The Hotel Six Joker Turns Wild

A chance encounter and a federal feud endanger the sting

Molineiro's strange odyssey from DEA reject to sting star to sting scapegoat illustrates the problems that can arise for prosecutors when the left and right hands of law enforcement are not working in tandem.

Experts who've dealt with the various branches of the Justice Department have mixed opinions about who's responsible for the failure to communicate. Schaffer believes that the FBI knew about Molineiro's DEA problems, but simply ignored them in the rush to launch the sting operation against Ben Reyes, and perhaps did not tell the prosecutors.

Former interim U.S. attorney Larry Finder counters that it is very plausible that the DEA would not have produced such information when the FBI took on Molineiro as an informant and then used him as its key witness in the sting. Ron Woods believes the prosecutors must shoulder the blame for not intensively checking Molineiro's past.

"It's believable that [the DEA] wouldn't share that information, but it's inexcusable that the prosecutors didn't probe more fully about this guy's background," says Woods, now a defense attorney, who was initially consulted by Hotel Six defendant Maldonado. "The agencies may squabble with one another, but they damn sure have to answer to the prosecutor."

As for the FBI, Woods holds that Stern and others failed to follow their own internal guidelines to check out the pedigrees of informants thoroughly. "You can end up embarrassing yourself and the agency totally if you get somebody on board that's a mob member, that you weren't aware of, or has committed murders you weren't aware of," says the former U.S. attorney. "You got to do that thorough background check, and it doesn't sound like they did it in this case."

Barring a mistrial, the main impact of the revelations about Molineiro's history is that instead of a seasoned FBI agent with reliable credentials, the man entrusted to implant the sting turns out to be an admitted lawbreaker himself. Asked whether it might take a criminal to catch a criminal, attorney Schaffer retorts, "Would you want your government to use criminals to investigate you?"

The course of the remaining three weeks or so of the sting trial is now clear. The defense will prosecute Julio Molineiro, while the prosecution will have to hope the images and words it has captured on tape will be enough to persuade jurors that the defendants are as slimy as its star witness.

"As a prosecutor, when you're putting on a case built around a turd, you have to discount the turd and make your case independently," says former prosecutor Clark. "That's the ultimate task, to succeed in doing that."

Prosecutor Attanasio will certainly try, but, like Marcia Clark, you can bet he now wishes he had known the true character of the witness before he put him on the stand.

Contact Tim Fleck at tim_fleck@houston-

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