RATS! SNITCHING FOR TH SLEAZIEST COPS IN THE STATE ISN'T GOING TO LOOK GOOD ON YOUR RESUME!
When the Nevada Highway Patrol stopped Sheryl for driving 95 mph two years ago, in her bright red Mitsubishi Eclipse, they found gambling chips, several hundred dollars in cash, two guns and a $10,000 cashier's check. The car was a few months old, and it was paid off. Sheryl claimed she was on her way back home to Bullhead City after a spur-of-the-moment gambling junket to Reno with her boyfriend, Milton.
But the good-looking blonde and the beefy construction worker matched every picture in the highway patrol's textbook on drug dealers.
To Nevada trooper Glenn Rector, it was a clear choice: Search the car. He found, he says, marijuana, cocaine, speed, hypodermic needles and other drug paraphernalia. He quickly hauled the couple to jail.
The two spent five days locked up in Beatty, Nevada, 112 miles north of Las Vegas on U.S. Highway 95. Their bail was set at $40,000 each. Under drug-forfeiture laws, the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles and Public Safety seized their car and everything in it. Whether Sheryl and Milton were actually drug dealers didn't matter to Roger Imboden, an investigator with the Nevada Division of Investigations, Nevada's drug team. He singled them out as candidates to work for the narcs. Sheryl remembers Imboden's first pitch. "He said, 'Do you know any murderers, rapists, child molesters, drug dealers?' . . . He scared me enough until I said, 'Well, my neighbor, I think, deals pot.'" With those words, Sheryl and Milton began nearly two years as confidential informants for the police. Better-known as snitches, informants are considered a form of life lower than repo men, hated by the criminals they bust and treated like dogs by the cops they work for. But without them, there would be no drug war. Some police estimate informants play a role in 75 percent of their cases. Recruiting Sheryl and Milton was easy. They had lost their car and the $10,000 check in the arrest. Their home was searched by police while they were in jail, and later hit by burglars. They were evicted for not paying their rent. They were desperate, and drug cops from the Mohave Area General Narcotics Enforcement Team--a drug task force in Mohave County known as MAGNET--fed on their desperation. Eventually, they took part in a slew of drug busts along the Colorado River, and were in on Operation Aladdin, Arizona Department of Public Safety's self-celebrated investigation of nude-nightclub owners Omar Aldabbagh and Russ Abu-Hamdieh. Sheryl danced nude at one of their nightclubs outside Bullhead City; Milton worked there, too, and bought drugs while wearing a police wire. Snitching became a way of life for "the twins"--as they were known to the police. In court case after court case, they were referred to as "reliable." Although they disliked it at first, the job did give them a sense of pride, a place to live, and friends. That is, they say, until the cops went back on their promises. So they turned on the cops, and that has set off a series of events that has led to a recall campaign against Mohave County Sheriff Joe Cook.
Both the twins' charges against police and Cook's apparent attempts to gloss them over are par for the course in Mohave County, where sleaze in law enforcement is as common as 115-degree days in the summer.
Among the more publicized cases to come out of the county include those involving former sheriff Joe Bonzelet, convicted for plotting to burn down the county jail, and Ron Weaver, former Bullhead City police chief, who's pled innocent to charges of stealing weapons from the police department. Not to mention the two Bullhead City police officers who beat up a paraplegic.
"It's the groundwater," jokes Shelby Crouch, a reporter with The Standard, a newspaper in Kingman.
For MAGNET and the Sheriff's Office, the twins have become a problem they'd just as soon forget. The prosecutor has yet to ask them to testify in a single criminal case, and it's doubtful they ever will.
The Sheriff's Office won't even talk about the charges the twins have made since hearings are still going on and lawsuits may be in the offing. And while MAGNET officers in Kingman acknowledge they know Sheryl and Milton, they refuse to say whether the two actually worked for them--even though their employment has been confirmed by the Nevada Division of Investigations and by two criminal investigators for the National Park Service, one of whom worked in MAGNET, and even though Sheryl and Milton still have the confidential informant contracts they signed with the Mohave County Sheriff's Office. The twins' paranoia runs deep these days. They tape every telephone call. Milton carries a gun wherever he goes. They've bounced around for months since the DPS investigation ended in May, rarely stopping for more than a few weeks in any location. Sheryl and Milton are their police names. They fear reprisal from the people they busted, the cops they worked for, and even the sheriff himself. They're probably right. But you've got to wonder what cops who border on bumbling could do to them, anyway.
@body:It's the weekend before Christmas and Sheryl and Milton are still on the run, hiding out from everyone and everything they've known for the past two years. They live in Las Vegas in the kind of apartment hotel that boasts "low weekly rates, utilities included." The cars parked outside are old, banged up, rusted. Just downstairs from where Sheryl and Milton are staying, a man is leaving a room, smiling. In the doorway is a woman wearing only a button-down shirt. She smiles a "come again soon" look and closes the door. WarGames is on TV in the twins' cramped, $129-a-week room. The two lie on a bed--other than a chair, it is the only place to sit. The room's walls are plywood and there's a makeshift kitchen in the corner. The bed sags in the middle. The two have come to Vegas, they say, to "settle down" and get "real jobs." Since they were arrested in January of 1991, they've shuffled from cheap motel to cheap motel, from mobile home to mobile home. They've lived in their car, slept in a storage facility and camped in a tent in the desert. They've lived in Bullhead City, Laughlin, Page, Needles, even Oregon. Even though they've been burned by the cops repeatedly, they continue to take undercover jobs. Their most recent one ended just last month.
It wasn't always this way. The two were born three days apart in 1961, and they grew up down the block from one another in an upper-middle-class neighborhood in California. Neither went to college. She worked as a secretary; he worked in construction operating heavy equipment. Both were married and divorced (her marriage lasted only three months) before they came together. Sheryl wears tight blue jeans over white-lace pantyhose, dark eyeliner and bright lipstick. It's not hard to believe she could get a job in a nude bar. Milton's beard blends with his long, wavy hair. His gut hangs over his belt; he sports a tee shirt from the Mustang Ranch and steel-tipped boots. Both say they've never had a drug conviction, although Sheryl admits she's had her share of DUIs and has been in five car accidents; one almost killed her. Milton, a former kickboxer, says he's had minor brushes with the law. They begin to talk about the series of events that led them to the situation they're in now. As they are talking, Sheryl pulls a former occupant's gray, high-heeled shoe from under the bed; she later finds broken glass in the corner of the room near a window. "This place is a dive," she says. Most people have bad luck, but theirs is on a different level altogether.
When Sheryl was poisoned by what she says was "bad crab" in 1990 in California, her dream of becoming rich came true. She was awarded a $56,000 insurance settlement from the grocery store she bought the crab from, and she went out and paid $13,000 cash for a brand-new Mitsubishi Eclipse. She and Milton decided they would invest in property. Why not Bullhead City, Arizona? Land was cheap, the area was growing fast and the casinos were just across the river. By the time Christmas 1990 had rolled around, the two had used her money to buy "brand-new everything": two TVs, a VCR, tools. They weren't working, but they gambled constantly. By the time her last settlement check came in, they'd already blown the first two.
They figured they'd take one last trip to Reno. "Spur of the moment, late night, we just took off," Sheryl remembers. On the way back, they were pulled over and thrown in jail. Their version of what happened differs from the police story. They say the drugs were planted on them. That claim is bolstered by the fact that none of the drug charges they were arrested on was ever filed, and a paraphernalia charge was thrown out of court.
When the twins finally got back to Bullhead City--without their car or cashier's check--the locks had been changed on the house they were renting. After staying with a neighbor, they woke up to find their landlord cleaning out the house, throwing their things away. After the twins were arrested, Nevada investigators had informed MAGNET of the supposed drug find. MAGNET quickly got a search warrant and rummaged through the house, but found nothing. But somehow, a door had been left open, and the place was robbed. The TVs, VCR, tools and all of Sheryl's underwear and pictures from her modeling days were stolen. A police report filed with the Bullhead City police department states that there was no sign of forced entry. The landlord told police he found the back door open to the house a few days after MAGNET had searched it.
The two stayed in the house for a couple of weeks before their landlord evicted them for not paying the rent. Broke, with no jobs, they walked to their storage facility, where they slept the next couple of nights. When they got kicked out of there, Milton says, they slept in a tent in the desert. "It was kind of a drag to have to go out--I'm not a thief--and steal dinner," he says.
They were having little success in getting their car back, and by late February, the police offer was beginning to look attractive. So they went back to Imboden, the Nevada investigator who had approached them in jail about becoming informants.
Milton remembers his words: "He said, 'I'm going to introduce you to the guys that raided your house.'" While the Sheriff's Office refused to allow Sergeant Terry Flanagan to talk, the twins claim that the commander of the MAGNET unit in the Bullhead City area made lofty promises of potential income if they became snitches. On February 22, 1991, Sheryl and Milton signed up. @rule:
@body:From the beginning, neither liked informing. It was clear from their first "snitch" that they would have to live a lie, even betray people who befriended them. That first snitch involved the neighbor suspected of dealing marijuana. Milton agreed to find out where the neighbor kept his stash. He went to the neighbor's house, saw where it was and told MAGNET.
"We hated doing it," Sheryl says now. "The guy was nice. He let us stay over at his house." Their careers had begun. In March 1991, they got the $10,000 check back, but not the car. They used the money, among other things, to buy a pickup truck. Over the next few months, the twins would meet with MAGNET regularly, which put them up in a "sleazebag" motel in Needles, California. They began to look for drug dealers. They began to learn the ways of informants. "You go to bars. You talk to people. You talk drugs," Milton says. "You go out with them [dealers]. You hang out with them. And then you stab them in the back."
He is so confident of his abilities, he says if you gave him an hour in any bar, he could find pot. One undercover cop says Milton actually taught him how to simulate drug use. Although the twins both found "real" jobs, they got involved in their first real bust over the summer. It was hardly a scene from Miami Vice. Milton set up a deal to purchase a half-ounce of speed in Laughlin. The cops--including the DEA, MAGNET and NDI--rented a hotel room in the Riverside. The cops did their best to look like tourists, dressed in shorts and Hawaiian shirts, wearing fanny packs to hold their guns. But they had the wrong hotel. The dealer was actually staying at the Edgewater. "This isn't what it's supposed to be like," Milton recalls thinking at the time. He finally did the buy from a guy and two pimple-faced speed addicts--although he says he had to snort a line of speed to make it seem convincing. He gave the stuff to the police. The cops gave him $50. The promises of big bucks and help in regaining the car weren't materializing. Milton claims that the line of speed he did during the buy caused him to fail a drug test where he was working, and he was fired. But they stayed in. Then MAGNET approached Sheryl with a big idea.
It would involve getting naked and going deeply undercover.
@body:The Mohave Area General Narcotics Enforcement Team--a task force of police agencies around Mohave County in northwest Arizona--will celebrate its fifth birthday in April. The task force has been in on several big drug busts along the Colorado River, including the shutdown in 1990 of what it claimed was the largest indoor marijuana-growing operation ever discovered in the United States.
The Colorado River area is clearly ripe for drug busts. Task-force commander Lieutenant C.E. "Jeep" Doherty says his force has made 1,500 drug arrests since MAGNET was formed. Last year alone, he says, officers seized $35 million worth of drugs and $1.7 million in property and cash. MAGNET's activity mirrors the expansive growth of the tristate area around the Colorado River. Bullhead City's population alone increased from 10,000 in 1980 to 27,000 in 1992. But it is the gambling in nearby Laughlin that sets the pace. "It's the casinos, the alcohol, the transient nature of the population," says Mohave County Attorney Bill Ekstrom, who says his office is the third busiest in the state. "People come here to have a good time, get crazy. . . . There is a big market for drugs."
In September of 1991, MAGNET joined Arizona Department of Public Safety's investigation of Omar Aldabbagh and Russ Abu-Hamdieh and their topless bars and nude nightclubs. The Mohave County Sheriff's Office had been watching Abu-Hamdieh's Solid Gold, a nude dance club just south of Bullhead City, ever since the club applied for a liquor license in December 1990.
During the course of that investigation--called "Operation Aladdin"--snitching would become routine for the twins. But eventually, it put them on the run. In Aladdin's aftermath began the series of events leading to the recall attempt on the sheriff. @rule:
@body:Encouraged by Sheryl's modeling experience, MAGNET figured it could get her inside Solid Gold. First the cops had her get a job baby-sitting for the children of someone close to owner Abu-Hamdieh. When Abu-Hamdieh saw her, he did just what the cops expected. "He came in and said, 'You beautiful. You dance,'" Sheryl remembers.
The cops told Sheryl she would be in on a major investigation of organized crime, racketeering, drug dealing, prostitution, white slavery--you name it. She says MAGNET's Sergeant Flanagan promised a 10 percent cut of the assets seized from the targets' million-dollar empire, plus living expenses. While officials with MAGNET and DPS say Flanagan would not have made such a deal, the twins say he also promised they'd get $5,000 to $10,000 to relocate. If the twins didn't suspect trouble, someone else did. Says Ernie Soper, an investigator with the National Park Service who worked for MAGNET: "I remember thinking, 'How can Flanagan promise 10 percent of everything?' They were only involved in a fraction of the whole thing."
The day after Sheryl baby-sat, she agreed to dance at Solid Gold.
When she signed up, MAGNET moved Milton and her to a trailer owned by a MAGNET worker. They later spent time in various hotels.
The first night she danced, Sheryl downed a lot of Jack Daniel's. She was nervous, but she didn't expect the crowd to consist of who it did: detectives from MAGNET as well as other area police officers. "These guys were up there putting dollar bills in their mouths and leaning back on the stage," Milton says.
The narcs had Sheryl taking notes every day, but she didn't see much illegal activity going on. The place was high-priced and usually empty. Milton managed to get a job as a bouncer at the club, and he began to buy drugs. Doing the buys wasn't any easier on their consciences than before. "We didn't want to do any drug buys," remembers Sheryl. "We just thought this would be kind of neat to get people in organized crime." And some of Milton's buys didn't even involve real dealers. They busted one of Sheryl's co-workers and her husband. "She had a 2-year-old baby. She was pregnant, living in a scummy old place," Sheryl says. "She was trying to make ends meet. And we busted them."
Snitching was hard work. She worked eight- to ten-hour shifts, six days a week--she even worked Christmas--at $2 an hour. Tips were scarce. She spent several hundred dollars on lingerie, makeup and shoes, items she says the cops never reimbursed her for. Says Sheryl, "We had one day off--it was Sunday, and we had that filled with drug buys." Sheryl quit several times, but she always came back. And the cops, the same ones who couldn't get the right hotel on their earlier bust, couldn't always get out of bed to monitor her buys. Sheryl remembers one deal she had set up for seven in the morning. But she couldn't rouse the MAGNET officer. "I'm supposed to be anxious. I gave him [the dealer] my money. I should want the shit right now." But she had to change plans, telling the dealer nonchalantly, "Oh, don't worry about it.'" But some things were beginning to look up. The twins finally got their Mitsubishi Eclipse back from Nevada, more than a year after they were arrested. And the cops moved them into a nice house on the Colorado River. Sheryl remembers, "We had a nice home. We had friends. We had our car back. I was working regularly. The tips were getting a little bit better. The cops weren't there as often." It wasn't so bad, after all. They had become professionals--and they were good at it. "They're the best I've ever worked with," says Jim Houseman, an investigator with the National Park Service police at Lake Powell, who worked with the twins last summer. "He [Milton] can talk the talk and do the walk. He's very confident."
@body:MAGNET commanders refused to discuss Sheryl or Milton without signed, notarized releases, saying discussing the twins could jeopardize the couple's safety. Police don't want to be liable if anything happens to them. But if there is concern for their safety now, there appeared to be little while the twins worked for MAGNET.
The twins should probably have been moved out in April when cops learned another dancer suspected Sheryl was an informant. They definitely should have been moved out before the big raid on the nightclubs, May 29 of last year.
But they weren't.
"We were doing the warrants in Mohave County and nobody thought to get them the hell out of there," remembers Ernie Soper, the park-service investigator. The day before the raid, he says, MAGNET finally asked him to find somewhere for the two to go.
The twins didn't get out of town until about a week later, they say. It was then that they began their life on the run--and on their own. They had some help from Soper and the park service, and did some informant work near Lake Mead and Lake Powell over the summer. They tried to find drugs in Springerville, near the New Mexico border, but came up empty.
But they still weren't mad at police--yet.
@body:A birthday card the twins bought for MAGNET Deputy Paul Adams, who monitored many of their drug busts, reads: "At first we really couldn't afford shit, but we just maced, stunned and shot a few people and well, here we are with a little extra spending cash. (don't worry we didn't hurt anyone)--love you lots, 'Twins.'"
Adams had become their good friend over the course of the investigation. Although they never gave him the card, they did celebrate their birthdays together at the start of August last year. Sheryl and Milton weren't happy the cops had hung them out to dry. But it wasn't until they realized they weren't going to get all the money that they did the one thing they had learned to do best: They told. This time, it was on Adams. Adams had asked the couple to make a pornographic film of themselves, the twins say. One time, Adams tried to get them to go skinny-dipping with him on the Fort Mohave Indian Reservation.
But it was an incident last July that has set the county abuzz. The twins needed gas money, so they stopped at MAGNET's undercover headquarters. Adams had the unit's drug-surveillance camera set up on a tripod. He had soft music playing in the background. He said he wouldn't give them the money until she stripped, Sheryl claims. So, clad in pink panties, a pink bra and jeans shorts, she sat down in a chair in front of the camera, while Adams filmed her. Milton watched as she took her top off, and Adams put his badge around her neck. "It was premeditated," says Sheryl.
That incident, and its aftermath, are still being talked about in Mohave County. The twins told Ernie Soper, the park-service investigator, about the video. They also charged that Adams often had them sign blank expense receipts that he would later fill out himself.
So Soper went to the Sheriff's Office, and detectives in the office began to conduct an internal investigation. They interviewed the twins, as well as Adams. The deputy admitted to filming the striptease and having the informants sign blank receipts. But he put a different spin on the video activities--he said he'd done the filming at Milton's request, and that Sheryl herself had grabbed his badge.
As for the skinny-dipping, well, Adams said, "It was hot and I wanted to go swimming so I just dropped my shorts and jumped in." While he also admitted to having the informants sign the blank receipts, Adams said he'd paid back the money--which he'd spent in casinos.
But when Sheriff Joe Cook learned of the accusations the first week of September, he decided he would take over the investigation himself. Cook had plenty of problems already. He was up for reelection and it was less than two months before November 3. Another deputy of his had just been arrested and charged with 18 counts of molesting a 13-year-old boy. In a press release later, Cook said he took over the Adams investigation because it wasn't "fair" and "unbiased."
On September 17, Cook allowed Adams to quietly resign. Some of the original detectives investigating the incident before Cook took it out of their hands were furious that Adams wasn't fired. Word began to spread about what Adams had done--and had admitted to on tape.
Cook's opponents began to cry cover-up. "This would make Watergate look like shoplifting," says Gary McKenzie, chief of the Fort Mohave Tribal Police. McKenzie contacted the FBI when the twins went to him with their story.
About a week before the November election, a tape of the interview with Adams--in which he admitted to filming the striptease--was aired on KAAA-KZZZ, an AM-FM radio station in Kingman. The sheriff was caught with his pants down. He barely weathered the negative publicity and won the election by only 265 votes out of 41,732 cast. Cook did hold a press conference to defend his actions, at which he claimed Adams had resigned before Cook could discipline him in a "very severe manner." That manner was going to be a two-week suspension and demotion to jail-transport duty.
But the sheriff saved his harshest discipline for the employees who released Adams' confession tape to the media. He fired one, demoted another and suspended yet another. In response to Cook's actions, his opponent in the general election took out a recall petition against him--even before Cook had been sworn in for his second term. While Cook's career is under attack, Adams is home free. The Mohave County Attorney's Office decided not to pursue criminal charges against him. Typical of Mohave County, the office wasn't notified of the charges against Adams until more than a month after the investigation began. The sheriff hasn't said much about the incident, except that he denies a cover-up. He has been somewhat less than entirely candid, however. When several members of the media in Mohave County first questioned him about the "porno" video, the sheriff said there was no such tape. In an interview with New Times, Cook nodded his head "yes" when asked if the reason he denied the tape existed came down to semantics. He didn't consider a striptease "pornographic."
@body:The twins are on the run again. After the county prosecutor in charge of MAGNET cases wired them $85 at a Western Union in Las Vegas, they became paranoid that police would track them down. A member of the Aldabbagh family lives in Las Vegas, as well. And everyone at Solid Gold--now called Dream River--knows that they were the ones who spied for the police. "There was a girl, Sheryl, she ran into some problems," one dancer said recently, "so she came here to work for the cops. . . . Her boyfriend used to come in here with a wire."
For Sheryl and Milton, that's just one more thing to worry about. They are on their own, and they know it. They can't contact their friends from home, and they have few friends from Mohave left. At least they've had enough of working for the police, after a stint last month with another narcotics enforcement team in Oregon ended abruptly--they think they were let go because of word of the trouble they caused in Mohave County. "We kind of wanted to get out of that line of work, anyway," Sheryl says. But finding real jobs remains difficult. How do they explain their employment for the last two years? And, they say, MAGNET won't even give them references. The twins remain desperate, angry, helpless and vengeful. They were used, degraded and humiliated. And now they think they're in danger.
"We were put in the same position we were after we were arrested, except now we have our car," Sheryl said in December. Actually, they don't even have that anymore: Earlier this month, strapped for money, they sold it for $4,000 below book value.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.