Policing Gays 

Metro cops use confidential informants to target gay chat rooms and lure homosexual men into trading and selling drugs. This undercover operation changed the life of one man who may well be innocent.

Metro cops use confidential informants to target gay chat rooms and lure homosexual men into trading and selling drugs. This undercover operation changed the life of one man who may well be innocent.

Despite its upscale name, the Stewarts Ferry Luxury Apartments are more like middle-class projects. Just one exit from the airport, east on I-40, the sprawling complex is crisscrossed by towering power lines that hover over shallow, manmade ponds and more than 600 units that all look the same. There are two pools, a large crystal-blue one near the leasing office and another with an unobstructed view of the interstate. The tiny, faded fountain that greets the complex's residents is dry.

On a late Friday night in May, Steve exits I-40. A computer programmer who can while away a night reading Scientific American, he had planned to relax after a hard week. But 90 minutes earlier, he spontaneously agreed to meet a blind date he found online. From the Internet photo, Steve expected someone like him: a young gay man with brown hair and tan skin, only with a trimmer, more athletic build. The man said he had just moved from Los Angeles to Nashville to write songs, and seemed a little more adventurous than the usually serious computer programmer.

At a townhouse past one of the complex's pools, meanwhile, several men sit quietly inside an empty unit. Most are in their late 20s and 30s. One is a swarthy man who could pass for a body-builder. He looks menacing, but he may be the most empathetic of the group. Another man has longish hair and glasses; another is at least 6-foot-4, flanked by someone who looks like he should skip a meal every now and then. There is also a man who is casually dressed, with a shaved head and a brownish goatee.

The side road that leads to the apartments is impossible to miss. A giant sign stands near a circle of seven small flagpoles flying Old Glory, with a larger 30-foot flag in the center that is visible for hundreds of yards—all lit up with spotlights. The flags are fenced in by barbed wire.

Having passed the flags, Steve cannot find his date's townhouse. Each unit looks the same, with a redbrick front, framed by greenish-gray wooden siding. Steve isn't used to being lost. He gets even uneasier when he calls the date from his cell phone and, strangely, the man has trouble giving directions to his own home.

After a few frustrating minutes, Steve finally finds the address and walks down a short, narrow sidewalk. He anxiously knocks on the door. He is coldly greeted not by his date, but by a shorter, stockier man with a shaved head and goatee. This is where Steve's nightmare begins.

In a matter of seconds, four plain-clothed undercover Metro cops wrestle Steve to the ground after he refuses to submit. Steve is stunned and doesn't understand what's going on. He worries that these men are malicious rednecks who lured him so they could taunt and beat up a gay man. So he continues to resist.

Steve is later handcuffed, hauled off to night court and charged with resisting and evading arrest. He is also charged with possession of a controlled substance—in his case, amyl nitrate, a popular sex drug. Today, nearly two months after Steve's arrest, neither the District Attorney's Office nor the Metro Police Department are sure that amyl nitrate is even prohibited by law.

Since the fall of 2004, officers at the Hermitage Police Precinct have been quietly conducting a sting operation exclusively targeting gay men. Nobody there denies that. The precinct's crime suppression unit, which operates as a mini vice squad, has been working with at least one confidential informant who has been infiltrating gay chat rooms, contacting users and seeing if they're interested in exchanging drugs and cash for sex. Later, they'll lead their targets to a local apartment or hotel room where Metro police lie in wait. No informants are working straight chat rooms with the same purpose.

Sometimes the targets of the CI will be uninterested in even hearing about illegal activity and will click off the instant message window. But then the informant, who many describe as remarkably persistent, will again contact his target and resume a conversation about sex and drugs. Typically, CIs are rather shady individuals who employ a working knowledge of the criminal underworld, from drug rings to prostitution. The police enlist their help and reward them with petty cash or a favorable resolution to their current legal problems.

The CI who has been working with the Hermitage officers clearly knows what he's doing—establishing rapport with his targets by instant messaging in the vernacular of some of the more risqué chat rooms. He'll ask his targets if they want to "pnp," which stands for party and play, and is typically a reference to using drugs and having sex. He'll inquire about "420" and "blow," shorthand for marijuana and cocaine. He also knows about poppers like amyl nitrate, which are inhalants that can work as muscle relaxers.

The confidential informant went so far as to fabricate a racy online profile at gay.com that lured at least some of his targets. It consisted of a series of nude photos of a young man, with sharply clipped brown hair, who might pass for a younger version of George Clooney. In one photo, the man is playing with himself, while in another his nude body leans over a pool table. Subtlety is not this informant's strong suit.

The police informant's online dispatches matched the sleaze of his photographs. He boasts about a promiscuous sex life, highlighted by recreational Viagra use and a large endowment. His preferred company isn't exactly refined—"fuck and party buds," he writes, are who he likes to spend time with. The informant characterizes himself as a recreational drug user and describes his occupation rather succinctly as a "songwriter and slut." He has a motto as well: "party...fuck...repeat...party...fuck...repeat." It bears repeating: this man is an agent of the Metropolitan Police Department.

He's also the same man who contacted Steve, which, you might have guessed by now, isn't his real name. He agreed to talk to the Scene only if the newspaper agreed to protect what's left of his privacy. "Steve" provided us with a transcript of his online communication with the informant. In it, the CI initiates an online conversation, offers a compliment and announces immediately that he is looking to "pnp tonight." Steve's response betrays a mild, fleeting interest, but after about 20 minutes, he ends the dialogue and closes the conversation box. At that point, Steve had committed no crime, nor made plans to carry one out.

He did tell the informant, however, that he had some good "amsterdam amyl." That's the name of a bottle of amyl nitrates Steve had been given by a friend. Amyl nitrate used to be prescribed to treat angina, but now is typically used to facilitate anal sex and prolong erections. It is inhaled and can give users a dizzying buzz of energy. It is not listed as either a prohibited controlled substance or an illegal inhalant anywhere in Tennessee code—and it is widely available and can be purchased at head shops and adult bookstores locally.

After a five-minute break, during which the CI was consulting with officers, the confidential informant again contacts Steve and tells him to "come on over." He adds, "bring the amyl...not butyl." Interestingly, it is butyl, not amyl, that is listed as a controlled substance. Although Steve doesn't ask for it, the informant gives him his cell phone number. Steve calls the man and agrees to visit him at the Stewart's Ferry apartments.

Officer Joel David Goodwin opened the door when Steve knocked. There were at least three other officers present, he remembers. Goodwin didn't match his date's photo, so Steve initially figured he knocked on the wrong door. In his affidavit, Goodwin writes that he identified himself as a police officer and told the defendant to stop. Steve recalls hearing the words "Metro Police," but nothing else. He says that when he saw the officer's badge, "it looked cheap to me." Because of Goodwin's shaved head and the boyish features of the other plain-clothed officers, Steve feared he had become the target of a hateful prank. So he quietly but quickly backed up.

"Everything to me looked like this was just a bunch of good ol' boys partying on a Friday night," he says. "Nothing from their behavior led me to believe otherwise."

Steve took a step or two away from the door, but Goodwin snatched him by the wrist. He twisted away, but the other officers grabbed him. Steve wouldn't submit. He kept trying to pull away, but he remembers being kicked and brought to the grass on the front yard. The men grabbed and punched him, but he still tried to break free. Then Steve recalls a sharp, devastating blow to his back that felt like someone unloaded their handgun. "Now I know what it's like to be shot," he remembers thinking.

In fact, the police later admitted that Sergeant Steve Brady, a 17-year veteran of the force, fired his Taser gun, delivering 50,000 electric volts into Steve's back. Meanwhile, he was being kicked. Remarkably, Steve tried to get to his feet. In his mind, he was fighting for his life. Then Brady shot him a second time with the Taser. The officers ordered him to put his hands behind his back, but he couldn't. His body was flopping like a fish out of water; every muscle was convulsing, it seemed to him at the time. The officers ridiculed him. "Does that tickle?" one of the officers asked, as the others laughed uproariously.

It was nearly pitch black. What few rays of light emanated from the parking lot were partially obscured by a tall tree in the front yard. Steve looked back into the night air and caught a surreal arc of electricity spring like lightning from the sergeant's electroshock gun. For a third and final time, the officer Tasered Steve's burning back. The sergeant's supervisor has confirmed to the Scene that Steve was indeed shocked three times.

"I'm screaming the whole time," Steve recalls, still shaken by his encounter with Metro police. "I'm constantly yelling, 'Please don't do this! Please stop! Don't do this!' The whole time, there are pleadings."

Even at this point, Steve still didn't believe the men were police officers. He had no idea what he could have done to earn the wrath of the law. It's not illegal to meet someone on a gay chat room or follow up with a visit. Straight people find love, sex and companionship online all the time. Steve says, quite plausibly, that he could not have fathomed that the bottle of commercially available poppers he stuffed into his pants pocket an hour or so earlier could have prompted several undercover cops to lie in wait in an empty townhouse. He thought the men who surrounded him were rednecks who got hold of some pricey toys and were looking to kill a gay man. So he begged for his life.

"I thought, 'This is it. This is how I'm going to die.' "

After Brady shot him for the third and final time with his Taser gun, Steve feebly submitted. One of the men ordered him to get up. He was handcuffed, escorted inside the townhouse and told to kneel. Steve was near tears. He continued to beg and shout, pleading with them to stop. While on his knees, an officer snatched the bottle of poppers from his pants. An officer with longish hair and glasses took a photo of him and laughed. The officers took Steve to the back of the townhouse, where there was a table stacked with paperwork. Also on the table was a thick DEA enforcement book that oddly reassured him that the men who had hurt him really were the law.

With his hands cuffed behind his back, Steve stayed put as the police waited on another man who indicated to an informant that he would be delivering drugs to the same townhouse. To pass the time, the officers watched an old movie. Then, in a bizarre show of what might pass for empathy, some of the cops made a run to the local Dairy Queen, asking Steve first if he wanted anything. Thinking they were mocking him as they had earlier, Steve answered somewhat sarcastically. "Get me a banana split." So one of the officers retrieved $4 from his wallet and later brought him back his dessert of choice. Steve's hands were released and he was recuffed with his wrists upfront. And that's how he ate his banana split. Meanwhile, the other target of the evening showed up as expected with three grams of crystal meth, two ecstasy pills and drug paraphernalia. Fortunately for him, he did not resist arrest.

A friendly, engaging man, Eric Snyder is the investigative lieutenant of the Hermitage Police Precinct. In numerous phone interviews with the Scene, Snyder patiently answered questions about what happened the night Steve was taken to jail. Although he wasn't there, the officers who were are under his command. He speaks for them.

Snyder's story differs from Steve's, but not dramatically. The lieutenant says that the defendant backed off after he knocked on the door and said "you can't arrest me." Officers grabbed him, then put him to the ground, but he wouldn't put his hands behind his back. One officer gave him a knee strike, but he still wouldn't comply with the police officer's orders. So Brady shot him with the Taser.

A Taser sends a shock for about five seconds. Most of the time, Snyder says, that works, then the suspect is ready to submit. But after the first bolt of electricity that May evening, the defendant was still resisting. He began to stand, so Brady fired again. It then took one more application to render the defendant compliant.

"Which is unusual," Snyder says. "Most people take to the Taser right away.

The defendant is listed on police documents as 6 feet, 180 pounds, which is hardly imposing. In person, Steve seems even smaller, thinner and decidedly unthreatening. He doesn't look like someone who could give four police officers a fair fight. This is a computer programmer, not a Titans lineman. How were four of Metro's finest unable to subdue a man who spends 40 hours a week behind a desk?

"We can put away the pepper spray and the Tasers and do all our takedowns with pure physical force," Snyder says. "But that increases the likelihood of injury to both suspects and officers."

Steve's lawyer, the effective John Herbison, has penned a letter to District Attorney General Torry Johnson asking him to investigate the conduct of the Metro police officers who arrested his client. He copied his note to Metro Police Chief Ronal Serpas. "The conduct of officers under your command in this situation is reprehensible and outrageous," he wrote in the June 10 hand-delivered letter." Please advise the subject officers to not even think about retaliating."

Amazingly, at press time, Serpas had not forwarded Herbison's letter to the police department's Office of Professional Accountability.

In the meantime, nobody seems to know whether Steve even did anything illegal, other than resisting arrest. Here's how the charges have evolved over the last few weeks: initially, police claimed that Steve's bottle of liquid substance was not "amyl nitrate," even though that's what he told the informant he would bring over. So they charged him with intent to sell, deliver or distribute a counterfeit controlled substance. Oddly, both the defendant and the attorney claim that the bottle of substance he stuffed into his pocket was, in fact, amyl nitrate. The real deal. They're not worried, though, because the drug is not a controlled substance. So the charge seems to be baseless. That's why Herbison has no plans to claim that the police induced his client into committing a crime.

"Entrapment would not apply here because the defendant has committed no crime at all," he says. "Entrapment admits a commission of the offense and suggests that the criminal design originated with the government. Here, no crime has been committed."

And no one on the other side is able to say otherwise.

Initially, assistant district attorney Tammy Meade, who reviewed the charges, told the Scene that the police mischarged the defendant. She says that while amyl nitrate is not a controlled substance, the state's inhalant statute prohibits it. One problem: the inhalant statute does not list amyl nitrate anywhere as a prohibited substance.

So now some of the officers at the Hermitage precinct claim that the controlled substance statutes prohibit amyl nitrate obliquely. But District Attorney General Torry Johnson says he's not sure. This week he checked in with a lab and still wasn't able to ascertain the legality of amyl nitrate. In other words, confusion still reigns. A gay man was shot three times with a Taser gun because police planned to arrest him for having an illegal substance. But today—more than six weeks after the defendant was jailed—the top law enforcement officer in the city can't say definitively whether he actually committed a crime.

"We're trying to research whether this is a controlled substance," says Johnson, whose office has been working for months now to moderate some of the more aggressive tactics of the cop shop.

Even if it turns out that amyl nitrate is not prohibited by law, Steve may still face separate charges of evading and resisting arrest. His attorney will likely fight those and will almost certainly file a civil suit.

"The first step is to defend the criminal charges," says Herbison, who has represented a number of high-profile clients, including Perry March and Byron Looper. "After that is concluded, I do expect to ask for a rectangular apology that includes the phrase 'Paid to the order of...' "

While no other case is as egregious as Steve's, the Hermitage precinct is likely to provoke a wave of controversy with its aggressive stings. Already, the police department's main vice squad has drawn the ire of the district attorney for allowing confidential informants to have intercourse with suspected prostitutes to build open-and-shut cases. In one sordid encounter, a confidential informant engaged in a three-way sex act with a husband-and-wife escort service. That prompted a frustrated assistant district attorney Tammy Meade to put an end to the controversial practice.

Now, though, the DA's office may have another public relations nightmare on its hands. The Hermitage officers are conducting a new, cutting-edge operation that explicitly targets gays, but they did not consult with the DA's office on the thorny legal issues involved.

"From our standpoint, it would be helpful to be involved in things like this on the front end rather than the back end," Johnson says. "I'm not prepared to say we have any problems. We just don't know enough to make any kind of judgment of whether this is good, bad or indifferent."

So far, the Hermitage Crime Suppression Unit has conducted four stings leading to 12 arrests for offenses ranging from prostitution to possession and intent to distribute crystal meth, powdered cocaine and ecstasy. Several of the men who have been apprehended say that the police informant approached them repeatedly about engaging in illegal actions.

"They were persistent through both the Internet and telephone conversations over several hours," says one defendant. "When I didn't respond, the chat window would reopen and I'd hear, 'Are you there, are you there, are you coming to party, will you sell me some?' I repeatedly said no."

This defendant says that he and the CI later exchanged numbers, and the informant asked him again if he'd sell. "I told him I don't sell, period, but I might share." He was later charged with a series of felonies, including intent to sell crystal meth.

Although the police informant seems to be relentlessly pursuing his targets, Stefanie Lindquist, an associate professor of political science and law at Vanderbilt University, says these defendants probably will have a tough time pursuing an entrapment defense. "If the police give you the opportunity to commit the crime, that is not entrapment," she says. "There has to be governmental inducement of an otherwise innocent person."

Since the operation began, Snyder says that the police have seized $6,500 worth of drugs. "In each of the four stings we've done, they've involved the delivery of narcotics," he says. "If you're looking at the greater good to society, hallucinogens and meth are bad, bad stuff. Shoplifting, burglary, assaults—you can hinge all these crimes back to drugs. If we can take $6,500 of it off the streets, we feel like we're doing a service to the community."

Snyder admits that at this point, their confidential informant has only targeted gay chat rooms, including ones on AOL and gay.com. He says they let the CI lead them to wherever illegal activity is happening. They don't tell him where to go. "When we're dealing with our informants, they lead us to their comfort level. If the subject has experience acquiring narcotics through a gay chat room, we assist them in doing that." Snyder says the CI will approach just about anybody in the chat room and see if someone will agree to exchange drugs or money for sex. Nobody is targeted specifically.

Currently, the Hermitage precinct is developing a manual about infiltrating straight chat rooms. For now, though, the lieutenant says, as if heterosexual conduct were actually a part of the counterculture, "we don't have anybody who can take us in there and assimilate us into that subculture."

Snyder recognizes that while some of the other arrests have nabbed serious offenders, the case against Steve is riddled with questions. The obvious one is why the undercover officers didn't figure out whether amyl nitrate was a banned substance before the sting operation. Snyder says that these sorts of operations unfold quickly and that his officers never really know what drugs the suspect might wind up delivering. "We don't have a lot of research time. When this happens, we accept that this is a controlled substance," he says. "In a nutshell, there is a lot of stuff out there. I wish my guys knew every illegal substance, but there are so many exotic pharmaceuticals and compounds that nobody could keep track of all of it."

Of course, his officers didn't have to charge the defendant that night. "Fortunately for all parties involved, we have time to research this," Snyder says. But what happens if they determine the drug is actually legal? That would be a small consolation for the man we've been calling Steve.

After he was arrested, the defendant spent the night inside a holding tank in the Metro jail. Surrounded by drunks, drug dealers and hustlers, he tried to sleep on the concrete floor. Some of his fellow inmates dozed soundly, but Steve mostly tossed and turned.

He wanted to call his friends to bail him out, but their numbers were programmed into his cell phone, which the police had confiscated. He didn't know any of their numbers off the top of his head. So on a Saturday afternoon in May, Steve realized that he had no choice. He had to call his parents.

Up until May, Steve had gone more than 30 years without sharing his sexuality with his family. They probably had an idea, but they'd never had a conversation about it. Maybe one day he would have told them. But with the wounds of the Taser shots still burning, the mild-mannered man knew he had to call his mom and dad to rescue him. He told them he was the victim of a police sting operation, and implied that he had been seeking male companionship online. Steve finally came out to his parents, but the circumstance was clearly not ideal. Since then, they've been solidly by his side. Not once have they wavered; their support has been steady and without qualification. Steve always knew he could count on his mother and father. But he never wanted them to prove it like this.

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