Informants for cocaine case have criminal histories

Posted: Wednesday, April 09, 2008

At least five of the nine people listed as informants or witnesses in a 36-count indictment charging two Juneau men with dealing and running a small organized crime ring in the city have criminal records, some going back into their teens.

Together the informants and witnesses are the primary basis of a grand jury charge that Vonnie Williams, 44, and Aaron Washington, 42, were co-leaders of a continuing criminal enterprise to import and sell cocaine in Juneau. The men are co-defendants and have trials scheduled for June.

Williams is held on $75,000 bail, and Washington is held on $100,000 bail.

Three women with long-term criminal records support eight of the 16 charges leveled at Williams.

Tonya Williams-Brown, 27, told state troopers that she was the source of "kilo after kilo of cocaine" delivered to the partners and is the source for 11 of 19 charges against Washington.

Sgt. Dave Campbell, head of Juneau police investigations, said that vice crimes are conducted by willing parties on both sides and that cases built around vice crimes, such as drugs, often include people with "issues" or criminal behavior.

"You're going to need someone from that lifestyle to come forward," Campbell said.

Authorities say that Williams and Washington used "mules" and mail to import pounds of cocaine from New York and Oregon for at least five years. No package with either man's name containing drugs was ever seized by police.

On Nov. 30, 2007, authorities grabbed Laura Johnson, 33, as she deplaned Alaska Airlines Flight 75 at Juneau International Airport based on an informant tip that she was carrying drugs. When cornered by police, Johnson, who had arrived from Seattle, produced 6.49 ounces of cocaine from a six-inch tube hidden in her body, according to court records.

Page 5 of the 14-page charging document claims that Williams aided in Johnson's possession of that cocaine. The felony drug charge against Johnson, for transporting "large quantities" of cocaine into the state, was dropped in February. The district attorney's office expects Johnson, who has past convictions for contempt of court and assault, to testify truthfully at a later date, according to records.

"I'm sure the defense will raise the issue of character," Campbell said.

An Anchorage attorney representing Washington said it's not uncommon for authorities to make deals with lower level criminals to get to "sources higher up." Sometimes the methods yield the higher source and sometimes not, William Carey said.

"Several of the individuals have histories that clearly make their statements suspect," Carey said. "As a defense attorney, I have to explore that."

Williams' attorney, Tom Schulz, was unreachable Tuesday.

Johnson's claims substantiate two other drug charges in the indictment, one for July 4, 2007, and one for Nov. 18, 2007.

Often, informants' and witnesses' claims are suspect based on their criminal records and the deals they made with prosecutors, Carey said.

The idea to investigate Washington's and Williams' alleged drug operation in a larger context, as organized and ongoing, came from state police after Williams was arrested by Juneau police in connection to a theft and forgery ring with six others.

The larger drug investigation didn't really get started until late 2007, Campbell said.

"We looked back to see who mentioned them in the past," Campbell said.

Police said they caught Darlene Hurlbut, 28, with an undisclosed amount of narcotics on May 9, 2003. Later that summer, the felony case against her was dismissed. Now, Hurlbut is the source of two counts of cocaine dealing leveled against Williams in the indictment. The state alleges that twice in the last week of March 2003, Williams aided Hurlbut in possessing cocaine.

Campbell said charges against Hurlbut could have been dropped for any number of reasons. He was not in charge of the drug unit back then.

"In general, from time to time, the DA's office enters into agreements with individuals with information we feel is important," District Attorney Doug Gardner said. "These agreements are discoverable and available for the jury to take into consideration."

Citing the open case, Gardner declined to comment on the credibility of witnesses and informants that have criminal histories.

Campbell said in his experience a criminal could be an acceptable witness in court where credibility, in part, comes from experience. Criminals have firsthand knowledge on the issue. Another component to credibility is honesty, he said.

"There is such a thing as an honest criminal," Campbell said.

• Contact reporter Greg Skinner at 523-2258 or e-mail

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