Crime

Feds’ star witness in Miami drug-protection trial is a ‘dirty cop,’ defense says

Schonton Harris, left, a veteran Miami cop, was sentenced to more than 15 years in prison in April by a federal court judge. She was accused of protecting drug dealers and selling a uniform to an undercover cop she believed was a hitman. Kelvin Harris, center, and James Archibald, right, now on trial, are Miami cops Harris was accused of recruiting into the racket.
Schonton Harris, left, a veteran Miami cop, was sentenced to more than 15 years in prison in April by a federal court judge. She was accused of protecting drug dealers and selling a uniform to an undercover cop she believed was a hitman. Kelvin Harris, center, and James Archibald, right, now on trial, are Miami cops Harris was accused of recruiting into the racket. Miami

A painkiller-addicted Miami cop who got caught running small-time scams before flipping for the feds is expected to be a star witness against two fellow officers in a major corruption trial that started Monday with opening statements.

Catina Anderson, who recently pleaded guilty to an extortion offense, is scheduled to testify against fellow Miami cops Kelvin Harris and James Archibald. Both are charged with providing protection for drug traffickers who were actually FBI undercover investigators orchestrating a sting operation to move loads of “sham” cocaine in the city.

Anderson initially played a central role in the FBI’s targeting of a fourth officer, Schonton Harris, the ringleader accused of recruiting the other two officers into the protection racket. Harris, who pleaded guilty and was recently sentenced to 15 1/2 years in prison, became the main target after the police internal affairs unit received a complaint that she detained an Ultra Music concertgoer and pocketed $3,500 last year.

During opening statements Monday, defense attorneys portrayed Anderson as a bad cop with an opioid addiction and mental health disorders who could not be trusted as a government witness because she just wants to reduce her potential prison sentence.

“She’s a dirty cop,” said Archibald’s lawyer, Michael Grieco, who told the 12-person Miami federal jury that her job was “to trick as many good cops as she could in this investigation ... You’re going to hate this case because of what the government did.”

“This dirty cop is ... is going to be the star witness,” said Kelvin Harris’ lawyer, Jonathan Schwartz, claiming his client was not a “willing participant” but rather a “knowing spectator.”

“It’s a made-up case from beginning to end,” he said, accusing the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office of entrapment.

Federal prosecutor Jessica Obenauf told the jury that the two Miami officers standing trial were “all in” because of “their commitment to protect and serve drug traffickers.”

Knowing the defense would attack the government’s primary witness, the prosecutor preemptively told the jurors that “you may not like Catina Anderson.” But Obenauf pointed out that the FBI had to use her to go after other corrupt officers — otherwise, “they wouldn’t have been doing their jobs.”

Anderson, who was first questioned by the FBI as a potential cooperating witness in late 2017, is not the prosecution’s first witness, however. One of the FBI’s undercover investigators, using a pseudonym to hide his identity, will be the first to take the witness stand Tuesday.

There is much riding on this trial for Kelvin Harris and James Archibald. Harris worked the front desk at the city’s North District station and served on the force for almost 27 years. Archibald, only two years on the job, worked as a Neighborhood Resource Officer, also in Model City.

Both are essentially accused of providing protection for cash payoffs, but they’re charged with conspiring to possess with intent to distribute more than five kilos of cocaine. That offense carries up to life in prison. Harris is also charged with attempted possession with intent to distribute cocaine and possession of a firearm on three occasions between September and October 2018. Archibald is charged with the same offenses, but on two occasions.

Schonton Harris cut her losses in January when she admitted that she accepted a total of $17,000 for using her badge and firearm to help carry out a series of criminal activities, including protecting and moving loads of what she believed to be cocaine. Harris pleaded guilty to the first count in her indictment, conspiring to possess with intent to distribute controlled substances. In April, U.S. District Judge Cecilia Altonaga punished her at the high end of the sentencing guidelines, or more than 15 years.

Harris, a 20-year veteran with the Miami police force, last worked as a street cop in Model City.

Prosecutor Harry Wallace said that Schonton Harris and the other two Miami officers collected a total of $33,500 in cash during the FBI undercover operation in which they helped distribute opioids like Percocet, transported dozens of kilos of cocaine and acted as protection for dealers during drug transactions.

According to a criminal complaint filed with arrests last October, the FBI joined the investigation in April 2018 and made audio and video recordings of the three officers’ actions. The complaint says Schonton Harris initially agreed to join a “cooperating witness” — Anderson — in taking payments for protecting couriers who were carrying cash from the illegal sale of painkillers such as oxycodone.

Anderson told Schonton Harris that she was protecting a courier who was collecting drug proceeds from pharmacies and clinics engaged in the illegal sale of opioids and then driving to a bank to deposit the money, the complaint says.

Some details of the case seemed straight out of a rogue-cop movie.

The complaint says Schonton Harris sold a police uniform and badge to an undercover investigator for $1,500, despite being told the official gear would be used by a “sicario,” a drug cartel hit man.

In another instance, Schonton Harris was recorded telling the cooperating witness that she spotted a suspicious person during a courier’s cash run last June and purposely held her gun outside the patrol car door as a threat for him to back off.

“I take the damn seat belt off and I was sitting with my gun in my lap, and when the mother... started walking, I pulled that sh-- up. I let the window down a little bit, and I set [the gun] just like this,” Harris said in the recording, according to the complaint.

“I was gonna pop that mother...,” the officer was recorded saying.

Schonton Harris’ first recruit in the alleged protection scheme was Kelvin Harris, and then she brought in Archibald.

During the FBI undercover operation, the three Miami officers collaborated with the FBI’s cooperating witness, Anderson, the complaint says. The most brazen of the three principal drug transactions came on Oct. 13, 2018: Undercover FBI investigators met Schonton Harris and Archibald in the parking lot of a local marina and helped them put two coolers — each filled with 15 kilos of cocaine — into Harris’ personal vehicle, according to the complaint. She and Archibald transported the coolers to two Miami hotels, while Kelvin Harris and Anderson followed in a marked police car to protect the narcotics.

Because the investigation was a sting, the cocaine was fake.

According to the FBI, the recorded activity happened while the officers were off duty. Sometimes they wore their uniforms. Other times they didn’t. But they always carried firearms, prosecutors said.

“And just like that,” prosecutor Obenauf told the jurors Monday, “they crossed the line from fighting crime to committing crime for thousands of dollars.”

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