances, though, subsequent testing by the Colorado Bureau of Investigation indicated that the substance in question had no narcotic qualities at all. Although the informants were wired, the affidavits offered only bare excerpts of the conversations recorded and little dialogue that suggested a buy was taking place. And there was no information provided about how the targets were selected, how the meetings were arranged, or what the informants were getting out of the deal.

Police detectives supervising the informants had prepared the affidavits, swearing that the information they contained was true. Trinidad district attorney Frank Ruybalid had reviewed the arrest requests and approved them, and a local judge had signed off on them as well. But what was presented there as fact was, in some cases, one lie piled on top of another, generated by an informant who had more than one motive for lying -- and accepted without question by drug warriors who had their own reasons for playing along.

Over the next few months, all forty of the drug cases were quietly dismissed. The last ones were tossed in August, after District Attorney Ruybalid grudgingly acknowledged that neither informant was sufficiently credible to proceed. But the dismissals didn't attract the same media splash as the arrests, and they didn't include any apology from the prosecutor or the police for the havoc wreaked by the operation.

"Everybody's been trying to wash their hands of this thing," says Christian Griffin, a public defender in Trinidad who represented many of the defendants.

The investigation's collapse has raised uncomfortable questions about the city's approach to the drug war, which focuses on old-school street buys from people who tend to be addicts themselves rather than trying to identify major distribution networks. "They're always going after the ones who need help," says David Santistevan, a freelance journalist who's covered the drug raids in Trinidad for various publications over the years. "There's no big drug dealer at the end of this rainbow. How much of the drugs are you really taking off the street? That's what people down here are asking."

District Attorney Ruybalid and Trinidad police chief Charles Glorioso did not respond to repeated requests for comment about the operation. The debacle has drawn the attention of the ACLU of Colorado, which is reviewing individual cases for possible civil-rights violations. Legal director Mark Silverstein says the operation amounted to "recklessly sloppy police work" that allowed an informant to manipulate and manufacture evidence.

"The ACLU has warned for years that the War on Drugs is doing great damage to civil liberties," Silverstein says. "In these cases, the method of operation was so lax that it provided an opportunity for an informer to skim money, skim drugs and deliberately frame innocent people."

Gonzales says she felt betrayed by the officers who arrested her. "It's very disheartening that no one followed up," she says. "Nobody said, 'This doesn't seem right.' Instead, I feel like they were proud of themselves for getting one of the big guys."

Several of the defendants lost their jobs as a result of the charges against them. Some say they felt compelled to relocate because of the difficulty of finding work after being accused of being a drug dealer, or out of fear that they could be set up again.

"It's been a nightmare," says Gonzales, who was put on unpaid leave after her arrest and eventually terminated from her position as a probation officer. "You hear about tragedies like this all the time, but you truly don't understand how something like this can affect a person until you actually go through it."

 

Crystal Bachicha became a police informant.
Crystal Bachicha became a police informant.

The toll of the illegal drug trade in southern Colorado can be measured, at least in part, by a sharply rising fatality rate. In 2013 alone, Las Animas County saw nine deaths from heroin overdoses, a per capita rate that's exponentially greater than Denver's. The plague of overdoses in recent years is one reason that Trinidad's police department has devoted a significant amount of its budget and manpower to drug enforcement.

Christian Griffin has seen three drug-sting roundups since he arrived at the public defender's office in Trinidad in 2011. The operations have become an annual event, like a Fourth of July parade. The first year, he says, he felt somewhat intimidated by the sudden slew of cases hitting the office, as well as by the prosecution's stance that every defendant had been caught with both hands in the proverbial cookie jar.

"There was an impression that these were very serious cases," Griffin says. "There was a lot of pressure early on to accept plea offers that weren't very good, that we wouldn't normally accept. But we pushed back."

When the 2012 sting rolled around, Griffin became more aggressive. He mounted a full-scale attack on the credibility of Travis Murphy, the informant who'd made the buys. Murphy had served time in prison in California for vehicular manslaughter; he'd supposedly agreed to become an undercover operative to get out of a traffic ticket, but in one motion, Griffin argued that Murphy "most likely worked as an informant in order to have unfettered access to drugs."

Trinidad's police informants sign a contract agreeing not to use or possess illegal drugs while working for the department, but Griffin knew the TPD almost never drug-tested its snitches. He subpoenaed Murphy's medical records and discovered that he'd been using heroin during his tenure as an informant. Defense attorneys also eventually learned that law enforcement had been paying Murphy's rent, both during and after the sting operation, and that District Attorney Ruybalid had declined to pursue charges against Murphy in two theft cases, including Murphy's alleged use of his mother's credit card for numerous fraudulent charges.

Given the informant's credibility issues -- not to mention the fact that Ruybalid's office was having trouble locating Murphy and producing him to testify -- nine of the seventeen cases in the 2012 sting were ultimately dismissed. Undeterred, the police were soon back at work on an even bigger roundup for 2013, with dozens of cases hitting the public defender's office the week before Christmas.

Griffin was curious to find out how the cops had changed their procedure for supervising informants in the wake of the Murphy embarrassment. The answer, once he got the arrest affidavits, astonished him: Nothing had changed. The department still had no written policy for how to handle informants and still wasn't drug-testing them to make sure they weren't dipping into the goods. The only thing different was some additional boilerplate language recited in every affidavit. In addition to searching the informants and their cars before and after every buy, the officers did a visual inspection of their operatives, looking for shakes, tremors, dilated pupils or other signs of intoxication -- a quick examination similar to the roadside sobriety tests administered at DUI checkpoints, and one that Griffin believed was totally inadequate for detecting drug use.

A close reading of the affidavits revealed other red flags, too. Many of the alleged deals happened in bathrooms, alcoves or other out-of-the-way places. Police hadn't witnessed or independently corroborated any of the buys; there was no visual surveillance to establish that the informant was actually where she claimed to be, with the people she claimed to have met. There were also no clues as to how the meetings were arranged -- no phone records or text messages were ever provided by the prosecution -- or how the targets were chosen.

In other words, the claim that each of the forty defendants had sold drugs was based almost entirely on the accounts of the informants. And there were plenty of reasons to be skeptical of those accounts. The informants were only identified by code numbers in the affidavits, but Griffin soon learned who the two women were. One, Carla Hernandez, had recently accrued some misdemeanor charges over domestic incidents and had apparently agreed to become a drug informant in exchange for deferred judgments in two cases involving violations of a protection order. The other, Crystal Bachicha, had three felony-theft convictions and had racked up a host of other serious charges over the years -- from forgery, bribery and burglary to attempted murder -- that had either been dismissed or reduced to misdemeanors. She also was looking at two more felony cases, accusing her of attempting to obtain narcotics with bogus prescriptions, at the time that she agreed to become an informant.

Both of those cases were soon dismissed by DA Ruybalid, who would later deny in court that he'd made that decision in exchange for Bachicha's work as an informant. Bachicha testified otherwise, however, saying that Trinidad police detectives Phil Martin and Archie Vigil had recruited her for the job, promising her a break: "They asked me if I wanted to work for them, and they would help me out with the cases pending."

According to other testimony, both women had to "work off" their charges by doing a couple of buys for free. They were then paid from $75 to $200 for each bag of dope they brought back to the police. (The amount, police officials maintained, was based on the type of drugs they were able to obtain, but Griffin suspected the sliding scale represented the value of the targeted defendant; alleged buys from high-profile suspects, such as the city manager's assistant and probation officer Gonzales, tended to command higher payments.) Over the course of the operation, Hernandez was paid close to $4,000 for her work, Bachicha around $3,000.

The arrangement struck Griffin as a recipe for corruption. The informants had an array of legal and financial incentives to produce buys -- and, if the buys didn't happen, ample opportunity to stage them in some fashion. From what little he could discern from the garbled wire recordings, the searches of the informants and their vehicles were often cursory; that meant the informant could conceivably skim drugs before turning over the bag or come up with drugs she hadn't obtained from a suspect.

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The latter possibility could also explain some of the weird bits of audio from Bachicha's buys. In many instances, her exchange with the seller was so brief and cryptic that it's not even clear that any money changed hands. For example, in one of the alleged purchases of meth from Felicia Valdez, the affidavit merely states that the informant "spoke to a female and stated, '250, thank you.'" The account of the second buy claims that Bachicha said, "Hi, here's 200, geez, you could at least say hi," and a second voice -- identified as Valdez, but only on Bachicha's say-so -- responded with "Hi."

"It's almost like she was talking to herself," Griffin observes. "For all I know, she was stashing bags under her car seat, in bathrooms, wherever she went. They never had any independent verification that she's meeting with who she says she is."

Could an opportunistic informant be faking deals, talking to herself on the wire and possibly pocketing the buy money as well? It was an outrageous theory, but no more outrageous than what happened to Thomas Barker, one of Bachicha's targets.

Barker was one of three Raton residents arrested in the sting. Bachicha supposedly purchased heroin from him in Trinidad on October 9, 2013, then again the following evening. But Barker was in jail in Raton on those dates for driving with a suspended license. After being booked in Trinidad for the drug charges, he spent three weeks in jail there before he was released on his own recognizance. His shoes had disappeared in the meantime, and he had to hitchhike back to Raton barefoot, where he soon learned that he'd lost his job as a maintenance worker at a motel.

Barker, who has prior drug convictions, says he met Bachicha once, at a party twelve years ago. But he says he never sold her any drugs, in Trinidad or anywhere else. "I would like people to know that wasn't me," he adds.

Barker's situation wasn't an isolated one. Bachicha also claimed to have bought meth and heroin from Laura Jean Lopez -- an impossibility, given that Lopez was in the Las Animas County Jail at the time. And she claimed to have bought heroin from Vicki Vargas, another Raton resident, on the same date and at practically the same time as her second buy from Barker.

As Vargas's case progressed toward trial, the "heroin" booked as evidence was sent to the state lab to be tested. Both of the Vargas purchases tested negative for any controlled substances. Griffin estimates that in nearly half the Bachicha cases in which the CBI tested the drugs, the goods turned out to be fake, despite assertions in the arrest affidavits that field tests performed by the detectives had yielded positive results. The Trinidad police had paid wildly varying amounts for the drugs the informants brought to them. In some cases, they grossly overpaid -- for example, $250 for a single gram of meth and a hundred bucks for a tiny fraction of a gram. In other cases, they seemed to have gotten a bargain, including the $300 paid for ten grams of heroin allegedly bought from Vargas, an amount that could easily command three times as much in a much larger city.

But the heroin Bachicha said she bought from Vargas wasn't heroin at all. In that case and others, the detectives hadn't taken any drugs off the street. Instead, they had cornered the market on some of the world's priciest baking soda.

 

Third Judicial District Attorney Frank Ruybalid dismissed pending felony cases against Crystal Bachicha shortly after she started working as a police informant.
Third Judicial District Attorney Frank Ruybalid dismissed pending felony cases against Crystal Bachicha shortly after she started working as a police informant.

For weeks, Griffin stewed over the mystery of how people who'd been in jail at the time got named in the drug sting. Clearly, Bachicha hadn't bought drugs from them -- not even fake drugs. So how did they become suspects? What was the mechanism for targeting them?

The answer began to emerge at one of the first preliminary hearings in the drug prosecutions. Informant Hernandez mentioned that the detectives had showed her a kind of photo album and asked her if she recognized anybody in the book and believed she could buy drugs from them. Some of the pictures had notations at the bottom, indicating the subject's alleged involvement in selling meth, heroin or pills. At one point when Hernandez was flipping through the book, she saw a picture of her own mother-in-law. The next time she looked at the book, she testified, that picture had been removed.

The defense soon learned that the police department had been using and adding to the book for years, drawing from it for the last several drug stings. Yet no such book had been mentioned in any of the arrest affidavits. No book had been turned over in discovery in any of the 2013 arrests or in previous years. From a defense perspective, failure to disclose the book amounted to a "material omission," particularly since the book had been used to cue the informants on possible targets. After the buys, the informants had gone through a ritual of identifying the suspects in a photo lineup -- a tainted exercise if the informants had already seen photos of the suspects before the buy.

News of the book's existence sent a tremor through the town. People began to wonder if they were in the book. But when Griffin tried to learn more by questioning Detective Martin at a subsequent hearing, he came up against another bizarre twist. Martin said the book had contained the photos of around a hundred people, but it no longer existed. "I was clearing out my office and I shredded it," the detective testified.

Griffin quizzed Martin repeatedly about the book at subsequent hearings. No, he didn't recall why he'd shredded it. Yes, the book was one source of possible targets for the investigation. No, he wasn't sure which of the defendants were in the book and which ones weren't.

Then the book suddenly resurfaced. Martin testified that a copy had been found, after many weeks of searching, in a colleague's office. But the version he produced had only 51 photos and varied in other ways from what the detective had described earlier. Informant Hernandez had testified that she saw three distinctly different books; Martin insisted they were all identical. Griffin called the book "fabricated evidence" and filed a motion to dismiss "due to law enforcement's willful destruction of exculpatory evidence."

District judge Leslie Gerbracht decided that the reconstituted photo book was problematic enough that due-process rights had been violated. "It does not seem logical to this Court that a 'drug book' that had been used for years and continued to be added to would be destroyed," she wrote.

Gerbracht declined to dismiss all charges, but she did rule that sanctions were in order. The prosecution wouldn't be allowed to use the book or any photo lineups in any of the pending trials.

Curiously, only eight of the forty defendants had their photos in the book Martin eventually produced. Others appeared to have become enmeshed in the sting because Bachicha knew them -- and, in some cases, possibly had a grudge against them. According to Felicia Valdez, she and Bachicha have a complicated history of conflicts as romantic rivals, having dated some of the same people. Valdez has no prior drug record, and it seems unlikely that she would engage in a drug transaction with someone she has long considered an enemy.

"My life has revolved around my children," she says. "If I wasn't at a school function, I was at home. I was nowhere around her or selling any drugs."

Bachicha also claimed to have been handed meth by Bobbie Jo Vigil one evening on Main Street. In 2008, Vigil's car had been perforated with gunshots from another car as she drove through downtown Trinidad; Bachicha was one of four defendants implicated in the drive-by, though all charges against her in the case, including attempted murder, were eventually dismissed. She also reportedly told the detectives she could score from a woman who'd been a passenger in Vigil's car that night. But how likely was it that she could buy drugs from people who had accused her of trying to kill them?

The possibility that Bachicha was setting up old rivals and crime victims didn't seem to trouble the detectives. Yet they had other signs that Bachicha was anything but a "reliable" informant; they even had reason to suspect she wasn't exactly drug-free. On October 20, 2013, right in the middle of the operation, Bachicha was arrested in Raton. According to the police report, she was trying to fill what appeared to be a forged prescription for painkillers at a local pharmacy. Bachicha was charged with two felonies, each of which represented a serious breach of her contract to work as a police informant. But the charges were dismissed less than a month later, presumably to preserve the undercover operation.

"The police had every reason in the world to question what she was up to, and they never did," Griffin says.

The cases involving the other informant, Hernandez, didn't smell as bad as the Bachicha buys. But that didn't mean they weren't deeply flawed, too. After one preliminary hearing at which Hernandez testified, she called Griffin in a panic and admitted to lying on the stand. An investigator for the public defender's office joined in the call and recorded it. "She told us that she had lied in court earlier that day and that she felt extremely pressured to be doing this work," Griffin says. "She didn't want to testify, but they were making all kinds of threats to her if she didn't. She was admitting to perjury."

Dariel Weaver, another attorney in the office who was defending the drug cases, also participated in the call. After they hung up, she told Griffin that it was beginning to look like the police's informants needed attorneys appointed to represent them, too.

 

Felicia Valdez lost her job after her arrest, even though the charges against her were later dismissed.
Felicia Valdez lost her job after her arrest, even though the charges against her were later dismissed.

Following her arrest, Danika Gonzales was put in a holding cell for fifteen hours while the roundup continued. She was finally allowed to bond out late that evening. She went to the courthouse the next morning to read the paperwork in her case and try to figure out what was going on.

Gonzales didn't know of any reason that Bachicha, her former probation client, would have any enmity toward her; it had been a fairly routine case. But she knew she hadn't sold heroin and meth, as Bachicha claimed. And who would sell drugs in the courthouse, anyway? The idea was ridiculous. It would take a particularly dumb, brazen or desperate person to sling dope in one of the most secure areas in town, where video cameras in the hallways and sign-in procedures documented arrivals and departures.

She urged her attorney to file a motion to preserve the video footage from the days of the alleged buys. She knew that the first video would show that Bachicha had, indeed, visited the courthouse that day, and that Gonzales had handed her a sheet of paper -- and nothing else.

"The first alleged buy, she called me and asked me to write her a letter," Gonzales explains. "She said she was going to get her record expunged. She was very persistent. I saw her walking down the hallway, and I grabbed the letter and handed it to her in the hall. I read it to her. She took it and stepped away."

According to the arrest affidavit, the audio recording of the alleged buy caught Gonzales saying something about when Bachicha "started" -- which is consistent with information contained in the letter about completing her probation. Gonzales says the video from the time of the second alleged buy shows Bachicha walking past the probation office, but no encounter with Gonzales whatsoever. (Bachicha claimed the deal was done in a bathroom.) Police investigators didn't request the video until eleven days after Gonzales was arrested -- nearly two months after the supposed buys.

"Once the video came out, I was certain they were going to dismiss the charges," Gonzales says. "But they didn't."

Many of the cases dragged on for months, through a slog of delays and -- for those who could afford to hire private attorneys -- mounting legal expense. After testifying at one preliminary hearing in March, Bachicha was a no-show for three subsequent subpoenas, prompting a judge to issue a warrant for her arrest. The police department had to provide the ten dollars for her bond. When she reappeared on the stand in May, it was clear there had been a rupture in her relationship with the prosecution.

Under questioning by Ruybalid, Bachicha claimed to have no memory of working as an informant. She'd met with the police to try to get her brother out of prison, she said, and as a result she'd been harassed and assaulted. "Bricks have flown through my windows, hit my two-year-old daughter in the head," she reported. "My vehicle has been damaged numerous times. We've got our house broken into. I've been stabbed."

"Why do you think people are harassing you?" the district attorney asked.

"Because you threw my name out to America...saying that I snitched on everybody and their grandpas and dead grandmothers," she replied.

Bachicha denied having any involvement in many of the cases in which she was alleged to have bought drugs. She claimed the contract to work as an informant that she'd signed had been altered. She also suggested that "most of my harassments and assaults" were coming from the prosecution and the police.

"I never saw drugs," she insisted. "I never saw nothing. I mean, where is the drugs that you guys supposedly got? Where is it? I never saw them."

In the wake of such a devastating series of denials, Ruybalid had no choice but to dismiss every case in which Bachicha had been involved. "The credibility of the confidential informant is so lacking that it would be a waste of time and resources to proceed further with any criminal prosecutions based on her work," he wrote. The district attorney then filed felony charges against Bachicha -- accusing her not of duping the police or framing innocent people, but of perjury in her court testimony.

A few weeks later, Ruybalid moved to dismiss the drug cases involving informant Carla Hernandez, too. Hernandez's account of the photo book of suspects she'd been shown varied from the official police version, and that was a problem. So was her claim that police had corrected her when she picked the wrong suspect out of a photo lineup, urging her to try again. So was her failure to admit on the stand that the DA's office was paying her for every court appearance, on top of what the police were paying her. It's likely that at least some of the forty defendants had actually been caught selling drugs, but because Ruybalid believed that there was "insufficient independent evidence to enhance the credibility" of the informants, all of the cases were being flushed away.

Dismissing cases has become an increasingly common phenomenon in Ruybalid's office. Local judges have blasted the district attorney for ignoring court orders, failing to turn over exculpatory evidence to the defense, failing to properly train and supervise inexperienced prosecutors and generally screwing up, forcing cases to get thrown out. The situation has prompted a thick ethics complaint filed against Ruybalid by the Colorado Supreme Court's Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel. The evolving investigation of the DA, set for a disciplinary hearing next March, lists twenty different prosecutions he's overseen -- from murder, assault and theft to domestic violence and some of the 2012 drug stings involving Travis Murphy -- that encompass multiple alleged violations of the rules of professional conduct.

Ruybalid has denied any wrongdoing and blamed many of the dismissals on being short-staffed. It's difficult to attract and retain qualified attorneys in economically troubled southern Colorado, and the county commissioners slashed the DA's budget by 19 percent this year, an $85,000 cut that forced him to lay off three administrative assistants and leave one part-time prosecutor position vacant. For a few weeks this fall, he was the only prosecutor available for the entire Third Judicial District, shuttling between Walsenburg and Trinidad and juggling a caseload that's been rising steadily for years.

Whatever other factors might have been involved, the dismissal of all the drug cases couldn't undo the damage the sting had inflicted in the first place. Many of the defendants had gone through a kind of public shaming that left them unemployed, financially depleted and traumatized. For Gonzales, the experience also demolished her enthusiasm for law enforcement and the justice system. She couldn't understand how the police could believe an informant's accusations against a veteran probation officer and not even check the video record available before charging her and ruining her career.

"I loved my job," she says. "I truly enjoyed helping people and getting them back to some kind of normal life. I worked so hard to get where I was, and this was utter humiliation for me."

Gonzales is uncertain of her future plans, but working as a probation officer isn't part of the picture. "I don't intend to go back to working for the state," she says. "I now have a distrust for the system that I worked for and believed in so much."

Vicki Vargas lost both her motel jobs long before her case was dismissed. One boss said it would be bad for business to keep an accused dope dealer on the payroll. Her second boss stood by her, but the other employees shunned her and made the job unbearable. She has relocated from Raton to Denver, even though rents are higher and the jobs she has found so far pay less than what she was making in New Mexico. "I was scared to be in my house," she says. "I was scared to be in Raton. If they could come up with these bullshit charges and arrest me for it, then they could come up with something else."

Felicia Valdez lost her job and her apartment. The housing project where she lived with her four children doesn't tolerate drug arrests, even if the person is never convicted of anything. "If you're arrested on any kind of drug charges, you get evicted," she says. Valdez has since moved to Pueblo: "Trinidad is a small community, and you're always getting judged. I had a lot of people judge me. I wasn't able to find work. Nobody wanted to hire me."

The ACLU's Silverstein describes Valdez, Vargas and Gonzales as "innocent civilian casualties" in the drug war. "The case law is filled with accounts of informers lying to even a score or, for other personal reasons, falsely implicating people," he says. "Here we have people dragged into court where the key material fact is based entirely on the uncorroborated word of the informant."

Several years ago, after a series of scandals involving informant misconduct, Texas lawmakers passed legislation requiring tighter restrictions -- and independent corroboration -- on criminal cases that rely on informant testimony. Silverstein believes a similar law is needed in Colorado, given that many small law enforcement agencies, like Trinidad's police department, have no written policy regarding the handling of informants. "It looks like they operate on blind trust of someone who's provided no evidence of trustworthiness," he says.

Two weeks ago, Crystal Bachicha accepted a plea arrangement, pleading guilty to one count of perjury. She has not yet been sentenced. (Bachicha's attorney didn't respond to interview requests from Westword.) But Silverstein notes that the informant is hardly the only one responsible for the wayward drug operation. "There was red flag after red flag that should have alerted the detectives that the informer was possibly lying to them," he says. "The clues were there. And the prosecutor has a responsibility to say, 'This shouldn't be taken to a judge.' The arrest warrants were so lacking in probable cause in these cases that the arrests shouldn't have happened."

But they did. And Valdez still has questions about how things went so wrong.

"I want to know why," she says. "Why a single mother, living in public housing with her children, going to work every day, never missing a day, enjoying every minute of every day with her kids -- I would like to know why I would be targeted. It's not right. "I don't go to Trinidad now unless I have to. It's hard for me to teach my children to turn to the police for help. I want to tell the world that I haven't done wrong and I'm not who they made me out to be." Have a tip? Send it to alan.prendergast@westword.com


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