On Monday, May 5, San Diego State University student Chad Frazier, Mesa College student James Shurr and their housemates spent the evening hanging out downstairs in their Alumni Place rental in the College Area, smoking weed, drinking beer and playing a little X-Box. It was Cinco de Mayo, but the five guys had projects due or exams coming up, and so they hit the hay early, a little after midnight. It was the week before finals, so a lot of SDSU students had similarly peaceful evenings, knowing that academic crunch time had arrived.
But for Frazier, Shurr and their housemates, the quiet drizzly dawn of May 6 was shattered by a Drug Enforcement Administration battering ram destroying their sliding glass door. Their home was swiftly invaded by squads of booted narcotics-law enforcers in helmets and bulletproof vests, armed with heavy rifles and accompanied by drug-sniffing German shepherds. Rounded up, cuffed and put on a bus, it was only when the five young men arrived at Cox Arena that they discovered they'd been a part of Operation Sudden Fall, a joint SDSU police and DEA sting designed to “disrupt the on-campus drug trade.”
The day was the high-water mark for the ongoing investigation that began with the overdose death of SDSU student Shirley Poliakoff on May 6, 2007. The SDSU police investigation into her death soon discovered what generations of students had always known: With a couple of phone calls and some cash, students could get just about any standard-issue party drug in no time flat. Police found that students often bought from other students, who in turn might have on- or off-campus suppliers.
Overwhelmed by the number of leads they uncovered, SDSU invited the DEA and the San Diego County District Attorney's office to get involved in the operation starting in December. They instituted a zero-tolerance drug policy that led to 41 arrests during the course of routine police patrols. Meanwhile undercover DEA agents were sussing out the sellers and suppliers of cocaine, marijuana and other drugs on campus. On the one-year anniversary of Poliakoff's death, the DEA made its move.
Within hours of the arrests, the District Attorney announced the capture of 96 individuals on drug charges, 75 of whom were students. The figure included the 41 routine drug stops, which led to a bizarre numbers tug-of-war in the press between the university and the DA. At a press conference, DA Bonnie Dumanis stood behind a table loaded down with marijuana, cocaine, three handguns, three brass knuckles and assorted other drugs and paraphernalia. They displayed a flow chart that showed the supply connections among 17 of those arrested, including seven students, four of whom were members of fraternities. A special page was dedicated to Kenneth Ciaccio, a Theta Chi member, on which he was the only individual named (Nicolas Ghosen was pictured on a photo labeled “look-out”), and no connections were made to any other dealers or suppliers.
The chart and the subsequent coverage of the arrests conveyed the impression that the DEA had uncovered a single huge drug ring, led and organized by Ciaccio and centered in six fraternities. The fraternities were swiftly suspended from social activities, the students suspended from classes. The affidavit for the search warrant that let police enter the houses where they made arrests added to the impression, saying agents had infiltrated the fraternities “and confirmed a hierarchy existed for the purpose of selling drugs for money.” Damon Mosler, the narcotics chief for the DA's office, told voiceofsandiego.org that he thought he might try to prosecute the fraternity members under anti-gang laws.
The reality, as it turns out, was a little different. Deputy District Attorney Shawn Tafreshi, who's overseeing the prosecution, said that many of the dealers worked on their own or in small teams of two or three rather than in a single highly organized operation. DA's office spokesperson Steve Walker said many of the relationships were more analogous to a business supply chain (like multiple accounting firms all buying their printer paper from Staples) than a grand mafia-like conspiracy. A week after the arrests, Mosler told voice that he doesn't have the evidence to prosecute any of the students under the anti-gang laws after all.
Because fraternities have been portrayed as being at the center of the drug trade, their members have consistently declined to speak with reporters, including CityBeat. But other students arrested that day did talk, though all but one would do so only if we withheld their names because their cases are still pending. Other students and neighbors interviewed for this story also generally declined to give their names to avoid association with what has become a stain on the reputation of SDSU and its students. Neither the DA nor the DEA would confirm the details of the operation because of the ongoing investigation. So far, the search-warrant affidavit and the defendants' arraignments are the only sources of public information—as such, the statements of fact are merely allegations.The raid on the Alumni Place home of Frazier and Shurr actually stemmed from an investigation into another SDSU student, Tarek El Hadidi, who lives on Ewing Street, a half-mile from Frazier. The white-stucco and red-brick single-family building is home to El Hadidi and three other young men. Its lawn, like others in the neighborhood, is unkempt and the driveway pavement cracked.
Amanda Mills, El Hadidi's next-door neighbor, acknowledges that the neighborhood is “a little shady.” Mills knew him and his housemates well, she said, and often spent time at their house. She said they were “super-nice guys” who would often come over to fix things in her house.
But in addition to being a handyman, police charge that El Hadidi, who is 21 with dark hair and a medium build, knew where and how to get cocaine. The search-warrant affidavit details the movements of undercover police officers and informants as they attempted to buy an eighth of an ounce of cocaine for $120. On April 17, 2007, after making arrangements by phone, the affidavit says, an undercover agent and an informant drove to the Ewing Street house.
The agents expected to meet with El Hadidi and Frazier, but they were late, and Frazier had returned home. El Hadidi offered to guide them to Alumni Place if they gave him a ride. When they arrived at Frazier's place, El Hadidi went into the house, came back out with Frazier and the coke and completed the sale. The agents even drove him back home.
On May 6, Mills, who typically rises early to get to class at Mesa College on time, was walking out to her car when she saw the results of the raid spread out all over the street.
“There were cop cars and cop SUVs and a white van,” she said. “They broke our fence, too.”
A source intimate with the details told CityBeat that agents used a battering ram for some 10 minutes on the metal-barred security gate that protects the front door. Eventually, one of the roommates opened the door and let them in. Agents stormed into the house. Soon, the four young men, some wearing only their boxer shorts, were stumbling, bleary-eyed into the drizzle.
“We weren't treated like everyone else is” for routine drug violations, said Kyle Knight, one of El Hadidi's housemates. “The officers seemed excited to have groups of kids in there and said, ‘Finally, some rich college kids getting caught for the things they do. Obviously they're not teaching you anything in college. Good thing, because you won't be going back there.' I felt like I wasn‘t in America. It was guilty until proven innocent.”
Both Knight and the other source said agents found nothing in the house, though DA records indicate Knight was arrested for possessing marijuana. Knight said he was arrested and held for three days for possession of a deadly weapon, which he says is a souvenir ninja star with its edges blunted.
“It's like comparing a butter knife to a samurai sword,” he said.
Mills said agents “trashed the house” looking for contraband. She said she helped clean the house with a fourth housemate who had not been in the house the morning of the raid.
Knight said his lawyer believes the charges will be dismissed because agents exceeded the limits of their warrant. El Hadidi was arrested for brokering the cocaine deal with Frazier. Knight said El Hadidi will likely claim agents entrapped him when his case goes to trial.Though students mostly populate the Alumni Place complex, it has a tidier air about it. Lawns are mowed, and at some houses, the shrubbery is maintained. Frazier and Shurr live in a gray clapboard ranch house. The minimal furniture is battered and worn. The tile and carpet may have never seen a mop or vacuum in their entire existence.
Upstairs, a large room is filled mostly with a ping-pong table, and the kitchen counters have seen their share of beer spills. The bedrooms are downstairs, along with a common area that has a big-screen TV, an Xbox 360, a couch and a dining-room table surrounded by an assortment of chairs. Near the table is the sliding glass door.
Frazier had moved into his basement bedroom at the start of the spring semester. A graduate of El Cajon High School, he's 6-foot-1 and wears a blond crew cut and a stubbly goatee on his long chin. According to his MySpace page, he's a racquetball player and all-around party-dude. Although sources who know him say he has a lot of friends and always seems to have a ready stash of weed and coke on hand, no one seemed to be aware that he was allegedly dealing.
Sources close to the situation said that at 6 a.m., agents came crashing through the glass door. There had been robberies recently on the street—neighbors had been robbed “at machete point by a Samoan gang” one source said—so Frazier, believing a break-in was in progress, awoke Shurr to intercept the burglars. Shurr, a short, speedy wide receiver for the Mesa football team with close-cropped hair and a goatee, grabbed a golf club.
Instead of robbers, they saw officers in full battle gear. They darted the other direction, through Frazier's room and into a side hallway, then through another bedroom to an alternate exit. They yanked open the door and came face-to-muzzle with an M-16 rifle and a German shepherd. They flung the door shut and turned to face their pursuers. The two men were forced to the ground, cuffed and frisked. Agents ordered them to wriggle on their bellies back down the hallway to the common area, where both were hauled to their feet and pushed up the stairs to the main living room. The sources said that in the fracas, an agent stepped on Shurr's hand and broke his pinky, and agents may have broken the wrist of another housemate.
The shattering of glass awoke the other roommates, who lived in bedrooms off another hallway in the same basement. One emerged from his room carrying his prized electric guitar; the other stepped out wearing only his boxer shorts. Agents grabbed both men and forced them to the ground. Sources allege that agents picked on one of them particularly, kicking him in the head several times while he was on the ground. He tried to speak to his other roommate, sources said, but each time received a kick and the order to “Be quiet, young 'un! Be quiet, scumbag!”
“‘Scumbag' seemed to be the word of the day,” one source said. “Everything was ‘scumbag' or ‘dirtbag.'”
One of the arrestees asked to get some clothing but was told, “Sure you can get some clothes, scumbag” and then forced upstairs in his underwear.
DEA spokesperson Mark Pothier would not comment on specific allegations of rough behavior. However, he said, “they were executing a no-knock narcotics search warrant. Everything had to be done quickly for safety.”
The housemates were marched upstairs to the living room and ordered to lie on the floor. Then one by one, they were marched back downstairs where, the sources say, each was questioned. One of the roommates later told CityBeat's sources that he believes the agents were trying to put words into his mouth. The roommate told the source that agents had said, “You know what's going on here—just tell us. You know, scumbag!” The source also said Shurr, who has a juvenile record and has dealt with the police before, denied that any of the drugs found in the house were his and asserted his right to remain silent. The sources also alleged that Miranda rights were read only after the interviews.
The five men were allowed to dress before they were walked to a van where they were driven to Cox Arena to be processed. It was only there that the full scope of the investigation became clear to them. Three of the roommates were cited for drug possession before they were released. Shurr and Frazier were shipped to the county jail to await their fates on charges of possession. Only Frazier and Shurr, among the five housemates, were arraigned in open court. A source said Shurr's lawyer told him to expect his charges to be dismissed for lack of evidence.
The only one of the five housemates to appear on the DA's chart or in the search-warrant affidavit is Frazier. He's alleged to have gotten his drugs from Phi Kappa Psi member Michael Montoya, whose name does not appear in the affidavit. The chart provided by the DA alleges that Montoya also supplied drugs to SDSU students and fraternity members Thomas Watanapun (Delta Sigma Pi), Nicholas de la Cruz (Phi Kappa Psi) and Clynton Parsons (Phi Kappa Psi). The affidavit also says agents had a confidential source who told them that several Phi Kappa Psi members were involved with the sale of drugs. The affidavit details agents' two purchases of a half-ounce of cocaine, each time for $420 from Parsons, who seems to have worked out of his apartment on Fraternity Row.
In a separate purchase, the affidavit says, agents met De la Cruz in front of Cox arena, where the SDSU Aztecs play their home basketball games. He got in the car and had them drive into a nearby parking structure, where they allegedly met Watanapun, who was driving a 1995 Lexus registered to his parents. De la Cruz retrieved the cocaine from Watanapun, completed the sale for $400, and gave the money to Watanapun. After De la Cruz left, agents followed Watanapun to Washington Mutual, where they later determined he deposited $400 into a bank account. They tried to follow him from the bank, but he unwittingly shook his pursuers with an illegal u-turn on El Cajon Boulevard. Kenny Ciaccio, a member of Theta Chi, has been portrayed as the mastermind of the operation. Ciaccio's friends, who showed up for his arraignment hearing, told CityBeat he'd been an excellent student at Otay Ranch High School, making the honor roll and playing on the football team. He enrolled at SDSU on a scholarship for underprivileged students, they said. As recently as January 2008, Ciaccio and some of his friends from high school took a trip to Rosarito for a party weekend.
“There were some kids with coke and stuff, but we didn't go near it. Kenny said he didn't go near that stuff,” said Jeffery Harris, 19, one of Ciaccio's friends.
But then in March, Ciaccio told Harris he'd actually started selling drugs on the side to make some extra cash. Harris said Ciaccio never displayed any unusual wealth—he was just looking to earn some spending money. It was easier work than Ciaccio's summer job, driving a delivery truck for Coors.
“He said that the other kids wanted to party, and he just helped them out,” Harris said. “But he wasn't this kingpin, just because he sent some stupid text messages.”
The affidavit says an undercover source purchased cocaine from Ciaccio in his Theta Chi room several times. On April 16, agents bought a quarter-ounce of coke from him in the alley behind the Theta Chi house on Lindo Paseo. At the time, Ciaccio told them he could get a quarter-pound of cocaine for $2,300, if they wanted. Agents have a picture of Ciaccio's lookout at the seen, alleged to be SDSU student Nicolas Ghosen, who would later be arrested. Tafreshi said at Ghosen's arraignment that when agents executed the search warrant on the Theta Chi house on May 6, they found another associate of Ciaccio's, Francisco Enage, who told them he had marijuana in a shed behind the house. It was there that agents found scales, razors, baggies, a black box filled with marijuana, baggies with marijuana residue, and a .22-caliber handgun loaded with shotgun shells. They also found a hand-written letter from Ghosen to Ciaccio proposing that the baby-faced Ghosen become his muscle, as well as manage the accounts of the operation, in exchange for a 10-percent cut of the proceeds. But while the DA alleges that Ciaccio had his Theta Chi operation, and Montoya supplied Frazier and Watanapun, Terrence Blackman appears to be a small-time dealer caught in a big net. In the search warrant, the DEA alleges that Blackman sold marijuana to undercover agents on two occasions on 55th Street in front of the Scott Plaza@Albert's College Apartments. The blue-painted apartments surround a large central courtyard, with staircases at intervals to get to the second-story balcony, and a swimming pool in the center. Blackman's room opened to the staircase, which bottomed out in front of the door to the room of SDSU freshman Hanna (she declined to give her last name). She knew he sold drugs, but she figured he was strictly small-time.
“He was only doing it so he could smoke, you know?” she told CityBeat.
Indeed, in the affidavit, agents describe their attempts to buy ecstasy from Blackman but detail his problems with his connection because, he told the agents, the connection had been stealing pot. During that phone call, Blackman had allegedly told the agents he and his friends were tripping on acid at that moment. Undeterred, agents asked if he could get them acid. He said he'd try.
When the agents came for Blackman, no one seems to have heard or seen much that was unusual. Hanna said she heard a scream but didn't think anything of it and went back to sleep. By the time she arose later that morning, she learned about the arrest from news reports.
Blackman spoke to Hanna after he'd been released on bail. He told her he was on his way to a straight-A semester when the arrest went down but that now he expected he'd lose all his credits. Hanna wasn't worried for him.
“He's a really talented musician. He'll do well in L.A. or somewhere,” she said. Blackman, like all of those arrested that day, is still awaiting the adjudication of his trial. Operation Sudden Fall continues, and the number of arrests has risen to 125. The university has begun a publicity campaign to clean its tarnished image, including radio spots in which local notables declare that they are still proud to have attended SDSU. By now, most of the students from San Diego State have cleared their rooms to go home or move to summer quarters.
For those arrested, May 6 was the beginning.
“Every day since the incident, I've had nightmares,” said one defendant. “Complete red all around, nightmares of me trying to rat people out.”
Some of the defendants, now out on bail, believe that they're still being watched by law enforcement. They say that certain cars drive slowly past their houses or apartments, often several times. One defendant described seeing someone outside his window. The man jumped up, pretended to be on his cell phone and then walked to a van the defendant said had “Department of Defense” on its side.
Other defendants say the DEA stole things from their homes: a digital camera, an iPod.
“I called them, and they said, ‘Oh, houses are often robbed after raids,'” said one defendant. “I say B.S. Wouldn't they have taken the Xbox 360 and the big TV and the other cameras in the house?”
They also find that people on campus treat them differently, now that their pictures have been broadcast and printed all over the country.
“That's what happened the first day, at In-N-Out,” said a defendant. “We sat next to an old couple and a woman and her son. Both stood up and left. Nobody sits next to us.”
San Diego is ruined for some of the individuals CityBeat talked to, and they plan to return home. Others hope to return after a summer away from the area, perhaps to complete their educations.
The university has already begun holding academic hearings to decide how to handle credits for the semester and to decide whether the students have any sort of future at the school.
One defendant already had his hearing. He said he thought it went “OK.” He said he explained to administrators that he had a prescription for cannabis but ended up arguing with them about the distinctions between federal law, which forbids all marijuana, and California's which permits medicinal use.
But he also pointed out to the administrator that the arrests hadn't made a dent on the drug trade on campus. “He said, ‘Now if anybody wants to go out and buy something, they'll know we're watching them,'” the defendant said.
If the goal of all this was to make SDSU students think twice about doing drugs, it's not clear they succeeded. Many of the students interviewed by CityBeat agreed with Hanna: “I could get anything you want in about an hour.”