A Midtown strip mall that should have housed the best of the best served as Corruption Central in Tucson.
Two military recruiting stations sit side-by-side there, one run by the Army, the other by the Marines. Between them, a total of seven recruiters were on the take, secretly accepting bribes to transport cocaine, even as most spent their days visiting local high schools.
They had help from several more recruiters at an Army National Guard office, where one recruiter was said to be selling cocaine from the trunk of his recruiting vehicle.
Together, these dozen or so recruiters formed the nucleus of one of the FBI's biggest public corruption cases, the sting known as Operation Lively Green, which unfolded in Southern Arizona from 2002-2004 and was made public last year.
Many of the drug-running recruiters remained on the job, with continued access to local schools, for months — and often, years — after FBI agents secretly filmed them counting cash next to stacks of cocaine bricks, the Arizona Daily Star found in a months-long probe of court records and military employment data.
Some were still recruiting three years after they first were caught on camera running drugs in uniform. Most have pleaded guilty and are to be sentenced in March. Some honorably retired from the military.
There is no suggestion in court records that the recruiters were providing drugs to students.
What they did between FBI drug runs isn't known because they weren't under constant surveillance, the FBI said. For example, in the middle of the cocaine sting, one of the recruiters was arrested by another law-enforcement agency in an unrelated drug case, accused of transporting nearly 200 pounds of marijuana on Interstate 19, court records show.
Military recruiting officials say the corruption was not widespread. They also say they kept these recruiters on the job because they either didn't know they were under investigation, or were told by the FBI to leave the suspects alone so as not to jeopardize the sting's outcome.
Some Tucson parents and school officials, contacted by the Star about the results of the paper's research, said students should not have been left exposed for so long to recruiters known by the FBI to be involved in cocaine-running.
"I don't like the thought of someone involved with drugs having access to my child, and I don't know anything about it and the school doesn't know anything about it," said Kathy Janssen, who has a 15-year-old son at Tucson High Magnet School, the city's largest high school. "High school students are very vulnerable."
This isn't the first time the FBI has come under criticism in the Lively Green case. Allegations of sexual misconduct by undercover informants also have dogged the case and could result in reduced punishment for the recruiters and dozens of other defendants.
At a press conference to unveil the case last year, the FBI announced that many Lively Green defendants were military members. Agents didn't say that recruiters were involved.
A Phoenix-based FBI spokeswoman said the agency can't say much at this point about the Lively Green probe because it's still in progress.
Special Agent Deb McCarley did say the FBI generally performs risk assessments before deciding to keep suspects who work in public positions on the job during undercover probes.
"We recognize the range of ethical issues that inherently arise in the course of our undercover investigations," McCarley said in an e-mail.
"We have sound policies in place" to address such dilemmas, she said, and "this case has been no exception."
Some high schools in Tucson Unified, Flowing Wells Unified and Marana Unified school districts, and in Amphitheater Public Schools, were visited by one or more of these recruiters on a regular or occasional basis, according to military recruiting officials. Schools in other districts may have had visits as well, but precise records no longer are available in some cases, officials said.
One TUSD Governing Board member was incensed to hear the recruiters remained on the job so long.
"It's ludicrous to me that the FBI would leave these people in place and allow them onto our high school campuses," Judy Burns said.
"If they were going to do that, they should have been monitoring them constantly."
Monica Young, who has two children attending TUSD high schools, agreed.
"It is appalling that recruiters who were known to be involved in such activity were allowed on any school campus," she said.
Legal expert Stephen Saltzburg, who teaches criminal procedure at George Washington University, said it's entirely possible that the Tucson recruiters were running drugs in their free time and still functioning normally on the job.
Once the FBI made the decision to leave them in place at local schools "one would hope they would be watching that very carefully," he said.
From a military standpoint, it's especially egregious that recruiters took part in the cocaine runs, experts say.
"The military definitely views recruiters as persons in a special position of trust," said Eugene Fidell, president of the National Institute of Military Justice, in Washington, D.C.
Recruiters are supposed to meet high standards to promote an honorable image of the military, Fidell said. If court-martialed, they probably would be punished more harshly than non-recruiters, he said.
The willingness of Tucson recruiters to run drugs was clear to FBI agents from the start of the Lively Green sting, according to agent testimony at the court-martial of a Davis-Monthan technical sergeant — a non-recruiter — convicted in the Lively Green case in June.
In fact, it was a recruiter who caused the FBI to set up the sting in the first place, FBI Special Agent Adam Radtke said.
That recruiter, Radtke said, was former Army National Guardsman Darius W. Perry, who pleaded guilty Thursday in U.S. District Court.
Radtke said the sting got started in late 2001, when the FBI received numerous complaints that Perry, who worked out of the Guard's East Side recruiting office, was taking bribes to fix the military aptitude test scores of new recruits.
The FBI put an undercover informant in place to check it out. As the FBI plant was paying Perry to fix a test score in the parking lot of a Tucson restaurant, Perry opened the trunk of his recruiting vehicle and offered to sell part of a kilo of cocaine, Radtke said.
"Perry basically introduced the crime to us," the agent testified.
Perry couldn't be reached for comment. His federal court file, including the name of his attorney, has been sealed by the court. The Arizona Daily Star has filed a legal motion to have the case unsealed, and the action is pending.
Perry, 42, and another former Army National Guard recruiter, Mark A. Fillman, 56, were the first to offer their drug-running services to undercover informants who posed as Mexican drug lords during the sting, Radtke said.
The sting was set up so participants could make money in two ways — by agreeing to help transport cocaine and by finding others to do so.
The Tucson recruiters, trained to sell people on the military, often used those skills to recruit for the drug ring, helping the sting to mushroom, court records show.
One Army recruiter, Rodney E. Mills, 40, brought in six people. Perry persuaded six others, all Army National Guard members, to join, his plea deal said.
In one case not mentioned in the plea agreement, Perry is said to have recruited a Nogales woman named Leslie Hildago, then in her early 20s, to join the drug ring after he had recruited her to join the National Guard.
Hildago's lawyer, Richard Bacal of Tucson, said he is "not going to deny" that's what took place, but said he can't elaborate because of the plea bargain Hildago signed.
If recruiters used data from recruiting rolls to solicit people for drug running, that's particularly offensive, said military law expert Scott Silliman, a former senior lawyer for the Air Force who now is a law professor at Duke University.
Such recruiters "took advantage of their positions to commit crime," Silliman said.
Another Tucson recruiter, former National Guard member Demian F. Castillo, 35, got his own younger brother — John M. Castillo, 31, — to join the drug ring, court records show.
The younger Castillo, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection port inspector, agreed to wave through two vehicles he believed were loaded with cocaine at the Mariposa Port of Entry in Nogales, in exchange for $19,000. He, too, pleaded guilty.
Of the more than 60 Lively Green defendants who have pleaded guilty so far, 10 were Tucson military recruiters. Between the 10, they pocketed a total of $180,600 in bribe payments, court records show.
Five worked at the Army's Midtown recruiting office: Mills, Sheldon L. Anderson, 27; Derreck J. Curry, 30; Ronricco M. Allen, 36; and Jason E. Kitzmiller, 27.
Two Marine recruiters whose office was next door to the Army recruiters also pleaded guilty: James M. Clear, 26, and Jared A. Wright, 28.
National Guard recruiters who pleaded guilty include Perry, Fillman and Castillo. A fourth National Guard recruiter, Raul F. Portillo, 34, was identified by the FBI as a suspect but was never charged. Portillo is the recruiter arrested during the FBI sting by another police agency on marijuana trafficking charges. He is believed to have fled to Mexico.
In May, Perry retired honorably from the military, six months before the FBI arrested him. Fillman also retired honorably in May 2003, two years before he was charged.
In two cases, the Arizona Army National Guard gave suspected or convicted recruiters general discharges under "honorable" conditions.
One went to Castillo, the recruiter who brought his brother into the drug ring.
The lawyer for the Arizona Army National Guard, Col. Richard Palmatier, said Castillo resigned from the Guard a day before his guilty plea, which kept his personnel file free of information about the crime.
Portillo, the former recruiter believed to be in Mexico, also received a general discharge under honorable conditions, even though he was wanted in Santa Cruz County — and still is — on the unrelated drug charges. Palmatier said Guard officials didn't know about those charges, and even if they had, Portillo wasn't convicted so the case couldn't be used against him upon discharge.
Portillo was stopped on northbound I-19 in a vehicle filled with pot in July 2003, and is thought to have left the country to escape prosecution, said Santa Cruz County Attorney George Silva. Portillo couldn't be reached for comment.
Silva was astonished to hear the National Guard gave Portillo a military discharge that includes the word "honorable."
"That is shocking. It's absolutely amazing," he said.
What happens next with the recruiters and other Lively Green defendants is in the court's hands.
Each defendant who pleaded guilty faces the possibility of up to five years in prison. But all have signed plea bargains that say their sentences will be determined by their willingness to cooperate with prosecutors and testify against others, if needed.
In their plea deals, none of the defendants was charged with drug trafficking, which has higher potential penalties. Instead, they were charged with bribery, conspiracy and extortion for the cash they accepted.
How much prison time they get — if any — also may be influenced by the allegations of misconduct that have surfaced in the Lively Green probe.
The complete extent of misconduct has never been publicly revealed, but according to witness testimony at the D-M court-martial in June, there was an incident in October 2002 in which informants posing as drug dealers hired hookers after a drug run to a Las Vegas hotel.
The FBI informant paid the prostitutes to have sex with several men who later became defendants, witnesses said.
At one point, they said, a prostitute who was drunk and high appeared to pass out and one of the FBI informants performed lewd acts over the woman's face while someone else took photographs.
The informant involved later destroyed the photos, said the defense lawyer in the D-M court-martial case.
A Tucson lawyer and former federal prosecutor said it's "absolutely probable" that Lively Green defendants will get a break on their sentences because of the misconduct.
"Any time you have credible allegations of misconduct, it is going to impact the resolution of a case," said A. Bates Butler III, who prosecuted drug cases and other federal cases from 1977 to 1981 as U.S. attorney for the District of Arizona.
"Jurors don't like misconduct," Bates said, so prosecutors sometimes will try to salvage such cases by offering plea deals to lesser charges so the cases don't get to trial.
Military recruiting officials said they removed the corrupt recruiters once they learned of the crimes, or when they got the go-ahead from the FBI to do so.
"We suspended the soldiers from recruiting duties as soon as we were notified of their involvement," which often was the same day they pleaded guilty, said Douglas Smith, a spokesman for Army Recruiting Command at Fort Knox, Ky.
Military officials say the criminal acts of Tucson's recruiters are regrettable but not the norm.
"Allegations of recruiter misconduct are rare," considering the thousands of recruiters on the job nationwide, said Janice Hagar, a Marine Corps recruiting spokeswoman. "This was an isolated incident."
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"It's ludicrous to me that the FBI would leave these people in place and allow them onto our high school campuses."
Judy Burns, TUSD governing board member