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Illustration by Rick Geary

A Snitch in Time

It's not easy being a rat. During the course of four decades, one San Jose snitch has run drugs, been busted, informed for the police, stalked girlfriends and tried to save drug addicts. Now, he wants to talk about it all.

By Najeeb Hasan

'I HATED RATS more than anything," the Snitch says. It is one of his catch phrases whenever he spins the tale of his long journey from drug smuggler to police informant. Still, the Snitch ended up becoming one of San Jose's best dime droppers.

"He was probably one of the most prolific people who worked for me," says Jeff Lee, a lieutenant for the California Highway Patrol. Lee recalls doing more than 30 cases with the Snitch. "He put a lot of fairly good-size dealers away. I don't know if he was exceptionally smart. He was more of a player who had a lot of contacts."

Surprisingly, the Snitch (whose name is being withheld for his protection), actually wants his picture published. He keeps leaving messages on the voicemail: "You have a good artist. He's a good sketcher. I like your paper."

As he drones on, his initial confidence is replaced by an almost innocent earnestness and then by a wheedling tone, as if he's bargaining. "If you were to do a sketch, you can actually do an exact sketch from what I look like in those photos. The most recent one is 2 years old. But I've changed my appearance. I'm a hairdresser, so I know how to do that. I dyed my hair; I've grown a mustache; my eyeglasses are different. You wouldn't recognize me if you did one of the exact sketches from those photos."

The Snitch pauses as he prepares a different angle of attack: "I'm also writing a book in conjunction with a good friend of mine; he's a joke writer. ... He knew John Belushi. He still knows Robin Williams and a few other people.

The reference to his friend is a well-practiced tactic, one that the Snitch uses with any acquaintance whose name or title has weight. In this way, he shows that his friend is "literary," and, thus, his friend becomes an expert who validates his point of view.

"The suggestion was that he thought that a sketch looks like a courtroom sketch like you see in the Channel 11 news. He suggested, you know, if they did a photo, in silhouette or blacked out or some other way, that they couldn't tell exactly who you are, he said that's a lot more scary. It makes the reality of a person real. But it's not our call; it's your call. It's just a suggestion. Thank you for your time. Bye-bye."

The Snitch's attention span is short; his ideas many. His sentences bounce around in confusing patterns of unpredictable associations. "I just keep listening until he tells me something I'm interested in," shrugs one narcotics officer who has worked with him.

Today, after four decades of dealing with the drug world (much of which is documented in court records), after being a freedom-loving hippie busted for five marijuana seeds in Florida, after smuggling marijuana from Mexico and cocaine from Peru, after becoming a turncoat and setting up local dealers as an informant, the Snitch is gamely trying to better his life.

But, as one former narcotics officer who's familiar with the Snitch explains: "To catch rats, you have to go to the sewer." And despite the Snitch's aspirations, the sewer is never far away.

Stuck on Stupid

Black tar heroin isn't fun to kick--ever. And Joyce (some of the names have been changed for this story) knows it. Now clean for almost five days, since early Friday morning, when Jay, her live-in boyfriend, was taken to the county jail for an outstanding warrant, Joyce has been on edge. Her insides are constricted, her nerves wired and--the way she explains it--her sensations no longer natural and familiar but, rather, raw, hyperpronounced, like the jolt when the door slams shut unexpectedly.

And so the Snitch understands when Joyce makes a scene in the Walgreens pharmacy just off Capitol Expressway and McKee Road. She curses prolifically at the pharmacist, a turbaned Sikh, before storming out of the store.

The Snitch graciously apologizes on her behalf. His friend has just kicked heroin, he tells the Sikh, and she has just finished her last dose of methadone; she is actually very sweet and not normally like this.

And, as is the Snitch's garrulous nature, he explains more than the Sikh probably wants to know: that Jay has stolen all of Joyce's valium to sell on the street, that she can't get into a 30-day detox-program because she would lose her apartment, that the methadone she was using was bought illegally with an $80 loan from a childhood friend of the Snitch's.

At this point, the Snitch's narrative takes a plunge into a very deep stream of consciousness. That childhood friend is the same one the Snitch hit with a rock when they were both in the sixth grade; the stoning victim chased the Snitch around the schoolyard three times, but when he finally caught him, the Snitch pleaded that the boy not beat him up until the next day, and surprisingly, he agreed to wait a day and cool off, and the Snitch escaped a beating and made a friend--and later, when he sold cocaine, his best customer.

The Sikh nods passively, more perhaps to quiet the rambling Snitch than anything. Realizing that his apology has been accepted, the Snitch goes looking for the distressed Joyce. He is proud of Joyce. He has been nudging her away from heroin since he moved into the apartment above hers three months ago, in May of this year.

It isn't always an easy job though, what with Jay around--not to mention the toll Joyce's addiction is taking on the Snitch's unemployment checks. Jay is no good for Joyce. The Snitch's four decades of being around drugs have taught him that--taught him that certain people can kick, and certain people can't.

Joyce owned some jewelry once--diamonds, gold, that sort of thing--but Jay, who'd been in California's prisons almost as long as he'd been on the outside, had sold it. All for that black tar heroin, an addiction so vile even the Snitch himself had refused to sell it during his dealing days.

"I took Joyce for a walk last week," he says. "I told her, 'You know what? I will help you, but you better be damn certain then that you are not just pulling my leg, because you are really going to make an effort to get off this shit.' I said, 'Your whole life is ruined.' I said, 'You're stuck on stupid.' I said, 'You're with this man, and I like the guy, but that guy's on a straight destruction course to hell, and he's bringing you with him.' So we're gonna see. We're just gonna see."

Air Peru

The Snitch is not an imposing figure. He's 56, from pure Mediterranean stock with striking green eyes, of average height and slim build. He enjoys fine clothes--silk shirts, handmade Italian shoes (his collection is vast), $700 watches--though these days his clothes and footwear come from thrift stores and his jewelry largely from drug addicts hawking stolen rings.

Once, he drove a Porsche; now he tools around in a weary '70s-era Volkswagen Beetle with a souped-up engine that's in the shop as often as it's parked outside his apartment. He sprinkles his conversations with the names of various celebrities he claims he has either sold drugs to or taken drugs with: Jimi Hendrix, John Belushi ... the list goes on.

He's been married and divorced twice, has five children, none of whom he raised; the eldest child drums for a Christian rock band. He lives with (in a Platonic relationship) Marilyn (not her real name), the mother (whom he never married) of the drummer. Marilyn, his first love, now suffers from bipolar disorder, and recently, when the Snitch spent two days in jail for violating a restraining order, she allowed the neighborhood's homeless nuisance to take what he wanted from the Snitch's belongings to sell, including, unfortunately, much of the Snitch's prized shoe collection.

Raised in San Jose during the '50s and '60s, the Snitch grew his hair past his shoulders and played hippie. His first interest in drugs grew out of a curiosity about their paranormal capacities. He also loved astronomy and built homemade telescopes, two of which he still has, to study the stars.

By the time he was 20, he was transporting marijuana from Mexico to sell in San Jose. One of his proudest achievements was smuggling 430 kilos of pot in a bookmobile with a false floor right under the noses of the Nixon administration's Operation Intercept.

At the end of the '70s, he moved up to the next big thing: cocaine. His stuff, he brags, was pure Peruvian flake. The key, during those years, was to fly into and out of Argentina, not Peru, because the former was not on the list of drug-producing countries.

In the late '80s, he was caught with 2 kilos of cocaine in the false bottom of his suitcase at JFK Airport in New York. "Next thing you know, there are five DEA agents around me," he recalls.

"They're ripping the suitcase apart; they're laughing. ... They're telling me, hey, we'll put you on a plane if you take us right to the source. I told them, hell no, I'm not cooperating. ... They found 2 kilos and the sons of bitches only turned in one-quarter of that. They kept the rest for themselves. The DEA in New York are on the take."

The Snitch was already on probation for an earlier bust in San Jose, and his federal bail was eventually set at $250,000. His parents offered to put up their house in San Jose as his bond. Finally released from jail, he was ordered to remain in Santa Clara County until his federal case was adjudicated.

Nervous, his first wife moved with their two kids to Riverside, and his partner only put up $5,000 to help pay for the attorney fees.

"Now I'm screwed," he relates.

"I'm not supposed to leave the county, so I move in with Marilyn on 10th Street. I'm dealing drugs, 'cause guess what? My attorney costs money. My kids costs money. Everything costs money. Right? [My partner] supplies me. We're not going to stop dealing drugs. We're dealing drugs. We're drug dealers."

And so, predictably, while out on bond, the police caught the Snitch with cocaine again. This time the bust came during a traffic stop on Camden Avenue. He had two grams shoved down his pants.

"Next thing you know, I'm downtown," he elaborates. "I'm in some side room; they're trying to interrogate me. In walks this guy with red hair and glasses. The first thing he says to me was, 'Looks like we own a house.' He's the DEA. It doesn't take rocket science to figure it out. I either have the choice to put my parents on the street--my mom is 80; my dad is dying of prostrate cancer--or I become a rat."

He pauses. Then he drops the question, as if wanting affirmation that he had made the right choice: "What would you have done?"

Fifteen years later, the narcotics officer who gave the Snitch that choice (the officer was, and still is, employed by the San Jose Police Department) admits he probably put one over the Snitch.

"He's the one who made the perception that he would lose the house," says the officer (who requested that his name not be used). "He probably wouldn't have lost the house; he just would have gone to prison. I probably in some fashion pointed out both sides of his options in an honest and valid way."

A Motive for Everything

In a sense, that rock the Snitch threw more than 40 years ago in the schoolyard is the one he still picks up to toss now. And every time, he must extricate himself from the consequences of the injury the rock causes.

"Whenever I do something messed up, I remind him [his childhood friend] of it," he says. And this continual milking of favors has paid off. The same friend who spared him a beating in the schoolyard retained an attorney for him for his first drug bust 30 years ago in Florida. That same friend loans him money to cover the legal fees that seem to spring up like weeds in his life.

"With him, there's a motive for everything," remarks one former narcotics officer who knows the Snitch well. "Certainly, he has a motive for everything that he does ... whether it's to get even and pay somebody back, eliminate competition or attract some type of favor. [When he snitches], I think he believes he can bank some of his stuff. Because of some of his stuff that he's done from me, he thinks that when he's in a jam, he can turn to me and say, 'Can you help?'"

The assessment might be harsh (the Snitch undoubtedly has a very human side; indeed, the same officer even admits to a soft spot for him--"I return his calls, don't I?" he says with a dry grin), but it could very well be founded on truth.

It's no accident that one of the Snitch's more remarkable qualities has been his longevity. He's worked in Santa Clara County since the late 1980s and claims to have helped authorities with more than 90 drug cases; various narcotics officers confirm at least 50 of them.

This figure puts him well above the curve. In the world of drug informants and cops, where unlikely partnerships are melded through the instinct for survival rather than mutual good faith, only about one out of 10 informants pans out; the remainder drift back to the other side of the fence and are often arrested again on drug charges.

Fifteen years ago, informants in this county would cooperate with narcotics officers to work off a pending case. The general rule was: Do three busts, and you're out. Now, things have gotten a little more strict, and the district attorney reviews each situation individually.

Informants have always been wild cards in drug investigations. While most informants can and do gain the trust of drug dealers with much more ease than undercover officers, informants are also notoriously unreliable because of their sketchy pasts.

In Columbus, Ohio, for instance, William J. Welch, an informant who was a key witness in a major drug conspiracy trial, admitted in court that he did not pay taxes on the $45,000 that was doled out to him by the Columbus Police Division and the ATF. Upon further questioning, he also testified that he inhaled crack cocaine with gang members to earn their trust--a violation of ATF informant guidelines.

In New York City this May, Alberta Spruill, a 57-year-old career government employee, died of a cardiac arrest after her Harlem apartment was incorrectly fingered by an informant to be the target of an NYPD drug raid. The NYPD, which had conducted a no-knock raid and detonated a flash grenade, later revealed that their informant had missed several meetings with his handlers prior to the raid and promised that they would better screen their informants in the future.

Perhaps the most famous contemporary drug informant is Andrew Chambers, a 16-year informant from near St. Louis, Mo., who has earned at least $1.6 million from the DEA. A high school dropout, Chambers, whose story was chronicled three years ago in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, showed up at the DEA's office in 1984 to ask how he could become a special agent; because of his lack of education, he was offered work as a snitch.

His record, as expected, is not always good. He's set up more than 300 people across the country but has also used his status to ward off legal trouble. When he was charged with soliciting a prostitute by an undercover female police officer, he claimed he was a DEA agent. He's perjured himself in court by denying arrests and convictions in his background. Further, the DEA has managed to obtain the dismissal of at least two felony forgery cases against him.

Steve Clark, a San Jose criminal defense attorney and a former prosecutor, explains that there are two categories of snitches: those who have past involvement in drug-related activities and the occasional neighborhood do-gooder, a resident who, for instance, has concerns about activities going on next door.

However, Clark says, those in the prior category are not as common as people generally believe. Individuals arrested on drug charges are often given a choice to be an informant, but "most people do not do it," Clark says. "After they get over the initial panic [of the arrest], they realize the benefit is just not there. Your own life is in jeopardy."

Most informants, Clark continues, only guide the police department and try not to get involved in specific cases. If the informant becomes too involved, then the police are obligated to submit the informant's identifying information to defense attorneys. This is why the best that an informant can usually do is give officers enough information to apply for a search for warrant for a suspect's home.

"If [the informant] becomes a witness, then the police have to disclose that witness," Clark explains. "What they normally try to do is get a search warrant. They don't say when a guy went in [a suspect's home] because they don't want to tip off the defendant. Instead they say something like, 'Within the last five days, we have purchased drugs from this residence.'"

Incognito: The Snitch doesn't mind being photographed, because he keeps changing his appearance.

Debt to Society

Nevertheless, in the case of this particular snitch, working dozens of cases for absolutely no formal incentive--he has had no drug charges pending for the last decade--does tend to raise questions.

The way the snitch looks at his long-running tenure is that he's busting drug dealers out of the goodness of his heart.

"I'm slick," he proclaims. "I don't need credit, because I'm not working off any cases. ... I'm also not about getting paid. The DEA has a lot of people who are paid informants. I told them that I wanted to make this really clear: for any information I give you, I don't want to be paid on it. I don't need that.

"I said, I already paid my debt to society but that I feel morally that I owe a bigger debt to society, to my karma, so maybe I'll just do something good for you guys just because I owe it to the world. They liked that. We'll see."

Do the police officers he's worked with believe this noble creed? Nary a word.

"For us to assume that he's pure as the driven snow is just not reasonable," says the same officer who admits an affinity for him. "It's not unusual to have his motivation be personal. You have to corroborate everything he says. Some sources are tested and reliable. With [him], there are times, for one reason or another, that he's been angry and decides, well, I'll use the police to get even. When he makes it clear it's vindictive in nature, you as a police officer have to corroborate everything."

Payback's a Bitch

April 22 of this year wasn't a good day for the Snitch. In 1998, he had taken up with a fellow hair stylist at the salon where he worked, but the relationship soured early this year. The Snitch's response--yet another figurative rock tossing--quickly took a turn for the worse.

The police report provides a bare-bones account of what went down. At about a quarter past 7 on Aug. 22, a San Jose officer responded to a complaint at a local hairstyling salon.

At the salon, a female stylist told the officer that she had found a listening device planted in the ceiling tile above her workspace. She had used a broom to dislodge it and turned it over to the police for evidence.

Later that same night, just before 10pm, the same officer was dispatched back to the salon. This time, he found the stylist, whom he described as "visibly shaking and upset," and another officer, who had the Snitch in custody.

After questioning the stylist, the officers learned that because she knew that the Snitch would be back for his listening device she, along with a small group of relatives and friends, had closed the salon and waited in the back. Shortly thereafter, the front door opened and in walked the Snitch.

According to the report, the stylist's friends restrained the Snitch until police arrived, and he was arrested. When another officer came to assist, the Snitch spontaneously blurted out: "'Yeah, I planted a bugging device in there, but I'm not admitting that."

The arresting officer's version continues. "I contacted ... [the Snitch] and asked him if he could tell me what was going on here. [The Snitch] ... mostly rambled but did say that he and [the victim] were together for three years and now 'the bitch' is seeing someone else. [The Snitch] ... says that 'yes,' he is very jealous. While trying to talk to ...[him], [he] ... looked over toward the business where [the victim] was standing and yelled out to [her]: 'it's all gonna stick to you, you're going down, bitch.'"

And in a victim's statement the next day, the stylist told police that she and the Snitch had worked together at the salon for about four years, that their relationship had always been strictly professional and never romantic, that she had recently divorced her husband and began dating another man, that he called her 100 times over the past three weeks, that he threatened her and her ex-husband and that she "didn't understand why the suspect would think that they had been involved in a dating relationship."

The Snitch had tossed another rock, but he wasn't snaking his way out of this predicament. As a result of the salon incident, the Snitch spent a month in Santa Clara County Jail (the stalking charge was eventually reduced to disturbing the peace and a $100 fine). He dropped $7,000 in legal fees and lost wages ($3,000 of which he had to borrow from the same friend who loaned him the $80 for Joyce); and he was fired from the salon.

"He's going to put himself in prison," a police officer familiar with him warns sternly. "His ability to work himself out of jams works less and less each time. He lives a seedy sort of life--drugs, women, screwing one over one day, another the next day. That seedy life is eventually going to catch up with him. I hope it's prison as opposed to being killed.

"He hasn't stopped his behavior yet. I don't believe he's going to. Look what he's done: he jeopardized the lives of his parents and their future; he's close to three-striking himself; he plants listening devices and calls people he shouldn't be calling; he's hanging out where he shouldn't be hanging; he dealt dope to people he shouldn't. He can't stop himself. Ultimately, I told him, I'd rather see him get out of this life than be a snitch."

Nailing the Sources

Women, especially during his hippie and cocaine-dealing days, had always come easy for the Snitch. He saw sex as part of the territory (he estimates he has slept with hundreds of women). His eyes still light up when he talks about skinny-dipping in Mexico with four girlfriends when he smuggling the 430 kilos over the border in the '60s.

Women became his right as a drug dealer; it was not unusual for him to demand sexual favors as a tip when he sold cocaine, with the woman's husband sometimes waiting in the car downstairs.

But with the stylist (he had met her at the salon soon after he was released from San Quentin State Prison, where he served two years on a felony statutory rape conviction for having sex with an underage teen who would eventually become his second wife), there was something about her that gave him lasting pleasure.

The two, he insists, regardless of what the stylist told the police, had a 3 1/2-year affair. With other girlfriends, he never minded if they were seeing other people; with her, it was different. He says it was because of the way she was when they slept together. Perhaps that's true, or perhaps, at 56 years old, he knew he couldn't relive the past anymore and that he needed to hang on to the present.

The arrangement was simple: He kept her supplied with methamphetamines; she kept him satisfied. The catch, of course, was that he was a snitch, and while he was technically dealing drugs, he played it safe by telling the police department everything he was doing, saying his ultimate objective was to nail her sources.

"She would come to me when she needed something, when she was mad at her husband, when she needed drugs," the Snitch says. "So when she came to me, she said, 'Can you get me something?' I'm not stupid; I'm two-striked through the statutory rape case, so I go to the cops."

Going to the cops, in this instance, blurred the line between his personal life and his work as an informant. Was he letting a narcotics officer named Bret Moiseff know he was providing methamphetamines for the stylist in order to finger her other sources (the stylist and four others were eventually busted; none of them got in any substantial trouble) or was he feeding the cops nickel-and-dime busts so they would allow him to safely supply her methamphetamines in order for him to pursue a romantic relationship? Or was it both?

Before, the police had had his back while he was supplying the stylist with methamphetamines. After she gave him the cold shoulder, he expected the police to help him as he proceeded to make her life hell.

"I was stalking her," he admits. "I was plainly frickin' stalking her, but not so much for her. I could find out who she was with by sending my friends down by her house. I wanted to see who else would bring her drugs. That's what I wanted because that would really mess with her. Even when I was stalking her, I'd call him [Moiseff] up and say I'm stalking the bitch right now. I told him straight out. I told him, hey, I got a listening device up in the salon. I ain't telling him no lies. ... I told Moiseff everything. He didn't say much."

First came the phone calls, then confrontations between the two at work--she allegedly shoved him into a door frame one day. Then he set her up for a drug bust--the police found only Vicodin in her car.

Eventually, the two traded restraining orders. The Snitch escalated by intervening in the custody proceedings between her and her ex-husband for their 4-year-old son. At family court on April 20, he handed over a manila folder to her ex-husband containing some 20-odd Polaroids of him and the stylist in explicit poses.

He also possessed a microcassette of the stylist asking for drugs. Up until that point, the stylist had been telling the judge (as she told the officers at the salon) that she had never been involved with the Snitch, that she had never cheated on her husband and that she had never done drugs.

The Snitch's admitted goal is to separate the stylist from her child. "She's really attached to her kid," he says. "The kid liked me--that really pissed her off. Just because she messed with me, I'm messing with her back. Ten years from now, if I'm married, I'll still figure out some way to mess with her."

Two days after handing the pictures over to the stylist's ex, the events at the salon transpired. The Snitch maintains that he did not come back for the listening device but only to retrieve his cosmetology license.

"I didn't want the listening device," he says. "That's what she thought. I thought she was gone. She was just hoping--she knew I was stalking her. ... So I'm at the front desk looking at her schedule for the week. The back door opens, and she sticks her head out. They [her sister, her sister's nephew and her nephew's friend] rush me from the back. They beat me to the ground. One of them hit my in my [already] damaged shoulder three times and bent my glasses. The cop's sitting out there watching--that sucker, right? I found out later she had called 911 as soon as she found the listening device that afternoon. Even my friends said, 'She got your ass good.' Well, payback's a bitch. Now it's my turn."

And even worse, the support the Snitch was counting on because of his service to the police department didn't materialize. The rock had been thrown, but the damage was far from controlled.

"I had the [arresting] officers call Moiseff. Moiseff's coming off a narcotics bust. You know what I get from Moiseff? 'I'm clearly disappointed in you,'" the Snitch recalls. "The hell with you, Moiseff. I'm not stalking the bitch. I'm just getting my stuff; it's way over between me and the bitch. Moiseff's a good guy. I'm pissed off at Moissef, though. Here's why Moiseff let me rot [in jail for a month]. Moiseff thought I was still stalking her."

Currying Favor

And so, the Snitch, a man who wants the police department behind him, is still scheming on how to curry favor. He has left Moiseff behind and is now busy calling other agencies to offer his services--the FBI, the DEA. And he's still snitching.

Word was out that Jay, who was arrested on the outstanding warrant, had been preparing for a 90-day shock session at the county jail. He knew his arrest was coming. He had been stocking up on heroin and talking of stuffing a bundle up his rectum and turning himself in.

The morning Jay was arrested, the Snitch, because Joyce could not find the extra heroin that her boyfriend had saved, had reason to believe that Jay had managed to carry out his plan. Now he faced a dilemma: rat out Jay to save Joyce or leave him alone? Ratting him out would probably mean serious prison time (as opposed to a 90-day stay at the county jail) for Jay because of his priors.

The day of Jay's arrest, about two months ago, the Snitch took a trip to the county jail.

"I had made no progress with Joyce; Joyce was still stuck with Jay," he explained a week before she kicked. "I mean, she kept saying I'm going to give him one more chance. If somebody ran over your leg a couple of times and broke it in a couple of places, and they came back and broke your left arm, and then they went away, and then they went away, would you give him a chance to come back and do it again? I thought, well, do I save Joyce's life, because Jay sure ain't going to save his life--say he gets out in October, he's going to do the same thing he's doing right now, and now he's doing any drug that comes his way all day long. I probably saved his life, too; he won't get as much drugs in prison."

And, as is his custom before dropping a question, he pauses:

"Who am I? Mother Teresa?"

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From the September 4-10, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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