The Hotel Six Joker Turns Wild

A chance encounter and a federal feud endanger the sting

Underscoring the sense that the government case had been damaged by the defense assaults on Molineiro's credibility was the response of the prosecution. As soon as the informant finished his marathon stay on the stand Friday, within ten minutes, FBI agent Bob Dogium was narrating a highly incriminating tape of City Councilman Mike Yarbrough admitting receiving a $1,500 bribe from Reyes and then taking more cash while FBI cameras rolled.

It was as if the prosecution had decided to trump a defense sleaze card with its last ace in the hole.

How the feds went to trial without knowing the shady side of their star witness is a tale that rivals the bungling and backstabbing of the alleged bribery conspirators.

Federal Bureau of Investigation agents, since the days of Eliot Ness and Prohibition, have considered themselves the cream of U.S. law enforcement. Former U.S. attorney Ron Woods recalls how the antipathy between the FBI and other agencies such as the DEA or the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms made it difficult to build prosecutions in cases in which more than one of the agencies was involved.

"They allegedly have the highest qualifications for getting in, and have always looked down their nose at other agencies, like Customs, ATF and DEA," says Woods, of the FBI mentality. "It creates a great deal of hostility. And the way they look down their nose at local law enforcement has created hostility all over the country."

A source on the federal side of the sting concurs, describing the DEA ranks as full of flunkouts from Quantico, the FBI training academy.

The mutual contempt between G-men and D-men worsened when the FBI received authorization to investigate drug cases several years ago, in effect invading the DEA's home turf. "Most federal law-enforcement agencies do not cooperate with one another because they are very jealous of their turf," says Woods. "Making cases and getting publicity for their individual agency is what they're all about. They're very jealous of another agency when they make a case."

Former acting U.S. attorney Larry Finder agrees that, although efforts to merge drug-fighting efforts between the DEA and FBI in recent years have had some success, the agencies still hoard their information and their informants.

In 1994, when Molineiro met the FBI's Ron Stern, he had already been a paid informant for the U.S. government for seven years. After being released from prison in Paraguay after serving a year's sentence for robbery, in 1987, Molineiro met DEA special agent Jim Bradley, who took a liking to the quick-witted Chilean and his talent for impersonation. Bradley began using Molineiro as an undercover informant to build narcotics cases, and when the DEA transferred Bradley to Houston in 1990, he arranged for his young protege to follow him.

Bradley and Molineiro were unusually close, and the relationship began to disturb other DEA agents, particularly when Molineiro stayed overnight at Bradley's apartment or popped up at his ranch outside Houston. It became a matter of investigation when Bradley recommended Molineiro for a $40,000 reward in a case where the informant had allegedly done little if any work.

Molineiro's path and that of attorney Kent Schaffer crossed in 1993, when Schaffer took on as a client a DEA agent, Danny Quintanilla, who had become involved in an investigation by the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility into the activities of Bradley. Quintanilla had refused to approve the award of that big bonus to Molineiro, but Bradley had gone around him to get it approved.

The Bradley probe brought out more embarrassing information on Molineiro. Before the big reward, he had previously stolen $20,000 from a drug dealer named Ricky Carillo during a DEA probe, and fled to Paraguay. When Molineiro's controlling agent, John Sanchez, contacted him there, the informant at first denied he had the money. Later, according to statements filed with the Justice Department by Quintanilla and another agent, Abenincio "Eddie" Cordova, Molineiro alerted drug dealer Carillo that Sanchez was a narc, in effect endangering the federal agent's life.

But that theft hadn't been enough to get the DEA to get rid of Molineiro. Its investigation of Bradley revealed that once Molineiro got his reward, he placed the cash in a safe in Bradley's office, giving rise to suspicions that the money was actually being used by the informant as kickbacks to fellow agents. During the same investigation, Molineiro, threatened with a lie-detector test, admitted stealing the money from the dealer and lying to Sanchez. The DEA then banned him from further employment as a snitch, an extraordinary measure, according to Schaffer, who says no agent he's dealt with can recall an informant being blackballed by the DEA, whose personnel standards for informants are notoriously lax.

The resourceful Molineiro seems to have had no employment problems, however. He had already found a new job as an informant with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, where he shortly become a mainstay of the Public Integrity unit headed by agent Stern. By late 1995, he had become the key role-player in the public-corruption investigation of Ben Torres Reyes.

Thanks to Schaffer, Molineiro has not quite left his tarnished DEA past behind. Defense attorney Ramsey has subpoenaed DEA agents Sanchez, Cordova, Bill Rochon and Jose Gonzales to testify when the defense begins presenting its own case next week. When that happens, the jury will hear detailed accounts from the DEA agents that both prosecutor Mike Attanasio and FBI agent Stern claim they never were told during nearly two years of preparation for the current trial.

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