By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Jeff Balke
By Richard Connelly
By Jeff Balke
By Casey Michel
By Craig Hlavaty
By Jeff Balke
He even participated in a sting operation to snare a lawman gone bad. In '94 rumor held that James Wesley Sims, a deputy in the Harris County Sheriff's Department, was robbing prostitutes and intoxicated illegal aliens -- people who'd never report him to the authorities. The sheriff's office asked HPD to help them catch Sims in the act.
One night in December, the sheriff's office dispatched Sims to handle a fake report of a man down in east Harris County. When Sims arrived at the address, he found Zavala, who convincingly appeared to be passed out drunk, the kind of lowlife who'd never report a cop to the police. Sims slapped Zavala around a bit then stole $160 from him. A few minutes later uniformed officers arrested the deputy. He pleaded guilty to theft by a public servant and possession of cocaine, and was sentenced to prison.
In February '96, five months before writing the letter to Nuchia, Zavala arrested Christopher Orzabal. Orzabal, a midlevel drug dealer, was a former repo man who resembled a surly brown Buddha in a baseball cap.
Orzabal was brazen enough to sell coke in the parking lot of Randalls supermarket, the one near Highway 290 and 34th Street. Working with the Department of Public Safety, Zavala went undercover to bust him. Zavala approached Orzabal's car and tried to make a buy. After flashing the drugs for Zavala to see, Orzabal got back in his car to drive to a rendezvous point where the money and drugs would be exchanged. But before he could get far, other officers pulled him over and arrested him.
Over the next few weeks, Orzabal frequently phoned Zavala from jail to say he'd like to work what's known as a "contract," a deal with the Harris County District Attorney's Office. In essence, a dealer agrees to work as a confidential informant to help police catch other dealers. If the dealer's information helps HPD confiscate a certain amount of drugs, the D.A. will drop or reduce the charges against him.
A few weeks after his arrest, Orzabal signed a contract agreeing to "make" nine kilos of coke by July. He fell down on his end of the bargain: By July, he'd helped Zavala, his police handler, confiscate only two kilos. And according to Zavala's attorney, even those busts were primarily due to Zavala. It was in Zavala's interest, says his attorney, for Orzabal to successfully fulfill his contract with the district attorney's office; if Orzabal did it, Zavala would also look good.
But even though he had not met the terms of his contract by August, Orzabal was still free because he had cut a deal to help HPD land something bigger than a piddling nine kilos of coke: He promised to deliver information incriminating one of its own officers. Orzabal threw in with HPD's Internal Affairs Department to set up Zavala for a fall. Once Zavala had gone undercover to bust Orzaval; now Orzaval promised to go undercover to bust Zavala.
Among the many murky matters in this case is how, precisely, the sting began. Last year, in a deposition, Orzabal appeared to suffer from serious memory loss. Throughout the three-hour question-and-answer session he repeatedly claimed that he couldn't recall key aspects of the investigation -- among them, what had prompted him to report Zavala's actions to the district attorney's office in the first place. He couldn't remember the accusation that he made, the accusation that supposedly set the sting in motion.
"All I remember," said Orzabal, "was that something wasn't right, and it involved drugs and money."
The two internal affairs officers who headed the Zavala investigation -- Lt. Richard Kleczynski and Sgt. Maureen Ramirez -- referred all questions to the city's legal department, which in turn referred the Press to the lawsuit case file. Likewise, both Nuchia (now a state appeals court judge) and current HPD Chief Clarence Bradford declined to comment.
According to affidavits filed in federal court by the city of Houston, Orzabal had claimed that Zavala had solicited a bribe: If Orzabal paid the cop $10,000, Zavala would give him credit for the seven kilos remaining on his contract. The under-the-table deal apparently offended him, so much so that Orzabal contacted the district attorney's office. The D.A.'s office then contacted HPD's Internal Affairs Department.
Whether Orzabal took it upon himself to contact the D.A., or whether the Internal Affairs Department somehow drafted the informant to help extract some vengeance against Zavala, the next part of the story seems clear: Orzabal agreed to wear a wire, and police set up surveillance of Zavala.
According to an August 4, 1997, letter from Chief Bradford to the Houston Civil Service Commission, the tapes of Orzabal's conversations with Zavala show that the cop enlisted the assistance of another of his snitches. Allegedly the second snitch was supposed to orchestrate a seven-kilo deal in such a way that Zavala could make an arrest and give Orzabal credit. The assisting snitch would receive $7,000 for his trouble.
On September 13, 1996, with money provided by internal affairs, Orzabal gave Zavala $3,500 in cash. According to the city of Houston, that money was a down payment, and Orzabal told Zavala that he'd gotten it by stealing, and then selling, a couple of kilos of coke. Zavala allegedly gave Orzabal tips on hiding from the drugs' previous owner.
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