After his arrest, Bobby Wayne Haley Sr. told his lawyer there was no way a police informant could have seen him selling drugs from his salvage yard in late May 2004.
For one thing, he wasn’t even in Tulsa then. But a veteran police officer swore under oath that the informant was reliable. The informant testified she was certain she had seen Mr. Haley dealing. The officer produced a bag of crack he said he found in the salvage yard. And Mr. Haley was sentenced to 22 years in federal prison.
Mr. Haley said he felt like he was losing his mind. “They were trying to frame me for something I didn’t do,” he said. No one believed him. Until now.
A federal investigation into the Tulsa Police Department that began nearly two years ago has unearthed a flood of corruption allegations.
Federal prosecutors allege that a handful of veteran officers, aided by a federal agent, fabricated informants, planted evidence, stole drugs and cash from criminal suspects, coerced perjured testimony, intimidated witnesses and trafficked in cocaine and methamphetamine.
Two former officers are cooperating with prosecutors in exchange for immunity. Another former officer has pleaded guilty to stealing money from an individual he thought was a drug dealer, but who was really an undercover federal agent. A different federal agent, who worked for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Tulsa, has pleaded guilty to drug conspiracy. Four additional officers and one retired officer are under indictment on multiple charges including depriving suspects of their civil rights and distributing drugs. Trials are set for January. All five men deny wrongdoing.
Officer Phil Evans, president of the police union, says he has a hard time believing the allegations. And attorneys for the indicted officers predict vindication. They say the evidence against the officers is flimsy—and relies heavily on the word of convicted criminals.
“This will be a credibility contest and, quite frankly, we welcome that,” said Stephen Jones, who represents indicted Officer Jeff Henderson and who represented Oklahoma City federal building bomber Tim McVeigh.
Scandals involving informants have shaken New York City, Atlanta and Dallas in recent years, as well as small cities such as Mansfield, Ohio, and Tulia, Texas.
Here in Tulsa, the indictments have ricocheted throughout the justice system.
Federal and state judges have freed at least a dozen convicted felons—including at least one who was serving a life sentence on drug charges—because prosecutors’ cases were built on testimony from the indicted officers.
And Tulsa County prosecutors have dismissed pending felony charges, mostly drug-related, against 24 suspects. Other cases, past and pending, are still being reviewed.
“It’s frustrating because in some of the cases we’re vacating, it’s pretty clear to me that the defendants were engaged in criminal activity,” said Doug Drummond, an assistant district attorney. “But we have to follow the rules.”
Mr. Haley was freed last May after the police informant in his case, Rochelle Martin, told federal prosecutors she had been lying. She had never seen Mr. Haley selling drugs. She had been coached on what to say by two of the indicted officers.
“My testimony was a lie,” she said in an affidavit that a federal judge cited in vacating Mr. Haley’s conviction. She doesn’t face charges in connection with the case.
Mr. Haley, 56, has sued the city of Tulsa for damages. Bracing for a wave of similar lawsuits, the city is setting aside $900,000 to hire outside counsel.
If the city is found liable for failing to supervise its police officers, Tulsa taxpayers will be on the hook. Oklahoma law requires cities to raise property taxes to cover legal judgments.
Tulsa officials defend their oversight of the police. Still, newly appointed Police Chief Chuck Jordan has scrambled to overhaul policies.
All confidential informants must now be registered with the department, including a photo, fingerprints and a background check. Before an informant is used, at least five police supervisors and a prosecutor must approve. In the past, officers needed at most one supervisor’s approval; in some cases, they did not need to register or vet informants at all, said Capt. Jonathan Brooks, a police department spokesman.
Another policy change: After a big arrest, the department now sends a property-room employee to pick up drugs, cash and other evidence, rather than rely on officers in the field to turn it in, Mr. Brooks said.
Chief Jordan has also warned officers they will be fired if they lie on reports, in testimony or in interviews with internal-affairs investigators; in the past, sanctions for lying were not spelled out, Mr. Brooks said.
Some officers said the scandal has been a blow to morale in a department already hit by budget cuts. Early this year, the city laid off 11% of its force. It has since rehired some officers but its force of about 720 is still far below the high of 829 two years ago.
Several Tulsa-area criminal-defense lawyers say their clients had long alleged that police had fabricated evidence and attributed it to anonymous informants. But they could rarely make a judge take notice, not when it was a suspect’s word against an officer’s.
“You going to believe the police, or someone from the ghetto who has been in trouble before?” said DeMarco Deon Williams.
Mr. Williams, 35, was serving a life sentence for drug offenses when his conviction was vacated this year because the case relied on testimony from one of the indicted officers.
He said he expected an apology—and compensation—from the city. “You can’t give me back the years that have been taken from me,” Mr. Williams said. Instead, he said, “I’m hoping to get payback. And justice.”