On June 27, 2014, the body of 20-year-old Andrew Sadek, a promising electrical student at the North Dakota State College of Science (NDSCS) in Wahpeton, North Dakota, was pulled from the Red River bordering North Dakota and Minnesota.
Missing for two months, the young man was found shot in the head, wearing a backpack filled with rocks.
The grisly death of a college student in one of the safest towns in the state, where violent crime is extremely rare, did not lead to a sweeping investigation. In fact, police immediately said they did not suspect foul play.
Such a supposition strains credulity as it is, but what would be slowly revealed over the following months is that Andrew had been working as a confidential informant for the police, and that his school knew that authorities were busting its students and using them as bait to catch drug dealers.
This is a story of overzealous prosecution of minor drug offenses by a task force answerable only to itself, callous official indifference toward a grieving family, and a lack of transparency by authorities that raises more questions than it answers.
Paramount among these questions: Why are police using non-violent, first-time offenders in the very dangerous role of confidential informant?
A QUIET FARM KID
Growing up on a family-owned farm in Rogers, North Dakota, Andrew Sadek was active with the raising of their cattle and particularly close to his parents, who lost their older son, Nick, in a car accident in 2005.
Andrew was a few weeks shy of graduation when he went missing in May 2014. Days later, the Sadeks received the shocking news that a warrant had been issued for Andrew’s arrest for two felony counts of distributing a controlled substance.
In an interview with Reason TV, Andrew’s mother, Tammy, described her deceased younger son as “kind of a homebody” whose only previous brush with the law was a speeding ticket.
“His dreams were to become an electrician and take over the family farm,” Tammy says of Andrew. “We sent him off to college, he was excelling at college. That’s why this was such a shock to us.”
For two gut-wrenching months, the Sadeks prayed Andrew would come home to the farm to help with the spring calving, while police continued to assume Andrew was on the lam.
Then, Andrew’s body was found.
Shot. Wearing the backpack filled with rocks. Not wearing the clothes he was last seen in. Without his wallet. An autopsy proved inconclusive in determining suicide or homicide, and no weapon has yet been found.
But according to the Sadeks, Sgt. Steve Helgeson of the NDSCS Campus Police, the lead officer in charge of the investigation, tried to convince them that their son put on the rock-filled backpack, shot himself in the head, and somehow propelled himself into the river.
Tammy says Sgt. Helgeson told her “That’s what kids do in that area, they commit suicide,” referring to the golf court bridge over the river that connects the Bois de Sioux golf course.
No one who knew Andrew supports this theory. His friend Justin Rippentrop told Reason TV that Andrew was a “laid-back, generous, fun-loving guy,” who never showed depressive tendencies and seemed in particularly good spirits as his graduation date approached. Crucially, no one at the college has indicated that Andrew was exhibiting any signs of emotional distress, and no suicide note has been found.
A DRUG TASK FORCE LACKING TRANSPARENCY AND ACCOUNTABILITY
What the police knew but continued to keep from the Sadeks, was that Andrew had been working as a confidential informant for the Southeast Multi-County Agency (SEMCA), a drug task force answerable only to its own board, a 12 person committee made up of local senior police officers and elected officials.
Andrew first came into contact with SEMCA in April 2013, after he twice sold marijuana, a total of 4.5 grams or $80 worth, to a confidential informant. Shortly thereafter, a police raid on Andrew’s dorm room turned up nothing but a small plastic grinder and some marijuana residue.
But the grinder, plus the two sales to SEMCA’s informant in a “school zone,” which in North Dakota includes colleges, was enough for authorities to threaten Andrew with two Class A felony charges, each carrying a possible 20 year sentence. Or, he could “voluntarily” agree to work as a confidential informant.
Upon enrolling at NDSCS, Andrew signed a Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) waiver obligating the school to inform his parents of any disciplinary issues, but the school never notified the Sadeks following the raid on his dorm room, or any time thereafter.
Faced with the prospect of spending the bulk of his life in prison, and without consulting a lawyer or his parents, Andrew chose to become an informant, agreeing to make two controlled buys from each of three SEMCA-targeted drug dealers.
When Andrew was last seen leaving his dorm building on May 1, 2014, he still owed SEMCA one last controlled buy.
Refusing to accept authorities’ speculation that Andrew had committed suicide, the Sadeks hired a private investigator, who discovered a significant amount of water in the wheel wells of Andrew’s car, suggesting that someone may have driven Andrew’s car to the banks of the river where his body was found, before returning it to the campus parking lot.
WHO’S IN CHARGE HERE?
Because Andrew’s body was found on the Minnesota side of the river, the NDSCS campus police claimed the case was not in their jurisdiction, which the North Dakota Attorney General’s office confirmed. But the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension told Valley News Live, a newscast in Fargo, North Dakota, that they have nothing to do with it. For all the agencies involved with busting Andrew Sadek for selling a small amount of pot, no agency is willing to take the lead in solving his violent death.
Valley News Live reporter Nicole Johnson told Reason TV, “It took a long time to get the results of the autopsy. So I called (Sgt.) Steve Helgeson, the officer in charge of this case, and he told me it was not a top priority.” Johnson adds that no one who has directly worked on the case has answered a question of theirs since Andrew was found in June 2014.
Finding no help from the local authorities, the Sadeks’ demanded a state-wide investigation, which culminated in a report from the North Dakota Attorney General’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation, released in January 2015.
The report revealed for the first time that Andrew had been working as a confidential informant for SEMCA.
That the school knew of the raid on Andrew’s dorm room in 2013, but allowed his parents to learn this news only after he went missing raises significant ethical and legal questions in its own right. But the fact that SEMCA only disclosed Andrew’s status as a confidential informant because they were forced to by the Attorney General, more than a year after the young man was first targeted by the task force, demonstrates a heartless lack of concern for confidential informants even after they end up dead.
The SEMCA report runs all of four and a half pages, nearly half of which merely names the board members and the authors of the report. And despite the obvious dangers inherent with being an informant working for the police to bust drug dealers, the report found that SEMCA had acted appropriately when using Andrew, a non-violent first time offender, as a C.I. The report’s conclusion offered four minor tweaks to protocol, such as having a “Pre-Ops briefing” and assigning a supervisor to each case.
In February 2015, Reason‘s Jacob Sullum wrote about Wahpeton Police Chief Scott Thorsteinson, a SEMCA board member, and his response to the violent death of a confidential informant in his town:
Thorsteinson conceded that police informants work in “a dangerous subculture” but said cops usually “bend over backwards to protect their C.I.”
Thorsteinson said Sadek’s death is no cause for reflection on the methods used by drug warriors in North Dakota. “These types of investigations are conducted the same way pretty much everywhere where people breathe in and out,” he said. “They never did anything wrong that needed to be changed.” Thorsteinson, who acknowledged that Sadek’s mother “had to go through a difficult ordeal,” explained that busting drug offenders is a thankless but necessary job. “Law enforcement… we’re generally not popular,” he told KVLY. “The sheep dog is not loved by the flock, and they’re hated by the wolf, but we do it anyway.” In Thorsteinson’s view, the citizens he serves are sheep, while harmless pot dealers like Sadek are wolves.
The lack of a statewide chain of command allowed SEMCA to operate as an entity answerable only to itself. And though SEMCA’s board remains intact, the agency now falls under the jurisdiction of the North Dakota attorney general. When contacted by Reason TV about the use of college students as confidential informants, Liz Brocker, a spokesperson for North Dakota’s Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, replied, “We have no opinion about confidential informants.”
The Wahpeton Police Department, Richland County State’s Attorney, SEMCA, and both NDSCS and its campus police department all either declined to comment or did not respond to Reason TV’s request for comment.
DISPOSABLE YOUNG LIVES
Andrew Sadek is not the only young person to be terrified into working as a C.I. In 2014, a confidential informant at the University of Massachusetts died of a drug overdose, prompting criticism that if his parents had been notified, he might have been able to receive treatment for substance abuse. In 2015, Buzzfeed reported on the widespread use of confidential informants on the campus of Ole Miss.
Most notably, in 2008, Florida State student Rachel Hoffman was murdered when police compelled her to make an illegal gun purchase. A sweeping 2012 New Yorker article recounted Hoffman’s tragic fate:
She had never fired a gun or handled a significant stash of hard drugs. Now she was on her way to conduct a major undercover deal for the Tallahassee Police Department, meeting two convicted felons alone in her car to buy two and a half ounces of cocaine, fifteen hundred Ecstasy pills, and a semi-automatic handgun.
The operation did not go as intended. By the end of the hour, police lost track of her and her car. Late that night, they arrived at her boyfriend’s town house and asked him if Hoffman was inside. They wanted to know if she might have run off with the money. Her boyfriend didn’t know where she was.
“She was with us,” he recalled an officer saying. “Until shit got crazy.”
Two days after Hoffman disappeared, her body was found in Perry, Florida, a small town some fifty miles southeast of Tallahassee, in a ravine overgrown with tangled vines. Draped in an improvised shroud made from her Grateful Dead sweatshirt and an orange-and-purple sleeping bag, Hoffman had been shot five times in the chest and head with the gun that the police had sent her to buy.
Hoffman’s death led to state-wide reforms regarding the use of confidential informants, including common-sense modifications such as forbidding the use of recovering drug addicts as informants, additional training for informants and officers, and more robust recordkeeping requirements so that unsuitable candidates are not needlessly placed in potentially lethal situations. In March 2015, a new proposal made it through Florida’s Senate Criminal Justice Committee to “add teeth” to “Rachel’s Law,” which includes criminal penalties for officers who fail to follow protocol or endanger their assigned informants.
THE DEATH THEY WISH WOULD GO AWAY
When the police aggressively prosecute young people unfamiliar with the criminal justice system and then use them as confidential informants, they assume a certain amount of responsibility for their safety. But the lack of interest by the agencies that ensnared Andrew Sadek in vigorously investigating his death as potential murder suggests they wish the case would just go away.
Which only begs the question, why?
Why are the authorities not investigating this case with the same aggressive zeal they continue to use on the campus of NDSCS busting small-time drug sellers?
The heartbroken Sadek family searches for justice for their son, though they are not confident that any law enforcement agency will continue to investigate Andrew’s death. Tammy hopes that Andrew’s death can serve as a cautionary tale to other young people who get in over their heads and feel they have no other choice but to work as an informant.
“I don’t want other kids to end up in this situation,” Tammy says. “Talk to your parents. Talk to a lawyer. Don’t do the police’s job for them.”