Innocent man shot in drug raid gets U.S. apology

March 03, 1994|By Los Angeles Times

SAN DIEGO -- Federal authorities have made a rare public apology to an innocent man who was shot and seriously wounded when heavily armed agents stormed his house in a midnight drug raid 18 months ago.

U.S. Attorney Alan D. Bersin said yesterday the government admits liability and intends to pay monetary damages to Donald Carlson, who has filed a $20 million lawsuit against agents of the U.S. Customs Service, Drug Enforcement Administration and other federal and local forces.

"We were deceived by our informant and must accept responsibility for that fact," Mr. Bersin said.

Mr. Carlson, 41, a computer company executive with no criminal record, awoke about midnight Aug. 26, 1992, to the sound of violent pounding on his front door, according to his suit. After trying to telephone police and yelling at the intruders to identify themselves, without response, he grabbed a pistol and fired two shots. The agents knocked down the door with a battering ram, hurled an explosive device and shot him three times -- twice after he had dropped the gun and lay helpless on his bedroom floor, according to the suit.

Mr. Carlson was seriously wounded. He incurred lasting damage to his respiratory system, arm and shoulder, his lawyer said. An agent received a superficial leg wound.

No drugs were found. Mr. Carlson was the victim of a false tip from an informant, who told wild tales about heavily armed South American traffickers using Mr. Carlson's home in suburban Poway as a cocaine warehouse, authorities say. The informant was charged in January with lying to agents.

"The tragedy for everyone involved is that although everyone acted in good faith, Mr. Carlson was still severely injured," Mr. Bersin said. "Law enforcement investigations are designed to be conducted in as fail-safe a manner as possible. However, in the case of the Carlson shooting, the system did fail."

Citing a judge's order, authorities did not disclose the results of three internal investigations into the case involving Operation Alliance, a multiagency narcotics unit at the U.S.-Mexico border. The incident forced federal drug-fighters here to toughen rules on using confidential informants.

The Customs agents named in the lawsuit have not been disciplined, said John Kelley, special agent-in-charge for Customs, although he declined comment on the status of the internal investigation. Officials said they hope to discuss a settlement with Mr. Carlson, but they did not specify a dollar amount.

The response from Mr. Carlson's attorney was brief.

"I can say we agree with one thing: The government is liable," said the lawyer, R.J. Coughlan Jr. "Beyond that, whether we agree or disagree will be based on conversations with Mr. Carlson and full evaluation of what they are saying."

The lawsuit paints a nightmarish picture, accusing three Customs agents, a federal prosecutor and other officials of acting on uncorroborated information, ignoring warnings about the informant's credibility and conspiring to cover-up misconduct. The defendants allegedly "misused the search warrant process . . . to bolster their own reputations and careers" and "advance the war on drugs," according to the suit.

Federal officials say they determined that the informant, Ronnie Edmonds, had falsely implicated several others people, including a San Diego County law enforcement officer, in a cocaine ring that did not exist.

It was the first time the government has accepted liability in such a case in the San Diego area and one of few similar cases nationwide, officials said. "You don't typically admit liability when people are shot and the damage is in very large amounts," an official said. "It is extremely rare."

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