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Wiretaps crucial in unraveling criminal enterprises

An undercover DEA agent said information gleaned from a month of wiretapping solidified the case that led to charges against nine people last week, including three Oklahoma City residents, in a federal marijuana trafficking conspiracy.
by Matt Dinger Modified: May 12, 2014 at 4:00 pm •  Published: May 11, 2014

A year of infiltration by a Drug Enforcement Administration undercover agent and a month of wiretapping were enough to unravel a nine-person organization attempting to traffic marijuana into Oklahoma from Colorado, court records show.

A wiretap, which requires a specialized form of search warrant, allows for the recording of a conversation without any of the parties’ consent at the same time it is occurring.

Terry Hardin Wilkerson, 71, William Jesse Hoge, 53, and Crystal Adams, 45, all of Oklahoma City, were charged in April with conspiring to possess with intent to distribute 100 or more kilograms of pot.

Also charged in the two federal complaints were Curtis Frank Wagner, 49, David Geubelle, 45, Marty Shellabarger, 67, Skylar J. Freeman, 25, Shawn N. Maminakis, 34, and David Lincoln Steele, 48.

Wilkerson endeavored to bring the marijuana into the state through Hoge, who was going to join an American Indian tribe and church in Colorado that was growing the marijuana, according to the complaint.

The undercover agent, who is not identified in the complaint, met Wilkerson through a confidential informant in April 2013. Over the course of a year, the agent witnessed a number of criminal dealings involving marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, prescription drugs and firearms, the complaint states.

Because the interactions with Wilkerson, the confidential source and the agent often occurred via cellphone, U.S. District Judge Robin J. Cauthron authorized the order for Interception of Wire Communication for both of Wilkerson’s cellphones beginning March 6.

The plans to purchase and transport the cultivated marijuana were recorded in these intercepted communications, the complaint shows.

“The bad guys still communicate. It’s still necessary, if we’re going to protect the American people, that we be able to intercept those communications lawfully,” FBI Director James Comey said during a February visit to Oklahoma City.

“We go to a court and make a showing that there’s probable cause to believe that the bad guys are using this device and be able to collect that information. We’ve got to be able to do that,” Comey said.

One party’s consent

In Oklahoma, and the majority of other states, only one party to the conversation need consent to it being recorded for that recording to be lawful.

Undercover police officers and confidential informants are used for surveillance and gathering evidence in the majority of criminal investigations, but a wiretap may be authorized when other means are exhausted or impossible, Oklahoma County First Assistant District Attorney Scott Rowland said.

Rowland spent 10 years in a wiretap unit with the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics. From 1996 to 2006, he participated in investigations that used more than 100 wiretap orders to bring down Mexican cartel-associated drug trafficking groups.

“Sometimes you have cultural insulation, particularly Mexican drug organizations. It’s difficult to infiltrate them. They know each other,” Rowland said.

“A lot of time they're family relationships, and if you’re not in that familial relationship, you’re not going to be able to crack that organization.”

“Here’s the bottom line: to conduct a criminal organization, the conspirators have to communicate. Period,” Rowland said.

In order to get a wiretap order, a district attorney has to request that the state attorney general ask the presiding judge of the court of criminal appeals for one.

Only a handful of wiretap orders are issued a year in Oklahoma. In 2013, 10 wiretap issues were ordered. So far this year, only one has been issued, according to Oklahoma Supreme Court Clerk Michael Richie.

In comparison, 1,236 search warrants were filed in Oklahoma County alone last year.

“Whereas a search warrant affidavit is typically two or three pages long, a wiretap affidavit is very often 50 pages long and I’ve seen them 130 pages long before,” Rowland said.

“There is this kind of myth out there that peoples’ privacy isn't guarded at all anymore by the laws, and that’s just not the case in Oklahoma,” he said.

Getting a wiretapping order is just the first stage of the process.

“These are very complicated cases to do. It takes a minimum of 20 people to do one of these investigations. You have got a mammoth investigation on your hands to manage,” Rowland said.

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by Matt Dinger
Court Reporter
Matt Dinger was born and raised in Oklahoma City. He has worked in OPUBCO's News and Information Center since 2006, and has been assigned to the breaking news desk since its formation in fall 2008. He specializes in crime and police reporting.
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