Federal Appeals Court Will Hear Lawsuit in Botched DEA Sting

There are still a lot of loose ends four years after DEA informant Lawrence Chapa was shot and killed in his truck in Northwest Houston during a sting operation gone wrong (we wrote about the case in detail this past October). Was anyone at the DEA ever held accountable? Who organized a group of amateur robbers to attempt to steal the drugs in Chapa's 18-wheeler? And who fired the fatal shots that turned everyone's plans upside down, and left Chapa riddled with bullets in the back of the truck's cabin? 

It seems the only party involved in the incident who is actively seeking answers is Craig Patty, the truck owner left out of the loop as the DEA used his vehicle in the sting. Patty sued for damages after the federal agency refused to pick up the tab for leaving his 18-wheeler crashed into a fence alongside the road, pockmarked by bullet holes and stained with Chapa's blood. The case was dismissed by a federal court judge in March, but Patty appealed, and now a federal appeals court has agreed to hear oral arguments in the case this February, as the Houston Chronicle first reported earlier this week. 

Following the shooting, Patty sought compensation from the DEA for wrecking his truck but the government denied his request. In court documents, Patty claims his insurer also refused to cover the cost of the damage because it occurred during "unauthorized" or "illegal" activity. Patty said he had to take money out of his retirement fund to repair the truck, which was out of service for about 100 days. In July 2012, Patty filed a claim seeking $1,483,532 in damages. Only about $133,000 of that sum accounted for the truck's maintenance; the rest, Patty said, was reimbursement for his "pain, suffering and humiliation." Patty sought an additional $5,000,000 in punitive damages from the feds.

The original lawsuit was dismissed after a lower court judge ruled that the DEA had not acted negligently and did not have to tell Patty that his truck was being used in a dangerous operation. Fernando Villasana, an HPD officer assigned to a DEA task force and the organizer of the sting, said in a deposition that undercover operations are "necessarily discretionary," meaning the federal agency has some leeway to override the constitutional rights of civilians if it serves to further a covert mission. 

“The government just absolutely totally violated Craig Patty’s constitutional rights,” Patty’s attorney Andy Vickery told the Chron. “If this case is affirmed, if the court’s puts its imprimatur on this case, then all of us as citizens are subject to having our vehicles used at any time without our knowledge or approval by police who say ‘heck, let’s just use this car.'”

It's been a long struggle for Patty and his attorneys to pry information about the sting operation from the DEA, and much of that information has been kept from public view. In 2014, former Special Agent in Charge of the DEA's Houston bureau Javier Pena was deposed along with Villasana, but the judge sealed both depositions after the federal government argued that the agents were concerned for their safety, citing “risks [of] recriminations from dangerous criminals." (Contrary to what the Chron continues to report, however, there is no evidence that Chapa was shot by "cartel attackers" from Los Zetas — according to our interviews with attorneys and the thousands of pages of court documents we were able to review, the "attackers" appear to have been nothing more than local petty crooks who were in over their heads.)

Meanwhile, Villasana hardly keeps his identity secret, as he has an online LinkedIn profile and has publicly testified in previous criminal trials about his role as an undercover agent. And since Pena recently retired from the DEA he has become quite the social butterfly, squawking to the Chron in July to promote "Narcos," a Netflix series starring a character based on himself. Pena told the Chron that the show's producers paid him to be a consultant for the series, which is a docudrama about the DEA tracking infamous Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar in the 1980's. 
"They hired me about a year ago, me and my partner," Pena told the Chron. "We just told them what it was like, our participation and the chronology of how it happened."

We called Pena that summer, hoping he would be just as forthcoming about the 2011 botched sting as he was about chasing down Escobar, but he declined comment. Even if Pena will readily talk to TV producers who are making a flattering show about his successes as a DEA agent, when it comes to discussing a major screw-up on his watch he is silent. 

It seems the DEA is quietly hoping this thing just goes away. No agents involved in the sting would talk to us for the story we wrote in October, including Villasana, who did not even respond to requests for comment. A month ago, the DEA rejected a Freedom of Information Act request we sent seeking more information about Chapa's role with the DEA, operational plans for the sting, and whether any agents involved in the incident were disciplined. 

Now, however, Patty's case has finally reached a pubic hearing that could shed some light on what happened when Lawrence Chapa was shot to death. It only took four years. 

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Leif Reigstad