[Editor’s note: This article by Paul Armentano was published in Cannabis Culture Issue #72 in Fall 2008. Since then, Rachel’s family has continued the fight for justice. Click here for the latest on the Rachel Hoffman case.]
There is a saying among the 30,000 or so undergraduates who attend Florida State University: “You come to Tallahassee for an education, you leave on probation.” Twenty-three-year-old Rachel Morningstar Hoffman left in a casket.
Rachel’s life ended abruptly on the evening of May 7, 2008. That was the night Tallahassee police officers arranged for Rachel to make a controlled buy of 1,500 ecstasy pills, two ounces of cocaine, and a handgun from Andrea Green and Deneilo Bradshaw. Rachel had no prior relationship with the two men, and the police, by their own admission, provided her with no formal training in undercover work. Yet, just after 6:30pm, the Tallahassee Police Department outfitted Rachel with a police wire and $13,000 in marked bills, then sent her on her way.
“She wanted to get the bad guys,” Rachel’s friend Liza Patty recalls. “She knew that even if she got robbed, the police were going to be right there.” But, for reasons that remain painfully elusive to Rachel’s friends and family, the Tallahassee police were not “right there” the night when Rachel Hoffman, as instructed, met with Green and Bradshaw. And the Tallahassee police were not “right there” when those two men shot and killed her. In fact, the Tallahassee police did not even discover Rachel’s bullet-ridden body until 36 hours later.
Why did the Tallahassee Police Department select a wet-behind-the-ears 23-year-old as bait in their failed effort to nab two of the city’s most dangerous drug dealers? Two reasons. One, Rachel was expendable; two, Rachel smoked marijuana. And Florida is not a state that takes kindly to smoking marijuana.
A COMMUNITY IS DIVIDED
To those who knew her, Rachel embodied the spirit of the ‘All American Girl’. A popular figure within the Tallahassee music scene, Rachel was known for her free spirit, her contagious smile, and for her distinctive floppy, fuzzy purple hat worn at festivals and events. Part of Florida State University’s NORML group and a member of Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), Rachel was also clearly aware of the unjust nature of the drug war.
“She could be anyone’s daughter, even yours,” was how ABC News 20/20 anchor Elizabeth Vargas described her when the network profiled Rachel’s murder in July. Fun loving, hopelessly idealistic, smart (she graduated from FSU with degrees in psychology and criminology), and a devout Jew, Rachel embraced life and her friends. “Anybody she met, she loved,” one friend told 20/20. “Just an all-round great girl,” said another.
But according to the Tallahassee Police Department, Rachel Hoffman was none of these things. In their eyes, Rachel was a criminal. Under Florida law, she was a felon. Of the 50 states in America, few can hold a candle to Florida when it comes to the dubious distinction of caging its citizens for minor pot offenses. Under state law, possession of over 20 grams of pot – even by first time offenders – is a felony offense punishable by up to five years in prison. Shockingly, even the United States’ federal anti-pot laws, which treat the same offense as a mere misdemeanor, are saner.
Predictably, ‘reefer madness’ is also alive and well is America’s most southern state. Florida is the only state in North America to boast its very own Drug Czar, and the state’s popular Attorney General – former Congressman and drug war uber-hawk Bill McCollum – brags, “If you grow, you go.” Recently, DEA Miami Chief Mark Trouville told the Associated Press that the Sunshine State’s pot is potent enough to “kill you”. Rather than respond to the DEA’s comment with derision, many Floridians heeded Trouville’s hyperbole as gospel. “If other papers in major cities [in]Florida covered every dead scumbag drug dealer – and that’s what this Hoffman girl was – like the [Tallahassee] Democrat, there would be no newspapers,” one blogger angrily posted to the Tallahassee Democrat shortly following Rachel’s murder. Others posted similarly hateful rhetoric about pot and about Rachel; one blogger even went so far as to write, “Electrocute all felons.”
This was the environment that Rachel called home, and it was in this environment that Rachel first came in contact with the Tallahassee Police Department (TPD). In February 2007, police cited Rachel for speeding and discovered 25 grams of marijuana (just under an ounce). Though the possession of such a minor amount of herb would warrant no more than a ticket in many states, in Florida, Rachel’s transgression landed her in drug court. The drug court diversion program meant that her charges would be dropped if she stayed clean for one year. If the 23-year-old used pot again, she would face thousands of dollars in fines and possible jail time. Rachel managed to pass her weekly drug tests, but she didn’t manage to stop smoking marijuana.
In April 2008, nearly one year after entering Florida’s drug diversion program, the TPD raided Rachel’s apartment after receiving an anonymous tip that she was selling marijuana. A search yielded four ounces of pot along with six pills of ecstacy (also a felony under Florida law). Despite the TPD’s underwhelming score, the police were quick to categorize Rachel as a major drug dealer and threatened to charge her for operating a drug house – unless she became an informant.
“She was making a living selling illegal drugs,” a TPD higher-up told 20/20; the Department later revised its story, alleging that Rachel sold up to $35,000 of weed a week – a claim her friends and family vehemently deny, noting that Rachel sometimes couldn’t even afford to pay her monthly cell phone bill. The officers at the scene threatened her with serious prison time. “She was really scared,” recalls Patty. “They told her she could go to jail for four or five years; when you’re 23, that’s an eternity.”
A POLICE CHIEF IS LYING
“My job as a police chief is to find these criminals in our community and to take them off the streets [and]to make the proper arrest,” Tallahassee Police Chief Dennis Jones told 20/20. But the police who raided Rachel’s house – one of whom asked the 23-year-old supposed pot kingpin if she’d join him later for drinks – didn’t take Rachel “off the streets”. They never even made an arrest. (A rather curious decision, given that TPD investigators would eventually claim, months after Rachel’s murder, that she was moving up to 15 pounds of pot per week out of her one-bedroom apartment.) Rather, in the first of several improper and possibly illegal actions by the TPD, the police offered Rachel a deal: work for us one time as an informant and no charges will be filed.
“Standard operating procedure on a possession bust is to offer no crime (arrest) and no record if the possessor snitches,” explains Howard Wooldridge, a retired Michigan police detective who now lobbies on Capitol Hill for the advocacy group LEAP (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition). “We (cops) will offer anybody near anything to make a drug bust.”
In Rachel’s case however, it’s unclear whether the TPD’s offer was even legally binding. Specifically, the cops’ on-the-spot deal with Rachel flagrantly violated TPD protocol, which mandates that such an arrangement must first gain formal approval from the state prosecutor’s office. Knowing that the state officials would not have approved of Rachel cooperating with the TPD as a drug informant when she was still enrolled in drug court – it’s not allowed – the police simply decided to move forward with their informal arrangement and not tell anybody. They even told Rachel that she couldn’t tell her lawyer or the drug court about the plan, and they wouldn’t inform prosecution. (According to Howard Wooldridge, although cops frequently make deals with misdemeanor suspects without the state’s prior approval, such an ‘off-the-record’ arrangement in a felony case like Rachel’s would be “unfathomable”.)
“(In) hindsight, would it have been a good idea to let the state attorney know? Yes,” Chief Jones feebly told 20/20. But don’t expect Jones or any of the other officers who violated the department’s code of conduct – violations that resulted in the death of another human being – to face any serious repercussions for their actions. As of this writing, five members of the TPD who have been implicated in Rachel’s death are on paid administrative leave. Obeying the rules is merely “a good idea” for those assigned with enforcing them. On the other hand, for people like Rachel, violating those rules can be a death sentence.
A MOTHER AND FATHER TAKE ACTION
Despite the Tallahassee Police Department’s sensational claims that Rachel was a major marijuana trafficker, the TPD never approached the 23-year-old about taking down her pot supplier. Instead, cops initially requested Rachel narc on her friends, many of whom she occasionally shared weed with. When Rachel refused, police hatched the idea of going after much bigger fish, namely Bradshaw and Green. All the while, Rachel’s parents remained unaware that their only child was collaborating with the police to take down two of Tallahassee’s most hardened criminals.
However, according to 20/20, sometime during Passover (April 20-26) and two weeks before the sting that would result in her death, Rachel called her mother and admitted she was scared because she was about to do a drug sting for the TPD. Her mother said, “Are you kidding me? Don’t do it. I have to call you dad, because this is wrong, this is very wrong.” Rachel pleaded, “No, mom, I don’t want you telling anybody. I don’t want you to tell dad, I don’t want you to tell my lawyer or the drug court, because I’m getting all my charges dropped so I can get out of drug
Rachel also called her father Irv Hoffman just hours before the sting to say “Dad, I’m really thinking about you today.” Irv, responding just as any parent would to a concerned phone call from their child, asked Rachel if she needed money, but she said, “No, I’m just thinking about you today.” That was the last conversation they would ever have.
“My daughter … gave her life working undercover for the Tallahassee Police Department,” Rachel’s father, Irv Hoffman, wrote in a commentary to the Tallahassee Democrat. “[But] civilians [like Rachel]working undercover are not being treated as helpers of laws enforcement, but as tools of law enforcement – tools … that may at times be treated as expendable.”
On May 7, Rachel was supposed to drive her car to Forestmeadows Park in Tallahassee, the designated meeting place for the undercover drug bust. The TPD hadn’t done a dry run or given Rachel any undercover training; they simply gave her instructions to buy drugs and a gun with $13,000 in marked bills. That evening, the suspects called Rachel to change the meeting place from the Forestmeadows parking lot to a nursery parking lot down the road. At 6:45pm, Rachel called her police handlers to let them know that the suspects wanted to change the meeting to a third location, two minutes away from the nursery. This is when the TPD claims they lost track of her, because her hidden microphone was out of range. Chief Jones of the TPD admitted to 20/20 that police were in the area, but they were not actually watching Rachel. Her cell phone and the wire went dead, and Rachel was declared missing. Her body would be found almost two days later, deposited fifty miles away from the last designated meeting point. She had been shot and killed by the very handgun she was supposed to buy.
Former FBI agent Brad Garrett, an ABC News consultant, claims that the TPD should have called off the sting as soon as the location change was made; an unplanned change for a controlled drug buy jeopardizes the safety of officers involved, and safety of officers is the top priority. Garrett also said the TPD arrangement with Rachel was especially flawed because of the gun purchase being involved. Such a big sting is always conducted by professional law enforcement – not a 23-year-old girl without any police training whatsoever.
In the months following Rachel’s murder, parents Irv Hoffman and Margie Weiss lobbied the Florida legislature to assure that police can no longer coerce other people’s sons and daughters to be used as cannon fodder in their drug war operations. In June, Irv Hoffman met with Republican state senator Mike Fasano to introduce legislation in 2009 that would bar police from using civilians in sting operations involving the purchase of firearms. Dubbed “Rachel’s Law”, the proposed measure would also mandate that all would-be informants receive legal counsel – Rachel was told specifically by the TPD not to inform her lawyer of their arrangement – before agreeing to go undercover.
“Undercover informants are often addicted, young, frightened, vulnerable people who are looking at the ruin of their life and the threat of prosecution, and often they will do anything,” Rachel’s father told the Democrat. “Because of these facts, precautions or laws need to be put into place. There certainly need to be consequences and accountability for those individuals charged with substance abuse or possession. However, the actions to reduce the consequences need to correspond to the level of their crime and never should include death.”
A NATION AWAITS ANSWERS
In August of this year, a Florida grand jury determined that the TPD was negligent in the death of Rachel Morningstar Hoffman. That same day, Democratic state senator Al Lawson introduced legislation to be considered next spring to financially compensate the family of Rachel Hoffman. (Rachel’s parents have not yet decided whether they will file a wrongful death claim against the Tallahassee Police Department.)
“We are grateful to the members of the grand jury and State Attorney Willie Meggs and his staff for their dedicated public service and for their efforts to achieve justice for the loss of our daughter,” Margie and Irv said in a prepared statement. “Nothing will bring her back, but justice will give us some comfort and hopefully prevent other young people and their parents from having to experience the nightmare our family has had to endure.”
Following the grand jury’s finding, the TPD suspended five officers – Captain Chris Connell, Lieutenant Taltha White, Sergeant Rod Looney, Sergeant David Odom, and Investigator Ryan Pender (who insisted that Rachel refer to him under the pet name “Pooh Bear”) – with pay pending the outcome of the department’s own internal-affairs investigation. Lieutenant White, who signed off on Rachel’s involvement in the deadly sting operation, bore the brunt of the grand jury’s criticism – and with good reason. Under oath, White admitted that she never read the TPD’s operation plan for Rachel before approving it. White – who’s been investigated by TPD’s internal-affairs unit for improper conduct five times since 1999 – also admitted that she was “somewhat distracted” the night of Rachel’s murder and did not pay close enough attention to Hoffman’s incoming radio transmissions.
“There is no doubt that Andrea Green and Deneilo Bradshaw are the ones that brutally murdered Rachel Hoffman,” the grand jurors concluded. “But through poor planning and supervision and a series of mistakes through the transaction, TPD handed Ms. Hoffman to Bradshaw and Green to rob and kill her as they saw fit. … Less than 15 minutes after she (Rachel) drove away from the offices of TPD, she drove out of the sight of the officers who assured her they would be right on top of her watching and listening the whole time. She cried out for help as she was shot and killed, and nobody was there to hear her.”
Despite the grand jury’s scathing determinations, police chief Jones has refused to apologize for the Department’s actions – insisting still that Rachel was a “known drug dealer” who died because she “chose to ignore [the TPD’s]directions”.
The fact that both internal and external investigations of the TPD’s involvement in Rachel Hoffman’s death are now taking place is a testament to the courageous and persistent efforts of Rachel’s friends (many of whom live and work under the watchful eye of the Tallahassee Police Department) and family, who have organized numerous protests and marches on the state Capitol in her memory. Others, like Liza Patty, have boldly spoken out to the local and national media in an effort to counter the TPD’s ongoing smear campaign of the girl they loved. (Both 60 Minutes and Rolling Stone are slated to run profiles on Rachel imminently.)
“As far as [the Tallahassee’s Police Department’s allegation that]Rachel was making … millions of dollars a year … selling pot, where is all this alleged money or where is all the stuff she bought with this money?” asks Patty. “Big time dealers have lots of cars and houses and blow extraordinary amounts of money partying. Rachel wasn’t doing any of those things. Rachel’s father paid for her car, her apartment, her groceries, her insurance. She didn’t have some secret bank account or anything. If she’d been making a million-plus a year I think a lot of people would have noticed.”
Patty adds: “[The Tallahassee Police Department] are saying that [Rachel] broke protocol [by following Bradshaw and Green to a new location], but as far as I’m concerned, the Tallahassee Police Department broke protocol first by not filing the correct paperwork with the State Attorney’s office,” says Patty. “If they had, Rachel Hoffman wouldn’t have been in a position [to get killed]to
AND PROHIBITION MARCHES ON
Despite the Tallahassee Police Department’s claims to the contrary, Rachel Hoffman is not dead because she occasionally sold marijuana. Nor is she dead because she occasionally smoked marijuana. Rachel Hoffman is dead because of marijuana prohibition, and the Drug War.
Because of marijuana prohibition – and because of the decades of government propaganda that has kept it entrenched as an American policy – the TPD viewed Rachel as nothing more than a “criminal”, a “dirt bag” (law enforcement’s term du jour for pot smokers). And because Rachel remained overt and unabashed about her fondness for weed in spite of prohibition, she eventually came to be seen in the eyes of her oppressors as something worse. She became disposable. “You always give your enemy a moniker that makes them appear to be less than human, so that hurting them or killing them becomes no big deal,” says Howard Wooldridge. “Tragically, that’s exactly what happened here.”
• Paul Armentano is the Deputy Director of NORML and the NORML Foundation in Washington, DC. He may be contacted at: [email protected]
• To assist the family of Rachel Hoffman, please visit the Morningstar Foundation at www.RachelMorningstarFoundation.org. To view a memorial page by Students for Sensible Drug Policy, visit www.SSDP.org/rememberrachel