Nationwide, police agencies and prosecutors agree that the increased use of confidential informants, or ‘CI’s, has been a boon to fighting crime, especially when it comes to drug trafficking.
They claim that informants can often go places and pierce certain social and criminal circles that an undercover officer can’t. Why?
Because CIs are often known criminals who got ‘caught in the act’ and were offered a deal: Help make cases against others and you can stay out of jail.
Using a known criminal in a key position of trust might sound like a ‘dicey’ proposition and in fact, many in law enforcement call CIs ‘a necessary evil’.
But a growing group of experts, attorneys, and community leaders say the problems that come from using informants go much deeper than the public, or perhaps anyone, knows. They say the overall secrecy needed to protect the informant’s identity can also hide bad case work, police corruption, and even innocent people being sentenced for crimes they didn’t do.
And it’s happened right here in San Antonio.
October 2, 2017, is the day lifelong San Antonio resident Rubee Sandoval’s world was turned upside down. It was the day deputies with the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office Narcotics Unit raided her East Side home.
Sandoval said she was walking out her front door to grab something from her truck when she was met by several deputies with their guns drawn.
“I just opened the front door and then there they were. I mean, at the very same time,” Sandoval recalled. “I just seen them running up on the porch, the rest of them running behind them, and they hit the side of the door. I got down immediately because I didn’t want to get shot or anything.”
The deputies were executing a search warrant which alleged a confidential informant had seen meth in the home within the past 48 hours. As Sandoval lay on the floor, she watched the deputies go directly to a backroom and focus their attention on a box sitting on a shelf. To Sandoval, it appeared the deputies knew what they were looking for and where to find it in her home.
“And they go, ‘OK, it’s right here, it’s right here.’ And then they pick me up and put cuffs on me and sit me on the couch,” Sandoval said. “Then they come out and they’re just holding up that big bag. And, I take a big breath.”
Inside that box, deputies found a large bag containing more than 1,000 grams (2.2 pounds) of methamphetamine. When the deputies were done searching her home Sandoval was facing felony drug trafficking charges: possession with intent to deliver methamphetamine. She was accused of being a drug dealer.
It wasn’t the first time Sandoval had been busted for drugs. She had previous arrests for possession and other drug-related crimes dating back to 2001. But those were all minor charges compared to the trouble she was now facing.
“You know, I’d be with other people that were getting in trouble and I’d be swept up in it too. I wasn’t seeking out trouble or anything. I just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. I wasn’t selling any drugs,” Sandoval said. “I was a user.”
Sandoval said she turned to drugs to self-medicate when she hit a difficult time in her life. She found it hard to turn away once the drugs took hold of her life.
“It was a coping mechanism there for a while when I was going through a bout of depression. It would give me a reason to get out of bed, go to work. And it wasn’t like I was drinking and partying and staying out. That wasn’t the purpose for it. It was to function,” Sandoval said. “I tried to go the way that other people go to the hospital and take anti-depressants, but the prescriptions they were giving me were even worse. They weren’t working.”
Despite her past run in’s with police Sandoval insisted she was never a drug dealer, only a user. So, imagine her surprise when those deputies pulled out a large bag of meth from that box in her home. Drugs, she said, she’d never seen before.
“I get a sick feeling in my stomach thinking about it because I had that feeling like, ‘Oh my God, I’m all alone.’ You know, what’s happening here?” Sandoval said. “I just remember thinking, oh my God, oh my God. I just kept on saying that I had no idea.”
Sandoval said she told the deputies the drugs were not hers. She believed she had been set up and was certain she knew who was responsible. That’s because less than 24 hours before deputies raided her home, Sandoval had agreed to help a male friend temporarily store some items because he was kicked out of his house.
“He says, ‘My girlfriend and I are fighting. She’s destroying my furniture.’ And she’s breaking up with him, and she’s destroying his car and personal items. So, I was like, OK,” Sandoval said. “When he first came to the door, he had that big box and I went to grab it and he pulled back. He goes, ‘Oh no, I got it,’ and I thought he was being a gentleman. So, I just told him where to put it. And then I said, ‘Do you need help getting the rest? I thought you had more stuff,’ and he goes, ‘Oh no, I got my little girl with me and I couldn’t bring everything right now.’”
That box she agreed to store was the one the deputies went directly to when they were in Sandoval’s home. She said they didn’t even search the rest of the house. But they did find a small amount of meth on her nightstand that she claimed was given to her by the friend who dropped off the box. It was his way of thanking her for storing the box.
“He goes, ‘Man, I really appreciate what you’re doing. I don’t know what I would do.’ And he pulled a bag out and he just handed me some stuff in my hand, it was just loose, it wasn’t in a baggy or nothing. And I put it on my nightstand,” Sandoval said.
As she stood in her home in handcuffs, she realized what was happening, but she didn’t know why. She also didn’t know that three people, just across town, were in a very similar situation, and that that same male friend she had just helped was also involved in that incident.
On August 10, 2017, just a few weeks before Rubee Sandoval was arrested, the same BCSO Narcotics Unit raided a home at 1315 West Hermosa. The deputies had a search warrant alleging a confidential informant had seen drugs at the residence.
Louie Garcia had agreed to help his friends who lived at the home, Rexina Linan-Juarez, and John Cape. Linan-Juarez was a double amputee who relied on a wheelchair. Just the day before, Garcia had witnessed her fall from a dilapidated wheelchair ramp in front of the home. He wanted to fix it.
“I went out there and I helped her up and I looked at the ramp and I told her, ‘I have extra material at my house.’ I’d be glad to come over here and rebuild her ramp,” Louie Garcia recalled. “And so, she goes, ‘I can’t really pay you,’ And I was like, ‘Not asking you to, I got extra material.’”
While Garcia and John Cape were working on the ramp, they noticed a police van pull up in front of the house. Within seconds, the two men were surrounded by Bexar County Sheriff’s deputies shouting orders and taking them to the ground. They were there to serve the search warrant.
“They picked me up and took me inside and they told us what they’re there for,” John Cape recalled. “So, they went in (the house) and they went straight to the bathroom and within five minutes they were ready to come out with a big old bag of dope. And I said, ‘That’s not mine.’”
Garcia was also brought into the home where he watched the deputies conduct their search.
“They pull out this big bag and they’re like, ‘Well, whose is this?’ And we’re like, ‘Nobody. It’s not mine,’ and it wasn’t John’s,” Garcia said. “And then they just kind of said, ‘Well, it doesn’t matter. You all are going down anyway.’”
Cape and Garcia were suspicious, and they had good reason to be. Just before those BCSO narcotics deputies burst onto the property, there was a visitor. It was a man with a little girl. Rexina Linan-Juarez knew the man, but she wasn’t home. When the man asked if his little girl could use the bathroom, Cape gave him permission to go into the house.
Garcia said he had never seen the man before and didn’t think much of it at first.
“I didn’t know who he was. I had noticed that he had a little girl with him, and she had a backpack. And when they leave, she didn’t have a backpack anymore,” Garcia said. “So as soon as they leave, they turn a corner. And here comes the Sheriff’s department.”
Deputies found a package containing nearly 2-and-a-half pounds of methamphetamine hidden behind a loose board in the bathroom wall.
The plea deal
During the search deputies also recovered a bank bag from the front porch containing cash and two smaller bags of meth as well as personal use amounts of other drugs inside the home. John Cape, whose name was on the search warrant, said one deputy seemed unusually proud of his arrest. “He comes out of the restroom saying we finally got you Cape, we finally got you. You’ve been at this a long time. I told you I was gonna get you,” Cape said. “I said, ‘Who are you? How do you know me?’ He sits down on the couch and stretches out and says, ‘I told you we’d get you. It’s a matter of time.’”
The bust was touted to local news media with a news release featuring John Cape and Rexina Linan-Juarez’s mugshots and photos of the drugs. BCSO valued the confiscated contraband at $140,000.
Louie Garcia wasn’t included in the news release, but he was also facing some serious time. Even though he didn’t live in the home, deputies alleged some of the drugs they found were his including the meth found in the bank bag on the front porch next to Garcia’s tools and another baggie found on the floor in the house near his feet where he was sitting while deputies searched the home. Still, he and his attorney thought things might be okay.
“My first attorney was really confident this should be a dismissal right off the bat. And when we got into the courtroom, it was like a whole different story,” Garcia said. “(The prosecutor) was like, ‘I don’t care if you didn’t live there. You’re going to sign for ten years today or tomorrow we’re going to have a jury trial and you’re looking at twenty-five to life.”
Garcia said his heart sank when he learned how much time he was facing.
“It was like somebody knocked the wind out of me,” Garcia said. “You can’t think. You can’t function. The first thing I started thinking is my parents are old. I’m going to lose them. I’m the only son and I’m supposed to be taking care of my parents.”
When Rexina Linan-Juarez was arrested she was in poor health. She required regular dialysis treatments and other daily medical care that she wasn’t receiving in jail. Her sister, Delma Sanchez, said Rexina had been using illegal drugs to mask the pain caused by her health problems. Sanchez said her sister was adamant the 2 pounds of meth found in her home was not hers.
“From the beginning she told me, ‘Delma someone had to have put it here. It’s not mine.’ She said the name of the person. And I didn’t remember it at that time. And I don’t even know the person. But she kept saying that same story, ‘It wasn’t mine Delma. I didn’t do it,’” Sanchez said.
Rexina Linan-Juarez, John Cape, and Louie Garcia told their attorneys the drugs had been planted but with no evidence to back up their claims, their legal options were running out.
Prosecutors would eventually use Linan-Juarez’s worsening health to convince Cape to take a plea deal, something he had originally refused to do. He had been to prison before and didn’t want to go back.
“I said, ‘I ain’t taking nothing. I want to go to a jury trial. What part of that don’t you understand?’” Cape recalled. “(My lawyer) said, ‘Jury trial? Ain’t nobody going to believe you. You can’t go on the stand because you’re a convict. Nobody’s gonna believe you.’ I said, ‘Well, I don’t care. I still want to go to a jury trial, no plea bargain.’” “I said, ‘I’m gonna tell them everything. I’m gonna put that little girl on the stand and have her tell them what she did in the restroom. A little kid ain’t gonna lie. She’s gonna tell the truth,’” Cape said.
Eventually, Cape said there was enough pressure on him to change his mind. Rexina had been sending him letters and when he saw her in court he finally broke down.
“We’re in court and Rexina is crying over there and she’s going to sign (a plea deal). She told me in the letters she’d write to me that she just wanted to get out because she was sick and they wouldn’t take her to the hospital,” Cape said.
John Cape told his lawyer he would accept a plea deal that day if the prosecutor agreed to keep Rexina out of jail. The prosecutor offered to give Cape 10 years in prison if he plead guilty and Rexina would get 8 years deferred adjudication (probation) if she signed the plea agreement. Both signed the deals that day.
“That’s the only reason I took it because they were going to let her go,” Cape said.
With his two co-defendants making deals, Louie Garcia said he was left with few choices. His prior criminal record was a big factor in how much time he was facing. He said eventually he was left with no choice but to plead guilty to a crime he knew he didn’t commit. “I’ve had minor offenses. I’ve had a DWI in the past. In 2002, I had a possession charge of a gram or two of cocaine and that’s why I was told that you have a history. We take this thing to trial, you’re looking at twenty-five years,” Garcia said. “Until your back is against the wall and you’re looking at all these years and you can lose everything if you lose in trial. But if you sign this plea deal, you’re eligible for parole within so many years and you’re thinking, I could be home, I could be home. Good behavior, I take plenty of classes, I stay out of the way and I don’t cause no problems and I will be home. If you have a history, there’s nothing you can do.”
Garcia agreed to take a plea deal that would send him to prison for 8 years.
As he and John Cape began their prison sentences and Rexina Linan-Juarez’s health continued to decline at home with her family, Rubee Sandoval was still fighting her charges. Her fight would lead to the discovery of a crooked informant who was planting drugs.
In the darkness, a spark
In early 2019, more than a year after the raid on her home, Rubee Sandoval was still trying to find a way out of her nightmare. She said she tried over and over to convince her own attorneys and the Bexar County District Attorney’s office that she’d been framed. But no one seemed to be listening.
She said she was being pressured to take a plea deal, but she refused because she wasn’t going to admit to something she didn’t do.
But Sandoval had a problem: that small amount of meth that was found on her nightstand when deputies raided her home. In a meeting with the prosecutor and her lawyer, she was offered a deal. The State would drop the possession with intent to deliver charges because of the questions she was raising about the informant. In exchange, Sandoval would plead guilty to possession of the smaller amount which the State was offering 8 years of probation. Her own attorney recommended she take the deal.
“He says, ‘Look, this is a big deal Rubee. Even if my daughter, even if I knew she was 100 percent innocent, I tell her to take the deal because … it’s not worth going to trial and you get the fifteen years. I tell her to take the deal,” Sandoval said.
Sandoval refused the deal and had the attorney removed from her case. It wouldn’t be until early 2020 that fresh eyes looked at her case and when they did, they found some compelling evidence that caused everything to unravel.
The day she was arrested, the friend she was storing that box for, sent her a series of texts.
“(He) had texted me the following day since I didn’t come home that night, and that’s when he says, ‘Hey, are you home? You still got the box? I can pick up my box.’ I said, ‘I’m not home but I’ll meet you there,’” Sandoval recalled. “I’m getting ready and waiting for him to come to the house to pick up his box because he said he got a storage unit.”
Her friend never showed up that day, but it wasn’t long after the text exchange that deputies raided Sandoval’s home.
She shared the text messages with her first attorney who saved copies of them from her phone. Not long after she had a disagreement with that attorney, and he asked to be removed from the case. Over the years Rubee would remind her new attorneys about the text messages but they never seemed to have much interest in them.
Then a new prosecutor assigned to the case in 2020 found those text messages while reviewing the case file and what she saw concerned her.
She took those concerns to Matt Howard, the director of the Bexar County DA’s conviction integrity unit. Howard and his team review questionable cases where someone has been convicted.
“She realized something was a little bit off about it,” Howard said. “The text messages were a little bit concerning. They basically were telling the defendant in that case, ‘I’m bringing something to your house, make sure it’s at this location at this time, make sure it’s in this exact spot. It needs to be here. Don’t open it under any circumstances. But I’m bringing this to your house.’ The package had contraband in it. So that was pretty clear evidence that the confidential informant had set that person up.”
Howard put his investigators to work, looking into the informant used in the Sandoval case and finding out how many other cases he had worked on. “We discovered that there were three other cases that relied on this confidential informant,” Howard said. Those cases were the same that led to the convictions of Rexina Linan-Juarez, John Cape, and Louie Garcia.
So what about the informant? Back in July 2017, he was caught with nearly 2 pounds of methamphetamine and was offered a deal: Become a “snitch” and work with local police to produce more drug cases against other suspects. Then eventually his cases would be dismissed. He agreed and was put on contract with the Bexar County District Attorney’s Office. Once he fulfilled the contract requirements his cases were dismissed.
Making It Right
The county appointed defense attorney Dayna Jones to represent the three defendants. She was immediately troubled by how easy it was for deputies to get a search warrant for 1315 West Hermosa considering the lack of experience the informant they were relying on had.
“The search warrant affidavit that the officer supplied in this case said that this was the first time that he was using this particular confidential informant. That was troublesome to me,” Jones said.
According to the warrant the informant had only conducted what’s called a “controlled buy”: A deputy met with him. Gave him money. And watched the informant enter an undisclosed location. When he returned, he turned over the drugs he bought.
“This confidential informant went and bought drugs for me and so I know that they know what drugs are. That’s all we had in this one. That’s all the officers did,” Jones said. “I think that the officer was able to put enough details in there to make it sound pretty convincing to a judge. I’m not blaming the judge or the officer or anything like that, but a whole lot more work could have been done at the very initial steps on this before going and getting a search warrant affidavit.”
Jones would work with Howard’s team get the convictions overturned. Both sides agreed the informant was unreliable and had the defendant’s been able to prove he’d set them up they never would have been prosecuted let alone agreed to sign plea deals.
“They told us that their attorney said, ‘Well, there’s no proof. You can’t prove that you were set up.’ So they were in a situation where it was really, their word was all that they had,” Howard said. As the gears of their exoneration process slowly turned Rexina Linan-Juarez was now on her deathbed. Her sister Delma Sanchez said she never lost faith that she would finally be found innocent.
“She would tell me, ‘You’ll see Delma. Whether I’m here or not, you’ll see that I didn’t do this to mom,’” Sanchez said. “She would say, ‘It wasn’t us Delma. We’re not the first ones. There’re other people,’ and she would tell me, ‘Just watch. You know, it’ll be OK. We’re going to be all right.’”
On August 21, 2020, A Bexar County Judge found John Cape, Louie Garcia and Rexina Linan-Juarez were wrongfully convicted and recommended they be granted actual innocence. Because Linan-Juarez was not technically convicted her case was able to be reviewed and overturned at the local level. Cape and Garcia’s cases would have to be heard by the Court of Criminal Appeals.
“It was fortunate for us that she had been given a form of probation on her case because her case could be handled here at the county level,” said Matt Howard. “Now, the other two co-defendants, John Cape and Louie Garcia, their cases have to go to the Court of Criminal Appeals for a final determination on whether or whether or not that court’s going to find them actually innocent.”
So, when the district court judge overturned the cases in August of 2020 it meant one thing for Linan-Juarez and something different for Cape and Garcia.
“Basically, the moment that the trial court judge found Rexina to be actually innocent, she was exonerated and found actually innocent,” Howard said. “The moment that the trial court judge found John and Louie to be actually innocent, that became the recommendation of the trial court to be sent up to the Court of Criminal Appeals. And they can consider the trial court’s recommendation. They give it great deference, but they don’t necessarily have to follow it.”
But the judges ruling came too late for Rexina Linan-Juarez. She died the day before she was declared innocent.
“She passed away the day before the judge signed the form,” Delma Sanchez said. “And I mean, these were happy, sad tears at that time. I was like, oh, my God, I wanted to get off the top of my lungs and say, I know you were right. I knew it. She knew she was right.”
The ruling also came too late for John Cape and Louie Garcia who were still in prison. John was not able to say a final goodbye to Rexina. But one week later, after 25 months in prison, John and Louie were finally released, just in time to serve as pallbearers at Rexina’s funeral.
“He got out three days before her funeral services. I got all his stuff ready, a shirt. And he goes, ‘I don’t have anything Delma.’ I said, ‘I got it for you. She wants you there. You deserve to be there for her. We had these two years because of you,’ and I got him ready and he carried her to her final resting place,” Sanchez said.
Ultimately the Court of Criminal Appeals ruled in July of 2021 that Cape and Garcia were entitled to have their cases overturned but they did not agree that they were entitled to actual innocence. The court couldn’t get past the fact that some drugs were found in the home separate from what the informant planted.
Had they been granted actual innocence, Cape and Garcia would have been paid $85,000 per year served in prison and entitled to other benefits.
While there was plenty of news made about the overturning of the cases and the exonerations there was no fanfare for Rubee Sandoval. Despite that it was her text messages that uncovered the informant’s bad deeds and her refusal to be pressured into a plea deal, her case was quietly dismissed in May of 2021. No one from the DA’s office told her she was the person who helped free two men from prison.
There were still so many unanswered questions for the victims in these cases.
So KSAT 12 sat down with the Bexar County District Attorney, the County Sheriff, and we even tracked down the Informant in these cases.
First up? Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar.
We asked, why use informants at all?
“Informants maybe are like a pencil” said Salazar. “There’s been so many other space-age technologies that make handwriting so much more advanced than just a stubby pencil. But we still use stubby pencils.”
So what about the Informant in these cases?
“You know, what I can tell you is we won’t ever use this person again,’ said the sheriff. “Yeah, it’ll be a cold, cold day before we utilize this person again.”
But he seemed to be of two minds on the district attorney’s move to dismiss the drug-dealing charges against Rubee Sandoval and the exoneration of Rexina Linan-Juarez, Louie Garcia, and John Cape.
At one point he told us regarding D.A. Joe Gonzalez:
“I trust Mr. Gonzales to make the right decision. And so when they informed us that they were going to be dismissing these cases, all we can do is agree with them and keep doing what we do.”
But at another moment, he startled us with this claim:
“You know, there were other indicators of narcotics activity going on separate from what the C.I. had told us about separate from what, from what we believe the CI was doing in these cases. There were other indicators that that there was drug dealing going on.”
Yet a minute later, he seemed to contradict himself again:
“You know, I feel I fully agree with the district attorney’s assessment of this case, and I certainly support his decision to dismiss charges.”
So, we wanted to know if he himself had taken any action over the incident?
KSAT: “Was there any sort of internal review of what happened, kind of the missteps and how things happen the way they did?”
Salazar: “Well, I think that’s still occurring. And what we’ve been able to tell at this point is that I still don’t believe that there was any malice on the part of the deputy involved. I think he was really not relying upon the best information that he had.”
KSAT: “There is no disciplinary action?”
Salazar: “I don’t believe it was done as a result of these cases.”
KSAT: “So nobody, because I understand that lieutenant was transferred out of that, that unit after that shortly thereafter.”
Salazar: “Totally different reason.”
KSAT: “Totally different reason. OK.”
Just one thing- It turns out that former narcotics supervisor is also on the county Brady list.
It’s a list of law enforcement officers who the district attorney has determined are too unreliable to testify in court.
KSAT: “That Lieutenant, I also understand is on the DA’s Brady List. Do you have any idea why that is?”
Salazar: “No, sir, I don’t. But I have been made aware of that as well.”
KSAT: “Would that be a concern to have a lieutenant who’s overseeing an operation like that or a unit like that?”
Salazar: “Absolutely. Absolutely, it would be. But with that being said, I don’t control who goes on that Brady list, and it’s not like I can take any further action.”
But there was still one big question that we had concerning the nearly 4 pounds of methamphetamine allegedly planted by the informant just before the two raids we mentioned.
KSAT: “Do you have any idea where the drugs came from in these cases that were used? This guy gave up close to $200000 twice worth of meth in these cases. It’s a large amount of drugs seems unbelievable that this guy would just be donating them, knowing that they’re going to be confiscated.”
Salazar: “Well, to to the to the layperson, it could, it could be unbelievable. But, but, to somebody that, and again, I’m not going to go into full detail on these cases- But what I can tell you is that perhaps keeping this person out of jail was very, very important to somebody that has ready access to those sorts of drugs, somebody higher up on the food chain than he. And to them, it’s just an accepted cost of doing business to keep this person out out of prison.”
We asked Bexar County District Attorney Joe Gonzalez that same question:
KSAT: “Do you have any idea where the drugs would have come from in those cases
D.A. Gonzalez: “I have no idea. I mean, I mean, it would be pure speculation on my part to tell you.”
KSAT: “So how does this happen with an informant being able to plant evidence in cases and basically lead to innocent people going to jail?”
D.A. Gonzalez: “Well, the reality is these kinds of events can happen.” What happened in these cases happened before the beginning of my administration.”
Gonzalez also let us know that an investigation by his office has found another, fifth case involving this informant.
D.A. Gonzalez: “There is one situation where someone was on probation and this particular C.I. was used to support a motion to revoke that defendant’s probation. We have since discovered that and we have made efforts to resolve that favorably for this defendant. But so far, as I say, it has only uncovered one. That’s not to say there aren’t more out there.”
So we decided to ask the informant and found him on his front porch.
He told us there may be two more cases that he was involved in:
Informant: “Yeah, there was a guy on the other side of -------, I forgot his name. I could find out his name. After that, it was a lady named ------- which they caught coming toward us in the vehicle, coming down the street. Made it seem like a traffic stop.”
According to court records the Informant was arrested on drug charges on a DEA warrant late last summer, but has not yet been indicted. Remarkably, KSAT also found that the informant still has not been charged for lying to deputies and planting the drugs in our featured cases.
So we asked the District Attorney:
KSAT: “Do you know if there’s been any attempt to to prosecute the informant that was used in these cases to because he lied?” D.A. Gonzalez: “Well, then that is still ongoing. We have encouraged the sheriff’s office to bring this case, and I’ll tell you that when, when and if they do, we will look at it with a careful eye toward prosecution because we do think that that is something that should be prosecuted.”
And we also questioned the Sheriff:
KSAT: “There has not been any effort on your agency to press any charges against him for lying right and screwing up these cases. Because the DA’s office says the prosecutor on the case has basically said, ‘Hey, if you submit charges on this guy for lying, we’ll take them’, but there’s not been any effort to do so.”
Salazar: “I don’t know if there’s not been, that there’s not been any effort. I’m certainly in support of it. If, we’re able to prove that up and present that case, absolutely, I’d be in support of it.”
A Bigger, Continuing Problem
To get a better perspective on what we’d found so far, KSAT traveled to Washington D.C. to talk with a nationally-recognized expert on law enforcement.
“There’s been a lot of major cases that have been cracked because of informants,” said Jim Trainum. “They’re useful. They’re important.”
Trainum is a retired DC police officer with 27 years of experience, everything from being a homicide detective, to acting as department chief. He’s also an expert in how wrongful convictions can happen, especially with a confidential informant.
“If they’re facing a lot of jail time”, says Trainum, ”they’re under a huge amount of pressure to provide information. And if they can’t, then oftentimes they will make it up. They’ll create something that isn’t there.”
Trainum adds that if the CI is working with a Narcotics Unit, that “a lot of drug detectives are real cowboys and they’re out there on their own doing a lot of crazy stuff.”
In those cases, he says close supervision is a must: “So you really need somebody doing good oversight, good asking questions about the warrants and things like that.”
We had Trainum look over the search warrant and its justification that got BCSO deputies into the home of Rexina Linan-Juarez and John Cape and right away he had concerns about the description of the informant.
“That was part of the wording that I saw in the search warrant that kind of raised some red flags for me, just how kind of ambivalent they were about this guy’s track record” he said. “In reading it, you’re really not sure if he bought drugs from that house, but it kind of leads you to believe when you first saw him at that. Yeah, he did a controlled buy. But it’s really, really not clear. And to me, I mean, as a supervisor, I would have wanted that to be clear. Somebody should have picked up on that.”
So we asked Sheriff Salazar about it.
KSAT: “It would seem at the very least that there was some sort of lack of supervision for this to happen in two cases.”
Salazar: “Well, I beg to differ. You know, while we do everything that we possibly can to, to supervise the goings on and to, to scrutinize search warrants, I don’t know that it was necessarily a shortcoming on the part of the supervisors.”
But this isn’t the first time issues about supervision in the BCSO narcotics unit have made news.
In 2010, two narcotics deputies were charged with pocketing county money meant to pay confidential informants for their work. One was also charged with aggravated perjury for claims he made in a drug search warrant.
But within court records on these cases was a page from a BCSO internal investigation of the matter. In it, a department supervisor admitted that at the time “there were no set policies and procedures in place for the Narcotics unit”.
The report also mentioned allegations that the unit had chronic record-keeping problems involving payments to confidential informants
and that supervisors did not read and check search warrant applications before they were submitted to a judge for approval.
KSAT: “They painted a picture at that trial that this unit was a complete mess. It was disorganized. And I understand that they kind of cleaned house after that.” Salazar: “I was actually at city narcotics. And yes, we heard about it. We heard about it from our own informants that had had run-ins with the county folks.”
And in the end?
The then-District Attorney sent out 239 warnings to defense attorneys whose cases the two deputies had worked on. Eventually, two prisoners were determined to be wrongfully convicted and freed.
As for the deputies, a jury found one of the deputies innocent of 3 of the charges filed against him and were hung on the 4th charge. The other deputy had yet to go to trial when the D.A. came to an agreement with the two men- All charges against them were dropped in exchange for their law enforcement licenses.
Salazar’s comment? His term of office came in 2017, well after the above events, but he also adds: “I know that the vast majority of those people are gone from this agency and some of them from the profession altogether. But with that being said, I just knew that I wanted to move this agency forward, and I think we’ve done a good job of doing that.”
But then there’s this- In 2018, an 11-year Narcotics Unit deputy was fired for allegedly pressuring a confidential informant when he was both on and off-duty. The issue? He wanted the woman to illegally buy hydrocodone for his own use.
Also fired was his supervisor, a lieutenant with over 20 years of service because he had known about the informant’s situation but delayed reporting it to command staff. That lieutenant was later rehired by Sheriff Salazar, but in the demoted position of a sergeant in court security.
KSAT: “It seems like the narcotics unit there has an issue and they’re not learning their lessons.”
Trainum: “There’s a saying- ‘You can take people out, take out the bad apples and everything will be OK.’ Well, the bad apples got there because of the system. If you don’t change the system, we’re going to keep doing what we’re doing.”
But some Texas cities may have even bigger problems when it comes to their undercover narcotics units.
“What we’ve seen in Texas over and over are frankly corrupt law enforcement”, said Scott Henson.
Henson is the policy director with “Just Liberty”, a non-profit organization dedicated to criminal justice reform.
Henson points to one drug unit in particular: ‘Clearly, the culture of the agency just allowed it right. These were some of the most senior detectives in the Houston Narcotics division.”
On January 28, 2019, 10 HPD Narcotics officers using a no-knock search warrant to raid a Houston home. Gunfire was exchanged and the married couple inside, Dennis Tuttle, 59, and his wife Rhogena Nicholas, 58, were killed in the hail of bullets.
So why the raid?
Lead Case Agent Gerald Goines stated in his warrant application that an informant had bought black-tar heroin from the house.
But later, an internal investigation revealed that there was no informant and no drug buy had been made.
In short, it was a lie.
The only drugs discovered at the house was a small amount of marijuana and cocaine.
But what Internal Affairs DID find was that some officers in the unit, with the support of three supervisors, had been stealing money meant to pay their informants. Some officers were also determined to have lied in other unrelated search warrants and others to have stolen overtime from the city.
As of this publication, six officers now face criminal charges from the Harris County District Attorney along with Officer Goines who was indicted for two counts of felony murder in connection with the death of the Tuttles.
According to Scott Henson, the police internal investigation also revealed something that the cases that had used actual ‘living’ informants were not resulting in busting big time suppliers. Instead it showed that “big fish get off, little fish get eaten.” Henson says “they did an audit of their narcotics division, almost all the cases that they were getting with informants were less than a gram cases.”
So why is that a problem?
Henson says police often claim that using an informant lets them bring in the major drug traffickers and work their way up the supply ladder, catching the big fish.
But in this case? “They weren’t big fish”, he says, “it’s just not true. You can say it over and over. And they certainly have. That’s how it’s always justified .” One other audit finding also disturbed Henson.
He says, “They found no controls at all to prevent the same types of misconduct those officers were engaged in from happening with the other 200 officers in that division. And so that’s almost certainly the tip of the iceberg.”
In Search of Solutions
Meet Alexandra Natapoff, a professor of law at Harvard University, a former Federal Public Defender, and widely considered to be the top expert on confidential informants and their impact on our legal system.
“It results in wrongful convictions,” says Natapoff. “It results in often police corruption. It results in the wrong people being charged and convicted or punished for the wrong things.”
Natapoff has spoken before Congress on the subject of informants.
She says that since the introduction of mandatory minimums in Federal sentencing, “snitching” became the only way for the some of the accused and convicted to not spend decades behind bars.
Now, she says, the practice has exploded in use for that and other reasons.
“Using a snitch is a cheap, unmonitored, easy way to generate arrests, even if those arrests are no good, even if they don’t lead to a big fish or, you know, reducing crime and violence in a particular neighborhood.”
But Natapoff says that as a result of the secrecy that accompanies using a confidential informant along with a lack of oversight, much of what now happens is hidden from the public.
She says “it is predictable that when we give law enforcement carte blanche to operate in secret, to cut deals with suspects and criminal offenders and defendants without oversight and without transparency that we can expect rule bending and rule breaking on all fronts.”
Sometimes, Natapoff says, it has lead to disasterous and even fatal ends across the country.
She says what happened in Atlanta, Georgia on November 21, 2006 was a watershed.
Three Atlanta Police narcotics officers raid a home, with two of them shooting and killing the sole occupant, 92-year old grandmother Kathryn Johnston.
It began earlier that day when the officers stopped a suspect on the street.
After giving them a tip that the Johnston home had been selling drugs, they released him.
But now they had a problem because to get a search warrant that claim had to have come from a ‘registered’ known informant. So, said Natapoff, the officers invented one and put him in their application for a “no-knock” warrant.
“They said a reliable, confidential informant who has worked for us before told us that he bought drugs at this address,” she said.
But once inside, with the elderly woman dying on the floor, they found no drugs in the house. So one officer planted marijuana on the scene while the others tried to solve their other problem as they offered one of their regular informants $130 to play the part of the fictitious informant.
In the end, it all fell apart and all three officers were discovered, federally charged and went to prison.
But what really bothers Natapoff is how close they came to getting away with their original plan.
“Each step along the way,” she said, “the chances of the police getting caught were very, very low. And if they had not killed Mrs. Johnston, we would never know if there had been anything in that house. We never would have known. And it is that culture of secrecy, that culture of lack of accountability that permits and that makes such terrible things possible.”
Ex-detective Jim Trainum also points out that the secrecy that’s meant to protect the identity of the informant, often makes it easy to get a judge to approve a warrant because of how they are written up.
“So often we use this sort of boilerplate language in these search warrants and they’re almost rubber stamped” he says. “As long as certain language is in there, it’s just, ‘OK, you’re good to go’. And nobody’s really scrutinizing stuff very carefully.”
So what’s the solution?
Natapoff says one part is what is called a ‘reliability hearing’:
Regularly bringing the informant before the judge to check their credibility and also to corroborate any alleged “tips” before a search warrant is approved.
We put it to Bexar County D.A. Gonzalez:
KSAT: “Do you think that there should be those types of reliability hearings?”
DA Gonzalez: “Well, I’m always in favor of whatever method or vehicle there is to be as transparent and as truthful as possible. So these reliability hearings that you speak of, I’m sure I’m in favor of that. It benefits the system when you can have those sorts of hearings and you can ferret out reliable versus unreliable witnesses, not only informants, but other sorts of witnesses. So sure, I think that’s a good step.”
During last year’s regular legislative session, House Rep. Senfronia Thompson, a Houston Democrat, submitted HB 834 requiring corroboration of undercover officer testimony before a conviction.
State Rep. Matt Krause, a Fort Worth Republican, also introduced House Bill 2631, which would have required a reliability hearing for jailhouse informants when they give information on serious felony crimes, like capital murder.
Both bills passed in the House with bipartisan support, but languished in the Senate.
Natapoff says that there is an additional problem that may be leading to
more innocent people going to prison when their case involves a C.I.
“The problem is that in this day and age, we almost never go to trial”. She
She explains that ideally “the American criminal system relies on the trial as the great moment of disclosure.”
She says that’s when witnesses and evidence can be rigorously examined and tested in a public setting. But today?
“The vast majority of our criminal system runs on plea bargains” says the expert. “Ninety five percent of all the convictions in this country are the result of a deal, not of a trial.”
On top of it, Jim Trainum says what happens then can be less about justice and more about ‘closing the deal’.
“A plea negotiation is just like what happens in the interrogation room” he says. “We’re just like master high pressure salesman. We give them these two options. It’s one or the other, one or the other. That’s it. And you only have right now to take it, because if you walk out the room, everything is off the table and this is what’s going to happen to you.”
But Trainum says in a plea-bargain, the prosecutor can go even further than an officer conducting an interrogation is legally-allowed.
“The prosecutor can make threats and he can follow through with those threats and he can follow through with the promises” said Trainum. “So it is much more coercive on the prosecutor’s part because they’re allowed free rein, you know, go for it.”
Even D.A. Gonzalez admits:
“I suspect there are many people that have accepted plea deals because they just want to get on with their lives because they’ve been sitting in jail for so long. Or maybe they got bad advice. But sure, I’m sure there are people that that accept plea bargains just to resolve the case, to go back home or to go back with their families.”
In fact, Gonzalez also says:
“Absolutely, I’m concerned about it. That’s the kind of thing that keeps me up at night or people sitting in prison that don’t belong in prison.”
To that end, he says he’s recently instituted reforms:
“So what we’re doing in our office is trying to improve our training, trying to improve our review process to ensure that this kind of conduct doesn’t happen in the future. We have a more detailed review process where we vet confidential informants that are used on some of our cases.”
And he says his staff has also been reviewing criminal cases going back a decade:
“Prosecutors, if you’re the traditional kind, you only worry about whether or not somebody committed a crime and how you should punish that person. You need to look further to determine whether or not the evidence that you used is reliable and it’s truthful.”
So what about the Bexar County Sheriff?
“Well, with us and I can tell you, there’s been a shift in how we conduct narcotics investigations and narcotics” says Xavier Salazar. “All our procedures, right? We. Not necessarily because of this case, but we just felt that it was a better way of doing things. It’s more of an intelligence led effort. And I think that the following tried and true intelligence is a better way of doing things. With that being said, I don’t think that informants are ever going to fully go away.”
For Natapoff, there’s one other major issue that if solved would really help.
“We have no idea whether it’s making things worse or making things better” she told us.
Natapoff says whether locally or nationally, there’s a lot we don’t know
about the success or failure of using criminal informants.
“We don’t know exactly how large the use of informants is because we don’t require law enforcement to tell us, but we know it’s pervasive” she says. “We know it’s everywhere, we know it affects every kind of case.”
But what’s missing is data since many jurisdictions just don’t keep track and keep it and there often isn’t any legal requirement to do so.
“We have no idea how many crimes are solved by informants,” says the expert. “And we have no idea how many crimes are committed by informants. In effect, we take it on faith that law enforcement tells us ‘This is worth it. Take our word for it’”.
The reality though, says Natapoff, is “we don’t actually know on balance whether using informants makes us safer or not.”
So what about here in Bexar County? We asked D.A. Gonzalez and-
“Well, there hasn’t been any kind of tracking system historically before I came into office, there wasn’t any any kind of system or program where we could look and see, well, this particular C.I. has a bad record, so let’s not use them in the past. So it’s really a case by case situation.”
Which brings us back to the victims.
Being set up cost Louie Garcia more than his freedom, the cost of his wrongful conviction wasn’t just paid by him. His family and relationships all paid a high price.
“It dominos down, everybody else that was involved with me. I lost my relationship because of this, she really thought I was out there doing and selling drugs ... she ends up losing the house because I wasn’t there to help with the bills,” Garcia said. “My ex actually ended up being homeless for a little bit. And I would get letters from time to time and she would just blame me.” The stain on his record has made it hard to find work. “I was a licensed electrician before and I’m really good at my job. And it just seemed like after I’ve gotten arrested, I can’t do it anymore,” Garcia said. “It’s a drug charge. So, they’ll take your journeyman’s license, your electrical license, plumbing’s license, your truck driver’s license. They just look at us like trouble.”
John Cape lost the woman he loved and his sense of security. He now lives in fear of another police raid.
“I feel they’re going to go harass me, maybe plant more drugs on me and I’ll be screwed again,” Cape said. “They ruin people’s lives that they know had nothing to do with that shit. They just don’t seem to care. I’ve been to prison and they don’t care about me. Look at Rubee. They put her in jail. She lost all her shit and they don’t care. They’re getting paid, doing whatever the hell they do.” Rubee Sandoval lost the home she lived in for 18 years and nearly all of her personal belongings. She’s had to move in with her adult daughter as she tries to get back on her feet. But despite all she’s lost Rubee said she never lost faith that what happened to her would finally be uncovered. “During this time it felt like there was a hand on my shoulder the whole time telling me, you know, I’m here, it’s going to be OK,” Sandoval said.
Sandoval’s refusal to take a plea deal for a crime she didn’t do helped free two men from prison and gave a dying woman valuable time with her family.
Rexina Linan-Juarez’s sister Delma and her mother gathered at Rexina’s grave in September 2021, just weeks after the one-year anniversary of her passing. As they decorated for Rexina’s favorite holiday, Halloween, they got an opportunity to meet Rubee Sandoval for the first time.
“Thank you so much for everything you’ve done. I appreciate it. I know you’ve gone through the hell that she went through as well,” Sanchez told Sandoval. “I just wanted to thank you for keeping up with getting the truth out because she did the same thing as well. And I know she knows up there that she did right. And she’s happy that this came out.”
Sandoval was thankful for the opportunity to meet Rexina’s family.
“I don’t even know how to express this. I’m so humble that you all wanted to thank me,” Sandoval told the family. “(Rexina) spoke a lot about how much her family meant and her children. And I’m just glad this is coming out the way it did, because this would have mattered everything to her … she cares so much for her mother and she always talked about you Delma.” Despite the high cost paid by the people who were caught up in the informant’s web of lies, he hasn’t paid much of a price at all. As of publication the informant has not been charged for lying to deputies and planting the drugs in these cases. However, the informant could be facing some more serious problems. According to court records he was arrested on drug charges on a DEA warrant late last summer. As of publication he had not been indicted on those charges.
Sources say a memo was sent out to all local law enforcement agencies that use confidential informants to make drug cases, that this informant should not be used and that any cases presented involving him would be dismissed.
Sandoval, Cape, and Garcia are currently working with attorneys to have their cases expunged.
See a timeline of the cases below.
Read more from this series: