March 23, 1998 in Nation/World

Boy Tortured To Death Was Drug Informant Mother Says Son Felt Pressured By Police; Practice Called Unethical

Stuart Pfeifer Orange County Register
 
Tags:ethics

A 17-year-old Yorba Linda, Calif., boy who was tortured and strangled at a suspected drug house spent the weeks before his death making undercover drug deals at the direction of Brea, Calif., police, his mother disclosed Saturday.

Cindy MacDonald said through an attorney that although she gave written permission for her son Chad MacDonald to be used as a police informant, she told police repeatedly that she wanted to end the arrangement. She said her son told her he felt pressured to make increasingly larger buys to avoid prosecution on methamphetamine charges.

Brea police denied that the boy’s death was related to work he might have done as an informant for them but acknowledged that they occasionally use teens to make drug buys. The practice is opposed by many police agencies, judges and prosecutors, who argue that it places teens in danger, though no law prohibits it.

“If (the mother’s allegation) is accurate, it’s not only inappropriate, it’s unconscionable,” said Bruce Malloy, administrative officer for the Orange County Juvenile Justice Commission which oversees the county’s juvenile justice system. “That’s unethical police work. I’m sure the commission would not view this lightly.”

Brea Police Chief Bill Lentini wouldn’t say if MacDonald ever worked for his detectives. He said that MacDonald was not working for the Brea police on the day he died and that Brea narcotics detectives were unfamiliar with his accused killers.

“Regardless what Chad MacDonald was doing, 17 years old is much too young to pay this kind of price for a string of foolish mistakes,” Lentini said.

“But those mistakes weren’t ours. They were Chad’s.”

MacDonald had been an above-average student and avid snowboarder, but in the past year had become involved with drugs, friends said.

His mother’s attorney, Lloyd Charton, said MacDonald became a police informant Jan. 6 when he was arrested with about a half ounce of methamphetamine. He later was charged with possessing the drug with intent to sell, which carries a maximum sentence of four years in the California Youth Authority.

Juvenile Court presiding Judge Ronald Owen said typically a high school student such as MacDonald would be sentenced to six months’ confinement in a high-intensity drug-rehabilitation program, or to Juvenile Hall.

“If Cindy had been told by the Brea police that her son would be put in a rehabilitation program … she would have leaped at it, and her son would be in that program and alive today,” Charton said.

Cindy MacDonald called the District Attorney’s Office Feb. 24 and told prosecutors about her son’s work for police, Charton said. Prosecutors then told Brea detectives to stop using the teen as an informant, he said.

MacDonald’s body was found March 3 in a south Los Angeles alley, two days after he drove to a Norwalk home known to be frequented by drug traffickers. His girlfriend, who went with him, was raped and shot in the face. She survived.

Charton said the boy went to Norwalk hoping to set up a large-enough deal to satisfy Brea detectives. The boy told his mother that detectives said his three previous undercover buys were not enough to offset his arrest.

“Chad felt right up until the time he went to Norwalk if he could just make one more good buy that his legal problems would go away,” Charton said. “He was directly introduced to the Norwalk people by people he told, ‘I need a bigger quantity.”’

Los Angeles County sheriff’s detectives investigating MacDonald’s death would not say whether they are probing his work as a police informant as a possible motive for the slaying. Court documents allege that revenge was a motive.

“This is getting too deep into our investigation,” said Los Angeles Sheriff’s Lt. Don Bear. “I’m not going to confirm or deny anything.” Cindy MacDonald, her face creased with grief, made only one statement during a 90-minute meeting Saturday in her lawyer’s Santa Ana office.

“I want everyone involved in my son’s death held accountable,” she said.

Charton said the teen’s mother was planning to have him move to the East Coast to live with a relative and escape the drug culture, but was prevented from doing so because of the pending criminal charge in Orange County.

Cindy MacDonald believes her son would not have been killed had Brea police handled his case differently, Charton said. He said MacDonald’s mother signed a waiver allowing her son to work for the police only after detectives threatened the teen with a lengthy jail sentence.

“She said, ‘If I sign this form can I take Chad home?’ They said, ‘Yes.’ So she signed the form and took Chad home,” Charton said. “She didn’t even look at it.”

MacDonald wore a “wire” concealed in a pager during each of the buys. Police monitored his conduct nearby and arrested suspects each time, Charton said.

Despite his undercover work, Brea police eventually submitted the case to the District Attorney’s Office on Jan. 30 so charges could be filed.

“Do you think we’d file on someone who was still working for us?” Lentini said. “It doesn’t make sense we would file against someone who was working for us unless they broke the rules.”

If MacDonald drove to Norwalk to make drug connections, he did so on his own, the chief said. He questioned whether the boy’s mother has been misled by her son.

“Here’s a young man who’s into drugs. Do you think he’s going to tell his mother the truth about his drug problem?” Lentini said.

Lentini said his detectives use minors to make narcotics buys “only under a supervised situation.” He said he became aware of such arrangements only after MacDonald’s death, but he is now well-versed in it.

“It’s lawful,” he said. “We don’t do it without a signed agreement by the parent, under circumstances that we don’t perceive there to be a great deal of danger.”

Lentini said he won’t change the policy.

“If it’s established that never is a juvenile to be used, then those who traffic in narcotics become confident they can sell to a juvenile without any fear of reprisal from law enforcement,” Lentini said.

Several juvenile justice authorities said last week that Brea should have turned MacDonald over to the Juvenile Court system instead of converting him into an informant - a practice commonly used with adult suspects.

“If he was handled initially in Juvenile Court, spent some time in a lock-down, he may have decided drugs are not for him,” said Mike Knox, a Texas-based juvenile justice expert.

“There’s a big recidivist rate for drug users, so it may have had no impact at all. But we’ll never know that because this young kid is dead now. The dope dealers the youth helped the police catch were replaced the next day by other dealers. So was it worth the risk?”

Nancy Clark, who operates several drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs in Orange County, said she believes reports about the increasingly violent nature of juvenile crime have hardened police to the special needs of minors.

“I recognize the need to use confidential information in fighting crime,” she said. “But sometimes we have to sacrifice what we want because it’s not appropriate. The ends do not justify the means. This is a perfect example of that. Here we have a dead boy. Just because he’s caught with drugs does not mean he’s street-smart.”

The charges against MacDonald were not unusual in Orange County. Last year, 723 minors were charged with narcotics-related offenses ranging from being under the influence to possession and sales of narcotics, according to District Attorney’s Office records.


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