Drug War's dangerous side effects

Did cop’s use of informant lead to her death?

This is an ugly story. It's tragic and damning of the War on Drugs. The story seems like the plot of a television detective series such as The Closer or Law and Order but it is sadly a true tale of law and disorder.

Michelle "Shelley" Hilliard went missing in the early hours of Oct. 23. Nearly three weeks later, her burned, dismembered body was found near I-94 on Detroit's east side. Once the body was identified, the killing was at first considered a hate crime because Hilliard was transgendered and there had been a recent trend of attacks against gays where burning was involved. However, in the weeks that followed, a different scenario emerged.

According to news reports, on Oct. 20, the 19-year-old Hilliard was busted with a small amount of marijuana in Madison Heights. As often happens in cases like this, Oakland County Drug Task Force officers made an offer of some type of leniency if Hilliard helped them reel in a bigger fish.

Hilliard apparently agreed to help set up a sting against Qasim Raqib. She allegedly told Raqib she knew someone who wanted to buy $335 worth of cocaine and marijuana. They set up a meeting at the Motel 6 in Madison Heights; police arrested Raqib during a traffic stop on his way there. He made bail and was freed several hours after the arrest.

Reports say a cab driver who regularly drove Hilliard around dropped her off on Longfellow in Detroit at 1:20 a.m on Oct. 23. Hilliard, apparently apprehensive about the situation she was entering, kept a cell phone connection open with the cabbie. When the driver heard a shout and sounds of a struggle on the phone, he went back to the address but didn't see anyone. A few weeks later Hilliard's body was found, and Raqib, whose home is nearby, was soon arrested and charged with murder.

"This is nothing new to what we do, and we've had people hurt in past," says Maj. Neil Franklin, a 30-year retired Maryland police officer and executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a group of current and former law enforcement officers trying to end the War on Drugs. "When we 'spin' someone to introduce us to a dealer or what have you, despite the dangers, not only do we not appropriately move in general to protect these people, we don't have the resources or the means to. Here we are pressuring people to do this sort of thing in the War on Drugs; it's counterproductive to public safety. ...

"That's what we do. That's just another travesty of prohibition laws. This isn't a scenario that we would have in an environment of regulation and control."

Police use the term "spin" for the process of turning someone busted for a crime into an informant. Oakland County Undersheriff Mike McCabe, who works with the drug unit, says that Hilliard set up one deal for them and went back to her drugging ways. He also says that department protocols were such that there is no way Raqib could have known that Hilliard was the informant. He admits, though, Raqib may have speculated that Hilliard snitched.

From the beginning of alcohol and drug prohibition it has been shown that people want to use those substances and, given the opportunity, will. And because prohibition makes those markets very lucrative, plenty of people are willing to be suppliers. Many of those providers are also willing to intimidate, fight and kill to maintain their profits from the local street corner to international cartels. Using low-level users as informants is yet another danger created by the drug war for a victimless crime of possession or use. Many others have been killed because they cooperated with police in the effort to keep themselves out of jail. 

One such case is that of Rachael Hoffman, a 23-year-old Florida State University graduate. Hoffman was arrested in February 2007 in Tallahassee, Fla., after she was found to be in possession of 25 grams of marijuana during a traffic stop. Police later found about five ounces of marijuana and four ecstasy pills at her apartment. Police pressured her into cooperating in a sting to buy 1,500 tablets of ecstasy, two ounces of cocaine and a handgun for $13,000. The two targets of the sting changed the location of the buy, Hoffman went with them, and police lost track of where they were. Hoffman was murdered with the gun she was supposed to buy. 

She had not been trained in undercover work and public outcry following the murder led to Rachael's Law being passed by the Florida State Senate in 2009. The statute established a number of requirements for police using confidential informants. Hoffman's parents sued the city of Tallahassee for wrongful death and were awarded $2.6 million in January, although payment of the award has yet to be approved by the state Legislature.

"We know we can't protect these people, yet we put them in these situations," Franklin says. "This is an area that doesn't get talked about much. There are a couple of cases that have made it to the news in the past, but you don't hear about them often. ... Many times, too often, we don't lay it out in detail as to what the dangers are. I would believe that they put the fear of God into this young lady [Hilliard] as to what would happen to her if she didn't help them out. Over and over again, police hear about cases such as hers that involve death. There are many cases that don't end up in homicide — serious assaults or beat-downs. They're just another harmful side effect of our policies of prohibition."

These kinds of things are still happening. People are getting arrested for marijuana possession, even those with medical marijuana cards, and police will surely put on the pressure to "spin" them with the old "help us help you" phrase. Unfortunately, police won't be able to protect their helpers in any meaningful way — creating further casualties in a meaningless war.

Reports from the Gaylord area indicate that Michigan State Police are arresting so-called marijuana traffickers on I-75 at an alarming rate. A news website, upnorthlive.com, reports that arrests are up this year as compared to last year 87 to 25. The article quoted a state policeman saying that those arrested are carrying medical marijuana cards but they are carrying too much marijuana. "It's become a real problem," he said.

At the same time, some individuals who have been stopped and searched in the area have reported through a listserv on medical marijuana issues that police seem to be checking names off a list and that non-uniformed officers are taking part in the traffic stops and searches. If indeed police have lists of names they're checking, I wonder where they got them. The Michigan Medical Marihuana Act specifically forbids the state to turn names of cardholders over to police.

About The Author

Larry Gabriel

Larry Gabriel covers cannabis for Metro Times. He also writes the Detroit Watch in the monthly Michigan Cannabis Industries Report. Larry's chapter "Rebirth of Tribe" in the book Heaven Was Detroit, from jazz to hip-hop and beyond chronicles the involvement of Marcus Belgrave, Wendell Harrison, Harold McKinney,...
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