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The Entrapment of Jesse Snodgrass

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Now, standing with Daniel beside his car and in a hurry to get this nerve-racking errand over with, Jesse thrust the precious stash into his hands. Daniel glanced at it. It was a pathetic half-gram of dried-up flakes – about five dollars' worth of marijuana, maybe enough to roll a single skinny joint. Still, Daniel seemed satisfied. He threw it in his glove compartment and suggested they get to class. Later that day, Deputy Zipperstein handed off the baggie to another deputy, who transported it to a police station, where the drugs were field-tested by yet another officer, then ceremoniously weighed, photographed and tagged as evidence: SUS – SNODGRASS, JESSE $20/.6 GRAM MARIJUANA BUY #1. The picture was transferred onto CD for posterity.

The Riverside County Sheriff's Department was becoming expert at this sort of thing. Over the previous two years, it had staged two stings in other school districts, arresting 14 students at Palm Desert High School in 2010, and 24 students from Moreno Valley and Wildomar high schools in 2011; in both cases, undercovers had bought marijuana, Ecstasy and cocaine. So when in July 2012 the sheriff's department had approached the Temecula Valley Unified School District to report a suspicion of drug sales in two high schools, Superintendent Timothy Ritter had granted permission for Operation Glasshouse. (All TVUSD personnel declined comment, citing litigation.) His compliance seemed natural in conservative Temecula, a former tiny ranching town whose population had exploded over the past 20 years as people seeking affordable homes moved inland – many of them military families from Camp Pendleton – and where police maintained an aggressive presence, intent on keeping it an oasis of order.

Two young, attractive deputies were chosen for Operation Glasshouse. Deputy Yesenia Hernandez was enrolled in Temecula Valley High School. Petite and outgoing, she was an instant hit, especially with the boys, who misread her attentions. Deputy Daniel Zipperstein was dispatched to Chaparral, where, as the new kid constantly talking about drugs, he had to overcome some initial skepticism. "Ask him for his badge number!" some kids playfully called out, when at lunchtime he asked to sit with a bunch of self-described "happy stoners." Daniel laughed along, joking back in a goofy voice, "Yeah, OK, you're all under arrest."

But Zipperstein disarmed kids with his frank approach, explaining, "I'm new, I don't have any friends here yet." He was quick to open up about his pretend personal life, telling kids he'd had to move from his dad's in Redlands to live with his irritating mother. "It's so hard to deal with my mom and shit," he said. "She's always bitching." To escape her tyranny, all he wanted to do was lock himself in his room and get high. Remembers student Perry Pickett, "I dunno, I felt bad for the kid." Girls thought it charming when Daniel said he still traveled to Redlands each weekend to visit his girlfriend – whose favorite activity, incidentally, was getting high together. "We were like, 'OK, that's romantic, I guess,'" says Jessica Flores, who sold him a gram or so of marijuana a half-dozen times. But although Daniel was in a relationship, that didn't stop him from admiring other girls, like when, during one lunch period with a view into the dance room, Daniel exhorted about a 15-year-old in spandex, "Dang, look at the ass on that one!"

Before long, kids accepted Daniel as one of their own, enough that his unusual persistence in ferreting out drugs stopped raising red flags, as well as his notably indiscriminate appetite. "If you mentioned weed, he wanted weed," says Madalyn, who sold him some of her marijuana, LSD and molly. "If I brought up acid, that's what he wanted. He said he wanted to get coke. He had no limitation." Students also overlooked how odd it was for a high schooler to have so much cash, giving it out with such abandon. Once, when he handed Perry $15, asking for weed, and Perry came back empty-handed, Daniel told him to keep the money.

"I felt like I owed him something," says Perry, who, due to his learning difficulties, was a special-needs student with an individualized learning plan. He had felt especially bad because Daniel had been so open and vulnerable about his lousy family situation. So when Perry heard that a kid in his third-period class was selling Vicodin swiped from his parents' medicine cabinet, he offered to introduce Daniel. Strangely enough, he says, Daniel demurred, but instead handed Perry $14, instructed him to buy $10 worth of pills on his behalf – thus creating the transaction necessary for a bust – and to keep the change. "I was like, 'All right, four bucks! That's a couple chicken sandwiches right there!'" says Perry. Meanwhile, Perry's 16-year-old friend Sebastian Eppinger, seeing how careless Daniel was with his money, thought he recognized an opportunity and agreed to act as a middleman. "I ripped him off superbad," says Sebastian. "I sold him 20 bucks' worth of weed for $80."

Any skepticism about Daniel being a narc evaporated after Perry delivered him his Vicodin. Grinning and thanking him profusely, Daniel informed Perry and Sebastian he didn't swallow Vicodin, he smoked it. The boys were dubious, so Daniel described how he'd rub off the pill's coating, grind it to powder, then freebase it off tinfoil. To demonstrate, Daniel popped the pill into his mouth and sucked it, then spat it out and rubbed it on his shirt, explaining that it was now ready for crushing and smoking. "I heard you can do the same thing with heroin," Daniel said, dropping a hint about his next drug target. The boys didn't pick up on the bait; they were agog, having learned a new drug-taking technique.

As autumn drew to a close, Daniel had little contact with Jesse Snodgrass anymore. He'd managed to give Jesse another $20, two weeks after the first sale – and, in return, got an even skimpier amount of marijuana than the first time, under a half-gram. But then Daniel had asked Jesse to sell him some Clonazepam, Jesse's anxiety medication. Jesse was adamant in his refusal: That was his medicine – he needed it. When Jesse wouldn't budge, Daniel completely lost interest in their friendship. The rejection stung. Jesse's parents would inquire about Daniel, and he'd shrug it off. He tried to forget about it and focus on the things that mattered, like passing algebra. Against all odds, Jesse was inching his way toward a high school diploma.

On the morning of December 11th, the door to Jesse's art classroom burst open, and five armed police officers in bulletproof vests rushed in, calling his name. Jesse was handcuffed in front of his classmates. He thought maybe he was asleep and dreaming. "I was confused," he remembers. "I didn't know what was going on," and he didn't connect the events back to Daniel. Neither did Madalyn or Jessica, who also were arrested in their classrooms; the three of them, along with two other boys, were paraded in handcuffs out of Chaparral and into a police van. At the same time, in a classroom at nearby Rancho Vista continuation high school, Perry – who'd transferred to get better one-on-one special-needs attention – was being shackled; and Sebastian, sick at home, awoke to find his bedroom filled with cops. Fifteen students from Temecula Valley High School were also rounded up, bringing the number of students arrested in Operation Glasshouse to an impressive 22.

The scale of the takedown operation was enormous, from the swarming officers in tactical gear to the police helicopter hovering overhead. Authorities announced they had seized marijuana, Ecstasy, LSD, heroin, cocaine, meth and prescription drugs. Though it declined to divulge the quantities, the sheriff's office insisted that the amounts collected were beside the point: "The program is not designed to recover large amounts of drugs," it said in a statement to RS. "The program is designed to quell hand-to-hand narcotics transactions on campus." That evening, the big drug bust would be the talk of Southern California, with newscasts leading with the story – prominently featuring a dramatic photograph of a tall boy dressed in a gray hoodie and black Dickies, his hands cuffed behind his back, flanked by armed officers. Jesse Snodgrass had just become Operation Glasshouse's unlikely poster child.

"Why do you think you're here?"

"I don't know," Jesse answered. "I was just called up and that's why I'm wondering." In a plain-walled interrogation room at the Perris police station, near Temecula, Jesse sat stiffly in a chair, hands clenched. Across the table, hunched over a clipboard, sat a lean man with stringy blond hair, a plaid shirt and a police badge hanging from his neck. Jesse was anxious to clear up this whole misunderstanding and go home. For more than an hour, he'd been waiting in a common area in tense silence with 21 other kids, the vast majority of them Mexican-American boys, desperately studying their downcast faces for clues. None had been told the reason for their arrests and were forbidden to talk. Any time they'd made a sound, officers barked, "You better shut your mouth." Jesse had watched as one by one they'd been called into this little room, although one key nuance had eluded him: Each had emerged looking shocked and terrified; one girl had a full-blown panic attack.

"All right," said the deputy from the Riverside County Sheriff's Special Investigations Bureau, looking up from his clipboard. "Have you ever sold drugs?"

"No." Jesse was resolute.

"You sure?"

"Yeah, I'm sure," answered Jesse. He'd been as compliant as possible with his answers, having waived his Miranda rights – though he hadn't entirely understood what he was agreeing to, he had said "yes" anyway to demonstrate his cooperation – but he could tell he was bombing this quiz. In his nervousness, Jesse already had been unable to recall his mom's phone number and his home address. He was, however, forthcoming when the officer asked if he'd ever used drugs, truthfully admitting that he'd once smoked pot, but that he just wasn't into it.

"Have you ever sold drugs at Chaparral High School?" the deputy asked.

"Nope."

"You never sold drugs to any students there?"

"No, sir," Jesse said respectfully.

"Mm-kay." Then, in a theatrical flourish that would be performed 22 times that day, the deputy crossed the interrogation room to open the door. "Do you know who this is?" he asked, as a uniformed police officer with short, neat hair walked in. Jesse did a double take.

"Daniel?" he asked the officer uncertainly. Deputy Daniel Zipperstein didn't answer but simply stood with his feet planted apart and his hands clasped in front of him, staring straight ahead. Jesse marveled at how different his friend appeared, nearly unrecognizable in these clothes and in this pose, so proud and tall. It was as though Daniel had grown up overnight, looking so markedly different that when he made his dramatic entrance into Perry's interrogation, Perry exclaimed, "Do you have a younger brother at Chaparral?" making the officers guffaw. And yet even with Daniel standing over him like a statue and the interrogator looking amused from across the table, Jesse's mind struggled to knit the bits of information into a cohesive narrative.

"Am I getting in any trouble?" Jesse asked.

"Well, what do you think?" answered the deputy, snickering.

With that, the criminal-justice system intractably moved Jesse Snodgrass forward – even though, before leaving the interrogation room, the deputy had to walk the still-uncomprehending Jesse through the logic at play behind his crime: that Jesse had not merely given Daniel drugs; because Daniel had paid him, Jesse had, in fact, sold drugs. So confused was Jesse that upon leaving the station, he found himself loaded into a van with a half-dozen kids who'd admitted to having done drugs within the past 24 hours, en route to the hospital to have their vitals monitored. "Are you mentally retarded?" a cop at the hospital cautiously asked after Jesse droned down his list of psychiatric meds. When Jesse answered, "I have Asperger's," the officer groaned. Nonetheless, protocol being protocol, Jesse was shuttled onward to Southwest Juvenile Hall, where he was placed in a holding cell to await booking – and where, by late afternoon, his distraught mother was on the phone with an officer, trying to reach her son.

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