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WESTSIDE / COVER STORY : OUT IN THE COLD : Informant Battles Drug World--and the Police Agencies He Has Helped

June 29, 1995|RON RUSSELL

Mike Kelley is sitting at the counter in a Westside coffee shop, trying not to give himself away as an undercover police informant.

It would seem a tall order for someone wearing Ray-Bans and a Hawaiian shirt. But he knows his stuff.

"Don't mention the location, OK?," he whispers once the waitress is out of earshot. Never mind that the restaurant is half empty and there isn't a threatening soul in sight. "If certain people were to know I come here," Kelley explains, "I could get smoked."

In a dozen years as a free-lance crime fighter--much of it spent living out of a van that he constantly moves for fear of being tracked down by drug pushers he has helped put behind bars--Kelley, 42, has been shot at, assaulted, chased and threatened.

The eccentric inventor, surfer and sometimes pizza deliveryman is a paradox in the seamy world of police informants.

Unlike criminal snitches who spy for the cops in hopes of cutting deals with prosecutors, he isn't looking for favors and doesn't consider himself guilty of anything, except for maybe watching too many TV detective shows.

Once busted for possessing enough marijuana to make a joint (he claims he was trying to impress a drug dealer he was casing; the offense was later expunged from his record), Kelley is a self-proclaimed crusader in the war on drugs. He has long had supporters within law enforcement circles, and--especially since suing two agencies he once worked for--he also has detractors.

"He's unpredictable at times, but he's motivated by what he believes is right, which makes him rare in the world of informants," says Mike Gorewicz, an investigator with the California Department of Justice who has known Kelley since 1982.

Another longtime acquaintance, Los Angeles County Sheriff's homicide Detective Mike Crowley, says Kelley "is trying, in his own way, to assist law enforcement. . . . His motivation is to make the streets safer and keep kids off dope."

Others view him differently.

"The guy is a few grams shy of a kilo," said a federal Drug Enforcement Administration officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity. DEA spokesman Ralph Lochridge would neither confirm nor deny that Kelley had ever worked for the agency.

Kelley sees himself as a man with a mission, a citizen soldier in the nation's drug war.

But having spent years lending a hand to federal, state and local law enforcement, he is now at odds with some of the very law enforcement personnel whose favor he once cultivated. In a line of work where participants do not usually turn on their handlers, and almost never make public pronouncements about their activities, he has done both.

Kelley has accused the Santa Monica Police Department and the DEA of cheating him out of rewards he says he is due for work in several drug busts. Both agencies deny this.

A federal judge dismissed Kelley's claim against the DEA in February on technical grounds. A Santa Monica Superior Court judge has scheduled a trial for Oct. 16 in his lawsuit involving the Police Department.

Kelley contends that Santa Monica narcotics officers reneged on promises to pay him 10% of the value of cash and property they seized during several drug busts in 1993 while he was working under the code name "Bird Dog One" and that he has receipts signed by officers to prove it. In one bust, for which Kelley was paid less than $500, he says a narcotics officer told him that the police seized $50,000.

Kelley alleges that the Santa Monica department cut him loose without explanation shortly after learning of the DEA lawsuit, despite having regularly praised his work.

Police officials have denied the allegations, as well as Kelley's claim that officers "maliciously" abandoned him in the middle of a mission in which two cocaine dealers threatened to set him afire.

In that mission, known as Operation Inglewood, Kelley alleges that he and the dealers were in his van parked next to a phone booth near Los Angeles International Airport waiting to meet a third drug dealer under police surveillance.

Narcotics officers in nearby unmarked cars and others in a police airplane circling overhead were supposed to provide protection, he said. But Kelley contends that the mission was aborted at the last minute and that the cars and airplane vanished, leaving him vulnerable. "I could have easily been killed," he said.

In court documents, Santa Monica police acknowledge Kelley's role in Operation Inglewood and several other undercover missions, but police officials declined to discuss Kelley for this article, citing the pending trial.

A police spokesman called the lawsuit "baseless and without merit."

Kelley's attorney, meanwhile, insists that the police took advantage of his client. "The tendency of law enforcement is to treat all informants like scumbags," said Daniel D. Dydzak. "They know these people have a hard time asserting their rights."

Regardless of how the matter is resolved, Kelley's account of his actions as a crime fighter provides a glimpse of a shadowy world not often revealed.

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