By Doug Carman
A recent drug sting turned into a prank on the Odessa Police Department that spawned a viral Internet video still making the rounds all over the blogosphere.
But, depending on who you choose to believe, the prank was either a vile trick on the OPD by a man with an axe to grind or the last resort of a desperate father who believes his daughter sits in prison because of police corruption.
Either way - it's a complicated mess.
The Internet buzz (view at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EHmP_KtmcB4) shows footage of a Dec. 4 OPD raid at 232 Lotteman Drive. As of Dec. 18, it has had more than 170,000 hits, not to mention numerous threads and blogs on it.
The police are real - they are serving a search warrant on the address, which they (in a probable cause statement obtained by the Odessa American) believe is a marijuana grow house. They were acting on an anonymous letter dropped off at the OPD and on their own observations of the home.
Instead of a grow house, however, OPD officers stumble into an elaborate ruse. The home does contain grow lights - but the only plants are miniature Christmas trees.
Handlettered posters tell the police that they've been set up and they are going to be part of a new reality TV show.
"There is nobody in the house and nothing illegal has happened," read one poster pinned to the wall.
The set-up was performed by a group calling themselves Kopbusters.com. Barry Cooper, CEO of Kopbusters and a former narcotics investigator with the Permian Basin Drug Task Force, said he did this to "get (convicted methamphetamine dealer) Yolanda (Madden) out of prison and to shed light on Fourth Amendment violations conducted by police across the nation every day."
He and Yolanda's father, Raymond Madden, say they believe officers used an informant to plant methamphetamine on Yolanda Madden in 2005. Raymond Madden and court records said Yolanda's daughter was with her at the time of the bust. She was convicted in 2006 and is serving a six-and-a-half-years prison term. Several appeals have been dismissed by the courts since then.
Barring a favorable outcome in a civil suit scheduled for trial in March, Raymond Madden did not expect Yolanda to be released before her sentence expires at the end of 2011.
"We believed in the system. We were totally stupid and totally naïve," Madden said.
After his previous appeal failed, he wanted to prove the system that got Yolanda in Bryan for 78 months didn't work.
Raymond complained that the Odessa American and other local media outlets were not reporting on the case and the tactics police used to arrest his daughter.
So, he sought out and hired Kopbusters to perform the stunt because, as he put it, he wanted "the truth to come out."
"I had to do what I had to do," Madden said. "This is national now... it's on 25,000 websites now... it's going to be picked up (by the media).
"I don't care what everybody believes, I'm in this for my own daughter," he later added.
Raymond Madden said he sought out Cooper and Kopbusters more than six months ago to investigate his daughter's conviction. Madden said he knew the hoax was brewing but had no knowledge of exactly what it involved or how it was going to be done.
"All they did was tell me ... when it went down," he said. "They kept me out of this."
Both Madden and Cooper wouldn't say how much Kopbusters was paid. Cooper went further, saying the fact that he was hired "doesn't mean there's a monetary exchange... that's not anybody's business. There was an agreement made between Madden and I, for me to work with him."
According to a copy of the search affidavit and search warrant obtained from 358th District Judge Bill McCoy's office by the Odessa American, the police received an anonymous letter on Dec. 3 left at the police station's front desk by Terry Pierce, the pastor of the First Church of the Nazarene in Odessa.
This letter stated it was penned by the ex-girlfriend of an Ohio man who was getting ready to harvest 80 marijuana plants at a supposed grow house at 232 Lotteman Drive.
Pierce, however, said he never delivered any letter to the police station and that he's never heard of Yolanda Madden. In the sworn affidavit, it clearly details that the anonymous letter was delivered by Pierce. Cooper won't say if Kopbusters was involved in the anonymous letter.
When asked about Pierce's role in the affidavit, Odessa Police Cpl. Sherrie Carruth said the department considered the aftermath of the raid an open investigation and refused to comment. Messages to Police Chief Tim Burton on why the sworn affidavit said Pierce delivered the letter when he did not were deferred to Carruth.
The anonymous letter stated that an Ohio man had a silver Nissan Versa with the license plates removed "so nobody knows he is from Ohio." It also stated the vehicle's usually parked near the house, which had tin foil covering the windows, an air conditioner near the bedroom window, and $19,000 in cash stuffed in the fireplace, of which $1,000 was taken by the author of the letter.
OPD Officer Jesse Garcia, the affiant, said in the affidavit that detectives observed the house Dec. 4. Detectives Maureen Fletcher and Jesse Duarte saw the vehicle described in the letter, saw the tin foil, noted the air conditioning unit and a chimney. Cpl. Brad Davis later observed a man walking in and out of the house.
Detectives also determined that the renter was Jennifer Moore, whose prior residence was in Sherwood, Ohio, the affidavit stated.
Later that day, Garcia requested a search warrant on that information. McCoy signed it, and the raid went from there.
Property records indicated the house was owned by Amanda Bowen, who has family in the Odessa area.
Attempts to reach any of the four officers mentioned in the affidavit have been unsuccessful.
A message left to a relative of Bowen's was also not returned.
What's the point?
The point, both Cooper and Raymond Madden claim, is that the elaborate hoax proves that the OPD plays fast and loose with the rules. Not just in the case of this particular search warrant but also in what Madden says is the framing of his daughter.
How does it prove it? Cooper pointed out that the affidavit never made mention of any odor of marijuana. The anonymous letter stated that an odor would come out of the air conditioner since the plants were supposedly near it.
"They have to detect with one of their senses or a reliable confidential informant," Cooper said. "McCoy signed a bad search warrant."
Rex Leach, a former Limestone County district attorney who currently works with the Atlas & Hall legal firm in McAllen, said it would strengthen the case if the affiant or the informant could physically sense that there were narcotics there.
However, it isn't necessary, Leach said. What the affidavit needs to do is set up a set of circumstances that make it probable that there's something illegal going on there.
McCoy himself would not state any threshold he would have as far as evidence goes when signing a search warrant, only saying he looks for "probable cause."
"Every one is different. It is a subjective call," he said. "Taking the search warrant as a whole, it appeared that probable cause existed and time was of the essence."
Cooper said he doesn't believe an anonymous letter qualified as a "reliable confidential informant." Cooper would not say who wrote the anonymous letter used or whether it involved anyone working with Kopbusters.
"Anybody could have written that letter," Cooper said. "The cops could have written the letter. The preacher could have written that letter. The next door neighbor could have written that letter. It's an anonymous letter and anonymous letters do not bear enough weight to raid a home."
And the police observations? "That's not probable cause, that's just confirming the description in the letter," Cooper added.
Cooper seems to be OK with the deceptive information given in the anonymous letter to the OPD and remains staunchly in Yolanda Madden's corner. When asked about the 80 marijuana plants the letter mentioned should be in the house he shrugged the question off.
"I would admit deception was used by the police... deception was used to put Yolanda in prison," Cooper responded.
After reading the affidavit, attorney Leach said he thought the strength of the evidence in it was straddling the line.
"I would think this is a borderline one, probably enough to get across the line but not a particularly strong affidavit," Leach said. "Had someone been arrested, I would expect a defense lawyer to criticize it."
How would the search affidavit hold in court? "He (a defense attorney) could certainly make a good-faith argument that it wasn't sufficient, but knowing Texas judges, the likelihood is they would still let the prosecution use it and let the defendant use it as a point of appeal."
Like Cooper, Leach pointed out that the letter came from a source that was totally anonymous and without a reliable track record. Usually, a so-called anonymous informant in an affidavit has been used by the officers several times before and has been proven reliable.
In the end, Leach said, "if you just wanted to harass somebody... you go in, turn in an anonymous letter, make sure some of the items in the letter is accurate. You can set people up and that's why the magistrate's supposed to be some sort of gatekeeper."
The Basis for the Search
Judge McCoy and Chief Burton defended the narcotics investigators' raid, even after knowing all that transpired. Burton also defended the fact that it was done solely on information given in an anonymous tip and two surveillance drive-bys done by his officers.
"The officers followed procedures in a lawful manner," Burton said. "In a vast majority of cases it's (the anonymous tips) brought forward in good faith. The difference of course, this info was not brought in good faith.
"It was purposely designed to lead the police officers astray and that's a disservice not only to the men and women here but to the citizens of Odessa," he added.
Burton said his department was still seeing if it could press charges in connection to the set-up.
As to the video of the raid released by Kopbusters and the chatter it generated on the Internet, Burton's response was muted.
"It's impossible for me to comment on an innocuous and vague group of people offering anonymous comments," he said.
Meanwhile, Cooper said he was filing the paperwork so he could sue McCoy and the city of Odessa over the raid, and was planning another set-up on the OPD investigators within six months. He also said he was setting up pranks elsewhere as he was going to make a new reality TV show out of them, but he would not disclose where those other pranks would be.
Who are they?
>> Yolanda Madden: She's serving 78 months without possibility of parole on a federal conviction of possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine within 1,000 feet of a park at the Bryan Federal Prison Camp. She is expected to be released Dec. 31, 2011.
>> Raymond Madden: Yolanda's dad and chief champion. He insists his daughter was set up by crooked cops.
>> Barry Cooper: CEO of Kopbusters and a former narcotics investigator with the Permian Basin Drug Task Force. Cooper also produced a video for sale called "Never Get Busted Again" that showed viewers how to "conceal their stash," "avoid narcotics profiling" and "fool canines every time."
>> 358th District Judge Bill McCoy: Signed a search warrant to search the home at 232 Lotteman Drive, which turned out to be an elaborate ruse by Kopbusters.
>> OPD Chief Tim Burton: Says the ruse was a disservice to the OPD and to all Odessans.
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