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Registered: 08/23/04
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Snitch

When cops trust a pair of criminals to help catch a major heroin dealer, it reveals the tangled relationship between police and confidential informants.

From left): Revere Police gang-unit officers Rob Impemba, Dave Caramanica, Greg Tammaro, John Goodwin.
From left): Revere Police gang-unit officers Rob Impemba, Dave Caramanica, Greg Tammaro, John Goodwin. (Photo / Christopher Churchill)

MASSACHUSETTS STATE TROOPER MARK LEMIEUX HAS spent most of the morning sitting on a hard wooden bench in Newton District Court, waiting for his confidential informant Patrick's case to be heard. The 49-year-old detective is a sturdy, dark-haired man with a few days' worth of stubble and a fighter's crooked nose. He's dressed in a dark-blue nylon pullover, dungarees, and work boots; when the court recesses, Lemieux's cellphone is jammed against his ear, and his conversation is littered with curse words and punctuated by abrupt laughter. "It sucks to be me right now," he tells his boss, Lieutenant Bob Andrade, over the phone.

In the gray world of undercover law enforcement, Patrick earns his living in the shadows - part criminal and part Samaritan, an experienced merchant in a multitude of dubious commodities. He's a type of bad guy himself, but for the past 14 years, Patrick has been providing Lemieux with the kind of intelligence that allows the police to hook really bad guys. This summer, with Patrick's help, Lemieux and his squad from the Bristol County Drug Task Force, which operates out of the district attorney's office in New Bedford, have been angling for big-time heroin dealer. Patrick says that the guy can get a suitcase full of heroin on very short notice, which makes him a very desirable arrest.

The game that Lemieux is playing to get the drug dealer is like the multilevel chess that Mr. Spock excelled at on Star Trek. Lemieux must persuade the district attorney and judge to let Patrick back on the street quickly, despite today's charge of driving without a license, so the informant can act as liaison with Fidel, a heroin trafficker. They're set to make an undercover drug buy that afternoon.

Just as the case comes up, Lemieux whispers to the court officer, passes behind the dock, and confers with the assistant district attorney for less than a minute. Patrick's case is resolved: a fine of $450 and the continued suspension of his driver's license. Lemieux walks out of the courtroom. "Everything is fluid," he says. "You just gotta go with the flow." (Informants' full names are being withheld to protect them from retaliation.)

Outside, Patrick gets in his own car - already violating this new agreement with the court - and follows Lemieux the 12 miles or so to Suffolk Downs in East Boston, where the deal is supposed to take place. The sky is overcast and a cold drizzle is falling over the horse barns and outbuildings as Lemieux and Patrick pull in to the racetrack. About a dozen cars are scattered across the vast parking lot, a few diehards betting on the mudders on this wet and gloomy afternoon.

Exactly where and when they will meet Fidel is unclear; drug dealers do not make appointments like tax accountants and are very cautious about whom they do business with. But there are several hundred bucks in Lemieux's pocket, and the one thing you can usually count on with heroin dealers is greed; Fidel wants the money. If this confidence building deal goes down, Lemieux will make arrangements to buy more, arresting him when he's carrying a larger amount.

Dressed in a polyester sweat suit, Patrick, 42, is a big, lumpy fellow reeking of cologne, his hair worn in a brush cut and his blue eyes outlined with red. He smokes a cigarette and eases the rented Lincoln he's driving in and out of various parking spots as he waits for his partner, an informant named George, who's driving in for the deal, with Fidel following in his own car. "When I was a kid, there was always a lot of action at the track," says Patrick, who talks constantly in a voice that sounds like he gargles with razor blades. "Stolen credit cards. Truckloads of fur coats. Booze. If horses could talk, I'd be doing life." He grew up in Revere and began providing tips to law enforcement around 1980.

Scattered around the track, dressed in plainclothes, are the other members of Lemieux's squad of state troopers and police detectives from New Bedford and Dartmouth. Just when Patrick begins to grow impatient, George calls. They're more than an hour late. George says that they were within a half mile of the track when the dealer got cold feet and turned around.

"I'm gonna call him right here," Patrick barks into the phone. "Because there's no [expletive] communication." Patrick snaps the phone shut and curses some more. After a moment's thought, he opens the phone again, clicks on the walkie-talkie function, and gets the heroin dealer on the open line. "I'm waitin' here all freakin' day. Where are you?"

Fidel's low and smooth voice fills the interior of the car. "Oh, man, don't find him in the parking lot," the drug dealer says in halting English.

"This guy'll buy the freakin' stuff somewhere else," warns Patrick, who knows Fidel is lying.

"Let him go back over here," says Fidel.

Patrick snaps his phone shut. "It ain't gonna happen today," he says.

THE STEREOTYPICAL SNITCH IS SOMEONE WHO GETS OUT OF criminal charges by "flipping," providing information on other, more serious illegal activity to curry favor with cops, district attorneys, and judges. There are actually several different types of informants, according to police who handle them. One of the most common examples is the drug dealer or criminal who wants to eliminate his or her competition, says Lieutenant John Goodwin, 44, a shift supervisor for the Revere Police Department who also heads up its gang unit. When relying on this sort of informant, law enforcement officials have to keep that in mind, Goodwin says. "Eliminating the competition is what [FBI informants Stephen 'the Rifleman'] Flemmi and [James 'Whitey'] Bulger did for years," he says. "As a cop, you don't want to fall into that kind of thing, because with Flemmi and Bulger, they should've been taken down, and they never were. You can't look the other way when he's committing major crimes."

Recruiting a confidential informant based on his or her desire for leniency on a separate violation can also be problematic. The informant may have valuable insight into another, seemingly more important case, but as street cop, granting leniency is "not your call," says Goodwin. "It's up to the district attorney." The background and criminal history of the informant come into play, as well as the question, 'Is it worth it to cut a deal with this guy to get that guy?' " Goodwin says. Clever snitches will, of course, withhold information until they're in a position to make a deal. "It's like poker game," he says. "We all have cards in our hands - the cops, the informants, the lawyers - but the DA has all the aces. He typically doesn't want to make a deal with a career criminal, especially a violent one."

A particularly valuable type of informant is the old-fashioned kind: guy who just happens to know a guy. In local police departments, where cops are often patrolling the streets where they grew up, the cultivation of old pals who crossed over to "the life" is an effective way of gathering intelligence. Goodwin, a stocky, dark-haired officer who comes from Revere and sounds like it - "dis is the da guy we're lookin' at" - grew up on the rough end of Shirley Avenue. He misspent a significant portion of his youth trading baseball cards and punches with an assortment of future wiseguys and wannabes. This has proved to be a benefit in his career as a police officer, since more than one chance encounter at the grocery store or post office has led to information he has used on the job.

Just a few months ago, a criminal named Donald Desimone Jr. was bedeviling one of Revere's nicer residential areas. Irate neighbors were complaining to Revere Police Chief Terence Reardon that he was selling drugs, and Reardon was leaning on some of his most experienced street cops to find the guy and arrest him. Desimone, 42, is a convicted forger and thief and a known drug user who has managed to duck long prison sentences. In 1995, he narrowly avoided being murdered by one of his coconspirators in a Lynn robbery when the gun jammed. Desimone ran away and lived to commit crimes another day - selling drugs under the nose of the police chief, it seemed. When word got to Goodwin, who knew Desimone from his Shirley Avenue days, he immediately thought of another old acquaintance, Lemieux's informant Patrick. After checking with Lemieux, Goodwin called Patrick to ask about Desimone's whereabouts. An hour later, Patrick called back to say Desimone was hiding in a motel room in Saugus.

That same evening, armed with an arrest warrant for outstanding drug charges and failure to appear in court, Goodwin and three other Revere officers approached the motel room. When the electronic key card provided by the motel manager failed, officer Dave Wilson, 38, a large, thick-shouldered guy, smashed open the door. They made the arrest.

In cases where the stakes are higher - more serious charges, longer jail sentences, and smarter or more ruthless criminals - police officers are often confronted with tough choices about the sort of informant they can use. The best kind is what Lemieux calls the "true believer," a serial dogooder who "loves the action" and, in drug cases especially, is often a reformed addict or someone who has lost a loved one through an overdose or drug-related violence. "The downside of these guys is they have a tendency to embellish," he says, "because they want to clean up the streets."

If true believers are in short supply, cops will go to professional informants, who command a fee for their services. (To pay these fees, local and state police in Massachusetts often need the assistance of federal law enforcement agencies like the FBI and DEA, who have money set aside for informants, Lemieux says. A lot of that money comes from assets seized by the courts in previous cases.) Patrick and George cross informant categories, according to Goodwin and Lemieux. They are each seeking leniency for past and current transgressions, they would like to weaken their competition on the street, and they fancy themselves professional snitches. If this big heroin operation goes right, they will probably collect a modest amount of money - maybe $1,000 - from the district attorney's office.

"They're supposed to pay taxes on it, but they never do," says Lemieux.

INSIDE THE CHILLY ITALIAN EXPRESS RESTAURANT ON Saratoga Street in East Boston, Goodwin is sitting down for a 7 p.m. meal of mussels fra diavolo with Revere patrolman Rob Impemba. Taking a quick break from their 4 p.m.-midnight shift, the two plainclothes men are sitting against a blood-red wall, decorated with a large oil painting of a Venetian canal. The interior of the cafe is redolent of marinara and garlic and the noisy whir of a giant air conditioner allows Goodwin and Impemba to speak freely.

Impemba is complaining about the "small stuff " he has been doing lately. "It's part of the gig," Goodwin says. "You can't solve murders every day." Impemba, 32, is smooth-faced, with an athletic build and a high-and-tight haircut. He's telling his boss about a shoplifting incident that occurred during his shift earlier that week, and Goodwin stops eating when he hears the name Desimone.

"Which one?" he asks.

"Ronnie," Impemba says. Ronald Desimone, 39, Donald's younger brother, was parked outside a Revere store waiting for an accomplice who ran out with his arms full of electronics and jumped into the car. Surveillance cameras provided the Acura's license plate - DESID - and Ronnie was stopped and arrested a short time later for larceny and cocaine possession. The accomplice wasn't caught, but a captain in Revere recognized the guy on surveillance video, and a warrant was issued for his arrest.

Piling his empty mussel shells to one side, Impemba names the accomplice. Goodwin stops eating and takes out his cellphone. He calls the station and asks the dispatcher to search the database they keep of anyone who has contact with the Revere police. He learns that Ronnie Desimone's accomplice in the grab-and-run was Patrick.

After his troubles in Newton, a larceny warrant is a major problem for Patrick, and for Lemieux, who's relying on him to help set up the heroin dealer. Further complicating things, if either Goodwin or Lemieux sees Patrick on the street, by state law they must arrest him. Goodwin flips open his phone and calls the trooper.

Lemieux is driving down Route 1 in Attleboro, his unmarked car littered with police reports and food wrappers, his gun holster poking out from under the seat. Goodwin tells him about Patrick's new warrant, and the trooper curses under his breath. Worried Patrick will get caught before he can arrange another meeting with Fidel, and busy with another case, Lemieux asks Goodwin to arrest Fidel. A lot of cops would be concerned about who was going to actually grab this guy, but professionals, says Lemieux, "don't give a rat's ass" about who gets the credit. They just want to get some heroin off the street.

Lemieux reaches Patrick using his phone's walkie-talkie function and learns that the informant has left town, ducking the warrant. "You better [expletive] help us on this," Lemieux says.

"What's [Goodwin] gonna do for me?" Patrick asks.

"Time out," says Lemieux. "Do this for me, and then we'll deal with the other thing later."

He goes back to Goodwin with a plan. Patrick will call Fidel, pretending to be in Revere. He'll arrange for Ronnie Desimone, who didn't show up for his court date in the shoplifting case, to buy heroin from Fidel. (Ronnie is a regular customer, and Goodwin can watch his house because of his outstanding warrants.) In order to show probable cause for Fidel's arrest when the case goes to trial, Goodwin will have to satisfy two legal criteria: basis of knowledge and reliability. Lemieux says that Patrick and George have purchased heroin from Fidel many times, which forms his basis of knowledge. George, who will manage the setup locally, is "reliable a thousand times over," says Lemieux. "I trust the guy as much as I've trusted any of these guys." Patrick is a different story. With him, Lemieux says, it's like this: "You help us now, and later [Goodwin] might help you. That's it."

A WEEK LATER, EVERYTHING IS IN PLACE FOR THE RIP, the drug buy orchestrated by Patrick and George that it is hoped will lead to Fidel's arrest. Behind the Revere police station an hour before dusk, Goodwin meets with his squad, including Impemba and Wilson, as well as Greg Tammaro, 40, an Army veteran who served in the first Gulf War, and 27-year-old Dave Caramanica, who resembles a larger version of New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter. There are also two state troopers, Rick Ball, 40, who grew up in Dorchester, and his 34-year-old partner, Damian Halfkenny, who's dressed in a navy blue Red Sox cap and black Superman T-shirt. "Can you run?" Goodwin asks them.

"Me, I'm a [expletive] speedster," says Ball, who's 6- foot-3 and weighs 220 pounds.

Goodwin describes the Revere neighborhood surrounding the Desimones' house, as well as how the deal will unfold. There will be two guys in the car: the driver, who's got the heroin, and his passenger, the lookout. "If it goes down according to plan - and it never does - the guy that gets out will be the driver," Goodwin says. "Bingo. The car's there. We dive on both of 'em."

Impemba paces back and forth. "This is complicated," he says. "There's not gonna be a hand-to-hand [buy]."

The men head for their vehicles. Goodwin is driving a bright-yellow public works van, accompanied by Caramanica. Thundering down Broadway, Goodwin calls the informant George one last time, more of an edge in his voice than usual. "Did Ronnie already order [the heroin]? Does he think some of it's for you? OK."

Goodwin parks the van on the crest of High Street, 30 yards from the target house, a small maroon ranch fronted by a swath of overgrown lawn. Sprinklers are ratcheting back and forth in a neighbor's yard, and a little leaguer in his tiny uniform is swinging a Wiffle bat next door to the Desimones' house. Goodwin and Caramanica climb into the back of the van, talking in whispers. "This is tricky," says Goodwin.

The sky turns violet. Ball and Tammaro are parked half a block away, at the corner of Tuckerman and High streets. Wilson, Halfkenny, Impemba, and a state trooper named Mario Millett occupy two cars around the corner. A trio of marked patrol cars is out of sight down the hill, ready to form roadblocks, if necessary.

Killing time, Caramanica tells Goodwin about a relative of his from the North End who got locked up. "My mother used to say, 'Uncle Joe is away at college,' " he says. "I'm figuring, 'It's taking him a long time to graduate.' " Another half hour passes in the stuff y van and Goodwin nudges the young cop. "Look," he says. A slight, bare-chested man in droopy black sweatpants has emerged from the house. "That's Ronnie." He stands in his front yard, gazing down High Street, then goes back inside. A few moments later, a black four-door Honda rolls past the surveillance van and turns into the Desimones' driveway. "That's them," says Goodwin, switching on his portable radio. "Move in. Move in." He and Caramanica scramble out and begin running toward the Honda as the first suspect emerges. The driver of the car, a male in his 40s wearing a white polo shirt with thin blue stripes, is standing at the side door when he sees the cops sprinting toward him. "Police. Police!" shouts Caramanica. "Get on the ground!"

Caramanica, a former Revere High defensive end, slams into the suspect, spinning him around and driving him onto the grass beside the stoop. Goodwin jumps onto them as they crash down. "Don't let him swallow it," says Goodwin, who had seen the suspect put something into his mouth as they approached. Caramanica jams his thumb under the suspect's jaw and presses hard.

At the same time, Ball arrives and points his gun at the passenger waiting inside the Honda. Seeing the tall, rugged trooper, the man unlocks his door and emerges with his hands raised.

Halfkenny and Tammaro also come zipping across the lawn from the other direction, their guns drawn and badges out. As they reach the driveway, Goodwin yells, "In the house," and Halfkenny runs into the backyard and through an open sliding glass door. He and Tammaro, who has come in through the side door, clear the main floor of the house and descend to the basement, where they find Desimone hiding behind the boiler. Shining his flashlight and pointing his weapon, Halfkenny orders Desimone to stand up, then cuff s him.

Outside, Goodwin and Caramanica are still grappling with the 200-pound driver. Finally, Caramanica releases the suspect's jaw and yells, "Where are the drugs?"

"In the car," he croaks.

Impemba is already there. He finds a cigarette packet beneath the driver's seat filled with four small bags of white powder that turns out to be cocaine and two bags of brownish heroin. From the trunk of the car, the police recover 19 pairs of designer blue jeans with the tags still on them and a DVD player, video camera, and wireless headset, all still in their original boxes and apparently stolen or traded for drugs.

Marked cruisers are arriving from all directions, and a group of neighbors has converged. Most of them are screaming at Desimone. "It's about time," one neighbor shouts. "See what happens, you scumbag?"

But a middle-aged woman in a yellow halter top is shrieking at the police. "You're scaring our kids. Why didn't you tell us?"

Wilson approaches the woman with his hands held out, speaking calmly. "It's all right, ma'am. It's OK. We're just doing our jobs."

BACK AT THE REVERE POLICE STATION, Goodwin, Caramanica, and Impemba book the three suspects. The driver identifies himself as Fidel Miranda, and the passenger says his name is Carlos Rivera. Fidel produced a Massachusetts driver's license. It's a busy night, the cell block is full, and takes a couple of hours to process the men and run their fingerprints through state and federal databases.

It turns out that Fidel Miranda, also known as Lionel Pereira, is really Dominican- born Miguel Soto. "Pereira" has outstanding warrants for trafficking in cocaine, heroin distribution, and conspiracy to violate drug laws. The check further reveals that Soto, using the Fidel alias, had been arrested by Boston Police two nights earlier on charges of heroin possession with intent to distribute within school zone, possession of cocaine, carrying a dangerous weapon, and resisting arrest. It was "Fidel's" first offense, and the next morning, the court let him go. Under the name Pereira, he is listed as a fugitive from justice on parole violations originating in New Hampshire.

Although Goodwin's shift was supposed to end at midnight, he remains at the station overnight to trace Soto's criminal history. He finishes his report at 6:30 the next morning, has a cup of coffee with the officers on the day shift, and drives to Chelsea District Court for Soto's arraignment.

When it appears that the judge might release the prisoner claiming to be Fidel Miranda, Goodwin asks the district attorney to stall and phones the New Hampshire parole board. He gets an officer there to e-mail a photograph of the fugitive Lionel Pereira. With that, the district attorney is able to persuade the judge to hold Soto.

Early in the afternoon, Goodwin emerges onto the courthouse steps and stands blinking in the sunlight. He's been awake for 36 hours. He flips open his phone and calls Lemieux.

"How'd it go?" asks the state trooper.

Goodwin tells Lemieux about the defense lawyer's attempt to persuade the court that his client was Fidel Miranda, not Miguel Soto. "I wanted to stand up in court and say, 'Your Honor, it's the same guy. The fingerprints are the same,'" Goodwin says. You know how you get."

"Did you hook him?" Lemieux asks.

Goodwin dons his sunglasses. "Seventy-five-thousand-dollar cash bail," he says.

"That's beautiful," says Lemieux.

A short while later, Goodwin's phone rings: It's Patrick, looking for some consideration on the larceny charge in exchange for setting up Soto. Knowing that the root of Patrick's difficulties is his own heroin use, Goodwin is brief. "You've got to get your [expletive] together," he says. Check yourself into a program, and then we'll talk."

Jay Atkinson is the author of Legends of Winter Hill and a new book, City in Amber, due out next year. E-mail comments to magazine@globe.com.

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