Did Cops Frame an Innocent Couple?

Informant admits using impostors for drug deals

Knoxville News Sentinel USA TODAY NETWORK – TENNESSEE

TRACY CITY – Tina Prater walked into the police station with a reputation as a drug addict and a con artist.

She walked out with a tape recorder, some cash and a mission: Help the police chief arrest anyone whose name made it onto their list.

Prater, 47, has admitted in a sworn affidavit that she framed people while working as a confidential informant for the Tracy City Police Department in 2017. She recruited impostors to act as other people, recorded audio of purported drug deals and turned the tapes over to Chief Charlie Wilder, who oversees just four officers in one of Tennessee’s poorest and most drug-addicted counties.

Prater swore Wilder told her who to frame and how to do it. Wilder has vehemently denied this, painting Prater as an informant who went rogue without his knowledge.

Over a five-month span in 2017, Wilder and his assistant chief, A.J. Cunningham, sent Prater out again and again into the community they are tasked with protecting. By their own admission, the two officers did not follow her, listen in on her dealings, independently identify the people she met with, inspect the pills she collected or take steps to verify anything she said.

Instead, all the officers did was testify before a grand jury. On Aug. 8, 2017, law enforcement agencies fanned out across the region and arrested 29 people. The local newspaper splashed their mugshots across the front page, and Grundy County Sheriff Clint Shrum cited the roundup as a notch in his belt during his reelection campaign.

But some of those cases were bogus. Investigators reviewing recordings of supposed pill deals found two defendants sounded like the same person and one defendant sounded like two. Prosecutors eventually dropped charges against at least 18 people accused of selling drugs to Prater – but not before two pleaded guilty.

Jeremiah and Clarissa Myers proclaimed their innocence from the beginning and had their charges dropped, then expunged. The couple didn’t know Prater. Their voices weren’t on the tapes. The drugs they stood accused of dealing weren’t even controlled substances.

The Myerses fought back by filing a federal lawsuit against Wilder, Cunningham and Tracy City itself, accusing the officers of malicious prosecution by orchestrating a frame job that ruined their reputations. They are seeking unspecified damages. The couple declined to be interviewed by Knox News, citing advice from their attorney. Wilder similarly declined to comment, while Cunningham did not respond. But a review of hundreds of pages of court records in the ongoing lawsuit sheds light on the way the Myerses landed behind bars and highlights long-leveled criticisms surrounding police use of confidential informants.

Cooking meth and burning bodies

Wilder and Prater have known each other for more than two decades.

The future police chief first met his future informant while working as an investigator for the Cannon County Sheriff’s Office in Woodbury, a Middle Tennessee town of about 2,800 that sits some 20 miles east of Murfreesboro. In 1998, Wilder’s agency arrested Prater’s then-husband, Royce, on a charge of first-degree murder.

“I came to know her through an investigation on the guy she was married to at that time, which was a Prater, where he and another individual were in a camper trailer cooking meth,” Wilder testified in a deposition in the Myerses’ lawsuit. “The guy dies from exposure to the chemicals. Royce then drags him out in the yard, ties an extension cord around his leg, hooks him to a riding lawn mower, pulls him behind a – the camper, and sets him on fire.”

Wilder said Tina Prater wasn’t implicated in that case, and that she went on to give him tips about other investigations he conducted in Cannon County. But, he said, he never had her buy drugs as a confidential informant there.

Years later, the pair had an opportunity to reconnect when Wilder moved to Tracy City, population 1,400, to work as a patrolman in 2011. Prater had family there and was back in town, so it didn’t take long for the two to run into each other.

In Wilder’s telling, he first saw Prater again when she came into the police station one night to complain about a boyfriend. On another occasion, she came in “just to chitchat.” Then, one day in December 2016 or January 2017, Wilder testified, “she just walks in ... and, you know, kind of self-confesses to, you know, I’ve had issues, I’ve had car wrecks, I’ve had this, my family’s, you know, going to end up dead. I want to do something about this. I can buy drugs for you all.”

By that point, Prater was a felon and an addict who had racked up half a dozen convictions for writing worthless checks. She had been convicted of stealing from a dentist office and attempting to pass a forged prescription, and she was still on probation for smuggling morphine into the local jail.

Wilder had a criminal history, too, having pleaded guilty in the early 1990s to misdemeanor charges of driving under the influence and theft in Rutherford County. “I had purchased a horse,” he said in his deposition. “Horse turned out to be stolen.”

Wilder’s past brushes with the law didn’t stop him from taking over as Tracy City’s police chief in 2014. He filled the revolving door of a position after his predecessor, Tony Bean, took a job as chief deputy of the Grundy County Sheriff’s Office. Bean and his son, a sergeant at the same agency, now are under federal indictment, accused of routinely assaulting handcuffed people and calling it “the Grundy County way.”

At the police station, Wilder, Prater and Cunningham, a novice officer hired by Wilder, came up with a list of names. The officers swore Wilder didn’t come up with the names himself and only wrote them down as Prater rattled off who she could buy drugs from. The meeting, it seems, was not recorded.

On Jan. 11, 2017, Prater signed an agreement to work as a confidential informant for the Tracy City Police Department.

‘Get the dope’

Law enforcement agencies across the country regularly use confidential informants to wage war on drug trafficking in their communities. People with no relevant training or experience can agree to help police nab unsuspecting drug dealers in exchange for leniency in sentencing, immunity from prosecution or other benefits – like cash.

Some informants provide investigators with tips, while others take on more dangerous roles, wearing wires to set up dealers or accompanying undercover officers to drug buys.

Police rely on informants because they are cheap and easy to use, said Alexandra Natapoff, a law professor at the University of California in Irvine and the author of the book, “Snitching: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice.” The practice is opaque, she added, and has little oversight.

“There are very few rules constraining the deals that police can make with criminal informants, including how many people to go after, what kind of people to go after and how much they’re going to get paid or other ways that they’re going to be rewarded,” Natapoff said. “The foundation of the institution of informant use is that it is deeply unregulated.”

Indeed, Wilder testified he had no written policies or formal training on the use of confidential informants. He said he learned everything he knew from a former Cannon County sheriff. Cunningham, in turn, learned everything he knew from Wilder.

When first asked during his deposition about the police department’s procedures for using a confidential informant, Wilder said, “Record them. Pay them. Get the dope.”

The police chief went on to explain that for each drug buy, either he or Cunningham would meet with Prater, search her to make sure she didn’t already have drugs on her, give her money to buy pills and send her out with a digital tape recorder. The officers said they followed Prater only once because their department can’t afford an unmarked car, and that they never monitored the deals remotely because their tape recorder can’t transmit audio.

Wilder and Cunningham did not independently identify the people Prater met. Instead, the officers testified Prater would tell them who she was going to buy drugs from. They would then print off that person’s driver’s license photo, and she would confirm the identity of the target from that picture.

“And it was really just that simple and that quick,” Wilder testified. “She would contact us, say, ‘Hey, you know, A is here. I can go buy pills.’ We’d meet up, we’d give her money, do her thing, she’d go buy pills, come back.

Prater would hand over the tape recorder along with the pills she claimed to have bought, and the officers would pay her $30 to $40 per transaction. “I remember, you know, 10 minutes work and $40, that’s pretty good money,” Cunningham said.

Wilder and Cunningham gave conflicting statements about the extent to which they listened to the recordings Prater made. The chief also said he didn’t bother looking up pill markings on the internet to confirm whether the drugs Prater handed over were controlled substances. The younger officer apparently didn’t either.

Many of the pills looked like “they’d been in your pocket for a couple of days,” Wilder testified. “The stampings were where you couldn’t read them anymore.” Police suspected someone in the area had been using a pill press to manufacture counterfeit pills around that time, he added, so just “because it said it was an apple, it really could be an orange.” A dealer seeking to profit off a pill press, however, typically will make bogus drugs look like desirable ones – not the other way around.

In an affidavit, Wilder identified 20 people targeted by Prater in 38 transactions from Jan. 11 to June 19, 2017. Some of those people were on the initial list of targets. Some weren’t. Most, if not all, of the pills were sent off to the state crime lab in Nashville to be tested. The results had not yet come back when Wilder and Cunningham filled out indictment applications and testified before a Grundy County grand jury.

There is no definitive record of what the officers said before the grand jury because the proceedings weren’t recorded. But Prater didn’t testify. The tapes she made weren’t played. Authorities had no recorded phone calls or text messages showing her setting up drug buys. The grand jury, it seems, heard mainly the words of Wilder and Cunningham. And the prosecutor, 12th Judicial District Assistant District Attorney David McGovern, said in a deposition he didn’t try to corroborate the officers’ testimony.

On July 11, 2017, the grand jury returned indictments charging at least 20 people, according to court records. Each defendant was hit with two, four, six or eight counts of drug dealing. The majority were accused of selling the pain pills hydrocodone and oxycodone, others of peddling such drugs as methamphetamine, ecstasy and Xanax.

All faced felonies on their records and years behind bars – including Clarissa and Jeremiah Myers.

10,000 missing pills

Tracy City has two stop lights and one drug store: Mike’s Pharmacy on Main Street.

Clarissa Myers, nicknamed Candy, worked there as a pharmacy technician off and on for about 17 years. Her husband, Jeremiah, owned a local tire shop and drove a truck on the side. As a result, the couple were well-known in the area.

One day before the grand jury returned the indictments, agents with the federal Drug Enforcement Administration descended on Mike’s Pharmacy. The store, with its eight employees, had ranked fifth for oxycodone purchases and 18th for morphine purchases in Tennessee the year before, according to DEA records obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.

The agents conducted an inspection that revealed the pharmacy had lost track of more than 10,000 pain pills at a time when the opioid crisis ravaging the region continued to worsen. Owner Mike Yarworth couldn’t account for the missing drugs, and no recent thefts had been reported, records show. One former employee claimed an unnamed coworker had been caught on video stealing drugs from the pharmacy, but said the video had been destroyed. Yarworth didn’t return a request for comment.

Gossip spread quickly through the small town. Wilder later said in his deposition he heard “some rumors, you know, just floating around the street” that Candy was suspected of stealing pills from the pharmacy. The police chief couldn’t explain where those rumors came from and insisted he “didn’t take no stock in that.”

On Aug. 8, 2017, about a month after the inspection, Candy returned to the pharmacy after a break from work to find police cruisers waiting for her.

The 34-year-old had no prior criminal history in Tennessee, and she cried as officers arrested her in the parking lot and took her to jail. Her husband, who was out of state, learned he was wanted, too, and rushed back to Grundy County to turn himself in.

Candy lost her job. It wasn’t until later that she and her husband learned they had been indicted, accused not of stealing pills but of dealing them.

‘That’s not the same person’ Barry Parker wanted to give the police the benefit of the doubt.

That became harder and harder to do, he said, as the questions kept piling up.

“At the very least, the police department was just grossly negligent and ignorant of how to do their job,” said Parker, a former narcotics officer who worked in the area for a dozen years. “At most, they were out to get certain people and do something to them.”

Parker began looking into the Myerses’ case after one of their lawyers hired him as an investigator. He almost immediately found problems.

Jeremiah Myers, for example, had a solid alibi. He said he was in South Carolina, delivering generators to a military base, at the time police claimed he sold pills to Prater in Grundy County. A sergeant at the base confirmed his account, Parker said.

Police claimed Prater captured Candy Myers dealing drugs on three recordings. “The voices were so different,” Parker said, “that I just kept thinking, ‘If this one voice is Candy then on this next buy, that’s not the same person.’ ” The Myerses contend certain details in the recordings should have tipped off Wilder and Cunningham, who knew the couple, that it wasn’t them.

On one recording, reviewed by Knox News, Prater asks for five hydrocodone pills and counts out $45 before asking the other woman if she needed a ride back to her trailer. Candy didn’t live in a trailer. On another recording, Prater greets a woman by saying, “Hey Candy girl ... you still got those five hydros you called me about?” before asking which pain clinic Jeremiah visited. Jeremiah didn’t go to a pain clinic.

On a third recording, Prater purports to buy drugs from a woman who seems to speak as little as possible. Prater asks if the woman’s “old man” can get her a

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