Saturday, May 17, 2008

FAKE DEA AGENT FOOLS LOCAL COPS

ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH Gerald, MO - The manager over at Wally's Hardware knew something unusual - yet again - was going down when he got the call Monday to change the locks at City Hall. Steve Mills was not entirely surprised. The last several months had been discomforting ones for this town of 1,200 residents in Franklin County. Police chiefs kept coming, then going. The town's only pharmacist was arrested last week in a methamphetamine bust. And the town dogcatcher was fired earlier this year for shooting and killing cats.

Now someone else needed to be kept out of City Hall. But the reason was the most peculiar yet: A man thought to be a federal drug agent, who had spent months alongside police kicking down doors and making arrests, turned out not to be an agent of any stripe. He duped officials for months, pretending to be on loan from the Drug Enforcement Agency. As his story recently unraveled and the fallout began, the police chief and two officers were fired from the five-member department.

So the locks at City Hall needed to be changed. "Gerald is a good town, a good community," Mills said Wednesday as he worked at the hardware store. "But it does feel like there's been a lot of commotion or upheaval lately."

Investigators were still trying to sort fact from fiction in the story of the fake DEA agent. They know this much, or think they do: He is a 36-year-old man from Washington, Mo. He is married. He never was a federal agent. He was arrested and released Monday. No charges had been filed, so the Post-Dispatch is not using his name. The Franklin County Sheriff's Department, Missouri Highway Patrol and FBI are investigating. The fake agent seemed to know the ins and outs of law enforcement, according to investigators and those who worked with him.

He drove a cream-colored Ford Crown Victoria with a siren bar and police radio. He was known for wearing a black T-shirt with "Police" emblazoned across the chest and dark tactical pants with pockets down the sides. He carried a gun in a side holster. He had a federal ID card and an official-looking badge. He was sturdily built and clean-cut. "He was everything that you'd think a federal office would be," Mayor Otis Schulte said.

About three months ago, the fake agent just showed up at the police station, housed inside the blond-brick city hall, Schulte said. The newcomer said he was a DEA agent and part of a regional drug task force. The DEA was footing his bill, he explained, and when he left, he would leave behind his cruiser.

It was an appealing offer for the small, financially strapped department in a region with a reputation as one of the meth-lab capitals of the nation.

He even provided a phone number for Gerald officials to verify everything, Schulte said. The number was answered by a message for something called the "multi-jurisdictional task force." One time a woman answered saying the same thing, promising to pass along the message, Schulte said.

"We trusted him," said Sarah Wheeler, the city clerk. "He came across as an actual federal agent, a good guy."

The ruse might have lasted longer except the fake agent's rough ways led to calls to a local weekly newspaper, the Gasconade County Republican. Reporter Linda Trest heard from people who claimed a brash, new DEA agent was kicking down doors without search warrants.

The agent even took part in the arrest of Gerald's pharmacist. Trest recalled running into the agent outside the pharmacist's house, next door to her own.

Trest was doubtful at first - she knew that people wrapped up in drug raids rarely make reliable sources. But she kept digging. Last month, she called Franklin County Sheriff Gary Toelke and asked him if he had heard about this DEA agent loaned to Gerald police. Toelke started poking around and discovered they had a rogue officer or agent or whoever he said he was.

"This was a mess," Toelke said.

Trest, whose story hit doorsteps Wednesday, suspected officials were fooled by the fake agent's "razzle-dazzle."

The impostor seems to have claimed at different times to be an Iraq War veteran, a retired Air Force chaplain and a father of two. He may have worked briefly at the Treasury Department in St. Louis. He claimed to have worked for police departments in Kinloch, East St. Louis and Sauget. But investigators were doubtful about what to believe.

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