Chad MacDonald, a 17-year-old who snitched to cops about a meth dealer, was tortured and then executed in Los Angeles. Rachel Morningstar Hoffman, a pretty 23-year-old redhead from Palm Harbor, Florida, who loved to cook, was fatally shot in the head after she tried to help officers round up two guys selling Ecstasy and handguns.
And Bosco Enriquez, whom Miami police wired with a microphone at barely 15 years old to end a Latin gang's reign of terror in Miami, was beaten, sexually assaulted, and dispatched to Central America. These days, he lolls around his aunt's home on the shore of Lake Nicaragua while trawling the Internet, reading the Bible, and battling anguish.
"My Spanish isn't really that good, and there are no jobs here," he says. "It's hard. Right now, I pretty much stay home. I don't go out. I don't party. My aunt will be leaving in a month, and I won't have anywhere to live."
Over the past couple of weeks, I've told Bosco's tale of youthful malfeasance, redemption, drug addiction, and exile. He became one of the youngest members of the fearsome International Posse in the 1990s; then, when things got too hot, he approached police and offered information that resulted in at least 20 gang busts.
His horror story is emblematic of a bigger problem that lawmakers in Florida and across the nation have only recently begun to recognize: Cops employ confidential informants — sometimes very young ones — to bust criminals. But there's little oversight, and the result of police carelessness can be horrific.
That point was made frighteningly clear in a 1997 deposition in the case of International Posse kingpin Anastacio Villanueva, whom Bosco helped bring down. The teen's handler, Miami-Dade gang strike force officer Gadyaces Serralta, was candid before blurting out the name of his undercover informant.
"Bosco Enriquez, B-O-S-C-O...," Serralta said. "If you give up that name tomorrow, you can get that guy killed."
Perhaps Serralta didn't know that depositions are public information, so those whom the teen had ratted out could easily find his name in a court file. Or maybe he did. It's difficult to say. Serralta wouldn't discuss the case.
Says one Miami-Dade detective: "Informants always get you in trouble. They have their own issues. You just have to deal with them."
After feeding police intel to help arrest 16 gang members in a 1997 sweep, Enriquez repeatedly tried to clean up his life. He worked as a manager at a Denny's, a part-time bartender, and a sous chef at a Kendall eatery called Puerto Madero. He dropped out of school but then earned his GED. Charges were filed and then dropped when he tried to buy some marijuana in 1998.
Then, on January 19, 2001, he was arrested at SW 220th Street and 112th Avenue after he dropped a bag with four crack rocks out of a car window. He spent a day in jail — the first time he had been behind bars — before posting bond. Four months later, he pleaded guilty to a third-degree felony. The judge required him to attend drug treatment and pay $476 in court fees. "My lawyer at the time said I should take the plea," he says. "That crack wasn't mine. That guilty plea was probably the biggest mistake of my life."
Though he kicked his drug habit soon after that arrest, it would serve as the basis for his expulsion from the United States. "I was scared, always scared in those years," Enriquez says. "My past was never far away. Everyone knew what happened. It would come up. Fights would start. I don't even remember them all."
Enriquez broke his nose in one of those brawls in 2001 and again soon after that. One evening, he came home to find his parents and little brother frightened silly. Gunshots had been fired at the front of the family's house. His mom and dad thought it was Villanueva, who had again been released from jail. There was no proof, though, so they didn't report it to the cops.
On April 28, 2010, Bosco was arrested for walking out of a Marshall's in North Miami-Dade wearing a pair of shoes worth $399 "without even making an attempt to pay," according to a police report. When authorities checked the records and found the 2001 felony record, they began deportation proceedings. "It's a stupid story. It was my birthday and I had a few drinks," Enriquez says. "I had the money."
Authorities sent him first to the Krome Detention Center and then to the Glades County immigration prison, where two men sexually molested him, he says. (Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman Nestor Yglesias would not comment on the case.)
Finally, on June 28, 2011, Enriquez left for Nicaragua, where he has been living with an aunt and pondering his fate ever since.
"[The police] conned me into doing this, and I put my life on the line on seven or eight occasions," he says. "I wore a wire and they paid me $150. That was it. But what really makes me angry is that they didn't help me when I was thrown out of the country. I asked them, and they said there was nothing they could do."
To Alexandra Natapoff, founder of a website called Snitching.org and a law professor at Loyola University, Enriquez's story is "terrible...Our criminal justice system has appallingly little protection for informants. This is worst in the case of minors." (The Miami-Dade police training manual includes only one line about juvenile informants, urging that "parents or guardians shall be present during [an] interview.")
Natapoff points out that Enriquez's fate might have been different in California, which passed strict rules in 1998 after the killing of 17-year-old Chad MacDonald, who had been employed by police to help nail a couple of meth dealers. The state legislature moved quickly then to require a court order before juveniles could be used as snitches.
In 2009, Florida passed a law that ordered police departments to set standards for dealing with informants. It was signed by then-governor Charlie Crist in reaction to the murder of Rachel Morningstar Hoffman, a 23-year-old Florida State University graduate who was murdered with the very gun that cops had asked her to buy from two drug dealers.
The crime that cops used to coerce Hoffman into cooperating? She had been caught with marijuana and four Ecstasy pills.
State Rep. Peter Nehr, a Republican from Hoffman's hometown, was the original sponsor of that law. He proposed a much stricter law that would have required greater court oversight of informants, including very young ones. But law enforcement, he says, has a powerful lobby. And representatives are limited in what they can accomplish. "This was a very difficult bill," Nehr says. "I had a lot of opposition. Police and law enforcement don't want limitations."
Ironically, the only stain on the record of Serralta, Enriquez's handler, followed a run-in with state politics. According to police records, the now-lieutenant and his wife started a company called High Ridge Consultants one month before the 2008 election to support the campaign of his brother-in-law, state Rep. Carlos Lopez-Cantera.
Despite a six-figure salary, Serralta neglected to tell his bosses about the company, which was paid $22,500 and earned a $10,000 profit from Lopez-Cantera's campaign.
Serralta, who called the whole thing "an ugly misunderstanding" in police documents, was reprimanded by his bosses. After reviewing the details, state prosecutor Howard Rosen seemed to rue the fact he couldn't charge the officer with a crime: "While it may not look good to campaign contributors or the general public that a company wholly owned by the candidate's sister and brother-in-law made a profit on the campaign, actual work was done by them and there is nothing to preclude them from making a profit."
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Meanwhile, Enriquez is almost out of options. His aunt plans to move soon from the place he has been living. His cash is running out. He has contacted law students at Ave Maria University near Naples for help, but so far they haven't achieved much.
"As a kid, I made bad choices," he says. "I joined the gang out of stupidity, out of boredom, and that came back to haunt me. I take responsibility for that. But as for everything that followed, I blame the system, the whole system."