ND student's mystery death raises doubts on drug informer use
Death is raising questions about the use of young, low-level drug offenders as confidential informants
By Blake Nicholson
BISMARCK, N.D. — Nearly a year after North Dakota college student Andrew Sadek's body was found in a river with a bullet in the head, his mother still struggles with how her shy son who liked to bowl and belonged to a club of electricity enthusiasts got mixed up in the dangerous world of illegal drugs.
Tammy Sadek believes the answer is that Andrew signed his own death warrant when he agreed to become a confidential informant for police after they caught him selling marijuana. Authorities say he knew what he was getting into and agreed to help them of his own free will.
Still, people who knew Sadek are shocked by what happened.
"He was a gentle soul," said Kristi Brandt, principal of Valley City High School, from which Sadek graduated.
Investigators haven't concluded whether Sadek was slain or killed himself. Adding to the mystery, a gun that fires the same caliber bullet that killed Sadek is missing from their family farm near the tiny town of Rogers.
An autopsy concluded that Sadek died of the gunshot wound, and that he had no drugs or alcohol in his system. How his body ended up in the Red River has not been explained and no gun was found.
An investigative report 2 ½ months ago said the drug task force which recruited Sadek acted appropriately. But his death is raising questions about the use of young, low-level drug offenders as confidential informants. And should they be given more detailed information about the dangers?
American Civil Liberties Union spokeswoman Jennifer Cook said informants are doing a dangerous part of law enforcement, without the training.
"The safety risks associated with informant use can far outweigh the benefits," she said.
Sadek, 20, was a second-year electrical technician student at the State College of Science, a two-year community college in the southeastern North Dakota city of Wahpeton where about 3,600 students study everything from diesel technology to performing arts. He enjoyed lake activities and golfing in addition to bowling and electrical work while growing up on the family farm.
Brandt said Sadek was never a troublemaker in high school, and was always polite and respectful of authority. She doubted his nature changed much in college.
"Sometimes there are changes, but usually it's more on the level of a maturity change, not necessarily a personality change," she said.
He wanted an electrical technician master's degree, but his plans began to go awry in April 2013 when he twice sold marijuana to a confidential informant. Both transactions were small — for a total of $80 worth of drugs — but they took place on campus, making them serious felonies.
In November 2013, agents with the Southeast Multi-County Agency Drug Task Force searched Sadek's dorm room and said they found a grinder containing marijuana residue. The next day, Sadek — facing the prospect of drug charges that could land him in prison for 41 years — completed paperwork to become a confidential informant. The attraction of cooperating with authorities is that it offers the chance to keep a felony off the record of a young person, said Wahpeton Police Chief Scott Thorsteinson.
Richland County Deputy Sheriff Jason Weber, now the interim task force supervisor, won't say whether Sadek was specifically told of the dangerous nature of the work he would be doing. The document that Sadek signed to become a confidential informant did not explicitly state the potential risks.
Drug investigators need to be more explicit about those dangers, said Jim Harrington, director of the Texas Civil Rights Project.
"You have to really say: 'This is the risk — you're entering a world that's dangerous, and you might end up dead,'" Harrington said.
Sadek bought drugs three times for the regional task force over the next three months — one short of the four purchases required of him.
A security camera videotaped Sadek leaving his dormitory early on May 1, 2014. He wasn't seen again. His body was found in the river about two months later. Authorities estimate that he had died two days after he disappeared.
Officials with the North Dakota and South Dakota state crime bureaus and a Cass County sheriff's detective reviewed the task force's involvement with Sadek and said in their late January report that they "did not see anything that caused concern."
"That's how drug task forces work all over the world," said Weber, the task force supervisor. "You're always constantly trying to find the bigger person and go to that person's supplier."
But Tammy Sadek believes that even though the probe was billed as independent, members of the law enforcement community "have each other's back."
She has a point, according to John Burton, a California attorney and vice president of the National Police Accountability Project.
"It's just a charade when they do these things," Burton said of law enforcement agencies investigating one another.
U.S. Justice Department guidelines state that authorities should consider the risk of harm to a potential l informant, but do not say that the person should be informed of the risks. North Dakota Attorney General's Office spokeswoman Liz Brocker declined to comment on any policies or procedures that might be in place for drug task forces in the state.
Los Angeles-based Loyola Law School professor Alexandra Natapoff said the use of criminal informants "is almost entirely unregulated" across the country, though that is beginning to change. The Florida Legislature in 2009 passed "Rachel's Law," requiring police to adopt policies to protect informants, after 23-year-old Rachel Hoffman was shot to death in 2008 while working as an informant.
That law is "only the beginning of the protections that we need for young, vulnerable informants," Natapoff said.
Tammy Sadek believes her son was scared into becoming a confidential informant. She's started a Justice for Andrew Sadek Facebook page that has more than 3,200 likes.
"I would like to see (task forces) stop using kids," she said. "I know it's common, but these are just little fish."
Copyright 2015 The Associated Press