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A SEARCH WARRANT GONE BAD

It depends what side you’re on.
By Jim Waddell

Our city was typical of others in our area, domestic violence, alcohol and drug issues and the like.  Whenever you have an epidemic of street drugs, you have a parallel problem of thefts of all types.  One begets the other.  This was about the time, the mid 80’s, when the methamphetamine epidemic really got going in California.  It was considered a poor man’s cocaine and it was relatively easy to manufacture, before all of the federal and state controls on ephedrine and other key ingredients.

Our police department had eight full time officers and close to that number in reserves.  We had the same training as police in large departments and the same standards for appointment.  What we didn’t have was the funds that bigger agencies had.  We didn’t have the luxury of specialized units like undercover drug agents, vice squads or SWAT teams.  We either asked for help from the sheriff’s office, went without, or did those things ourselves.  We always employed the third option whenever possible and we had a lot of fun getting things accomplished, often in pretty unorthodox ways.

Working undercover drug cases in a small department is usually a chancy thing at best.  All of the police officers are known to the public, either by name or by sight or both, especially if you’re a miscreant with evil intentions.  They pay particular attention to who the cops.

This incident all started when a local resident I’ll call Randy got caught burglarizing a grocery store.  His previous brushes with the law landed him in the county jail on numerous occasions but breaking into a grocery store is a felony.  If Randy hadn’t had such a lengthy record he probably would have gotten off with probation and a few months in the county lockup.  However, during his arraignment and subsequent meeting with the prosecuting attorney and his public defender, he learned his chances of going to prison were excellent.

Randy had heard all of the horror stories of what happens to first timers when they land in the joint (slang for state prison).  It’s even worse when the first timer is slight of build with blonde hair and blue eyes.  Suffice it to say he becomes everybody’s prom date and there are proms happening regularly at Mule Creek or any of the other 33 prisons in this state.

With this in mind, Randy was willing to do anything he could to avoid prison and our detective jumped at the opportunity.  It was a fairly common practice in those days for law enforcement and the district attorney to offer a deal to defendants in cases such as these.

I don’t remember the particulars in this case but typically, if the defendant will give up the names of drug dealers and that information leads to the arrests and convictions of these dealers, the DA would reduce or in some cases dismiss the charges pending.  In Randy’s case, since his take in the grocery store caper amounted to less than $5 in loose change from an open cash drawer and two pounds of hamburger, coupled with his eagerness and excitement to work off the beef he was offered dismissal of the charges if he could give up 5 sellers or manufacturers of meth.  He said it would be no problem if he could work outside of our city limits as even with the meth craze as widespread as it was, he doubted if there were that many pushers in our city.  We had a great working relationship with the sheriff’s department and they readily approved us to go into their areas for the greater good of the community.  The deal was made, the papers were signed and Randy went to work.

It took Randy no time at all to get into his new character as secret agent man.  He took to this undercover business like a squirrel to nuts.  He was not kidding when he said he could score some dealers.  We busted 2 in the city, and several others in the rural area within a few miles of us and we even got one in the neighboring county.  With that one we had to enlist the support of the sheriff’s department in that county.

A typical operation of this sort will start with the informer (Randy) coming to our detective, telling him he can buy drugs from suspect X.  From a fund previously set up, we give Randy say $50 to score a bag of meth.  Randy arranges a time and place with the dealer and we hook Randy up with a body wire with the microphone in an obscure location on his body to record the conversation.  We have a team of officers about a block away, one who’s taping the conversation for evidence and to write the “statement of probable cause” to get a search warrant.  The other officers stand ready in case things go south in a hurry, such as the dealer getting suspicious and locating the wire.  Hopefully, the officers can get there before the dealer makes hash out of our little friend.

The idea here is to obtain a search warrant for the home, car or whatever locations are suspected where the dealer stores or manufactures his product.  We avoid trying to bust him during the transaction as it gives up our informant and his life expectancy is greatly diminished.  There has been times when it was pre-arranged with the informant that we do make the arrest at the time of transaction for varying reasons.  When that happens, we take both of them down and go through the whole arrest and search scenario, advising of rights, etc. and treat them both equally.  This keeps our informant from being “burned.”

Now to the plot of the story.  Since we were doing all of these search warrants, and I was usually at or near the front of the entry team, I decided I needed a short barreled shotgun.  The Remington 870’s we had for patrol use had 20 inch barrels but I wanted something shorter, much shorter.  As I mentioned earlier, our department had limited funds and there were no firearms in the budget for that year but I did have some money left in a miscellaneous category.

I was able to lay my hands on a used Mossberg 500E.  This was a 12 gauge pump with a full pistol grip and no stock.  I forget how long the barrel was but it was longer than I wanted.  I forked over the $50 asking price and after I took it to the range to make sure it worked, I headed to the fire department, across the street from the police department and asked for Gerald.

Like the police department, the fire department was small also.  The two full timers were the chief and an engineer.  All the others were volunteers.  Among them was Gerald.  In addition to being a volunteer firefighter, Gerald was a diesel mechanic and every other kind of mechanic for that matter. He was also a friend to the local cops.  (Often when our guys were on traffic stops at night they would see Gerald’s truck parked nearby and it was a comfort knowing he held his Colt New Frontier in his lap watching over the officers like a guardian angel).  So I asked, “Gerald, can you cut this thing off just ahead of the magazine tube?”  I think it ended up at 13 inches or so.  I wasn’t too worried about the legalities as the gun belonged to the department.

The first local case we worked that was a product of Randy’s agreement with the District Attorney involved a local loser, several times over.  Randy bought some meth and some prescription narcotics from this guy while wearing the body wire.  A search warrant was obtained and we were ready to raid his duplex.

We’ve all watched TV shows and movies where the cops in dramatic fashion, approach the door and breach it with a mighty kick and engage the occupants in a gunfight.  In real life, that rarely happens, if ever.  What does happen on occasion is the officer kicking the door will injure his leg when he meets unexpected resistance or more often, miss the latch area and put his leg through the door.  This isn’t a good scenario as it takes the officer out of the operation and puts him in grave danger along with warning the occupants the cops have arrived, giving them ample opportunity to run out the back, engage the officers or as frequently happens, flush their dope down the toilet.  Not to mention the embarrassment this causes.

With that in mind, we decided we needed a ram.  These are typically made of solid steel with a square plate in the front.  It can be 4 to 6 feet in length with several handles on both sides.  It can weigh anywhere from 25 lbs on up.  I went back across the street.  “Gerald…. we need a breaching ram.”  I gave him the dimensions and in a couple of hours, it was finished and delivered.  I don’t know how much it weighed but it was heavy.  Really heavy.  Heavier than necessary.

Our target suspect in this case was as mentioned, a local guy who had been arrested several times before.  Mostly it was misdemeanor stuff such as fighting, vandalism, assault and a few other things.  Nothing major until now and as far as we knew, his first foray into selling drugs.

In all of his previous arrests he resisted and we had to fight to subdue him.  He was a good sized villain, well over 6 feet and 200 lbs.  When he was intoxicated or high on meth, he felt little pain.  This was before tasers so in addition to prior bookings in the county jail, he had nearly as many admissions in the county hospital from injuries incurred when he resisted.  Some of our officers were treated along with him.  Information provided to us from Randy was this guy figured his next arrest would probably land him in the graybar hotel for a year or in the joint if it was a felony.

This was in our thoughts as we prepared to enter his abode to serve the search warrant.  During that time in history, California had a requirement for serving warrants.  It was called, “Knock and notice.”  What this catchy term meant was the cops had to knock on the door, shout, “Police, search warrant, open the door.”  Then…. the courts required we wait for a reasonable amount of time for the suspect to open the door before forcing entry.  As one would expect, each judge had his own idea of what “reasonable” was. It was during this “reasonable” amount of time, the occupants of the house had ample opportunity to flush contraband or make a quick exit out the back door or arm themselves.  The cops all felt any time at all was “unreasonable,” but that’s the way it was.  Having been retired for some 13 years now, I have no idea what the current requirement is but in this state, it’s probably even more restrictive for the police than it was back then.

All of us on the entry team knew we would have a scrap on our hands and it wasn’t out of the question he might be armed although he didn’t have a history of firearms use.  But, there’s always a first time.

Before going in, I had loaded the Mossberg with I believe 5, maybe 6 rounds of standard, hi base number 4 buckshot.  I chambered a round and topped off the tubular magazine.

We had two guys manning the ram with an officer named Tim and myself to be the first ones in.  We had decided earlier there would be no regulation “knock and notice” in this case.  We were more interested in saving our own skins than we were in this guy’s rights.  So, the knock was when the ram hit the door like a freight train, the notice was the door coming off the hinges and sailing into the room.

Tim entered and went to the right with me right behind him and off to the left.  In my peripheral vision, I saw the front door land on a coffee table, knocking it over.  My focal vision saw our suspect standing in front of me, 10-12 feet away.  He was standing next to a wall and I remember screaming at him to hit the deck.

He didn’t and started to mouth an angry protest.  Even though I had a round chambered in the Mossberg, I racked it again, figuring the sound of the action would get him to drop.  It worked but not because he was obeying my command but because when the action closed, the gun discharged sending all 27 .24 caliber lead balls into the wall right beside his head.  Now, normally, I would be pointing my gun at the suspect upon entering and seeing him standing there but for some reason, I had it at a modified port arms position.  I guess it was because subconsciously I hadn’t trained with that gun and didn’t trust it completely.  Whether you believe in God or not, He was definitely in charge of that operation.

The sheetrock wallboard was thinner than normal and at least one of the pellets struck a stud that was close to where this guy was standing.  A sliver of wood about the size of a wooden match impaled his right cheek.  He hit the deck screaming, “You shot me. You shot me!!”  I recovered from my momentary shock and said, “Maybe next time you’ll do as you’re told.”

As I was standing there still in some shock over the gun going off, other officers on the team were on this guy like ugly on an ape and had him cuffed before he realized he wasn’t really shot.  I don’t think anyone ever told him that gun went off accidentally.  As far as I remember, he thought I either did try to shoot him or it was an intentional warning shot.  Either way, he was all, “Yes sire, No sir,” from that point on.

After the suspect was taken out of the house, I looked around.  He was the only one in the duplex and had been in the process of cutting and bagging a supply of meth and had it all on the coffee table.  When the front door hit the table, white powder went everywhere.  We were able to photograph and salvage enough of it to use for evidence and get a conviction.

After the dust settled and our guys were collecting evidence, the realization hit me that I was facing a lawsuit and who knows what reaction the city council would have when they were given the bill for damages to the duplex by the landlord.

The city council at the time was very supportive of the police and all but one found some amusement at what happened here, especially after I had obtained written certification from two independent gunsmiths that the Mossberg was defective and would discharge upon closing the action.

After this incident ended and other cases ended successfully, Randy got so excited about being an undercover agent, he wanted to keep going.  He reminded me of Joe Pesci in the movie “Lethal Weapon.”  We told him if he did, the crooks in the area would eventually find out and when they did, he would be toast.  Randy said he wasn’t worried, with all of his cop friends he had better protection than the president.  We convinced him he was dreaming and the DA did arrange to give him an identity change and get him safely out of the area.  That was the last I ever heard of him.

As we were all walking away from the duplex that night, one of the officers saw a suspicious pickup parked across the street with a guy inside and the lights out.  The officer said, “Let’s go check him out and see if he’s connected to our suspect.”  Another officer said, “Forget it, it’s just Gerald, watching our butts.”