Unlawful Entry--Related Story
The man on the phone says he doesn't want anyone to know his name. He may wind up being the star witness in a police perjury trial, but right now he doesn't need to have his name in the newspaper. That stuff can get you killed.
Still, it takes only a few minutes for the Man With No Name to establish that he is who he says he is. He knows things about the drug buy on High Street that led to Ismael Mena's death last September, as well as things about other drug buys set up by Denver police officer Joseph Bini, that only the ultimate insider would know. He knows things the cops don't know.
"I was Joe Bini's informant," he says. "Joe Bini is the wrong person to be messing with. It was just a mistake that day. I'm the one who started it, and it was an honest mistake on my part."
Bini's informant wants people to know that Bini, now charged with perjury for sworn statements he made to obtain a search warrant for Mena's house, is a dedicated officer and "great guy" who never meant to send police to the wrong address. Bini's only failing, he suggests, is that he put too much trust in the word of his informant, a former crack user who'd been his paid operative on more than a hundred drug buys over the previous eighteen months.
Yet the informant's version of the drug buy on High Street last September -- a random buy that had nothing to do with any prior investigation of Mena's house or even the crackhouse next door -- is significantly at odds with the account set forth in Bini's request for a search warrant. His story raises a host of questions about the kind of police work that led to the fatal drug raid and the ease with which no-knock warrants can be obtained, no matter how bad the information they present.
Bini's informant considers himself among the most reliable of the Denver Police Department's legions of "previously reliable confidential informants." He came to his calling the way most of them do. He was arrested for possession of crack cocaine, taken to jail and presented with a way out of his troubles. "I was offered a thing: 'You make three buys and we'll drop the charges on you,'" he says.
He made the buys. After it was over, the police officer who'd busted him introduced him to his partner, Joe Bini. The officers wanted to keep working with him. They started paying him $40 for each buy he made. He went to twelve-step meetings, got off the crack, got himself rehabilitated.
Being clean made him an exceptional law-enforcement resource, he says: "They were having problems with informants. They would get informants who would go out and make a buy with DPD money and pocket the stuff, shove it up their ass or whatever, and give [the police] soap in return. They kept the crack for themselves for later use. I remember one particular person, they had to let him go. They just threw him off the car."
The Man With No Name never tried the soap trick. His handlers said he had a way about him, a way of blending into the scene. "I'm pretty street smart," Bini's informant says. "I'd been in that whole crack thing for a while and got out of it, thank God. But I was able to buy crack from just about anybody. I just had a certain way of acting. I would put on my drug-buying suit or whatever and was able to have these people sell to me even though they didn't know me."
He bought rock all over town, sometimes making multiple buys at the same address. It was quick, often dangerous work. He didn't talk to the dealers much. "I just wanted to get it over with," he says. "I didn't want to know who the people were."
Once in a while, though, he heard about the no-knock raids that followed in the wake of his purchases. A lot of the raids had disappointing results, possibly because too much time had elapsed since the initial buy. "I would go make a drug buy, and they wouldn't hit the house until seven or eight days later," he recalls. "There were times when Bini said we did great -- we busted a whole bunch of people and got a lot of drugs. But there were times when they wouldn't get nothing."
But Bini never blamed him for the bad luck. He was the officer's top producer -- the principal, if not the only, informant in dozens of drug investigations. He was also intensely loyal.
"It was an extremely good relationship, very tight," he says. "We became friends. I met his kids. It wasn't just a drug informant and a cop."
Last September, for reasons that still aren't clear to the informant, Bini's demand for his services suddenly intensified. Bini's informant did six buys in three days, more than he had ever done before. The buy that would come back to haunt them was one of these six, a completely unexpected twist to a deal that was supposed to be with someone else.
"This was not a targeted house to begin with," he says. "There was no report. There was this guy on the corner I was going to buy crack from. He disappeared. This other guy came out of nowhere."
Last September 21, the informant says, he rode a bicycle around the 3700 block of High Street, looking for the corner dealer. (Bini's warrant says the informant proceeded on foot, but that's a minor discrepancy compared to the warrant's other claims.) Bini followed at a distance in a brown unmarked van, and two other officers observed what they could from an unmarked car parked even farther away. The informant couldn't find the person he was looking for, but a Hispanic male in T-shirt and jeans, a man the warrant identifies only as "Joe," approached him in the alley and asked him what he was looking for.
The informant told "Joe" he was looking for crack. "Joe" took him down the alley, to a spot behind 3742 High, and had him wait there while "Joe" entered the yard and met with another Hispanic male. "He did the deal with this guy and came back and gave me the crack," the informant says. The deal went down "between Mena's house and the actual crackhouse. I didn't see [the second male] come out; he was already there. In my mind, it could have been either house."
When "Joe" returned with the dope, the informant broke off a chip of the rock and gave it to the middleman. That may not be "good procedure" for law enforcement, the informant admits, but it's a sometimes unavoidable bit of dope-buying etiquette. "He was a crackhead," the informant explains. "He knew I was going to bump him off a piece."
During the buy, Bini was circling the block in the brown van. "He had to have seen me," the informant insists. But such a maneuver wouldn't have allowed the officer to observe the whole deal, and offered little opportunity to pinpoint the address. After the sale, the informant tried to determine where the buy took place by counting the houses to the end of the block, from the front as well as from the alley, but his count was hurried -- and wrong. Despite the fact that 3742 High is a single-story house and the house at 3738, where Mena lived, has two floors, he was confused by the number of garages in back, the proximity of one house to another.
"I gave the wrong address, simple as that," he says. "It was a huge mistake on my part. I've apologized for it I don't know how many times...There was, like, eight crackheads in the alley, and I was on a bicycle and in duress. You don't want a bunch of crackheads to find out you're an informant."
In his affidavit requesting a search warrant, Bini states that the informant and "Joe" "walked to 3738 High St. where they met with a second party...The informant witnessed 'Joe' make contact with the resident of 3738 High St. at the front door."
The affidavit makes little attempt to distinguish between what Bini actually observed and what the informant later told him about what happened. (In fact, the buy is presented in a way that implies Bini observed the whole thing.) The seller is portrayed as being the "primary resident" of 3738 High, and there's no hint that this particular address wasn't the target all along. Quite the opposite: The buy appears to be the result of an ongoing investigation into "information from residents that live in the area, that sales of crack cocaine were being conducted from the location of 3738 High St."
David Bruno, Bini's attorney, could not be reached for comment. The informant says Joe Bini is not a duplicitous man. Joe Bini "doesn't like drugs or people selling them," but he would never fake evidence. Not in scores of drug cases the pair worked together.
"Everything had always been right to a T until the Mena case," the informant says. "It was just one of those days."
And the affidavit for search warrant? The piece of paper that bears Joe Bini's signature, that brought the SWAT team into Ismael Mena's bedroom?
"It wasn't even written by Bini," the informant says. "That's all I can say right now."
He adds, "They need to reconstruct the whole no-knock thing. They have to train the officer better, and they have to train the officer to train the informant better."
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