A decade later, Rachel Hoffman’s tragic death helps to make police informants safer
Ten years ago today, Rachel Hoffman was ready for a new start.
The 23-year-old Florida State graduate was set to pack up and leave Tallahassee with her degree in hand, bound for cooking school in Arizona.
Gregarious and ginger-haired, Rachel just needed to help the police bust two drug dealers to put her own pot arrest behind her and move on with her vibrant life. She wasn’t worried about being a confidential informant. It was going to be easy.
What happened to Rachel Hoffman?
On the afternoon of May 7, 2008, Rachel arrived at Tallahassee Police Department headquarters. She met her handler, Investigator Ryan Pender — “Pooh Bear” in her iPhone contacts — who explained the plan, had her wired, and gave her $13,000 in cash to tuck in her purse.
By about 6:40 p.m. Rachel was cruising north on Meridian Road in the silver 2005 Volvo sedan her father back home in Safety Harbor had bought for her. Her destination was Forestmeadows Park, where she was to meet two men in the parking lot to buy cocaine, Ecstasy and a gun.
It was the biggest buy-bust in department memory. Eighteen law enforcement officers were assigned to the operation. Pender was in charge and would have his eyes on her the whole time.
When the deal went down the good guys would swoop in and the bad guys would be arrested. Rachel would be home in time to make dinner for her friends, go to a movie or shoot some pool at Pockets on the Parkway.
But Rachel didn’t make the turn into the planned parking lot. The men with the drugs changed the location and she followed them. Pender said she didn’t listen to him when he said not to go.
He lost her.
Minutes later, Rachel Hoffman was shot on dead-end Gardner Road. After a 36-hour search, her body was found dumped in a culvert off a dirt road in Taylor County.
“It feels painful and it feels hurtful and I still put this on Ryan Pender,” said Rachel’s dad, Irv Hoffman. “God will even the score with him. He has no business being a police officer.”
On Friday morning Irv Hoffman called Pender’s work phone like he does every year and left a message reminding him of the anniversary Monday. He blames Pender — the only officer who was fired, but eventually regained his job and now patrols CollegeTown — for failures that resulted in his only daughter being murdered.
Irv always asks Pender to call him back; Pender, who did not respond to an email from the Tallahassee Democrat, never does.
Months after the fatally botched scheme, a Leon County grand jury found TPD negligent in Rachel’s death. In 2012, the city of Tallahassee apologized and settled a wrongful death lawsuit with Irv and Rachel’s mother Margie Weiss for $2.6 million. The two men who killed her are serving life prison sentences.
She was considered a national role model
But Rachel’s murder had broad ramifications. Just a year later, the Florida Legislature passed and Gov. Charlie Crist signed Rachel’s Law, the nation’s first to help protect confidential informants. The effort was championed by her parents.
“Rachel’s Law remains one of the most important pieces of legislation in the informant landscape, even though over the past decade there have been many new developments,” said Alexandra Natapoff, a law professor at the University of California Irvine School of Law, and an expert in the use of confidential informants by law enforcement.
“Parents around the country were shocked to learn that their college student children were being pressured into becoming informants.”
The law requires police informants be told their undercover work cannot guarantee a reduction in any pending criminal charges, immunity or a reduced sentence. It ensures CIs are afforded the right to obtain private legal counsel before agreeing to go undercover.
The law mandates law enforcement agencies develop policies for the recruitment, control and use of CIs. Those policies must include restrictions on off-duty association and require supervisory approval before a juvenile is recruited. A person’s age, substance abuse history or drug court status also must be considered.
Access to CI records within an agency also must be controlled, noting each person who views them, and policies must be periodically reviewed.
Rachel’s Law became a national model.
“Several states have considered reforms to give greater protections to young informants,” Natapoff said. “These developments are all part of the conversation about vulnerable informants that Rachel’s Law began. As a result, the public is learning more and more about just how complicated and conflicted this law enforcement practice really is.”
How memories of her death led to better protection for police informants
Before Rachel’s Law, there were no uniform rules governing the use of CIs in Florida or anywhere else in the United States. Without across-the-board law enforcement policies, informants were — and continue to be — used with little oversight.
In Florida, there was scant regulation of how informants were used or how their ages, socioeconomic status, mental health or substance abuse should be considered or documented. Law enforcement agencies often denied publicly they used civilians undercover.
“Rachel’s law is a sobering reminder of how dangerous it is to put a wire on a civilian and send them out to do undercover police work,” said Lance Block, the attorney who represented Rachel’s parents and helped craft the law. “The impact Rachel’s death had on her family, friends, the community, and even TPD, was devastating. I have friends at the TPD who grieved like everyone else.”
Both TPD and the Leon County Sheriff’s Office had policies in practice prior to Hoffman’s death, but the law has prompted both to develop new strategies to better equip investigators and protect informants.
“It’s a lesson learned, not only by our department but other agencies, to implement changes,” said TPD Spokesman Damon Miller, who himself has worked with CIs. “It is unfortunate that Ms. Hoffman died, and with our policies and in accordance with Rachel’s law, we don’t want this to ever happen again.”
Since Rachel’s Law, Miller said TPD has developed guidelines on how to better manage, utilize and document informants and ensure access to legal representation.
Investigators now conduct more intensive background investigations on suspects and work to find out everyone who may be at a target location. That was a key failure in Rachel’s case.
All CI work also is now done in conjunction with the State Attorney’s Office, probation officers and other court administrators, Miller said. Rachel was part of a court diversion program that would have disqualified her from CI work, but police and the prosecutors didn’t talk to each other.
And no longer are CIs put in situations they are unprepared for, Miller said.
“We utilize the informants within their scope of knowledge,” he said. “If they’re familiar with purchasing marijuana, then we’re not going to have them go to and purchase kilos of cocaine. If they’re only dealing with weed we’re not going to have them go out and buy guns.”
Miller would not, however, confirm or deny whether data is kept documenting CIs or the efficacy of the work they do.
LCSO Lt. Grady Jordan said the policy his agency had in place before Rachel killed was nearly identical to what her law now requires.
“There’s always that variable of human beings interacting with other human beings,” said Jordan, a CI handler throughout his time at LCSO.
“In planning these operations, you have to plan for the unknown,” he said. “You have to be able to pull the plug on an operation when there seems to be something that’s not safe or it’s crossed a parameter that you’ve already established.
“We do not want to risk somebody’s life just for some illegal drugs. A life is not worth that.”
Continuing to strengthen Rachel’s Law
Last year, Rachel’s mother, Margie, visited Gardner Road. She sifted through hunters’ spent shotgun shells at its dirt end, where her daughter suffered the gunshots that would end her life.
“It was traumatic,” said Weiss, who lives in Safety Harbor with her husband Mike Weiss. “It was like, ‘Oh my God.’ I know she was there thinking the cops had her back.”
Weiss has told her daughter’s story across the country and heads the non-profit Rachel Morningstar Foundation, which works to educate people about the dangers of CI work.
“A lot of kids don’t know about Rachel’s Law. That’s why we go to the festivals and tell them,” she said. “Rachel is evidence that working as a confidential informant can cost you your life. That’s why I keep working on this.”
In 2015, Rachel’s parents worked with Block to strengthen Rachel’s Law. The proposed additions would have made it a third-degree felony to violate Rachel’s Law, would offer treatment services for CIs suspected of substance abuse and weigh a person’s experience before recruitment.
It also called for better and more transparent documentation.
“There are no statistical measurements,” Block said of the current law. “Rachel’s parents and I have lobbied for a statewide data bank to keep track of the number of people going undercover, the demographics, and how many undercover civilians are killed or hurt.”
The tweaks were backed that year by Republican sponsors but didn’t survive the Legislative session. They continue to look for new sponsors who will take up the cause.
Since the passage of Rachel’s Law in 2009, one state has followed suit. Last year, North Dakota enacted Andrew’s Law, named for Andrew Sadek. He was killed in 2014 after working as an informant for a multi-jurisdictional task force to receive a reduced drug sentence.
“It’s empowering. It confirms that I’m doing the right thing,” Margie said. “The stories are different but the cause is the same. And that’s why we need to get a stronger law.”
Irv is adamant CIs not be used in cases where a gun is involved.
“That’s police work, not civilian work,” he said.
How her father plans to spend her death annivesrsty
Rachel’s parents divorced when she was just a baby, but she was the only child either one of them had. They’ll be grieving for her today in their own ways.
Irv is going to take the day off from his counseling practice. He plans to sit with Rachel at her memorial near his home and pray for her.
“I pray for her every day,” he said.
Monday night, he’ll follow through on an invitation from a friend to attend a Boz Skaggs concert. Rachel, who loved music and dancing, would approve.