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April 24, 1999

Drug team scorned

Judge dismisses charges, calls conduct by the Traverse Narcotics Team 'so reprehensible that it cannot be tolerated'

Record-Eagle staff writer

      TRAVERSE CITY - Calling conduct by the Traverse Narcotics Team "so reprehensible that it cannot be tolerated," a judge dismissed a drug case Friday after deciding TNT had entrapped a suspect.
      Thirteenth Circuit Judge Philip Rodgers blasted tactics used by the undercover drug squad in a case against Melvin Stanley, a 26-year-old who has been jailed since January on charges that he gave a softball-sized bag of marijuana to an undercover agent.
      During 3 hours of testimony Thursday, three TNT agents testified about the drug sting and their lack of knowledge of the criminal history of an informant used in the case - a man who was serving probation stemming from 12 felonies recently committed in Florida.
      "TNT is a shadow of the organization this court once knew," Rodgers said Friday. Under a former administration "they never violated any laws, they never stepped out of the bounds of common decency . . . Now I look at this case," he said.
      Stanley's court-appointed lawyer, Thomas Gilbert, said that although he has seen TNT transgressions before, this case stood out.
      "It seemed like the more investigating I did, the worse the case got for the government," Gilbert said. "At times their targets are the little fish, and not the big fish, and in a nutshell, that's what's wrong with TNT."
      Stanley's case caused Rodgers to raise larger questions about TNT's procedures and the practice of using informants with multiple felony convictions in undercover drug stings. Some of his questions:
      - Why would agents not investigate an informant's background closely enough to discover the informant was on probation in Grand Traverse County, a condition which makes someone ineligible to serve as an informant under court rules and state police policy?
      - Why aren't agents required to file reports when they learn that an informant is under investigation for a felony by another police agency?
      - Why would agents enlist an informant without investigating his or her criminal background? For instance, the informant, Luke Hemgesberg, said Thursday he had worked as an informant in Florida to avoid a prison sentence, but that agents did not ask him about that when he signed on with them.
      - Why would agents allow an informant to go on a possibly life-threatening, unsupervised drug mission to Flint when they already determined that the circumstances were too dangerous for one of their own agents?
      Stanley was arrested Jan. 5 when he returned from a trip to Flint with Hemgesberg to buy cocaine. Although the pair were unable to find cocaine in Flint, agents arrested Stanley on delivery of marijuana charges because Stanley had given marijuana to an agent as collateral for $325 an agent had given him to buy cocaine.
      Thursday, Rodgers questioned the logic of the scenario the agents created.
      "Did it seem unusual to you that a regular cocaine dealer would need $325 in advance?" Rodgers asked an undercover police officer.
      Lt. Don Bailey, second in command at TNT, said in court Thursday that Hemgesberg understood he was acting on his own free will, but Bailey declined to comment Friday about any of Rodgers' criticism.
      It was unclear why Hemgesberg became an informant for TNT. He contacted them last year, Hemgesberg said, and his reasons for going to the undercover drug squad wavered as he testified.
      At first Hemgesberg said he needed some money - he was paid $150 for his work - but later he admitted he needed help with one of six cases against him for driving while his license was suspended.
      Hemgesberg moved to Michigan from Florida in 1997 after earning 12 felony convictions, on charges ranging from breaking and entering to theft, and striking a deal to act as an informant in Florida to avoid going to prison. He told Rodgers he didn't remember details of his undercover work in Florida.
      Hemgesberg said he was able to move to Traverse City even though he was on probation until 2000 because he arranged to transfer his probation to Michigan.
      Detective Tom Babel said Hemgesberg wanted to do undercover work because, "He said that he had been in trouble in the past and that he wanted to help with the community and do the right thing."
      Babel said he never realized that Hemgesberg was on probation - in part because Hemgesberg's rap sheet was too long. Probation isn't mentioned until the 17th of 18 pages, and Babel said he didn't notice.
      But Babel was eager to put Hemgesberg to work, partly because Hemgesberg claimed that he knew of "a lot of drug dealing" that was going on at the Grand Traverse Mall.
      Hemgesberg eventually offered to help police nab his friend, Stanley, whom Hemgesberg had met in the summer of 1998. Three agents said they had never heard of Stanley before meeting Hemgesberg.
      Undercover Detective Lee Ann Emerick, Stanley and Hemgesberg each testified Thursday about how two attempts to buy drugs from Stanley unfolded in December and January.
      Posing as what Emerick and others referred to as a "cocaine whore" - a woman who likes the drug so much that she would trade sex for it - Emerick met Hemgesberg and Stanley at the Grand Traverse Mall food court on Dec. 1 looking for marijuana or cocaine.
      Both Hemgesberg and Emerick say Stanley agreed to call a cocaine dealer in Williamsburg, a claim that Stanley denied. But all three agree that Stanley was unable to sell them any drugs that night.
      Accounts differ about what led up to a second meeting a month later. Stanley testified that Hemgesberg called him two or three times a week in December and begged him to find him some cocaine.
      Stanley said he repeatedly refused because he is on parole for breaking and entering, but Hemgesberg appealed to his friendship and offered him sex with Emerick and a blond woman who would be waiting for him when he returned from Flint.
      Hemgesberg said he only needed to ask Stanley once, and that although he implied that Emerick was a "cocaine whore," he said he was clear that it would be him - not Stanley - who would be the recipient of Emerick's appreciation.
      Meanwhile, in late December, a Traverse City Police detective mentioned to Emerick that he was investigating Hemgesberg for a felony in the theft of a computer. Rodgers was incensed that Emerick never shared that information with other agents or filed a report.
      "If you were told that the confidential informant was being investigated for perjury, wouldn't you want to know that?" Rodgers asked.
      Emerick replied that as an investigator she was only interested in "stuff that already happened."
      By the time Hemgesberg took the stand Thursday, Rodgers was clearly upset.
      "Have you met police officers before that were lagging as much as this group about questions about your past?" Rodgers asked him. "Were they under the assumption that you were just some nice guy from Traverse City who just wanted to help?"
      "I'm not sure," Hemgesberg said.
      In throwing out the case, Rodgers cited a standard in Michigan law that deems entrapment as behavior by a police agency that is "so reprehensible it cannot be tolerated" and that involves police committing "criminal, dangerous, or immoral acts" to get an arrest.
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