Informants, Cooperators & the Corruption of Justice


By Ethan Brown

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Our criminal justice system favors defendants who know how to play the “5K game”: criminals who are so savvy about the cooperation process that they repeatedly commit serious crimes knowing they can be sent back to the streets if they simply cooperate with prosecutors. In Snitch, investigative reporter Ethan Brown shows through a compelling series of case profiles how the sentencing guidelines for drug-related offenses, along with the 5K1.1 section, have unintentionally created a “cottage industry of cooperators,” and led to fabricated evidence. The result is wrongful convictions and appallingly gruesome crimes, including the grisly murder of the Harvey family in Richmond, Virginia and the well-publicized murder of Imette St. Guillen in New York City.

This cooperator-coddling criminal justice system has ignited the infamous “Stop Snitching” movement in urban neighborhoods, deplored by everyone from the NAACP to the mayor of Boston for encouraging witness intimidation. But as Snitch shows, the movement is actually a cry against the harsh sentencing guidelines for drug-related crimes, and a call for hustlers to return to “old school” street values, like: do the crime, do the time. Combining deep knowledge of the criminal justice system with frontline true crime reporting, Snitch is a shocking and brutally troubling report about the state of American justice when it’s no longer clear who are the good guys and who are the bad.




Informants, Cooperators & the Corruption of Justice


This book is dedicated to my wife, Kristen, for being so patient with me—and for believing in the importance of what I’m writing about here.

“Twenty years ago defendants were expected by their criminal associates to take their medicine and keep their mouths shut. Now sentences are so strong they all know that when they get caught they’re gonna talk, their buddies are gonna talk—everyone is gonna talk. There is no more honor among thieves. And that is progress for law enforcement.”

—Alabama Republican Senator Jeff Sessions


THANKS TO: CLIVE PRIDDLE, SUSAN WEINBERG, AND THE ENTIRE Public Affairs crew for their guidance, editing, and early enthusiasm; Jud Laghi at LJK for his vision both here and in Queens Reigns Supreme; my wife and my entire family for their patience and support; everyone who took the time to speak with me for this project— inmates such as Walter “King Tut” Johnson, policy experts like Eric Sterling, and a vast cast of criminal defense attorneys including Gerald Shargel, Martin Stolar, Leonard Goodman, Renato Stabile, Joseph Tacopina, Robert Simels, Marc Fernich, and Andrew White; special thanks to Katie Charles at New York magazine for her research assistance and her willingness to take on this project so early; Greg “Grouchy Greg” Watkins at for his friendship and unwavering support; Felicia Palmer and the entire staff of for their support; William Sewell for his insights and assistance with my investigative work; Seth Z. R. for being such a great reader; Thomas Bentil at the Osborne Association and all the guys at Riker’s Island for being great listeners and readers; Eskay at for the on-point blogging; the fans of Queens Reigns Supreme for their enthusiasm and encouragement, particularly when it came to taking on this new project; Mary Zajac and E. Edward Richardson at the Maryland U.S. Attorney’s Office for the trial transcripts; Rodney Bethea of One Love Films for the interview and the great conversation; Rick Doblin at MAPS for his longtime guidance; C. S. for his insights and generosity with his sources; Soulman Seth and Diane of Gorilla Convict for their smart input and constant correspondence; Alexander T. Riley of Bucknell University for sharing Queens Reigns Supreme with his students and for being such a warm and gracious host; and my friends—Nick, Jon B., Joe, Josh, Seth, Ana, Derek, Disco D (RIP), Juan Carlos, Jason L., Kate, Matt—for their sense of humor and support.

Says Who? Cooperators and
Informants Replace Investigative Work

"SAYS WHO?” IT WAS EARLY IN THE MORNING OF NOVEMBER 16, 2005, AND Gerald Shargel, the legendary New York criminal defense attorney best known for representing John Gotti, had just begun his opening arguments in the federal money laundering trial of hip-hop impresarios Irv “Gotti” Lorenzo and his brother Christopher. Shargel began by savaging the credibility of the government’s witnesses in the case. “I’m going to make a chart,” Shargel continued sarcastically, mocking the opening statements made by the assistant U.S. attorneys, which had featured a series of PowerPoint presentations meant to demonstrate that the Lorenzos laundered cash from Queens-based drug kingpin Kenneth “Supreme” McGriff. Shargel paced through the courtroom looking for a prop until he found a large piece of blank poster board propped up against the defense team’s table. After holding it aloft for the jury to see, Shargel picked up a Magic Marker with a dramatic flourish and scrawled “SAYS WHO? ” on the poster board in capital letters. “Says who?” Shargel thundered again. “Who says they’re laundering money?”

Challenging the truthfulness of cooperators—defendants who agree to offer information to prosecutors in hopes of receiving a reduction in their prison time—is a defense so familiar in criminal cases that it’s become a cliché. Indeed, prosecutors often prepare jurors for this tried and true defense attorney strategy. In his opening arguments in the Lorenzo case, one assistant U.S. attorney warned jurors, “You’re not going to like these witnesses. You might find them despicable. . . . All that we ask is that you listen to their testimony and you see whether it matches up with the other evidence in the case.” But toward the end of his opening statements, Shargel moved far beyond the typical “you-can’t-trust- the-cooperators” argument. “I’m going to make a promise to you,” Shargel said of one government witness, “I’m going to promise that I’m going to show you by the end of the day tomorrow, assuming that he takes the stand on time and I can cross[-examine] him, that I will show him to be a shameless liar who has lied about everything in every situation he’s ever been in.” Shargel then offered an even bolder claim: the government had no evidence to corroborate their money laundering charges against the Lorenzo brothers, and, worse, since the raid on their offices two years earlier, federal investigators trolled the streets and prison system looking for cooperators instead of doing investigative work. “Do you know that after you were selected as jurors in the case,” Shargel continued, this time speaking directly to the jury, “the government is still out looking for witnesses?” Shargel explained that a longtime member of McGriff’s drug-dealing crew, the Supreme Team, had signed a cooperation deal with federal prosecutors just three days before the trial began. “If I had more hair,” Shargel said, pointing to his bald pate, “I’d pull it out.”

As I sat in the courtroom watching Shargel on that mid-November day, I suspected that he wasn’t engaging in typical crim- inal defense attorney bluster. While researching the Lorenzo case for my book Queens Reigns Supreme, I found that the feds had made a number of serious allegations in the case that were easily, provably false. One federal agent, citing testimony from a cooperating witness, claimed that Irv Lorenzo was the “public face” of Murder Inc. while McGriff was the “true owner” of the company; even cursory investigatory work would have revealed that Lorenzo received start-up funds for the label in 1999 from entertainment giant Universal Music Group. “Rather than inquire with Universal or Def Jam as to the true origins of Murder Inc,” Shargel wrote in a 2005 memorandum of law in support of the pretrial motions of client Lorenzo, “[one federal agent] chose to rely on a confidential witness whose own ‘knowledge’ that Murder Inc was founded with drug money appears to have been based on street gossip and rumor.”

Still, I was hoping that Shargel’s claims were exaggerated. If they were true, they would paint a devastating portrait of federal investigations. The Lorenzo case, after all, was a multiyear, joint investigation spearheaded by a number of federal agencies, including the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), FBI, and IRS. Furthermore, the January 2005 press conference announcing the indictment of the Lorenzo brothers featured federal and local law enforcement heavies from New York Police Department (NYPD) Chief Ray Kelly to U.S. Attorney Roslynn Mauskopf, a tenacious Brooklyn-based prosecutor who indicted “Mafia Cops” Louis Eppolito and Stephen Caracappa. “In Irving and Chris Lorenzo,” Mauskopf thundered at the press conference, “McGriff found two willing allies and a network of businesses at the ready. The Lorenzos and Kenneth McGriff became partners—crime partners—and together they laundered over $1 million in illicit drug proceeds though Murder Inc. and through companies that they owned and controlled.”

If such high-level members of law enforcement were simply stringing together cooperator testimony in a major case involving a massive, multimillion-dollar expenditure of the federal government’s resources without any evidence to corroborate it—or, worse, if this was how investigations are typically conducted—then something was terribly wrong with the criminal justice system.

Astonishingly, during the Lorenzos’ three-week trial, Shargel’s initial assertions about the investigatory practices of the feds turned out to be understated. Not only did the credibility of the cooperators in the case implode on the witness stand, but prosecutors also offered little evidence to support charges of money laundering and were not even able to present coherent theories to explain their case. Donell Nichols, a former Murder Inc. intern fired by the Lorenzos for recruiting applicants for highly paid jobs at the record label that did not exist, was perhaps the most untrustworthy and comically inept witness of all. It was revealed that Nichols lured a North Carolina man named Glen Williams to take one of his $1,500 per week “jobs” at Murder Inc. After Nichols’s ruse was exposed, he and Williams brawled in the record label’s conference room, leading to Nichols’s firing. On the stand, Nichols admitted that after he was fired, he called the FBI and offered to assist them in their investigation of money laundering by the record label. He also acknowledged that he made the decision to offer information to prosecutors while watching an MTV News story about the 2003 raid on Murder Inc.’s offices.

Relying on testimony from a fabulist like Nichols was a risky move for the feds. When he took the stand, Nichols contradicted what he had told the grand jury under oath. During his grand jury testimony, Nichols provided novelistic tales of cash bundles being hauled into Murder Inc.’s offices—$70,000 worth of “fives and tens” stuffed into a shoebox—but in the courtroom his memory about the money laundering was suddenly much less clear. “I have general ideas,” Nichols responded when asked on the stand if he could specify the amount of cash the Lorenzos received from McGriff. (Shargel pointed out sarcastically, “I guess you had a better memory of it then.”) A former Navy man, Nichols was also exposed for posing as a Navy SEAL: he once sent e-mails from a address (legitimate e-mails from the military come from a .mil domain). Most embarrassingly, Nichols admitted that his claim to have run a nonprofit group that advised synagogues and mosques on security issues was actually false (the organization was revealed to have been merely a post office box in Georgia). “I probably just did a common thing and just bluffed the resume up,” Nichols explained. U.S. District Judge Edward Korman characterized Nichols’s behavior as “fraudulent conduct,” which was “clearly relevant to his credibility.”

Former Supreme Team member Philip “Dalu” Banks fared no better on the witness stand. Like Nichols, Banks contradicted his grand jury testimony: he previously had said that Irv Lorenzo was an intern at Def Jam in 1995, but under cross-examination acknowledged that this was false. A startling exchange between Shargel and Banks followed in which Banks proclaimed that he would gladly commit perjury if it would help him receive leniency from prosecutors at sentencing. (Banks began cooperating with federal prosecutors in the Murder Inc. investigation after a 2005 arrest.)

SHARGEL: If telling a lie about Irv Lorenzo could get you out of jail and prevent you from facing the sentencing you’re facing, you would do it?

BANKS: Yes, sir.

SHARGEL: You would?


Banks also acknowledged that just after he was arrested on February 17, 2005, on charges ranging from credit card fraud to attempted assault with a firearm, he told the officers, “I want to talk to you about Supreme.” Yet Banks had previously been in prison from 1997 to 2004 and did not have firsthand knowledge of McGriff and Irv Lorenzo’s relationship (which began in the mid-1990s and lasted until McGriff’s arrest in late 2002). “So you were, in effect, trying to tell the police about ten-year-old information in some respects, correct?” Shargel asked. “Yes,” Banks replied.

The feds—who presented little evidence at trial other than cooperators offering fantastic tales—seemed as confused as their cooperators. A handwritten note found by investigators in Chris Lorenzo’s office during the Murder Inc. raid, which read, “Preme gets 100, Owes 35K,” was introduced as evidence of money laundering. Yet Assistant U.S. Attorney Sean Haran couldn’t explain what the document proved. In one of the trial’s most bizarre moments, Shargel stepped in to help Haran explain what the note meant, suggesting that it represented “cash for checks.” Judge Korman then turned to Haran and asked him, “Is that your argument?” to which Haran replied “I like it, but. . . . it’s actually a good idea.” “Is it or not? ” Korman shot back. “It’s the truth,” Harman responded. “The argumen. . . . ” Haran continued, stammering this time, “The document is. . . . ,” and then trailed off.

As the Murder Inc. trial came to a close in early December, the prosecution’s theories about the case had become so convoluted that the reporters I was seated with in the courtroom had conflicting ideas about where exactly McGriff’s money was being laundered. Was drug money laundered through Crime Partners, a straight-to-DVD movie that McGriff and the Lorenzos produced together? Or was it a straight “cash for checks” scheme in which McGriff hauled hard cash into Murder Inc.’s offices and received checks in return? None of the reporters I spoke to seemed sure. Yet the confusion about the case did not necessarily mean that the Lorenzo brothers would be acquitted of the money laundering charges against them. Indeed, the vast number of money laundering theories floated by the feds could leave the jury with the notion that something illegal was going on between McGriff and the Lorenzos. Though juries are not supposed to convict based on the implication of wrongdoing, they often do anyway, a reality Shargel acknowledged during his closing arguments in which he thundered, “REASONABLE DOUBT!” after repeating each and every one of the prosecution’s inconsistencies.

When the jury went into deliberations on December 1, 2005, and did not return quickly with a “not guilty” verdict as many in the courtroom had expected, it appeared that the feds’ cooperatorcentric strategy was about to pay off. As deliberations extended into the next day, the defense team’s mood darkened further. After Judge Korman’s case manager told defense attorney Gerald Lefcourt that she expected a guilty verdict, he started to panic. “I was a wreck,” Lefcourt remembers. “I didn’t even tell Irv. When six PM rolled around, I was squeezing Irv’s hand so hard it probably still hurts.”

The reporters and Lorenzo family members were packing up their belongings in expectation of another day in court when, just after six fifteen, Korman’s clerk announced that the jury had reached a verdict. After a tense silence punctuated only by low weeping sounds, the jury delivered a “not guilty” verdict on all the money laundering counts. Rapturous applause followed from Murder Inc. stars Ja Rule and Ashanti. Outside the Brooklyn courthouse, the scene was even more striking. The jurors— middle-aged, middle-class men and women from the outer boroughs who could hardly be described as hip-hop fans—waited for the Lorenzos so they could celebrate the verdict. “It was a very weak case,” a sixty-year-old juror from Staten Island named Gloria Menzies told the New York Daily News. “I’m very happy because from the beginning these two kids were innocent.”

While the jurors in the Lorenzo trial returned to their families that night in early December and probably quickly forgot about the case, I was shaken by the experience for months afterward. Though I had covered several major federal investigations in the 1990s and beyond—from a racketeering case involving New York made man Chris Paciello to a first-of-its-kind application of the so-called crack house statute against New Orleans rave promoter Donnie Estopinal—I was stunned that the investigation into Murder Inc. was built almost entirely on falsehoods promulgated by informants and cooperators. My faith in the criminal justice system was shaken to the core. I felt, as neocon godfather Irving Kristol famously said, “mugged by reality.” That the collapse of the Murder Inc. case coincided with a rise in anti-informant sentiment, made me wonder: What was the basis for the growing animus against cooperators and informants? Do cooperators and witnesses provide reliable information to prosecutors, or do they, as some inner-city residents complain, “lie on” suspects? Was the cooperator-centric Murder Inc. case an anomaly in the federal criminal justice system—or the norm?

Section 5K1.1 and the Rise of the Cooperator Institution

ON APRIL 19, 2007, HARLEM RAPPER CAM’RON APPEARED ON 60 MINUTES and glibly told Anderson Cooper that he would never cooperate with cops even if a serial killer lived next door. “No, I wouldn’t call and tell anybody on him,” Cam’ron coolly explained. “But I’d probably move. . . . But I’m not gonna call and be like, you know, ‘The serial killer’s in 4E.’” Soon after the segment aired, Cam’ron was denounced by everyone from CNN’s right-wing talker Glenn Beck to Al Sharpton, who compared Cam’ron’s anti-snitch ethos to a “slave mentality.” It was a classic moral panic with a predictable denouement: Cam’ron issued a public apology in which he acknowledged the “dark reality” that “where I come from once word gets out that you’ve cooperated with the police that only makes you a bigger target of criminal violence,” but nonetheless “my experience in no way justifies what I said.”

The Cam’ron controversy also felt familiar because it had been preceded by a nearly identical uproar in December 2005, when Boston mayor Thomas Menino vowed that he would confiscate T-shirts bearing the slogan “Stop Snitchin’,” which were inspired by a DVD produced in Baltimore in 2004 called Stop Fucking Snitching, Vol. 1. “It’s wrong,” Menino said of the T-shirts. “We are going into every retail store that sells the shirts and [removing] them.” After civil liberties groups protested, Menino backed off the plan, but many Boston retailers voluntarily removed the “Stop Snitchin’” T-shirts from their racks anyway. Nonetheless, anti-snitch sentiment persisted in pop culture. In June 2006, rapper Busta Rhymes graced the covers of two major hip-hop magazines (Vibe and XXL) primarily because he had garnered huge headlines—and aroused the ire of the NYPD—for refusing to cooperate with cops in an investigation into the murder of his bodyguard, who was shot near Rhymes on a Brooklyn video shoot in January 2006. Rhymes’s Vibe cover alluded to his reluctance to talk to law enforcement: the rapper was photographed with duct tape covering his mouth. (The Rhymes incident was also covered in the 60 Minutes Cam’ron segment.)

Law enforcement, unsurprisingly, became increasingly concerned about the prevalence of the “Stop Snitchin’” phenomenon, which they viewed as a middle finger to cops or, worse, witness intimidation in a T-shirt. “Everybody in law enforcement is beside themselves,” David Kennedy, director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at John Jay College told USA Today. New York Times columnist Clyde Haberman, meanwhile, clucked that the “Stop Snitchin’” ethos was merely a cover for rappers to avoid cooperating with cops. “Since some members of the Hip-Hop Nation seem to regard themselves as belonging to a separate land, perhaps we need creative ways to deal with the criminals among them,” Haberman wrote. “Ah, but we should be more culturally tolerant, some say. It is very difficult, they say, for a big-time rapper to cooperate with the police. He would be seen as a snitch. He would lose credibility on the street. Worse, album sales might suffer. Poor Mr. Smith. What an ordeal this must be for him.” Like most controversies, “Stop Snitchin’” was marked by overheated rhetoric with no effort by pundits or politicians to explore and examine the complex tangle of legal and cultural issues that helped create the phenomenon. Perhaps this was because a critical examination of the “Stop Snitchin’” movement would reveal that, as I told Andrew Jacobs of the New York Times during the spring of 2006, it’s often propelled not by a reflexive anti–law enforcement mentality but a “real sense that the federal system is out of whack and that people are being put away for the rest of their lives based on [testimony from] informants.”

The rise in anti-informant sentiment—and the government’s increasing reliance on cooperators to make cases—can be directly traced to a series of anticrime bills passed by Congress in the mid-1980s and early 1990s that established severe mandatory minimums for drug offenders while offering the promise of drastic reductions in prison sentences for cooperators. Because the anticrime bills established significant jail time for even low-level drug game players—simple possession of five grams of crack, which weighs about as much as a nickel, could bring five years behind bars—entering into cooperation agreements with federal prosecutors became a near necessity for many defendants. Cooperation is so crucial because it can yield the much coveted “5K” motion from a prosecutor, which acknowledges “substantial assistance” on the part of defendants. The prosecutor’s 5K motion—which takes its name from a section of the United States Sentencing Guidelines—recommends that the judge make a “downward departure” from the guidelines. “The anticrime bills created a scenario where there is only one way to escape a mandatory minimum sentence,” says Robert Simels, a New York–based criminal defense attorney who has represented clients ranging from “GoodFellas” snitch Henry Hill to drug kingpin Kenneth “Supreme” McGriff, “and that is to cooperate. 5K motions say ‘Ignore the sentencing guidelines because he or she has substantially assisted us in this case.’”


On Sale
Dec 10, 2007
Page Count
336 pages

Ethan Brown

About the Author

Ethan Brown has written for New York, the New York Observer, Rolling Stone, GQ, the Marshall Project, and the Village Voice. He is the author of four books, most recently the New York Times bestseller, Murder in the Bayou: Who Killed the Women Known as the “Jeff Davis 8?”

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