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A former member of a scandal-plagued Detroit police drug unit wore a secret recording device to help FBI agents catch fellow cops accused of robbing and extorting drug dealers, The Detroit News has learned.

Officer Arthur Leavells was involved in an alleged conspiracy headed by two suspended members of the Detroit Police Narcotics Section, but helped federal agents secretly record conversations via a wiretap, according to court records and two sources familiar with the investigation.

The officer's involvement helps flesh out what led to a criminal case that Chief James Craig said undermined the public's trust in law enforcement. The cooperation also is a rare instance of a law enforcement member crossing the "thin blue line" to help prosecute colleagues.

The FBI and U.S. Attorney's Office refused to comment Thursday about the investigation and Leavells.

"The challenge for prosecutors is piercing the thin blue line, but there comes a point where self-interest takes over," said Peter Henning, a Wayne State University law professor and former federal prosecutor. "Anytime someone wears a wire, they're playing on other people's trust. In a police context, there is a special bond but once prosecutors breach it, wiretaps end up helping build a much stronger case."

Leavells, 44, was charged in connection with his role in the conspiracy, according to federal court records filed Thursday. He was charged in a criminal "information," which means a guilty plea is expected.

Lt. David "Hater" Hansberry and Officer Bryan "Bullet" Watson were charged April 8 in a bare-bones indictment. Court records filed Thursday, however, indicate prosecutors are armed with bank and cellphone records, text messages, tax documents, photos and a wiretap. Leavells wore the wiretap, two sources familiar with the investigation told The News.

He allegedly conspired to distribute cocaine between June 2010 and August 2014, according to federal court records. He could not be reached for comment Thursday.

That is the roughly the same period covered in the indictment against Hansberry and Watson, who are accused of arranging drug deals and then stealing money, narcotics and property.

Leavells worked in the drug unit under Hansberry, a source told The News, but quit several months ago after being suspended along with five members of the drug unit. They were suspended after a surveillance video captured them taking away a box that they never logged as evidence following a raid at a suspected drug house.

Hansberry, 34, of Warren and Watson, 46, of Novi, meanwhile, were suspended without pay following the indictment.

They "would also identify themselves as law enforcement officers performing official law enforcement duties in order to coerce their victims into complying with their demands and to encourage their victims to flee, leaving behind their controlled substances, money or personal property," prosecutors alleged in the indictment.

Instead of turning over the money, drugs and property to the Detroit Police Department, Hansberry and Watson sold the drugs — sometimes through informants — and split the money, the Justice Department alleged.

In a court filing, prosecutors gave a peek at the types of evidence gathered during the current investigation.

That evidence includes phone records, social media records, receipts and other records of retail purchases.

A lawyer for Watson, a 22-year veteran of the department, declined comment Thursday.

Hansberry is a 16-year veteran — his lawyer called him a "superstar" — who rose through the ranks and was promoted to lieutenant at age 33.

Hansberry's lawyer, Michael Harrison, could not be reached for comment Thursday but earlier told The News he worried about the case's origin.

"My fear is that this case could be about drug dealers and dirty cops looking to get themselves out of trouble by burning down whoever they can," Harrison said. "Could there be a much bigger fish than a young rising star of the police department?"

Craig declined comment Thursday, as did a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office.

Two others have been charged in the case. Kevlin Brown, allegedly a Hansberry associate, is accused of robbing and extorting a victim in January 2012. According to court records filed Thursday, a man named Calvin Turner is expected to plead guilty after being accused of conspiring to distribute cocaine in April 2013, according to court records.

Craig disbanded the drug unit in July because of what he said were systemic problems uncovered during an Internal Affairs investigation that began in May. The problems included handling drugs and evidence.

An officer helping prosecute colleagues is rare, and no guarantee of a conviction.

In 2004, three Detroit police officers cooperated in a federal case against eight officers from Detroit's 4th Precinct. The eight officers were acquitted of charges they violated the constitutional rights of suspected criminals by planting evidence and writing phony reports.

rsnell@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2028

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