Trinidad Pays $375K to ACLU, Two Women Falsely Arrested in Drug-Bust Fiasco
Probation officer Danika Gonzales lost her job after her arrest, even though the charges against her were later dismissed.
The City of Trinidad has reached a $375,000 settlement in a lawsuit brought by the ACLU of Colorado on behalf of two women who were arrested three years ago in a botched drug-sting investigation that involved fabricated evidence and an informant paid to make busts.
The city has also quietly reached a $400,000 settlement in another case involving six more false arrests in the operation.
As detailed in our 2014 cover story "The Snitch Who Stole Christmas," the Trinidad Police Department's undercover operation, which used two poorly supervised informants to make drug buys, resulted in forty arrests. But all of the drug charges were later dismissed after defense attorneys raised questions about the credibility of the informants, one of whom claimed to have bought methamphetamine and heroin on the street from two suspects who, it turns out, were in jail at the time.
The two women represented by the ACLU, Danika Gonzales and Felicia Valdez, both say they were falsely accused of selling drugs to informant Crystal Bachicha, either because of some vendetta on Bachicha's part or her desire to earn more bonuses for arrests. Gonzales had been Bachicha's parole officer in a previous case, while Valdez and Bachicha had a prior complicated history as romantic rivals. Gonzales lost her law enforcement job as a result of the arrest; Valdez lost her job and her apartment, since the apartment complex where she lived with her four children had a zero-tolerance policy for drug arrests whether they resulted in conviction or not.
Informant Crystal Bachicha later pleaded guilty to one count of perjury for statements she made in court regarding her role in the drug investigation.
In the months after the arrests, defense attorneys discovered numerous problems with the police handling of the investigation. Some of the seized "heroin," supposedly field-tested by officers who submitted sworn affidavits, turned out to be baking soda or other substances. Photo books used to target suspects vanished, then reappeared. Bachicha, who was later convicted of perjury, apparently faked recorded conversations that purportedly took place during drug sales but actually never happened. The two principal detectives in the case have since resigned from the Trinidad Police Department.
Six other individuals arrested in the sting have also filed a lawsuit against the city; according to a recent report in the Pueblo Chieftain, a settlement has been reached in that case as well, but isnot yet finalized. According to plaintiffs' attorney David Lane, the amount of that settlement is $400,000.
"Trinidad detectives allowed a devious snitch to frame our innocent clients for crimes they did not commit," notes ACLU of Colorado legal director Mark Silverstein. "I’m sure hoping that, with forty arrests and no drug-related convictions, and two civil suits charging the detectives with unconstitutional and sordid practices, that they’re going to give this up."
In fact, while drug roundups like the 2013 operation used to be an annual event, the Trinidad police haven't conducted one in the past three years. That fact — and the six-figure settlement — is some consolation to the ACLU's clients.
"This incident was traumatic for me emotionally and financially, and I lost my sense of normalcy and confidence," Gonzales said in a statement released by the ACLU. "The reckless actions of the Trinidad Police Department have caused irreversible damage to my career, my family and my trust in law enforcement. However, I am relieved to have finally gotten to this point of closure."
Trinidad police chief Charles Glorioso did not respond to a request for comment.