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Informer in fear after testifying; Drug trial offers look at shadowy world of shared confidences

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Arrested three times in 1996 and facing a possible prison sentence, Albert Sherman Stokes eagerly became an informant when approached by a Howard County police officer.

In exchange for introducing undercover Howard County detectives to a drug dealer, the 31-year-old carpenter received a deal: Prosecutors dropped several charges -- including lying to a police officer -- put others on hold and recommended probation.

"I figured, the police are asking me to help them," said Stokes, who most recently lived in Laurel. "In return, they'd help me."

But during the trial of a suspected small-time drug dealer, Stokes was forced to testify, offering a glimpse into the shadowy -- and dangerous -- world of confidential informants and their police handlers.

"I fear that I'm going to get retaliation," said Stokes.

In the war against drugs, authorities have relied heavily on informants, generating controversy. In July, a federal three-judge panel in Denver ruled that U.S. prosecutors were essentially bribing informants when they reduced their sentences in exchange for testimony in other cases. Last month, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision, calling it "patently absurd."

Federal authorities typically use informants who have committed crimes and been caught to gain access to drug and criminal organizations. The informants then testify in exchange for lighter punishment.

Local police deal mostly with smaller drug rings and use informants as sources, usually over long periods of time, to make introductions and supply information to detectives.

"When you're dealing with an open-air drug market, you want to use someone who's available, has information and is willing to give it," said Lynne A. Battaglia, the U.S. attorney in Maryland, talking about how local police operate. "The confidential informant won't be testifying. You don't want to basically blow the cover of the confidential informant, because you want to be able to utilize his or her services in the future."

Stokes no longer enjoys anonymity. His cover blown, he is moving to another state to avoid retribution. Though he insists he informed only once, his associates might find that hard to believe. Stokes was the perfect candidate for informing -- he has been arrested 25 times since 1987, has associates with criminal ties and a strong desire to avoid prison.

'Can they talk the talk?'

"The informant has to be in with what is happening," said Lt. Tim Branning, who heads the Howard County Police Department's vice and narcotics section. "Can they talk the talk and walk the walk?"

Stokes' involvement with Howard County police began with a simple drug transaction in May 1996. Five months later, he was arrested by Maryland State Police on 13 traffic violations and was served with an arrest warrant charging him in the May drug sale.

The same undercover detective who brought the drug charges served the warrant. "He walked in and said, 'Remember me?' " Stokes recalled.

Police had found their informant.

"Mr. Stokes was dying to work off his charges," said Janine L. Rice, a former prosecutor who initially handled the cases.

Prosecutors agreed to drop four of five charges in the drug arrest, seven of eight in a June arrest -- stealing license tags and lying to a police officer -- and put the driving charges on indefinite hold. Stokes is now serving probation for those crimes.

Several months passed. Then, Stokes began telling his friend Thomas J. Pierce about a new buddy who worked at a Baltimore nightclub, partied hard and knew women. Pierce seemed intrigued.

On Nov. 13, 1997, about 11 months after agreeing to work with police, Stokes invited Pierce to his Columbia home, where Pierce sold a half-ounce of marijuana for $80 to a man named Ricky -- undercover detective Gerald Donaldson, according to police reports.

After that meeting, Stokes stopped participating and left Ricky and Pierce to communicate by pager. But when Pierce expressed reservations, Stokes played his part. "Tom was worried after the first deal that he was being set up," Stokes said during testimony at the trial. " 'Is this guy a narc?' And I only told Tom, stay off my back, that I seen him [Ricky] smoke pot."

Pierce would be charged with selling marijuana to police five times over six months -- a total of 1.68 pounds, worth $2,320, said Assistant State's Attorney Christine B. Gage.

Pierce, 27, a construction worker from Fulton, was convicted by a jury last month of selling $350 worth of marijuana to an undercover detective during one of those buys. His first trial resulted in a dismissal; three other trials are scheduled for April.

Police had hoped Pierce would become an informant and give information on someone higher-up in the drug trade. But when detectives confronted him after his June arrest, Pierce declined their offer and asked for an attorney, police said.

Experts said police were doing the right thing, trying to work up the ladder, because the amount of time and energy in just arresting Pierce probably wasn't worth it.

"It would be questionable if they just wanted to make that arrest," said Cornelius J. Behan, former Baltimore County police chief. "You should be after the higher-ups, the people who run the business."

Just wanted a friend

On the witness stand, Pierce said he never would have sold drugs if Stokes hadn't prodded him. His father was terminally ill and had disinherited him, he told jurors, and his sister is mentally disabled. His friends also abandoned him, because he was on probation for an earlier drug offense and was no longer using or dealing. He said he sold drugs to make a new friend.

During the trial, Clarke F. Ahlers, Pierce's defense attorney and a former Howard County police officer, slammed police tactics.

"Why isn't there a single shred of evidence that my client sold marijuana to anybody else?" Ahlers asked jurors during closing arguments. "This case is the lunatic fringe of public policy. It's rotten to the core. It's rotten because the underlying policy is rotten."

Judge James B. Dudley, who presided over the trial in which Pierce was convicted, says that the use of informants is not appropriate in most cases and that police seem to be creating crime, rather than investigating past offenses.

"Third-rate petty criminals, who have to look up to see the level of the ground, become agents of the state," said Dudley, who also called Stokes "one of the sleaze-balls of the century."

Police officials, legal scholars and defense attorneys said undercover detectives would rarely penetrate criminal organizations without informants.

"Informants play a vital part of what we do," said Lt. Tim Branning, who heads the Howard County Police Department's vice and narcotics section. "They are the best way to crack the shell and get in."

Richard C. Bittner, Stokes' attorney, says many criminal defense lawyers represent clients who become informants cooperating in federal and local investigations.

Sometimes, prosecutors contact defense attorneys, Bittner said, offering deals that will be sweetened if their clients play an active role, like wearing a wire, to arrest suspected criminals.

Defense attorneys, Bittner said, also approach authorities.

"When I visit the cell block and review the police reports," Bittner said, "a client might say: 'I know Frankie. If I give them Frankie, can I get a better deal?' "

Though officials promised Stokes he would never have to testify, Ahlers and Gage battled over whether he played an important enough role to become a witness.

Judge Lenore R. Gelfman agreed with Ahlers. She dismissed the first case against Pierce, then ordered prosecutors to produce Stokes, who testified in a preliminary hearing and again during Pierce's second trial before Dudley.

Since then, Stokes says, he has received threatening phone calls; associates wrongly suspect he has informed on them, too.

Now he has turned his life around, Stokes says, and is holding down a decent job, getting married and moving away -- with the help of a witness protection fund that will pay his first month of rent, a fact confirmed by prosecutors.

"I was supposed to be protected," Stokes said.

Pub Date: 2/28/99

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