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Win at all costs
Written by Bill Moushey Part 4 of 10

The damage of lies

Zeal for convictions leads government to accept tainted tips, testimony

November 29, 1998
By Bill Moushey, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

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When federal agents acting on bogus information stormed Don Carlson’s house, they shot him three times, nearly killing him. They were operating with a warrant only to search his house. For eight weeks afterward, Carlson could breathe only with the help of a machine (above right).

The bullet that tore into Don Carlson’s thigh sent him sprawling across the hallway floor.

After he fired two shots at his front door in a vain attempt to stop the intruders, he dropped the gun. Carlson made it to his bedroom, punching 9-1-1 into a portable telephone as the men stormed into his house. He fell into a corner. Twice more he was shot — in the back. One bullet splintered and collapsed a lung.

"Don’t move, or I’ll shoot you again," a man yelled.

Carlson didn’t know it, but the man who shouted at him was a federal agent. The dozen or so other officers in his house represented the Drug Enforcement Administration, the U.S. Customs Service and the San Diego police department and sheriff’s office.

Carlson is still not sure when they realized their mistake. For 30 minutes on that sultry August night in 1992, he lay bleeding, handcuffed and shackled, on his bedroom floor, barely able to breathe. "Why would they do this to me?" he recalled muttering.

Agents raided Carlson’s home in the San Diego suburb of Poway in search of 2,500 pounds of cocaine. They based the search on information that an informant named Ronnie Edmond provided. Edmond was an ex-drug dealer whom the federal government paid $2,000 a month to inform on others in the drug trade.

This informant frequently lied, a fact the agents knew, but they nonetheless used his story to get a search warrant for Carlson’s house.

Carlson was no drug dealer. There were no drugs in his house. He’d never been in trouble with the law.

The informant picked Carlson’s home because he thought it was vacant and figured he could cook up another lie when the agents found no drugs.

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The government finally gave Don Carlson $2.7 million to settle his lawsuit against them, but they would not give him what he really wanted: an apology. The government would say only that it was the victim of circumstances. (Darrell Sapp/Post-Gazette)

Carlson had recently divorced, and his wife got the furniture. That’s why the house looked empty. If the consequences of Edmond’s lie weren’t so serious, the episode might have been comical. Instead, it illustrates a problem in the federal justice system that receives little attention but has profound impact, a two-year Pittsburgh Post-Gazette investigation found.

Perjury has become the coin of the realm in federal law enforcement. People’s homes are invaded because of lies. People are arrested because of lies. People go to prison because of lies. People stay in prison because of lies, and sometimes, bad guys go free because of lies.

Lying has become a significant problem in federal court cases because the rewards to federal law enforcement officers can be so great and the consequences so minimal. Perjurers are seldom punished; neither are the law enforcement officers who ignore or accept their lies.

Carlson believes some of the agents who stormed his house wanted to kill him to cover up the informant’s lies but couldn’t risk it because so many agents from different jurisdictions were there. "The only thing that saved me was that there were too many agencies involved."

Federal officials would not respond to requests for comment on the case.

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