Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Fake drug enforcement officer fools small Missouri town

A story in the NYT tells of a drug enforcement officer who showed up in Gerald, Missouri, population 1,171, where methamphetamine production and use had been a problem for years. The officer conducted searches and made arrests, and it appeared that the drug scourge was coming under control. Problem was, as the headline for Monica Davey's story suggests, the officer wasn't an officer at all. Here's an excerpt from "Drug Arrests Were Real, the Badge Was Fake."

Sergeant Bill, it turned out, was no federal agent, but Bill A. Jakob, an unemployed former trucking company owner, a former security guard, a former wedding minister and a former small-town cop from 23 miles down the road.

* * *

How did Mr. Jakob wander into town and apparently leave the mayor, the aldermen and pretty much everyone else he met thinking that he was a federal agent delivered from Washington to help barrel into peoples’ homes and clean up Gerald’s drug problem? And why would anyone — receiving no pay and with no known connection to little Gerald, 70 miles from St. Louis and not even a county seat — want to carry off such a time-consuming ruse in the first place?

* * *

In addition to having a badge and a car that seemed to scream law enforcement, Mr. Jakob offered federal drug enforcement help, Mr. Schulte said. (Local officials thought the offer must have somehow grown out of their recent application for a federal grant for radio equipment.)

What a legal mess! Surely evidence gathered during Jakob's arrests cannot be used to support charges? However, the apparent complicity of local law enforcement officers does complicate things somewhat.

Another segment of the story highlights the lack of anonymity that marks rural communities, in particular its consequences for residents that Jakob wrongfully arrested. One such person is Mike Withington, a 49-year-old concrete finisher whom Jakob made a show of arresting, but against whom charges were never brought.

But the mortification of that day, Mr. Withington said, has kept him largely indoors and led him to consider moving. Since the search, residents have tossed garbage and crumpled boxes of Sudafed (which has an ingredient that can be used to make methamphetamine) on his lawn, he said, and he no longer shops in town, instead driving miles to neighboring towns.

“Everybody is staring at me,” he said. “People assume you’re guilty when things like this happen.”

This, of course, raises yet more legal issues, such as defamation. It makes me think that damage to reputation might be more easily proved in rural and small-town contexts such as this.

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