by Pam Zubeck
His stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies, including the 2012 true-crime anthology Seven Sins, The Best American Crime Reporting 2008 and The Best American Sports Writing 2009. He has also written for Rolling Stone, Outside, Los Angeles Times Magazine, Men’s Journal and other national publications and is the author of a book about child abuse and parricide, The Poison Tree.The ACLU's news release:
DENVER – The City of Trinidad has agreed to pay $375,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by the ACLU of Colorado on behalf of Danika Gonzales and Felicia Valdez, two innocent women who were wrongly arrested and prosecuted for crimes they did not commit in a reckless 2013 “drug sting” where police relied on the false accusations of an untrustworthy confidential informant.
The ACLU filed suit in January 2015 alleging that Trinidad detectives incentivized a confidential informant, Crystal Bachicha, to make false, self-serving accusations. To obtain arrest warrants, the detectives deliberately concealed facts that they knew would destroy the informant’s credibility, including Bachicha’s convictions for fraud and drug crimes, her known biases against the people she claimed to have sold drugs to, and numerous documented instances in which Bachicha lied to law enforcement officers.
“Trinidad detectives allowed a devious snitch to frame our innocent clients for crimes they did not commit,” said ACLU of Colorado Legal Director Mark Silverstein. “With this settlement, our clients have been vindicated, and Trinidad detectives have received a clear message that the uncorroborated say-so of a shady snitch cannot justify destroying the careers and reputations of innocent members of the community.”
Overall, 40 individuals were arrested during Trinidad’s widely-publicized 2013 “drug sting,” on the basis of false, deficient, and misleading arrest affidavits. None of the 40 arrests resulted in a drug-related conviction.
“At the time Trinidad police tapped Bachicha to be an informant, they knew that she was a convicted felon, a liar, a drug user, and had a history of providing false information to law enforcement,” said ACLU staff attorney Rebecca Wallace. “Yet, over and over again, the police took Bachicha at her word as she falsely accused many of her enemies of selling drugs.”
Gonzales, who had been Bachicha’s probation officer, lost her job as a result of the false arrest. Valdez was fired from her job with the Trinidad School System, and she and her children were evicted from their federally-subsidized housing.
“This incident was traumatic for me emotionally and financially, and I lost my sense of normalcy and confidence. The reckless actions of the Trinidad Police Department have caused irreversible damage to my career, my family, and my trust in law enforcement,” said Gonzales. “However, I am relieved to have finally gotten to this point of closure. I am so very thankful for the continued hope and support given to me by my family, friends, and all of the outstanding attorneys with the ACLU of Colorado and Baker/Hostetler.”
The City of Trinidad has not conducted its annual drug sting since the 2013 debacle, and the two lead detectives have since retired, according to a recent report in Pueblo Chieftain.
“Our investigation into this case revealed a police department whose repeated use of unreliable confidential informants had caused it to lose the trust of the community it served,” said ACLU cooperating attorney Paul Karlsgodt of BakerHostetler. “Trinidad police acted under constitutionally-deficient procedures which gave untrustworthy informants an open invitation to lie, divert buy money, skim drugs for their own use, and use their positions as informants to settle personal scores against their enemies.”
“The settlement helps to repair some, but not all, of the lasting damage caused by these practices, and we hope it has also given the department an opportunity to self-reflect and make necessary changes to ensure this never happens again,” said cooperating attorney Casie Collignon of BakerHostetler.
Gonzales and Valdez were represented by Silverstein, Wallace, and ACLU staff attorney Sara Neel, as well as a BakerHostetler team led by Karlsgodt, Collignon, and former associate Nathan Schacht.