DEA snitch Jerrell Bray says he decided to come clean
But when Jerrell Bray finally 'came clean,' who would believe him?
Monday, July 30, 2007
Mike Tobin, Amanda Garrett and John Caniglia Plain Dealer Reporters
Jerrell Bray sobbed in a stuffy sixth-floor room of the Justice Center in Cleveland, faced with a decision that would change both his life and his family's.
The convicted killer, back in jail for another drug-related shooting, was ready to talk about his months of being a snitch. He said he wanted to come clean, but did he even know what the truth was anymore?
And would anyone believe him? Either way, he feared his family could be killed.
Finally, Bray broke. He told federal public defenders that he helped DEA Agent Lee Lucas put 30 people behind bars who didn't deserve to be there.
Bray's tearful words spurred a federal investigation. Now, Lucas and Bray are at the center of a Justice Department inquiry, and their relationship has Cleveland's federal law enforcement officials in a panic.
Lucas, a 39-year-old Cleveland native, would not comment on the case. But several police officers who work with Lucas say Bray, 34, is lying to sink the DEA agent's career because Lucas cut him off and would not get him out of jail after Bray shot a man during a drug deal.
Several attorneys said that Bray's bombshell accusation could jeopardize dozens of drug convictions and calls into question the credibility of the justice system.
Lucas became adept at handling informants while working in Miami and Bolivia. They usually work with police for money, to get out of trouble or both.
Bray - who was fresh off a long prison sentence for manslaughter - had a different motive when he went to work for the DEA in 2005: Revenge.
Fourteen years earlier, Bray and two friends - Michael Frost and Dennis Kliment - bought what they thought was cocaine but turned out to be sugar, according to court documents.
When they went to get their money back, a gunbattle erupted. Bray was shot, Kliment was killed, and, Bray said, Frost ran.
Bray, then 18, pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter in Kliment's death, because he was involved in the gunfight, and aggravated burglary, but he wouldn't snitch on Frost.
He spent 14 years in prison, beating up inmates and guards and spending weeks in solitary confinement. In all, he had 22 prison infractions, state parole records show.
Bray told federal public defenders that Frost was indebted to him because he never ratted. In return, Frost promised to look out for Bray's family while he was locked up, Bray said. Frost didn't keep his end of the deal, according to the informant.
When Bray was paroled in 2004, he wanted to get even with Frost. It is unclear how Bray and Lucas met, but by early 2005 they had entered into a symbiotic but troubled arrangement. Lucas needed somebody to introduce him to crack cocaine dealers in Mansfield, Bray said.
And Bray - who served the last days of his prison sentence in Mansfield - wanted to go after Frost.
Reports of a deal to do 'whatever it takes'
By February 2005, the two men and a Cleveland cop assigned to a DEA task force struck a deal.
Lucas and the cop "would 'do whatever it takes' to get Frost off the street as long as Bray agreed 'to do' Mansfield," search warrant affidavits and defense attorneys say.
In August 2005, DEA Special Agent Robert Cross filed an affidavit laying out a crack cocaine ring led by Michael Frost. Most of the details came from Bray.
Bray was to buy $3,200 worth of crack from Frost on Kinsman Road in Cleveland. Frost was arrested and pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute cocaine. Frost is serving an 11-year prison sentence, and no one has disputed his conviction.
Bray, meanwhile, held up the bargain in Mansfield.
He introduced Lucas - working undercover as "Todd" from Bucyrus - to Mansfield crack dealers. Bray earned up to $600 per deal. Between February and October 2005, Bray and Lucas did about 40 deals.
Lucas and the DEA ultimately helped land federal indictments of 25 people in Mansfield.
Bray and Lucas both got what they wanted. Yet in coming months, both men would come to regret their pact.
In February 2006, the Mansfield defendants began going to trial.
Mother of three first to be tried
Geneva France, a 24-year-old mother of three with no criminal record, was first. Her lawyer argued that Lucas and Bray were confused about France's identity. France claimed she was home with her daughters at the time of the alleged drug deal.
Lucas was adamant that France sold him drugs.
"When I gave her the money," Lucas testified at her trial, "when we talked the whole time, I turned around, and we had a face-to-face conversation."
In the end, a jury believed Lucas. France was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
But the jury in the next trial, involving six defendants, didn't find Lucas and Bray so credible.
A defense attorney grilled Bray about his relationships with one of the accused. Wasn't it true, the attorney asked Bray, that he didn't like one of the defendants because the man had hit on Bray's girlfriend? Bray denied it, but defense attorneys poked more holes in Bray's story.
"There was more than the usual fodder for cross-examination," defense attorney Gary Levine said. "Basically, the taxpayers were paying this guy money as a bounty hunter to collect bodies."
But the evidence that hurt prosecutors the most was a video. Both Lucas and Bray had testified that the man who sold drugs to Bray was Lowestco Ballard. A video of the deal showed that the buyer was about 5 feet, 9 inches tall.
Ballard is 6 feet, 5 inches tall.
Four of the six defendants were acquitted in July 2006. An assistant U.S. attorney told Lucas that he had to cut Bray loose as an informant because his credibility was shaky.
Agent and informant appeared to stay in touch
Bray, however, appeared to remain in contact with Lucas. Almost a year later, Bray arranged to buy $700 worth of marijuana.
One of Bray's girlfriends dropped him and another man off near a house off Clark Avenue in Cleveland, according to court affidavits and defense attorneys. The woman told investigators that Bray said he was going "to call Lucas and set this one up because it's a good one."
It's not known whether Bray followed through with Lucas.
As the deal was about to go down, someone spotted Bray.
"That's the guy who set up my bro!" the person yelled, according to Bray's girlfriend.
Shots were fired, and Bray and his friend drove away. Bray had a .38-caliber handgun, but his girlfriend said she did not know whether he fired it. A 21-year-old man at the house, Tiburcio Velez, was shot in the back and stomach.
Bray called Lucas, who urged him to surrender, the girlfriend said. Cleveland police later found Bray at his brother's house. But Bray wouldn't surrender until Lucas came to the house.
Bray's girlfriend, who said she was at the house when Lucas arrived, said Lucas told Bray he could claim self-defense and would be out on bail by the next day.
But Bray sat in jail for a week. Bray's family said that Lucas later told them that Bray couldn't get bail because Velez, the man who was shot, was the stepson of a Cleveland cop.
Bray's brother told investigators that he talked to Lucas the day after the shooting. Bray's brother said Lucas told him that Bray had screwed up and was on his own.
Jailed informant tells of lying to make cases
Bray stewed in City Jail for a week before Assistant Federal Public Defender Carlos Warner came to see him. Bray thought Warner was there to talk about the shooting.
But Warner wanted to talk about the Mansfield drug cases.
Warner suspected Lucas had doctored audio tapes to convict one of the drug dealers.
Bray told Warner the tape was a small part of their deceit.
"We were just scraping the surface with the taped stuff," Bray said, according to documents.
Bray told investigators he lied in dozens of cases, including France's and others in the Mansfield cocaine investigation. In those cases the evidence against the accused largely hinged on Lucas and Bray.
Warner immediately called his supervisor and a federal prosecutor to come to the jail. Bray begged them for protection, for himself and his family.
U.S. Attorney Greg White asked the FBI to investigate Bray's claims. Bray failed at least two lie detector tests, several sources said. But the FBI was able to corroborate part of Bray's statement. A woman told federal investigators that she - not France - was in the car with Bray and Lucas during the drug deal.
That prompted White to ask for France's release, 16 months into a 10-year prison sentence. He also dropped charges against two men and asked the Justice Department to investigate all cases involving Bray.
One of Lucas' friends, speaking on condition of anonymity, blames White for creating a controversy.
"Lee didn't do a thing," the friend said. "Once the informant crossed a line, Lee said, 'I can't help him.'
"But you would expect some backup from the U.S. attorney when the informant gets upset and starts making false accusations," the friend said. "Hopefully, he's going to get that backup."
John McCaffrey was appointed to represent Bray. A former FBI agent and son of a Cleveland cop, McCaffrey is a leading defense lawyer. He thinks Lucas' testimony and tactics leave unanswered questions.
"I continue to press for an inquiry into Lee Lucas' conduct," McCaffrey said. "Meanwhile, my client sits in jail."
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