Sunday, May 31, 2015
A police murder investigation goes astray - apparently on purpose.
Johnny Curry was pissed. That’s the way Rick Wershe, Jr. remembers the Curry gang discussion in the spring of 1985 regarding what to do about the unintended murder of a 13-year old Detroit boy named Damion Lucas.
On the night of April 29, 1985, several members of the Curry drug organization shot up a car owned by a Detroiter named Robert Walton and they shot up the home of another Detroiter, Leon Lucas. The men were cousins.
Walton had cheated them on lodging and entertainment they had prepaid him to arrange a few weeks earlier in relation to a prize fight in Las Vegas between Marvin Hagler and Detroit boxer Tommy Hearns.
In a separate matter Leon Lucas owed them money for dope they had given him on consignment; dope he lost in a police drug raid. Now Lucas owed them money for the dope they fronted him. Some members of the Curry group decided to teach Walton and Lucas a lesson with a pair of drive-by shootings which were preceded earlier that same day with a threatening phone call.
When they shot up the home of Leon Lucas he wasn’t there, but his two nephews, ages 13 and 11 were at the house watching television. At least 20 shots from Mac 10 and Mac 11 automatic weapons were fired into the house. One of the bullets slammed in to the chest of 13-year old Damion Lucas, killing him.
Johnny Curry, a habitually careful dope dealer, now found himself in damage control mode for the impetuous, foolish actions of his cohorts, made worse by telephone threats that same day. Curry knew Leon Lucas and Robert Walton knew who was responsible for the shooting. The idiots in his crew had called and threatened the shootings just hours before they did the deeds. And Curry figured, correctly, that Lucas and Walton would tell the police about the telephone threat that preceded the fatal shooting.
Johnny called a meeting of his gang and told everyone to keep their mouths shut. He also suggested they “lay low”—keep a low profile on the streets. If anyone came around asking questions, their orders were to dummy up about the shooting of the little boy. There were about half a dozen guys at the post-shooting strategy meeting. One of them was Richard Wershe, Jr., who was a confidential informant for the FBI.
Meanwhile, on the top floors of the McNamara Federal Building in downtown Detroit, a federal drug task force led by the FBI was gearing up to listen to Johnny Curry’s telephone calls. They were working to convinced a federal judge they had probable cause to suspect Curry was leading a major drug trafficking scheme.
In the movies we see often see scenes of cops sitting in vans bristling with listening gear, wearing headsets while they wait for the bad guys to say something incriminating. In real life, it doesn’t work that way.
Federal agents working a major criminal case will build their investigation to a point where they can convince a judge that they need to listen in on the telephone calls of a single suspect or an entire gang.
If they meet that threshold, the judge issues a court order known as a Title III (Title 3), which is a section of the 1968 Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act. In federal criminal cases judges, attorneys and federal agents refer to wiretaps and electronic intercepts as a “Title III.”
Once a judge authorizes a Title III, the order is presented to the local telephone company. The phone company, in turn, routes all calls to and from the target telephone line to a listen-in line at the offices of the federal agency conducting the investigation. It's like the feds have an extension phone in their offices.
The phone company adjusts the signal on the phone line so no one can tell there is a tap on the phone. Anti-bugging gear is useless against a wiretap originated within the telephone company. The agents, meanwhile, sit in a designated room with an array of audio recorders and headsets. In a busy FBI or DEA office there may be several Title III operations underway at the same time.
A wiretap is often preceded by the use of a device known as a pen register. It is a small device that records the date, time and length of a call to or from a target phone number. It does not record the call itself; merely the data associated with the call. Many people see this kind of data in their itemized cell phone bills.
The morning after Damion Lucas was murdered, an FBI pen register on the home phone of Johnny Curry showed a short phone call to the unlisted home phone of Detroit Police Sgt. James Harris, a member of the mayor’s security detail with responsibility for looking out for the mayor’s relatives, particularly his niece, Cathy Volsan, who had a penchant for running with known dope dealers. At the time, she was the fiancé of Johnny Curry.
The call from Johnny Curry’s home phone to the home phone of Sgt. Harris was followed by a much longer call to a private unlisted line at Detroit Police Headquarters. The line was to the office of Inspector Gil Hill, the head of the Homicide section.
FBI interest in this sequence of phone calls listed by the pen register intensified a few days later when Special Agent Herm Groman, now retired, received a phone call from Richard Wershe, Jr., who was working as an FBI confidential informant.
Groman recalls it was a routine “reporting in” kind of call except for one thing; Wershe said he had been present at a meeting of the Curry gang when they discussed their responsibility for the death of Damion Lucas and what they needed to do to avoid police scrutiny.
Wershe recalls Groman was quite interested when he told the agent about the Curry gang discussion of the little boy’s murder. Wershe remembers Groman told him if he heard any more, to call him ASAP. Wershe told me recently he wasn’t able to do any more regarding the murder because he wasn't in a position to ask questions among the Curry dopers about the Damion Lucas killing without raising suspicion.
Within a couple of days the FBI received court authorization to place a wiretap on Johnny Curry’s home phone. Almost immediately, the wiretap generated tantalizing results. One phone call in particular led agents to wonder if they might have a case of police obstruction of justice in addition to the drug case they were building against the Currys.
On May 4, 1985, Johnny Curry had a phone conversation with someone known as “Fuzzy.” They discussed the murder of Damion Lucas and the Curry group’s responsibility for it. They focused part of the conversation on Wyman Jenkins, a top lieutenant in the Curry organization. Fuzzy wanted to know if Jenkins knew there was a police spotlight on him regarding the killing.
Curry told Fuzzy: “He, O.K., from my contacts I got that he’s a number one suspect.”
Number one suspect? How did Johnny Curry know that? His contacts? Who were his contacts?
Curry continued: “…but, you know, like Wyman f**ked up when he called over there and threatened them people, you know? Mmm hmm. That’s why I’m in the house right now, just layin’ low, and I told Wyman, you know, ah, he right now, he got to stroke hisself this one.”
Curry: “S**t. He got ta weather hisself outta this one, cause they went and did a dumbass move by killing that little boy. Man, that’s a little boy, s**t.”
The Detroit police, meanwhile, focused all their attention on another man, ignoring information from Leon Lucas and Robert Walton that they were sure the Currys were responsible for the murder.
It made no sense to ignore information from the intended victims of the shootings, to look in another direction, unless someone wanted the investigation to go astray.