A PROJECT OF THE UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA IRVINE NEWKIRK CENTER FOR SCIENCE & SOCIETY,
UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN LAW SCHOOL & MICHIGAN STATE UNIVERSITY COLLEGE OF LAW
A PROJECT OF THE UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA IRVINE NEWKIRK CENTER FOR SCIENCE & SOCIETY,
UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN LAW SCHOOL & MICHIGAN STATE UNIVERSITY COLLEGE OF LAW
Thirty men and women had convictions vacated in Tulsa, Oklahoma due to wide-range police misconduct between 2003 and 2009.
Between 2003 and 2008, misconduct by an agent for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) and police officers in Tulsa, Oklahoma led to the wrongful convictions of 30 men and women, mostly on drug charges. At least 15 other defendants had their charges dismissed prior to trial after the misconduct was uncovered. The earliest wrongful convictions occurred in 2005; the latest in 2010. According to a federal investigation, the officers falsified applications for search warrants, committed perjury, suborned perjury, and stole money and drugs from defendants. Federal prosecutors indicted seven of the officers, convicting four. The misconduct came to light in early 2009 after a confidential informant used by the officers began cooperating with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The defendants were exonerated between 2009 and 2013.
One of the earliest cases of known misconduct began on May 27, 2004 with a raid on a salvage yard run by a man named Bobby Haley Sr. Police Officer Jeff Henderson and his confidential informant testified falsely about the raid’s findings, leading in part to Haley’s conviction on two counts of possession and one count of conspiracy to distribute drugs.
“Your affiant states that in the past 48 hours, the afore-mentioned RCI has been to the above-described residence and observed a black male hereafter referred to as ‘John Doe’ who is selling cocaine out of this residence. The informant directed your affiant to the residence and pointed it out as a location from which the informant observed the cocaine … Your affiant further prays the honorable judge grant night service because of the above-mentioned reasons and that your affiant is positive the illegal narcotics cocaine base will be found during the hours of 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.”
As an attorney would later note, the warrant application seemed suspiciously boilerplate. There was no mention that the informant bought drugs at the residence, just that the informant had been there and seen illegal activity.
One of the earliest cases of misconduct began on May 27, 2004 with a raid on a salvage yard in Tulsa run by Bobby Haley Sr. He had previously been arrested several times and charged with drug felonies, but the charges had been dismissed. Based on that May raid, Haley was later charged in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Oklahoma with two counts of possession of cocaine with intent to distribute. The case went to trial in late January 2005, but the jury became deadlocked on January 28, and a mistrial was declared.
Part of the government’s case hinged on the observations of what the police called a “reliable, confidential informant,” or RCI. The RCI was a woman named Rochelle Martin. She did not testify at trial. But after the mistrial, Judge Terence Kern began to have some concerns. He wondered whether the RCI had seen Haley or perhaps had confused him with his son, Bobby Haley Jr.
Separately, Judge Kern reopened a motion filed by Haley’s attorney for disclosure of confidential informants. A supplemental briefing on February 25, 2005, provided the affidavit of Jeff Henderson with the Tulsa Police Department. That affidavit had supported the search warrant and the alleged discovery of the contraband substances at Haley’s salvage yard. A hearing on the affidavit was held in April.
At that hearing, according to court documents, Henderson was unequivocal in what Martin, his RCI, had observed. He said the RCI had seen Haley Sr. selling cocaine at a house and his salvage yard. He said, “This person (RCI) has done, I would say less than a hundred, more than 50 deals, if you will, just with me, and that’s been an ongoing process for a number of years. I’ve known this person for years.” He said he spoke with the RCI just about every day he was at work. When asked about her reliability, he said he never coached her or put words in her mouth, but she had a conviction rate of about 90 percent. Martin also testified that she had conducted drug transactions with Haley and seen him do deals with others.
At the conclusion of the hearing, a magistrate denied Haley’s motion for disclosure of the confidential informant. The government then filed a superseding indictment, adding conspiracy to the charges. Haley was convicted by a federal jury on September 30, 2005 and sentenced to 22 years in prison.
Five years later, on May 6, 2010, Martin would file an affidavit that recanted her testimony. She said she never saw Haley buy or sell drugs and that Henderson and Bill Yelton, another Tulsa police officer, drove her to the hearing and coached her on what to say. “I did what they told me to do, although it was not truthful. My testimony was a lie, which I did because Jeff Henderson asked me to do it.”
In fact, Martin said, she had never done any controlled drug buys for Henderson or anyone else in the Tulsa Police Department.
Haley’s conviction was vacated on May 21, 2010, and he was released from federal prison that day.
Henderson often handled search warrant applications. He drafted the applications with an acute knowledge of what he needed to say to secure approval. Sometimes the officers lied, saying they had seen illegal drug activity when they had not, just to bolster an application. In one instance, officers planted a weapon inside a defendant’s house. They used fictitious evidence concerning the presence of the weapon to obtain a search warrant. Then, they “found” the weapon when they searched the house.
In September 2007, Officer Henderson, Agent McFadden, and another police officer entered the home of Jose Gonzalez without a search warrant. Nobody was home. While inside, according to an indictment, they found a sawed-off shotgun and moved the weapon from a closet to inside an air vent. Henderson later prepared a falsified search warrant on the basis that an informant had seen Gonzalez selling drugs from the house. Police raided the house the next day and seized the shotgun. When Gonzalez was arrested, the police also found methamphetamine. While awaiting trial, he was charged with selling methamphetamine to an undercover officer. A year later, on November 10, 2008, Gonzalez pled guilty in U.S. District Court to a weapons and a drug charge.
In the federal court system, there is often a considerable delay between conviction and sentencing. Because of that lag, Gonzalez was never sentenced. His conviction on the drug charge was vacated Sept. 30, 2010, after an indictment against Henderson alleged that he and other officers violated Gonzalez’s civil rights.
In January 2007, ATF agent Brandon McFadden and Tulsa police officer John K. Gray raided the home of Ryan Logsdon, a suspected drug dealer. The two officers handcuffed Logsdon in his living room while his girlfriend and three-year-old son watched. They threatened him with jail and separation from his child if he did not cooperate. Logsdon then led the officers to $13,000 in cash and one-half pound of methamphetamine. Henderson and McFadden each grabbed $1,500 and stole the methamphetamine, which they later sold back to Logsdon for $7,000. The officers turned the remaining $10,000 over to the police department and processed Logsdon’s car for forfeiture. Logsdon, who was never charged, became a confidential informant. He also became a customer, buying between $250,000 and $300,000 of methamphetamine from the two officers. McFadden later said:
“I used the position as a special agent with ATF to further the drug conspiracy and abused my position as a special agent. During this time, myself and Henderson seized drugs and money which were kept for our own personal benefit.”
At the same time, he asserted, they were also trying to make Tulsa safer by arresting people they suspected of dealing drugs.
Officers presented a falsified warrant to search the home of a “John Doe.”
On December 28, 2007, Officer Gray used a confidential informant to make an alleged drug buy from Hugo Gutierrez. The deal took place in a public space, but Gray falsely reported in the search warrant application that the informant met Gutierrez at a house on North Rockford Avenue. The court issued the warrant. On January 4, 2008, Gray, Officer Harold Wells, and two other officers set up surveillance near the house. The officers stopped Gutierrez for failure to use a turn signal as he approached the house.
Gutierrez did not produce a license and the officers found nearly $11,000 cash in his pockets. He said he had identification at the house next door, where he had lived for more than a year, and took them there.
Officers searched the next-door house and found nothing, then turned their attention to the house named in the warrant.
Gonzalez’s attorney noted, “The search warrant in this case listed the address of a ‘John Doe’ living at North Rockford. Apparently the Tulsa Officer did not know who lived there, assumed Mr. Gutierrez lived there, and this was all left out of the search warrant, even though the officers admitted to surveilling the residence for weeks prior to getting the warrant.”
The federal government, in a response to a motion to suppress, said Gutierrez told Wells that while his cousin lived in that house (the one at North Rockford), he had a key and watched the property when the cousin was out of town. Gutierrez eventually opened the house, and the officers swarmed inside and searched the premises. According to an indictment, they found more than $90,000 in cash. They turned $83,186 into the police, and the four officers divided what they kept.
After the search, Gutierrez was indicted on February 6, 2008 and charged with possession with intent to distribute more than 50 grams of methamphetamine and possession with intent to distribute more than 50 kilograms of marijuana. His suppression motion was denied, and he pled guilty to possession of methamphetamine with intent to distribute. He was sentenced July 28, 2008, to eight years and one month in federal prison. His conviction was vacated July 30, 2010, after authorities learned that Gray had falsified the search warrant.
The officers’ misconduct came to light when Debra Clayton, a confidential informant, contacted the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) with evidence.
Clayton began working with McFadden and Officer John K. Gray in 2007 after they pulled her car over. The officers found $15,000 and an ounce of methamphetamine in the car. They stole half the drugs and $14,000 of the cash, and told Clayton she could get the money back only by agreeing to work with them. Clayton began selling methamphetamine for another dealer connected to McFadden. McFadden protected her in this role and intervened on her behalf at least once.
In the summer of 2008, Henderson and Officer William Yelton began to worry that McFadden’s misconduct might surface. The three men met at a water-treatment plant near Tulsa. Henderson and Yelton urged McFadden to leave town, so he moved in October to the ATF office in Lubbock, Texas.
Tulsa police arrested Clayton again on December 23, 2008. She landed in the Tulsa jail facing felony drug charges. She later told the Tulsa World that she knew McFadden, who had moved to Texas, and Gray would not help her this time. She saw herself as “expendable” in their eyes. But Clayton had secretly recorded her conversations.
“I was sitting in jail with a possession charge and I had these tapes, and I knew that the cops were mad at me and there was talk of a life sentence, so I contacted a detention officer who helped me contact the right people,” Clayton said.
The FBI investigation began in early 2009, with Clayton now working for the federal agents. On May 18, the FBI set up a sting at a Super 8 motel in Tulsa. Clayton introduced Gray and Wells to an undercover agent posing as a Mexican methamphetamine dealer. Gray and Wells arranged for a third officer to detain the “dealer” while they searched the room finding $13,620 in cash. Video surveillance shows Gray putting a substantial amount of the cash in his pocket. He initially reported finding only $8,000. The officers then recruited the “dealer” to work with them.
Wells and Gray became nervous after an officer spotted an agent from the Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General. That office was created to detect and deter fraud, abuse, and misconduct among federal agencies, including the ATF. The officers, now spooked, reported all $13,620 to the police department and excluded Gray’s name from all police reports on the incident. But Gray’s caution was short-lived. In June and early July, Gray remained in contact with the “dealer,” introduced him to another dealer, and helped facilitate drug deals between the two. This happened in June and early July of 2009.
Separately, on July 2, 2009, Larry Barnes and Larita Barnes, father and daughter, were released from federal prison after a federal investigation revealed that the drug buy that officers and a witness testified about had never taken place. The court placed the order vacating their convictions under seal to maintain the secrecy of the FBI investigation. By the fall of 2009, Henderson and Yelton learned that Henderson was the subject of a grand jury investigation. When Henderson learned that one of his confidential informants, Rochelle Martin, had been subpoenaed to appear before the grand jury, he tried to intimidate her. According to a federal indictment, Henderson confronted Martin in person and told her that she could send him to prison. On another occasion, he parked outside her house.
A federal agent, a Tulsa police officer, and their confidential informant drug dealer invented facts to include in false testimony.
In May 2007, confidential informant and drug dealer Ryan Logsdon told ATF agent McFadden that he had twice bought methamphetamine from Larita Barnes. McFadden and Barnes began preparing for a controlled purchase, with Logsdon as the conduit. McFadden obtained $3,000 from the ATF for the buy and gave the money to Officer Henderson. But the deal never went through. Logsdon told the officers that Larita Barnes had gotten cold feet and told him not to come back. He said that she had learned about his car being forfeited and thought – correctly, it turned out – that Logsdon was working for the police. Henderson kept the money.
McFadden then learned that Henderson had reported that the controlled buy happened and included McFadden in the report. When McFadden pushed back, Henderson told him not to worry, because “everybody hates the Barneses anyway.”
Larita and her father, Larry Barnes, were indicted by a federal grand jury on August 10, 2007, each charged with possession of methamphetamine. Prior to the trial, McFadden, Henderson, and Logsdon met privately and with an assistant U.S. attorney to go over their testimony. At trial, the three men falsely testified that Larry and Larita Barnes had sold Logsdon 87 grams of methamphetamine.
In his testimony, Henderson answered questions from the prosecutor about what he had seen and not seen. “The front door opened,” Henderson testified. “He (Logsdon) was greeted by a white female. At that time I did not know I couldn’t make out the identity of that person. The female stepped onto the front porch. This was a brief, maybe second, two to three seconds.” As a later indictment would note, there had been no buy and therefore nothing for Henderson to see.
A jury convicted the Barneses on April 23, 2008. She was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison. He was sentenced to five-and-a-half years. They remained in prison until July 2, 2009, when their convictions were vacated.
The federal indictments against six Tulsa police officers and McFadden were issued in 2010, with Gray and McFadden pleading guilty and becoming cooperating witnesses for the government. Two of the remaining officers were convicted and three were acquitted.
McFadden was indicted on April 7, 2010, charged with four counts: conspiracy to distribute controlled substances; possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine; possession of a firearm in relation to drug-trafficking offense; and aiding and abetting money laundering. He pled guilty on all counts.
Gray was indicted a month later on a single count of stealing government funds in excess of $1,000. He pled guilty.
Henderson was charged with 58 counts, including perjury, civil rights violations, and conspiracy to distribute drugs on July 19, 2010. He was convicted on August 24, 2011 of eight counts, six for perjury and two counts for depriving people of their civil rights.
Yelton was charged the same day as Henderson with eight counts, including civil-rights violations, witness tampering, and conspiracy to suborn perjury. He was acquitted of all charges.
Wells was indicted on July 19, 2010 on 10 counts. He was convicted in 2011 on four counts and received the harshest sentence, 10 years in prison.
Officers Bruce Bonham and Nick DeBruin were listed on the same indictment with Wells. They were both acquitted at trial.
Two other officers, Callison Kaiser and Eric Hill, were implicated but never charged. Kaiser resigned from the Tulsa Police Department in 2008. Hill was fired in 2010.
Nineteen of the men and women wrongfully convicted filed lawsuits against some combination of Tulsa, its police department, the U.S. government, and the officers involved in the corruption. Demario Harris received $50,000. He was arrested in 2003, the first documented arrest that led to a wrongful conviction due to the Tulsa police misconduct. In his complaint, he said that Tulsa’s “Operation Ceasefire,” a city-wide effort begun in 2003 that was aimed at gangs and drug crimes, emboldened officers to bend and ultimately break the rules. Harris said that Yelton, working with Henderson, illegally obtained a search warrant on December 9, 2003 that led to Harris’s arrest and conviction. He was sentenced to life in prison, but his conviction was vacated on October 27, 2010.
Tony Becknell also received a settlement. Becknell had his conviction vacated last even though his 2005 wrongful conviction was among the earliest misconduct cases. Becknell sued Henderson, Tulsa, and others, and received a $12,600 settlement.
Tony Becknell was one of the first persons in this group who was wrongfully convicted. Becknell pled guilty on June 16, 2005, to two counts of possession with intent to distribute cocaine base and marijuana after Henderson and other officers executed a search warrant on his house. He was sentenced in federal court to 15 years in prison. On July 20, 2012, his conviction was vacated, and he was released from prison.
Becknell had moved to vacate his conviction on October 17, 2011. By then, Henderson had been convicted, but the federal government opposed Becknell’s motion. The government said there had still been ample probable cause to support the search warrant. On the day in question, an ATF agent had arrested two men on drug charges, and they had given officials an address that was linked to Becknell. As the agent and his colleagues were trying to decide whether it was better to obtain a search warrant for that location through the state or the federal system, they learned that Henderson already had a search warrant ready for Becknell to go. That warrant, Henderson had said in an application, was supported by the observations of a confidential informant.
On June 29, 2012, Henderson appeared in a federal courtroom, ordered to testify on Becknell’s motion. By then, he was serving his sentence at a federal prison in Yankton, South Dakota. After being granted governmental immunity, he testified about the warrant executed against Becknell. He said the confidential informant was a man named Bobby Scott, who he had used many times. He said he never paid Scott and never extended any leniency toward him. In addition, Henderson said he didn’t keep a written record of Scott’s work for him, because it wasn’t required. Henderson said all the search warrants read the same because he cut and pasted the wording from one to the other. “It’s a template that the Tulsa Police Department used at the time and probably still does.”
After the hearing, Becknell’s attorney discovered that Scott had been incarcerated during the time the search warrant was executed. That discovery helped pave the way for Becknell’s release on July 20, 2012.
Henderson was held to be in contempt of court and an additional three months were added to his sentence. Henderson appealed. At a show cause hearing, he said the mistake was an honest one. The real RCI was another man, who was now deceased. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit rejected his appeal. In the ruling, Judge Stephen Anderson wrote:
“This outcome of this contempt proceeding is contingent on the credibility of Henderson. This Court has now had the opportunity – just as the judges and jury in Henderson’s criminal case – to see just how earnest and persuasive Henderson can be when he is testifying, even testifying falsely.”
Five other plaintiffs received settlements. Larry Barnes received $425,000. Larita Barnes received $300,000 from the city of Tulsa and $4.7 million from the U.S. government. Haley received $35,000. Edward Johnson, who pled no contest to a possession charge after a traffic stop in which he said Hill planted drugs on him, received $40,000. Thomas Ranes, who pled to a single charge of drug possession, received $10,000.
Courts dismissed the remaining cases without a trial or settlement.
- Ken Otterbourg
Click here for a list of defendants who had their wrongful convictions vacated due to misconduct by officers in Tulsa, Oklahoma.