A judge Wednesday said he was troubled by a “sneak and peak deception’’ used in a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration operation that allowed marijuana trafficking suspects to think a storage warehouse manager had stolen their nearly 500-pound stash when it was the federal agents themselves who took the drugs.
Jody Tremayne Wafer and his accomplice, Trent Lamar Knight, showed up at the Public Storage warehouse in Southeast Portland shortly after 9 a.m. on Dec. 2, 2017, after finding their storage unit empty, its door left ajar and broken.
They confronted the storage manager, pushed him into an empty unit at gunpoint, tied his wrists and ankles with duct tape and pressed a pistol to his head while demanding to know who had taken their pot.
They were stunned to learn the answer. “You trying to tell me the police took my (expletive)?!’’ Wafer asked the manager.
U.S. District Judge Robert E. Jones zeroed in on what he said was a dubious practice.
“That’s really disturbing to this court, this sneak and peak deception that law enforcement engaged in,’’ Jones said at Wafer’s sentencing.
The judge noted federal agents had been tracking Wafer.
“They knew you had a weapon and were going to go in there and find your drugs gone, taken,” Jones told the defendant. “They should have anticipated the conduct that could have cost (the storage manager) his life.’’
The agents had been monitoring the traffickers for months using GPS traces on their phones and cars, particularly after they landed in Portland from Houston in late November 2017. The agents even watched as Wafer and others circled the storage warehouse in a pickup truck before confronting the manager.
Yet the judge said the agents’ actions didn’t excuse Wafer’s violent response. Jones sentenced Wafer, 30, to seven years in prison for using a gun in the course of a drug-trafficking crime and for conspiracy to manufacture and distribute marijuana. Seven years is the mandatory minimum for the gun conviction.
Prosecutors played cellphone video of Wafer and Knight posing with guns drawn in a hotel room the night before and a second cellphone video taken by Wafer the next day that showed the terrifying kidnapping of on-site storage manager Shawn Riley.
“What were you thinking?’’ the judge asked Wafer.
“I wasn’t thinking. I was terrified,’’ replied Wafer, standing beside his lawyer in a black-and-white striped jail suit. “I just wanted to get the truth that I didn’t steal that stuff.’’
Wafer said he filmed the encounter to prove he hadn’t taken the drugs for himself. He was worried that the people who were supposed to get the marijuana would come after him or harm his family.
DEA agents had obtained a delayed-notice search warrant, more commonly called a “sneak and peak’’ warrant for the storage unit. The warrants allow investigators to search a house, car, computer or other property, seize evidence and not tell anyone until much later. That differs from the typical search warrant, which requires police to provide immediate notice to property owners.
The delayed warrants mean agents can avoid tipping off suspects and jeopardizing an investigation, while potentially provoking them into revealing drug suppliers or other connections in conversations on their wiretapped phones when it appears someone has stolen their cache.
The technique appeared to have backfired this time, imperiling an innocent bystander and blowing their drug investigation.
The judge noted that one of Wafer’s alleged main sources for the drugs, identified as Gary Chan, hasn’t been charged in the case. “Why not?’’ Jones asked the prosecutor.
Assistant U.S. Attorney William Narus acknowledged that the agents intended their seizure of Wafer’s marijuana to look like a “break-in’’ because they were hoping to develop more leads to pursue.
“The reason Mr. Wafer wasn’t arrested earlier was we’re trying to figure out the scope of the conspiracy, who’s involved in the Portland area, who else is involved elsewhere,’’ Narus said.
He told the judge that he couldn’t fully answer why Chan hasn’t been charged but said a decision was made not to do so. That could mean an investigation is continuing or the uncharged alleged accomplice may have cooperated with police, according to defense lawyers involved in the case.
The investigation into Wafer began in August 2017 when agents at Portland International Airport found $184,740 in cash concealed in a shoebox in a passenger’s checked luggage, according to Narus.
Agents discovered the money was tied to Wafer, Knight and co-defendant Brittany Kizzee, who they suspected of buying large supplies of marijuana in Oregon and smuggling the bundles back to Texas for distribution, the prosecutor said.
Investigators identified Wafer as the one who coordinated buying the drugs in Oregon, records indicate.
On Nov. 21, 2017, DEA agents seized 484 pounds of processed marijuana from the storage unit where they had seen Wafer and an accomplice load large plastic garbage bags. They made it look like a burglary, leaving the storage unit door broken and off its track, according to court documents and testimony.
Nine days later, Wafer, Knight and Kizzee flew back into Portland. DEA agents were aware then that Knight had checked a gun in his luggage.
The agents followed Wafer, Knight and Kizzee using undercover surveillance and GPS before, during and after they were seen going to the Public Storage warehouse on Dec. 2, 2017.
Wafer and Knight left the manager bound in the empty unit after promising to shoot him, saying “pop goes the weasel,” if they learned he wasn’t telling them the truth that “the cops” actually had taken the marijuana. Police were called to the scene to investigate the kidnapping.
About two hours later, Wafer and his two accomplices were arrested at Portland’s airport as they awaited a flight back to Houston.
Wafer’s lawyer, Barry Engle, said Wafer suffers from impulsiveness and intellectual deficits partly stemming from his past as a professional boxer. Wafer was the “exact wrong guy” for agents to try to “trick” through their “ruse,” he said.
“I don’t know why he was put in that circumstance. He reacted terribly to it and reacted out of fear,’’ Engle said. “I flat out asked police why they would do that.’’
The prosecution had sought a stiffer sentence of 10 years and five months for Wafer. Wafer was the ringleader of the Houston-based traffickers and made hundreds of thousands of dollars in profit by sending marijuana from Oregon to Texas and Virginia, Narus said. Wafer enlisted others to handle travel arrangements, package the marijuana and drive it across the country, the prosecutor said.
Wafer’s lawyer asked for less time. Wafer’s wife, Tiera Wafer, a registered nurse in Texas, told the judge she was unaware that Wafer, the father of their three daughters, had been selling marijuana but described him as a loving, caring father to their children.
Wafer apologized to the storage manager, who wasn’t in court.
“My intentions were not out of anger. I was terrified. I owed somebody $300,000. … I made a very, very poor decision,” he said.
Two Portland residents, Raleigh Dragon Lau and Paul Eugene Thomas, were indicted along with Houston residents Wafer, Knight and Kizzee on allegations of conspiring to grow marijuana in Portland and ship it to Texas and Virginia. Knight, 31 ,Kizzee, 29, Lau, 33, and Thomas, 39, have pleaded guilty to related charges. Knight and Kizze will be sentenced Jan. 22. Lau and Thomas will be sentenced next month.
— Maxine Bernstein
Email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow on Twitter @maxoregonian
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