Cleveland Plain Dealer

U.S. probe puts Cleveland DEA agent's work under scrutiny
Career has been marred by several investigations

Sunday, July 29, 2007
Mike Tobin, Amanda Garrett and John Caniglia Plain Dealer Reporters

In 1992 -- just six years after graduating from St. Edward High School -- Lee Lucas tailed two dirty cops through the sand and glamour of Miami's drug underworld.

Thanks in large part to his efforts, the cops, two cocaine kingpins and more than a dozen others were ultimately convicted of dealing bundles of Colombian powder out of a neighborhood bar near the Orange Bowl.

It was an exceptional beginning to Lucas' career as an agent with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, the agency charged with enforcing federal drug laws.

But he soon ran into trouble: A federal appeals court said Lucas acted either "deliberately or recklessly" in misleading a judge about the track records of the informants he used in the case.

The convictions stood, as there was enough other evidence to support them. But Lucas' misrepresentations foreshadowed a DEA career that has been marred by at least a half-dozen investigations of unethical or unlawful behavior.

He was cleared of any wrongdoing, and Lucas moved from the air-conditioned DEA offices of Miami to the jungles of Bolivia and, ultimately, back home to work in Cleveland. Through it all, Lucas made one major case after another for prosecutors, targeting everyone from small-town thugs to international playboys.

Now, however, a U.S. Justice Department investigation threatens not only to ruin Lucas' career, but also to unravel dozens of drug cases here and overturn scores of convictions.

Geoffrey Mearns, dean of the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law at Cleveland State University and a former federal prosecutor, said last week that Lucas' cases are likely to be examined for truthfulness.

More difficult, however, is limiting fallout. Federal prosecutors regularly ask jurors to rely on the truthfulness of federal agents, he said.

"If the allegations are true, the damage goes well beyond this case," Mearns said. "It impedes the ability of federal law enforcement to do their jobs in this area and across the country."

Lucas looks more like a biker
than a cop. He is squat and muscle-bound, and his unkempt goatee and ragged jeans make it easy for him to slip into the drug world unnoticed.

Lucas, 39, declined to be interviewed for this story.

After graduating from St. Ed's, Lucas attended Baldwin-Wallace College in the late 1980s while working as the chief bouncer at the Beach Club during the Flats' heyday.

B-W College officials said he did an internship with the DEA before he graduated in 1990 with a bachelor's degree in criminal justice.

About 1991, Lucas joined the DEA, trained at the agency's academy in Quantico, Va., and landed a plum location as his first assignment - Miami, the gateway for much of the cocaine flowing into the United States.

From the beginning, Lucas angled for big fish, investigating complicated, high-profile cases using equally complicated, high-profile informants.

One of his first involved a German provocateur dubbed "King Rat" in a documentary made about the informant's life.

Who's who in the DEA investigation
 
Key figures in the U.S. Justice Department's investigation into DEA special agent Lee Lucas:

LEE LUCAS
DEA agent who grew up in Cleveland and has been investigated at least six times during his 17-year career that spanned years in Miami, Bolivia and Cleveland.

JERRELL BRAY
Lucas' informant from Cleveland who worked with the DEA agent for more than a year after Bray was released from prison. He is accused of shooting a suspected drug dealer during a marijuana deal in May.

GREG WHITE
U.S. attorney who released three convicted drug felons linked to Lucas' investigations.

CARLOS WARNER
Assistant federal public defender who interviewed Lucas' informant, Jerrell Bray, who helped Lucas investigate suspected drug dealers in Mansfield. Informant broke down in tears, admitting that he lied.

GENEVA FRANCE
Mansfield woman convicted in 2006 after a jury trial and sentenced to 10 years in prison based on allegations brought by Bray and Lucas, who testified against her. In June, White's office urged her release.

JOSHAWA WEBB
Mansfield man accused of selling cocaine to Bray and Lucas in 2005. Federal prosecutor White tossed out the charges this month. Webb had been held in pretrial detention.

NATHANIEL ROBERTS
Cleveland informant who bought $4,700 in cocaine from a Cleveland drug peddler in 2001; most of the drug was for police, but his attorney said Roberts also bought some for himself to maintain his cover as a drug dealer. The tape of the drug transaction was tampered with, prompting a federal corruption task force to look into Lucas in 2003. The investigation was later quashed, and the DEA looked into Lucas.

SOURCES: Court documents, interviews and public records.

Lucas used the German - who had a reputation for lying to investigators, helping people escape from jail and committing fraud - to snare a German count who made a fortune in the Miami real estate market.

The German count was sentenced to 10 years in prison on cocaine charges, but a federal judge later threw out the case.

One of the reasons the judge cited was the government's failure - implying Lucas' failure - to monitor "treacherous informants and failure to disclose what it knew and had to know about the informants."

Twice investigated in cocaine disappearance
In the 1990s, Lucas was investigated by federal and local authorities in the disappearance of 23 kilos of cocaine after agents seized 400 kilos in a large-scale probe of a professional speedboat racer. Nothing came of the probes.

But Lucas was also criticized by a federal appellate court in the case of the dirty Miami cops and the Colombian drugs in the neighborhood bar. In that case, Lucas claimed four of his informants had worked successfully with police in the past. In truth, only one had. Another was convicted of lying to police. And a third was a bitter former spouse with an agenda.

"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," wrote the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Miami.

None of this seemed to slow Lucas' career.

"He was an excellent agent," said Frank Tarallo, the second in charge of the DEA's Miami office when Lucas worked there. "He worked really well undercover. He did everything. Today, no one wants to go undercover. But he did it. He did surveillance, handled seizures and worked well with informants."

About 1995, Lucas transferred to the DEA's Bolivia unit and took on even greater responsibilities.

There, he not only trained the Bolivian officers in drug enforcement but also made sure they seized and destroyed drugs instead of stealing them. He was also in charge of paying informants.

In Bolivia, Lucas worked high-profile cocaine cases that further enhanced his reputation. As his South American tour of duty wound down in the late 1990s, the DEA asked Lucas where he wanted to go next. He picked his hometown - Cleveland.

He returned in the summer of 2000 as a veteran DEA officer. He had been investigated and cleared of wrongdoing at least four times in Miami but had a reputation for turning major cases quickly, no matter the hours involved.

Agent becomes known for many arrests, convictions
Court clerks in Cleveland marveled at his work ethic. They couldn't believe he was married. They wondered aloud how Lucas found time to date, let alone establish a relationship.

Lucas was proud of his work.

And despite his own troubles, he routinely criticized how investigators from other agencies did their jobs, telling friends and colleagues that some drug agents watched too many drugs move through Cleveland before making an arrest.

Lucas liked to swoop in fast. Around the courthouse, he was known as an agent who "makes cases" - arresting lots of people, leading to lots of convictions.

"He ran and ran and ran," said Marilyn Cramer, a retired federal prosecutor who handled several of Lucas' cases in Cleveland. "I used to call him Mr. DEA because he was so good."

Yet trouble followed Lucas to Cleveland.

It started in 2001 when Lucas worked with a cadre of Cleveland police and state agents who hid a recording device on a convicted drug peddler-turned-informant named Nathaniel Roberts.

Afterward, they handed Roberts $3,200 and sent him out to buy 4½ ounces of cocaine from a Cleveland street pusher. Roberts, however, spent $4,700 on cocaine that day. He gave police some of it but made a side deal to score some for himself, records show.

Roberts was arrested a few weeks later with the drugs from the side deal.

Lucas took the street pusher's case and ran to federal prosecutors with it, never mentioning the tape or the side deal in affidavits.

Angered about being arrested and looking at 20 years in prison, Roberts tipped off officials. He told them that police allowed him to buy drugs on the side and that there was a tape to prove it.

A corruption task force of FBI agents and Cleveland internal-affairs officers began investigating in 2002. When court officials analyzed the tape, they found it had been tampered with and included only snippets of the side deal.

Investigation begins into botched tape
The focus of the task force probe started small: How the tape was botched and why the federal affidavits never mentioned Roberts' side deal.

It quickly grew to include allegations that Lucas beat suspects. A prosecutor from the U.S. Justice Department's public-integrity unit began presenting evidence to a grand jury, targeting Lucas.

But the DEA intervened.

DEA administrators in Washington, D.C., snatched the case away from the FBI and said it was up to the DEA to investigate one of its own.
It's unknown what the DEA did . The grand jury investigating Lucas ended. And Lucas continued making cases - and finding trouble with informants and recording devices.

In October 2005, Lucas went undercover to target Mansfield drug slinger Joshawa Webb.

An informant arranged for Webb to sell Lucas crack cocaine in the parking lot of a gas station.

Webb was later indicted for selling crack to Lucas, who wore a hidden wire to record the transaction. But when Webb's attorneys reviewed the tape, they discovered gaps in the recording. The attorneys paid three experts to analyze the tape.

"The experts agree the interruptions were not accidental," federal public defender Carlos Warner wrote in a memo to his boss. "The court expert has determined that Agent Lucas started and stopped the recording."

To find out more, Warner wanted to talk to Lucas' informant in the case, Jerrell Bray.

Bray, 34, grew up around the Garden Valley Estates on Kinsman Road and was no stranger to the system. He had spent 14 years in prison for manslaughter.

In May, Warner found Bray back in jail. He was accused of shooting another drug dealer.

As Warner walked to the Cuyahoga County Justice Center to visit Bray, he had low expectations, figuring Bray would dodge his questions about Lucas, the tape and the crack deal in Mansfield.

But Bray - crying wildly - surprised the public defender.

He told Warner that he could fill a room with the innocent people whom he had helped put into prison with his lies. His statements, however, raise questions:

Was Bray trying to destroy a DEA agent's career because he was bitter the officer could no longer help him? Or was Bray telling the truth?

To reach these Plain Dealer reporters:
mtobin@plaind.com, 216-999-4128
agarrett@plaind.com, 216-999-4814
jcaniglia@plaind.com, 440-324-3775

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