The details were salacious: stash houses, airport shipments, guns, bribery, extortion, money laundering and millions of dollars in drug proceeds. The occupations of those charged with drug trafficking were even more shocking: seven Northampton County sheriff’s deputies and three North Carolina correctional officers are among those who allegedly conspired to move 115 kilograms (253 pounds) of heroin and cocaine across four states along Interstate 95.
Each officer willfully joined what appeared to be an illegal drug syndicate staffed with other dirty law enforcement agents across the East Coast, who used their guns and badges for protection, according to prosecutors.
During a press conference last month, U.S. Attorney Thomas Walker unveiled the gripping details of “Operation Rockfish,” which resulted in a 54-count indictment. In actuality, he said, the drug syndicate was fictitious—invented and stagecrafted by undercover FBI agents posing as dealers. Yet Walker didn’t mention one notable piece of information about the 18-month sting: There were no drugs.
Lawyers call it “ghost dope”—and it’s a common tactic by the feds in conspiracy cases.
The FBI used its own discretion to select the quantity of the fake drugs the officers believed they were transporting. Given the amount, the officers, if convicted, will receive longer mandatory-minimum prison sentences. The feds also ensured the officers would get extra time by persuading them to carry their service weapons during the transports. In total, one suspect faces 90 years in prison. Four others could do 65 years, and seven are looking at 40 years. Nearly all of the 15 defendants have young children, and none had a significant criminal record.
“The government was free to imagine any quantity of drugs, any number of overt acts, and any length of time for the purported conspiracy,” an attorney for defendant Cory Jackson wrote in a recent motion. “Cory is alleged to be one of the victims of the Government’s imagination.”
It’s not clear what led the officers to believe they were transporting real drugs during the 18-month operation. Perhaps they handled a legal substance, like baking soda, wrapped in plastic bricks. Perhaps they transported sealed luggage.
The case is being prosecuted jointly by the U.S. Attorney Walker and the U.S. Department of Justice Public Integrity Section. The assistance from Washington has perplexed some attorneys.
“The Public Integrity Section of the Justice Department is the most elite public-corruption team in the country,” tasked with investigating political corruption within U.S. Congress, said Raleigh attorney Raymond Tarlton, who represents one of the officers. “Why are they in Northampton County?”
But Northampton Sheriff Jack Smith has no quibbles about the investigation. Upon learning that five of his deputies had been indicted, he promptly fired them. “If it was my own brother, I wouldn’t defend him,” he said. “When you’re carrying a badge and sworn to uphold the law, you shouldn’t go outside the boundaries.”
Recent court documents give the backstory of Operation Rockfish, a two-year investigation that apparently began with allegations of corruption within the Northampton Sheriff’s Office, though the extent is unknown.
“Why the FBI invented this alleged crime is a mystery. Currently we are just jousting at shadows,” said Tarlton, the defense attorney.
In 2013, undercover agents, posing as members of a fictitious drug syndicate, successfully recruited one defendant—a Virginia-based correctional officer—into their fake organization. The agents encouraged him to recruit others, setting off a chain reaction that brought in 11 current and former North Carolina law enforcement officers, including a sheriff’s captain and the son of a former sheriff.
Once the unsuspecting recruits showed willingness to move drugs, the undercover agents began flying bulk shipments of fake cocaine and heroin into the Halifax Northampton Regional Airport, where the defendants received them.
In total, the officers believed they’d transported 55 kilograms of cocaine, 60 kilograms of heroin, and $3 million worth of drug proceeds during 14 operations, records show. They collectively received $200,000 for their services. Two defendants were given Rolex watches.
That’s a lot of money in Northampton County, one of the poorest areas in North Carolina. Five of the indicted officers earned between $34,000 and $37,000 a year.
The extent of the hoax upsets defense attorneys. “This case involves an investigation that was fabricated in near whole cloth by the government,” one wrote in a motion. After bribing the central suspect, the FBI began “providing fake drugs, fake money, fake bearer bonds, vehicles for transporting the fake drugs, fake warehouses [and] fake destinations for the various trips,” he wrote.
But Nancy Savage, the executive director for the Society of Former Special Agents of the FBI, says stings like Operation Rockfish are common in public corruption cases.
“Corrupt public officials are an extremely high priority for the FBI,” said Savage, who participated in similar operations involving terrorism, drugs and murders-for-hire during her career as a supervisory agent in Miami. After planning a sting, the FBI guards against entrapment defenses by ensuring that their quarries are enthusiastic about committing crimes, she said.
Typically, “There are tape recordings that indicate you’re making pretty doggone sure this is what these people want to do,” said Savage. In many cases, “They’re knocking on your door—’your door’ being the criminal organization you’re portraying.”
Operation Rockfish ended on April 30, when the officers were lured to the Halifax airport and a warehouse in Rocky Mount under the guise of receiving and transporting another shipment. This time, however, the undercover FBI agents revealed their true identities and arrested and transported the suspects to an abandoned prison, where they were presented with video-surveillance evidence. Afterward, each defendant was taken to a separate room and interviewed.
Their lawyers question the legality of those interrogations, which were held prior to the defendants’ appearing before magistrate judges. The FBI “took all defendants to a show-and-tell session at a secret law enforcement facility, all of which was designed for the sole purpose of eliciting improper confessions,” one wrote in a motion.
Thirteen defendants have been detained pending trial. U.S. Magistrate Judge James E. Gates based that decision on several factors, including the strength of the government’s case, the public corruption factor, flight risk and the defendants’ familiarity with firearms.
“Even though the drugs and drug proceeds were not real, that fact does not negate the demonstrated willingness of the subject defendants to violate the law,” Gates wrote in his 13-page detention order.
While defense attorneys bicker over governmental sham operations, Savage, the retired FBI agent, underscored the importance of elaborate cover stories to root out rogue public officials. “They’re not going to catch them with choir boys,” she said.