Pubdate: Sun, 28 Dec 2003
Source: Pensacola News Journal (FL)
Copyright: 2003 The Pensacola News Journal
Author: Amber Bollman
Bookmark: (Asset Forfeiture)
Bookmark: (Cocaine)


How A Clandestine Operation Foiled A Pensacola Drug Ring

It's the ultimate in close-quarters surveillance, and it's something
that just doesn't happen in Pensacola.

Perhaps in high profile, organized-crime investigations in New York
City and Chicago. Or during large-scale South Florida busts that net
hundreds of pounds of seized drugs.

"Operation Sandshaker," the federal investigation into a cocaine ring
that led to 41 arrests this month, marks one of the first times
authorities in Northwest Florida have installed hidden cameras inside
a suspect's home.

"In 20 years, I don't remember any cases here where a judge approved a
court order to put video cameras inside someone's home without their
knowledge," said Pensacola attorney David McGee, a former federal
prosecutor, who frequently handled large drug cases.

"It does happen, but it's very unusual. And I haven't known it to be
done in this area."

Defense attorney Barry Beroset had the same reaction.

"I've never seen a case where they were recording inside a private
residence," he said. "I had one inside a business. But inside a home?
I think this is a first."

In October, U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson issued an order allowing
agents to install cameras inside the Pensacola Beach home of Mitchell
"Jackie" Seale III, a key figure in the cocaine operation.

The local U.S. Attorney's Office won't reveal how the cameras were
installed in Seale's home or give any other specifics. But Vinson's
order apparently helped accomplish what investigators hoped.

Seale and many of the others who were arrested were filmed inside his
home, snorting, purchasing or helping to package cocaine, according to
a federal affidavit.

With no viable defenses, Seale and seven others already have pleaded
guilty to drug charges. They face 10 years to life in prison at their
sentencings in late February and early March.

Jim Jenkins, an attorney for Sandshaker Lounge and Package Store owner
Linda Murphy, said he never has worked a case - either as a prosecutor
or a defense attorney - involving such "surreptitious video."

While federal statute allows judges to grant law enforcement officials
permission to intercept "oral communication and non verbal conduct and
activities" inside private residences, it's a measure that generally
is reserved for cases that involve the most serious of offenses or the
most elaborate of criminal operations.

Dick Hahner, a retired Drug Enforcement Administration agent, said
such orders are granted "very infrequently," and only when authorities
are able to show very strong probable cause.

"Anything of that nature is done very meticulously and only after an
intense review process," Hahner said. "It's not done frivolously and
not without very specific, well-reviewed evidence.

"It's not like you see on television with guys in black ninja clothes
sneaking cameras into someone's home on a whim."

Defense attorney Leo Thomas, who also is a former DEA agent, said
investigators must prove to the judge that they have exhausted all
other avenues for moving the investigation forward.

"You really have to have a good amount of evidence before a judge will
approve of something that intrusive," Thomas said.

"You have to explain what kind of information you're looking for and
show all the other ways you've tried to get it. You have to show that
this is the only way to prove what all the evidence you've collected
seems to indicate."

No easy feat David S. Katz, a retired DEA agent who now heads an
international security consulting firm, said judges are reluctant to
grant such court orders.

"You have to jump through a lot of hoops," he said. "Everything has to
be researched and documented and double- and triple-checked before a
judge will say that this is necessary."

Once law enforcement officials have been granted permission to install
video equipment, physically getting inside a private home poses its
own challenge.

"Basically, it's breaking and entering, but it's 100 percent legal,"
Katz said.

Authorities do a great deal of surveillance work, learning the
patterns of when people are coming in and out of the home.

If - as in the case of Seale - investigators also have permission to
intercept a suspect's telephone conversations, it's easier to figure
out when they are away from home.

"It's still a little bit dangerous," Katz said. "Because you can never
be totally certain that there's not another person in the house, a dog
or an alarm system."

Hahner, however, said agents are well-trained to find the right time
frame to get cameras in.

Authorities work to keep the physical appearance of the recording
devices under wraps, but Katz said they are "very concealable."

"Unless you know it's there, you're not going to find it," he said.
During his work as a federal agent, Thomas said he did more work with
hidden microphones.

"Even then, we could hide them underneath poker tables or in light
fixtures," Thomas said. "I'm sure they're even more sophisticated now."

Although no locations inside a suspect's home are specifically
off-limits, investigators generally position cameras in the spots
where they have reason to believe illegal activity is taking place.

"In a lot of cases, you have a criminal informant who tells you, `This
guy's got scales, and he's cutting and selling cocaine out of his
kitchen,"' Thomas said. "And clearly, that's where you'd put the cameras."

McGee said cameras generally aren't recording 24 hours a day. As with
intercepted telephone conversations, investigators work to avoid
listening to or taping talks that are not related to illegal activity.

"If a guy is talking to his lawyer or his doctor, as soon as you
realize that, you have to shut off the monitoring and shut off the
recording," Katz said.

"Unless you have reason to believe that this other party is a part of
the crime, those kinds of conversations are considered

The same restrictions hold true for video cameras, he

"You might turn on the cameras when a known buyer enters the home or
when you pick up on a conversation that seems to be drug-related,"
McGee said. "But you're probably not going to have them running all
the time."

`Quite a step' up The process of installing and monitoring cameras and
hidden microphones, he said, is "extremely labor-intensive" - part of
the reason they're typically reserved for such major cases.

Much more common in this area, McGee said, is a "bust and roll"
strategy, where law enforcement officials make a drug arrest and
convince the suspect to "roll over on" their dealer.

"You suit the suspect up with a wire, send them over to the person
they got their drugs from, arrest them, and get them to do the same
thing," McGee said. "You keep moving up the chain.

"Cameras are quite a step."

The number and location of cameras used in the Sandshaker
investigation and the probable cause offered by authorities to justify
them have not been released.

Although it marks one of the first local cases to include such
surveillance equipment, Beroset speculated it might not be the last.

"As things are changing and people are more concerned about security,
I think you're going to see more of the government being able to go
into places they weren't before," he said. "I think it's going to
become more common."

Court dates near for 30 suspects Among the 41 people arrested in
"Operation Sandshaker," 11 are charged in federal court, 30 in state

The 30 who face state charges are scheduled for arraignment at 9 a.m.
Wednesday before Circuit Judge Jan Shackelford.

Seventeen have entered not guilty pleas in writing and will not appear
in person, according to Escambia County court records. Others also may
enter written pleas.

Law officers say the 41 people are tied to a drug ring that has been
importing large amounts of cocaine from South Florida.

Eight of the 11 indicted at the federal level have pleaded guilty to
charges of conspiracy to distribute more than 5 kilograms of cocaine.
Two have pleaded not guilty; another has entered a plea that has not
been revealed.

The 30 people charged at the state level face an array of drug-
related charges, including cocaine trafficking, criminal conspiracy
and cocaine possession with intent to sell.

If convicted, they could face penalties including prison time, fines
and probation.

Federal and state officials also confiscated 41 vehicles as a result
of their investigation and are seeking the seizure of several of them.
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