|Top U.S. Drug Snitch is a Legend and a Liar|
Posted by FoM on January 16, 2000 at 11:19:12 PT|
By Michael D. Sorkin And Phyllis Brasch Librach
Andrew Chambers claims he is the best -- and friends and foes agree: He is.
Like the top salesman that he is, he crisscrosses the country, dazzling prospects with a Mercedes-Benz, Corvette or Lexus, and luring buyers with high-stakes deals.
Unlike other salespeople, Chambers puts his clients behind bars -- often for life.
Chambers is one of the federal government's top "drug dealers," specializing in the "reverse sting." Posing as an out-of-towner, he cozies up to the real dealers, selling them cocaine and then tipping his baseball cap as a signal for police to swoop down and arrest his unsuspecting customers.
Chambers, 42, grew up in University City. He carries no badge; he's a free-lance snitch, a confidential informant who sells his services to the government.
When he sells enough drugs, or helps convict a major drug dealer, the government pays him money. A lot of money. One case alone recently got him more than $200,000.
Chambers is so good, he's believed to be the highest-paid informant in the 27-year history of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. His career total with the anti-drug agency is at least $1.6 million -- much of it paid in cash.
During 16 risky years as a government informant -- an unheard of tenure in the cagey undercover business -- Chambers also worked for the FBI, U.S. Customs Service, U.S. postal inspectors, Internal Revenue Service, Secret Service and state and local police.
By one estimate, his pay from all sources may total as much as $4 million.
Chambers is one of an elite corps of professional informants the government counts on to infiltrate drug operations that even undercover police find too dangerous to penetrate.
The Post-Dispatch investigated Chambers for four months. The result is a behind-the-scenes look at how the government relies on informants-for-hire in the "war on drugs."
Chambers is a legend within DEA. One senior agent who has worked more than a dozen undercover cases with Chambers says his information has always been right.
He's "one in a million," the agent says.
Chambers has worked hundreds of drug cases, and, with rare exception, any suspect he targeted is behind bars. How many? The government won't tell.
Chambers boasts that his career has lasted so long because he gets great results. "I've dealt with slum bums, and I've dealt with some of the richest people around," he said recently, in a rare interview.
He adds that only the guilty need fear him. "If you're not a drug dealer," he says, "I can't do nothing to you."
That's an apparent reference to complaints that government drug stings entice people to break the law. But the controversy surrounding Chambers centers less on his actions in the street than in the courtroom, after he dons a suit and tie to testify.
He's a proven liar, as two federal appellate courts have ruled about Chambers' repeated denials of the arrests and convictions in his background. Testifying for the government in drug trials, he swore again and again that he had a clean record -- making his testimony seem more credible in the eyes of jurors.
Last month in California, judges on a third appellate court said they were gravely concerned that government agents would continue to employ Chambers, knowing his history of lying.
Today, Chambers is getting knocked from both sides of the courtroom.
In St. Louis, at least three prosecutors at the U.S. Attorney's Office have refused to put Chambers on the witness stand because they distrust him.
He's a "flimflam" man, one assistant U.S. attorney here says.
Prosecutors don't want to talk about Chambers. They fear that if his credibility is destroyed in court, the drug dealers he put behind bars will get their cases reopened and the prison gates could swing open for hundreds of them.
Chambers has more legal problems:
While DEA was paying him to be an informant, Chambers failed for six years to pay the IRS the income taxes he owed on the same money.
He's been convicted of impersonating a DEA agent and soliciting a prostitute. He's been arrested, but not convicted, for assault, forgery and felony theft. The DEA intervened at least twice to get him out of legal trouble. One defense attorney says Chambers still is a wanted man in St. Louis County, with an outstanding fugitive arrest warrant from a decade ago.
Chambers even testified against the same government agency that has been paying him for years. He was a witness for a DEA supervisor charged in Los Angeles with illegally diverting informant funds. With Chambers' help, the supervisor won. The DEA lost -- but continues to employ Chambers.
One veteran U.S. prosecutor says he's never met another undercover informant as good as Chambers. He's considered so street smart, he lectures police on what to look for in drug searches.
"He could sell the socks off a rooster," says the prosecutor.
While admiring that sales ability, the same prosecutor refused to use Chambers, citing his long history of lying.
But they are.
Chambers may be only a small cog in the government's war on drugs. But the government considers him -- and other professional informants like him -- crucial players in that war.
The exact number of professional informants is a closely-guarded secret. One DEA supervisor with more than 20 years of field experience put the number in the hundreds, for DEA and other federal law enforcement agencies.
Because informants can infiltrate drug operations more easily than police, the government depends heavily upon Chambers and others. Their testimony can make, or break, a drug case.
How do DEA officials respond to criticisms of Chambers?
They defend and protect him.
DEA agents who worked with Chambers maintain he is motivated by a passion to get drug dealers off the streets -- and not by money. The perjury allegations are merely the desperate smears of defense attorneys; prosecutors who bother to check out the allegations side with Chambers, the agents insist.
The pro-Chambers camp at the DEA remains strong. For 17 months, the drug agency and Justice Department lawyers fought a federal public defender in California who is trying to examine the contents of DEA's background check on Chambers and his government payroll records.
The paper trail created by the government became an issue when federal prosecutors blamed the DEA for keeping from them information that damages Chambers' credibility.
Last month, the DEA finally agreed to give Chambers' records to the public defender. He hopes to use them to free a client from a life sentence -- and help scores of others who Chambers put behind bars.
The DEA's chief spokesman in Washington, Terry Parham, says Chambers' informant work has paid off.
"If we didn't feel that way," Parham says, "we obviously wouldn't have paid the kind of money we have."
Parham adds that if Chambers has done anything wrong, "he stands on his own. . . . If he deserves to go to jail for whatever he's done, we'll be the first to put him in jail and throw away the key."
As the fight over his lies unfolds in courtrooms across the country, the DEA continues to use Chambers. Last month, four defendants in Tampa, Fla., pleaded guilty to drug charges in a case that relied on Chambers as the informant.
DEA's reliance on Chambers leaves his critics shaking their heads, convinced that the nation's anti-drug agency is addicted to its top-performing informant. H. Dean Steward, a federal public defender in California, has spent three years investigating Chambers: "He's the golden boy of the DEA."
Gregory Collins first saw Andrew Chambers on a rainy day in June 1990 while pumping gas into his GMC pickup at a convenience store outside of Belleville. Chambers drove a blue Corvette convertible onto the lot.
Nothing about the driver of the sleek sports car made Collins suspicious, so he didn't hesitate when the stranger in the blue sweatshirt asked: "Hey, man, I'm from California, where do ya go to party around here?"
Collins replied: "I tell you what you do -- you go over to St. Louis. If you want I could show you."
"Call me 'Boomer,'" said the driver of the Corvette, who soon asked Collins for his home address.
Within a week, "Boomer" began hanging around Collins' house and job in East St. Louis. Once, the pair drove to St. Louis in the Corvette so Collins could show "Boomer" the party spots, including Forest Park.
During those rides, the two talked -- sometimes about drugs. "Boomer" made it clear he was a big-time drug dealer from Los Angeles. What "Boomer" hid from Collins were a tape recorder capturing their conversations, and the DEA agents who were trailing the Corvette.
Over the next several weeks, Collins came to trust his new friend. When "Boomer" offered to sell him a large quantity of cocaine, Collins agreed. In mid-July, "Boomer" called Collins: "The ice cream is ready for the birthday party."
Collins knew that meant the deal was ready to go down. But first, the two agreed to go to St. Louis Downtown-Parks Airport in Cahokia for a "peek-a-boo" -- a dealer's term for inspecting the dope before purchase.
That never happened. When Collins spotted undercover agents, he turned around and drove home, where he found a police helicopter and dozens of federal and state agents waiting to arrest him.
The next time Collins saw "Boomer" was in federal court in East St. Louis. By then he knew "Boomer" was really Andrew Chambers, a career government informant.
Collins' trial took 13 months. The jury found him guilty of conspiracy with intent to distribute cocaine. Collins, who admits to previous drug dealing, appealed and lost. He is serving a life term without parole at the Greenville, Ill., federal prison.
Even early in Chambers' 16-year career, he stood out among the thousands of confidential informants the government uses each year. Most are amateurs, bowing out after a brief, undistinguished stint.
Chambers elevated the deception to professional status. He performed with the confidence and credibility of a star in a long-running Broadway show.
And he is a natural, down to his costume -- baggy pants, baseball cap backward, brand-name tennis shoes and gold chains -- the uniform of the street drug dealer as well as many urban youths.
Chambers knew how to speak street language peppered with profanity and slang. No one had to teach him that a "bird" meant a kilo of cocaine. He can fly into town and make a deal in the time it takes to drive from the airport to his hotel.
Sometimes the DEA picks his targets; sometimes he picks his own.
Chambers demonstrated tremendous versatility. He is equally comfortable cutting into a brick of cocaine in a hotel room near Beverly Hills, Calif., negotiating prices in a restaurant booth in Overland, Mo., or counting money on the bathroom floor of a suspect's house in St. Cloud, Minn.
Chambers also manages to keep straight his various aliases: "St. Louis," "Rico," "Mike," "Drew" and "Derrick." The last is his younger brother's name.
Even as a novice informant, he was unflustered.
In November 1985, about 18 months after he went to work for DEA, Chambers posed in California as a buyer for people from St. Louis seeking large quantities of cocaine and phencyclidine, PCP.
Two unsuspecting drug dealers agreed to sell him narcotics for $100,000. Chambers and one dealer flew back to St. Louis. Three other men left California for St. Louis carrying the concealed drugs in a van. They didn't get quite that far. Chambers tipped off DEA agents who alerted police. They stopped the van on Interstate 44 about 50 miles southwest of St. Louis.
After the arrests, Chambers returned to California to arrange a second PCP shipment to St. Louis. This time, he and a courier would fly, hiding the liquid PCP in a red, five-gallon container in the courier's checked luggage. DEA agents were waiting when Chambers and the courier landed at Lambert Field. Agents also were there when the main suspect arrived on a later flight carrying in his pocket the keys to the courier's burgundy suitcase.
Despite his work on hundreds of cases, Chambers remains a mystery -- on and off stage. Like the legendary phantom of the Paris Opera House, Chambers can slip into a scene, make a dramatic impression and suddenly disappear only to reappear in a different scene.
Neighbors recall a dark van pulling up to the brick ranch in Creve Coeur where he lived with his wife and teen-age daughters in the early 1990s. Men wearing dark blue vests with "DEA" lettered on the back waited in the driveway until Chambers got in the van. Then they drove away. Chambers returned months later, only to leave again in the middle of the night.
While Chambers played phony roles, he faced real dangers. In 1986, the DEA moved him to Los Angeles from St. Louis for his safety. Over the years, they moved him again and again for his protection.
Chambers became more cautious. In February 1996, he finessed a bust on a hotel parking lot in Atlanta rather than go into a hotel room. Chambers worried that the suspect, who claimed to have a .38-caliber pistol, would live up to his violent reputation. In fact, the man bolted from police after being handcuffed.
As the DEA made more drug busts, dealers began taking fewer risks. Jittery buyers demanded Chambers lift up his shirt so they could see if he was wearing a "body wire."
Chambers' relationship with the DEA grew, expanding across the country and to the Bahamas.
That's where he spotted Tyrone Tanks walking across a hotel lobby in June 1991.
With a glance, Chambers decided Tanks dressed like a drug dealer. Seconds later, Chambers asked Tanks about his tennis shoes, and rapidly turned the conversation to drugs. Tanks claimed to be a large-scale cocaine trafficker from Cincinnati looking for new sources in the Bahamas.
While Tanks went home, Chambers stayed in the Bahamas. Several days later, he called Tanks to arrange the buy of 20 kilograms, an amount calculated to ensure a long prison sentence. A DEA agent recorded the conversation. Tanks went to prison, Chambers went back to the Bahamas.
This time, his undercover work netted the government $10 million in drugs, money and forfeited assets. That job earned Chambers one of his biggest rewards: nearly $200,000.
DEA rescues Chambers
Andrew Chambers finds drug dealers for a living. But he doesn't like to be found.
For weeks, he teased reporters with hints he'd meet to answer questions. He never did. Over the phone, he was vague about his whereabouts, suggesting he was out of the country, in Colombia, working for the government.
After several such phone conversations, reporters nearly caught up with him in St. Louis County. A black Mercedes-Benz sports utility vehicle he was test-driving led to a luxury auto dealership in Creve Coeur.
When Chambers learned that reporters were on his tail, he assured an executive at the dealership that he'd have his bosses call the reporters' bosses. Chambers said the reporters would be called off their story, once they understood he was a DEA agent.
That wasn't the first time Chambers tried to pass as a DEA agent.
In September 1995, he was in Denver working several drug cases. He was arrested inside Room 17 of the Lazy C Motel for offering $20 to a woman he assumed was a prostitute. She turned out to be an undercover police officer.
The police report says Chambers tried to run from officers, and when caught, claimed he was a DEA agent. The officers later discovered he was just an informant.
Chambers was charged with soliciting a prostitute and impersonating a police officer. Court records show he pleaded guilty and paid a $475 fine.
In two earlier criminal cases, the DEA rescued Chambers.
In March 1985, Chambers was charged in Paducah, Ky., with felony forgery. Home Federal Savings filed a complaint that he had used a false name on an auto loan application and defaulted, owing $12,297.
Also that month, Chambers was charged in Paducah with issuing a false financial statement. Michaelson Jewelers accused him of using a phony name to buy jewelry, and failing to pay a $1,555 bill.
Chambers later admitted in DEA drug case testimony that he had signed his brother's name on the financial documents. He said he lied about his identity because he had feared for his safety.
At the DEA's request, a judge dismissed the Paducah charges.
A letter to the judge signed by DEA Special Agent Roy T. Shurn explained that Chambers had been assisting the DEA for a year. Shurn wrote that he and a federal prosecutor would accompany Chambers to Paducah to quash the charges.
Chambers has had other brushes with the law.
In January 1989, he was charged in University City Municipal Court with assault after he allegedly shoved a girlfriend against a wall, ripped out her telephone when she tried to call police and destroyed the phone. The record is unclear, but an arrest warrant may still be outstanding.
Two other municipal disturbing-the-peace allegations involving a girlfriend were dismissed.
Years after his legal troubles, Chambers continued to testify for the government that he had never been arrested or convicted. A clean record makes an informant more credible in front of jurors.
DEA agents who have worked with Chambers maintain that he probably didn't understand what attorneys were asking him.
"The only criticism (of Chambers) I've ever heard is what defense attorneys will characterize as perjury or a lie on the stand," said Michele Leonhart, special agent in charge of DEA's Los Angeles office. She first worked with Chambers in St. Louis in 1986 and has continued to work with him on dozens of undercover cases.
Once prosecutors check him out, Leonhart said, they'll agree with his admirers in DEA.
She said agents who have worked with Chambers find him "very reliable, very credible, an outstanding testifier."
Defense attorneys tell juries that someone who lies about one thing will lie about anything. Says Bruce Simon of Kansas City, who represents defendants in major criminal cases nationwide: "There is no such thing as a harmless lie in a criminal case."
Simon said a relationship like DEA's with Chambers is just a dangerous way for authorities to cut corners. "Most agencies would drop this guy. But he's a very useful rat."
"The guy is dirty," Simon added.
Meanwhile, prosecutors and defense attorneys aren't the only ones calling Chambers a liar.
In 1995, the 8th U.S. Court of Appeals in St. Louis added its voice, in an appeal by a man the government described as Minnesota's cocaine king. Chambers was the informant and again testified that he had never been arrested or convicted.
"The record, however, clearly demonstrates that Chambers did in fact perjure himself . . ." Judge Theodore McMillian wrote in the court's opinion. Despite the lie and the government's "haphazard approach" to uncovering the truth, the judge said the jury would have found the defendant guilty anyway.
In California, a 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruling in 1993 reached the same conclusion about Chambers.
Those appellate court rulings alarmed Assistant U.S. Attorney Dean Hoag in St. Louis.
Hoag said not all of the defense attorneys' allegations about Chambers were true. Even so, Hoag said he had been forced to drop charges against one defendant because Chambers was an admitted liar.
Hoag had more concerns: He was jolted when he learned that Chambers had pleaded guilty to a charge of soliciting a prostitute in Denver in 1995. A jury would not like that, Hoag feared.
Then there was this problem: There didn't seem to be any government controls on Chambers.
And finally, Hoag was alarmed to find out that many federal prosecutors across the country knew nothing about Chambers' growing reputation as a liar. When Hoag sent out an inquiry in 1998, some prosecutors replied that Chambers was a great witness; others responded, "Be careful."
"He's a flimflam man," Hoag concluded. "He's a hustler; he comes into town, comes onto the girls. They think he's a dope dealer because he drives around in a Mercedes, with no job."
Hoag told DEA agents in St. Louis he won't use Chambers in any case. Assistant U.S. attorneys Tom Mehan and Jim Dellworth, among others in St. Louis, have taken similar actions.
Prosecutors faced another problem with Chambers' credibility. In November 1989, Chambers was testifying for the government in Minneapolis. Under cross-examination, he was forced to admit that he had not paid taxes on $100,000 that DEA had paid him during six years.
Following his disclosure, the IRS mailed tax bills to Chambers in care of DEA's office in Clayton. As of December 1994, IRS records at the St. Louis County Recorder of Deeds office say Chambers still owed $64,000. No updated records could be found.
In another trial, Chambers testified that between 1984 and 1995, the DEA had paid him more than $1.6 million. While the DEA won't confirm by name any informant's pay, the agency says that through 1999, its highest-paid informant earned more than $1.6 million.
DEA regulations limit informants to a career total of $200,000, but those regulations can be waived. The DEA says its second-highest paid informant has received about $500,000.
In 1995, a federal judge in Colorado dismissed charges against 10 defendants after criticizing the government's contingency fee arrangement with Chambers. The judge questioned the policy of paying an informant based upon the amount of drugs he sets up and the amount of property the defendants forfeit.
Back in St. Louis, reports of Chambers' seven-digit government pay stunned Hoag: "It's inconceivable that we've paid him the amounts we have."
From school boy in University City to DEA's "golden boy"
Andrew Chambers didn't start out to make big bucks as a government snitch. He just wanted to fight drugs any way he could.
In 1984, Chambers was in his late 20s when he showed up at the DEA's office in Clayton. He wanted to know about the requirements to become a special agent. The job requires a four-year college degree.
Chambers was a high school dropout who had worked odd jobs and done a three-year stint as a Marine. The DEA offered him an alternative: He could come to work as an undercover informant in the war on drugs.
The job suited Chambers. Unlike many informants, Chambers wasn't a drug user -- or dealer -- trying to trade information for less time behind bars. He told DEA agents that he was disgusted by drug traffickers and wanted to clean up the streets.
The DEA put him to work right away. At first, Chambers worked in eastern Missouri and southern Illinois, commuting from the home in University City where he had grown up with his parents and four younger siblings.
His anti-drug stand was not surprising for a youngster who had gone to Catholic school from kindergarten to 10th grade. Chambers attended St. Rita's School in Vinita Park, where a classmate's parent remembered him as a considerate boy: "If Andrew had cologne on, he wanted to know if that offended you. He'd ask, 'Is it too strong?' "
Andrew Chambers Jr. was born April 18, 1957, in Jackson, Miss., the first child of Andrew Chambers and Mattie Mae McCuller Chambers. The family briefly moved to New York City and by the early 1960s had settled into a brick home on a cul-de-sac in northern University City, with the shrine of a saint on the front lawn.
When Chambers was 15, his father, a truck driver, died. Mattie Mae Chambers, 41, was left to rear five children. To feed her family, she cooked in private homes in Ladue. To nourish their souls, she centered the family's spiritual life around St. Rita Church.
All the children attended the parish school. One son, William, served as an altar boy. Mattie Mae Chambers made meals for the nuns and picnic lunches for the children. In return, the church discreetly helped her pay utility bills or buy tires.
In 1972, Chambers enrolled at Mercy High School in University City. By 1974, he dropped out. One brother was killed in a craps game. Another family member was described as having a drug problem.
A friend, now in prison, remembers Chambers as a lanky teen who hung out with young hoodlums who carried loaded guns, ripped off leather coats from a downtown department store and stole cars before the boys were old enough to get a drivers license.
"We were young and stupid," said the friend. "Most of us are behind bars now -- or dead."
Eventually, Chambers and his friend landed in juvenile detention before enlisting in the Marines for three years.
After Chambers finished his tour of duty at Camp Pendleton near San Diego, he later testified that he worked as a dock hand, a private security guard transporting workers across union picket lines and a machinist at McDonnell Douglas Co.
Chambers has testified that before joining the DEA, he briefly studied criminal justice at Iowa Western Community College. A spokeswoman for the college said the school has no record of Chambers attending.
During his career as an undercover informant, estimates of Chambers' pay range from $2 million to as high as $4 million. He periodically returned to St. Louis, usually showing off his newest luxury car.
What few friends realized was, that despite Chambers' successful appearance, he couldn't always pay his bills.
Court records in St. Louis County show that in 1988, his landlord sued him for four months back rent; in 1995, a bank foreclosed on his four-bedroom, brick ranch home in Creve Coeur. About the same time, his black Mercedes-Benz was repossessed; a hospital in Chesterfield sued him for failure to pay a $17,000 bill; and in 1998, he was evicted from a $1,240-a-month townhouse in West County for not paying his rent.
By last fall, Chambers had applied for a $1,000 personal loan from a bank in Illinois at 19 percent interest. At about the same time, he was test-driving a $35,000-plus Mercedes-Benz sports utility vehicle he told the car dealer he was considering buying.
"One in a million"
Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Wolfe was having a rough day. He was trying to explain to a panel of judges on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Pasadena, Calif., why the government had failed to tell the defense in a murder-for-hire case about Chambers' arrests and convictions.
Once again, as he had been hundreds of times before, Chambers was the paid informant. Once again, the government had depended upon his information, this time to convince a judge to issue an order for a wiretap.
Wolfe never told the trial judge about Chambers' background because, the prosecutor said, he hadn't known about it.
Addressing the appellate judges on Dec. 6, Wolfe sounded more like a defense attorney than a prosecutor. He began, . . . "What's not at issue is that the failure to disclose Chambers' background was a shameful dereliction of government duty. . . ."
Appellate Judge Alex Kozinski asked whether the wiretap would have been issued, "if the CI (confidential informant) is made out to be a total liar, as he has, and as you say he should have been."
Wolfe said it was clear that the drug agents never put any damaging reports into Chambers' file -- even though DEA regulations require it.
Kozinski: "So maybe we should just vacate the conviction here, just to give them a sense to do better the next time."
Wolfe: ". . . I'm not here to defend for a moment the past carelessness and recklessness and probably deliberate failure to put the bad news about Andrew Chambers into the informant file. . . .
"That would be a sad day for DEA," said Leonhart, the head of DEA's Los Angeles office. "And a sad day for anybody in the law enforcement world. . . . He's one in a million.
Andrew Chambers has spent 16 years as one of America's most potent weapons in the "war on drugs." He makes big-time deals that lead to life-long prison sentences for his targets. Chambers wanted to become a special agent for the Drug Enforcement Administration but he didn't qualify, so instead he became an undercover snitch for hire. But he lies on the witness stand. Defense lawyers know it. Some prosecutors admit it. Judges acknowledge the perjury.
Yet DEA continues to use him, and he has become the highest-paid informant in the history of the agency, earning at least $1.6 million. The Post-Dispatch investigated Chambers, and his story provides a rare peek behind the curtain: how the federal government relies on an elite corps of career informants to fight its war on drugs. The findings may leave taxpayers wondering just how many mercenaries like Chambers are out there right now.
Published: January 16, 2000
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|Comment #2 posted by steverino on January 17, 2000 at 15:56:53 PT|
|Comment #1 posted by kaptinemo on January 16, 2000 at 14:50:57 PT|
A shame that there is no image accompanying this article. Just think; if a local sherrif arrested this man while possessing drugs and refused (in a States Rights matter) to remand him to Federal custody, what kind of stink this would raise. it might end a few careers...particularly of this snake.