Search About Newsletters Donate
Support independent, nonprofit journalism.

Become a member of The Marshall Project during our summer membership drive. Our journalism has tremendous power to drive change, but we can’t do it without your support.


The Problem With Hiring Liars to Catch Crooks

Can you really trust an informant who’s been arrested in 43 states?

Willamette Week, an alternative newspaper in Portland, Ore., recently published an astounding profile of George Taylor, a man who grew up smoking angel dust; who “has been a criminal since age 13,” according to a parole officer; who has “psychopathic traits,” according to a state psychiatrist; who has a “Heil Hitler” tattoo encoded in numbers and “White Pride” inked across his shoulders; who, starting at age 18, spent 23 of his next 26 years in prison; who once helped set a man on fire; and who, perhaps not surprisingly, given his history, was hired to help boost cell phones by a Detroit syndicate.

What is surprising is that Taylor simultaneously had a second employer— the Portland Police Bureau, which hired Taylor, with contract and all, as a confidential informant. (Sometimes, when Taylor was working for his Detroit bosses, officers wondered where he had disappeared to.) The bureau used Taylor to build dozens of criminal cases, including at least 20 in which he swore to tell the truth while testifying before grand juries. A bureau spokesman told Willamette Week: “In hindsight, it is arguable that Taylor should never have been used based on his history.”

When I read this story by Aaron Mesh, I had a rush of déjà vu. Reporters around the country, myself included, have been writing stories like this for decades, in what almost seems a can-you-top-this challenge to find the most incredible person ever considered credible by police or by prosecutors, who invariably point out the unfairness of expecting them to find informant candidates in the local church choir.

My first entry in this challenge was published in the Chicago Tribune in 1999. Fellow reporter Steve Mills and I wrote about the problematic use of jailhouse informants in capital cases in Illinois. As an example, we profiled one particularly notorious informant whose word was used to put someone on death row. This was our lead:

His criminal record dates to 1978 and includes more than a dozen convictions. He has been in the penitentiary four times and is wanted in four states. His parole officer once called him "a menace to society." A federal prosecutor wrote he was "a pathological liar . . . not worthy of this court's trust."

Indeed, Tommy Dye lies about almost everything, even his own name. He has a dozen aliases, court and police records show, and he uses them liberally, usually when he is arrested. William Zonka, Thomas O'Neil, Sean P. Kelly, Tommy Welch, Thomas Moriarty--Dye is the man behind each of the names. Selling cocaine, he used the moniker Big Daddy Woo Woo.

Even under oath, Dye lies. He once told a judge he was the valedictorian at St. Michael's High School in Chicago, but he did not even finish high school. He told a federal grand jury that he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania. That, too, was a lie. He took some correspondence classes in prison and has worked as a waiter.

I figured Big Daddy Woo Woo would be hard to top. But five years later, while at The Seattle Times, I wrote a story with Florangela Davila and Justin Mayo about a police informant in central Washington. Here’s how we introduced him:

James Allen Anderson goes by many names.

Police in Grant County knew him as "The Plate." This was a clever play on words: Anderson has a steel plate concealed in his lower leg, but police used the name to conceal Anderson's identity as a confidential drug informant.

Others in Grant County knew Anderson by other names: "Crazy Jimmy." "Shaky Jimmy." "Jimmy the Weasel." The Anderson they knew couldn't differentiate fact from fantasy.

In an interview with The Seattle Times, Anderson said he solved the Oklahoma City bombing, the JonBenet Ramsey murder and countless other crimes — all before they happened. Asked how, he pointed to his head.

"This," he said. "You think with your mind, you put the cases together, and you put it down on paper."

Anderson said he received assignments directly from presidents John F. Kennedy and Jimmy Carter, that he had a Marine Corps command at Camp Pendleton and that he's worked as a government secret agent for 44 years.

Anderson is 51 years old.

Big Daddy Woo Woo and Crazy Jimmy belong to a long and ever-growing list of informants featured in media coverage, academic research, television and cinema. Alexandra Natapoff, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, created the Snitching Blog. PBS’s Frontline dedicated a program to informants in drug cases. Kurt Eichenwald wrote “The Informant,” a book about a compromised whistleblower at agricultural giant Archer Daniels Midland, which became the movie “The Informant!”, starring Matt Damon. Sarah Stillman wrote a heartrending piece for The New Yorker on young informants subjected to risks that sometimes become fatal. David Simon, creator of “The Wire,” based one of his characters, a police informant named “Bubbles,” on a real-life informant, known as “Possum.” And newspaper reporters, such as Joseph Neff at The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., have written devastating stories about capital cases built upon sketchy informants.

To get an idea of how frequently informants figure in wrongful convictions, go to this link for The National Registry of Exonerations and, in the search box, type in “snitch” or “jailhouse informant.” Then click on the case summaries for details.

But the most incredible story I’ve ever read about an informant? That was written three years ago, by two of my then colleagues at The Seattle Times, Steve Miletich and Mike Carter. Here’s the top of their story:

By almost anybody's standards, Joshua Allan Jackson is bad news.

A felon with a lengthy history of violence against women, Jackson was sentenced to 10 years in prison April 13 for sexually abusing an 18-year-old woman and holding her against her will for days inside a cheap South Seattle motel last year. The woman told investigators Jackson forced her to audition for a porn film and at one point choked her so hard she almost lost consciousness.

As part of the case, Jackson also admitted to criminal impersonation on various occasions when he told the victim and seven other people that he was a federal agent or a police officer.

During a fight with an alleged drug dealer at another Seattle motel, Jackson told the manager he was a federal agent. The incident would have been almost comical had it not resulted in a citywide "help the officer" call, one of the Police Department's most urgent alerts. Officers from throughout the city rushed to the motel, only to discover the heavily-tattooed Jackson was not a federal agent.

For all of this, the 34-year-old Jackson would be just another habitual criminal except for one startling fact: He was working the entire time as a paid informant for the Seattle office of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

The agency made Jackson an informant even though he had come out of prison early last year with a documented reputation as a violent, mentally unstable inmate who had been arrested in nearly every state and posed a serious threat to law-enforcement officers.

Now, when I first read this – and saw that line, “arrested in nearly every state” – I admit to wondering how that could possibly be true. But Steve and Mike, later in the story, back this up with what may be the most remarkable sentence in all of these stories about police informants: “A Times review of nearly 800 pages of prison and prosecution documents revealed the Bronx, N.Y., native had been jailed in 43 states.”

Jailed in 43 states. How many people have even been in 43 states?

That cinches it. If I’m the awards committee, the title of most incredible informant goes to Joshua Allan Jackson. And for its supporting role, the ATF can join him on stage, as most credulous agency.

We’ll call the award the Woo Woo.