How a McDonald’s receipt crippled an elite drug-fighting team

McDonalds Receipt photoBeth Warren  |  Louisville Courier Journal

Narcotics Detective Kyle Willett made the 10-minute drive to a McDonald’s drive-thru for sweet tea and cheeseburgers before returning to work — and doing something no one expected.

Alone in his white Chevrolet Tahoe — outside the UPS global shipping hub where he worked with an elite task force to intercept drug shipments — Willett tore the packing tape off a box, pried open a metal safe and stole piles of cash totaling about $40,000.

But the Louisville Metro Police veteran, well trained in exposing criminals’ missteps, made an elementary mistake of his own.

He used his credit card for the $4.76 McDonald’s meal and then forgot to remove the receipt from the fast-food bag he crumpled and stuffed inside the box before sending the package on its path to Oakland, California.

Willett didn’t know that a West Coast drug interdiction task force anxiously awaited its delivery. A judge had already signed a search warrant to allow investigators to open the package, as it was expected to contain valuable evidence.

The box should have helped investigators snag a drug trafficker. Instead, it netted a cop. It also exposed questionable practices by two other detectives and for 19 months sidelined a task force charged with interrupting a major drug pipeline during the nation’s worst drug crisis — blamed for more than 400 deaths in Louisville last year.

“We were missing a lot of drugs with this task force not up and running,” said Russell Coleman, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Kentucky.

‘Bad guys had a lot of success’

Many narcotics detectives trusted Willett.

Lauded as one of Louisville Metro Police’s most accomplished detectives, Willett was once featured on the true crime TV show “The First 48,” discussing key evidence seized in a double homicide.

And sometimes when the task force supervisor couldn’t be on site, he was left in charge.

But in June 2016, the phone rang at the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office. California police were on the other line with details about how their drug investigation hit a snag when the $40,000 in cash, their evidence, was stolen.

Investigators in Louisville tracked the last four digits of the credit card printed on the McDonald’s receipt to Willett. And a restaurant security camera showed his white Tahoe, bought by the police department, pulling out of the drive-thru at the same time printed on the receipt.

Federal agents hid surveillance cameras inside Willett’s SUV that August and began watching the task force’s movements at UPS Worldport. The next time Willett stole cash from a box — and there was a next time — it was captured on video.

The felony theft case against Willett was mounting as the FBI and Louisville police’s Public Integrity Unit teamed up to investigate.

The probe into one man’s actions soon spread to an inspection of an entire task force charged with keeping drugs off the streets.

The team had worked hard to earn a coveted federal designation in the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program, which provides money, training and resources to those policing the most saturated areas. It united five members from LMPD, one from Kentucky State Police, three from the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office and one part-time agent from Homeland Security Investigations.

They hunted for drugs in packages flown through UPS, Fed-Ex and the United States Postal Service — intercepting many poisons in 2016, including 50 pounds of heroin — about a day’s supply for 22,500 addicts. They also found 197 pounds of cocaine and 190 pounds of meth.

Under scrutiny, the Louisville police pulled the task force out of Worldport in September 2016 and withdrew from the federal program that had given it $200,000 a year. After news of the scandal leaked to the Courier Journal and other reporters, Louisville police issued a public statement that a federal investigation was underway.

The task force remained shut down for 19 months.

“Bad guys had a lot of success during that time, no doubt,” said Vic Brown, executive director of the Appalachia High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area.

While looking into Willett’s actions, agents also noticed something else that seemed odd. Two other task force members took packages to their vehicles.

Surveillance footage captured another Louisville Metro Police detective — who is also a canine handler — and a KSP trooper taking packages to their vehicles, Coleman said.

They didn’t steal money or drugs, but they conducted searches without warrants, he said. If they found evidence, they would reseal the package and seek a search warrant.

John Kuhn, then the U.S. Attorney with the Western District of Kentucky, opted not to prosecute anyone but Willett, telling the Courier Journal last year: “What we have here is a rogue cop. It’s exceedingly rare.”

But some legal experts say the searches without warrants also were criminal — a clear violation of civil rights, since the Fourth Amendment offers protection from unreasonable searches.

“It’s not legal,” said defense attorney Josh Schneider, a former narcotics prosecutor. “All the narcotics cops I worked with knew if they wanted to get inside a house, a box, they needed a warrant.”

University of Louisville law professor Luke Milligan agreed. “It’s a clear constitutional violation to have opened those packages without a warrant.” An exception would apply during an “exigent circumstance,” such as a reason to believe the package contained a bomb.

Some cops dubbed the searches “sneak-n-peeks.” They became “accepted practice” by some members of the task force, but the practice wasn’t endorsed by the chains of command, Coleman said.

Kentucky State Police Commissioner Rick Sanders said he only learned of the practice through the FBI investigation.

“I didn’t know that was going on, obviously,” he said. “Why they took them to a car, it really doesn’t make sense to me.”

Coleman said law enforcement officers shouldn’t have taken packages to their cars for inspection. “There’s no gray in that.”

State and Louisville police investigated but didn’t find criminal wrongdoing by their employees.

The trooper, with the task force for about a year, “did not receive formal training and had been conducting these investigations commensurate with instruction provided by other veteran task force members,” Sanders said.

The Louisville detective, who was on the task force with Willett when it began earning federal funding in 2011, also said he was trained that it was acceptable to search packages without warrants, Deputy Chief Mike Sullivan said. But when asked who provided that training, Sullivan said he “couldn’t speculate on that.”

Sullivan said he didn’t know how or when warrant-less searches began.

“Once it was discovered this practice was not the preferred method, it was stopped,” he said.

Brown, in charge of High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area designations in four states, said Louisville police led the task force, and “it would have been up to them to set the protocol.”

Louisville Metro Police Sgt. Joe Dennis, who supervised the task force on site, has since retired and couldn’t be reached for comment.

“I think we all, looking back, think there was a lack of formal training and adequate checks and balances,” Sanders said.

Short prison sentence ‘disturbing’

For Willett, punishment came swiftly.

After FBI agents questioned him, he left the police force in October 2016.

The evidence was hard to refute. So he didn’t try.

He pleaded guilty two months later in a federal courtroom to theft from an interstate shipment, a felony, for stealing more than $74,400 between January and August 2016.

Investigators found most of the money in Willett’s home and car.

Prosecutors pushed for a year in prison, but U.S. District Court Judge Thomas B. Russell shaved that time in half.

Willett has already served his five months in a federal prison and five months home detention. He remains on supervised probation for two years and is barred from owning a firearm, meaning he can’t work in law enforcement again.

Willett and his attorney, Brian Butler, declined to comment for this story. Butler told reporters after Willett’s sentencing that his client didn’t steal from innocent people as the money was believed to be headed from local dealers to large-scale drug distributors.

Coleman said it doesn’t matter who the money was stolen from. “Willett tarnished his badge … abandoned his oath.”

Sanders called Willett’s brief prison stint “disturbing,” considering the impact of his actions.

“All of this was brought about by a dishonest cop who none of us have any sympathy for,” the KSP commissioner said.

Reviving an elite drug-fighting team

It would take a year and a half to revive the drug task force.

Jim Scott, resident-agent-in-charge with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s Louisville Division, agreed to take the helm as commander.

Scott stood firm on perhaps the most contested change — none of the former task force members were allowed to return even though the weeks-long surveillance found no questionable actions by most of them.

Coleman, a former FBI agent, supported the DEA’s decision to start with all new members.

“We had some systemic issues with the task force last time, so we needed to clean house completely,” Coleman said.

The new team includes five members from LMPD, one from KSP and one from the sheriff’s office, Scott said.

The new task force, which Coleman calls the 2.0 version, launched in April with increased protocols and oversight.

One rule clearly stated up front: no opening of packages in cars, alone or without warrants.

When packages are open, security personnel at UPS, Fed-Ex or post offices must be present.

That should have been the practice all along, according to UPS policy, Coleman said.

Louisville Metro Police Sgt. Eric Black will serve as the on-site supervisor. He isn’t allowed to delegate that authority to an acting supervisor, as had been done with Willett.

Black also must be present when a task force member opens a package — after getting a judge to issue a search warrant, Scott said.

Drug agents across Kentucky have been anxious to see the task force back in action.

“We wanted to do this right,” Coleman said. “I own it now.”

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