In 1989, after nearly three years of working undercover in the shadowy world of junkies and drug dealers, Chula Vista Police Officer George Hart found himself in the middle of a drug cop's darkest nightmare: He was addicted to rock cocaine.
For Hart, a 16-year police veteran, the addiction was insatiable. Another narcotics officer said Hart routinely carried a glass pipe and up to 50 screen filters, which were used to hold a lighted "rock," and smoked crack while on duty.
At the time, Hart was assigned to the Narcotics Task Force, a group of drug officers from local police departments organized in teams supervised by federal Drug Enforcement Administration agents--in the South Bay and San Diego.
There were times when Hart would arrest people for selling or using drugs, and then go off somewhere to enjoy a "hit" of rock cocaine. But the 15- to 30-minute high he enjoyed could not erase the images of the junkies or dealers he had arrested.
"I would see their faces and say, 'Those are the people I arrest.' But then I would have to look again and say, 'That's also you looking at you,' " Hart said in a recent interview.
Through sheer determination and willpower, Hart eventually beat his drug habit in 1990, but at a heavy price.
Hart, 46, said the combination of stress and cocaine caused irreparable damage to his heart. In May, 1991, following quadruple-bypass heart surgery, Hart retired. He is now under consideration for a heart transplant.
And, after his retirement, Hart thought that his drug problems were behind him.
However, on May 21 of this year the San Diego County Grand Jury indicted him on eight felony counts ranging from grand theft to forgery. The charges stem from alleged illegal activities that occurred in 1989. Among the charges was an allegation that Hart stole two AK-47 assault rifles, which were later found to be in police custody, that were seized from a drug dealer.
But the most serious charge against Hart was the allegation that he stole 3 1/2 pounds of cocaine while he was a member of the NTF. The drug, which was valued at $100,000 at the time, has never been recovered. Hart denied stealing the cocaine and the other charges against him.
In some ways, his life and career have come down to questions. Like how, after more than a decade of what even prosecutors acknowledged was a distinguished law enforcement career, did he turn into what some have called a dirty cop?
According to Hart, it was a combination of stress, a feeling of being unappreciated and underpaid by his department, and a brush with death in 1989 that led him to a dependency on rock cocaine.
"I was working undercover and went into a house near Market Street (in San Diego) to buy some crack from two guys. I was alone, no gun, no radio, and my partner was outside. The crooks had guns. The informant introduced me to them. One crook's saying, 'He's a cop.' The other's saying, 'No, he's not. I've sold to him before,' " Hart said.
According to Hart, the suspicious drug dealer remained convinced that he was a police officer.
"He says, 'Then let's see you smoke some crack with us. You wanna buy it. You're a user, use it.' "
When he begged off, concocting a story that he was on probation, the drug dealer pointed a .38-caliber handgun at him and threatened to shoot, Hart said.
"He gets down before me, cocks the gun and says, 'Either you smoke it, or you're gonna die.' I had nobody else inside with me. . . . So, I did smoke some rock cocaine. Bang! Instant addiction! I went back and dealt with these guys a couple of more times again, same type of thing, smoking crack," Hart said.
Law enforcement officials said that, in a life-or-death situation, when an undercover officer needs to use drugs to maintain his cover, a drug officer is authorized to use drugs. But an officer also is instructed to inform his superiors whenever circumstances force him to use drugs in an investigation.
Hart said he never told anybody he smoked crack the first time because, "I didn't want the police to know that I was smoking rock cocaine."
Skinny and with a look of gullibility, Hart was the perfect undercover cop. His gaunt appearance and the numerous gold chains and rings that he favored made it easy for Hart to blend in with the world of junkies.
In fact, Hart was so dedicated to playing his undercover role that he would use a lead pencil to draw lines on his arms to simulate needle tracks. Several officers who knew Hart or worked with him said he immersed himself in narcotics work, often toiling 60 or 70 hours a week in dangerous drug assignments, while rarely getting paid for more than 40.
"After a while I did notice that his behavior had changed. But I just attributed it to his job," said Diane Bradt, Hart's girlfriend of many years. "He was a workaholic, completely dedicated to the Police Department. If he was off, and they needed somebody, he never hesitated to go in and work."