A MAN WAS ON A FLIGHT to Chicago at the time police said he sold them drugs. Another suspected dealer, a mountain of a man with a gap-toothed smile, was mistaken in a cocaine buy for someone nearly a foot shorter and 70 pounds lighter.
In another case, a DEA agent picked out a woman he said sold him drugs -- using a 6th grade class picture that was more than 10 years old.
Several deals were pure fiction, made up by government informant Jerrell Bray.
Federal prosecutors failed to notice those signs, some of the biggest red flags in a case filled with them, as they built a massive drug conspiracy in Mansfield.
Prosecutors, the main gatekeepers to the criminal justice system, went to a judge last week and asked that 15 men convicted in the case be released from prison. So far, 23 of 26 cases were tossed out by judges or juries.
U.S. Attorney Greg White said his office pushed to dismiss the cases, based on its "abiding belief in our system of justice and fundamental fairness." In an interview, White declined to address the various troubles of the case. He said his office is doing an internal analysis "so this never happens again, and commenting on this now won't help us get to the bottom of it."
But a review of the Mansfield case raises questions about whether White's office should have prosecuted the cases in the first place. Credibility issues of the case's star witnesses came up early, police agencies ran a haphazard investigation and drug agents failed to monitor their own informant, according to court records and interviews.
Surveillance, a typical tactic in drug cases, was lacking. And when videotapes were used, it appears, prosecutors failed to watch them, as tall suspects were charged when the camera recorded short men. In one case, a jury watched a tape and acquitted an accused man in five minutes.
Still, prosecutors went forward with the cases.
Families of the men sent to prison want to know why.
They also wonder why prosecutors failed to see gaping holes and why they didn't press for more and better information before asking a judge and jury to send dozens of people, overwhelmingly poor and black, to prison.
Interviews with the men's families and their defense attorneys, as well as a review of the court records, indicates these problems existed:
PROSECUTORS KNEW EARLY about credibility issues of their star witnesses.
Informant Jerrell Bray and DEA agent Lee Lucas said that on Oct. 5, 2005, they purchased more than 50 grams of crack cocaine in Mansfield from Roosevelt Williams, a Chicago man who had a girlfriend in Ohio.
One problem: Williams wasn't in Mansfield on Oct. 5. He had flown back to Chicago to see a sick relative. His attorney, Harvey Bruner, obtained airline records, including a boarding pass and flight manifest, that backed up Williams' story. Bruner turned the documents over to prosecutors.
There were other problems with the sale: Williams was born in Alabama and had a thick southern accent. The person heard on tape selling drugs to Lucas and Bray Oct. 5 lacked any hint of an accent.
Prosecutors eventually agreed to drop the charge against Williams. But in the next few months, six other people went to trial for Mansfield drug deals involving Bray.
They claimed, like Williams, that the informant concocted the deals.
Court rules require prosecutors to turn over any evidence that could help exonerate the accused. Some defense attorneys who represented the six said Blas Serrano, the federal prosecutor handling the cases, should have alerted them about the concerns in the Williams case, so the credibility issue could be raised during trial.
It's unclear whether problems in the Williams' case gave prosecutors pause about their other cases, or Bray and Lucas's veracity.
Lucas, a 17-year DEA veteran, has declined to comment about the cases.
AUTHORITIES RAN a haphazard investigation.
On Sept. 20, 2005, Bray testified, he bought a pound of cocaine from Mansfield businessman Dwayne Nabors for $10,000. Cleveland narcotics officer Jamal Ansari, working undercover with Bray, later identified Nabors as the man who sold the drugs, according to court records.
Bray's tale was enough for police to gain a search warrant into Nabors' home. They didn't find drugs, but they did find two illegal guns, which resulted in Nabors going to prison.
Last month, Bray pleaded guilty to perjury, saying he made up the story about Nabors and drugs. That negated the basis for the search warrant, resulting in Nabors being freed from prison. He had served two years.
Investigators for the Justice Department are looking into how the officers botched the identification of Nabors. He is expected to testify before a federal grand jury next month.
Defense attorneys also said that if Nabors was such a major drug peddler -- as authorities claimed -- the DEA should have set up a wiretap on his phone, a technique the agency specializes in. They say that prosecutors should have seen the lack of a wiretap as yet another red flag about their case.
SURVEILLANCE, typical in drug cases, was lacking.
When federal agents targeted the drug trade around the Cedar Estates housing project in Cleveland last year, their investigation included dozens of hours of secretly-recorded videotapes, shot by both police and undercover informants.
In the Mansfield case, agents recorded almost no surveillance tapes.
If police had bothered to follow suspected dealers and stake out their homes, they would have known immediately that Bray was running a scam, defense attorneys said.
Basic surveillance practices also would have prevented authorities from making one of their most appalling blunders in the case: using a sixth-grade photograph to identify Geneva France as a drug dealer.
France, then a 22-year-old mother of three children, had never been in trouble in her life. She was sent to prison largely on the testimony of Lucas, the federal agent who said he was sure he bought cocaine from her.
Lucas testified in France's trial that he confirmed her name and identity through a photograph of her. He never mentioned that the picture of France was more than a decade old.
France's trial attorney, Edward Mullin, objected, saying he wanted to see the photo.
He did, but not during the trial. Prosecutors successfully fought to keep it out of evidence. Two years after France was convicted, a Justice Department investigator showed Mullin the picture of France as a student at Malabar Junior High School.
"I couldn't believe it," Mullin said. "It was a picture of a little girl."
POLICE FAILED to monitor their own informant.
Bray made tens of thousands of dollars working with the DEA and Richland County sheriff's department while Lucas and other officers watched.
The agency paid him about $600 to buy cocaine from drug dealers. But Bray stole thousands of dollars in buy money, as well, according to defense attorneys and court testimony.
In several deals, Bray supplied the cocaine to friends, who then sold the drugs to Lucas, who was working undercover. Later, Bray would meet with the friends and collect the buy money handed over by Lucas, giving his friends a small fee for their trouble, according to testimony and defense attorneys.
It's unclear why police weren't monitoring the supposed drug dealers. If they had been, they might have realized Bray was regularly meeting with them on the side.
Bray's actions underscore a fear for judges and prosecutors in the federal system, where drug cases are built on informants.
"They can penetrate the criminal element," said Geoffrey Mearns, a former federal prosecutor who is dean of the Cleveland Marshall College of Law at Cleveland State University. "But if they are not watched closely and independently by law enforcement and prosecutors, then the damage that they can do is similar to when there is cancer in an isolated area of a body that soon spreads throughout it."
NO ONE NOTICED the heights of suspects.
Lucas and Bray said they bought cocaine from Joshawa Webb, who is at least 6 feet 4, inches tall and weighs about 280 pounds. Webb also flashes a smile that includes a missing tooth and has arms covered in tattoos.
Webb sat in jail for 20 months, claiming that he had nothing to do with the sale.
In the end, authorities determined that Jeremiah Conrad, a friend of Bray's, was the man who sold drugs that day to Lucas and Bray.
Conrad is shorter and leaner than Webb. Also, there's no gap in Conrad's smile.
Years after the deal, Conrad told authorities that Bray and Lucas orchestrated the deal.
In another case, Bray and Lucas said they bought cocaine from Lowestco Ballard. Lucas testified that he was within 2 or 3 feet of Ballard at the time of the deal and knew it was him, according to court records.
Ballard is 6 feet 6 inches tall and weighs about 180 pounds. In one of the few videotapes used in the case, it is clear that the person who sold the drugs to Lucas is shorter and heavier. The man involved in the deal was 5 feet, 9 inches tall.
A jury acquitted Ballard after deliberating only five minutes. "In the movies, you see what police and judges can do to a person," said Ballard, whose mother works at the Mansfield Police Department as an aide. "But then, when you get in the system, you really see what police and judges can do. It's unbelievable."