Interview: joey settembrino

joey settembrino
In 1992 Joey received a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence for selling LSD. He was a first time offender and says he was set up by a government informant. (In 1994 Congress enacted a "safety-valve" permitting relief from mandatory minimums for certain non-violent, first-time drug offenders.)

When a guy gets caught with ten, twenty kilos of cocaine and he's only doing two years, it's easy to tell that he cooperated. How old were you when this happened?

I was 18 years old. I had graduated high school and I had just started college. A friend of mine had called me and asked me if I could get a thousand hits of acid for him. I told him that I may be able to, but it may take me a few days. And I was kind of shocked that he would ask me for it, because I had never sold drugs before and I had never bought drugs from him before. And [shocked that he] asked me for that amount, which was a little over $1,000, quite a bit to ask somebody that you'd never sold drugs to or bought drugs from. But I told him that I might be able to do something and it would take a couple days.

So I called a friend of mine and he wasn't there. And about two days I finally got in touch with him. And the whole time, I would come home and there would be messages on my answering machine, asking me, "Did you get in touch with him? Can you get it? We need to do it now." Apparently he was buying it for a friend of his who was going to bring it back to college with him. I finally got in touch with my friend and he said that he could get me a thousand hits, that it may take him a couple days to get it. So I said, "Oh, no problem." I called my friend that I was buying the acid for and told him it might be a couple days. During that time the couple days went by and he kept calling my answering machine, wanting to know, "Where is it at, how much is there? Are you going to get it? When are you going to get it, we need it now." He was very impatient. Well, about five or six days after we initially spoke, the acid came in. My buddy had it and he told me that it was there and that I could come get it. I went and picked up my friend and we were to meet his friend who he was getting it for at a shopping mall. So we went and we met his friend. And I left them and I went to go pick up the acid. I picked it up and when I came back I gave it to my friend and his friend. I gave them the acid and they gave me the money. And at that point I was arrested.

Set up?

I was set up. Apparently he was an informant. He had been busted selling drugs ... and they got him to set me up.

Wasn't he a friend?

He was a very good friend. I had known the guy for many years. We had gone out every weekend, fishing on his boat, hydrosliding, skiing. I was very shocked; it was very unexpected. It's not something you expect from friends.

What happened?

I was handcuffed and I was thrown back into the car with what turned out to be the DEA agent. And he then tried to get me to cooperate with him, to tell. He wanted me to go back to the house where I got the acid from and get something else. They wanted me to wear a wire and they wanted me to go back there ... to buy some other type of drug, no matter what it was, whatever he had in the house, so they could set him up. Just a chain reaction, one gets to one, one gets the other and they just keep going. I told him that I couldn't do that, that I didn't get the drugs from that house. At that time I was really confused. I was shocked, and I told him that I couldn't do anything for him. But he kept trying, he kept threatening, talking about a lot of time. "You're going to do 25 years. You're going to be in prison your whole life." ... He really tried to scare me. But I told him I couldn't do anything for him ... . [Eventually] they went back to the house in which I got it from, they arrested the other guy, my friend [who I bought the acid from]. And he's now doing a 10-year sentence along with me.

Were you tempted to cooperate?

It was very tempting. I was 18 years old, I was very young. And at that time, looking at 25 years, at 18 years old ... anybody put in my situation would definitely by tempted to cooperate with them ... .

Why didn't you say no when he asked you to buy the drugs?

Well, at first when he wanted me to get the drugs for him, I did say no because I didn't know really anything about the business. I had never done it before, I never sold drugs. And I really wasn't interested in it. But he kept calling, and really was pestering me to do it for him. Finally, I guess to fit in with the crowd, I did it. I went ahead and I got the drugs for him.

Did you use drugs?

... I used drugs, [but] not a lot. I didn't abuse drugs, but I did use them. I used marijuana. I had tried cocaine couple times. LSD. Other than that I hadn't used any other drugs ...

Did you have any idea about the punishment you might be facing?

No. As a matter of fact when the cop put me in the car and he told me I was looking at 25 years, I believe I got a little fresh with him when I told him I wouldn't do a day. I honestly felt, "I'm a first time offender, this is the first time I've ever been in trouble in my life, nothing will happen to me, I won't do any time ... ."

Do you know why they wanted you?

I've asked that question, I've asked myself that a thousand times, "Why me? Why did he set me up?" ...

Why someone who isn't a dealer?

I guess they figure when they get the small guy, when they get the guy lower on the totem pole, eventually they'll move up the totem pole and they'll get the guy they're looking for. ....

Who is?

Who knows? Could be anybody. Could be the next-door neighbor. ...

What happened to your "friend" who set you up?

Well my so-called friend, I come to find out later on that he was arrested for selling a very, very small amount of cocaine. An amount which he probably would have never done time in jail for, which is amazing. He told on approximately 11 or 12 people in my neighborhood. He's still on the street selling drugs. And that's incredible. He's on the street selling drugs while I'm in here doing 10 years for him. ...

Were you tried?

No I didn't, I pled out. They government offered me a deal in which I plead guilty and they sentence me to 10 years. So I took the plea bargain and I'm now doing 10 years.

Without cooperating?

No cooperation.

What would you have gotten if you had cooperated?

There's no telling. I may not have done any time if I'd cooperated. Maybe a year, two years, three years.

Are you ever sorry you didn't cooperate?

Well, now I look back and I'm very happy that I did not cooperate, because you look around and you see the people that are in here, and the majority of the people that I'm in here with cooperated. I mean, I'd say somewhere around 85% to 90% of the people in here cooperated with the government in some way. They helped set up a friend. There [are] people in here that helped set up their mothers and fathers, which is unreal. ... I'm proud that I'm one of the few that didn't cooperate, that [I] didn't help them ... . I didn't want to do 10 years in jail, but I also didn't want to give up one of my friends either. ...

What about the people who did cooperate? Do you think they're ashamed of it?

Well, in this place, like I say, the majority of the people here ... did cooperate. They don't talk about it. I've been in 63 months now and I have still never met anybody who admitted to cooperating. So it can't be something that you can be proud of. ... They must be ashamed of themselves because if they weren't ashamed of themselves, they would admit that they had told on other people. ... There are people that everybody knows that they told and they said, "No, I didn't, I didn't tell, I'm a standup guy." And everybody knows that they did. I mean, when a guy gets caught with 10, 20 kilos of cocaine and he's only doing two years, it's easy to tell that he cooperated.

Is that a stigma?

Well even in here the cops will get the inmates to tell on each other. It doesn't just stop on the street. As a matter of fact, I think it may be even more so in here. There's people in here that, I don't know, maybe they made some kind of deal when they came in that they could have easy time ... and people could stay off their backs, [if] they would continue to cooperate in here. And they'd tell on the things that go on in here, because this is really just like fence around a neighborhood is what it is. Everyone in here, we all live together and we all eat together. And there are things that go on in here that are illegal as well as they are on the street. And the cops don't want to see those things happen, so they get a guy that told on the street ... and they get them to tell in here as well. And they get them to help get rid of the people that are doing wrong in here as well.

There are a lot of people, not necessarily in this place here, but what's called a transient is when you're in process of being moved from one institution to the other. And when you're there, you're with a lot of people that are waiting to go to sentencing, they're waiting to go to trial. And in those places we have what's called ... case jumpers. And what they do is they find out information about people's cases that are going to trial and they try and find out information to give to the DEA or to give to the prosecutors to help knock more time off their sentence. And they'll tell on somebody that they never knew before in their lives, which is incredible.

Is it difficult to have friends here?

It's very difficult to have friends. Mainly because of the fact that the people who do cooperate don't admit it. So how do you know that this guy that you want to be friends with, maybe he was the one that was telling on the street. And if he told there, once, he'll tell again. So it's very difficult to trust. It's very difficult to have friends because you're worried that they may do it again.

Do you think they are usually honestly cooperating or lying?

There's no telling. I think the only people that know are God and the guy cooperating ... . If a man gets in trouble selling drugs and he gets caught ... the first thing the DEA agents do is they want you to help them. They want you to cooperate. ... If a man will cooperate and the man'll snitch on one of his friends, what would stop him from lying?

What would you say is the percentage of people here on conspiracy convictions?

Nearly everybody, especially drug cases. Every drug case in here that I know of is a conspiracy, every one. It's very easy for the government and the prosecutors and the DEA agents to arrest people under conspiracy because the law is so vague, it's so broad, anybody can be arrested under the laws of conspiracy. ... Conspiracy can be anything. Conspiracy means that if you and I were to talk about doing a drug deal, you are just as guilty by talking about it than you are as actually doing the drug deal. And you get just as much time. ...

Is there anything you'd like to add?

Well, I think one of the main things that makes the way that the government and the way that DEA agents go about getting people to inform on each other is that they abuse the power that they have. The DEA agent is there to stop people from selling drugs. ... If a guy sells a $10 bag, they want him off the street. They want them all. They say that they want to get the big guy, they want to get the big fish and that's why they go about getting all these little fish, because eventually you get the big fish. Well, what they don't realize is that when the big fish finally gets caught, he tells on the little fish and he's free. And I think that's what makes the system very messed up. They're giving people a lot of time for not that really bad of a crime. There are rapists, there [are] murderers, there [are] people doing three and four years for very violent offenses, while people like myself and my friends and others are doing 10 and 20 years for selling $1,000 or $2,000 worth of drugs. Doesn't make sense.

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