By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
Paulino Zavala looked like a scumbag. He had tattoos, sleepy eyes and a got-it-going-on attitude. On the street, real scumbags couldn't tell he was an undercover cop. He made it past the street's paranoia, busted his share of dealers and, until '96, was a rising star in the Houston Police Department's narcotics division. Then, claims the department, Zavala really did cross the line. An internal investigation found that he'd become what he appeared to be: a scumbag. A money launderer, they said. A dirty cop.
Zavala denied it all. His partner admits that Zavala sometimes bent the rules to make a bust. But according to Zavala's attorney, Zavala is really suffering retaliation, is being punished for breaking the department's "blue code of silence," for daring to criticize HPD from within.
A grand jury refused to indict him. HPD let him back on the force, but not back in narcotics. Zavala wants more.
It's not just the street that's paranoid. It's also the cops who work on the street.
The narcotics division, says a veteran officer, is a spy-vs.-spy world, a place where it's hard to know who to trust. "Officers are jealous of each other's cases and snitches," he said. "You don't dare leave any information on your desk."
On January 10, 1996, that distrust kicked into high gear. After a fairly routine arrest, a suspected dealer was charged with possession of four kilos of cocaine. Cops searched his apartment but didn't find drugs. What they found, though, worried them more.
At the suspect's home was a piece of mail, a credit union statement, addressed to Angela Puente. The name rang a bell; Angela Puente was a civilian clerk in the narcotics division. If Angela Puente had some connection to this dealer -- if she were somehow supplying him with information -- then security had been breached. HPD's Internal Affairs Department immediately launched an investigation.
Zavala liked Puente, and he helped her reply to internal affairs's list of questions. She wrote that she hadn't lived at the address for two years and had simply forgotten to file a change of address form with the post office. No one ever proved otherwise.
Two months after the bust, the supposedly secret investigation was described in the Houston Chronicle. The paper cited "police reports" and implied that Puente, referred to only as a "clerk" in the story, had violated department policy by using narcotics division computers for something besides police business: to retrieve criminal information about several citizens and to retrieve personal information about several narcotics officers. According to the Chronicle, the clerk had looked up some of the information at the request of an unnamed narcotics officer, an officer who was also receiving a hard look from internal affairs.
It's not clear whether Zavala was that officer. And it's also not clear why internal affairs suspected Zavala of leaking the information to the paper; neither Zavala nor Puente seems to have had anything to gain by making the matter public.
But according to Zavala's lawyer, Scott Newar, IAD forced Zavala to undergo three back-to-back polygraph examinations about the leak. Newar says Zavala passed all three.
Outraged, Zavala fired off a letter to then-police chief Sam Nuchia, himself a former head of IAD. Zavala accused IAD of racism and of coercion of a witness. He also suggested that IAD take a hard look at its own officers as possible sources of the leak.
By writing the letter, Zavala broke the blue code of silence. Fred Keys served 14 years in HPD before becoming a lawyer; now he often represents cops in disputes against the department. (He's not, though, on the Zavala case.) According to Keys, all officers know that breaking the code is dangerous.
"When an officer comes forward with a whistle-blower type thing," says Keys, "no matter what it may be, the department uses every official means within its power to make that guy's life miserable. As a result, officers are very reluctant to come forward. Everybody knows that if you buck the department, they're going to get you."
Soon after Nuchia received the letter, IAD laid a trap for Zavala.
Zavala had always been a maverick. Even his former partner admits that he had a reputation as something of a freelancer.
"As far as doing something illegal, I don't think he would have done that," says Officer John Garza, a friend of Zavala's. "There were times when maybe he should have told somebody what he was doing, just to cover his ass, because this is a cutthroat business.... At the most, he may have been guilty of bad judgment."
Whatever the quality of Zavala's judgment, he was a rising star in the narcotics division. He'd entered HPD's police academy in 1984, and after his graduation patrolled the streets of the Fifth Ward for four years. Promoted to the station's tactical response team, he spent another four years making small pot and crack busts, collaring streetwalkers and spot-checking clubs for liquor violations. He received both commendations and the nickname Pac-Man. The video game character gobbled yellow dots; Zavala gobbled drug dealers.
In '92 he moved to the department's central narcotics division and two years later was promoted to the unit's midlevel team. Instead of street-level busts, he worked more complicated cases involving larger quantities of drugs and suspects higher in the dope-dealing food chain.