This mole's still for hire
News-Register | August 9, 2005
By KATIE WILLSON
During a four-month sting operation, capped with a late-June sweep timed to coincide with a well-publicized Meth Summit, the Yamhill County Interagency Narcotics Team employed a career informant trailing a criminal record and a well-documented history of entrapment, the News-Register has learned.
Repeating a pitch polished over 32 years of paid informant work in Oregon, Washington and California, the 51-year-old Portlander dangled hope of high-paying construction and landscaping work. Those tactics stirred such controversy in the early 1980s that even the attorney general felt moved to condemn them, but he seems to have flown below the public radar ever since.
Following his script, investigation shows, undercover operative Marc "The Mole" Caven suggested it would help applicants' prospects if they could hook him up with a bit of methamphetamine or marijuana. And at least 46 of them succumbed to the pitch, landing them berths in the Yamhill County Jail.
The suspects include a 22-year-old McMinnville youth who finally came up with less than half an ounce of marijuana after reportedly being hounded by Caven on a daily basis for weeks. Pumping gas, the lure of construction work at $10.50 an hour got the better of him.
Now facing the Class A felony charge of delivery, pegging him as a dealer, he fears he will never get the financial aid to follow through on college plans. He said he's feeling "like my life is over."
A 19-year-old Amity youth was so excited about the job promised to him that he carried Caven's phony business card everywhere he went, called his big brother in California with the news and laid plans to buy some sturdy work boots. He's also facing a felony charge - one sharing Class A status with murder, rape and kidnapping.
If Caven ever ventured outside the paid informant field, it was not as a hiring officer with Evergreen Construction and Landscaping, as billed on the business cards he passed out under the name John King, investigation shows. In fact, Evergreen and King are both merely figments of Caven's apparently fertile imagination.
But the would-be job applicants, solicited by Caven on the street, didn't discover that until local law enforcement officers, working in tandem with YCINT, scooped them up. The well-orchestrated sweep played out just as the county's June 23-24 Meth Summit was making local headlines from the McMinnville Community Center.
Defense lawyers quickly cried entrapment, which has helped derail at least 33 of Caven's previous cases and generated at least seven claims for damages.
Furious over Caven's tactics, the defense lawyers have demanded District Attorney Brad Berry drop the entire roster of cases. So far, he has refused.
Sheriff's Lt. Jim Carelle leads the interagency YCINT narcotics squad. He reports to a board on which Berry sits with McMinnville Police Chief Wayne McFarlin, Sheriff Jack Crabtree and Newberg Police Chief Robert Tardiff, with McFarlin serving as chair.
Carelle said Caven was recommended by another agency and performed as advertised. The veteran detective said he would give the informant a good recommendation in turn if approached by another agency.
"He produced and he produced really well," Carelle said. "The cases he has provided were good cases. The district attorney's office took them to grand jury."
Berry and Carelle declined to reveal terms of Caven's local contract. However, he apparently likes to be paid on a day-rate rather than commission basis.
Asked if he supported Caven's job-ploy tactics, Berry declined comment. "We're prohibited by our ethics rules from discussing investigations on pending cases or witnesses on a particular case," he said.
McFarlin echoed that, saying, "I'm not going to comment about YCINT operations." But he made it clear the board ultimately makes the calls on YCINT tactics, not Carelle acting on his own.
"We make a collective decision on what practices our narcotics team employs," he said. "We commit a lot of time to see that our team has the best resources, the best training, the best equipment and the best oversight."
McFarlin also expressed strong support for Carelle's interagency narcotics squad.
"YCINT is a good team that uses professional standards and operating practices," he said. He said none of its decisions are made off the cuff.
Law enforcement records first show Caven surfacing as a paid informant for Oregon law enforcement agencies in 1973 and first pitching his employment sting ploy to them in 1981.
In the interim, they show him being charged three times with larceny or theft, three times with unauthorized use of a motor vehicle and once with contempt of court. But that didn't seem to dim his employment prospects with police agencies.
Caven, known as "The Mole" since at least 1981, came up with the idea of holding himself out as John King, foreman with Evergreen Construction and Landscaping. And law enforcement agencies in at least seven Oregon counties, four Washington counties and two California counties, eager to answer citizen calls to crack down on illegal drug use, liked it well enough to contract for Caven's services.
When Caven's cases came to court, however, defense lawyers inevitably raised entrapment and ethics issues. As a result, prosecutors were forced to drop employment-sting cases in at least three Oregon counties in the spring of 1982 - Umatilla, Douglas and Wasco.
The uproar even reached the attorney general's office, eliciting this response from Dave Frohnmayer, who went on to run for governor, then assume the University of Oregon presidency:
"You question the reliability of Marc C. Caven. It is fair to say at least three Oregon district attorneys agree with you. It's doubtful that a police agency in Oregon would now use the services of Mr. Caven under any circumstances."
But that was then and this is now. When Caven came under defense fire Friday in Yamhill County Circuit Court, Berry, a former Newberg defense lawyer, said that what happened in cases brought 23 years ago is irrelevant to current cases - at least with respect to release of Caven's address and employment terms, sought by defense lawyers.
A dozen local attorneys and more than 40 defendants disagree. They are demanding the cases be tossed.
"In 25 years of law, this is the clearest case of entrapment I've ever seen," said Newberg defense lawyer Griff Healy. "Frankly, I've known Mr. Berry for 20 years, and I consider him a friend. But somebody made a mistake."
Healy is representing 22-year-old Robert McMillan. The McMinnville native had a spotless record before being scooped up in the June sweep and being charged with the Class A felony of delivery of a controlled substance - less than half an ounce of marijuana.
According to an affidavit Healy filed on his client's behalf last week in circuit court, McMillan was approached at the Amity Chevron station where he was pumping gas for minimum wage.
Caven asked him if he was interested in a better-paying job, offered him a business card and application form, and then asked him to score a little weed, the affidavit alleges.
The next day, Caven began calling McMillan and pressing him about the marijuana. Over the following weeks, Caven hounded McMillan, calling him at least once a day and most days more than once.
"There came a point during the weeks of persistent phone calls where it became clear to me that, if I wanted to get the job, I would have to find marijuana for Caven," McMillan said in the affidavit.
So he did. But only because he really wanted the job, he said.
He said Caven kept calling afterward, but only to demand drugs, never to offer him a job with Evergreen Construction and Landscaping.
"Caven now demanded that I find him larger quantities of marijuana," he said in the affidavit. "It was now clear to me that he was not following through on the job with Evergreen and I told him 'No' and asked him to stop calling me."
Interviewed Saturday in Healy's office in Newberg, McMillan bowed his head as he told his story in the company of his dad. Healy said it was the first time in 25 years he had allowed a client with pending charges to talk to the media.
"I'm feeling in shock, like my life is over," McMillan said. "I'm afraid of what's going to happen. I want to buy a house, get a good job, work five days a week and live my life."
His chin quivered. He brushed tears from his eyes with the back of his hand.
"I'm at a point where I want to start applying myself and start a career," he said. "I'm a hardworking citizen. I have a good family background. I'm not one to do this kind of thing."
"We support our law enforcement, and we support our community, but this is wrong," said his father, Pete, a lifelong McMinnville resident working at Freelin-Wade. "When I heard what had happened, the first thing I thought was, 'I can't believe this isn't entrapment.'
"He would have never done anything like that. I know my kid."
Like many young people, McMillan was taking a break between high school and college, trying to identify a career path. That choice will all depend now on whether he ends up with a felony drug conviction, preventing him from taking out federally guaranteed school loans, hurting his chances of getting other college help and limiting his employment prospects.
But he has a seasoned defense attorney on his side - one who believes passionately in the cause he's taking on. "The job of law enforcement is to catch criminals, not create them," his lawyer said, making his point emphatically.
Healy plans a defense echoing that mounted more than 20 years ago in a Caven drug case taken to the state Court of Appeals in neighboring Washington. In that case, defense counsel argued, "The sting abridged his right to due process, because the scheme did not uncover criminal activity but instead instigated and created it."
That case began with Jack Pleasant, an unemployed construction worker with no history of drug involvement, answering a recruiting call from Evergreen Construction and Landscaping in the fall of 1981. When he turned in his application, Caven wrote "possible employment" on the cover, then asked Pleasant if he could score some pot.
Pleasant was one of 17 Tacoma residents swept up in like circumstances that fall.
He argued entrapment at trial, but lost. He argued entrapment again on appeal, but lost again.
"Though law enforcement techniques employed in Pleasant's particular case may be personally abhorrent, our guardianship of constitutional principles is not measured by personal distaste," the appellate justices said in their decision.
Two of the elements they cited, however, were Pleasant's quick agreement and his knowledge of the street price of marijuana. So Healy is hoping for better in McMillan's case.
Local attorney Greg Perez-Selsky is taking the same tack with another client caught up in the June sweep - a 19-year-old from Amity. Perez-Selsky allowed him to share sensitive personal information with the News-Register, in the presence of his mother, on condition he not be named in the story.
The young man maintained a straight-A record through middle school, then fell victim to depression and has been battling it ever since, his mother said.
He made it through three years of high school, but the effects of continuing depression and the medicine he took for it eventually forced him to give it up.
His mother said his condition worsened to the point where "he couldn't work, he couldn't drive." So she took a leave from her job and cared for him at home.
His doctor told him frequent walks would help. And they did - so much so he began talking about looking for a job again.
On one such walk in May, "The Mole" pulled up in a white sedan, asked him if he was interested in some high-paying work, and handed him a business card and application form. He said his name was John King.
"He told me he was new in town and asked if I needed a job," the young man said. "I was really excited about it.
"Then he asked me if I could do him a favor. I thought it would really help me get the job, so I called a friend."
Excited about the work coming his way, he carried the Evergreen business card with him everywhere. He told his family that King was a foreman looking for locals to help with a construction job, and he was paying $10.50 an hour.
The Amity youth boasted to his dad, who's in construction, that he would be making more to start than the old man had. He called his brother in California to relay the good news. He laid plans to buy some work boots, knowing he would be needing some sturdy ones.
"I was still waiting the day the cops arrested me," he said. "I thought he was a friendly guy. I thought he was a foreman."
But the man he knew as King was actually a professional drug informant. So instead of looking ahead to the start of a Class A job, he's now looking ahead to the start of a Class A felony trial on a charge of delivery of a controlled substance.
He'd been thinking of giving school another go, and perhaps going on to college. But if convicted, he would never be eligible for federally backed loans for college, and would also be closed out of a lot of other types of aid.
In that respect, the young Amity man follows in a lot of footsteps.
According to a 1982 cover story in Portland's Willamette Week, Caven got his start turning in high school classmates for money. That was back in 1973, when he would have been a junior.
Between 1973 and 1981, he found paying drug informant work for law enforcement agencies in Seattle, Olympia and Portland.
He had a series of theft and unauthorized use arrests during those years. It didn't seem to dim his prospects much, but something else did - a growing perception that he was unreliable.
Willamette Week said he failed to show up for one Clackamas County trial. And while he showed up for others, he kept having to admit in court that he had kept no notes or records.
If that weren't bad enough, he remembered faces well, but his recollection of events often proved hazy, the newspaper reported. It said he was not good on details.
A recent appearance in Yamhill County Circuit Court suggests that might still be a problem 23 years later. Caven was able to recall a person by sight, but not specify when and where they had met.
The breakthrough for "The Mole" came when he developed his employment ploy in 1981.
Two counties in Washington quickly took him up on a proposal built around the new approach. And it worked wonders in developing cases in which charges could be brought.
In Chelan County, 25 people were arrested after delivering small quantities of street drugs to Caven. In Yakima, 30 people were arrested.
Two suspects mounted entrapment defenses at trial, and a jury acquitted one of them. But the rest all signed off on plea agreements, so law enforcement viewed the Caven sting as a decided success.
Between October 1981 and January 1982, Caven swept through three Oregon counties - Douglas, Wasco and Umatilla - working his employment sting out of motel rooms.
But this time, it didn't go as planned.
Furious citizen opposition developed over Caven's tactics. When a television station discovered and detailed his criminal history, the uproar reached the tipping point and charges were dismissed in all three counties.
It was this foray that led to the subsequent Willamette Week expose, a lengthy and detailed piece authored by Paul Richert-Boe.
The saga began in Southern Oregon's Douglas County, where "The Mole" found paying work with both the sheriff's office and Sutherlin Police Department, producing 15 arrests.
Heading north to Wasco County, he first approached The Dalles Police Department, but it wasn't biting.
"He gave us some references, and we checked them," recalled then-officer Jay Waterbury, who has since become chief of police. "But based on what we learned, we decided not to become involved."
Waterbury said, "I'm surprised he's still around. You don't want to get involved with someone like that."
Undeterred, Caven walked across the street to the Wasco County Sheriff's Office. And there he found work.
For several days in early November 1981, Caven ran his sting out of The Portage Inn, according to newspaper archives in The Dalles.
With a severe recession sending unemployment soaring, more than 100 eager jobseekers answered the call, the newspaper reported. He was so successful with his cover, the paper said, that the local employment office actually began referring clients.
Sharon Ellis, a single mother of five, was one of the employment office referrals. Then working two full-time jobs at $3.75 per hour, she had just finished a welding class and saw skilled trade work in her future.
She jumped at the chance to make $9 an hour working for Evergreen Construction, even though it meant making a minor-league drug buy for Caven. But she ended up getting busted instead, along with five others.
In January, Caven moved on east to Umatilla County.
By then, citizen groups had sprung up in The Dalles and Sutherlin to protest his sting operation. But Hermiston police contracted with Caven anyway, and he developed up a dozen suspects for them in a week.
Investigation shows the crowning blow came when a Roseburg TV station discovered Caven's rap sheet and publicized it in a Feb. 15 news report.
Caven was convicted of theft in 1974, at the age of 20. He picked up two more theft convictions in 1976 and violated his probation on them three times in three years.
He was convicted of stealing cars in 1977 and 1978. He was also convicted of an unrelated theft charge in 1978.
These days, all of this is readily available through the Oregon Judicial Information Network. And all law enforcement agencies enjoy computerized access.
The day after the TV news report aired, Douglas County District Attorney Bill Lasswell dismissed 14 cases developed by Caven.
Lasswell told reporters Caven would not make a credible witness, given his criminal record. And while he felt Caven's operation stopped short of legally impermissible entrapment, he said a jury would likely be sympathetic toward unemployed workers in a slumping economy.
Lasswell had the Oregon State Police administer a polygraph exam to one of the suspects. It showed he was being truthful when he said he bought drugs for Caven because he needed a job.
Now meting out justice from the Douglas County bench, the then-prosecutor said his staff could better serve the community by focusing on more pressing matters on an overcrowded docket.
Over in Umatilla County, District Attorney Fred Bennett dismissed his cases when Caven failed to show for trial that same spring.
"This guy, from my standpoint, is not going to be an effective witness," Bennett told the East Oregonian newspaper, archives from 1982 show. And he said, "We feel this lack of cooperation is not going to be a temporary problem."
Bennett also is serving as a judge these days. He holds a circuit court seat in Lincoln County.
In Wasco County, District Attorney Bernard Smith dismissed both the cases still pending and the cases in which defendants had already pleaded guilty.
"It was a real brouhaha," Smith said in a phone interview conducted last week. "Law enforcement claimed they didn't know what was going on. When they talked to me, it really blew up."
The former DA, now serving on the Wasco County Circuit Court bench, recalled, "This was when The Dalles was in serious economic troubles. The aluminum plant had been shut down. There were a lot of unhappy people.
"Half the community was complaining about what law enforcement had done. I didn't know what we had gotten ourselves into."
By then, "The Mole" had already set off for California. Smith said Caven's next venture "stunk up" a county in the Napa Valley, so he was surprised to hear Caven was back on the job.
"In my mind," the judge said, "it's inappropriate to offer jobs in exchange for drugs. Unsavory stuff.
"Doesn't strike me as the ethical approach. If that's what he's doing, it wouldn't pass muster here."
Sandee Burbank, a leader in Mothers against Misuse and Abuse, spearheaded the Wasco County protest back in 1982.
As she recalls it, six people charged with delivering drugs in her county later filed individual lawsuits in U.S. District County, all reached settlements. She said 11 jobseekers who hadn't fallen for the scam filed a separate joint action of their own and settled out for court for $1,000 apiece.
The citizen uproar eventually reached the ears of Frohnmayer at the Attorney General's Office in Salem. In a letter published in The Dalles Weekly Reminder, the attorney general said:
"All Oregon residents are feeling acutely the effects of economic hardship. We recognize that in those circumstances the temptation to engage in wrongdoing may become very strong... It is doubtful whether any police agency in Oregon would now use the services of Mr. Caven under any circumstances."
During his early years in the informant business, Caven was hungry for media attention. But these days, he's decidedly less so.
Tracked to a tin-sided singlewide trailer he shares with his dog in Northeast Portland, he opened the door only wide enough to expose one eye, a balding scalp, scraggly strands of hair hanging down to his shoulders, sunken cheeks and an graying, unkempt beard.
He looks nothing like the man who once graced the cover of Portland's Willamette Week, boasting, "I can handle myself. I never hit anyone who might hurt me, just little people."
Over recent years, defense lawyers say they are aware of occasional informant work Caven has done in Multnomah, Washington, Tillamook and Lincoln counties.
If so, he's been maintaining a low profile. And he apparently wants to keep it that way, as he declined to be interviewed for this article.