Operation Fortune Cooke: Thornton Police Chief James Nursey says Dante Carbone -- Dan Tang's acquaintance -- launched weed investigation

Ever since Northglenn Detective Daniel Joyce and Thornton Detective Robert Lopez filed a lawsuit last week alleging corruption within Operation Fortune Cookie, the news media has been rehashing the long, strange tale of the state's largest -- and likely most convoluted - indoor weed bust. (Here's a play-by-play primer on the multi-year tale.)

Much of it has to do with alleged turmoil at the time within the North Metro Task Force, a local drug team to which Joyce and Lopez were assigned; NMTF launched Operation Fortune Cookie along with the DEA. In February 2008, after it was discovered that someone had sent a letter detailing the operation to Dan Tang, a prominent Thornton restaurateur who authorities believed was the drug ring kingpin, authorities launched an internal investigation into the leak. Joyce and Lopez allege in their lawsuit they faced retaliation from task force supervisors for cooperating with the investigation, and they were among nine detectives and supervisors who left the eighteen-member task force during and immediately after the investigation.

But the media's gotten parts of the story wrong, says Thornton Police Chief James Nursey, currently the chief in charge of the task force. While he won't comment on the new lawsuit until he's been served with it (Nursey is one of several North Metro supervisors named as defendants), he's been offering a "historical perspective" of Operation Fortune Cookie to set the record straight. Here's what he had to say:

"The first thing is, the way the thing first got started was Dante Carbone began that case," says Nursey, referring to a Thornton sergeant who was then a North Metro supervisor. "Dante Carbone brought that case to the North Metro board of governors and he said, 'This case has got to a point where we could use the involvement of the DEA and the U.S. Attorney's office.' And we voted to contact the DEA and asked them to join the investigation."

But several sources then at North Metro say Carbone acted strangely during Operation Fortune Cookie. For one thing, these sources say that for the first seven months of the investigation, Carbone never told them he'd been acquainted with Tang for years -- a relationship that both Tang and Carbone's lawyer would later confirm to Westword. Furthermore, Carbone would later meet weekly with U.S. Attorney Wayne Campbell, the lead prosecutor assigned to the case. While the two were close personal friends, Campbell told Westword he was not aware at the time Carbone was acquainted with Tang.

But Nursey won't say whether Carbone admitted his relationship with Tang when he first brought the case against him to the police chiefs that comprise North Metro's board. "I am not going to elaborate on the historical perspective," says Nursey. "I have agreed to give each news medium a set amount of historical perspective and that's it. The main purpose is to give a historical perspective to show there has been an ongoing and diligent attempt by the North Metro Task Force board and other involved agencies to get to the bottom of this."

For example, while several sources say the internal investigation involved the DEA looking into North Metro, Nursey says the two agencies worked side by side to uncover the source of the leak (a copy of whose letter was obtained by Westword). "When the members of the [task force] board got copies of the leak letter, we immediately said, 'Let's do a joint investigation with the DEA on the leak," he says. One officer each from the Westminster Police Department and Adams County Sheriffs Department were assigned to work the investigation alongside DEA agents, says Nursey.

And while Joyce and Lopez's lawsuit claims they were told by North Metro supervisors not to cooperate with the investigation, Nursey says just the opposite occurred: "The task force commander at the time put out a notice to all members of the task force and asked them to participate in the investigation. And not only that, he even put in the memo the names and phone numbers of the DEA agents who were partnered with us in the investigation, as well as the local officers involved -- and he said, 'Feel free to contact them if you want to.'"

While Nursey doesn't currently have copy of that memo, he says, "That memo is going to come out eventually, I will tell you that."

Then, according to Nursey, the joint internal investigation looked into the matter "upside-down, inside out and backwards," and when it was all over, in January 2009, North Metro's board of governors was invited to DEA headquarters to read a report on the investigation's findings -- a report that, according to Nursey, was inconclusive. "There was no determination of who wrote the letter," he says.

"It has been widely reported by the media that it's an accepted fact that the leak came out of the North Metro Task Force. That may or may not have happened," continues Nursey. "There were person and organizations beyond the task force that could have written that letter, because the information was available to a lot of people."

Nursey won't comment on any suspects named in the report, explaining, "I was told I was not allowed to discuss it."

But that apparently wasn't the end of attempts to unmask the letter's author. After the internal investigation, Nursey says law enforcement went through additional steps to get to the bottom of the leak. Then he, Broomfield Police Chief Tom Deland and Denver DEA head Jeffrey Sweetin brought all the information to James Davis, special agent in charge of the Denver FBI office.

"We took all the documents and stuff we had. And we put it on the table and slid it across the table to the head of the FBI, and he said, 'What would you like us to do,'" relates Nursey. "We said, 'There are allegations of corruption and you are the guys who do corruption investigations. We would like you to look into the allegations of corruption, and if you find the source of the leak, so much the better.'"

And that's where the case stands now, says Nursey: "If allegations are presented in the media, as they have been for months -- that there has been corruption and retaliation and all that stuff -- I can tell you we have done everything we can, step by step, to find out who wrote the letter and to see if there is corruption, regardless of where that might be."

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Joel Warner is a former staff writer for Westword and International Business Times. He's also written for WIRED, Men's Journal, Men's Health, Bloomberg Businessweek, Popular Science, Slate, Grantland and many other publications. He's co-author of the 2014 book The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, published by Simon & Schuster.
Contact: Joel Warner