Twenty years ago, crime and corruption in New Orleans was so bad that even some of the criminals were complaining.
Terry Adams, a mid-level cocaine dealer, was one example. In December 1993, Adams directed his attorney to contact Albert “Al” Winters Jr., then a 21-year veteran prosecutor at the local United States Attorney’s Office.
Adams was ready to talk to the feds about police involvement in the city’s soaring violent crime and its lucrative narcotics trade. In short order, the FBI would launch Operation Shattered Shield, an undercover investigation, resulting in the felony convictions of 11 New Orleans policemen on charges ranging from narcotics trafficking to murder.
Police Chief Richard Pennington later fired two additional NOPD officers for department violations uncovered during the federal probe, bringing the total of Shattered Shield officers ousted from the department to 13.
Ret. NOPD Major Felix Loicano, acting chief of detectives in 1994, says as a direct result of the corruption probe, murders dropped sharply in the Florida housing project, where corrupt officers were protecting the operations of a violent drug dealer. Murders fell from 23 in ’94; to four in ’95.
The U. S. Department of Justice would call Shattered Shield “one of the most ambitious police corruption cases in United States history.”
It was a case built on the reputation of Al Winters, police and prosecutors say.
At the time, few in law enforcement would get such an offer, and few would seriously investigate such outrageous allegations from such a dubious source, says Loicano, who in the 1990s commanded the Public Integrity Division under Police Chief Richard Pennington.
“He had the reputation with the law enforcement community of being very competent, very fair and a straight-shooter,” Loicano says. “He also had that same kind of reputation with the criminal community. He was straightforward and honest with them, and they thought they could get a fair shake. It says a lot that he could be respected by both sides.”
In the early 1990s, the NOPD was considered the most corrupt, brutal and incompetent police department in the United States, according to a report by the international human rights organization, Human Rights Watch (“Shielded From Justice: Police Accountability in the United States,” 1998).
In 1993, Winters was a towering, taciturn senior prosecutor in his native New Orleans. He had already famously prosecuted mafia boss Carlos Marcello on racketeering charges. He had worked in Miami from ’86 to ’90, prosecuting Colombian cartel drug trafficking cases. He helped to convict three Colombian “hit men” who machine-gunned federal witness Barry Seal to death outside a halfway house in Baton Rouge.
“He was our version of John Wayne,” former U.S. Attorney Jim Letten said of Winters, who died last summer. “He was bigger than life. He was driven by humility and ethics. He never did like the limelight.”
Winters became a courthouse legend by securing guilty pleas from criminal defendants – including corrupt cops – without going to trial because he excelled at negotiating plea agreements, Letten says.
“He enjoyed unparalleled credibility among the defense bar and many of their clients,” says Robert Habans, a defense attorney and former federal prosecutor who worked with Winters in the 1970s. Winters’ reputation for integrity was such that some defense attorneys would allow their client to meet with the veteran prosecutor without counsel present. “I know of situations where defendants trusted Al more than they trusted their own lawyer,” Habans says.
In violent crime cases, no one was more important than the victim, Kathy English, Winters’ secretary, recalls. After interviewing Debbie Morris, the 16-year-old girl who survived an ordeal of kidnapping and rape by convicted killers Robert Lee Willie and Joseph Vaccaro, Winters cleared the way for the State of Louisiana, a death penalty state, to try the defendants for an earlier rape and murder ahead of the federal government, English recalls. Under federal law, they faced a maximum of life in prison. “Al wanted to make sure the victims got justice,” English says. Willie was executed; Vaccaro got life.
After the success of the Shattered Shield trials in 1996, the DOJ requested Winters as supervising attorney to describe the investigation in a government publication sent to the nation’s 93 U.S. Attorneys Offices, “Operation ‘Shattered Shield:’ Investigative and Trial Techniques Used to Jail ‘Dirty Cops,’” (USA Bulletin, November 1997).
Winters began on a blunt note: with the virtual rescue of the FBI probe by its new, cooperating drug dealer.
“In December 1993, I was contacted by a New Orleans attorney who said he represented “A” [Terry Adams] a mid-level drug dealer in the New Orleans area who had no pending state or federal charges against him,” Winters wrote, (using letters instead of names to “protect the identity of the individuals”). Through his attorney, Adams said he wanted to cooperate “because he was sick of being ‘ripped off’ by New Orleans police officers,” Winters wrote.
Adams told the feds that NOPD Officer Sammie L. Williams [“B”] threatened to put him in jail over the Christmas holidays if he (the drug dealer) didn’t pay him (the officer) $6,000. On Dec. 24, 1993, Adams paid the officer half the demanded amount, Winters wrote: “Since it was Christmas Eve and the FBI could not get emergency authority to pay the money, the informant used his own $3,000. He was never repaid.”
In January 1994, Adams paid Williams the remaining $3,000. In a recorded conversation the officer told Adams he could protect his drug operation, but would need to “bring in his partner.” Len Davis was a decorated NOPD officer was once shot in the stomach during a police chase. He also had a reputation for brutality.
In early 1994, Davis and Williams provided police “protection” to FBI informant Adams as he delivered approximately 7.5 kilograms of cocaine to an FBI undercover agent. Each officer was paid $500 per kilo.
On May 4, 1994, the two cops, Adams and undercover FBI agent Juan Jackson, posing as a New York City drug dealer named “JJ,” met at a local hotel. Prosecutors and agents devised a plan to show Davis and Williams had “guilty knowledge,” Winters wrote. “JJ made everyone strip to show they were not wired.”
All agreed. The cops agreed to hire armed and uniformed NOPD officers to protect large quantities of cocaine for up to three days at a time before the drugs were relocated elsewhere.
On the FBI videotape played at his trial, Davis recommends that drug couriers avoid detection by law enforcement by obeying speed limits and traffic signals.
From June to November 1994, 11 NOPD officers, recruited by Davis, protected a warehouse containing both “real” and “sham” cocaine, Winters said. Prosecutors insisted on actual cocaine for the operation to prevent defense attorneys at trial from “accusing the government of concocting everything, including the cocaine.” Posing as “couriers,” other FBI undercover agents went to the warehouse to pick up the drugs. Davis and Williams were paid approximately $94,300 to escort the “couriers” to the Mississippi state line.
In October 1994, Kim Marie Groves, a mother of three children, filed a brutality complaint against Williams. “Within 24 hours, (Davis) devised a murder plot and had the woman killed,” Winters said.
She was shot to death on a street corner near her 9th Ward home on Oct. 13, 1994, just hours after Mayor Marc Morial swore in Chief Richard Pennington at Gallier Hall.
Winters said there were “a number of reasons” why the FBI failed to detect the murder plot on wiretapped cellular phones provided to Williams and Davis, including: the woman’s name wasn’t used, the cops used coded language “and the fact that at the same time, other police officers were talking about killing the ‘dope traffickers’/undercover agents and stealing the drugs.”
Amid fears for the agents’ safety, the undercover operation was shut down. The feds let the wiretapped phones run another two and a half weeks. They collected enough evidence, including the murder weapon, to charge Davis and drug dealer Paul Hardy with the first-degree murder of Groves. Hardy associate Damon Causey also was convicted of helping to kill Groves.
Wiretaps also indicated Davis was helping Hardy kill rival drug dealers or their family members. Winters wrote, “The government ultimately warned six targeted individuals and moved them to ‘safe houses’ while the investigation continued.”
The FBI arrested 11 cops in December 1994. Ten of the 11 cops pleaded guilty to drug charges. Three agreed to cooperate with prosecutors – including Davis’ partner, Williams.
“In New Orleans, it is highly unusual for police officers to cooperate against each other,” Winters wrote. The feds were “fortunate to get (Williams) to plead guilty as charged and to cooperate and testify at two trials.” Williams’ testimony helped to convict Davis and Hardy of the Groves murder.
Davis became the first police officer in the United States sentenced to die for federal criminal civil rights violations. Hardy’s death sentence was vacated after defense attorneys provided evidence he was mentally retarded and ineligible for execution. He was re-sentenced to life in prison.
Williams repeatedly asked prosecutors for a deal. “I kept asking; they kept telling me no,” Blake Jones, Williams’ defense attorney recalled, testifying at a post-conviction hearing for Davis in 2001.
Winters testified, too, rejecting Davis’ arguments that Williams was “living the deal” for cooperating with federal prosecutors against Davis.
“Of all the policemen that we charged … in the investigation, the two of them we would not plea bargain with under any circumstances was Len Davis and Sammie Williams,” Winters testified, referring to the prosecution team.
Williams got a five year prison term, after Winters requested a reduced sentence from U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman judge, citing his “substantial” cooperation in the case against his former police partner.
Al Winters retired from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in 2006. He worked another five years for the Jefferson Parish District Attorney’s Office.
Co-workers in both offices insist there was an emotional “teddy bear” side to the gruff prosecutor. The memories of their children are more persuasive. “Sissy” now 10 and “Mac” 7, recall how the avuncular “Big Al” would play with them during holiday visits to their father, fellow parish prosecutor Tommy Block. “He would bring us cold M&Ms,” Mac says of Winters, who stood 6-foot-4-inches tall. “And he would put me on this shoulder.” Sissy remembers combing Big Al’s hair. “I would put bows in his hair!” Tommy Block remembers Big Al and his son at a table, hunched over coloring books. “Mac said, ‘Big Al, you’re coloring outside the lines,’” Block says. “All looked at me and said, ‘Who knew?”
Al Winters died of lung cancer June 28, 2013 at 71 – more than 30 years after he quit smoking.
Shattered Shield was arguably the largest, most effective prosecution of corrupt NOPD officers in modern times. It isn’t the legacy of Winters. No case defines him. His reputation for honesty, fairness and humility still won’t allow it – not even in death.
Ed .note: The first part of this story about Winters’ legacy appeared in our January 2014 issue, pg. 30.