A PROJECT OF THE UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA IRVINE NEWKIRK CENTER FOR SCIENCE & SOCIETY,
UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN LAW SCHOOL & MICHIGAN STATE UNIVERSITY COLLEGE OF LAW
Nineteen defendants were exonerated in Mansfield, Ohio between 2007 and 2011 due to misconduct by a confidential informant, his DEA handler and a sheriff's deputy.
The confidential informant lied to a sheriff’s deputy and an agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration about the participants in drug buys he conducted, and the officers bolstered those lies with falsified reports and perjury.
Mansfield is a struggling industrial city of 50,000 people in Richland County, about 80 miles southwest of Cleveland. The misconduct had its roots in the killing of a local drug dealer in late 2004. The Richland County Sheriff’s Office investigated the case, and the leads suggested that the man had been killed by another dealer or dealers. To solve the case, the sheriff’s office decided to mount a large-scale operation called “Operation Turnaround.” They planned to pressure dealers to name the killer. According to later litigation related to the official misconduct, the sheriff’s office put together a list of approximately 50 persons it targeted for arrest on drug charges.
Like many similar initiatives, Operation Turnaround relied on a confidential informant who worked closely with law enforcement. Officers deploy these informants to make the drug buys under highly controlled situations. The officers then carefully document the details of the buy and use that information to make arrests or apply for search warrants.
The confidential informant in Richland County was a man named Jerrell Bray. He grew up in Cleveland and moved with his wife to Mansfield in early 2004, after completing a sentence for manslaughter and robbery. Initially, he did odd jobs and worked at a church and car dealership. But he soon began making trips to Cleveland and returning with marijuana to sell. Then, through a friend of his wife’s, he began dealing crack cocaine. He would later tell investigators there was greater risk in cocaine but also more money to be made.
In late 2004, Sheriff’s Deputy Charles Metcalf arrested Bray and charged him with possession of stolen property. Bray also admitted to Metcalf that he was selling crack, and Metcalf said he would drop the charges if Bray agreed to work with the sheriff’s office in making cases against drug dealers. According to reporting in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Mansfield Police Department tried to warn the sheriff’s office about Bray; their officers already knew him as a liar and low-level street dealer, a person not to be trusted. They did not heed the advice, and on January 22, 2005, Bray signed an agreement to serve as a confidential informant with the sheriff’s office.
Bray and Metcalf worked together for several months, making small buys in Mansfield. Bray later said that he considered Metcalf to a be a friend. That summer, Bray told Metcalf about a man named Michael Frost. Bray felt that Frost had not looked out for Bray’s family properly while he was in prison, and Bray wanted revenge. Frost was already on the radar of the Cleveland police, and Bray met with Cleveland officers to tell them what he knew. The Cleveland officers introduced Bray to Lee Lucas, a DEA agent who signed Bray up as an informant for the federal government. From then on, Lucas became Bray’s principal point of contact with law enforcement.
The DEA arrested Frost in August 2005 and convicted him on drug charges. The DEA paid Bray $2,000 in compensation for his role in the case. He also began expanding his crack business while working as a government informant. He would later say that he felt “untouchable” because of his relationship with Lucas, whom he believed knew and condoned what he was doing. During his time as an informant, Bray several times violated the rules governing his conduct. He was caught with drugs hidden in the steering wheel of his car and accuse of stealing money from the DEA. There was no punishment for either offense.
Even before the events in Mansfield, Lucas was known as a hard-charging agent whose conduct caused concern at the DEA and with the federal prosecutors who worked the cases he brought.
DEA agents fill out activity reports called DEA-6 forms, which detail operations such as undercover drug buys. An assistant U.S. attorney who worked closely with Lucas later told investigators that there had been concerns with the quality and lack of detail in the reports Lucas filed. When pressed on the matter, Lucas said he liked to keep his reports vague to give himself “wiggle room” if he had to testify.
Separately, federal judges in two separate rulings, one in 2001 and the other in 2003, criticized Lucas’s actions and questioned his credibility. In the 2001 opinion, judges from the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit wrote: “We find troubling Agent Lucas’ apparent misrepresentations concerning the past cooperation of the informants involved in this case. Although the government maintains that there was an absence of proof concerning the agent’s deliberateness or recklessness in making the misrepresentations, it is unclear how Agent Lucas could have made such statements of an affirmative character for which there was no basis without having acted either deliberately or recklessly.”
On November 9, 2005, the collaboration between Lucas and Bray led to the federal indictments of 18 men and two women in Mansfield on drug possession and distribution charges. According to the indictment, which covered all these defendants, many of the counts alleged distribution or possession of smaller amounts of crack cocaine between March 15, 2005, and September 29, 2005. A second section of the indictment charged nine of the defendants with distributing at least 50 grams of cocaine, an offense that potentially carried a much harsher penalty. The federal authorities added three more defendants to a superseding indictment, and the two women originally indicted had their charges dismissed in March 2006.
Also on November 9, the federal authorities indicted Geneva France, Herman Price, and Roosevelt Williams for dealing drugs in Mansfield.
France ended up being the first defendant to go to trial, in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio in Cleveland. She was a single mother of three, and a home-health aide with no criminal record. She had an alibi for the time that Bray said she acted as a courier in a drug deal, but it was no match for Lucas’s court testimony and identification. She was convicted on February 17, 2006, and then sentenced on May 18, 2006, to 10 years in prison. Her charges were dismissed on September 20, 2007.
Geneva France was arrested in November 2005 and charged with two counts of drug possession and distribution on October 25, 2005. She was alleged to have acted as a courier in a drug transaction between Bray and a man named Herman Price, whom the Richland Sheriff’s office targeted for arrest.
Informant Jerrell Bray said he called Price – who was indicted under a false name, Ronald Davis – and spoke to a woman he referred to as “Lil S” to discuss buying cocaine. He then said he made a separate call to Price to hammer out the details of the deal.
Bray said he then met Price at another location, and he would tell DEA agent Lee Lucas that they needed to go get the drugs from “Price’s girl.”
Lucas and Bray then picked up a woman named Karmiya ‘‘Shea’’ Moxley, who identified herself as “Lil S.” Bray told her that Price asked him to pay her for the drugs. After the deal was done, Lucas told the woman that the drugs were “a little light,” and he asked Bray to call Price and get him to lower the price.
As the officers began building the case for arrests, Deputy Charles Metcalf of the Richland County Sheriff’s Office thought ‘‘Lil S’’ was a woman named Shakkia Gordon. He showed a photo of Gordon to Lucas, and Lucas said that was not her. Bray then told Lucas that Geneva was the real first name of the woman he called “Lil S.”
France later speculated about how she got snared in Bray’s web. According to France, she only knew Bray through a friend who was dating him. France said that Bray scared her, and that she refused to go on a date with him.
Officers had trouble finding a photo of France, who was then 22 years old. She did not have a driver’s license. The best the officers could come up with was a sixth-grade class photo. Lucas and Bray looked at the photo and said that was “Lil S.” A sheriff’s deputy later acknowledged that the photo was not placed in an array, and that it might have been labeled with France’s name when it was shown to Bray and Lucas.
Lucas testified before a federal grand jury that France sold him drugs during the controlled buy and that the transaction took place within 1,000 feet of a school zone.
"We drove down—we left Ronald Davis there, we went over to Glessner Avenue, which he told us this girl would be waiting for us," Lucas testified. "And we pulled up a young girl named—she told me her name was Little S, she was subsequently identified as Geneva France, got into the car, got in the back seat. She handed me two-and-a-half ounces of crack, scales, she had her own scale, we weighed it out. I gave her $2,500. The problem was it weighed light, it was supposed to be two-and-a-half, he gave me two-and-a-quarter so I had the informant call and tell him I wasn’t going to pay that much. He said take $200 out of it. We spent $2,300 that I ended up giving to Geneva France at his direction, Ronald Davis’ direction. Then we dropped Geneva France off, she went back to the house. We made telephone contact afterwards with Davis because he said he wanted to talk to us after. As we drove back to South Adams Street where he was he said no, everything was fine. He followed us and watched the deal as it happened to make sure we didn’t try to rip off his girl. At that point the deal was over. "
At France’s trial, Lucas, Metcalf, and Bray each testified that France sold the cocaine during the controlled buy. She was convicted on both counts and sentenced to 10 years in prison. At her sentencing, the judge berated her as a pathological liar.
After Bray’s arrest in May 2007 on an unrelated charge of attempted murder, he told authorities that neither France nor Price had been involved in that drug transaction. The man involved, he told Lucas, was actually his cousin.
At France’s trial, Lucas testified that he dialed the numbers in Bray’s phone. A later investigation revealed that Bray dialed the numbers and spoke with his girlfriend, Moxley. In his report, Lucas said that Bray made a second call to Price to discuss the terms of the drug transaction. An audio recording of the call showed that discussion did not take place. Similarly, Lucas testified before the grand jury and at trial that Bray called Price to haggle about the price because the amount was “a little light” and that he heard both sides of the conversation. But there were no phone records of that call. Bray later admitted that he just pretended to make the call and talk to Price.
France was exonerated in 2007, and Lucas was later charged with 18 counts of perjury and obstruction of justice involving her case and others in Mansfield. He was acquitted of all charges. During his testimony, he continued to insist that France was the woman in the car, and that her class photo was enough to make a strong identification. France received an undisclosed settlement from a lawsuit against the federal government in 2011. Despite Lucas’s acquittal, a 2011 report by the Office of the Inspector General said that he filed incorrect reports and committed perjury during France’s trial. It noted that he logged incorrect phone numbers, did not log all the telephone calls, and logged the pretend call. “The evidence indicates that he did not personally verify and document the telephone numbers called and the times of the calls, because if he had the above-described discrepancies would not exist.”
France’s conviction and sentence sent a strong message to many of the defendants about the risk of going to trial. Between April 10 and June 19, 2006, 14 of the defendants entered guilty pleas. Many of them had prior convictions for drug offenses, and they received sentences ranging from 37 months to 140 months in federal prison.
Six of the remaining defendants from the November indictment went to trial on July 12, 2006, in U.S. District Court. Several of them had been charged with the more serious trafficking offense. One defendant was a Mansfield businessman named Dwayne Nabors. He owned Platinum Status, a popular store that sold tire rims and stereo equipment. He also had two previous convictions on drug charges from 1991 and 1992. According to the indictment, Nabors and three other men sold Bray at least 50 grams of crack cocaine on September 20, 2005.
But at the trial, several problems emerged with the government’s evidence. The surveillance tapes did not match the testimony, and in some instances, it was hard or impossible to tell who was doing what or talking on the recordings.
On July 26, 2006, the jury acquitted four of the men. Jason Westerfield was convicted of a single count of possession with intent to distribute at least 5 grams of cocaine. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison. Nabors was acquitted on the drug charge but convicted of illegal possession of a weapon after a search of his house turned up a 9-mm pistol. He was sentenced to five years in prison. Nabors’s charge was dismissed in 2008, but Westerfield’s conviction stood until 2011. He was the last defendant to have his conviction vacated. He had been found not guilty on one count of his indictment because at the time of his arrest he had been under court supervision and the GPS information collected from his ankle monitor showed he had not been where Bray and Lucas said he was.
Informant Jerrell Bray said that sheriff’s deputies in Richland County told him they wanted to arrest Dwayne Nabors. Nabors had two previous convictions on drug charges from the 1990s, but Bray did not believe Nabors was currently dealing drugs. He owned a store that sold car rims and stereo systems, and sponsored various contests for local car enthusiasts. Nabors also was dating a female sheriff’s deputy, and Bray later said that the relationship did not sit right with some of her co-workers.
Despite his reservations, Bray agreed to help Lucas and Metcalf target Nabors. He later offered to try to get a taped conversation with Nabors about cars that could be “spun” to sound like a drug deal.
The controlled buy was set for September 20, 2005. It did not take place at Nabors’s store but at another man’s garage. Jamaal Ansari, a Cleveland police detective working with Lucas, later testified that he saw Nabors take part in the deal and that a car that pulled up to the garage was the same car seen at the stereo store. When the agents returned to the sheriff’s office, they realized that they had been shorted by about a quarter of the purchased amount. So Bray made another call and then went to a house to correct the error. He told sheriff’s deputies that Nabors had been there.
After Nabors was arrested, police executed a search warrant on his house and found a 9-mm pistol.
At Nabors’s trial, Metcalf committed perjury when he falsely testified that he had seen Nabors take part in the drug deal. He also falsely testified that the meeting had not been videotaped when it had. (The videotape would have been exculpatory.) Metcalf pled guilty to perjury based on this misconduct.
Lucas also testified at the trial that he and Metcalf followed Nabors after he left the store. It later became clear that the surveillance ended abruptly, and that neither agent actually saw Nabors taking part in a drug deal with Bray. Metcalf later said he lied because he felt compelled to back up the report that Lucas submitted on the controlled buy. Despite the perjury, a jury acquitted Nabors of the drug charge, but convicted him on the weapons-possession charge.
Bray later told investigators that he used a stand-in for Nabors, buying drugs from a man named Albert Lee, who was indicted at the same time as Nabors. As part of the transaction, Lee included an Oldsmobile Cutlass to even up things, after Bray complained that he had been shorted. The agents recorded this phone conversation, and according to Bray, Lucas knew that there was something fishy. During trial preparation, when Blas Serrano, an assistant U.S. attorney, asked what the “Cutty” reference was all about, Lucas and Bray both told him “That’s drug talk,” and Serrano appeared to be satisfied.
Lee had been scheduled to be tried with Nabors and several other defendants, but he subsequently planned to enter a guilty plea. He met with Serrano and Ansari to discuss his plea and told them that Nabors had not been present at the transaction. Lee said the deal involved himself, Bray, and another man named James Burton. The prosecution did not turn over that information to Nabors’s attorney. Serrano’s associates later told the Plain Dealer that the lack of disclosure was either an oversight during the hectic time of preparing for a trial or a reflection of the prosecutors’ assessment that Lee was not being truthful. Lee eventually pled guilty, was sentenced to 10 years in prison, and then exonerated in 2008.
Nabors was also exonerated in 2008. He settled a federal lawsuit against the federal government in 2011, and against Metcalf in 2015.
The controlled buys were supposed to follow a strict protocol. Bray and the Richland officers would identify a target and inform Lucas and other DEA agents, who would supply the buy money and travel from Cleveland to assist. Bray would call the target and arrange the deal. Investigators would provide Bray with cash, search him and his vehicle, and then follow Bray to the location of the buy, attempting to view or record the transaction. After the buy, they would follow Bray back to the sheriff’s office, search Bray’s person and vehicle, inventory the drugs, and take a statement from Bray.
That did not always happen. First, the agents did not adequately corroborate Bray’s information. Bray often dialed the same number to different targets and lied to the agents about who he was calling. Sometimes, he turned off his wireless transmitter during buys.
According to a 2011 report by the Office of the Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Justice, Lucas and the other agents at times did not actually see from whom Bray bought drugs. Rather, they relied on Bray. Bray, however, frequently used stand-ins to make the purchases, but told the officers that the named targets made the buys. According to the report, Lucas later doctored the reports to indicate that he saw a drug transaction take place, adding such particulars as license plate and telephone numbers. In the cases that went to trial, he and Metcalf both testified about the contents of these reports, telling jurors that they were certain of events taking place in the manner described in the reports.
The misconduct might have remained hidden but for Joshawa Webb, who was another cocaine dealer in Mansfield. Bray later said that Metcalf told him that Webb was a member of the Aryan Brotherhood and “needed to go.” Bray disagreed with that assessment; although Webb was white, Bray believed he mostly hung out with Blacks and was not a white supremacist. That said, Bray agreed to help Metcalf because he liked the money he was getting from setting up rival dealers for their falls. Webb was also indicted in November 2005 – the only defendant who was not Black – but his trial kept getting delayed because of issues related to evidence and Webb’s mental health.
By 2007, Webb’s attorney received the government’s voice recordings of the alleged drug transaction, but when he listened to the recording he had more questions than answers. First, the voice did not sound like Webb. Second, the recording included lots of stops and starts, suggesting it had been edited. The attorney went to talk to Bray, who was in the Cuyahoga County Jail in Cleveland after being charged with attempted murder. (Bray asked Lucas to help him out of this jam, but the victim in the shooting had a relative in law enforcement, eliminating the chance of a deal.)
According to reporting in Playboy magazine, when Webb’s attorney came to the jail, Bray was ready to talk about his deceit involving Webb, France, and many others. Bray said that he never bought drugs from Webb. Instead, he set Webb up. Webb thought he was selling a car, not drugs, to Bray, and Bray told the agents that the conversation about cars was a ruse to disguise what was actually taking place. In addition, Bray contradicted Lucas’s report that Webb handled the crack cocaine and a scale during the transaction. The drugs moved between Lucas and another man, prior to Bray giving Webb the money that Webb thought was payment for the car. Webb’s charges were dismissed July 16, 2007.
By the time of Webb’s dismissal, Bray was cooperating with federal authorities, divulging the manner in which he misled agents with the DEA and the Richland County Sheriff’s Office. As federal investigators began reviewing Lucas’s records and trial transcripts, they uncovered the agent’s own misconduct, which they later alleged included falsifying reports and committing perjury at the trials of Nabors and France.
After France’s exoneration in 2007, the court exonerated 13 men on January 25, 2008. Nabors was exonerated on February 13, 2008. A man named Roosevelt Williams was exonerated on May 27, 2008. He had pled guilty to two drug charges. A third was dismissed because he had an alibi for the day of the alleged transaction.
By his own admission, Roosevelt Williams was a drug dealer. He grew up in Chicago, dropped out of school, and began selling drugs. He moved to Mansfield, but shuttled back and forth to his hometown, where he could buy drugs for less money and turn a larger profit when he resold them in Mansfield.
He met Jerrell Bray in the winter of 2005 and began selling drugs to him, completing about 15 or 16 transactions. He testified that the sales were for small amounts, usually less than a quarter ounce or about 7 grams. Based on Bray’s statements to Lucas, the federal court indicted Williams on November 9, 2005, charging him with three counts of selling drugs. Two charges involved small amounts, but the third, which Bray said occurred on October 5, 2005, was for more than 50 grams of cocaine.
After his arrest, Williams and his attorney met with a federal prosecutor, Lucas, and another officer in Cleveland. While Williams was willing to plead guilty to two charges, he denied that he sold 50 grams of cocaine on October 5. He visited his son in the hospital in Chicago that day. He flew to Chicago and had the boarding pass to prove it. That charge was dismissed. Williams pled guilty to the two lesser charges and was sentenced to 71 months in prison.
After Bray’s false statements and other deceptions came to light, Williams’s conviction was vacated on May 27, 2008.
In its motion to dismiss, the government wrote, “Bray, as an essential witness, is not reliable or credible. The government also noted in reviewing the evidence that the defendant made voluntary statements to law enforcement admitting his role in the distribution of crack cocaine in the greater Mansfield area. Despite these admissions, based on the government’s abiding belief in our system of justice and fundamental fairness, Bray’s illegal conduct in the Mansfield investigation (violating peoples’ civil rights and committing perjury before this Court) is so pervasive that it leaves the government with no alternative other than to conclude that these matters must be dismissed.”
At Lucas’s criminal trial on perjury and obstruction charges, Williams testified for the government. He heard a tape recording of a conversation that was said to have taken place between Bray and himself. The voice was not his.
A later investigation by the Office of the Inspector General said that the drug buy Bray said he conducted with Williams on October 5 actually involved a man named Robert Harris. At the time, a Mansfield Police officer named Perry Wheeler was conducting surveillance with Lucas. He had been investigating Williams for six months and knew what he looked like. Wheeler told Lucas and a sheriff’s deputy that the man selling drugs to Bray was not Williams. While Lucas dismissed Wheeler’s concern and did not include it in his report, Wheeler reported the incident to a supervisor. The OIG report concluded that this failure to include potential exculpatory information demonstrated a lack of candor and was a violation of federal law and DEA policies.
On December 19, 2007, the federal court indicted Bray for seven counts of perjury and making false statements to law-enforcement officers. He pled guilty on December 20 to all seven counts and was sentenced to 180 months in prison, which was reduced in 2010 to 165 months. The reduction was due to his cooperation in the federal government’s cases against Metcalf and Lucas. Bray died in prison in 2012.
Metcalf was indicted on May 1, 2009, on a single count of violating Nabors’s civil rights by testifying falsely at his trial. He pled guilty on May 14, 2009. His sentencing was delayed until the resolution of the government’s case against Lucas, who was indicted on May 12, 2009, on 18 counts of perjury and obstruction of justice.
A parade of witnesses, including Metcalf, Bray, and France, testified that Lucas did more than just cut corners. He also reported and testified about events that did not take place. Lucas testified at his trial that the witnesses were mistaken, that his reports were largely correct, and any errors were incidental. The only concession he made was that he might have misidentified Roosevelt Williams. Lucas said that Bray was bitter and had turned on him because of his refusal to help him on the attempted murder charge.
The jury acquitted Lucas of all charges on February 5, 2010. The next week, the court sentenced Metcalf to 12 weekends in jail.
Despite being acquitted, Lucas came under harsh criticism for his conduct. The 2011 report by the Office of the Inspector General said:
“The OIG and OPR (Office of Professional Responsibility) investigation developed significant evidence that Lucas put false or erroneous information into some of his DEA-6s of the buys and the Mansfield investigation, that he testified falsely during the detention hearing and two trials that resulted from the Mansfield investigation and prosecution, and that he failed to report to his management, the prosecuting AUSA, or the defendants or their attorney’s information which was exculpatory to one of the defendants and information which was likely to have negatively impacted Lucas’s own and Bray’s credibility.”
The report further said that “Lucas engaged in misconduct by ‘filling the holes’ in the cases by among other things including in his reports and in testimony statements claiming to have made observations that he did not make and claiming to have taken actions that he did not take.”
The DEA suspended Lucas indefinitely after his indictment. Following his acquittal, he appealed through civil-service channels to lift the suspension. He ended his appeal on July 16, 2012, receiving $84,510 in back pay and $65,000 in attorney’s fees. The settlement also included language that described several instances of misconduct that warranted the suspension.
Twenty-three of the defendants, including those who were not convicted, filed lawsuits against the DEA, Richland County, and Lucas and Metcalf, among others. The individual outcome of those lawsuits is not publicly available, but the U.S. Department of Justice said in 2011 that the federal government settled five of the cases for $440,000, in amounts ranging from $20,000 to $135,000. According to federal court records, most of the claims against Richland County and its deputies were dismissed for lack of proof that Metcalf and the other county officers knew of Bray’s deceit. The exception was Nabors’s suit against Metcalf, which was settled for an undisclosed amount.
Many of the Mansfield defendants struggled after their convictions were vacated. Although they were physically freed, a cloud of suspicion hung over them, with the police often believing they remained guilty. “They have to leave,” the father of Jerry Moton told the Plain Dealer. “Mansfield is too small of a town. The police want to send them back."
– Ken Otterbourg
Here are the 20 defendants in this group exoneration who had their convictions vacated and charges dismissed: Marlon Brooks, Tyron Brown, James Burton, Frank Douglas, Geneva France, Robert Harris, Albert Lee, Nolan Lovett, Charles Mathews, Jerry Moton, Noel Mott, Dwayne Nabors, Herman Price, Dametrese Ransaw, Johnny Robertson, Arrico Spires, Jason Westerfield, Jim Williams, Roosevelt Williams.