Fears raised for witnesses’ safety in corruption case
A witness who is scheduled to testify against allegedly corrupt Detroit narcotics officers was shot during an unsuccessful hit attempt, and other witnesses were relocated because their lives are in danger, federal prosecutors say.
According to a court transcript obtained Monday by The Detroit News, concerns for witness’ safety were discussed in a Nov. 9 hearing in the case of Detroit narcotics officers Lt. David “Hater” Hansberry and Bryan “Bullet” Watson. They are accused of stealing cocaine from drug dealers and giving it to informants to sell.
“We have legitimate witness safety concerns,” said assistant U.S. Attorney Louis Gabel, according to the transcript. Gabel was in charge of the case before moving to private practice.
The discussion occurred during a final pretrial conference, in which the defendants’ attorneys asked to have the Dec. 1 trial date postponed. They wanted additional time to study new material that included hundreds of pages of documents and transcripts from wiretaps and more than 1,000 phone calls.
U.S. District Judge Stephen Murphy agreed to move the trial to June 7; it was the fourth time the trial date has been rescheduled. Indictments were handed down in April against the officers and a third defendant, Kevlin Omar Brown, who is referred to in court documents as an “associate” of Hansberry.
During a court sidebar with Murphy, Gabel said one witness, whose name is being withheld by The News, was attacked while driving in Metro Detroit this summer, days after he agreed to cooperate with federal authorities. He has recovered from his injuries.
“(The witness) was targeted and shot,” Gabel said. “The timing was very troubling for us and very suspicious.”
Gabel added if the trial was postponed, more witnesses could be in danger.
“We’ve had other witnesses who we’ve had to move, quite frankly, other witnesses who have been concerned” about their safety, he said. “With the Dec. 1 trial date, it was more reasonable that this was going to get tried and decided sooner rather than later.”
The judge agreed that postponing the trial could endanger witnesses. “The longer the delay before trial goes, the more risk any witness would have,” he said, before adding: “I really don’t think I have any reasonable option not to adjourn the trial.
“The stakes are extremely, extremely high. We’re talking about two police officers and one individual defendant who’s not a police officer that face a great deal of time.”
According to the indictment, Hansberry and Watson employed informants to arrange drug deals so they could rob and extort the dealers.
“The defendants allegedly carried out traffic stops and fake arrests and then stole drugs, money and personal property from their victims,” U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade said in a statement after the indictments.
“Hansberry and Watson are charged with using their status as law enforcement officers to assist in their scheme, by driving police vehicles, activating lights on their police vehicles, wearing police-issued attire, displaying official badges and carrying firearms.
“Hansberry and Watson also allegedly identified themselves as police officers to coerce their victims into complying with their demands and to encourage their victims to flee, leaving behind illegal drugs, money, and personal property,” McQuade said.
Former narcotics officer Arthur “Curly” Leavells, who reportedly was childhood friends with informants frequently used by police in sting operations, pleaded guilty in June to conspiracy to distribute cocaine.
He told federal authorities he and other narcotics cops raided drug houses from 2010 through August 2014, but did not record the confiscated cocaine into evidence.
“Instead, the officers worked together to distribute the seized cocaine to drug dealers who could then sell it,” the indictment said. “The proceeds from the sale of the cocaine were split amongst the drug dealers and officers from the DPD Narcotics Section.”
Leavells cooperated with the FBI by wearing a wire to record conversations with fellow drug officers Hansberry and Watson, according to two police sources familiar with the investigation and federal court records.
Gabel was replaced by Assistant U.S. Attorney J. Michael Buckley.