The Entrapment of Jesse Snodgrass

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From his seat at a worktable in the art room, Deputy Daniel Zipperstein observed his target and tablemate, Jesse Snodgrass. Like all the other students, Deputy Zipperstein was busily working on the day's class assignment, building a sculpture using cardboard, paper and wire, but Jesse was clearly flummoxed by the project's complexity. Their ponytailed teacher, James Taylor, paused by the boys' table. "Jesse, OK," Taylor instructed, holding up a piece of cardboard. "Today's task will be to cut out six cardboard squares of this size." Taylor took pains to pare down each assignment into bite-size chunks for Jesse, but even so, he'd need to keep circling back to remind Jesse to stay on his single small task. Zipperstein watched Jesse slowly pick up the scissors and get to work.

No one at Chaparral High School knew that transfer student "Daniel Briggs" was in fact a cop in his mid-twenties; as is typical in such an investigation, only a few top district administrators were aware of the operation. With Daniel's Billabong T-shirts, camo shorts and Vans, "he looked just like an average kid," remembers student Jessica Flores, then 17. Handsome and quick to smile, Daniel was meeting new friends with remarkable ease, though some students remained wary, due to his habit of interrupting strangers' conversations whenever the subject of drugs came up – for which he quickly acquired the nickname "Deputy Dan." Madalyn Dunn, then 17, was startled while she chatted with friends during shop class, and the new kid leapt right in: "Are you talking about ketamine?" Dan said, then asked if she'd sell him some, which she declined. Nonetheless, the two wound up walking to fourth period together, bonding over their fondness for pot. After that, Madalyn says, Daniel wouldn't stop asking her for drugs. "Oh, come on," he'd pester.

Deputy Dan was just as aggressive with Jesse Snodgrass, pursuing the friendless boy outside the confines of school. Jesse's mom, Catherine, and his dad, Doug, an engineer, had been delighted when Jesse had come home talking about his new friend from art class; they'd been even more surprised when Daniel had started buzzing Jesse's otherwise­silent phone with texts. Jesse had only ever had one friend before, another special-ed kid who'd recently moved to Alabama, leaving Jesse bereft. And now that Jesse had switched to a new school – a move foisted upon the Snodgrasses when their old house had gone into foreclosure – he had been especially agitated lately. It was only the latest distress in a lifetime of everyday struggles, which Catherine and Doug did their best to help Jesse navigate, fighting the constant battles waged by the parents of children on the autism spectrum: sticking up for him when he was ostracized from playgrounds or asked to leave restaurants as a child; standing up to school districts to secure Jesse equal access to education. Though the Snodgrasses also had two younger children at home, Jesse's needs had long made him a focal point. They were ready for his life to get easier and were thrilled with the calming prospect of this new friendship.

"Why don't you tell Daniel to come over?" Catherine urged.

"OK." Jesse hunched over his phone as his mom drove him home through the clean streets of Temecula – a planned suburban community northeast of San Diego, population 100,000 – past the big-box strip malls and into their neighborhood of Mediterranean-style homes, where a man-made duck pond sparkled and joggers bounced past. Jesse's phone vibrated. "He can't do it today, he's grounded," Jesse recited. Made sense to him. Daniel had already told Jesse that he was always in trouble with his strict mom, a conflict that left him superstressed – which was why Daniel "really needed" Jesse to hook him up with some pot.

"Maybe another time. You guys could order pizza, play video games, just hang out," Catherine said. Forging friendships was normally so hard for Jesse, who had the cognitive skills of an 11-year-old and was nearly oblivious to the facial expressions, body language, vocal tones and other contextual cues that make up basic social interactions. He was slow to draw inferences or interpret the casual idioms other kids used, like "catch you later," a phrase Jesse had initially found startling, since it turned out to involve no catching whatsoever. As a toddler, he'd once been terrified for days after his preschool teacher told him, "I'll keep my eye on you."

Jesse had seemed typical enough until age two. Then words started disappearing from his vocabulary, and he spoke in a sporadic, garbled language. His parents grew worried: Their young son made no eye contact and scarcely registered the presence of other people, but drew hundreds of pictures of their vacuum cleaner and would spend hours waving a crayon in front of his face, entranced by the fan of color it etched in the air. When Jesse was five, a neurologist diagnosed him with Asperger's syndrome, a variant of autism; over the years, Jesse's diagnoses would expand to include Tourette's, bipolar disorder and depression. An evaluator prepared the Snodgrasses for the possibility that Jesse might never speak again. Catherine quit her advertising job to plunge Jesse into intensive autism therapies. Amazingly, the interventions got him back on track enough that he was able to attend regular school, taking special-ed classes and mainstream electives, with a counseling team to help him manage.

But Jesse's difficulties were hardly over. He was bullied throughout middle school, mocked as a "retard." He lashed out at his tormentors and, in doing so, developed a discipline record, with suspensions for fighting and many a day penalized in "lunch club," scraping gum from under desks. Jesse rarely complained about his mistreatment; he was a boy who didn't think to ask for help. Instead, he vented his frustrations with episodes of headbanging, scratching and punching himself, violent and bloody bursts of self-injury. It took Jesse years of therapy to wean himself from those self-injurious impulses and soothe himself instead with benign motor tics like wringing his hands or snapping his fingers when he felt anxious.

He also found another way to cope. During his sophomore year of high school, Jesse shaved his head, began lifting weights and developed a new persona his therapist Jason Agnetti came to call his "bro identity." Dressed in wife-beaters that showed off his biceps, saggy jeans and baseball caps, Jesse would stomp around school, dropping f-bombs and calling other kids "retards." He talked about extreme sports like motocross, off-roading and skateboarding, even though in reality he couldn't ride a bike or even tie his own shoelaces. In his junior year, Jesse drew a bong on his notebook and called himself "Jesse Smokegrass," despite his inexperience with pot. By emulating the bad-boy swagger of his own bullies, Jesse was putting on a suit of armor. Though his parents were a little concerned – and irritated with all his unnecessary posing – they saw it as a phase and, in that regard, not unlike other powerful antagonistic personae Jesse had identified with in the past. "There was a period of time when he was really obsessed with the Undertaker, the wrestler," says Doug. "And in fourth grade, he was obsessed with Bowser in Super Mario."

To some extent, the bro disguise worked, making Jesse less approachable and even, from a distance, menacing. Anyone who took a closer look, however, could see past the facade. As he strode the halls of Chaparral, with his robot walk and compulsive finger­snapping, it was clear that something was amiss. "You could see right away that there's something off about him," says Perry Pickett, who at the time was a Chaparral junior. And as soon as Jesse spoke with his flat affect, slow response time and inability to follow any but the simplest instructions – his impairment was obvious.

And yet Deputy Dan was unrelenting. As the weeks went by and Jesse continued to stall, Daniel sent Jesse 60 text messages,­ hounding him to deliver on his promise to get marijuana. "He was pretty much stalking me," remembers Jesse. "With the begging for the drugs and everything, it was kind of a drag." Already anxious about his new home and new school, Jesse was conflicted. He knew he didn't really want to get marijuana for Daniel – not that he even knew how – and that the drug requests were ratcheting up his anxiety to an intolerable level. But Jesse also desperately wanted Daniel to like him and didn't want to fail his new friend. Daniel's oft-stated plight that his home life made him so unhappy that he needed to self-medicate struck a certain chord with Jesse, who also needed pharmaceuticals in order to function. "I take medication for my own issues," Jesse confessed to Daniel, rattling them off: Depakote, Lamictal, Clonazepam. Burdened by his sense of obligation, frightened and helpless, the pressure was too much for Jesse to handle. One day the turmoil had been so great that after art class, Jesse fled to the boys' bathroom and burned his arm with a lighter.

Three weeks into the school year, Doug and Catherine Snodgrass held a meeting with Jesse's educational-support team, in light of Jesse's self-inflicted burn, to discuss their son's transition to Chaparral. "They were concerned about him building friendships at the school," attendee Delfina Gomez, Jesse's behavioral-health specialist, would later testify. Unaware that Jesse was being befriended by a narc, the team assured the Snodgrasses that overseeing Jesse was a priority for them, including­ finding him "a classroom buddy, peer buddy or peer leader."

Elsewhere in the building that same day, Daniel pressed $20 into Jesse's hand.

"I'll see what I can get you," Jesse told him.

"I'm gonna meet Daniel before class," Jesse told his father five days later while on the drive to school. He bent to read the screen of his phone. "Take me to the Outback Steakhouse." Jesse was jumpy. He'd asked Daniel to come over to his house for the marijuana handoff, but Daniel was insisting on meeting at a strip mall adjacent to Chaparral's ball fields. Daniel's car was already parked in the empty lot when Doug and Jesse arrived at 7:10 a.m. Jesse leapt out of the station wagon. "Stay here," Jesse instructed his father. Doug, proud of his son's social accomplishment, contented himself with a friendly wave at the young fellow before driving off. Daniel waved back.

The previous weekend, saddled with Daniel's $20 bill, Jesse had agonized over how to get his hands on some pot. At last, the answer hit him. The medical­marijuana dispensary in downtown Temecula sold marijuana! Jesse congratulated himself on his logic. He and his family often spent leisurely afternoons browsing downtown's pedestrian thoroughfare, where Jesse would branch off for an hour of solo exploration before reconnecting at the Root Beer Company for sodas. Sure enough, that weekend Jesse wandered toward the dispensary and approached a pale man with bad skin and longish hair – "he kind of had that look of a junkie," Jesse says – who took his $20 and, to Jesse's infinite relief, handed him a clear sandwich baggie with weed inside.

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