By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Jeff Balke
By Richard Connelly
By Jeff Balke
By Casey Michel
By Craig Hlavaty
Later that day at Caligula XXI, a topless bar in southwest Houston, the city says, Zavala gave the second snitch the $3,500 and, with Orzabal's hidden tape recorder running, the three men allegedly discussed how the deal would go down. During that discussion, police say, Zavala toyed with inflating the deal to 12 kilos but only reporting seven; Zavala allegedly told the two snitches that they could split the extra five kilos between them.
That deal -- if that was the deal -- was never consummated. The next day Zavala received a call from one of his supervisors, who said a warrant had been issued for his arrest. Zavala drove to police headquarters and turned himself in. He didn't want to be arrested at home, in front of his wife and three kids.
In court Zavala argued that he was set up, that internal affairs twisted his actions -- and Orzabal's tapes -- to make him appear dirty.
According to Newar, Zavala's lawyer, the cop did indeed take $3,500 from Orzabal, but only to facilitate a real drug bust. Beyond that, Newar refuses to comment; he says he's worried about a court order that prohibits him from disclosing specific information he obtained from IAD files.
In a sworn affidavit, a forensic audio expert helps discredit IAD's tapes of the conversations between Zavala and Orzabal. Barry G. Dickey of Arlington, Texas, is president of Graffiti Production and has served as an expert witness in several criminal cases, including the trial of Darlie Lynn Routier, accused of murdering her two small sons.
After inspecting the Zavala recordings, Dickey concluded that at least one had "butt edits ... [a] type of editing procedure that involves cutting the magnetic tape at a specific point and adjoining it to another piece of magnetic tape at a specific point." Dickey also swore that, though he did not have the opportunity to physically inspect all the tapes, the copies he heard also contained anomalies that made him believe they'd been altered.
The city of Houston maintains that there was never anything on the tapes that would bolster Orzabal's case. Even so, the city admits that at least one recording, a telephone conversation between Orzabal and Zavala, was spliced. Assistant city attorney Carole Snyder has written as much in a court filing. There's no explanation why the recording had been spliced.
In December 1996, a grand jury no-billed Zavala; he wouldn't have to stand trial. Pending the outcome of the grand jury investigation, HPD had suspended him without pay. Now, Zavala hoped, he'd be able to return to the narcotics division.
Instead, internal affairs began yet another investigation, this time to determine whether he'd violated department policies. He remained in paid limbo for another seven months.
Finally, in August '97 -- almost a year after his arrest -- internal affairs concluded its investigation. As stated in court documents filed by the city, IAD decided that "there was insufficient evidence to show that Zavala had engaged in money laundering." IAD did find, however, that Zavala had committed four infractions: mishandling confidential informants, interfering with the operations of the Harris County District Attorney's Office, engaging in inappropriate conduct and failing to use sound judgment. Zavala may not have broken any laws, the department concluded, but he was at least guilty of extremely bad judgment.
In his letter to the city's civil service commission, Chief Bradford described Zavala's scheme to help Orzabal fulfill his contract with the district attorney's office as being "of such a reckless nature" that the lives of informants as well as narcotics officers were put at risk. Department policy was also violated, wrote Bradford, because "at no time during the transaction did [Zavala] document his acceptance and transfer of the monies, nor did he inform any superiors or fellow officers about the transaction."
The letter states that Zavala was recorded telling one of the informants that his partner, Officer Garza, could not be included in the deal for fear he would ask too many questions, and that if the district attorney's office discovered the truth about the drug deal, they would consider him a "dirty" cop and he could be fired. Furthermore, the chief said that Zavala had violated department policy and potentially put officers' lives at risk by bringing Orzabal to a narcotics division party, where he introduced Orzabal as his cousin. (Zavala's lawyer says the decision to bring Orzabal to the party was more complicated than the city alleges.) Bradford closed his letter by charging that Zavala had "brought reproach, discredit and embarrassment to his profession and the Houston Police Department."
The chief offered Zavala two options: he could be fired and appeal his firing to the city's civil service commission or an independent arbitrator; or he could accept a two-week suspension without pay, be reassigned to street patrol and waive his right to appeal by signing what the city calls a Confidential Last Chance Agreement.
Zavala signed. Newar, his attorney, says that Zavala didn't really have a choice and should still retain his right to litigate. And in September '97, shortly after his two-week suspension, Zavala filed a civil rights suit in federal court.
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