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The Entrapment of Jesse Snodgrass

He was a friendless high school loner struggling with autism. So why did an undercover cop target him as a drug dealer?

February 26, 2014 11:00 AM ET
Jesse Snodgrass, RS 1214
Jesse Snodgrass
David Walter Banks

Jesse Snodgrass plodded around yet another stucco corner, searching for Room 254 in time for the second-period bell, only to find he was lost yet again. Jesse felt a familiar surge of panic. He was new to Chaparral High School and still hadn't figured out how to navigate the sprawling Southern California campus with its outdoor maze of identical courtyards studded with baby palm trees. Gripping his backpack straps, the 17-year-old took some deep breaths. Gliding all around him were his new peers, chatting as they walked in slouchy pairs and in packs. Many of their mouths were turned up, baring teeth, which Jesse recognized as smiles, a signal that they were happy. Once he regained his composure, he followed the spray-painted Chaparral Puma paw prints on the ground, his gait stiff and soldierly, and prayed that his classroom would materialize. He was already prepared to declare his third day of school a disaster.

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At last, Jesse found his art class, where students were milling about in the final moments before the bell. He had resigned himself to maintaining a dignified silence when a slightly stocky kid with light-brown hair ambled over and said, "Hi."

"Hi," Jesse answered cautiously. Nearly six feet tall, Jesse glanced down to scan the kid's heart-shaped face, and seeing the corners of his mouth were turned up, Jesse relaxed a bit. The kid introduced himself as Daniel Briggs. Daniel told Jesse that he, too, was new to Chaparral – he'd just moved from Redlands, an hour away, to the suburb of Temecula – and, like Jesse, who'd recently relocated from the other side of town, was starting his senior year.

Jesse squinted and took a long moment to mull over Daniel's words. Meanwhile, Daniel sized up Jesse, taking in his muscular build and clenched jaw that topped off Jesse's skater-tough look: Metal Mulisha T-shirt, calf-length Dickies, buzz-cut hair and a stiff-brimmed baseball hat. A classic suburban thug. Lowering his voice, Daniel asked if Jesse knew where he might be able to get some weed.

"Yeah, man, I can get you some," Jesse answered in his slow monotone, every word stretched out and articulated with odd precision. Daniel asked for his phone number, and Jesse obliged, his insides roiling with both triumph and anxiety. On one hand, Jesse could hardly believe his good fortune: His conversation with Daniel would stand as the only meaningful interaction he'd have with another kid all day. On the other hand, Jesse had no idea where to get marijuana. All Jesse knew in August 2012 was that he had somehow made a friend.

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Though it smacks of suburban myth or TV make­believe, undercover drug stings occur in high schools with surprising frequency, with self-consciously dopey names like "Operation D-Minus" and, naturally, "Operation Jump Street." They're elaborate stings in which adult undercover officers go to great lengths to pass as authentic teens: turning in homework, enduring detention, attending house parties and using current slang, having Googled the terms beforehand to ensure their correctness. In Tennessee last year, a 22-year-old policewoman emerging from 10 months undercover credited her mom's job as an acting coach as key to her performance as a drug-seeking­ student, which was convincing enough to have 14 people arrested. Other operations go even further to establish veracity, like a San Diego-area sting last year that practically elevated policing to performance art, in which three undercover deputies had "parents" who attended back-to-school nights; announcing the first of the sting's 19 arrests, Sheriff Bill Gore boasted this method of snaring teens was "almost too easy."

The practice was first pioneered in 1974 by the LAPD, which soon staged annual undercover busts that most years arrested scores of high schoolers; by the Eighties, it had spread as a favored strategy in the War on Drugs. Communities loved it: Each bust generated headlines and reassured citizens that police were proactively combating drugs. Cops loved the stings, too, which not only served as a major morale boost but could also be lucrative. "Any increase in narcotics arrests is good for police departments. It's all about numbers," says former LAPD Deputy Chief Stephen Downing, who now works with the advocacy group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition and views these operations with scorn. "This is not about public safety – the public is no safer, and the school grounds are no safer. The more arrests you have, the more funding you can get through federal grants and overtime."

Yet despite the busts' popularity, their inner workings were shrouded in secrecy, with few details publicly released about their tactics and overall effectiveness. And as time went on, officers and school administrators became alarmed by the results they saw: large numbers of kids arrested for small quantities of drugs – and who, due to "zero tolerance" policies, were usually expelled from school. No studies appear to exist on the efficacy of high school drug stings, but the data on undercover operations in general isn't encouraging. A 2007 Department of Justice-funded meta-analysis slammed the practice of police sting operations, finding that they reduce crime for a limited time – three months to a year – if at all. "At best, they are a stopgap measure," and at worst, an expensive waste of police resources, which "may prevent the use of other, more effective problem­solving techniques." The federal study concludes that sting operations reap little more than one consistent benefit: "favorable publicity" for police.

To be sure, public-relations speed bumps have appeared now and again, like when a female LAPD narc allegedly romanced a high school football player, which surfaced via her steamy love letters, or when a developmentally disabled child was swept up in another L.A. bust after selling $9 worth of marijuana to an undercover. But until now, no department seems to have gone so far as to lay a trap for an autistic kid.

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