The Tulsa World by Omer Gillham and Ziva Bransttetter - June 1, 2011
U.S. District Judge Bruce Black of New Mexico listens to opening statements Tuesday in a police corruption trial in federal court.
Attorneys finished opening statements Tuesday in the corruption trial of three Tulsa police officers, with the prosecution reminding jurors the Tulsa Police Department is not on trial. The trial began Tuesday for officers Bruce Bonham, 53, Nick DeBruin, 38, and retired officer Harold Wells, 60. U.S. District Judge Bruce Black of New Mexico is presiding. Six current and former Tulsa police officers and one former agent for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms have been charged in U.S. District Court in Tulsa. Thirty-three people have been freed from prison or have had cases dismissed or modified as a result of the federal probe. Before the jury was selected, Black addressed several pretrial items, including lengthy witness lists submitted by defense attorneys. Each list contained more than 60 names with many of the names expected to be character witnesses for the indicted officers, records show. Black trimmed the lists by saying he would allow only one character witness per officer. "This is not a trial about character. It's a trial about the acts committed," Black told defense attorneys. First Assistant U.S. Attorney Jane W. Duke of eastern Arkansas is prosecuting the case. In quick order, 12 jurors and two alternates were selected by early afternoon.
During opening statements, Duke said the case is not intended to be an indictment of the Tulsa Police Department. "TPD remains a fine upstanding law enforcement organization with scores of dedicated officers on the streets to keep Tulsa safe. On trial this week are only three officers," she said. Duke noted that the 13 counts charge the defendants with various crimes spanning 2006-2010. "As you hear the testimony and receive the evidence in this case, the truth will be that these three defendants are guilty of the crimes for which they have been charged," Duke said. Meanwhile, defense attorney Shannon McMurray said the government's case is built on the expected testimony of former police officers who have cut deals with the government to avoid prison time. McMurray represents DeBruin. Wells' attorney, Warren Gotcher, said the FBI set up two stings trying to determine if Wells would take drug money during a search. "At no time did he take any money during this period of time," Gotcher said. Gotcher said Wells retired in 2010 after more than 34 years on the force to take advantage of retirement benefits. He said Wells had been assigned to the Special Investigations Division and later became a corporal assigned to the patrol division. "The Tulsa Police Department allows patrol officers to handle all sorts of investigations," Gotcher said. He said agreements with would-be informants are supposed to be approved by the District Attorney's Office "but most of the time they are not." McMurray said the case is really about the illegal conduct of four officers: former Tulsa police burglary detective John K. Gray, former ATF Agent Brandon McFadden, Callison Kaiser and Eric Hill. Kaiser and Hill are former Tulsa police officers cooperating with the prosecution. Gray retired last year and pleaded guilty to stealing government funds during an FBI sting at a Tulsa Super 8 Motel on May 18, 2009. Most of the charges against Wells, DeBruin and Bonham concern their alleged actions during that sting. An FBI agent posing as a drug dealer with large amounts of drugs and cash was at the motel. Though it was DeBruin's day off, he was called in "like any other day to work a case," McMurray said.
Bill Lunn, Bonham's attorney, said Bonham was called to the sting on his day off because "he had the largest pair of binoculars on the squad and that is why he is seated at this table." "In all the telephone calls that take place in this May period, and there's probably close to a dozen, Bruce Bonham's name never comes up," Lunn said. Duke's office is expected to offer FBI surveillance video and witness statements alleging that Wells, DeBruin and Bonham stole money during the sting. McMurray told the jury that the undercover video will show Wells asking Gray to "take care of me" as they entered the hotel room. "You will hear this 'take care of me' and you will hear a perfectly plausible explanation of what 'take care of me' means," McMurray said. McMurray said the statement means officers want to be added to the list of officers subpoenaed for court, allowing them to make extra money. Duke's office alleges that Wells, DeBruin and Bonham stole $5,000 during the sting but returned the money once they realized a possible FBI sting was occurring, their indictment states. That occurred after a Tulsa police officer conducting surveillance pulled over an agent for the U.S. Office of Inspector General, who was driving his car in the area. Meanwhile, more than 100 potential jurors were questioned Tuesday in preparation for the trial. A jury of seven men and seven women was selected, though two of the jurors will serve as alternates. The trial could last two to three weeks, Black said. During jury questioning, Assistant U.S. Attorney Patricia Harris explained that Northern Oklahoma District prosecutors recused themselves because the case involves local law enforcement. She said the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of Arkansas was appointed by the U.S. Department of Justice. Harris asked jurors whether they would have a problem with voting to convict police officers if the prosecution meets its burden of proof. Jurors were asked whether they could find witnesses credible even if they had committed crimes or if they were undocumented residents. She noted that one of the government's witnesses was an illegal immigrant, prompting two potential jurors to say they had strong opinions on the issue and would give such a witness less credibility. Harris said the witness would be deported after he testified in the case. Duke also challenged defense attempts to dismiss a black woman from the jury pool. Gotcher said the juror could be biased because "she lives on the north side where a lot of this occurred." After the hearing, McMurray told the World: "We weren't trying to keep a black juror off the jury. We are trying to get the best jury possible regardless of color." The judge sustained the challenge and left the woman on the jury as the only black member of the pool. Most of the 33 people who have had charges dismissed or been freed from prison as a result of the corruption investigation are black or Hispanic, records show. Hill and Kaiser are expected to testify that the three indicted officers planted drugs on individuals to gain convictions. Gray is expected to testify about the officers allegedly stealing money from the sting. Defense attorneys for Wells and DeBruin argued they should be allowed to introduce evidence that Gray participated in a burglary ring. Black said unless defense attorneys have evidence that Gray took part in the burglary ring, he is not inclined to allow such testimony. "We're not going to be trying two cases in this trial," Black said. Defense attorneys have listed as a witness convicted burglar Jerry Clyde Stephenson, who has alleged that Gray took merchandise from a burglary and tipped off Stephenson about an ongoing investigation. A second trial of officers Jeff Henderson, 38, and Bill Yelton, 50, is scheduled to begin July 25. Henderson is charged with 58 counts while Yelton is charged with eight counts.