NEW ORLEANS -- The raid on Russell's Tire Shop had the look of a successful garden-variety drug bust.
Acting on an informant's tip, police stormed the building on North Galvez Street and hauled out three suspects, a bag of heroin, a quarter-ounce of crack cocaine and more than $4,000 in cash. Police say they found the evidence in plain sight.
But 11 months after the August 2002 bust, prosecutors dropped the charges. And this June, attorneys for the city offered the men accused of dealing the drugs $85,000 to settle a lawsuit that alleged the four New Orleans police detectives involved in the raid planted the drugs -- and uprooted the lives of innocent people.
Prosecutors had a problem: In the years since the bust, the police officers involved ran into legal troubles of their own.
One detective tested positive for cocaine and another was caught using a stolen Social Security number to lease a Corvette. A third officer was pulled over in Illinois driving an unauthorized New Orleans Police Department squad car; authorities found him with some marijuana and a woman wanted for prostitution. The fourth detective resigned as police were investigating a stolen gun found in his squad car. All four officers were ultimately fired or quit.
Sharply diverging claims surrounding the 2002 drug bust may never be put to rest; no judge or jury rendered a final judgment. But a look at the raid and its aftermath offers a window into the tactics of one team of narcotics officers -- the kinds of alleged abuses that critics say foster suspicion toward police.
The three drug suspects -- Leo Hammond, his son Gregory Hammond and Tyrone Taylor -- say they were the victims of rogue cops who were willing to frame innocent men after a bust turned up empty. None of the accused had outstanding warrants or prior arrests at the time of the raid. All passed court-ordered drug tests, court documents show.
The city attorney who defended the officers, Jim Mullaly, still stands behind them, asking: Why would anyone plant so much heroin, more than 30 grams? Why frame men they didn't know?
None of the officers involved in the case could be reached to comment for this article, and NOPD superiors declined to discuss the matter until completing a records search. The officers' accounts come from sworn depositions in the civil case, as does the account of the unnamed police informant. Information about the officers' alleged subsequent misconduct was documented in internal police memoranda that turned up during the civil case.
Russell's Tire Shop is a tiny, one-story building tucked into the 100 block of North Galvez. Russell Taylor, Tyrone Taylor's father, bought the property in the late 1970s and the stoop out front became a hangout for acquaintances.
Leo Hammond, 48, an air-conditioning repairman, said the shop has long served as a place to rest between jobs since he has no office of his own. Tyrone Taylor, 41, was the shop's manager at the time and a lifelong friend of Hammond's. Gregory Hammond, a 23-year-old administrative assistant for the Recovery School District, spent time at the tire shop as a small child.
Detectives involved in the case -- Steven Payne, Eric Smith and Earl Razor -- testified during civil proceedings that they had heard rumors of drug dealing at the tire shop but didn't act on them until they were transferred to that part of town. It was around July 2002 that the officers were moved from the 5th District to the 1st, which includes the Galvez Street business. In the 1st District, they worked under the narcotics unit's supervisor, William Marks.
In his application for a search warrant, Payne said a longtime informant told him a man known as Cadillac was dealing crack cocaine and marijuana just outside the shop.
Payne said he conducted surveillance on the shop twice, watching with a pair of binoculars from an unmarked car.
Payne said he witnessed a man matching Cadillac's description selling narcotics. He said that he followed up with a controlled purchase, giving the informant cash to buy crack at the shop. During a stakeout, hours before the raid, he said two men later identified as Gregory Hammond and Tyrone Taylor made a similar sale.
Brett Prendergast, an attorney for the Hammonds and Taylor, says there were significant discrepancies in the police and informant accounts. He argues that Payne's surveillance probably never happened.
Payne wrote in his warrant application that Cadillac "will not let anyone else inside the tire shop with him." Instead, Payne said, Cadillac would make contact with customers outside and retrieve the drugs from inside the shop.
But the informant told lawyers otherwise during a discovery hearing: "I've never given Cadillac money on the outside. He would not accept money on the outside. . . . Every time I went there, I went in."
In the hours before the raid, Payne said, the informant contacted him again to say that Cadillac was in the tire shop. The informant testified that such a tip-off never happened.
Weeks later, the informant said, Payne turned up and warned against talking to investigators about the tire shop case: "He said in the event someone should come, I know nothing, I didn't see anything."
--- 'All I saw was their guns' ---
Police said that when they stormed the tire shop on Aug. 1, 2002, Cadillac was not there.
As police arrived, they saw Gregory Hammond dash inside. Razor, the fastest man in the unit, chased him inside, followed by Payne and Smith.
Gregory Hammond said he had reason to bolt: A spate of shootings in the neighborhood had left him anxious. He said when police pulled up in unmarked cars, "All I saw was their guns." Police said he ran to flush the drugs.
Razor grabbed Gregory Hammond when he fell, while Smith and Payne handcuffed his father and Taylor.
When Payne came inside the shop, he was angry and asked to see the man who ran, Hammond testified. When he saw the younger Hammond, the detective punched him in the eye, Taylor and Gregory Hammond said. The detectives maintained that Hammond had hit something on the ground or the edge of the desk as he fell. Hammond was taken to Charity Hospital before booking because of swelling under his eye.
Also in dispute is the exact placement of the drugs detectives said they found.
In his arrest report and in a hearing in criminal court weeks after the raid, Payne said he found the drugs in plain view on the desk, giving police cause to arrest all three men. But Razor and Marks both said Payne had the heroin and crack in his hand the first time they saw it. Another officer, Smith, testified that the drugs were found on Gregory Hammond.
"I don't know where, it may have been in the waist -- in his waistband," Smith said.
Gregory Hammond and Taylor filed a formal complaint with the NOPD Public Integrity Bureau, denying they sold drugs and alleging Payne had struck Gregory and stole money found on the shop desk. The investigation concluded there was not enough evidence to prove the claims.
--- Legal trouble ---
All three men were booked with possession and intent to distribute heroin and crack. Each pleaded innocent. But as they awaited trial, the detectives who arrested them ran into legal problems.
Smith resigned from the NOPD in March 2003, 11 days before he was indicted on identity theft charges. Investigators accused him of using a fraudulent Social Security number to lease a Corvette. He pleaded guilty to one count of identity fraud.
Two months later, in May 2003, the NOPD began investigating Razor for allegedly stealing heroin from a suspected drug dealer in police custody. During that investigation, Razor tested positive for cocaine. Investigators also found two plastic bags with drug residue in the glove compartment of his squad car. Razor was fired but maintained his innocence.
In July 2003, the Orleans Parish district attorney's office dropped the tire shop case. In a written statement outlining its rationale, the office noted that the case relied too heavily on Payne's word. And that testimony, the office wrote, "will lack credibility due to his close working relationship with Det. Razor and Det. Smith."
With the criminal case scuttled, the subjects of the raid filed a wrongful arrest suit in federal court on Aug. 1, 2003.
Within months, the detective in charge of the police unit, Marks, had his own run-in with law enforcement.
An Illinois state trooper pulled Marks over in November 2003 for speeding. Marks had borrowed an NOPD squad car from Payne to make a trip to Milwaukee. The state trooper reported finding two women in the car. One was a convicted felon with an outstanding warrant for prostitution in Chicago. Under her seat, the trooper found a small bag of marijuana, "a partially burned marijuana stuffed cigar and a smoking pipe," according to police documents. A stolen 9 mm handgun was found in the trunk, documents show.
Marks begged the trooper not to contact the NOPD, fearing he would be fired for taking the car out of state, police documents show. He was fired less than a year later.
Payne denied any knowledge of a gun in the trunk and testified that he took a dim view of Marks, calling him "a lazy pig." An internal police investigation sustained charges of possession of a stolen gun against Payne, who resigned for "personal reasons, and medical reasons" while awaiting a disciplinary hearing, documents show.
As for the accused, Leo Hammond said that when police accused him of dealing drugs, "that's when I knew they were dirty cops. Anyone who knows me, knows better."
"Drugs is something I never affiliated with, never," he said. "I said, 'You know what, I'm going to fight this all the way.' I couldn't live with just letting it go like that."