FBI use of civilian informants raises questions after Timothy Forrest’s murder
BY KIM JANSSEN Federal Courts Reporter email@example.com March 31, 2013 5:18PM
Updated: May 2, 2013 6:06AM
Timothy Forrest had $15,000 in unmarked cash.
The meeting with the arms dealer was set.
All he had to do was buy an illegal arsenal of guns and hand grenades.
Forrest didn’t need the weapons. He was buying his freedom.
Forrest, a Cook County jail guard, was working undercover for the FBI after getting caught driving a truckload of stolen DVDs across state lines.
The equation was simple. Forrest had to give federal authorities some bad guys to put in orange jail jumpsuits, or he’d be wearing one himself.
He had already given the feds a couple, but he needed one more. And the pressure was on.
Nothing was going right this time. The arms dealer, Jerry Henderson, had reset the meeting place — twice. It should have been happening in a well-lit spot, as a team of FBI agents secretly looked on. But darkness was engulfing Forrest’s Toyota SUV by the time Henderson jumped in the passenger seat in a dingy south suburban parking lot.
Forrest handed over the unmarked cash, following the FBI plan, and speculated aloud on what some thieves would do to get that money.
“They ready to take me out for 15 G’s,” he said. “They don’t play s---, man.”
“You’re right because I be ready to kill a mother------,” Henderson said.
Minutes later, Henderson was gone, with the $15,000. The FBI agents were scrambling. And Forrest was dead, with two 9mm bullets in his head and the undercover wire still hidden under his clothes.
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His killing, on May 17, 2006, made for a few embarrassing headlines for the FBI.
An agency spokesman said at the time it had happened despite “all the normal steps and safeguards” due to the “inherent risks” in undercover informant work.
It wasn’t until this year, when Henderson stood trial, that the details of the questionable decisions made by agents in the case emerged.
Wiretaps and FBI testimony revealed Henderson to be a “cold and calculated” killer, Judge Michelle Simmons said as she sentenced him Tuesday to 80 years behind bars.
Perhaps more important, critics say, the new details show the “cavalier risks” that law enforcement authorities increasingly take regarding the safety of civilians working undercover for them. With no laws protecting informants in Illinois, and no official tally of undercover deaths, civilians are placed in situations that no sane cop or agent would accept, they say.
In Forrest’s case, they say, the decisions to agree to a last-minute change in location and to continue the sting past dusk in a poorly lit lot left Forrest critically exposed.
“This is a classic tale of what happens when untrained civilians are used to perform the most dangerous types of police work,” said Lance Block, a Florida lawyer who has represented families in similar cases. “It’s routinely done every day all over the U.S., but there are no checks and balances put in place to protect informants who are coerced into cooperating.”
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Forrest’s non-violent background made him a valuable asset to the FBI. It also gave the agency power over him.
Tough enough to have worked as a jail guard, he had, until his 2004 arrest, also been trading in stolen goods, his brother-in-law Donald Crowder said.
He ignored his family’s advice to “slow down” with the same misplaced sense of confidence that he approached his undercover work, Crowder said. A taste for expensive toys — including a Corvette and a Cadillac SUV in matching colors — kept him thieving.
But for a 41-year-old with no rap sheet, prison was a frightening prospect.
Worse still, his mother, Rosa, worked for the sheriff’s office, and his wife, Janice, also worked at the jail. Both were humiliated by his arrest.
“He was ashamed,” Janice Crowder-Forrest said.
Cooperating with the FBI seemed like a route to salvation.
“He would have done anything to stay out of prison,” his widow said.
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Forrest’s first two undercover busts went well, his widow said. But targeting Henderson, a-35-year-old acquaintance he’d told the FBI about, made him uneasy.
“He really didn’t want to do it,” Crowder-Forrest said. “He was scared.”
Still, when the day came, he put on a brave face. Almost immediately, though, things started going wrong.
The feds had picked a well-lit Menards lot on Sibley Boulevard in Dolton as a safe spot for the 8:30 p.m. bust. But when Henderson called Forrest to change the location to a nearby McDonalds, they agreed.
Then, Henderson again flipped the script, switching the location to the Dolton Animal Hospital. With just minutes to act, the agents were left to scout the third venue on the fly.
It was so dimly lit that Forrest’s handler, Special Agent Alan Bloniarz, later admitted that even with binoculars he could only see the “silhouettes” of Henderson and Forrest from his vantage at a gas station 50 yards away.
Bloniarz summoned Forrest, anyway.
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Henderson was waiting when he arrived. The weapons weren’t.
Henderson pulled out a handgun and, without warning, shot Forrest point-blank.
Too quiet to be heard by the nearby agents, the shots were nonetheless too loud for the tiny microphone on Forrest’s wire to process. None of the nine agents surrounding the scene knew they’d been fired.
Even if the agents had seen Henderson go for his gun, “it would not have prevented the subject from killing Forrest,” an FBI spokesman said at the time.
But Mike Levine, a decorated former U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration officer who is now a consultant for the State Department, told the Chicago Sun-Times the “barroom commando” decisions that the agents made earlier might have doomed Forrest.
Levine said that although he hasn’t studied the Forrest case, it was “insane” to rely on just a wire and a silhouette-view to monitor an undercover gun sting.
And he said that agreeing at the last minute to change in location is nearly always a mistake because a smart criminal — a real one — wouldn’t take such risks with his own cash. The target in a situation like that would typically interpret the buyer’s recklessness as a sign he’s being set up, Levine said.
Or, he said, he’ll think, “You’re a fool, and I’m going to rob you.”
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The FBI last week would not discuss the Forrest case or its handling of informants in general. FBI spokeswoman Joan Hyde instead pointed to a 26-page Justice Department document that contains only two sentences about informant security.
Former federal prosecutor Ron Safer said it was “in the strong interests of the FBI to keep them safe” and that agents try to make the best of what can be a “tough moral quandary.”
He’s familiar with the trauma investigators go through when that effort fails: Charles Banks, an informant who helped build a major case against leaders of the Gangster Disciple street gang, was killed on Safer’s watch in 1995.
“It never leaves you,” Safer said. “I’m responsible for his death, and that’s an awful feeling,”
Still, advocates for the current, unregulated use of informants worry about any restrictions to an invaluable crime-fighting tool.
“For every one that goes wrong, there are thousands that go right,” said Brian Sallee, a New Mexico narcotics officer who trains law enforcement officers in drug-bust procedures nationwide.
Sallee said the FBI is among the best at protecting cooperators. It gives them “the same level of protection it gives an agent,” he said.
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Two elements of the Forrest case raise questions, though, about that statement.
The first is an affidavit signed by Special Agent Michael Pavia, who’d been asked by Henderson’s attorneys to supply copies of any internal investigation the FBI did into Forrest’s death. Robert Grant, who was the Chicago FBI boss at the time, had told him there was no need for any such review since “no FBI employee was directly involved in the shooting,” Pavia wrote.
The second is a decision made by Special Agent Ron Reddy in the chaotic moments after Forrest’s killing. Two agents had been detailed to follow Henderson from the scene as he took off with the FBI’s cash. But when Reddy, who was supervising the bust, rushed to Forrest’s SUV and found his bloody body, he immediately ordered the agents to return to the scene.
Henderson wasn’t caught until dawn.
“It was because [Forrest] was dead, and I had concerns about their safety,” Reddy explained at Henderson’s trial.
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In the seven years since Forrest’s murder, his case has faded from public attention.
Forrest’s mother, who’d kept in contact with the prosecutors who eventually put away her son’s killer, wasn’t there to see justice done in Judge Simmons’ Markham courtroom last week. Last Christmas Eve, she died.
Nor was anyone in court from the FBI.
Lance Block — the Florida attorney who has fought for parents of other slain informants — thinks people should be angry. He drew a parallel to the case of Rachel Hoffman, a 23-year-old Florida State University student who was killed during a botched gun and drug bust in 2008.
Outrage over how the Tallahassee Police Department used a minor pot charge against Hoffman to leverage her into a deadly undercover operation led to the creation in Florida of “Rachel’s Law.” The first of its kind in the nation, the law requires police to make undercover civilians’ safety their top priority.
But Forrest’s case, Block said, “sounds worse because agents were watching.
“It’s a terrible dilemma for the informant: Either risk your life, or go to jail.”