Memphis officer went deep undercover
Posted: Monday, September 7, 2009 8:01 pm
By KRISTINA GOETZ
The Commercial Appeal
MEMPHIS (AP) — April Leatherwood no longer goes by the name Summer Smith.
Summer’s brown, greasy hair has been cut and bleached, highlighted to April’s honey blond. Summer’s glasses have been removed to reveal April’s 20/20 vision.
And Summer’s feet — once covered by the same filthy pair of socks for an entire year — now slide into April’s black flip-flops with a fresh pedicure and red toenail polish.
The physical transformation is complete — a signal that one life is over and another can resume.
Leatherwood always wanted to be a police officer, to wear the crisp, blue uniform, the shiny, gold badge.
After graduating from the police academy in December 2005, she worked as a patrol officer and then in the organized-crime unit, catching thieves and busting violent felons. She loved the camaraderie of the department and its protect-and-serve mission.
Then the rumors started in fall 2008. April was unhappy. Police work left her unfulfilled. She quit. Somebody said she moved to Miami. She stopped returning phone calls from family and friends, even recruits she was closest to in the academy. Nobody was sure what happened to her.
In fact, Leatherwood, the once-proud police officer, was living as Summer Smith, the junkie.
Only April’s parents and her former partner knew it was an elaborate ruse: that she had been chosen by Memphis Police Department’s undercover operations unit to give up her badge and uniform and go deep undercover.
Overnight, Leatherwood became Summer Smith, in both name and persona, one of fewer than 20 undercover officers in the city. The department won’t reveal the precise number in order to protect them.
Leatherwood was separated in every way from the department and job she loved. Other than the police director, the undercover coordinator, her handler and members of the undercover unit, nobody else in the department knew her identity or her mission.
In a year’s time, her work resulted in more than 280 arrests — from low-level drug peddlers to big-name dealers.
“Not only is she there to buy drugs, but she’s there to listen and gather intel,” said Det. Paul Sherman, coordinator of the undercover operations unit. “Every day she’s not buying drugs. Sometimes she’s just hanging out with these people and listening to … who broke in that store, who did that armed robbery, who did that drive-by shooting.”
Leatherwood, paid roughly $45,000 a year, was given a different Social Security number and junkies’ clothes. She roamed the streets of Memphis in the same foul-smelling shirt. She didn’t shower, brush her teeth or shave her legs. She stood outside neighborhood corner stores, smoking, befriending crack addicts so they’d take her to their dealers.
“No matter how much I would try to make myself feel like I was one of them, no matter how dirty I got, no matter how much I did the things they did or talked the way they talked or looked the way they looked, still in the back of your head you know you’re not one of them,” she said.
“So it’s uncomfortable. It’s very scary. … I was always on edge.”
As Summer Smith, Leatherwood followed addicts into houses without electricity or plumbing, where people defecated in buckets. Sometimes she watched toddlers run around while their drug-dealer dads played video games and sold crack to customers with guns lying on the table.
She talked her way out of unwanted sexual advances and always scanned the room for a way out if a deal went bad.
She worked alone.
“The scariest times were when you felt like you were backed up in a corner when it comes to guys talking to you like that,” she said. “That was probably my biggest fear.”
Leatherwood’s training taught her how to buy crack cocaine but not use it, a tricky game to play with dealers. But she never used. Not once. She passed every drug test the department gave her.
She also had to restrain her police instincts to break up a fight at a convenience store or call social services if she saw a dealer hit his child because being caught would compromise the larger goal.
She often met her handler, Louis Brownlee, a former Memphis undercover officer himself, in seedy motels to receive assignments and relay messages to her parents. He also provided moral support.
“This work is important because we as undercovers, can do things that the regular police could never do,” Brownlee said. “When the ward car is coming down the street guys hide their dope. They straighten up. … We come in, and we get to see them as they are. We come in and the dope’s not hidden. The conversation is not censored.
“There are crimes that the undercover program has helped to solve because of who we are.”
Last week, April talked about her undercover experience to a group of police officers from across the country who participated in the Memphis Police Department’s undercover school. At the behest of Director Larry Godwin, Sherman created the program 31/2 years ago, modeling it after the FBI’s undercover certification course at Quantico, Va., where he trained.
Joe Pistone, the legendary FBI agent who infiltrated New York’s Bonanno crime family by posing as jewel thief Donnie Brasco, teaches in Memphis’ undercover school.
The Bluff City’s undercover unit is unique, he said, compared with other local law enforcement agencies’ programs nationwide, which usually focus on short-term dope busts.
“In most of the departments, the undercovers go home every night,” Pistone said. “They may work a case long term but not deep undercover like in Memphis.”
Undercover work is not for everybody, even the most dedicated officers, Leatherwood said.
In early August, she pulled herself out of the program. She felt depressed and numb. She could feel herself slipping away.
Her departure from the program is one reason police officials allowed her to speak openly about her experience.
Leatherwood’s work came at a cost. She lost a three-year relationship, and it changed the way she thinks about the world.
“Would I do it all over again? Yeah. Because it taught me a lot about me, a lot about life. I live by ‘everything happens for a reason,”’ she said.
Information from: The Commercial Appeal, http://www.commercialappeal.com
Published in The Messenger 9.7.09