Inside the Mind of a Snitch: an interview with 'Tony'

"Tony" is an informant. A former drug dealer, he was caught in a conspiracy case years after he stopped all involvement with drugs. He cooperated with the government, testifying against a number of major dealers, only after they indicted his mother and his brother. He is now in the witness protection program living under an assumed identity.

It's very difficult to live with the fact that you had to testify against somebody. You basically are murdering that person. You're putting that person in prison usually for the rest of their life. You will have nightmares about that, continuously. ... It's a very devastating thing, not only to the people who are being testified against and their families, but also to the person who's testifying. Tell me about yourself.

When I was around fifteen years old, I used drugs. And I got out of that. And then when I was eighteen I got involved in selling drugs. ...

For how long?

For a total of about three years. And I made enough money to open up a legitimate business. And I got out of it. So basically I was in and out very quickly in comparison to a lot of people that sell drugs. ...

How did they get you?

The way that the government gets you is by word of mouth, people that start talking about you. Most people who get involved in drugs, they don't get out. They keep selling drugs. So people that I was associated with in the very beginning of my drug dealing days, or career, they continued on. Eventually they got caught and they wanted to get their sentences reduced, they wanted to get out of jail quicker, so they started naming names and they used my name to try and get out of jail quicker.

Did it matter that you had quit selling drugs?

No. In the preliminary court proceedings it was stated on the record that I was out of the drug business for at least two years that they knew of. But they continued to pursue the case and build a conspiracy case against me. The fact that I was out of the drug business made no difference to them.

The way a conspiracy case works, it's based strictly on hearsay. That means somebody saying that you are involved. They have actually no physical evidence. I was never arrested with any drugs in my life. I was never even arrested with a large amount of money. I was very far away from drugs when they finally came and arrested me. ...

The conspiracy works on numbers. The more people that they can get in the indictment, the more people they can get telling on people, that helps convince the jury that, boy, these guys have to be guilty. If they got fifteen or twenty people saying the same thing, they have to be guilty.

Are they necessarily guilty?

It's hard to say. Sometimes they're guilty, sometimes they're not. If the government goes after a person that's guilty, but they can't get that person, they may go after a person who's not guilty just to get the guilty person to cooperate or plead guilty. So they will go after somebody--maybe it's a family member, maybe it's a friend, somebody who they feel that the person that they're targeting will have sympathy for. ... So they could go after a person's mother, for example, and all they need is some informant saying, "Yeah, I think that there is drugs at that house where his mother lives." And then they can come in and confiscate the house, take the house. And if the informants that they use want to go as far as to say that the mother knew about the drug dealing, they can indict her. So the problem with it is you're never dealing with actual drugs. You're not dealing with actual money. You're not dealing with anything of substance. You're only dealing with the word of somebody who's in a lot of trouble. So that's the problem with it.

Did they do that to you?

Yes, they did do that to me. I would not cooperate and I had my mind made up to go to trial. So they eventually indicted my mother and my brother.

Were they involved at all?

They were involved in nothing. Never did they ever even know what I was doing. I would never put my family in that kind of jeopardy. To even let them know would be putting them at risk. ...

Did the DA know that?

... They did know that they were not involved. And if they didn't in the beginning, they knew shortly after. If they didn't then this entire system is a joke and an embarrassment because they're supposed to be the United States government and have all this money to investigate and if they can't figure something like that out, then we're in a lot more trouble than we really know.

You think they knew about the lies?

... I believe that as time went on they figured out that [the informants] were lying. That they figured out that my family had absolutely nothing to do with it. Because in the beginning all the stories sound good, they don't know what to believe. But once all the stories are put on the table it's their job to go through what's the truth and what's not the truth and separate and use what is the truth. A lot of times if you have, for example, a young agent ... who ... spent five years investigating somebody, he put his heart and soul into the case and it's going to be based on a witness or an informant who they find out isn't telling the truth on certain things, what do you think the agent's going to do? Do you think he's going to throw his entire case away because he has an informant who may not be telling the truth? They're going to work around it somehow, some way.

Did they indict members of your family?

... They had to use the indictment process against members of my family to get me to really consider making a deal. ... Just so we can be clear on this, there are cases where there is family members who are involved with that person's drug dealings, or they hid money, or they did something like this. It is true that it happens. In my case there was absolutely no involvement. And they continued to proceed like there was. ... There's no innocent until proven guilty. They look at everybody as a guilty party. Anybody I knew, anybody I associated with was considered a criminal because of their investigation on me.

So you were forced to make a deal with the government?

... I had to make the toughest choice of my life. It was either let my family possibly go to prison for something they had nothing to do with, or cooperate with the government.

Why not cooperate?

Cooperating goes against everything I believe in personally. ...

But they got you?

Yeah. ... The conviction rate [is] I believe ... ninety-eight or ninety-seven percent ... when they come at you with a [federal] conspiracy case. And the reason why it's so high is because they don't deal in actual physical evidence, they deal with hearsay, they deal with people saying they saw something. How do you fight against that? How do you defend yourself when somebody says, "I bought drugs from him five years ago?" In my case there's actually people who were reading the newspaper, ... who I found out later called the government and said, "Hey, I can testify against this person?" ... It just escalates. You have a prison population, guys that are doing life sentences who will do anything to get out of prison, so it's impossible to fight against somebody who will do that.

What was the deal you made?

If I would have went to trial, I would have been facing fifty years to life, depending on how the charges end[ed] up panning out. And I ended up with serving ten years after it was all over.

What did you have to do?

They make it very clear who they want ... and how they're going to go about it.

You didn't have to guess?

No, I knew what they wanted. ...

Why did you go into the witness protection program?

The witness protection program is designed for cases where a witness is in danger of being killed. So the majority of witnesses don't qualify for the witness protection program. ... If they can use a person as an informant without putting them in the program they will do that, because it costs a lot of money... . A witness is generally given a standard allowance. You get between $1500 and $2000 dollars a month, living expenses. They give you $5000 dollars to buy a car. They give you $6000 dollars for the furniture for your place. They pay for your medical, your dental, they pay for everything. This is another tool that they use to keep you in line in case they need you to testify in something else. So if they don't have ... fifty years hanging over your head ... then they have this little bit of money that they use hanging over your head. "You get out of line, we take your money away." So that's how the government will continue to utilize a witness. They say that--and it's in their rules and regulations-- you're not supposed to cooperate in any more matters once you're in this program. But that is not the way it happens. People continue to cooperate even when they're in this program.


The majority of people who cooperate aren't really doing it willingly. ... I won't mention names, but they were very big witnesses for our country. And they basically told these individuals, after they were released from prison, if you do not help us with X, Y and Z case, after their deals were done, after the negotiation process was over, we're going to put you back in prison for this technicality. So yes, they will continue to make a person cooperate... . They have ways of doing that, if need be. ...

In the past, I was afraid at some point in time more of the people who were supposed to be protecting me than the people who were trying to kill me, because they will leave you out to dry in a hurry. They don't take care of their own people, they don't take care of their own agents, they don't take care of their own prosecutors. So if a witness thinks that they're going to take care of them they are sadly mistaken. They will set you up with the apartment, they'll give you the funds you need to start living and then overnight they'll call you up one day and say, "I'm sorry, your funding has been cut. ... "

Are you afraid of them now?

I wouldn't be [interviewed] in silhouette if I wasn't afraid of them. They will try to destroy you [when] you try to make progress in your life. ... If I go apply for a job, they can go talk to that person and say, "I don't think this is a good idea. Do you know who this person is, do you know his background?" And you would never ever know. You would just continue to be turned down every job interview you went to and you'd never know that were sabotaging you along the way. ... These are things that cannot be proved. They'll say, "There's no way that our agents would do that." But the problem is there's a lot of times agents do things in the field that the prosecutor's not aware of or the people higher up are not aware of. And there's no way to control that.

What's the harm in talking to me?

... They do not like any witnesses to come forward to talk to the media. And witnesses who have done that in the past have been retaliated against. I know, I've seen it firsthand, the retaliation that they do. They'll deny it, once again. ... I can't really give specifics of what they do because it's irrelevant. They'll do whatever they have to do to prevent somebody from coming forward. I'm not getting paid for this interview, I'm not asking for any money. I'm talking to you because there is a need for the public to know what's going on with this so-called drug war. There's a lot of innocent people getting hurt ... , aside from the abuse of power that's happening. Not only are the so-called drug dealers losing their rights, but now everybody's losing their rights. They're kicking down people's doors on the word of an informant who is just trying to get out of trouble. They ransack the house. They search the house. They find nothing. They don't even give the person an apology. It's out the door and this was official business. So everybody's losing right now.

How do informants generally feel about their situation? Do you think most of them feel remorse?

Informants generally are not at peace with themselves. If they have a conscience, a heart and a soul, it's very difficult to live with the fact that you had to testify against somebody. You basically are murdering that person. You're putting that person in prison usually for the rest of their life. You will have nightmares about that, continuously. You will see that person in your dreams, so for a witness to say that they don't have any regrets, then I would say that they don't have a conscience. It's a very devastating thing, not only to the people who are being testified against and their families, but also to the person who's testifying. You walk in a public place and you think you see somebody you know, it stops you in your tracks, it almost stops your heart and you have to take a second look and then you realize it's just somebody that looks like somebody that you knew. And then you worry about if you're in public and somebody may see you and you didn't see them. There's a real danger in that. Then they know where you're at and you don't even know that they know. So you're never at peace because you're always haunted. ... Most of the people, most of the witnesses that I talk to have a very difficult time. They talk to the priest, they can't get over it, they keep wanting to know why they feel this way. It's very, very hurtful. It makes you sick inside. ...

The U.S. Attorney says that the threat of perjury prevents witnesses from lying.

The threat of perjury in a federal drug case is almost as ridiculous as trying to threaten them with a traffic ticket. If you're looking at fifty years, a hundred years in prison, five years for perjury means nothing. As far as lying goes, I will say not all witnesses lie. ... Not all prosecutors are going to use a bad witness and not all agents will. But the question is are there prosecutors, are there agents who will use a bad witness knowingly? There have been agents fired for doing it. So we know that it exists. So that means the entire system is suspect. ...

Were you asked to cooperate again, after your deal?

In one of the witness units, I was asked to cooperate in a case that would have been very dangerous to my family. It would have possibly have gotten them killed. I told the government I could not cooperate in this case. So in passing I mentioned this to my cellmate that there was this case, it was probably my ticket to walk out the door. And it would have been my ticket to freedom. And I told him I couldn't do it. And he said, "Are you crazy? If you can't do it, I'll do it. ... Just give me some details about the case. And just get a picture and I'll call up the government and I'll tell them that I've been doing business with this guy." ... If I would have went along with that and this guy would have called the government, they would have had no idea that this guy was lying, that this guy was making up the whole thing. He would have had the dates, the times, the specific drug deals. He would have known everything about this person, he would have had a picture to describe this person. He would have had everything he needed. And that happens in the units all the time, because there's witnesses who will cooperate with each other. They'll get together the details of a case ... and then get themselves out.

Isn't the incentive to lie huge?

Most people who are faced in a situation of spending the rest of their life in prison, especially if they've had a little taste of prison ... usually they'll make that phone call. They'll call the government or the law enforcement officials and they'll say, "I want to make a deal, I want to get out of here." ... In a lot of cases of an informant needs to get out of his situation, out of a jam he's got himself in. He may have to embellish the truth to get the interest of the law enforcement. So he may start throwing out names that he never even did business with. He may amplify the amount of drugs--instead of one kilo, it became ten kilos. And instead of ten kilos, it became a hundred kilos. He can say whatever he wants and law enforcement has no idea if this guy is telling the truth ... .

What's the point of going straight?

There's not an incentive to go straight. ... Most people find out when they get into the system the bigger you are the better deal that you will get. ...

So it's safer to deal big than to deal small?

Yes. There are some witnesses that come in and they know when they're going out they're going to do the same thing again, and they know that this time they have to do it bigger and better because they know the procedure: give the information, and get out of the situation. And you know you're going to have to have X amount of names to give and be able to give a good enough case that the government will let you go. Every time you get caught, the more information you have to give them. ...

Did you know the people who testified against you in your case?

... There were many confidential informants against me in my case. ... There were family members, distant cousins and things of that nature that I believe gave information on me, but I don't know.

Were they in prison already?

... The majority of people were incarcerated for a very serious crime, facing life or doing life or twenty years or a very substantial amount of time. ... Everybody in my case--and in all cases in general--have a lot to gain by cooperating with the government. You're not going to get too many people who are going to just do it out of the goodness of their heart. ...

Is the witness protection program an ordeal?

Ordeal's not the right word. The program is devastating. It's devastating to the people who go into it. People who are going into the witness protection program have absolutely no idea that they are going into solitary confinement. In a lot of the cases the prosecutors have no idea of the conditions that the witness is going to be subjected to. They think that they're just going to a regular place to do their time. They're not. The trauma starts from the very beginning, having to testify. Then when you wake up and you find yourself in a solitary confinement situation [that] lasts throughout your entire incarceration phase. Then when you're put into the second phase of the program, you're a person without an identity. You have no name, you have no Social Security number. Everything is issued to you. ...

You can't see your family?

Once you go into the witness protection program, you are no longer allowed to see your family ever again. ...You can contact them through phone calls set up through the Marshall's Service. They allow you to communicate with them on a telephone, but you'll never see them again.

Is it worth it?

If you can live without seeing your family, that's only a question that each individual can answer. I don't know of any witness who stayed in the program long-term. It's not something that a human being can bear. They have to go back and see their family. ...

Could you explain the 5K-1.1 substantial assistance procedure?

When you're about to cooperate or when you`re in the process of cooperating the government will file a 5K-1 motion which is the preliminary motion for the Rule 35 motion which is the actual vehicle that will bring your sentence down. ...

What does it mean?

... This is a norm for the majority of drug cases. You're not supposed to worry about the amount of time you originally get sentenced to. For the general public, they need to see big sentences, fifties, hundred years, two-hundred year sentences. This makes the public happy. Once you're sentenced and then the media dies down and people start forgetting about your case, in the meantime, you're cooperating with the government. And you're building up your Rule 35 ammunition, which is the information you give to the government to get your sentence reduced. ... It could come in blocks of information about blocks of cases. For example, when the government petitions the court with the Rule 35 motion they can bring up three cases that you've helped them with. Major cases. And the judge may take fifty years off of your hundred year sentence for that. Then they'll come back in front of the judge again and they'll say, "Your Honor, he's helped us put this drug gang over here in this part of the country in prison, so we stopped this gang over here." He'll take off another twenty-five years, until you get down to about a five or ten year range. Then when it gets into that range, usually that's what the person is left with.

How long can this process go on? Does the government ever renege on their side of the deal?

Usually the process will take as long as the person's giving them information. It's very common for a witness to not be sentenced for up to four years. They continue to drag out the process as long as they can. Once they get everything out of them and then the witness is sentenced, then the games begin for the reduction. So if the witness is stupid enough to give them information beforehand, if he doesn't know how the game works, then he'll give all this information, thinking he's going to get a reduction for it, from his sentence. But it doesn't count until that person's sentenced. ...

In your particular case, you're supposed to give them everything you know about it. If you don't they'll come back and indict you later if you left out [anything]. Now if you're talking about something that you know about that is totally unrelated to your case, unless the government asks you for it, that's what you're going to use for your reduction. That's the way the game is played. ...

You can't tell them everything at first?

You have to tell them everything about your case that you're involved with, but when you start telling them about unrelated cases, you've just postponed your sentencing and that information that you gave them is not going to count for your reduction.

It's a game.

It's a very big game. ... If you don't know the rules, you will end up cooperating against a lot of people and you'll end up with a lot of prison time. And that's the ultimate victory for the prosecutor, when he can sit down with his friends and say, "I got him to cooperate against everybody he knows and he still has a life sentence." ...

How do you think the general public feels about informants?

The general public doesn't care about the informants. And the only time that they even show an interest ... is when they read the headlines or they see it on T.V. where you have a fifteen or sixteen year-old who was killed and tortured for helping the law enforcement in the so-called drug war. So the general public I don't think care at all about a witness, because they are desensitized to it. They've been brainwashed into thinking these are not people. These are lowlife scumbags who deserve whatever they get. They don't realize that there may be a sister trying to help a brother get out of prison, that this sister never had anything to do with drugs. They don't realize that there may be a loved one trying to help a loved one get out of prison. That's how distorted this whole thing has gotten. ...

Do you think there should be a law against using informants?

I don't think that the general public is going to get this through their head for many years, but if they wanted to be sensible about this they should at least create a law [that provides that] ... a person who has become a witness and who has made a deal should never ever be able to become a witness again and get himself out of trouble again. It should be a one-time deal that's it, because you have got these guys who are coming through the system three, four, five, six [times] they're making careers out of this. ...

Why should the public care about informants?

The people should care about informants [because], number one, they're human beings. They're not these monsters that the government has created them out to be. And the second reason ... [is] you should care because you could be the next informant. If your son and daughter were in trouble on something with drugs or something, would you tell on a local drug dealer on the corner to get your son or daughter out of prison? You have to ask yourself these tough questions. ... Nobody's safe now from these conspiracy laws. ...

Why and how would someone become a career informant?

There's a lot of money to be made in being an informant. Not on a small street time level. A lot of people when they think of an informant, they think of some dirty, heroin addict that's going around the corner to shoot up. No, we're talking about people who are driving Ferraris, who are wearing real expensive clothes and who are making as much as $280,000 dollars per case, cash money. ...

What do they do, set up people?

...I've seen [cases] where some of the cartel members, where after they've cooperated and were out of prison, they almost became like agents. They're not supposed to carry a gun, [but] in some cases they do. ... They're out there building cases, they become friends with the agents that they're working with. And they become part of the enforcement process. ... Without the informants there would be no cases. ...

Why are informants kept in solitary confinement?

The government is keeping all the witnesses who are in the witness protection program separate from the inmates in the general population, but what they do is they put these witness units right in the middle of a regular FCI prison facility. So you've got 1200 guys who are doing life sentences and you have these 70 guys over here in the corner who put all those guys away. You have a very dangerous situation and there have been times where they've talked about attacking these witness units. So they have to keep them isolated ... . They just take the old segregated units and they'll just take a little section off, separate it and then that's what they consider a witness protection unit. All a witness protection unit is is the hole. When you see these movies on T.V. and all these prison stories and you hear about the hole, that's what a witness protection unit is. ... [This is not] where you see these baseball diamonds and all these recreational facilities that you think is in a prison. The witnesses don't partake in that. ...

Is law enforcement getting the kingpins in prison?

I'd like to say two things about that. The kingpins, some of them, not all of them, have ended up with life terms and they weren't smart enough to make sure that their deal was secure. Other kingpins had actually smirked and laughed at the system because they thought it was quite funny that they were going to walk out the door and the people who were driving the boats and carrying the stuff on backpacks were going to do life sentences. ...

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