Meet the government's top snitch in the War on Drugs
By PETER WILKINSON
| One hot day last May, his red hair slicked back and his biker boots splashed with mud, Joe Clarke sauntered into a repair shop on Chula Vista's main drag wearing a body wire. Though the shop resembled most of the other ramshackle grease pits in this ragged-ass city near the Mexican border, it was anything but ordinary. Its owner happened to be the feared president of an organization that Clarke and his FBI handlers had been working for weeks to infiltrate: the wearers of the black and white, the Mongols motorcycle club, a chief rival to the Hells Angels and a major methamphetamine supplier in Southern California.
At first, everything seemed cool. Clarke commiserated with B., a senior Mongol with a shaved head and a silver spike inserted through his pierced lip. The proud owner of a $20,000 Indian Spirit, Clarke had quietly slipped into the Mongols' world a month earlier, at a bar the club frequents in Imperial Beach, and was already going on runs down Interstate 5, even riding point in the middle of the pack. A convicted felon with thick packs of muscle on his six-foot frame, Clarke figured he could handle bikers, any bikers, on his own terms. "If I get the first punch in," he says, "problem solved."
But as Clarke spoke with B., that confidence drained from his body like beer from a shot-up keg. Breaking a cardinal rule of surveillance, the feds had parked their gray van with tinted windows in plain sight near the shop's front door a short time before Clarke's arrival.
Hells Angels want him dead
Photograph by Christopher Anderson
|That busload of bozos is trying to get me killed , he thought.
Any biker worth his colors can pick out a fed's ride without bothering to scrape the smashed bugs off his goggles, and B. was no exception. "Dude, get the fuck out of here," he hissed. "It's not a good time."
"I didn't see anybody," Clarke lied.
"Hit the ramp," B. insisted. "If you get a tail, give us a call."
This wasn't the sort of greenhorn operation Clarke expected from the Bureau. For the past seventeen years, he'd been one of the government's most reliable confidential informants. Working as a snitch, Clarke had helped officers from virtually every federal and state agency make 350 drug cases across Southern California, taking more than 100 pounds of methamphetamine and cocaine off the streets and halting the manufacture and distribution of hundreds of pounds more. The evidence he gathered put dozens of bad guys in jail, from small-time drug dealers working the San Diego shipyards to major meth manufacturers with ties to the Mexican mafia. If you work drugs in San Diego County, a place heavily infected with them, you know Clarke. "He's a natural," says a man I will call Tim, a senior California narc who has been a controlling agent of Clarke's for more than a decade. "Best informant I've ever had."
Often sent on the toughest and most dangerous missions, snitches like Clarke are the foot soldiers in the War on Drugs. Indeed, without the audio- and videotape they bring back from the front lines, the war could not be fought at all. Under draconian mandatory-minimum sentencing laws enacted by Congress in 1986, minor drug offenders suddenly found themselves facing up to twenty years in prison, without the possibility of parole, simply for possessing small quantities. Unless, that is, they agreed to rat out their associates in return for a reduced sentence. Thanks to the "Just Say No" doctrine of Ronald Reagan, an entire society of informants was born, and small-time dealers such as Clarke discovered that they possessed something even more valuable than drugs to sell: information. Snitches in federal drug cases -- many of them former users and known liars -- now receive as much as $100 million a year for their services, plus millions more as a percentage of the drug money they help to seize.
The job requires a unique set of skills rarely found in one person: A good informant is a combination of actor, ladies' man and remorseless pathological liar. The key to Clarke's success -- and survival -- is his gift of gab. Part Irish, part Blackfoot Indian, Clarke, in his slightly nasal, relentlessly positive tone, can talk to anybody about anything: cars (he used to paint them), bikes (he's been riding them for forty years), drugs (you name it), women (any nationality, pretty much any age) or politics (he voted for George Bush). Clarke will throw in a "dude" and a "yeah, buddy," as a surfer might, and then he'll probe, gently, trying to build trust.
"We listen to Joe on the wire; the way he gets around things, the way he bullshits -- the guy's awesome," says Sgt. Joe Nava of the Imperial County Sheriff's Department, who has worked dozens of cases with Clarke. "He brings you everything that you need."
But on this particular day, standing in the repair shop in Chula Vista with B. the Mongol, Clarke wasn't sure he'd be able to bring the feds anything -- except a corpse. If the Mongols connected him to the van idling outside, B. or his boss might fillet Joe right there in the garage. He pictured himself bleeding to death on the oil-stained floor, pleading ignorance as always, hoping as he died that the FBI knob jobs crouched in their van would be competent enough to capture the killing on tape.
Drugs of one sort or another have coursed through Joe Clarke's family for generations. His father did handfuls of Benzedrine and Dexedrine, and his grandfather cooked moonshine in Kentucky. A spinal defect made it difficult for Joe to run, so he learned to parry with his wits or fight where he stood. "Whenever anything went wrong with any of my six brothers, I was the enforcer for the family," he recalls. A dealer at the age of thirteen, Joe started out selling Thai stick smuggled into California hidden inside Buddha-shaped candles by the older brother of a friend in the Army. By the time he was sixteen, Joe was hanging out with Hells Angels at their clubhouse in Lakeside, a San Diego suburb known as a hotbed of meth manufacturing.
The Angels' meth lab in nearby Slaughterhouse Canyon stood as a monument to the club's balls and ingenuity. "The Angels brought a bulldozer in, dug a big trench and put a school bus down inside it, covered it up, and that was the lab," Clarke says. "To filter the contaminated air out of the space, they ran ducting through a big Igloo picnic cooler, filled it with dry ice and sucked all the fumes through it. End of the stink."
Clarke also learned the drug-world ropes working as a bouncer for Hooter, a self-proclaimed "redneck hippie" who ran a coke house on a dead-end street in the wealthy suburb of La Mesa. Under Hoot's guidance, Clarke learned how to keep his cool around drug-fueled lunatics and manipulate them into buying more drugs, without actually using himself. He learned how to tell people exactly what they wanted to hear, without seeming obvious about it. He learned how to tell lies as breezily as he might discuss his sex life or the availability of spare parts for Harleys. If there were a college for informants, Hooter would teach Ratting 101.
The key, Clarke learned, was to never look rattled, no matter how freaky things got. One night, Hooter disappeared into his bedroom with two regular customers: a young surfer and his girlfriend who had run out of jewelry to trade for drugs. After thirty minutes, Hoot emerged, grinning, and poured himself and Surfer Boy shots of Chivas.
"To the little lady!" Hooter shouted. "We're gonna let her work off the debt."
"This was her idea?" Clarke asked.
" Hoo-yah !" Hoot yelled, rubbing his hands together. "And she gave me a sample, right in front of her kinky old man! Dude, she's great! She swallowed every last drop!"
Stepping out of the bedroom in Hoot's bathrobe and drying her hair with a towel, the young woman sat down next to Clarke and started cutting lines of cocaine on the black marble bar.
"You start tonight!" Hoot told her, and then he turned to Clarke.
"Get the extra bedroom ready! Then, get on the phone and give our best customers the first shot at her!" Within an hour, there was a line at the bedroom door.
Clarke left Hooter's employ after five years, at a time when rival dealers were making a habit of dropping by the La Mesa house armed to the teeth. Clarke went into business with his friend Steve, an organic chemist. The two set up their own lab in a simple tin building on the steep slope of a brush-filled canyon outside Lakeside and installed four microphones under the eaves to warn of intruders. Their batches of meth, seventeen pounds at a time, were enough crystal to blast off the majority of Southern California's tweaker population for a long holiday weekend. "This was our little kingdom," Clarke says nostalgically. "We had the Hells Angels right down the way, and we figured that that was a good enough diversion. The law focused on them and not on us." Under Steve's watchful eye, Clarke became the Julia Child of meth. "He was a phenomenal cook," says Tim, his handler for many years. "He had the knowledge a chemistry professor would drool over." Clarke's shit became the shit every tweaker wanted.
Even with all the security, Clarke got stupid, as everybody around meth eventually does. Using like a pig, malnourished and dehydrated, his nose bleeding, he would embark on sex marathons with multiple strangers, only to have the highs canceled out by paroxysms of paranoia and depression. Indications of Steve's meth-slicked slide also cropped up; he told Clarke he was receiving cooking instructions from a research scientist in another dimension. One day, Steve ended the party by driving his Mazda RX-7, full-speed, under a city bus.
Not long before Steve died, Clarke received a little bit of free advice from the enemy. One morning at the body shop where he worked, tweaked out of his gourd, Clarke met an investigator from the local DA's office named Jerry. Jerry knew an addict when he saw one. "You're going to get caught, no matter what you do," he told Clarke. "Here's what you do: As soon as this starts making sense to you, write down the names and addresses and license plates of everybody you know in the life. Give the list to a top cop, one who can check out your claims. If you're willing to assist in the arrest and prosecution of the individuals on your list, you could dramatically reduce the amount of time you spend behind bars."
The advice proved invaluable one night a few months later, when Clarke found himself pulled over by the highway patrol. He was behind the wheel of a stolen vehicle, and he had a prior conviction for auto theft, but at least the meth he'd been snorting through a straw, from a bag in his pocket, was gone.
"You'll be taking showers with killers for at least a year for your second offense," the arresting officer told Clarke, pressing a 12-gauge shotgun against his right temple. "Are you going to cooperate? If you do, it'll be noted and the judge might take that into consideration before sentencing."
Damn, that DA was right , Clarke thought. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a piece of paper. It was the list that Jerry had inspired him to keep -- and it would provide the script for his new life. Released within a week, he immediately helped take down a couple of meth-world figures he knew, operating in the borderlands a stone's throw from Tijuana.
And then, unlike most informants, Clarke kept on ratting. He evolved into the rarest kind of snitch: a mercenary, one who is eager and brave and crazy enough to be slipped into unknown territories and pitted against criminals he barely knows. Clarke became an informant for hire, one of a handful of Drug War freelancers who keep on snitching even after they've left prison. "Five of the nine meth labs I was involved in taking down," says Tim, "Joe brought the people to us."
Part of it was financial: Clarke's compensation ranged from $25 for a tiny drug buy up to $120,000 for a months-long investigation that led to the conviction of a major meth manufacturer. Part of it was the guilt: In Clarke's mind, informing was a way to atone for his past mistakes and take some poison off the street. And part of it was the adrenaline, a rush as pure and certain and familiar as a hit of meth.
"It was glorious," Clarke says. "It was truly fighting the good fight. It was doing God's work. It was dangerous, and it was fucking crazy."
One of Clarke's first cases involved a meth ring run by one Paul Moore on the San Diego docks, where Clarke happened to be working on Navy ships as a pipe fitter's helper. Clarke discovered that he and Moore, a meth user, knew some of the same underworld figures from high school. When Moore made it known that he had product, Clarke set up what's known as a "controlled buy." The goal is simple: wear a wire and get the mark to exchange drugs for money simultaneously, allowing agents to make an arrest on the spot. Moore took the bait. At the dealer's trial, Clarke testified; articulate and unflappable on cross-examination, he made an impressive witness. Moore did three years.
The case solidified Clarke's reputation as a reliable rat. Over the years, he burrowed into all the slippery crannies of the California criminal world, cases involving drugs, guns, money laundering, undocumented immigrants -- any illegal activity, basically, that Clarke could scare up. During Operation Homecooking, he lived in a trailer in a rural part of Imperial County for eight months to bust a ring of meth cooks. Wearing his blond hair surfer-long and sporting a dark goatee, Clarke mingled with targets of all ages in local bars, sliding gently into their lives. "Joe was so good, he bought dope from a woman he'd bought dope from seven years before," says Michael Capeci, an Imperial County investigator who has worked with Clarke on forty cases. Another time, Clarke posed as a mechanic to take down a drug dealer who owned an automotive-glass business. The guy went away for seven years, and the case never even went to trial. "Joe's cases have always been a slam-dunk," Capeci says, "and defense attorneys know that."
Clarke gradually crafted his rap, learning how to find common ground and forge relationships with marks. "You allow them to be the big dog, large and in charge, the baddest motherfucker in the valley, and you let their greed lead them to your objective," he says. If you have to lie, he learned, you just mention a woman named Jennifer. "It's the most common woman's name in the world," he says. "I incorporated that statistic into my technique. If they say, 'Who sent you?' I say, 'Jennifer.' If they say, 'Jennifer who?' I say, 'Mexican Jennifer.'"
Even with all his tricks, though, jobs became hard to come by. "What's kept Joe from being truly productive is that he's informed on everyone he knows," says Tim. "For a while, he ran out of targets he could bring to the table." To keep Clarke employed, Tim loaned him out to the entire alphabet soup of law enforcement: the Drug Enforcement Agency, the Department of Justice, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the U.S. Marshal's Service and local sheriff's departments. They all discovered that Clarke could knock on a dealer's door in the middle of the night, unannounced and unknown, and still persuade the guy to let him score. On the rare occasions when his cover was blown, he would just shoulder his leather jacket and slip away, leaving his meager belongings and his disconnected cell phone behind.
Clarke learned to change his physical appearance, dying his hair blond or passing as Mexican. "I tan up real good, get real dark," he says. "It throws people off." He also became a master at using concealed microphones and tiny digital recorders, "which could pick up the sound of cockroaches farting." He carried them disguised as something they are not: watches, glasses, rings. "The coolest one -- and the only reason I'm going to give this one away is that I don't think they use it anymore -- was something that looked like a piece of gum," he says. "You put it in your mouth and you chew it. It tastes like gum, but if you take it out of your mouth and roll it with your thumb a bit -- there it is, the little opening for the microphone."
Another time, Clarke took a job as a lift operator at a major ski resort where employees were suspected of selling drugs to skiers. When a co-worker got suspicious and started calling him "Deputy Clarke," Joe slammed the kid into the ground. "Fuck off, man!" he screamed. "You know what? If I beat your ass, I'm not gonna go to fuckin' jail, because you're eighteen. You think you can take me?" The move earned Clarke the credibility he needed. Wearing a wire, his apartment rigged with a hidden camera, he was soon buying meth, high-grade pot and Ecstasy. During the arrests, Clarke was cuffed along with the dealers, as part of the show. The kids never knew who sold them out.
So convincing was Clarke, he could make cases even when he inadvertently advertised what he was doing. One time, local narcs asked him to target a middle-aged meth cook who wanted to sell pounds of product. The mark, duly impressed by Clarke's resume in chemistry, agreed to set up a buy. The two men went for a drive in Clarke's car, and the deal went down -- even though a visitor's pass from the local DEA office, the big white one he'd forgotten to peel off, was stuck to the front of Clarke's shirt.
Clarke made his biggest score in the early Nineties. Hanging out in Lakeside one day, looking for someone new to betray, he found the perfect mark. "I was just strolling through, and I saw this beautiful cowboy Cadillac," he says. "I was checking that puppy out, and this little fart jumps out wearing a Hawaiian shirt. He's five foot three, 170 pounds, thirty years old, probably, gray hair hanging down to the middle of his back. And boom! He bumped into me. I allowed him to do that, because I looked at that Caddy and that gold and shit dripping off the guy, and I thought, 'I'll be in that guy's house someday. This guy has no job, and look at all them toys!'"
Clarke seized the opportunity. "I don't mean no shit or anything," he told the guy. "But damn! You got the hottest truck in the area. My '85 'Vette for your truck -- straight across!"
"You're dreaming, homeboy," the guy replied.
"Who shaved your handles, slammed the suspension and painted it for you?" Clarke asked. The guy smiled at Clarke's eye for detail. "I got connections."
The "little fart" turned out to be Danny Solis, a major drug dealer with ties to the Mexican mob who churned out as much as 400 pounds of meth every year. With Tim calling the shots, Clarke put himself forward as a broker of illegal precursor chemicals needed to manufacture meth. For this case, the narcs assigned Clarke a partner: Guinevere, the sexy ex-wife of a former Hells Angel, who had agreed to cooperate to get out of a dope-dealing charge.
When Tim introduced the two star informants, it was lust at first sight. "Gwen was Black Widow to the max," Tim says. "Good-looking girl who would stab you in a heartbeat. She'd stabbed her husband two times that I know of, and he'd shot her twice."
Clarke and Gwen made an excellent team. They slammed down drinks with Solis at strip clubs, went to his house twice a week, rode go-carts at Marshall Scotty's, an amusement park in El Cajon. Solis kept putting the moves on Gwen in her stilettos and her micromini skirts. "Shorty fell in love with Gwen's long legs and her tight little butt," Clarke says. And the women around Solis took a shine to Clarke. Sometimes, before meeting Solis and his posse, Clarke would prepare himself for the ladies by taking off his shirt and snapping off a few dozen push-ups to pump up his arms. "So many times," Clarke says, laughing, "you get in through the girls."
Solis eventually trusted Clarke enough to buy ten pounds of ephedrine from him for three grand. The deal went down in Clarke's 'Vette, which his controllers had wired. The exchanges gradually got bigger and bigger, until one day Clarke met Solis at Dirty Dance, a topless club in Kearny Mesa, to sell 300 pounds of ephedrine, enough to cook $1.5 million worth of meth and fry the cerebral cortices of much of San Diego County. As Solis talked, receiving several hundred dollars' worth of lap dances, tapes rolled. When he left the club in a chauffeured limo, state and federal drug agents arrested him. Solis agreed on the spot to cooperate. The first individual he volunteered to testify against? Joe Clarke.
Clarke earned $120,000 for the Solis case. He paid bills with the cash, and the rest was stolen by a manic-depressive girlfriend before she ran off to do porn films. It was the biggest rat payday of Clarke's rat career and further burnished his reputation among West Coast narcs. Twenty people went to prison, including Danny Solis. The feds also tried to nail some Hells Angels in the bust -- a decision that put Clarke's life in danger. "The Angels would love to kill Clarke," Tim says. "They like him because he rides, but, through Gwen, he tried to screw them." From inside state and federal prisons across California, contracts have gone out on Clarke's life. Clarke is worth up to $65,000 dead. "I'm on a full state of alert all the time," he says.
But informants rarely manage to make a stable life out of the second chance that snitching offers them, and Clarke is no exception. Business has been especially bad these past few years. The bulk of the meth business has moved across the border, thanks in part to Clarke's work, and he doesn't have any connections in Mexico or speak Spanish. And narcs in California, where the economy has been squeezed by the dot-com bust, just don't have as much money to pay informants these days. "The politicians are trying to balance the budget," says Tim. "We still have some money to operate but with nowhere near the flexibility we had before -- same with the feds."
With no money for rats and nobody left to rat on, Clarke was forced to sell his Corvette and move into a tiny apartment, a dump the size of a dorm suite, in a middle-class suburb of San Diego. The place smells like a wet jock and is infested with termites. The picture on the big-screen TV quivers and quakes; Clarke can't pay his cable bill. Sometimes his roommate, a steamfitter named Lance who works on the San Diego docks, has to kick in Clarke's share of the rent and help him out with the $200 a month he owes on his motorcycle, the one luxury he refuses to give up. "I live like a monk," Clarke says. He dreams of making one more big score and earning some real cash. That way he could move to the Midwest, open a bike shop and recover his anonymity. Out there, he wouldn't have to lie about his name, wouldn't have to worry about constantly changing his hair color from brown to red to cotton-ball white, his glasses from Coke bottles to wire frames.
Clarke, who's been drug-free for more than a decade, insists he's ready for another big job. But when we go for lunch one day at a Mexican restaurant on the outskirts of San Diego, he orders a Corona, and then another, after hungrily gulping down just a third of the first bottle. It reminds me of what Iggy Pop used to do: get two drinks at once, to save time. Clarke gobbles his tacos, every last crumb, knees pumping, in true addict fashion. Later, passing a car with a bumper sticker advertising a meth hotline, Clarke pretends he's calling the number. "Yeah, dude, I can't find my pipe," he says, breaking into tweak-speak. "Could you send a pipe over real quick? You got any eight-balls? Actually, I can only afford half a gram. Do you do dimes?" I wonder if Clarke is jonesing with all this meth talk. It's only a phone call, after all, from Corona to crystal.
It was desperation that drove Clarke to infiltrate the Mongols, one of the most vicious of the remaining California biker gangs. Last April he attended a big Mongol bash in Whittier and began to worm his way in. But when the FBI blew the bust at the repair shop in May, everything went to shit. Clarke managed to make it out of there in one piece -- and promptly unloaded on the agents who had parked out in plain sight. He went too far. The feds don't like rats telling them what to do. Narcs might rely on informants to make their cases, and their careers, but many quietly detest their own undercover sources. "A lot of informants are treated like shit," says Tim. "When you have a mercenary informant like Joe, who's not looking for leniency at sentencing, you have to deal with that type of person a little bit differently than someone you own. It's a question of management style." The FBI's management style was to accuse Clarke of using drugs and to drop him as an informant. Agents even stormed his place in Chula Vista and yanked the hard drive out of his computer, taking the camera images of his meetings with the Mongols.
Clarke was furious. After seventeen years as one of the top informants in the War on Drugs, he was suddenly a foot soldier without a mission -- or a pension. "These jackasses had zero respect for me from the very beginning," he fumes. "I got the same vibe, the same feeling of greed from the FBI that I used to get from the crooks. And, son of a bitch, look how it turned out! They fucked me!" Clarke was so mad he committed another cardinal sin for an informant: He tried to take the Mongols case elsewhere. He shopped it to other federal agencies, to other narcs he knew, which only dug him in deeper. No one would touch him. He was finished as an informant.
To salvage his name, Clarke has written a rambling 516-page account of his life as an informant. He hoped the book, titled Long Arm, would be his ticket out, a way to move to the Midwest and retire. But every publisher he sent it to rejected it, and Clarke has grown bitter. The truth is, no one likes a rat. They may be essential to law enforcement, the only way to bust drug dealers, but they're universally despised, a dirty secret of the War on Drugs, a bunch of liars and addicts that everyone involved would just as soon forget.
"I've sacrificed a great part of my life, and become a nonperson, to accomplish my mission," Clarke says, sitting in his run-down apartment. "People who know nothing about what I do are automatically repulsed by anybody in my field. And it is so wrong. I became an informant to balance my karma up, so that when I'm standing there, hovering over the trapdoor, talking to St. Peter, I've got something to work with."
Something to work with: The phrase forces Clarke to pause his self-justifying rant. He knows this may be his last, best hope: to be remembered as the sinner who tried to become a saint. He also recognizes the irony of what's he doing. He's trying to talk his way out of trouble again, just like he's always done. But this time the mark is bigger than some meth-addled Mongol biker.
"Am I trying to manipulate my way into heaven?" he says in disgust. "Fuck! I guess I am."