Jordan Michael Smith | The Atavist | May 2021 | 5 minutes (1,356 words)
This is an excerpt from The Atavist‘s issue no. 115, “The Snitch,” by Jordan Michael Smith.
Carle Schlaff wanted more out of his job. As an FBI agent, he’d spent more than ten years working low-level drug cases in the bureau’s Denver office. He eventually moved up to investigating organized crime—only to be transferred to the violent-crimes squad and made the liaison to a low-security prison called Englewood, in Littleton, Colorado. It was the sort of job that was good for a rookie, not a veteran. “I was kinda pissed,” Schlaff said.
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Schlaff was 42, with two kids, an easy smile, and an unpretentious manner. He was the type of FBI agent who read crime novels in his spare time. He’d grown up watching Hawaii Five-0. He wanted to take down mob bosses, catch serial killers, expose international drug cartels.
In August 2002, Schlaff’s luck changed: He learned that a prisoner at Englewood named Scott Kimball knew about a murder plot. Schlaff and a colleague met with Kimball in a small interview room at the prison. Kimball was 36 at the time, a weathered, stocky man who wore a goatee and had a long scar in the center of his forehead. He shared a cell with Steve Ennis, a young drug dealer. Kimball claimed that Ennis had talked about recruiting someone to kill witnesses preparing to testify against him.
“I would be willing to do some undercover work for you guys,” Kimball told Schlaff and his colleague.
If the offer seemed blunt, it was because Kimball already knew how the FBI operated. After being arrested for check fraud in Alaska in 2001, he told authorities that his cellmate, Arnold Wesley Flowers, planned to order the murders of a federal judge and a prosecutor, along with a witness in the case against him. (Flowers was facing fraud charges of his own, according to court records.) The FBI worked with Kimball and an undercover agent to record Flowers organizing the hits with help from his girlfriend. In March 2002, the couple were charged with murder for hire, witness tampering, and attempting to murder federal officials.
There was more: Kimball told the FBI that another Alaska prisoner, Jeremiah Jones, had bragged about murdering Tom Wales, a prominent assistant U.S. attorney shot to death through a window of his Seattle home in October 2001. While it investigated the matter, out of concern for his safety, the FBI transferred Kimball to his native Colorado in April 2002. Now, at Englewood, it seemed that Kimball had yet more valuable intelligence to offer.
Before Schlaff went chasing Kimball’s story, though, he wanted to know what type of person he was dealing with. He didn’t mind so much if someone had committed nonviolent crimes, but he didn’t want to work with an informant who could be easily discredited. “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?” Schlaff asked Kimball.
Kimball admitted that in addition to his crimes in Alaska, he’d committed fraud in Montana and served time there. He excelled at check forgery, Kimball said, but he wanted to go straight. It sounded plausible to Schlaff, who’d reviewed Kimball’s record—he didn’t have any convictions for violent crimes—and had checked for outstanding warrants.
Schlaff scribbled down on a notepad what Kimball told him. After leaving Englewood that day, he made contact with the Drug Enforcement Agency and the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which were both working the Ennis case. Kimball was soon reactivated as an informant, with Schlaff as his handler. Their goal was to foil the alleged murder plot, and charge Ennis for orchestrating it.
All the pieces were falling into place: This was exactly the kind of case Schlaff had been craving.
It takes a thief to catch a thief, as Schlaff likes to say—that’s the logic behind using jailhouse snitches. In the United States, the practice has a history as troubling as it is long. Incentivized by the promise of reduced sentences, better prison conditions, and financial compensation, criminal informants sometimes offer cops and prosecutors bad information, which can lead to wrongful convictions and other miscarriages of justice. And too often, authorities treat informants as if their lives matter less than the work of law enforcement.
In recent years, there have been efforts to reform the way authorities handle informants. But back when Kimball started working with the FBI, there was less communication among law enforcement agencies and relatively minimal scrutiny of an informant’s history. It was easy to miss the kind of facts from a person’s past that might have made authorities think twice before using them as an informant.
Born in Boulder in 1966, Kimball was ten when his parents divorced, after his mother came out as gay. Around that time, according to Kimball and his brother, a neighbor began molesting them. Kimball told me the abuse continued until he was in his teens. The neighbor was ultimately sentenced to seven years in prison for sexual abuse of a minor. According to people who knew him as a young man, Kimball seemed haunted by his past. He once tried to end his life but only managed to wound himself—the source of the scar on his forehead.
By early adulthood, Kimball had a long rap sheet. In 1988, he received his first felony conviction for passing bad checks. In another instance, he was charged with running an illegal outfitting business in Montana, helping out-of-staters hunt elk, bear, moose, and deer. Kimball continued to commit nonviolent offenses, the kind that Schlaff later saw on his criminal record. There were other allegations against Kimball, far more unsettling ones, but due to a series of decisions made by law enforcement, finding them would have required some digging.
In June 1993, Kimball married a woman named Larissa Mineer. They moved to Spokane, Washington, and had two sons. Though they divorced in 1997, they maintained a relationship until December 1999, when, Mineer alleged, Kimball raped her at gunpoint. Kimball claimed he hadn’t harmed or threatened Mineer—according to a police report, he said that his ex was trying to sway a custody dispute over their sons in her favor. After Mineer failed a polygraph, the police decided not to file charges. (Polygraphs have been deemed unreliable by the American Psychological Association and the National Academy of Sciences, but law enforcement still use them to quickly ascertain whether someone might be telling the truth.)
In 2000, Kimball landed in prison in Montana, convicted of violating probation, which he’d been serving for a fraud offense. After a year in lockup, Kimball was transferred to a halfway house, but a month later he went on the lam. Mineer alleged that he came back to Washington, broke into her home, and then kidnapped and raped her. This time the Spokane police issued a warrant for his arrest. But when Kimball was picked up for fraud in Alaska in 2001, and then became an FBI informant, the kidnapping and assault charges went away. (The FBI said it did not request that local law enforcement drop the charges.)
As a result, when Schlaff looked up Kimball’s record, none of Mineer’s accusations were on it. The escape from the halfway house was there, but Schlaff wasn’t too worried about that—Kimball had been near the end of his sentence when he’d slipped away. Schlaff spoke to Colton Seale, an FBI special agent in Alaska, who said that Kimball had been helpful in the case against Flowers and his girlfriend. Seale, who is now retired from the FBI, told me that he has no memory of whether he knew about Kimball’s kidnapping and assault charges at the time.
At worst, Schlaff thought, he was working with a petty con artist. “He was a typical wise guy,” Schlaff told me. “He had an answer for everything.” But Kimball wasn’t a child molester or a murderer. He seemed like the type of informant who might be good before a jury.
The truth was something else entirely.