Jennifer Padilla’s boyfriend was pleading: Call people you used to run with, hook me up with some meth deals so I can pay off my Florida partners.
He'd been robbed and needed cash, he kept saying. He'd be hurt if she didn't.
On parole after a year in prison for a string of Santa Fe burglaries and struggling to stay off drugs, Padilla was conflicted. Stepping back into the drug world unnerved her, but she refused to see the man she loved in danger.
Two calls to three old acquaintances led to a pair of methamphetamine deals last July. Even though she wasn’t present for either, the calls cost Padilla, then 37, her freedom.
The man who pleaded with her was a paid government informant with a violent rap sheet, brought to Albuquerque last year by agents with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) as part of a massive undercover operation. He was one of five such informants dispatched into an impoverished, largely minority swath of the city to entice people into gun and drug crimes.
Padilla is one of 103 people arrested by agents in the sting, all delivered by informants, and one of at least 13 targeted by the man she believed was her boyfriend. She has been in jail in Santa Fe for a year and faces a decade or more in federal prison if she's convicted of conspiracy to distribute meth.
During a nearly two-month courtship, the man kept his government job a secret.
They had sex several times in the publicly funded halfway house where Padilla lived with other recently released women. But it was more than a physical attraction. He complimented her, listened, drove her to work—setting himself apart from the abusive men she'd loved before.
When he held her youngest daughter's hand, strolling along Tingley Beach in search of digital Pokémon, it felt like a fresh chance at having a family.
There was darkness, for sure. She fed his marijuana and ecstasy habits with cash. Sometimes he disappeared for days. And he encouraged her relapse, slipping her an ecstasy pill one night at the halfway house. That ended a stretch of nearly two drug-free years in her decade-long battle with addiction.
But she had fallen in love with him. So when he asked her to set up a drug deal—scared for his safety after he claimed he'd been robbed—she called an old acquaintance and made an introduction.
The informant returned a week later, saying the price had been too high; he still owed money across the country. She needed to make another call, he told her, because she was his girl. So she did.
The men Padilla called sold four ounces of meth to an undercover ATF agent working with the confidential informant.
Padilla's case adds another claim of wrongdoing by the ATF in an operation that has drawn community and legal scrutiny for alleged racial profiling. The operation also scooped up many who did not fit the "worst of the worst" profile trumpeted by federal officials during a self-congratulatory news conference last August, a previous New Mexico In Depth investigation found.
Worst of the worst?
ATF has claimed it helped clean up Albuquerque’s crime-ridden streets last year, arresting 103 of the “worst of the worst”—later defined as people with long, violent criminal records who were moving large quantities of drugs and guns in the city. But a New Mexico In Depth investigation found that most of the 103 didn’t fit those descriptions. Case in point: Jennifer Padilla, whose criminal record contrasts with that of the ATF informant she believed was her boyfriend, who delivered her to the feds.
Padilla: Guilty plea to misdemeanor possession of drug paraphernalia, 2011; guilty pleas to 11 felony counts of solicitation to commit residential burglary, sentenced to probation April 2012; guilty plea to felony drug possession, sentenced to jail and probation, October 2013; arrested on suspicion of felony drug possession, violating her probation, sentenced to 15 months in prison, June 2014.
ATF CI No. 9097: Convicted of felony drug trafficking, sentenced to one year in prison, 2002; convicted of felony aggravated armed robbery, sentenced to three years in prison, 2005; convicted of felony drug possession, sentenced to one year in prison, 2010; arrested on suspicion of felony domestic violence/battery by strangulation, 2014.
Padilla's lawyer, Santa Fe-based L Val Whitley, says in a pair of court motions filed last month that the man Padilla thought was her boyfriend, ATF Informant No. 9097, and his handlers went far beyond the questionable—but legal—tactics law enforcement often uses in the always-murky world of using one criminal to catch another.
The informant exploited their intimate relationship, Padilla's struggle with drug addiction and her vulnerable station in life to lure her into a crime she would not otherwise have committed, Whitley's motions say.
Whitley says it is entrapment and "outrageous government conduct." He is asking a federal judge to dismiss Padilla's charges and disclose detailed information about Informant No. 9097 should her case go to trial.
"The court should condemn these actions in the strongest possible way by dismissing this case," Whitley wrote in one of the motions.
Federal prosecutors have until Aug. 28 to respond to Whitley's motions.
For Padilla, the alleged legal transgression is only one part of a larger whole.
In a jailhouse interview with New Mexico In Depth this June, she recalled the betrayal she believes led to where she found herself: Sitting in a small, windowless room, her cheeks reddening and her knuckles whitening as she chokes the edges of a plastic chair.
"I don't think it's fair because he knows how I felt about him," Padilla says, dabbing her face with the shoulder of her red prison jumpsuit. "I wasn't out there selling drugs. … All I wanted to do was just be his girlfriend. … The only reason I did what I did is ... because it was him."
To tell this story, NMID interviewed Padilla, members of her family and others with knowledge of the informant’s activities. It also reviewed court records and other information NMID has learned from sources and sought comment from the ATF, the informant and the US Attorney’s Office.
The informant did not return telephone calls seeking comment. NMID is not identifying him out of safety concerns related to his ongoing work for ATF. ATF officials did not respond to multiple requests for comment or detailed questions sent by email.
Elizabeth Martinez, a spokeswoman for the US Attorney's Office in Albuquerque, which is prosecuting Padilla's case and the others stemming from the sting operation, declined to comment for this story.
Padilla's arrest has left her parents, who consider themselves pro-law enforcement, and who acknowledge her past run-ins with the law, stunned by how far the ATF went.
"I didn't know that the government did things like this—that extreme," Dan Sullivan, Padilla's father, tells NMID. "That is so underhanded that it's ridiculous."
Padilla's five children are struggling, too. Before running away, her 14-year-old daughter grabbed up photos of her mother from her grandparents' house. The girl was picked up by police on a shoplifting charge and is in juvenile detention.
Padilla believes the informant knows what he did was wrong. A few days before her arrest, he showed up at her parents' house where she had moved after completing 90 days in the halfway house.
"He was kissing me and hugging me—we were sitting in the car out in the driveway," she says. "He said, 'I'm just sorry for the way everything turned out and the way everything is.'"
His apology confused her.
A few days later, she was in handcuffs. Two days after that, reading her indictment, she realized the secret her boyfriend had kept from her.
ATF's Albuquerque sting ran from April through August 2016 with an express purpose: Arrest people with lengthy violent criminal histories who were moving large quantities of guns and drugs in the city.
Lauding the operation as an unqualified success, that's exactly who top federal officials say they nabbed.
Padilla didn't fit either description.
Like scores of others identified by NMID, Padilla has past convictions for drug possession and property crimes, but no violent felonies—unlike Informant No. 9097. He spent time in prison in another state for drug trafficking, aggravated armed robbery, felony drug possession and possession of criminal tools, court records show.
And like many others, Padilla's struggle with drugs centered around addiction, not trafficking.
Accusations of illegal "selective enforcement" have dogged the operation, too, with black people dramatically overrepresented among those arrested. Hispanic people also were arrested in disproportionate numbers; white people, including Padilla, were heavily underrepresented by population.
Legal and policing experts have criticized how ATF used out-of-state informants—three black, including Informant No. 9097, and two Hispanic—saying that tactic was likely to net lower-level defendants of color.
Padilla's case highlights additional questions: How closely were ATF agents monitoring informants in Albuquerque, and was the agency following its own rules?
There have been problems before. A government watchdog recently criticized the agency for loose informant supervision in other stings across the country.
In Kansas City, an informant was having sex with targets and using and selling drugs during an operation, yet was allowed to follow ATF for a subsequent sting in St. Louis, according to one report by the Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General.
Padilla admits how her own decisions helped lead her to where she is now, and her family speaks in exasperated tones about her past.
Her parents, Dan and Denise “Scooter” Sullivan, say she associated sometimes with a trouble-prone crowd at Del Norte High School. There were a few trips to juvenile detention for running away, they say.
At 21, her life began to stabilize when she married. She and her parents say her 10-year marriage marked a period of relative calm, although that's when she first discovered painkillers.
After her divorce in 2010, a boyfriend introduced her to heroin, and she was hooked.
Drug possession charges followed, then guilty pleas to 11 burglary counts, for which she was sentenced to probation.
Padilla couldn't stay off heroin, however, and her probation was revoked after she earned another possession charge in June 2014. She spent 15 months in the state women's prison in Grants.
Wanting to continue the drug-free stretch she'd managed in prison, Padilla applied for residence at Covenant House, a kind of way station for women leaving the corrections system, run by St. Martin's Hospitality Center that offers behavioral health services, addiction treatment and other programs. She was accepted for a 90-day stay after her release on March 21, 2016.
She took a job at Bucket Headz, a soul food restaurant in the southeast Albuquerque neighborhood where, at about the same time, the ATF was beginning to focus its sting operation.
"I was the happiest I had been in a long time," Padilla says. "I was up. I was working, I was seeing my kids."
The restaurant catered mostly to black people. She would later learn three frequent patrons were ATF informants.
But she didn't know that in May 2016, when she caught the eye of one. They exchanged telephone numbers. Straight away, he seemed different from other men she'd known.
"It was the little things he did: show up to drive me to work in the morning when it was only a block away," Padilla says. "Little shit like that. I'm a female, it works."
He visited her at the halfway house the first night they met and many nights thereafter. Sometimes, other men came. She later learned they were also ATF informants. The men drank, smoked marijuana and took ecstasy. They shared the drugs with other women at the house, Padilla says, although she at first abstained.
ATF can authorize illegal activity by its confidential informants, or CIs, during an operation, according to an agency manual obtained by NMID. That includes possessing and using drugs.
Supervisors must approve the activity and reauthorize it every 90 days. CIs are required to sign a form acknowledging they understand the constraints on their criminal activity.
It is unclear whether any of those safeguards were met in the Albuquerque operation—or whether agency officials cleared the informants to use drugs or share them with women in the halfway house—because ATF would not answer questions for this story.
Drug and alcohol use are forbidden at Covenant House, says Nevin Marquez, St. Martin's director of behavioral health services. With few exceptions, residents are not allowed to have visitors either. Violations are managed by St. Martin's staff, who are supposed to keep a near-constant presence in the house, and can result in expulsion.
Marquez declined to comment on Padilla, citing privacy laws. He would not confirm whether she had been a resident.
Speaking generally, he says staff do the best they can to enforce the rules— sometimes a difficult task, given the population they're dealing with. That mission includes walking a fine line between privacy, an essential element of the program, and assisting law enforcement.
For example, residents agree to random searches of the house by state probation and parole officers before they move in.
An ATF informant bringing drugs into the house and having sex with a resident would be another matter, he says.
"I'm not an attorney, but what you're telling me raises a flag," he says.
It is not clear whether agents knew the extent of their informant's relationship with Padilla. But just before Padilla introduced Informant No. 9097 to her old drug dealer friends, he told his handlers he had known her for nearly two months and she had been living at a halfway house, NMID has learned.
Also unclear is whether the informant had been eyeing Padilla as a target from the beginning. She remembers a moment less than two weeks into their relationship that makes her question his motives now.
Wondering if she was connected to Los Padillas, the Albuquerque street gang, he asked her to introduce him to some big-time drug dealers. She refused, saying she wasn't a gang member and was on parole.
"I kind of feel that's where he maybe tried to—'Can't you hook me up with your people?'—and I'm like, 'No,'" she says.
A few weeks later, a party was in full swing outside Covenant House.
"He was like, 'Take a couple drinks,' and I did," she says. "He popped [an ecstasy pill], and then he was like, 'Do you want one?'" After a year and a half clean, the choice anguished her. "And he was all, 'Well here, just take it, just take it.' So I did."
Ecstasy, a popular party drug that leaves users euphoric, is often cut with heroin—Padilla's drug of choice.
The pill had scratched an old itch, and a few hours later, she had a needle full of heroin in her arm.
The relapse came in waves, she says, with intermittent attempts at stopping. The informant promised to help her quit. He didn't follow through.
Padilla moved out of Covenant House and in with her parents.
Dan Sullivan remembers meeting the new man in his daughter's life in the driveway one night. He was suspicious, and neither he nor his wife wanted the man around.
That didn’t stop Padilla from seeing or scheduling outings with him and her children, including one to Tingley Beach where they played Pokémon GO.
"He was really into it," Jennifer's 20-year-old son, Andrew, recalls. "He was really good with the kids; he hung out with the kids. ... It seemed like a normal type day."
A few weeks later the informant came to Padilla with the story about the robbery and his needing quick cash. She made the call for the first deal.
Then, ATF Special Agent Carlos Valles stepped in, pretending to be the informant's partner as he discussed the second transaction with her, NMID has learned.
She was never promised money for setting up the deals, she says, although Valles, working undercover, gave her $100 the day after the second one late last July.
After her arrest weeks later, she worried the man she believed was her boyfriend would be next. Her worry was misplaced. She discovered his lie Aug. 12 when she read her indictment, listing the dates of the two meth deals.
"I went: 'Motherfucker,'" she says. "If he was working for them and he was being legit about it, that's one thing. But he's not. He's dirty. … I feel stupid and I feel used. I feel, just, disgusted and taken advantage of."
NMID knows some details about CI No. 9097 beyond his real name and criminal record. But Whitley, Padilla's lawyer, wants to learn more about his work for ATF in Albuquerque and elsewhere.
Like numerous other law enforcement agencies, ATF relies heavily on CIs to make its cases. As of January 2016, the agency managed 1,855 informants who were working either for money or in exchange for leniency in their own cases. According to a Justice Department Office of the Inspector General report published earlier this year, ATF spends about $4.5 million in taxpayer money each year on informants.
The informant Padilla knew as her boyfriend was paid for his work in Albuquerque, though it is not clear how much. A review of court records and other documents show that another informant brought in for the Albuquerque operation earns an annual salary of $80,000 working for ATF, while another said he was paid $1,400 a week plus "bonuses."
People interviewed for this story say CI No. 9097 seemed to enjoy his time in New Mexico.
He drove a slew of high-dollar rental cars around the city, including a Camaro, a convertible Mustang, a Lincoln Crossover, a BMW and a Dodge Charger. The man never had cash, but carried a single credit card he used to make purchases and rent the cars.
He appeared to maintain a near-constant buzz.
"He would pop ecstasy, he'd drink and he'd smoke weed all day long," Padilla says. "All day."
Andrew, Padilla's son, who has a medical marijuana card, recalls smoking with the informant several times.
Dante Dellesite, Andrew's friend, says he saw the informant purchase marijuana and ecstasy on several occasions—usually just $20 to $40 worth at a time—and saw him use the drugs. The seller was never arrested, court records show.
Dellesite also watched on Snapchat as the informant drove to Denver with another acquaintance to purchase marijuana. As they drove, they appeared to drink alcohol and continuously smoked marijuana, he says.
Dellesite says the informant stuck around in New Mexico after the operation ended. He saw the man at least one more time after Padilla's arrest. On that occasion, the informant was peddling Nike sneakers, belts, subwoofers and other wares out of the trunk of his car.
"Anybody can presume that something coming out of a trunk may not be legitimate," Dellesite says. "After that, he was just, poof, gone in thin air like a magic trick."
One of his destinations was Truth or Consequences. That's where he was cited last fall for marijuana possession and reckless driving, court records show. The informant pleaded guilty to both misdemeanor charges, never hired a lawyer, paid $282 in fines and served 30 days of probation.
The informant use manual says all arrests of CIs must be reported for purposes of reassessing whether they should remain on the ATF payroll.
The man was still working as an ATF informant as of February 2017.
ATF STING BY THE NUMBERS
people arrested in ATF’s 2016 Albuquerque sting
have pleaded guilty, most to drug charges, some to gun charges
have been sentenced, nearly all to relatively short prison terms by federal standards
By early August 2016, Jennifer Padilla had decided to kick heroin again.
She completed a 10-day detox and was living at her parents' home, waiting to get checked into an inpatient treatment center. Her probation officer had even agreed not to revoke her status for a previous dirty urine test.
She was scheduled to get an injection of Vivitrol, a drug that reduces cravings and the effects of heroin, on Aug. 10.
She never made it.
Scooter Sullivan, Padilla's mother, remembers that morning: Three agents clad in black balaclavas and raid vests rushed through the backyard gate as she drank coffee.
Dan Sullivan answered the front door to see a larger group of agents there to arrest his daughter, a woman with no violent criminal record.
"Some of them had ARs on them," he says. "They looked like a SWAT team. Absolutely overwhelming force."
"All this for making a couple of phone calls," Scooter adds.
The agents woke Jennifer up and told her she had a warrant. She was confused. But reality set in when, handcuffed, she saw more agents in front of the house including Carlos Valles, who had been introduced as her boyfriend's partner in the drug trade.
If she's convicted of two counts of conspiracy to traffic meth, she could face 10 years or more in federal prison. If prosecutors decide to pursue a mandatory minimum sentence based on her previous felony drug possession conviction, that could swell to 20 years or more.
The year in jail has further distressed Padilla's children, who are living with their father and occasionally staying with their grandparents. Scooter says the younger children cry at night, asking for their mom.
Padilla and her family hope US District Judge William P "Chip" Johnson, a George W Bush appointee, will dismiss her case once he learns how ATF used CI No. 9097 to target her.
"He set her up," Dan Sullivan says. "Predatory is a very good way to put it. That's absolutely what he was doing: He was preying on her."
Jennifer Padilla thought her new boyfriend would help bring her family together and get her life back on track; instead, he helped send her to jail.
- March 21, 2016: Jennifer Padilla gets out of prison, checks into an Albuquerque halfway house.
- May: Padilla begins dating ATF Informant No. 9097, whose true identity she does not know.
- June: The two have sex several times at the halfway house. He spends time with her children. He gives her an ecstasy pill, ending nearly two years off drugs for Padilla. Early on, the informant asks if Padilla can introduce him to drug dealers. She refuses.
- July: The informant raises the stakes, telling P
- adilla he has been robbed and that she must arrange a drug deal so he can make money and pay back his Florida partners.
- July 9: Padilla introduces the informant to an old acquaintance for a drug deal. The same day, the informant tells his ATF handlers about Padilla: He’s known her two months and she lived at a halfway house.
- July 11: Padilla’s old acquaintance sells meth to an undercover ATF agent.
- July 12: ATF agents search Padilla’s criminal history in a national database.
- Around July 20: The informant again leans on Padilla, telling her he still needs to make more money. She calls another old acquaintance for a drug deal.
- July 26: The second acquaintance sells meth to an undercover ATF agent.
- August 10: Padilla is arrested and charged with conspiracy to distribute meth. She remains in jail.
This story is part of The Justice Project from New Mexico In Depth. Jeff Proctor is a contributing editor at SFR.