Drug case hinges on dubious informer
A Yakima woman is to be sentenced Friday in a federal drug case arranged by a paid informer with such a troubling history of rape arrests that Spokane County authorities refused to work with him.
Attorneys for Dona Reyes Heit, 37, argued unsuccessfully that drug-dealing charges against her should have been dismissed because the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s use of longtime drug informer David R. Palmer constituted “outrageous government conduct.”
Palmer was 55 when he died of end-stage kidney disease and heart and circulatory problems last September at Deaconess Medical Center – barely a year after a jury convicted Heit.
She was found guilty in August 2006 of possessing more than 500 grams of cocaine with intent to deliver and of conspiring to distribute more than 500 grams of the drug.
U.S. District Judge Edward Shea allowed Heit to present evidence that Palmer lied to a DEA agent in 1987 when he claimed, while seeking employment as a drug informer, that he had no criminal convictions.
However, Shea refused to let Heit present evidence that Palmer had been convicted of kidnapping a woman in a rape case, that he had twice been arrested on rape allegations that didn’t result in charges or that Spokane County authorities had “blackballed” Palmer.
“These are sexy allegations, but they are certainly not supported by the court’s ruling,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Tom Rice said in an interview.
Nevertheless, Heit’s new attorney, Doug Phelps, said he plans to raise those issues again when Shea sentences Heit Friday afternoon in Richland.
“I’ll ask for little or no jail,” Phelps said.
Nonbinding federal sentencing guidelines call for 5 to 5 1/4 years, but Heit’s cocaine supplier and co-defendant, 31-year-old Larry Howard Booth, of Pasco, got 2 1/3 years in a plea bargain that required him to give evidence against Heit.
Heit contended in court that she was a cocaine user but had never arranged a transaction for anyone else until Palmer responded in August 2005 to one of her Internet chat room offers of “erotic services.” She said her only previous conviction was for topless dancing within 6 feet of a patron.
A Drug Enforcement Administration report says Heit told an agent that, when Palmer met her at a Spokane Valley hotel, he offered her $3,000 to $5,000 if she could get one of her suppliers to sell him 2 to 3 kilograms of cocaine.
Spokane County deputy prosecutors refused in 1997 to accept any more drug cases involving Palmer because of concerns that he may have raped a defendant with whom he admitted having sex during a drug sting.
Sheriff’s Lt. Chan Bailey recorded that decision with a memo in Palmer’s Spokane Regional Drug Task Force file in 2002 after a task force member signed up Palmer as an informer.
Selby Smith, head of the Spokane DEA office at the time, said in an affidavit in the Heit case that he learned of Bailey’s memo in June 2002 – almost three years before Palmer approached Heit. Smith said he decided, based on his own experience with Palmer, to go ahead and use him as an informer.
Bailey said in his 2002 memo and in a January 2006 letter to Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephanie Whitaker, who prosecuted Heit, that members of the sheriff’s and Spokane Police drug units had told him they suspected Palmer of having sex with female targets of drug investigations.
Bailey said in the letter that police and sheriff’s drug officers told him they suspected Palmer of using his pay as an informer to buy sex and drugs from female drug-investigation targets without telling his supervisors.
Heit’s trial attorney argued that a transcript of a recorded conversation suggested the DEA agent working with Palmer in the Heit case didn’t believe she was a drug dealer and suspected Palmer had sex with her.
Palmer and the agent talked about how Heit could afford hotel rooms every night, and the agent joked that she might have given Palmer the answer in his living room.
“Yeah, sure,” the agent said, when Palmer said Heit told him she got her money by “bringing dope up here.”
Washington State Patrol Sgt. Kenneth DeMello said in a court affidavit that he confirmed another agency had listed Palmer as unreliable but that he couldn’t find out why. DeMello didn’t name the other agency.
Lt. Darrell Toombs, head of the Spokane Police Department’s Special Investigative Unit, said in an affidavit that his unit quit using Palmer because he had been blackballed by the prosecutor’s office and because Palmer “admitted to having a sexual relationship with a target.”
Toombs said he believed the sex was consensual and that the woman lied about being sexually assaulted.
Court documents say the woman told an investigator for the Spokane County Public Defender’s Office that she got into Palmer’s car to sell him some drugs and couldn’t get out because the door handle had been removed. She said Palmer extorted sex from her by threatening to report the drug transaction.
The woman said Palmer had genital warts, echoing a Kirkland, Wash., woman who accused Palmer of raping her in 1993.
Twenty years earlier, in November 1973, Palmer abducted a woman at knifepoint outside a Reno, Nev., bar and allegedly beat, robbed and raped her. He was charged with robbery, kidnapping and infamous crime against nature.
Palmer pleaded guilty to second-degree kidnapping and was sentenced to eight years in prison.
According to court documents, Palmer tied up his victim and drove her out of town in her own car. When she tried to escape after he raped her, he choked her and raped her again. He also knocked off her glasses with a blow to the face and stole the money in her purse before taking her back to Reno and releasing her.
She told police that Palmer was talkative, telling her his first name and that he was from Washington and had worked in a police station. Palmer also “told me that he thought he was between a psychopath and a psychotic and asked me if I knew the definitions,” the woman stated.
The police officer who arrested Palmer said he claimed to have been “working for the narcs.”
Heit’s attorney in April 2006, Assistant Federal Defender Kimberly Deater, said in court documents that Palmer moved to Western Washington in 1987 and offered to be a confidential informer for the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Deater said a Wenatchee police report indicated Palmer was working as a confidential informer for the Chelan County Sheriff’s Office when he was arrested in May 1992 on suspicion of second-degree rape. The alleged victim was another confidential informer, a woman with whom he had a romantic relationship.
No formal charge was filed in that case.
Palmer was again arrested in February 1993 when a young woman told Kirkland, Wash., police that Palmer, claiming to have a gun, forced her to go to a nearby motel and have sex with him.
According to Deater’s summary of police reports, Palmer was working with a police drug unit and claimed he was investigating the woman who accused him. Palmer denied raping the woman, and a Kirkland police detective concluded the alleged victim was lying.
The woman told police Palmer confronted her in the parking lot of a Denny’s restaurant where she had met him the previous evening. She said he showed her a photograph of a stack of money and claimed to be a drug dealer before grabbing her arm and coercing her into his motel room.
Palmer said the woman had told him she was married to a DEA agent who was selling drugs and forcing her to have sex with his customers. He said he was trying to gain access to the woman’s husband by posing as a big-time drug dealer.
Deater argued that using a man with Palmer’s history as a drug informer was “akin to sending out an undercover pedophile to troll the streets for truant boys smoking cigarettes.”
“It’s an unsavory business,” Rice said. “You’re not going to get a member of the clergy out there being able to buy drugs.”