Caught in the Net of a Drug Raid: Women become pawns of Feds trying to get at dealers - the story of Jessica Carothers
Posted by lois at March 2, 2006 04:24 PM
Original story appeared in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Saturday, February 25, 2006
By CLAUDIA ROWE
Just after dawn on a May morning in 2004, Jessica Carothers, awakened by shouting outside her front door, stumbled out of bed. Her boyfriend had left for work a few minutes before, and Carothers' 4-year-old son was sound asleep.
The noise grew louder. Carothers, still groggy, crept into the narrow front hall just as Drug Enforcement Administration agents kicked in her door. (Editor's Note: The original version of this story misidentified the agency.)
"Down on the ground!" they shouted, shining flashlights into her face and barking questions: Where was her boyfriend? Did she know what he was involved in?
Carothers was stunned. Alejandro Villafana-Vilchis had been living with her only two months. She said she didn't know what the agents were talking about or why they were after him. But in the couple's bedroom, police found more than 165 grams of methamphetamine stuffed beneath a night table and a scale stashed inside the closet. By that evening, Carothers, a 25-year-old single mother, was sitting in jail, charged with possession, conspiracy and maintaining a drug-involved premises. Her boyfriend of three years was long gone.
Carothers' case is one of hundreds annually in which federal agents, seeking to quash drug rings, have been permitted to cast a wide net, trapping anyone with a link, no matter how tenuous. The goal is to extract cooperation from friends, family -- any associate who may have information -- using the threat of harsh penalties. But analysts at the Sentencing Project in Washington, D.C., who research criminal justice policy say the laws also have sent thousands of wives and girlfriends to jail -- many of them single mothers such as Carothers -- though they may have done little more than take a phone message.
Federal prosecutors say Carothers did much more than that. With her boyfriend, Villafana-Vilchis, a major player in a meth ring spanning three counties, the Everett woman acted as his willing assistant, they contend, aiding his transactions and providing an apartment where he could store the goods.
But to Carothers, who'd worked her way up from the mailroom of a Bothell biotech firm to become its assistant director, the charges were ludicrous. She drove a 7-year-old Pontiac, which she'd bought used and was still paying off. She worked full time, and though Villafana-Vilchis sometimes bought her roses, he couldn't afford to get his teeth fixed before she put him on her dental plan.
"We didn't even have cable," she said. "It didn't seem like he was this big drug dealer."
Nevertheless, over the next two years Carothers found herself doubted and scrutinized by a legal system determined to send her to prison -- and accustomed to winning.
Admittedly, she said, when it came to men, Carothers' choices had been poor. Her son's father took off while she was pregnant. But Villafana-Vilchis seemed better. He happily changed diapers and fixed bottles. He had a decent job laying carpet, she thought, and if there were things that bothered her -- the way he acted after a few drinks, the druggie-looking friends he'd sometimes meet -- Carothers closed her eyes. Her boy needed a father, she said.
Now it looked as if the 4-year-old might lose his mother. She had already spent five days in a federal holding pen, and no one believed her claims of innocence.
"We'll see you again," said a guard, escorting her from the jail after she was released on bond. "The feds don't make mistakes about this stuff."
The idea of a plea bargain requiring that Carothers admit to running a drug-involved premise was anathema. It would permanently brand her a felon, killing any chance of getting a government loan for school or housing assistance -- not to mention its effect on future job prospects.
But the thought of risking a 10-year prison sentence at trial and leaving her son to foster care seemed worse. So Carothers signed.
This Solomon-like choice, one faced by scores of low-level drug defendants, last year prompted the American Civil Liberties Union to release a report, "Caught in the Net," highlighting the effect of federal drug laws on women and children.
"Many of the drug-conspiracy and accomplice laws were created to go after kingpins," said Lenora Lapidus, the report's author. "But women who may simply be a girlfriend or wife are getting caught in the web as well and sent to prison for very long times when all they may have done is answer the telephone."
The net effect, she said, has been an explosion of women in federal prison -- the numbers have more than doubled since 1991 -- most of whom have children.
They are women like Dorothy Gaines, a mother of three in Alabama who was sentenced to 19 1/2 years for conspiracy to deliver crack cocaine after she drove her boyfriend to his dealer's house. Gaines had never used drugs herself and federal agents found none at her home. But other defendants in the case, who had won deals with prosecutors by promising to provide information, fingered Gaines. She was charged, convicted and served six years before President Clinton granted her executive clemency in 2000.
Despite the early release, Gaines' life has been paralyzed, said her friend Roger Goodman, director of the King County Bar Association's Drug Policy Project. "She calls me every week saying, 'They won't give me a job, I can't get housing, can't get a loan for school.' This is happening to hundreds of thousands of people across the country," he said.
Western Washington has been more generous than other jurisdictions in offering fair deals to defendants, defense lawyers acknowledge. But still, laws mandating tough minimum sentences have forced judges here to hand out harsh prison terms to dozens of first-time offenders with families, jobs and once-bright futures.
"They make one mistake and go away for years in prison, branded for life," said Jeffrey Steinborn, an attorney specializing in marijuana cases. "The system's become mindless in that sense."
One of his recent clients, a woman who just turned 21, is serving nine years for bringing a purse full of ecstasy across the U.S.-Canada border.
"She had no previous record, didn't rob, steal, lie or cheat," Steinborn said. "She was just young and dumb and taken advantage of by someone who manipulated her. In the old days before sentence guidelines, I would have walked that girl without a day in jail."
Carothers says her connection to the drug trade was even more peripheral. She hadn't been a target of the government's initial investigation -- indeed, agents had no warrant for her arrest that morning, although they testified that her door was unlocked and that they walked in -- even though they'd monitored conversations from her phone. (Editor's Note: The original version of this story incorrectly reported that agents forced their way in.)
What was most unusual, however, is that her case went to trial at all, because the vast majority of federal defendants plead guilty.
Carothers had done so, too, but only, she says, because a lawyer had led her to believe it would mean six months of house arrest, nothing more. When she learned otherwise -- the arrangement was closer to two years in prison -- Carothers went ballistic.
She had a new lawyer by then, Gil Levy, whom she urged to withdraw the plea and take her case to court. He tried to dissuade her -- almost no one gets away clean in a federal trial, he said -- and so did the government. The feds offered another deal. They told her they hadn't lost a wiretapping case in 10 years. They asked what she thought would happen to her son while his mother was doing a decade in prison.
"I was scared to death," Levy said. "The risks were just so high. With the wrong jury on the wrong day, Jessica could be looking at 10 years."
But Carothers was resolute.
"Maybe it was naïve, but I thought, 'How can I be found guilty when I don't even know any of these people, and I wasn't involved?' " she said.
Evidence in her case consisted of several dozen calls made from Carothers' apartment and cell phone to the meth ring's leader, Jose Roman-Santana, during which her boyfriend was "clearly buying drugs," said the prosecutor, Susan Roe.
A chart with the kingpin on top and a line connecting him straight to Villafana-Vilchis, with Carothers' name right beside in bold, red letters stood facing the jury.
Then there was the meth and scale in her bedroom (both a surprise to Carothers, she says) as well as testimony from Roman-Santana asserting that he'd called Carothers' phone, looking for her boyfriend.
Providing this and other information had wrangled Roman-Santana -- a confessed dealer whose operation netted investigators 5 pounds of meth, $64,000 in cash and 27 guns -- an eight-year sentence. Carothers, whose main involvement appeared to be allowing her boyfriend phone privileges, faced at least 10.
"All their evidence was about Alejandro. None of it was against me," she said. "It seemed like their plan was to make him look really guilty and say well, this is his girlfriend -- she's guilty by association."
Enough for a conspiracy charge. But not enough, apparently, to persuade a jury.
On Feb. 3, after eight hours of deliberation, they acquitted her on all counts. Justice, said the judge, had been done.
Carothers' son, now 6, still knows nothing about the case, the trial or the burden his mother carried for nearly two years. He no longer cries, wondering where his missing "Poppie" has gone. But sometimes, late at night, he'll ask, "Mommy, do you remember when the police came to our house that day?"
Villafana-Vilchis, still a fugitive, is believed to be in Mexico.
P-I reporter Claudia Rowe can be reached at 206-448-8320 or [email protected]