Pubdate: Mon,  9 Dec 2002
Source: Enterprise-Journal, The (MS)
Copyright: 2002 The Enterprise-Journal
Author: David Bruser


Like a rat, Henry Smith crawls into the dark, dirty recesses of southwest
Mississippi, blending into the shadows where he buys dope for the

Smith wears the "wire," recording the transactions for lawmen seeking
evidence for a felony conviction.

In legal parlance he is known as a confidential informant, or C.I. He fights
on the front lines of the drug war, the only connection to his allies an
audio recording device strapped to his body. It's a job long on adrenaline
rushes, but it leaves him feeling abandoned and hated by all, even family
and the cops he works for.

Henry Smith is not this informant's real name. That information, as well as
his age, likeness and any other detail that might reveal his identity, have
been concealed for his protection. But area lawmen say Smith has
participated in thousands of drug cases in southwest Mississippi and helped
put away hundreds of drug dealers - a long list of criminals with a virulent

"Been all over the state of Mississippi," Smith said. "Been shot at, had my
neck broke, arm dislocated."

A 2000 drug buy in Madison County ended with Smith pealing away in a car
amid a hail of bullets.

He and another agent had gone to a trailer park to buy $50 worth of crack
cocaine. While they sat in the car, a drug dealer approached, patted Smith
down, then walked into a trailer.

"(The agent) said 'What's up? ... Did he feel the wire?' " Smith recalled.
"I said, 'I don't know.' So the agent said, 'Let's go, let's go, let's back
up.' So I threw it in reverse. ... Looked up, saw a trailer door swing open
- - POW! POW! - and the guy went to blasting."

Smith learned later the car was outfitted with a hidden steel compartment
behind the rear seats that stopped some of the bullets. Agents had seized
the vehicle from a drug dealer who installed the compartment to smuggle
drugs. Smith returns from most drug buys unscathed, relying on his wits to
guide him through a world in which a blown cover could mean death at the
hands of drug dealers who loathe nothing more than a snitch.

Smith attributes his survival to time spent cultivating his street persona,
cruising neighborhoods, keeping current with slang.

"You have to go with the program. Back in '88, it was mostly marijuana. Not
much crack. But it's changed now. You get out there and mingle amongst them.
Lots of law enforcement officers are at home sleeping; I'll be out finding
all the hot spots."

While at one time Smith might have asked a marijuana dealer for a "stick of
bud," now he might say, "Where's that chronic, dawg?"

The crack trade also has its own ever-changing language.

Ten years ago, "You could say, 'Do you have a $10 rock?' " Smith said. "Now
it's different slang. They call it butter, or 'Do you have any hard?' "
Smith sometimes uses disguises.

"I change my whole, entire image. You might look at me and say, 'Damn, who
is that reggae man?' 'Who is that clean-cut man?' "

But Smith said confidence and wigs only work if he has carefully thought
through each detail of the operation - "because if you take your mind off
what you're doing, then BAM!"

Despite the risks, narcotics agents often need informants to make arrests.
"Our business is investigations. We're after the drug dealer," said Crieg
Oster, commander of Southwest Mississippi Narcotics Enforcement Unit, which
operates in four area counties.

"As long as there's crime, somebody will want to tell on somebody," he said.

"We're not saying informants are the only way we can protect citizens. It's
another tool."

Motivated by vengeance, reckless abandon, altruism or fear of a prison cell,
informants are men and women who are expected to gain the trust of drug
users and dealers and get close to the source of narcotics. Lawmen say most
C.I.'s are busted drug dealers who agree to inform in exchange for a
sentence reduction.

"You can't get somebody out here that goes to church every Sunday and hangs
with these people to buy dope," said narcotics investigator Tim Wroten of
the Amite County Sheriff's Department. "It has to be somebody that runs with

Smith said he started informing voluntarily. He likes hanging out with
lawmen and believes he's helping the drug users he plays a role in sending
to prison. Oster conceded Smith is not a typical C.I.

"He's done a lot. Why he does it? I think it's the excitement. It's a high
for somebody. It's the feeling that he's doing good for society."

But most informants are untrustworthy and almost always out for themselves,
lawmen say. Some even return to the scene of an undercover operation days
after a buy to hang out with the drug dealer, according to Oster.

"We don't trust any informant," he said. "A lot of informants are people
that are selling dope themselves. It's a game. We've come back and even made
cases against informants we've used. We're making a case on them while
they're making a case on someone else. It's a big game. Informants love to
play agencies and law enforcement officials against each other.

"The biggest problem is that they don't listen to what we tell them to do.
They think that they can do things their way. It's almost like babysitting,
to stay on top of them, to make sure they're not breaking the law." * * *

Smith says such perceptions of C.I.'s don't apply to him. He resents being
called a rat.

"I'm not a snitch," he said. "I'm a C.I. A C.I. is a paid confidential
informant. A snitch is someone who got busted for drugs and he's got to tell
on somebody to save his own butt. It's a difference.

"I get out there and put my life on the line. ... What did I get out of it?
No appreciation," he said. "A drug dealer already told my uncle what he's
going to do if he catches me."

Working as a C.I., with its odd hours and days spent testifying in court,
makes it difficult to hold a steady job. There have been times, Smith
remembered, when "I didn't have jack. ... I didn't have eye water to cry

In the past, some of Smith's employers grew suspicious of his court
summonses and chose not to believe his explanation.

"They want to know what you're subpoenaed for. Then you go back and they
say, 'Well, I'm sorry, we don't have a job for you.' "

Some local lawmen wished Smith did not talk with the Enterprise-Journal
about his line of work, fearing he might reveal undercover operation details
and compromise the work of future informants. They also worried a
disgruntled dope dealer would read the story, discover Smith's identity and
hunt him down.

But Smith said his identity is no longer a secret in some area counties.

"I got burnt. That means when everybody around knows you're here and
everybody's out to get you."

But Smith doesn't worry about drug dealers recognizing his face; a wad of
money and an unfamiliar car usually quell suspicions, he said.

While he bought a $50 slab of crack cocaine in McComb, friends of the dealer
recognized Smith's car from another deal at a different location.

"I go to the house, pull up the driveway, knocked on the door, said I want a
50 slab. He went inside. Two guys pull in behind. They said, 'Who's car is
that? ... Whoever has that car is the po-lice.' "

One man hit Smith, who struck back and tried to flee on foot before another
man kicked him in the groin. Smith said agents heard the scuffle through the
wire and rushed to the scene.

"Wasn't nothing nice, but I come up outta there."
- ---
MAP posted-by: Josh