Informant claims accusations false, and agent knew
Sunday, August 05, 2007
John Caniglia and Mike Tobin , Plain Dealer Reporters
Mansfield -- Joshawa Webb won't answer the door. Joe Ward won't leave his room.
Lowestco Ballard's wife had a miscarriage. And Geneva France is a ghost.
In the two years since the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration descended upon Mansfield with a questionable informant and an eager agent, the lives of 26 people and their families caught up in the investigation have been turned upside down.
Twenty people were convicted, four were acquitted and one had the charges dropped. France spent two years locked up before being released from a 10-year prison sentence, though she could be tried again on the charges. That's not a good track record for federal prosecutors, who on average win convictions in 97 percent of cases indicted. And with other cases in jeopardy, the investigation could eventually be deemed a disaster.
The operation highlights one of the biggest fears in the federal justice system: An agent can arrest anyone at any time, based on an allegation.
Those with means can make bail and fight the charges. Those with criminal pasts, facing long prison sentences, almost always become slam-dunk convictions.
Using informant Jerrell Bray, DEA agent Lee Lucas went after a group of people, many with drug convictions, who loved loud music and fast cars. The DEA sought to make a major conspiracy case that would land many suspected drug peddlers in prison for more than 10 years.
In effect, Bray and Lucas were out to clean up the city, a move that surprised people because the city and Richland County already have their own drug investigators. The city, which is about halfway between Cleveland and Columbus, has about 50,000 residents, making it roughly the size of Lakewood.
But according to Bray, he and Lucas falsely accused people and made up testimony to get the convictions. Lucas has declined to comment on the cases, and Bray's attorney has pushed for an inquiry into Lucas' work.
Some of the people netted in the operation said there is only a thin line that separates them from Lucas and Bray. And that during the investigation, their accusers went far beyond that line.
"They say you need a snake to catch a snake," said Ballard, one of the men arrested who spent months locked up only to be acquitted at trial. "But this was just wrong. You can't make stuff up. You can't do this to people."
Five cases under review
U.S. Justice Department lawyers from outside of Northeast Ohio are investigating Bray and Lucas for their work in 2005 and examining at least five cases to determine if convictions should be overturned. The Cleveland office under U.S. Attorney Greg White -- which handled the original cases -- stepped aside from the probe last week.
But the relatives of those convicted say prosecutors should drop all the charges and release the people in prison. They say all of the cases have been sullied by Bray, a man who dated teenage girls and pestered residents in the city's poor neighborhoods, and Lucas, the agent who failed to rein in Bray.
"There were some cowboys who were out to get us," said Johnnie Parker, who was acquitted at trial in July 2006 with her son, Joe Ward.
Several relatives acknowledged that their sons and brothers sold drugs in the past. But they say the evidence linking them to selling cocaine and marijuana to Lucas and Bray is either tainted or nonexistent.
Mothers of some of the defendants urged their sons to take plea bargains that would net them shorter sentences. They worried that the word of inner-city black youths with criminal pasts wouldn't stand a chance before a judge or jury next to the testimony of Lucas, a federal agent cloaked in credibility.
But even if prosecutors dismiss the cases, families of the accused fear they will become bigger targets for police. They fear police are convinced they're drug dealers, and the thirst to catch them has intensified.
"We're terrified," Parker said. "You'll never know what we're going through. We're scared that [police] are going to come back."
Parker, 53, tries to stay inside her home on Hedges Street in a working-class Mansfield neighborhood. Lucas and Bray said they bought 3 ounces of crack cocaine and an ounce of marijuana for $800 on her front porch, less than 200 feet from an elementary school.
It's a home Parker fears she may lose. She lost her job caring for children, and her son lost his job at a lawn service business.
Ward, 26, waited in jail for more than eight months before trial. Now, he spends his day in his room playing video games, fearing that he could fall into a police trap.
"I go outside once in a while, get some fresh air," he said.
The wait for trial was two years
Joshawa Webb doesn't go outside. The thought of leaving his apartment terrifies him.
He sat in jail for nearly two years awaiting trial before White dismissed charges against him last month. Webb is a massive man with gap-toothed smile he doesn't show much anymore and a left arm coated with tattoos. He can't understand how he was misidentified in a drug deal.
He was about to leave for work at his paint shop when Lucas and other federal agents pulled up to his home at 5:30 a.m. one day in November 2005. Lucas began screaming that Webb had sold him $3,000 worth of crack cocaine and that Webb was headed to prison.
Webb thought it was a joke, until agents searched his home, then broke down the door of his mother's home and looked through her house.
In a statement, he lashed out at Bray and Lucas, as well as the justice system.
"I was belittled and called insane because I insisted that I was innocent and the government allegations were made up," said Webb, 28, whose rap sheet includes a federal conviction for conspiracy to possess and distribute marijuana. "I hope appropriate steps are taken to insure that those people who were involved in fabricating evidence in my case never have the opportunity to do it again."
Webb's entreaty didn't help Lowestco Ballard.
Lucas told a jury that he was within 2 feet of Ballard when the 6-foot-5 Mansfield man sold him drugs in October 2005. Ballard, 33, slumped in his chair in federal court when he heard the testimony. He maintained that he was innocent.
In the end, the case didn't come down to his word against Lucas.' The deal was videotaped.
A jury took five minutes in July 2006 to decide that Ballard didn't match the description of the 5-foot-9 man who sold drugs in the recording.
"I kept telling them, You have the wrong man, the wrong man,' " he said. "They just kept laughing at me."
But the case had lasting consequences for Ballard. Within weeks of federal agents kicking in his front door, his wife had a miscarriage, which Ballard attributes to the raid and the stress she faced believing her husband faced more than 10 years in prison.
Police become the criminals
The ongoing federal investigation into Lucas and Bray raises questions of whether the system is weighted too heavily in the government's favor.
Geoffrey Mearns, a former federal prosecutor who now leads Cleveland State University's Marshall College of Law, said police and prosecutors cannot bend the rules simply to lock up bad guys. The rules were put in place to protect both the guilty and the innocent, he said.
"People in law enforcement are given a great deal of power," Mearns said. "One of the checks against the potential abuse of that power is that law enforcement and other people are required to tell the truth. The ends don't justify the means."
The fallout from the cases has been seen at the Cleveland federal courthouse.
A 35-year-old Mansfield man pleaded guilty last year to conspiracy to distribute cocaine and was sentenced to nearly four years in prison. Last week, the Mansfield man filed motions asking that his guilty plea be vacated and that he be let out of prison, based on Bray's statements.
Federal prosecutors opposed the request.
In a second case, U.S. District Judge Christopher Boyko agreed last week to delay a sentencing hearing after the lawyer for a man who pleaded guilty to selling cocaine to Lucas asked for more time to investigate the agent's work in that case.
"A continuance would give us the opportunity to sort out the details of this defendant's relationship with Lee Lucas and Lucas' conduct," attorney James Willis said.
Federal prosecutors did not oppose the motion.
Several similar requests are expected.
The defendants can only wait as investigators sort through the messy case. All the while, Geneva France remains invisible.
France, a 24-year-old Mansfield mother of three, was sentenced to 10 years in prison earlier this year after Lucas and Bray said she sold them drugs. White moved to release her from prison earlier this summer. She may face a new trial on the allegations, even though another Mansfield woman has admitted that she was the person in the car with Lucas and Bray for the drug deal.
No charges have been filed against that woman.
France bounces between various apartments, caring for her daughters and trying to hide from the memories of what happened.
Her life, like the lives of the 25 other defendants, has been tossed in the air for two years, shuttled between jails and courtrooms, fearing long prison sentences.
And the ones who have come home now live in greater fear.
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