Cops Employing Robbers
Did police misconduct lead to another fatal marijuana raid?
Ryan Frederick, the 29-year-old Chesapeake, Virginia man facing capital murder charges after shooting and killing a police officer during a nighttime drug raid on his home, was back in court for a preliminary hearing earlier this month. What came out at the hearing may be the beginning of the unraveling of the state's case against him.
Frederick has said he was asleep in preparation for an early shift when police raided his home at 8:30 p.m. on January 24. According to search warrant affidavits, officers were acting on a tip from an informant that Frederick was running a major marijuana growing operation in his garage. The raid turned up only a misdemeanor amount of the drug—about a third of an ounce.
Frederick has said in interviews and in letters to his family that he was awoken by his dogs barking at the intruders, then heard the sound of someone breaking down his front door. He says he grabbed his handgun and ran to his living room, where he saw that the bottom panel of his door and been busted out and saw someone reaching up through the broken panel toward the door handle. Frederick says that's when he fired, striking and killing Det. Jarrod Shivers. Police and prosecutors counter that Frederick fired through the door, hitting Det. Shivers as he was standing on Frederick's front lawn. Police say they announced themselves before attempting to enter Frederick's home. Frederick and at least two neighbors say they heard no announcement.
Frederick's case is only one recent example of the inherent danger and disproportionate absurdity of using violent, forced-entry police tactics to serve nonviolent drug warrants. This raid on a man with no prior criminal record left a police officer dead, his wife widowed, and his children without a father, while effectively ruining Ryan Frederick's life. He's facing one count of capital murder for the shooting of Shivers, a felony drug distribution charge, and a charge of using a weapon during the commission of a drug crime.
Now, disturbing new questions have emerged about the quality of the police investigation and the way the Chesapeake Police Department's narcotics officers may have been using confidential informants in their drug investigations. The latter would be nothing new. The ACLU is currently in the midst of a national campaign aimed at drawing attention to the misuse of informants, including in high-profile cases in Cleveland, Dallas, and just across the U.S.-Mexican border near El Paso.
Last May, a local TV news station identified the police informant in Ryan Frederick's case as "Steven," a 20-year-old man who was dating the sister of Frederick's fiance. The report noted that Steven had been arrested for stealing credit cards nine days prior to the raid on Frederick's house and may have broken into Frederick's garage three days prior to the raid to collect evidence against him. According to Frederick's family, the two had been feuding after Frederick accused Steven of stealing from him. The search warrant in the case notes that the informant had been inside Frederick's home three days prior to the raid, where he saw evidence of the marijuana-growing operation. In an interview with a local TV station shortly after his arrest, Frederick said someone had broken into his garage at about the same time.
In June, I spoke with a second man who confirmed to me that Steven had indeed broken into Frederick's home. He could confirm that, he said, because he assisted with the break-in. I gave him the moniker "Reggie" at the time, but can now identify him as Renaldo Turnbull, Jr. I had been made aware of Turnbull and his story by John Hopkins, a reporter with the Virginian-Pilot newspaper. Hopkins told me Turnbull called him to tell him about his involvement in the raid after the police arrested Turnbull on charges of burglary and fraud—charges Turnbull says were undeserved. The Pilot decided not to publish Turnbull's accusations at the time.
When I spoke with Turnbull in June at the Chesapeake Jail, he confirmed that he and Steven had been working for the police as paid informants for several months and that Steven had cut a deal with the police after being arrested for credit card theft—they'd drop the charges if he brought them evidence of a major marijuana operation. He confirmed that he and Steven then broke into Ryan Frederick's home and stole the alleged marijuana plants the police then used as probable cause to obtain the search warrant that led to the fatal raid. Turnbull was hesitant to confirm the more serious allegations he had made to Hopkins in February—that the police were actually encouraging these illegal break-ins—explaining that his lawyer had advised him to stop taking and that he feared the police would retaliate if he kept talking. "I don't want to get into any more trouble," he said.
Last week, the Virginian-Pilot finally reported on Turnbull's conversations with Hopkins from last February, explaining that Turnbull's allegations seem to be confirmed by new revelations from special prosecutor Paul Ebert at a pretrial hearing earlier this month. Referring to the break-in at Frederick's home, the Pilot reported:
Turnbull said he and an accomplice didn't worry about breaking into Frederick's garage because police assured them they would be protected.
"The dude said he was going to look out for us, so let's go do it," he said.
Turnbull said he met with Shivers once and talked with him on the phone on other occasions. During a meeting at a 7-Eleven store near the intersection of Battlefield Boulevard and Cedar Road in Chesapeake, Shivers introduced himself.
"He told me what to look for. He said, if you know of any burglaries or anything, let Steven know… He said no evidence, no pay… He said if you know where it is, go get it.
According to Virginia criminal defense attorney John Zwerling, if Turnbull's allegations are true, they would represent illegal conduct on the part of the Chesapeake Police Department and the late Det. Shivers. "If the police were sending informants to break into private residences to collect probable cause for drug warrants, it would be the same as if the police were breaking in themselves," Zwerling says. "The police would be participating in crimes, and the warrants would be invalid."
As they had done with me last June, the Chesapeake Police Department and the office of special prosecutor Paul Ebert declined to comment on the allegations to the Pilot.
In the pre-trial hearing earlier this month that inspired the Pilot to finally run with Turnbull's interview from last February, prosecutors actually admitted that much of their case rests on the word of what they describe as two "burglars" who had broken in to Frederick's home prior to the raid. According to the article:
Prosecutors said they have evidence that more than one person broke into Frederick's detached garage days before the deadly drug raid, taking about half of the marijuana growing inside.
Prosecutors haven't yet identified them, but it's difficult to see how the "burglars" who broke into Frederick's home could be anyone other than Steven and Turnbull.
Which means the police either encouraged the break-in into Frederick's home (as Turnbull has said), or they knew or should have known their probable cause had been obtained illegally. According to Zwerling, either scenario would invalidate the warrant the police had obtained to search Frederick's home, meaning the raid on Frederick's home itself was illegal. That would also lend support to Frederick's case should he decide to use a claim of self-defense.
More broadly, if true, all of this would also mean that narcotics officers at the Chesapeake Police Department were routinely sending informants to commit illegal burglaries in order to obtain evidence in drug cases—the makings of a major scandal.
Of course, if Steven and Turnbull are indeed the "burglars" referenced by prosecutors, they're both now facing their own charges (the credit card charges against Steven were dropped, then reinstated after the raid—which didn't turn up the marijuana the police said in the warrant that the informant told them they would find), which means they're both at the mercy of the state. At this point, neither is likely to to say anything damning about the Chesapeake Police Department. Jailhouse informants who are in the game of bargaining information for time off of their own sentences have little incentive to tell the truth. Indeed, Turnbull has since stopped speaking with reporters.
Ryan Frederick and the city of Chesapeake deserve to know the details of the the burglary to his garage three days prior to the police raid on his home—and if the police encouraged or permitted the burglary.
The only sure way to get at the truth in this case is through an outside investigation, one that grants both Steven and Turnbull complete immunity from all prior charges so they can tell state or federal investigators what they know free from any pressure from local law enforcement.
It's also important to find out if such tactics were limited to this case or if, as Turnbull has said, they're common practice in Chesapeake.
The latter wouldn't be so unusual. When a botched raid in Atlanta killed 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston in November 2006, the ensuing federal investigation found that narcotics police in Atlanta routinely lied in drug warrant affidavits. The city's entire narcotics division was eventually fired or replaced. That case unraveled after a police informant came forward to contradict the narcotics officers' version of events.
Drug policing is driven by statistics—the number of arrests made and the amount of contraband seized. Statistics-driven policing incentivizes shortcuts, encouraging even good police officers to bend the rules when it comes to the use of informants, or perhaps exaggerate or mislead in a warrant affidavit if it increases the odds of making the big bust. That corrupted information then provides the basis for these violent, forced entry raids into private homes. It isn't difficult to see how how they can—and often do—go wrong.
In this case, a man with no prior criminal record, a steady job, and who was recently engaged had his home violated—perhaps by two police informants. Then, three days later, he was allegedly awoken by the sound of someone battering down his front door. His reaction was to defend his home by shooting at the intruders. It isn't a stretch to say that many people might have had the same reaction.
Sending Ryan Frederick to prison for the rest of his life won't bring Det. Jarrod Shivers back. And unless the Chesapeake Police Department—and for that matter, police departments all across the country—dramatically change the way they investigate and prosecute drug cases and serve drug warrants, it certainly won't prevent similar tragedies from happening again.
The only way to prevent that is to stop sending police teams barging into private homes to arrest people suspected of nonviolent drug crimes.
ADDENDUM: Earlier on September 25, the day this article posted, Chesapeake Police Chief Kelvin Wright denied that Renaldo Turnbull was ever a police informant. However, Wright did not say whether Turnbull was one of the "burglars" who broke into Ryan Frederick's home.
Radley Balko is a senior editor of reason.