01/16/2006

N.C. undercover unit rocked by scandal, FBI probe

BY LORRAINE AHEARN

Copyright 2006 News & Record (Greensboro, NC) 

GREENSBORO- On a warm Friday night last June, Lt. James Hinson pulled his unmarked cruiser away from The Grande cinema after stopping to chat with a friend and once again noticed the tan Dodge van behind him.

Pulling over his Crown Victoria until the van passed, Hinson later recounted to his lawyer, he called in the van's tag number: WVW 7205.

The tag was "not on file" - indicating it was part of an undercover operation. But Hinson had already guessed that. He'd recognized the van's driver.

It was Randy Gerringer, a private investigator he knew had been rehired by the Greensboro Police Department to work in the Special Intelligence Division (SID). The increasingly hush-hush unit had been moved out of the chain of command to report directly to the deputy chief. It had also gained a nickname among the ranks: the "secret police."

Hinson, now on his guard, would quickly return to The Grande parking lot. Moments later, he would find a tracking device planted inside his bumper. The scandal had begun.

Seven months later, an ensuing cover-up that cost two top commanders their jobs and forced Chief David Wray to resign last week has left city leaders with another worry:

What else had the "secret" police been doing?

As the FBI confirmed Friday that it will launch an inquiry into possible civil rights violations against a host of officers, there had been no details released yet from the second report on a city- ordered probe.

But in the meantime, a series of interviews since the story broke in June gives a glimpse into the activities of the SID - and a tangled back story of strippers, drug smugglers and police officers the covert unit sought to weave together.

Why the black book?

A photo lineup book of 114 black men, including at least 19 city officers, became the latest smoking gun in the story when city officials confirmed last week that it not only existed, but had been hidden in former Deputy Chief Randall Brady's car trunk, allegedly on Wray's orders.

Wray countered in a written statement that the black three-ring binder had only been compiled and used to identify a suspect in a single case: A prostitute's complaint that a police officer groped and sexually assaulted her during a strip search last January.

But City Manager Mitchell Johnson said investigators concluded otherwise - that there were numerous instances of the book being shown to criminal defendants in an attempt to target black officers among the 19 pictured in the book. Defendants were told, in Johnson's words, "If you ID an officer, we might help you out."

For instance, a topless dancer who was a co-defendant in a federal drug case was shown the photos sometime in 2004, a lawyer for one officer claimed last week.

Walt Jones represents a veteran of the force who was caught in the dragnet and suspended for 10 months, but in the end disciplined only for a minor paperwork omission. The officer has not agreed to be named in the newspaper.

Later, it was that same officer that the Greensboro dancer, now in federal prison in Kentucky, recognized while she was in custody and shown the book compiled by the SID, the officer's lawyer said.

Jones said Bridgett Holman Ekwensi , who in court records listed her job as a part-time dancer at Twiggy's Lounge on Davie Street, refused to cooperate with the SID. Had she offered "substantial assistance," Jones noted, she could have received time off her 30-month sentence for being a money courier in a $10 million cocaine ring based in Greensboro.

But as an attorney for Hinson also affirmed last week, Ekwensi, 33, instead wrote a letter to the police officer's family saying she refused the deal.

"She said, 'They showed me this black book, but I was not going to stoop so low as to make up a story on somebody,' " Jones said. "And evidently, she didn't. She's still in prison."

The warden at the federal prison where Ekwensi is housed has twice turned down News & Record requests to interview her. A spokeswoman cited "security concerns."

A bar manager at Twiggy's confirmed that Ekwensi had worked at the club. And according to court documents and public record databases, so did two other women the police unit tried to link to targeted officers including Hinson, whose photo did not appear in the black book.

During the same time frame, Johnson said Friday, Wray had privately convinced the city manager that Hinson might be involved in a web of illegal activities including a major drug ring "and a missing person."

Wray was referring to Sonja Kingston, a stripper known as "Roxy" at both Twiggy's and Sugar Bares. She was arrested by Guilford County sheriff's deputies in a roadblock on Bryan Boulevard in 2001. Sgt. S.G. Parr said Kingston was headed toward the airport area and had cocaine, cash and a chrome pistol with the serial number filed off.

According to an Internal Revenue Service affidavit, Kingston, who was a friend of Ekwensi's, told an informer that the drugs seized by the deputies belonged to cocaine ringleader Elton Turnbull. A city probe would later reveal that Turnbull was the drug dealer whom the SID and a city vice officer would repeatedly pressure to implicate Hinson.

At the time, the IRS agent wrote that Turnbull arranged for $6,000 in cash to bail Kingston out , and according to the sheriff's department , Kingston later vanished and is listed as a missing person.

Meanwhile, a third woman who worked at Twiggy's, Laverne Mahdinec, was allegedly instructed by the SID to try to lure Hinson into a compromising situation, said Hinson's ex-wife, Beverly Hinson, after the investigation came to light last summer. Neither James Hinson nor his lawyer would comment on that incident.

Why the suspicion?

It's unclear when the unit first set its sights on Hinson, a high-profile member of the force, a former Police Officer of the Year and City Employee of the Year who advanced quickly under the administration of his friend former police Chief Robert White.

In a grievance filed last January, Hinson complained about being followed, and being the possible target of an investigation by the "secret police."

As to the "why" of the focus on Hinson, Wray held a news conference June 17, the same day he suspended Hinson with pay, and spoke cryptically of a joint drug case involving the Greensboro Police Department and other agencies.

Wray said the "ongoing" case yielded "highly sensitive" evidence that he had up to that time been unable to act upon, but now had the go-ahead. Those statements, the city manager claims, were false.

In fact, the joint investigation to which Wray alluded was the 2002 case against Turnbull, in which a city vice officer assisted in the surveillance and arrest of the drug lord as he transferred a suitcase of money in the parking lot of a McDonald's on West Market Street, according to an affi davit.

But it was a more innocent transaction, Hinson said last summer, that first brought the lieutenant under suspicion. In forfeiture pleadings as the IRS prepared to seize Turnbull's extensive holdings, the signatures of Hinson and his ex-wife turned up on the deed of a rental house that they sold to Turnbull in 1999.

Hinson argued that he thought Turnbull had a landscaping business, which Drug Enforcement Administration affi davits confirm Turnbull did use as a front. Those records also show Turnbull owned a property management firm, a Florida stable, four racehorses, six houses, seven SUVs, a time-share in the Bahamas and a private plane agents testified he used to fly cocaine out of a red-clay airstrip in Venezuela.

But if Turnbull ever provided the SID with information on Hinson, it bore no fruit. The city manager said a criminal investigation of the matter cleared Hinson in 2003, as did an Internal Affairs review in 2004.

Moreover, Johnson claimed, former Guilford County District Attorney Stuart Albright's office told Wray that it would have no part in prosecuting Hinson, and that the department should take the case elsewhere. Albright, since appointed to a judgeship, has declined to comment, and Wray last week turned down interview requests on the advice of his lawyer.

Who can be trusted?

While reading the first of two reports from a city-ordered probe into Wray's department, Johnson said he felt "sick" at two points in particular in the 500-plus page file: first, when he read that the "black book" Wray professed no knowledge of turned out to be hidden in a car trunk; and second, that Hinson had been cleared by two thorough investigations in a year before Wray called the news conference and spoke of the "extremely complicated and ongoing investigation."

At that same news conference, Wray also told the media that there was no credence to a complaint of continuing surveillance of Beverly Hinson. In the days after the botched surveillance incident at The Grande, she called police about a suspicious van parked two spaces from her front door in a brand-new town house development.

The van's driver was Art League, a retired police officer and private detective. Though he happened to employ Gerringer, the driver of the van the night at The Grande, League insisted he was outside the Hinson home on a completely unrelated investigation.

At Wray's news conference, the chief said he had thoroughly investigated Beverly Hinson's allegation, and that it was "classified as unfounded."

But last week, Johnson said his investigators cast doubt on the veracity of Wray's finding, saying it was "irregular" and that Wray had ordered it wrapped up in time for his news conference.

Contacted last week, Beverly Hinson expressed no surprise.

"There was something fishy about it," she said. "I wasn't born yesterday. You live with a cop long enough, you start to think like a cop."

It was that lingering distrust, Mitchell Johnson said late Friday, that worries him most about the still unfolding story.

"I've seen what happens when people in a city lose trust in their police," Johnson said. "I know what happened in Cincinnati. I know what happened in Los Angeles."

On the other hand, Johnson reminded reporters of who brought the "secret police" scandal to light in the first place, for both the media and City Hall.

It was officers outside the scandal, of different ranks and races, who saw an abuse of power in the name of the law.

Staff writer Eric J.S. Townsend, news librarian Diane Lamb and news researcher David Bulgin assisted in this report.

Contact Lorraine Ahearn at 373-7334 or lahearn @news-record.comNAACP Reaction

The Rev. William J. Barber II, president of the state NAACP, said he is pleased the FBI is beginning a preliminary inquiry into the controversy surrounding the Greensboro Police Department over evidence of civil rights violations. But he said groups such as the NAACP are critical in making the government aware that such inquiries are necessary.

"I would say that one of the reasons is that there are these groups that have pointed out the issues," Barber said. "They (federal officials) know that we are a state watchdog. They say, 'We need to take a look at that.' "

"Anytime you have a movement that says we can't stand for this, it's not just a black-white issue, it's a right and wrong issue."

- Taft Wireback

DOUBLE-EDIT An officer learns he's being tailed, sparking a scandal that forces out the chief and draws in the FBI. 
 
1970s: Nicknamed the "Red Squad" by detractors, the early unit monitors groups such as the Workers Viewpoint Organization, a Maoist labor group that renames itself the Communist Workers Party after the Klan-Nazi shootings of Nov. 3, 1979, at Morningside Homes. 1980s: The violence at Morningside refocuses the unit to keep tabs on so-called "hate groups" and collect intelligence on the resurgent Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist organizations. 1990s: The rise of gangs adds another mission for the undercover squad, which keeps a low profile in the same quarters as vice-narcotics next to War Memorial Stadium. The unit maintains its watch of hate groups, and provides a special detail when college campuses invite speakers associated with controversy, from Southern Poverty Law Center co-founder Morris Dees to the now-deceased Farrakhan lieutenant, Khalid Abdul Muhammad. 2004: Under the administration of Chief David Wray, Deputy Chief Randall Brady restructures the unit to report directly to his office. The squad increasingly becomes involved in investigating officers accused of corruption, traditionally a function of Internal Affairs. 2005: After the Hinson tracking incident becomes public and officers from the rank and file begin approaching him with serious, wide-ranging complaints about the Wray administration, then - interim City Manager Mitchell Johnson hires a Raleigh firm to investigate the allegations. Immediately after taking a polygraph test, Brady retires. 2006: Aft er the resignation of Wray and naming of Assistant Chief Tim Bellamy as interim chief, Bellamy orders that work stops, commands that computers and files are secured and temporarily reassigns members of the squad to other duties. Meanwhile, the division is restructured so that it will no longer perform criminal investigations.
 
Jerry Wolford;News & Record; The same day Chief David Wray suspended Lt. James Hinson, he spoke cryptically to the media about a drug case. But two probes had cleared Hinson a year earlier.
 
January 15, 2006

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