Police Informants, Unchecked
Last month, prosecutors indicted a Raleigh police informant for fabricating drug trafficking cases. His story raises questions about how the police department manages its confidential informants, and why its officers have escaped accountability.
Dennis Leon Williams Jr. said he ran the southeast Raleigh red light because he was in danger. He fled the scene of the accident he caused because he feared for his life. A man in a Ford Fiesta had chased him, pointed a 9 mm handgun at him, and told him he was dead.
Detective Omar Abdullah never doubted him.
On March 12, 2020—three weeks before the accident—Williams helped Abdullah, a member of the Raleigh Police Department’s vice and drugs unit, bust Sherrod Smith for heroin trafficking. Smith had just been released on bail, Abdullah wrote in a police report. Now he was coming after Williams.
The report doesn’t mention any witnesses to Smith’s threats. But Abdullah vouched for Williams, a 26-year-old on parole after serving seven months in state prison for larceny, according to the North Carolina Department of Public Safety.
“[Williams] has been proven to be truthful and reliable and has provided information to this detective in the past that has always been proven and reliable which has led to numerous drug-related convictions,” Abdullah wrote.
It’s since become clear that Abdullah’s informant was anything but truthful.
Last month, a Wake County grand jury indicted Williams on five counts of obstruction of justice, accusing him of making false statements and acting “with deceit and intent to defraud.” Because they deemed Williams “not credible,” prosecutors have dismissed the cases of 15 Black men, including Smith, whom Abdullah charged with heroin trafficking between December 2019 and May 2020.
In every case, the heroin Williams claimed to buy turned out to be fake.
But prosecutors haven’t indicted Abdullah. District Attorney Lorrin Freeman says she doesn’t plan to.
“At this time,” Freeman told The Assembly in an email, “we do not have evidence of criminal wrongdoing by Officer Abdullah or others with the Raleigh Police Department.”
Robin Mills, whose son was jailed after Abdullah accused him of heroin trafficking, doesn’t buy it.
“Nobody could arrest that amount of people and get it wrong that many times without somebody knowing,” she says. “If that’s the case, we should be really concerned about who we’ve got serving and protecting, because clearly, they don’t even understand the basic stuff.”
It’s not yet clear who knew what. But Williams’ story raises questions about how the Raleigh Police Department manages its confidential informants—often referred to as CIs—and why there’s been so little accountability for errors that damaged at least 15 lives.
Men languished in jail for weeks or months after lab results cleared them. Some lost their jobs. Ultimately, it took a public defender, not a cop or prosecutor, to piece together what happened. Her efforts set in motion both the state investigation that led to Williams’ indictment and a federal civil rights lawsuit filed in April.
Whether they lead to justice—and what justice should look like—remains to be seen.
Because state law shields evidence obtained by the State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) and the Raleigh Police Department’s internal affairs division from public view, it’s difficult to fully ascertain how the scandal played out.
Though one-sided, the federal lawsuit filed earlier this year against Abdullah, several of his colleagues, the Raleigh Police Department (RPD), and the city of Raleigh comes the closest to piercing the veil. Attorneys working on behalf of 12 people who said they were falsely charged by Abdullah reviewed interviews and other evidence collected by the SBI, which they used to compile a narrative.
According to their complaint, Abdullah and another detective arrested Williams in 2018 for selling crushed aspirin that he passed off as cocaine. Abdullah then recruited Williams—whom he nicknamed “Aspirin”—to be his informant, promising Williams a break on his drug charge if he helped bring down small-time crack dealers.
Williams made several undercover buys before he was arrested in Nash County on a larceny charge in November 2018. Abdullah recruited Williams again after his release from the Polk Correctional Institution on Aug. 30, 2019, this time offering cash. Citing another officer’s testimony, the complaint says Abdullah “told [Williams] he could make more money if he brought in bigger cases.”
By December, Williams was making two to four trafficking-level buys a month, court records show. (In North Carolina, four grams of heroin, about a teaspoon, constitutes a trafficking amount and carries a minimum sentence of 70 months.)
His first target, Blake Banks, then 25, was arrested in front of his family on Dec. 20, 2019, for allegedly selling heroin to Williams a week earlier. Like most of the 15 people Abdullah charged, Banks had priors—most recently, possession with intent to distribute marijuana and possession of a firearm by a felon in 2017. Like all of them, however, he’d never before been arrested or convicted on heroin-related charges in North Carolina, according to a review of court records.
Banks protested that he was out of town making a delivery the day of the alleged drug deal, but a judge set his bond at $150,000. (Receipts provided to The Assembly appear to confirm that he was in Delaware.) He spent Christmas in jail. By Dec. 30, his family had raised the $12,000 they needed to bail him out. But Banks had already lost his job as a truck driver.
There were red flags from the start of Abdullah and Williams’ partnership, the complaint alleges.
Contrary to RPD procedure, Abdullah met with Williams alone before and after drug buys, the complaint says. The detective paid his informant without anyone else present. Williams blocked his undercover camera from recording the alleged drug deals. Abdullah’s unit sometimes failed to submit narcotics to the City-County Bureau of Investigation (CCBI) for testing “until weeks or months” after a person had been charged, and “failed to or severely delayed” reporting negative test results to the Wake County District Attorney’s Office.
The complaint says that some of his fellow vice cops told Abdullah “on numerous occasions” that the heroin wasn’t packaged like street heroin, or that it was brown sugar. A few times, officers conducted field tests that didn’t show the presence of a controlled substance. At least one reported “Abdullah’s ongoing scheme” up the chain of command, but two supervisors refused to intervene.
From these allegations, the complaint concludes that Abdullah and Williams were engaged in a “conspiracy to fabricate heroin charges,” and most of the vice unit looked the other way.
The city has yet to officially respond to the allegations almost five months after the lawsuit was filed, court records show. Instead, all parties asked the judge to pause the case until Oct. 12 so they can attempt to reach a settlement. If there’s no settlement, the plaintiffs will be able to seek depositions with Abdullah and other officers and access internal affairs files and the SBI investigative report through a discovery process.
Attorneys for Abdullah and the city of Raleigh did not respond to a request for comment. Williams—who was arrested on Sept. 15 and given a $75,000 bond at his arraignment the next morning—could not be reached for comment.
Beginning at the end of February 2020, Jackie Willingham, an attorney in the Wake County Public Defender’s Office, caught three strange cases in three weeks. All heroin trafficking. All the same detective. All defendants who insisted that, whatever else they’d done, they hadn’t sold heroin.
The guilty don’t usually insist on their innocence to their lawyers, Willingham says.
Something felt off, but she couldn’t get anyone to listen. The machinery of justice was already in motion.
“There are no meaningful checks and balances in the system,” Willingham says. “I get someone charged with a trafficking amount of drugs, and they get a ridiculously high bond. I ask for their pretrial-release conditions to be modified to something they could actually make, and that is dismissed out of hand.”
The police provide the judge with “a three-sentence paragraph saying, ‘The officer used the [informant], conducted a buy, there’s audio and video surveillance,’” she continues. “But nobody’s checked that. The DAs don’t check the officers. The judges don’t check the DAs.”
Her three clients—Diontre Greene, Keith Green, and Sherrod Smith—each had bonds exceeding $250,000. Willingham got Smith’s bond reduced from $300,000 to $50,000, and he made bail. But Diontre Greene and Keith Green weren’t so lucky. They sat behind bars for three months before being released—in Keith Green’s case, despite a field drug test that showed the heroin wasn’t real, the federal lawsuit alleges.
Last year, Freeman, the district attorney, told The News & Observer that after a “defense attorney”—Willingham—raised concerns and negative lab results started coming back in June and July of 2020, prosecutors saw a pattern and began closely reviewing the informant’s video footage.
“This is an egregious situation inasmuch as the confidential informant was providing false information,” she said.
Willingham doesn’t think prosecutors were quite so proactive.
She says she asked David Coleman, who headed the district attorney’s office’s drug unit, whether her three cases had the same informant in mid-March of 2020, just before courts closed because of the pandemic. She didn’t get an answer. On March 30, Willingham followed up with an email, according to a timeline she provided to The Assembly. No response. On April 24, she sent another email.
Finally, on April 30, Coleman told her that Raleigh police said her clients were members of the same gang, which explained their stories’ similarities. (Her office’s investigator found no gang connection, she says.) Willingham asked again whether their cases had the same informant. Coleman didn’t say.
Taking matters into her own hands, Willingham looked up all of the heroin-trafficking charges Abdullah had filed, called the defendants’ attorneys, and asked if anything about their cases seemed odd. Invariably, they said yes. One defendant gave her a name: Dennis Williams.
In June, she says, when Dionte Greene’s lab tests came back negative for drugs, the district attorney’s office changed its tune. Prosecutors realized they had a problem.
“As I start to watch [Williams’ buy] videos, is there anyone I need to add to the list?” Willingham says Coleman asked her. In other words: Is there anyone else we’ve wrongly incarcerated?
On July 6, 2020, Willingham asked the RPD and the DA’s office to investigate. A month later, the department’s internal affairs division interviewed her; in September, the RPD placed Abdullah on administrative leave, and the SBI opened its investigation.
She learned of Williams’ Aug. 24, 2021, indictment from The Assembly.
“To be honest, that pisses me off,” Willingham says. “He’s become the scapegoat. There’s no doubt in my mind that Abdullah was encouraging it.”
In February 2020, the CCBI’s lab determined that the heroin Blake Banks was charged with selling wasn’t heroin, or any narcotic. But the district attorney’s office didn’t drop his charges until June 30—four months later.
This spring, the district attorney’s office and the CCBI began devising a process to prevent negative test results from falling through bureaucratic cracks, according to emails obtained by The Assembly.
The emails suggest that until then, there wasn’t a policy to keep that from happening.
“I would like for us to set up a practice of notifying our office as soon as a controlled substance analysis yields a result of no controlled substances,” Freeman wrote to the CCBI’s leaders on April 12, 2021. She asked that the CCBI email her and the head of the drug unit, adding, “It’s my understanding this only usually comes up a few times a year.”
In 2020, 96 tests—more than 7% of the 1,281 tests the CCBI conducted—showed no controlled substances.
“To avoid holding an arrested person in the Detention Center on a charge that would be lessened based on the information gained from the examination result(s), drug chemists must notify [the head of the drug unit] when it can be concluded examination results could impact pending charges,” the new policy says. “... Expediting examination results to the DA’s office will further this objective.”
CCBI Assistant Director Chris Stark did not respond to a request for comment on the new policy.
Compared with other police departments, the Raleigh Police Department isn’t particularly violent or expensive.
Since 2013, its officers have fatally shot six people; in that time, Charlotte cops have killed 21, police-shooting databases say. Raleigh officers use force and deadly force when making arrests significantly less often than most big-city police departments, according to the Nationwide Police Scorecard. And per capita, Raleigh spends less on police than all of the state’s 10 largest municipalities except Cary, according to The Assembly’s analysis of budget and population data.
The city’s residents appear largely satisfied. In the city’s 2020 Community Survey, 83% of respondents said they felt safe and 75% approved of Raleigh’s police services.
But the city hasn’t been immune to tension between the police and the communities they serve—especially communities of color. Protests arose in 2016 when an officer shot and killed 24-year-old Akiel Denkins. In 2018, a viral video captured Raleigh cops beating a Black man who was already on the ground; two years later, another video showed two Raleigh officers punching a man before arresting him. The 2019 death of Soheil Mojarrad—a 30-year-old with mental health issues whom an officer shot eight times from 20 feet away—has prompted a civil rights lawsuit.
Raleigh police also came under criticism for its aggressive response to last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, with activists calling for Chief Cassandra Deck-Brown’s removal. The city didn’t oblige, though Deck-Brown has since retired.
This informant scandal has only fueled that distrust.
Since the 1960s, the Supreme Court has given police departments wide latitude in how they use informants. But informants often have selfish motives, including reduced charges, shorter sentences, and sometimes cash, critics argue.
“If law enforcement provides these rewards without requiring corroboration from a noninformant source, then the CI has much to gain and little to lose from choosing to lie to satisfy the officer,” says the ACLU, which has lobbied for stricter regulation of informants.
“I don’t know how officers are being allowed to run CIs without any oversight,” Willingham says. “Like, supervisors aren’t periodically and regularly checking their [undercover] videos to make sure everything is happening the way it should? I mean, by default, these CIs are interested, right? They’re either getting paid or working off charges. So why isn’t anybody watching?”
Raleigh Police Department spokeswoman Donna-Maria Harris told The Assembly that its policy governing confidential informants “is not a public record.”
On Sept. 16, retired Oakland, Calif., Police Chief Howard Jordan, who’s been retained as an expert by the plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit, sent the Raleigh Police Department and district attorney’s office (and the media) a series of policy recommendations on how to manage informants.
Among other things, Jordan argues that officers should immediately field-test narcotics, send them to the lab within 24 hours, and the lab should return the results within 72 hours. Until then, suspects shouldn’t be charged. He also says the RPD should require vice cops to never meet alone with informants and make recordings of all payments to them.
No less important, Jordan says the RPD needs to more closely monitor its informant program, routinely audit undercover-buy funds, and conduct annual credit and background checks on its vice cops.
Yolanda Irving had just gotten out of the shower on May 21, 2020, when about 15 Raleigh cops kicked in her door. Dressed in SWAT gear, they ran up the stairs, pointing guns at her and her three teenage and adult children, who were in their rooms watching television or playing video games, according to Abraham Rubert-Schewel, an attorney for the plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit.
The officers forced them downstairs and made them sit on the ground for an hour while they searched the house. They found nothing.
Detective Omar Abdullah showed Irving his search warrant. The police had raided the wrong apartment.
Abdullah eventually found his suspect. He charged Marcus Vanirvin with selling eight grams of heroin to Williams, Abdullah’s CI. But the botched raid marked the end of their partnership.
Like the others, the heroin Vanirvin allegedly sold proved to be fake. Even so, he spent 18 days in jail before he was released, says his mother, Robin Mills.
“My grandson, my son’s son, took his very first step the day my son got out of jail,” Mills says. “He came within a day of missing it, literally. A lot of people missed a lot of things.”
In the year that’s passed since the SBI opened its investigation, no member of the Raleigh Police Department’s drug unit has been suspended, demoted, or fired, according to records obtained by The Assembly. The department says the investigation is ongoing, and Abdullah is on administrative duty, earning just over $69,000 a year.
He received a raise in December, the records show.
Jeffrey Billman is a Durham-based journalist and the former editor-in-chief of INDY Week. He founded and operates the political newsletter PRIMER: North Carolina.
Additional reporting by Anne Blythe