A snitch’s story

Stephenson

Robin Fornoff

Zach Stephenson said he agreed to be a snitch because he thought he had a deal: Turn in drug dealers, lose the trafficking charges he faced after being set up by another police drug snitch.

So he signed a contract with New Mexico State Police and was given a code name — Arizona. That’s where he was born.

Court records show Stephenson tipped state police to at least one big drug bust. That resulted in two arrests, cocaine, methamphetamine, $1,300 cash and a stolen truck.

And when Stephenson said he ran across a powerful assault rifle stolen right out from under the noses of Clovis police, he said he did what a narcotics officer wanted him to do: He got it back.

Here’s his story, pieced together with court records, multiple interviews and audiotaped discussions with state police Stephenson said he secretly recorded.

* * *

Stephenson, 35, of Clovis, set the gun exchange up at the house of his longtime friend, Shelly Fris of Clovis.

Fris describes herself as a 50-something cancer survivor and sympathetic ear for Stephenson when he struggled with methamphetamine, marijuana and a string of misdemeanor arrests resulting from his drug use.

Stephenson said a man living with Fris’ former boyfriend brought the gun.

The price they agreed on was $800. Stephenson said he brought just $250, all he said he could scrape together.

The man insisted on waiting out of sight in another room, Fris said. Stephenson, in the kitchen at the opposite end of the house, handed Fris the cash and told her to take it to the man and bring back the gun.

The gun was wrapped in a blanket. Fris couldn’t see it, but she knew it was either a rifle or shotgun just from the feel.

As Fris handed Stephenson the package, the man in the other room began raising his voice. Fris turned to go see what the commotion was about.

Stephenson said he bolted out the back door of the kitchen at 3 a.m., clutching the assault rifle. He ran two blocks down Lea Street, then across Prince Street to an alley behind a convenience store at 14th and Prince and tossed the rifle in a dumpster.

Breathless, he said his heart was pounding so hard in his chest he thought it might stop any second.

“Get it together, Zach,” he remembers telling himself. “Think.”

He scrounged around in the dumpster for something, anything, finally settling on covering the rifle with trash.

Back in the house, Fris, who said she didn’t know what was going down, was trying to figure out what had just happened.

“This guy,” Fris remembers, “he keeps saying the cash is short. It’s not enough.

“I told him Zach parked out in the alley and I asked him to move his car. He’d be right back. Well, he just keeps getting angry, angry and more angry.

“It was like five or 10 minutes,” said Fris, “and finally I told him ‘I don’t know what’s going on here but I’m starting to feel real creepy and you’re starting to make my skin crawl and you need to leave right now.’

“Luckily for me he just left. I mean now that I think about it, he could have shot me or something.”

Stephenson finished burying the assault rifle in the dumpster. He said he dashed around to the front of the building, pushed through the front door, pleaded with the night clerk inside to let him stay in the back of the store while he called his police contact on a cell phone.

Hands shaking, he was barely able to punch the number for his contact, state police narcotics Officer Donald Garrison.

* * *

Hours earlier, Stephenson said Garrison told him that when he got his “hands on that thing, give me about 30 minutes and I’ll meet you somewhere…”

Stephenson said Garrison didn’t know the December 2009 conversation had been recorded. The dialogue between the two on the recording is difficult to understand and at some points is inaudible. On others it is clear:

“Get somewhere,” Garrison can be heard to say, “and I think — you figure out where you’re at. Just call me. Say, ‘I got the gun. I’m here.’ Give me 30 minutes — and show up. We’ll take possession of the gun. And then we’ll go to bed, and I can go to bed and we’ll work the rest of this (expletive) out tomorrow.”

Garrison’s supervisor, Lt. Matt Broom, declined any comment on the Stephenson case. He said Garrison would not be commenting and Garrison could not be reached for comment.

* * *

The weapon was an AR-15 assault rifle, the civilian cousin of the M-16, standard military issue to U.S. soldiers.

It was stolen one hot July night in 2009 from the trunk of an unmarked 1995 Dodge Stratus used by the Region V Drug Task Force. The task force is a consortium of undercover investigators made up of officers from various police departments across eastern New Mexico.

The car and the rifle were assigned to drug team members Waylon Rains and Steve Wright, who are also Clovis police officers. They left the rifle in the trunk after parking the Stratus in the Clovis Police Department’s heavily fenced parking lot.

No, said Clovis Police Chief Steve Sanders, it is not now and was not then a policy to leave weapons in a car at the end of a workday.

“They got sloppy,” said Sanders, “and didn’t get the weapon out of the car.”

Clovis Officer Sean Martinez was the first to spot the Stratus, the driver’s-side door ajar, the trunk open, body armor strewn from the rear of the car onto the pavement like ribbon from a parade float. He was returning from another call to log in evidence. It was 10:48 p.m.

“I got out of my police car,” Martinez noted in his report, “and noticed that there was also a gun case in the trunk, which I recognize to be one that usually holds an AR-15 but I found that the case was empty. Items, such as a tactical belt with a Glock (9 mm) handgun, were still in the trunk as well as other tactical gear.”

Rains and Wright were called. Rains told Martinez the AR-15 and one magazine of ammunition for it were missing, along with a police radio and battery.

Detective Charlie Aguirre arrived and took charge of the investigation.

* * *

Five months later, Stephenson said he stood in the alley at 14th and Prince with Garrison and another unidentified narcotics officer. Stephenson said they gave him a ride to a motel on Mabry Drive, along with cash to pay for a room. It was around New Year’s, said Stephenson.

* * *

On Jan. 1, 2010, Aguirre was told by state police Agent Joshua Armijo that the AR-15 had been recovered.

“I asked Armijo who did they catch with the rifle,” Aguirre wrote in his report. “Armijo told me that they got the rifle from an informant.”

Three days later, Aguirre met with Garrison, who handed over the weapon.

“He (Garrison) told me that he had worked with an informant in order to get the rifle,” Aguirre noted in his report. “Garrison told me if he filed any charges on anyone later he would let me know.”

Aguirre returned the AR-15 to the Clovis Police Department, logged it into evidence and noted the case would be “placed on inactive status pending more leads or new information from the State Police.”

No arrests have been made for the theft of the AR-15.

* * *

Stephenson said his relationship with Officer Garrison began falling apart soon after. Garrison, he said, wanted him to set up a buy with a known drug figure in Clovis. Stephenson refused, he said, because he feared the man. Stephenson said Garrison told him if he didn’t come up with something big, not only could he face the trafficking charges that got him into the deal, but theft of a firearm charges as well.

Stephenson said he went to his public defender, Chandler Blair, formerly of Clovis and now in private practice in Roswell.

In November 2010, Blair filed a motion in 9th Judicial District Court declaring the state police in breach of contract and asking a judge to enforce the original agreement.

* * *

Stephenson’s legal odyssey began after he was set up by another state police confidential informant. They met when Stephenson was in Curry County jail, serving time for another of his many misdemeanor arrests. She worked at the jail.

Soon after he got out, Stephenson said he ran into the woman, who began asking him to buy drugs for her. Because she was kind to him while in jail, Stephenson said he finally agreed.

On two separate occasions in August 2009, she picked Stephenson up in a car equipped with a state police undercover video camera. Stephenson is seen on camera taking $140 from her on Aug. 13 and $100 on Aug. 25. Each time Stephenson left the car, he is seen returning with a substance Garrison said tested positive for methamphetamine.

Garrison filed for and was granted an arrest warrant against Stephenson on Dec. 10, 2009, on two felony charges of trafficking in meth.

Soon after, Stephenson said, Garrison approached him at the jail and promised to drop one charge if he agreed to work as a confidential informant. Stephenson signed a contract, which is not among court documents but repeatedly referenced by law officers in court records.

“Stephenson made a number of deals and completed extra assignments as directed by the New Mexico State Police,” Blair wrote in his pleading.

“Stephenson never quit or refused to work.

“Stephenson assisted … agents in recovery of a stolen firearm,” the pleading goes on to say.

“Upon recovery of the weapon, Stephenson was told that one of his charges would be dismissed. The charge was never dismissed.”

Chief Deputy District Attorney Andrea Reeb said in a telephone interview the reason is simple: The contract Stephenson signed to become a confidential informant specifies he cannot commit a crime.

Reeb’s reference is to a September 2010 felony charge against Stephenson of receiving stolen property, unrelated to the AR-15.

He pleaded guilty in November 2011 to a reduced misdemeanor charge of attempting to commit a felony.

“He picked up new charges so that contract is null and void,” said Reeb. “Because you can’t go out and commit crimes while you’re working as a confidential informant.”

Reeb added that she hasn’t yet decided whether she will drop one of the trafficking charges.

Stephenson is scheduled for trial in April on both felony trafficking charges. He and his current attorney Jennifer Burrill, a former assistant district attorney, are concerned about Stephenson’s safety.

“I’m not only labeled a snitch out on the street,” said Stephenson. “I’ll be known as a snitch if I get convicted and go to prison.”

Burrill said, “Anybody who has been an informant for the police is at serious risk in the streets or incarcerated.”

Burrill said her plan is to prove entrapment by state police.

Stephenson said he did his best to live up to his side of the deal. He got a dangerous weapon off the streets and back into the hands of the police who lost it.

“All I ever wanted was some leniency,” said Stephenson. “They could at least make good on our deal.”