Pubdate: Sun, 6 June 1999
Source: Sacramento Bee (CA)
Copyright: 1999 The Sacramento Bee
Contact:  P.O.Box 15779, Sacramento, CA 95852
Author: Gary Delsohn, Bee Staff Writer


Bam, bam, bam. She rattles off the stats like a basketball star admiring her
point totals.

Yreka, 33. Susanville, 22. Galt, 43.

Cherokee Miranda -- yes, it's her real name -- has put up some big numbers
the past 18 months, all in her role as an undercover narcotics officer
posing as a troubled, 17-year-old high school student searching for a good

The numbers cover arrests and warrants, and now that the 23-year-old
aspiring full-time police officer says she is swearing off undercover
assignments, she's willing to provide a rare insight into her controversial

Part of the reason she decided to talk, she said, was to rebut charges from
some family members and lawyers representing those who were arrested that
she used everything from sexual favors to constant badgering to entice
people to sell her drugs.

"A lot of people think doing this is wrong," she said last week of
undercover drug buys. "You do have to become friends with people first and
then arrest them.

"But what people seem to forget is if someone doesn't do this kind of work,
a lot of kids will wind up doing more drugs and get arrested for more
serious crimes later in life. I truly believe that in my heart."

Even in a beige knit sweater and slacks, instead of the tattered jeans and
T-shirts she usually wore at school, the short, stocky, auburn-haired
Miranda could easily be mistaken for the gregarious teen she pretended to

Since completing a 20-week course at the College of the Redwoods Basic Law
Enforcement Academy in Eureka, Miranda has spent the last 18 months
operating as a free-lance undercover officer in three Northern California
small towns. The academy director said he recommended her to the agencies
looking for undercover operatives because she was smart, had an outgoing
personality and looked so young.

Now she's looking for full-time uniformed police work in a small town in the
Bay Area, proud of what she has accomplished right out of the academy, but
anxious for a more traditional assignment.

"I'm an honest person," she said. "I can tell stories, but if I wanted to be
a liar, I wouldn't be in this business. It's been my job to lie, but that's
part of the reason I'm getting out."

In each case, Miranda showed up in the middle of the school year with a fake
past and a bunch of convincing cover stories.

She made up identities of Ally Hernandez and Victoria Lopez, names she took
from friends and relatives.

"I figured if I was able to pull this off, what would work best for me was
to take bits and pieces from real people I knew, so that's what I did. I
stole names, birthdays, stories. You name it."

The gold charm she always wears around her neck that says "Mom," a gift from
her 5-year-old daughter's paternal grandparents, was replaced with a Chinese
good-luck symbol. Because the single mother had to live alone in apartments
near each of the schools she worked at, Miranda only got to see her
daughter, who stayed with her mother in the Bay Area, every other weekend.

In some classes, like the one in Galt called "Family Life," she routinely
had to catch herself before she started to sound just a little too wise for
the typical teenager.

"No one in the class knew I had a child, but it seemed like I knew all the
answers to the questions before the teacher asked them," she said. "I had to
keep stepping back and making sure I wasn't hogging the discussions."

To keep boys from coming on to her, she told everyone she was engaged to
some guy in San Francisco, where she said she had last lived. To be extra
sure, she said he was jealous, hot-headed and was into pot, cocaine and

"I combined all the guys I ever dated in the past and made a perfect man,"
she said, smiling. "Except I gave him a drug problem."

That she can joke about her experiences even as defendants' families and
lawyers accuse her of a variety of sinister acts is testament to her
conviction that she did everything by the book.

"I don't know any of these people," she said of the nearly 100 arrests built
on her small undercover drug buys, usually for no more than $100. "I'm not
looking to hang anyone. This is not a witch hunt. This is about how easy
this stuff is to get and put into the hands of kids. . . .t "Besides, I
don't think a real friend gives drugs to a friend. That's betrayal to me.
Not what I did."

She played her role perfectly.

She fooled teachers who would sit her down and ask why she wasn't trying
harder or was coming to class without books. She went shopping or to movies
and arcades with students and got to know some parents -- including, she
said, a few who offered her dope.

She cruised around with adult drug dealers and even fooled local police.
While working in Galt, she was pulled over and arrested for possession of
marijuana and a handgun she had bought earlier from a Folsom parolee for

"She got brought into the station," said Galt Detective Garrett Wood, who
supervised the undercover program. "That's when we had to let the sergeant
know she was working for us."

And she had some close calls.

A few months after her first job in Yreka, where she used her real name --
"I saw no reason to change it," she said -- Miranda was working in
Susanville as Ally Hernandez and was at a party when one of the young men
she helped bust in Yreka walked in.

"I looked at him and my stomach dropped," Miranda, who is a mix of Irish,
Portuguese and Blackfoot Indian, recalled. "He looked at me with that
deer-in-the-headlights look and he said, 'What's up, Cherokee?' No one else
knew me there as Cherokee."

"It was scary. I had about 50 people around me. I didn't know who they were
or what they were capable of. It's a little like being in the frying pan. Do
you sit or do you jump?

She didn't wait around to see what would happen next.

Once outside, she heard the man yell, 'Lets get out of here, she's a cop.' "
The operation was aborted the next day, but she had made enough drug buys to
see 22 people arrested.

Supervisors in all three undercover operations, as well as Ron Kilpatrick,
head of the Eureka police academy, gave Miranda high marks.

"Every time we do one of these, you get allegations against the officer,
especially if she's a female," said Jim Parker, supervisor of the Siskiyou
County Interagency Task Force, the first police unit to hire Miranda, on a
temporary, contract basis, right out of the academy.

"We also know any time you put cops in schools, you generate a lot of
controversy. People up here seem about 50-50 split in how they feel about
it. But she acted in a very professional manner. She was very personable."

Some of the people snared in her traps see her differently.

In Susanville, Miranda went undercover for Lassen County's drug task force
last fall at the local high school and at nearby Lassen College, a two-year

Paul Berry III, a former wrestler at the college who opted for a jury trial
on two charges of marijuana trafficking, was the only Lassen defendant who
didn't agree to a plea bargain.

During his trial, Berry, 21, said Miranda entrapped him into getting about 2
grams of marijuana for her and that she had sex with him on one occasion in
the school's dormitory.

The jury convicted him on one charge in May and deadlocked on the other. A
conference was set for June 30 to determine whether to set a second trial
and to sentence Berry for the remaining charge.

"Of any person I busted, he was the last person I would ever have had a
relationship with," she said last week. "Both times, he asked me for drugs.
I didn't want to be around him. He drove me nuts.

"There are always accusations like that. The first thing they told me at the
academy was 'You'll be accused of having sex with everyone.' I don't think I
was ever really prepared for how that would just get thrown out to the

Press coverage, she said, caused her family, which was always unhappy with
her undercover work, to give her a bad time again.

"I'm always going to be looking over my shoulder for the rest of my life,"
she said. "When you're in uniform, the people you bust already know they
hate you and they stay away. If they form a relationship with you and then
they figure out they hate you, well, that's different. But they all know me.
I arrested them. I don't want anyone coming after my family."

In Galt, several parents of students who were arrested have complained she
badgered them to sell her pot or methamphetamine. "We're going to put her on
trial," said Angelo Vitale, a former Sacramento County deputy district
attorney who has been hired by several families to defend arrested students.

"The kids all tell me she was blowing coke and getting high with them, that
she was buying booze and was drinking with them, that she had sex with a
couple of them," Vitale said. "These are allegations consistent with the
other cases she was involved in. We're going to show there is a pattern
here. We're going to have some fun with her."

Miranda and her supervisors in Galt said such charges are nonsense,
predictable in undercover operations.

"She was sent in there to occasionally befriend people and then turn around
and arrest them and people feel betrayed," Wood, the Galt supervisor, said.
"I interviewed most of the juveniles arrested and they said, 'I thought she
was my friend.' This goes with the territory.

"We stand by the program. It was a success. We were trying to make a
statement that this city and the community of Galt is not going to stand for
illegal narcotics use in and around the high school, and that we're pretty
much making an example of anybody who does it."

To protect her family, most of whom live in the Bay Area -- she grew up in a
tough Richmond neighborhood -- Miranda asked that some details of her life
not be revealed.

She said she was raised in neighborhoods where few trusted the police. She
didn't either, even though her stepfather was a police officer. Her mother
is a nurse, she said, and Cherokee, who has six brothers and sisters, admits
to raising her share of hell as a child. She smoked pot, for instance,
something that disqualifies her from working in some, though not all,
California police agencies.

On the last day of her junior year, she found out she was pregnant by a
boyfriend she had dated since she was a freshman, but the relationship was
virtually over.

"I thought I loved him," she said, "but when you get out of high school, you
look for someone more mature, someone who can help you, not bring you down.

"I don't think my life was harder than anyone else's. Some of the things in
my past I wish I could wash away, but they make me who I am. I wouldn't
change anything about my life." She had to pass a criminal background check
to be admitted to the academy and a spokesman for the school said she came
up clean.

Describing herself as someone who likes excitement and acts spontaneously,
Miranda said she was bored and unhappy after high school and was working in
a doctor's office. When a cousin in Eureka suggested the police academy, she
jumped at the chance.

"It was a career move more than anything else," she said of her decision to
accept the undercover work after the academy. "It's not easy getting a job
right out of the academy and now I have experience and references.

"I really wanted to be something (my daughter) could be proud of. I wanted
to be someone she could look up to."

And while she maintains she's no anti-drug zealot, Miranda said she has seen
several family members and a few friends ruin their lives with illegal
drugs. If it takes undercover officers in the schools to bust a few young
people and get their attention before they follow suit, she is all for it.

"High school has gotten so out of hand," she said, "but people are worried
about hurting people's feelings and putting undercover cops in there. It's
supposed to be a safe place where kids don't have all that easy access to
drugs and guns.

"People have to decide what they want. More protection for their kids or not
to hurt anyone's feelings."

Bee staff writer M.S. Enkoji contributed to this report.

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