Good police work or racial profiling? ‘Memphis Mob’ and how so many blacks were arrested in ATF sting

 

A debate over how so many black people came to be arrested in a 2016 gun- and drug-sting operation in Albuquerque is playing out in the city’s federal courthouse. Following months of silence from the federal Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and the U.S. Attorney’s Office, a narrative is beginning to emerge. It’s a story of good police work. According to this version, a pivotal moment happened a few days after the operation started in April 2016. Albuquerque Police Department detective Vic Hernandez handed ATF Special Agent Russell Johnson two sets of documents.

Legal wrangling could pose challenge to proving racial profiling claims

On her last day as chief of the U.S. District Court for New Mexico in February, Judge Christina Armijo granted a motion from the lawyers representing Lonnie Jackson and Diamond  Coleman. Prosecutors, the order said, must turn over all background checks run through the National Crime Information Centers (NCIC) database during a 2016 law enforcement sting operation in Albuquerque. Jackson and Coleman, two of the 28 black people arrested in the federal Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives (ATF)’s operation, are trying to prove the agency racially profiled them in a massive undercover operation. Armijo’s order represented a step toward that goal. The NCIC queries, not only for the 103 people arrested during the four-month operation but everyone ATF agents investigated but did not pursue, would enable them to test their theory.

‘Righteous targets’?

Days before federal prosecutors and law enforcement officials announced more than 100 arrests from an undercover operation in Albuquerque in 2016, the sting’s lead agent was thinking about who, exactly, had been arrested. 

“If anybody ever asks if we are going after the worst of the worst or righteous targets, show them this list,” Special Agent Russell Johnson of the federal Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives (ATF) wrote in an Aug. 4, 2016, email to colleagues.”These are people for our second wave takedown.”

The email names 24 individuals and notes each person’s probation or parole status: 14 had successfully completed their obligations to the state, two were listed as “current and compliant probationer/parolee,” three had never been on probation or parole and four were “absconders.”

The 24 names are blacked out, as are the sender and recipients of the email and a handful of other words. Eight days after Johnson dashed off the email, a phalanx of high-ranking local, state and federal law enforcement officials told the press they had taken “the worst of the worst” off the city’s crime-ridden streets. The controversial operation has come under scrutiny over the past year for the highly disproportionate number of black people who were arrested. Meanwhile, the sting netted few, if any, of the hardened, repeat violent criminals supposedly targeted.

APD detective led federal agents to ‘Memphis Mob’

How and even whether the Albuquerque Police Department was involved in a 2016 undercover federal drug and gun sting has lingered for more than a year under scrutiny from legal scholars, defense lawyers and New Mexico In Depth. Police and city officials under previous Mayor Richard Berry’s administration denied the department was involved. Now, with a new mayor at City Hall and new leadership at APD, the city is acknowledging the department had a “minimal role” in the sting, which was led by the federal Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives (ATF). That included “cross-commissioned” APD officers who have long worked as part of an ATF task force assisting the federal agency during the operation. Whatever the size of APD’s role, the department’s involvement appears to have led, in part, to one of the more controversial aspects of the sting operation: the arrest of black people at a rate highly disproportionate to their population in the city.

Emails show prosecutors misled public about plea deal with former Martinez Cabinet secretary

Assistant District Attorney Joshua Boone wanted to reassure his boss. A political blogger was raising questions in early February about why the DA’s office had agreed to plead Ryan Flynn’s aggravated DWI charge, leveled after a May 20, 2017, traffic stop, down to careless driving. Flynn, one of the state’s most influential power brokers, was Gov. Susana Martinez’s former Environment Department secretary, and now heads up the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association. In a Feb. 8 email, Boone told Bernalillo County DA Raúl Torrez he believed the case against Flynn could clear an initial legal hurdle.

How one influential NM powerbroker might have escaped a drunken driving charge

Just after midnight on May 20, Albuquerque Police Officer Joshua Montaño saw a luxury sedan veer into a turn bay blocked off by bright orange traffic barrels before it pulled back over a solid divider line onto an Interstate 25 frontage road. Montaño flipped on his emergency police lights and the 2004 Infiniti stopped in the parking lot of the Marriott Pyramid, a high-end hotel in Northeast Albuquerque. A veteran DWI cop who has conducted hundreds of drunken driving investigations, Montaño approached the vehicle on foot. He was armed with a slew of additional information gleaned from a police service aide and a concerned citizen: The Infiniti’s driver had swerved numerous times traveling northbound from downtown Albuquerque, he’d delayed proceeding through a green light by 10 seconds, he’d driven 10 mph under the posted speed limit, and he’d done it all with his headlights turned off. In the driver’s seat of the car was Ryan Flynn, 39, Gov. Susana Martinez’ former cabinet secretary of the New Mexico Environment Department, who left that job in 2016 to become executive director of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association.

Federal judge slaps NM attorney in bail reform lawsuit

A federal judge has taken the unusual step of ordering a politically ambitious New Mexico attorney to pay back the state for filing a “frivolous” lawsuit aimed at undoing efforts to reform the state’s commercial bail system. The attorney, Blair Dunn, a Libertarian who earlier this week announced a run for state attorney general, must pay “reasonable costs and attorneys fees” to the office he seeks to occupy by year’s end, under the ruling by Chief U.S. District Judge Robert A. Junell. Junell, a George W. Bush appointee from the Western District of Texas, presided over the suit because the Attorney General’s Office represented the judges Dunn was suing, from the New Mexico Supreme Court, the Second Judicial District Court and the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court. Dunn sued last year on behalf of a group of state lawmakers, the Bail Bond Association of New Mexico and a woman who was released from jail last year. Junell dismissed the case with prejudice in December, meaning it cannot be refiled.

Woman who alleged informant exploited romantic relationship receives reduced sentence

Jennifer Padilla likely won’t spend a single day locked up in federal prison. Under an agreement accepted Wednesday by U.S. District Judge William P. “Chip” Johnson, the 39-year-old mother of five received 24 months behind bars instead of the 10 to 13 years prosecutors originally wanted. Arrested in August 2016 on methamphetamine trafficking and conspiracy charges, Padilla is one of scores of people who were dubbed among Albuquerque’s “worst of the worst” after their arrests in a controversial 2016 undercover sting by the federal bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives (ATF). Padilla’s reduced sentence followed allegations she made in court motions that an ATF informant exploited their romantic relationship to lure her into a crime she would not otherwise have committed. NMID independently verified many of Padilla’s claims and laid them out in a story co-published with the Santa Fe Reporter on Aug.

Candidates question value of Mayor Berry’s ‘groundbreaking’ ABQ crime report

The “groundbreaking research” Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry commissioned on crime — the city’s No. 1 issue — may sit on a shelf unused when his successor takes office Dec. 1. Why? The two candidates headed for a mayoral runoff election next month, two-term Republican city councilor Dan Lewis and Democratic state Auditor Tim Keller, said the information about crime concentration likely won’t guide their crime-fighting plans if elected.

ABQ city council committee delays vote on ATF resolution

An Albuquerque City Council committee voted Monday evening to defer for 90 days a resolution asking New Mexico’s congressional delegation to push for an investigation of a 2016 federal law enforcement operation that netted a highly disproportionate number of black people. Councilor Pat Davis, who sponsored the measure, cast the lone vote to send it to the full City Council. Voting to defer the resolution were councilors Don Harris — who made the motion to delay the vote — Ken Sanchez, Brad Winter and Klarissa Peña. That means the council’s Finance and Government Operations Committee will rehear the resolution after 90 days during which time city officials hope to gather more information. During discussion about the resolution, Sanchez asked what good it would do and why the congressional delegation couldn’t take up the issue on its own.