In March 2015, a North Philadelphia drug dealer named Manual Cruz needed help — money and assistance in Family Court, where he was fighting for custody of his daughter.
So Cruz contacted a Philadelphia police officer and offered something in return: information. He could give the police the inside track on a local kingpin, Nayeem Gordon, who dealt in PCP, a synthetic, hallucinogenic drug.
Cruz would sign on as a confidential source with a special Drug Enforcement Administration task force that coordinated federal agents and Philadelphia police. During the operation, the agents placed Cruz under surveillance for controlled purchases of PCP from Gordon and his brothers at a North Broad Street stash house.
But they also left him unchecked as he stole hundreds of dollars of government money, conducted side drug deals, and arranged payments on a rolling debt to Gordon even while under the agents’ watch, according to Cruz’s testimony in the ensuing court case.
Cruz, who was paid hundreds of dollars for each buy, anticipated an even bigger payout when Gordon was busted. On surveillance, he can be heard telling police: “Hit him hard. I hope you get all his stash because I need that jawn.”
Instead, he would ultimately be indicted as part of the same alleged PCP distribution conspiracy he helped take down.
Yet, on the basis of information Cruz delivered, federal prosecutors pursued not only Gordon, but also a dozen other men on conspiracy charges, alleging an organized drug operation.
Some of the men, abundant evidence indicated, were drug dealers; others were caught with small amounts of drugs, appearing to support their claims they were merely personal users — people who, prosecuted in state court, might face probation or, at worst, a couple years in jail. But as part of the sweeping federal indictment, all the men faced decades in prison, time extended by sentencing enhancements such as a school zone provision attached because the stash house was around the corner from Temple University’s school of dentistry.
Jon Shane, an associate professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice who studies the use of confidential informants, said such a breakdown could be enough to taint a case.
“The integrity of the investigation is at stake,” he said. “These things clearly call into question the veracity of the evidence and of the players involved in the collection of the evidence. That’s a continual problem with confidential informants.”
The way the agents tell it, everything Cruz told them seemed to check out — until it didn’t.
DEA Special Agent Frank Sampson testified that the agents only became aware of Cruz’s double-dealing on June 21, 2015, more than three months into the operation, when they caught him on a wiretap that had been newly authorized based on the evidence Cruz helped gather.
“I was literally shocked. I was devastated,” Sampson said in court.
Gordon’s attorney, Paul Hetznecker, in court filings, alleged “outrageous government misconduct” — arguing that the agents must have seen records of Cruz’s phone calls to Gordon (more than 80 that March alone); must have heard him on audio surveillance arranging to settle drug debts on the way to the buys; and must have failed to properly search him before or after the controlled purchases. They also, he argued, did not immediately notify the judge who authorized the wiretap once they became aware of Cruz’s continued criminal activity.
A Philadelphia police spokesperson declined to comment, referring questions to the DEA, which led the operation. A DEA spokesperson also declined to comment, referring questions to the Justice Department, which is prosecuting the cases. A Justice Department spokesperson said the office does not comment on ongoing cases. The individual officers and agents could not be reached or did not respond to requests for comment. Cruz did not respond to a letter sent to him at the Federal Detention Center.
In cases such as this one, Shane said, prosecutors hold enormous power. After all, 90 percent of federal defendants plead guilty, and of those who go to trial, less than one-half of 1 percent are acquitted.
Yet some of Gordon’s co-defendants beat the odds. Though six took guilty pleas for reduced prison terms, a jury hung on all charges for three of the men in December 2018. Three more men were acquitted after spending more than two years in jail. Gordon was convicted on 19 counts, but awaits a retrial on other charges.
Micah Davis, who was accused of being the drug operation’s supplier, said he looked at his alleged co-conspirators with confusion when they crossed paths in the federal detention center. He only recognized two of them: Gordon, whom he called a friend, and Ishmi Powell, an acquaintance from his mosque who would plead guilty to distributing PCP in exchange for 12 years, seven months in prison.
Davis admitted to helping Gordon procure codeine and marijuana, but said the PCP allegations shocked him.
“I was facing 25 years for being caught doing nothing. For suspicious phone calls,” he said.
Jailed 26 months, he lost his job, his marriage, his credit. He was acquitted in December 2018, but his 5-year-old son, who was home when the police pounded on his door at 5 a.m., is still fearful. When he sees police, he tells Davis, “Watch out, Dad!”
From prison, Davis and the other men drafted a 45-page complaint to the Department of Justice’s Office of Inspector General, alleging evidence tampering and knowing use of a tainted informant. On surveillance videos, they saw the Pepsi bottle Cruz was permitted to bring to buys; they believed it to be a stash bottle with a hidden compartment for moving drugs. They also noted that, after giving the agents back $100 in change on the first buy, he never brought back change again — and was apparently never questioned about it.
“They had to be aware of it. We didn’t even go to school for criminology and we’re aware of it,” Davis said.
In an official interview in 2016, Cruz claimed the Philadelphia task force officers, Kyle Boyd and Efrain Torres, told him to keep the extra buy money to save them the paperwork. He also said he was not searched after the controlled purchases for either the money or extra drugs. In subsequent interviews and in court, he insisted he stole the money and he was searched, but was able to smuggle money in his shoe or waistband.
Audits by the Office of Inspector General have raised broad concerns about the DEA’s confidential informant program, claiming inadequate oversight of high-risk informants in particular.
Philadelphia lawyer David Rudovsky said the credibility of such confidential sources should be closely examined.
“They’ve got good reason to try to protect themselves and implicate others, maybe falsely, to gain the benefit from the government,” he said. “The supervisors have got to be careful. When the supervision breaks down, that’s when we get the scandals.”
Because of Cruz’s extensive criminal history — including robbery, conspiracy, assault, and numerous gun and drug felonies — and because he was still on parole, agents testified that he was classified as a restricted-use informant, requiring extra scrutiny.
During many of the purchases, he would later testify, he was high on Xanax. He was paid $250 per purchase, plus the $100 to $150 he stole each time. A few weeks after signing on as an informant, he received a $15,788 discount on debts owed to Philadelphia Common Pleas Court, though in court he denied asking the agents for help with his court debt. Cruz, who was charged with conspiring to deliver a kilogram of PCP, entered a plea under seal and is scheduled to be sentenced this year.
After Cruz was deactivated as an informant, the wiretaps secured through his work helped pave the way for conspiracy charges against Davis and two other men each caught with an ounce or less of PCP — amounts classified as for personal use.
One, Jermaine Jones, 40, was charged, prosecuted, and convicted in state court for that purchase. (The federal investigation overlapped with a state attorney general investigation.) He served nine months’ probation for it. But under the federal conspiracy charges that followed, he was told he faced 33 years to life in prison.
The other, James Nixon, 44, was also charged in Philadelphia Municipal Court and spent four months in jail. His case was dropped until he was charged again in federal court, and forced to spend another two years in detention.
Both men were acquitted in December. But Nixon said the fallout of the case is far from over.