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Nightmare of Shots in the Dark : Law Enforcement: Poway business executive speaks for the first time about the botched drug raid that left him seriously wounded.

December 12, 1992|ALAN ABRAHAMSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was shortly after midnight on a still summer night when a loud knock sounded on Donald Carlson's front door, echoing through his dark, quiet house.

The Poway business executive had been asleep. He threw on some shorts, picked his way to the front hallway and yelled: "Who's there?"

There was no answer. He returned to his bedroom, grabbed his gun, and cautiously made his way back to the hallway. He yelled again: "Who's there?" Suddenly, the den windows blew open. At the same time, another explosion ripped at the house. There was gunfire, and a bullet tore into Carlson's right leg. He recoiled from the hot, stinging pain.

Carlson fired at the front door. He staggered back to his bedroom. There was a dizzying commotion and more pain, from his right arm, his shoulder, his back. He was handcuffed and shackled. Bleeding, he lay still on the beige carpet, still not knowing who was in his house, or why.

"All I remember," Carlson said Friday, "is the feeling that I wanted to die."

In the hospital, weeks later, barely alive, Carlson learned he had been shot by U.S. drug agents, acting on an informant's bad tip that there was cocaine in his house. In his first interviews since being shot Aug. 26, Carlson said Friday that "the incident" still seems "surreal." But, he said, he hopes his "personal hell can be a catalyst to change."

Last week, Carlson's attorney filed $20-million claims against the U.S. Customs Service, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and San Diego County. The claims, precursors to a lawsuit, allege that the botched raid violated Carlson's constitutional rights and state and federal laws.

Acting on the bad tip, agents broke into Carlson's home and shot him three times, wounding his leg, arm, shoulder and a lung. Carlson's return fire grazed a Customs agent.

Carlson was never charged in the raid and no drugs were found. A federal grand jury has been looking into allegations that agents relied on the word of a highly suspect informant in carrying out the Aug. 26 raid, and in two other unsuccessful searches.

The informant, known only as Ron, has told Carlson's attorney, San Diego lawyer Raymond J. (Jerry) Coughlan Jr., that he never positively identified any house and was surprised to learn that agents had carried out the raid.

In previous public statements, U.S. Atty. William Braniff has said the grand jury investigation focuses on "drug violations" and on "false statements (made) to the government," suggesting that it is the informant--not the agents--who are under scrutiny.

Braniff said Friday "the matter was still under review" but expects to "have it resolved within a month."

Agents' justification for the search warrant that led to the raid is detailed in a court affidavit, but a U.S. magistrate has kept it sealed. The grand jury operates in secret, so the government's version of what happened at Carlson's house has also not been made public.

Coughlan said Friday he had recently been told, but had not confirmed, that local law enforcement officials had warned federal agents moments before the raid at Carlson's house that "this was a mistake."

Braniff declined Friday to comment on that assertion. San Diego County Sheriff's Department officials could not be reached for comment.

For months, Carlson had declined all media requests for an interview. But, with Coughlan present, he agreed Friday to meet separately with two San Diego-based newspaper reporters and then conducted a press conference for television crews.

Carlson remained impassive Friday in recounting the raid. In fact, he said, some details are hazy because he has disconnected himself emotionally from the experience.

"It's almost like part of me leaves my body," he said. "It's almost an out-of-body experience to communicate about these events."

But, he said, he feels an "obligation" to talk about the raid. "This story needs to be told. But understand: I had never searched for fame or notoriety my whole life. And I would never have chosen this means of obtaining it."

Raised in a small town in Iowa, Carlson came to San Diego in the late '60s with the Navy. He stayed in town after leaving the service and went to San Diego State University, ultimately earning a master's degree in business.

For 11 years, Carlson has been working his way up the corporate ladder at the Poway office of Anacomp Inc., an Indianapolis-based micrographics firm. For the past seven years, he has been assistant vice president of finance and administration for the Fortune 500 company, regularly turning in 60-hour work weeks.

"I'm a workaholic, with few outside interests," he said. "I think of myself as very normal. My friends feel I'm very conservative, politically, economically, my lifestyle."

On the night of Aug. 25, he and a business associate--whom he declined Friday to identify--had a late dinner. Then Carlson went home and straight to sleep. Married twice but separated from his second wife, he was alone in the house.

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