Longform’s Guide to Criminal Informants

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Nov. 2 2013 7:30 AM

The Longform Guide to Criminal Informants

Great stories about people who've infiltrated the Hell's Angels, the Crips, and terror cells.

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Lots of cocaine. Up to 80 percent of all drug arrests in the United States involve criminal informants.

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The Throwaways
Sarah Stillman • The New Yorker • August 2012

The perilous existence of confidential informants.

“Informants are the foot soldiers in the government’s war on drugs. By some estimates, up to eighty per cent of all drug cases in America involve them, often in active roles like Hoffman’s. For police departments facing budget woes, untrained C.I.s provide an inexpensive way to outsource the work of undercover officers. “The system makes it cheap and easy to use informants, as opposed to other, less risky but more cumbersome approaches,” says Alexandra Natapoff, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles and a leading expert on informants. “There are fewer procedures in place and fewer institutional checks on their use.” Often, deploying informants involves no paperwork and no institutional oversight, let alone lawyers, judges, or public scrutiny; their use is necessarily shrouded in secrecy.”
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The Inside Man
Guy Lawson • GQ • January 2008

The triple life of G-Rock: upscale house painter, lifelong Crip, FBI informant.

“But no one in South Central suspects there is one Crip who operates in the innermost circle as a professional informant, one Crip who has single-handedly put away more than 130 gangbangers—murderers, rapists, major drug dealers, the most depraved criminals in the nation, their sentences ranging from ten years to death. G-Rock is code-named “the Knife,” and the FBI files detailing his deeds stand more than two feet high. To the very few law-enforcement officials in L.A. who know the Crip’s identity—even his existence—he is one of the most intrepid and devastatingly effective undercovers in history.”

The Last Ride of a Cleveland Hells Angel Informant
Vince Grzegorek • Cleveland Scene • October 2013

A Hells Angel informant’s path from destruction to redemption and back, and a family’s trouble with witness protection.

“It turns out Taylor's life would not be the challenge of evading the Hells Angels (though plenty of other troubles dotted her new world, including violence at the hands of her mother and drugs by the age of 18, though she would get clean); it would be a challenge to reclaim anything close to a normal existence because of problems with witness protection.”

To Catch a Terrorist
Petra Bartosiewicz • Harper’s • August 2011

How the FBI uses informants to ensnare alleged terrorists.

“Informants have been deployed by law enforcement for centuries, but in these recent terrorism investigations they have been given a more active role in shaping cases, often encouraging or even coercing individuals to commit violent acts toward which the individuals have otherwise shown no predisposition. Such sting operations present a disturbing kind of theater: the government provides the script, the arms, the cash, and other props, and offers logistical support.”

The Informant
Diana Welch •  Austin Chronicle • January 2009

Brandon Darby’s journey from revolutionary activist to FBI informant.

“Darby says he was indeed compensated at times for his work with the feds, although he's vague on the details except to say he turned down witness protection and a lump sum offered to people who testify in federal cases. He does say he is able to be independent because he has some money from his family. Darby sees his current role with the FBI as something akin to a "volunteer firefighter" and believes it to be a natural extension of his desire to do what's right, no matter how uncomfortable. Yet with his decision to go undercover instead of any other of the myriad choices he had to change the direction of his life, Darby has effectively reinforced the notions that many in the activist community already had: that the Man is always out to get you, and you just can't trust anyone.”

A Snitch’s Dilemma
Ted Conover • New York Times Magazine • June 2012

Life as a police informant.

“Now in the living room, the TV reporter was saying how a 92-year-old woman had died in the incident, and people were suggesting that the police had shot her. Two and two came together in White’s mind. They did it, he suddenly knew. They messed up. They killed that old lady. Now his heart pounded as the implications became clear. And they want me to cover for them.”

The G-Man and the Hitman
Fredric Dannen • The New Yorker • December 1996

The questionably close relationship between a mobster/informant and an FBI agent during a bloody Colombo crime family battle.

“At the Manhattan office of the F.B.I., squads had been in place since the eighties to investigate all five New York Mafia families. The supervisor of the squad for the Colombo and Bonanno families was R. Lindley DeVecchio, a dapper, curly-haired man of average height, with a mustache, whom friends and colleagues called Lin. He was a well-liked veteran who had been with the Bureau since the J. Edgar Hoover era, and he had come up through the New York office as an older colleague of Louis Freeh, the current F.B.I. director. The Colombo war presented a unique challenge to DeVecchio. The F.B.I. had a duty to try to prevent violence of every type, even among criminals. If it could learn, perhaps from an informant, when and where a hit team was to be mobilized, the shooters could be intercepted in the act. DeVecchio did, in fact, have an informant inside the Persico faction of the Colombo family. That informant, however, was hardly likely to divulge the activities of the faction’s hit team, for the simple reason that he was its leader—Gregory Scarpa himself.”

Informer: The Life and Death of an I.R.A. Man
Kevin Toolis • New York Times Magazine • February 1991

Paddy Flood’s journey from an IRA bomb maker to a police informer.

“The R.U.C. does not hesitate to use every means available-money, coercion and blackmail—to recruit informers from the republican ranks. But these agents soon become mere tools. Their lives are cheap. To survive, the informer must walk a lethal tightrope between his police handlers and the I.R.A. The more successful an agent is in foiling I.R.A. operations, the greater the risk of his discovery. There is no escape. Once an informer has passed his first piece of information to the police, he is trapped—open to blackmail from Special Branch if he withdraws cooperation, facing certain death if the I.R.A. finds out. The I.R.A. has only one sentence for "touts"—execution. Everyone knows that. Paddy Flood, 30, knew it too. He could have thought of nothing else for the seven and a half weeks he was held and interrogated by an I.R.A. killer squad in a safe house south of the Irish border.”

The Mark
Evan Ratliff • The New Yorker • May 2011

The F.B.I. needs informants. But what happens when they go too far? 

Most of the defendants pleaded guilty. But there were hints that something was amiss in the Santoro case. Prosecutors claimed that he had laundered millions of dollars. When a judge asked, at Santoro’s bail hearing, why there wasn’t more evidence of that contention, the prosecutor replied that “there obviously is none because—we’d submit because it’s been done successfully.”
Santoro chose to fight the charges. The case would dramatically alter his future, as well as that of the informant who had joined forces with Michael Grimm: Josef von Habsburg. It also raised questions about just how much the F.B.I. can control its confidential informants—and how much those informants can control the F.B.I.

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Timothy Maddocks contributes to Longform.