Sunday, December 4, 2011
Slaying revealed drug informant's secret life
His family learns the truth after shootout
By DANE SCHILLER, HOUSTON CHRONICLE
Until his violent and public death on the edges of Houston, Lawrence Chapa's mission as a confidential informant was just one of the government's many secrets in its battle to combat Mexico-based cartels pushing narcotics into the United States.
There was no flag-draped casket or official recognition for the Houston-born truck driver many people knew as "Chap," killed in a shootout by supposed cartel gunmen as he moved a load of marijuana in an undercover sting.
Behind the hard voice, bald head and a large gray mustache was a civilian willing to be on "Team America," said one federal law enforcement source. "As far as we are concerned, he was acting as one of us, and very well could have been one of us."
The 53-year-old career trucker could carry himself in shady circles and had a string of arrests, including for cocaine possession, resisting arrest, and assault for an August incident in which he threw punches and a tire at a store clerk.
Some of Chapa's family are confused about his death and don't see glory in him being an informant.
"It really disturbed me. What is so good about it? He is gone now," his older brother Armando Chapa said.
Authorities won't publicly acknowledge Lawrence Chapa's contribution with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, saying it can neither confirm nor deny whether he had been an informant.
But his brains and rough background were assets.
"He was a good guy, a good guy who had hard times," the law enforcement source said of Chapa.
"His surroundings were somewhat limited. He'd been doing this truck driving thing for the longest, and was trying to make some extra money," the source continued. "These guys aren't priests. If they were, they wouldn't make good informants."
Those who knew him said he'd traveled a long road in life. He was the son of a Pentecostal preacher, and sang and played drums in a traveling church band as a young man.
He apparently started informing a decade ago.
Most recently, he was able to pose as a driver willing to risk hauling drugs from the Mexican border to Houston, long a major hub for sneaking narcotics, cash and guns in and out of the U.S. He didn't have to troll borderland bars for trouble, like many informants hustling to help authorities make a case.
Instead, he went about his business as a trucker and waited to be approached by traffickers with offers of good money for sneaking cargo past Border Patrol highway checkpoints.
He was a regular along the border, as he drove north with loads of sand pulled from the ground by oil companies digging wells.
In it for the cash
He was leading law enforcement authorities further into drug distribution networks on U.S. soil. Unlike many informants, who work to get criminal charges dropped or bust their competitors, Chapa was an informant just for the cash.
"Unless you are talking about white-collar crime, (the informant) is not going to be a pin-striped-suited Wall Street banker," said Larry Karson, a retired Customs Service agent who is now a criminal justice lecturer at the University of Houston-Downtown. "It is going to be somebody who associates with these kinds of people, which tends to include people with criminal records."
In the job that would be his last, Chapa was driving a load of pot up from the border as officers and agents shadowed him.
On Nov. 21, shortly before Chapa was to have delivered the load to waiting traffickers, the tractor-trailer rig he was driving was attacked in northwest Harris County. At least three vehicles carrying members of what investigators said was a cartel-related hit team came with guns blazing.
After the truck careened off the road and came to a halt, the attackers yanked open the passenger cab door and repeatedly shot Chapa, whose hands had been raised in the air.
He was tossed to the street as the startled attackers were soon swarmed by dozens of law enforcement officers.
During the heat of the battle, a plainclothes Harris County sheriff's deputy was shot in the leg, apparently by friendly fire. Houston police said at least one of its officers fired a weapon during the ordeal and as a matter of policy, the incident is being reviewed by internal affairs.
4 suspects charged
Four suspects, including at least three born in Mexico, were charged with capital murder within 24 hours.
Javier Pena, head of the DEA's Houston division, said authorities are going to do whatever it takes to capture others who might be responsible for the attack, which surprised law-enforcement officers for its brazenness.
The motive also is under scrutiny, with authorities evaluating whether the attackers intended to just steal the load of marijuana or if someone knew Chapa was an informant.
"The DEA needs to determine whether or not a cartel source sold out the details of the undercover operation to the bad guys," said Fred Burton, of Stratfor, an Austin-based global intelligence company that monitors the drug war. "If so, the internal leak needs to be found before other drug operations are jeopardized."
For now, the sheriff's office is tight-lipped.
"For us to speculate about anything on such a complex and delicate investigation would be unfair, negligent and, frankly, unprofessional on our part," said Christina Garza, a spokeswoman for the sheriff.
In search of answers
Chapa's brother said he questions whether police should have had more backup to keep his brother safe.
"There are a lot of questions I'd like to ask," Armando Chapa said. "Why was he trying to help them?"
Karson, the retired Customs Service agent, said the dead informant had to know what he was doing could get him in trouble.
"In dealing with major narcotics traffickers, everyone involved recognizes there is a risk, whether it is the informant, an undercover agent or the people handling these individuals," he said.