Steamboat Springs A federal drug agent admitted Wednesday that he acted outside of his authority to secure telephone records for police building a case against accused murderer Thomas Lee Johnson.
Drug Enforcement Administration Special Agent Donald Sperry acknowledged he misused a federal subpoena to get records from pay phones Johnson allegedly used the evening of June 23, 2000. His admission could jeopardize evidence prosecutors want to introduce at Johnson's trial.
"I misused my authority to get information about a homicide investigation," Sperry said Wednesday during a hearing at the Routt County Courthouse.
Prosecutors contend one of the calls Johnson placed from a pay phone in Steamboat Springs was to his ex-wife, Michelle Linnebur. It was during that call, prosecutors allege, that Johnson admitted he killed Lori Bases. A police officer at Linnebur's home at the time of the call has said he overheard the admission.
The 31-year-old Bases was found dead in her Steamboat Springs apartment May 12. Johnson, 31, is accused of stabbing her to death.
Sperry, who works with the Grand, Routt and Moffat Narcotics Enforcement Team, said he filled out a subpoena requesting records from the phone company, claiming the records were needed for a drug investigation. Sperry testified Wednesday that no such drug investigation existed.
Sperry's motive for the subpoena was to get the information for Steamboat police, who would have had to secure a search warrant for the records.
"I knew I was stretching it," Sperry said.
"You knew you were stretching what? The truth?" questioned Johnson's attorney, Norm Townsend.
"Yes," Sperry answered.
Townsend is arguing Sperry obtained the telephone records illegally and that they therefore should not be allowed as evidence.
But before Justice Joseph R. Quinn, who was assigned to the case Friday, can rule on that matter, he must first rule on whether the District Attorney's Office should be disqualified from prosecuting Johnson.
Townsend is seeking to remove 14th Judicial District Attorney Paul McLimans and his office from prosecuting Johnson based on Sperry's conduct.
On Aug. 7, Sperry signed a warrant for the arrest of Billie Jo Vreeman of Craig, the live-in girlfriend of 14th Judicial District Judge Joel S. Thompson, who had been the judge on the Johnson case. The 36-year-old Vreeman was arrested at Thompson's house Aug. 10 on federal drug charges. She was released Aug. 13 and has not been indicted.
Based on Vreeman's arrest, Thompson recused himself from the Johnson case.
On Wednesday, Sperry declined to answer questions about Vreeman's arrest or whether he was also investigating Thompson. But former Deputy District Attorney Charles Feldmann testified that as the project director for GRAMNET he was notified last October that Sperry was conducting a drug investigation of Thompson and Vreeman. Feldmann resigned from the DA's office in May.
Thompson has not been arrested and has not been charged with any crime in connection with Vreeman's arrest.
Sperry is expected to return to the stand when the hearing continues at 8:30 a.m. today.
Townsend contends Sperry obtained the arrest warrant for Vreeman in an attempt to intimidate and remove Thompson from the case. During an Aug. 8 court proceeding, Thompson ordered Townsend to subpoena Sperry to testify about the phone records, and the judge threatened to hold the agent in contempt if he failed to comply with the subpoena.
Townsend claims the district attorney is responsible for Sperry's actions because the DA's office oversees GRAMNET agents. During Wednesday's court hearing, Sperry testified that while he works closely with GRAMNET agents, McLimans' office does not supervise him.
"Even though we share office space and investigations, we are separate entities," Sperry said. "They have no supervision responsibility over me."
Sperry also testified he did not tell McLimans or Assistant District Attorney Kerry St. James of the year-long investigation of Vreeman. McLimans and St. James claim they found out about the investigation and the arrest warrant for Vreeman on Aug. 9.
Sperry testified he was told by DEA supervisors not to tell local prosecutors about Vreeman's arrest.
Townsend questioned Sperry about his motives for obtaining an arrest warrant for Vreeman. Townsend claims Sperry has a "personal vendetta against Thompson."
Sperry testified Vreeman was not among several Craig residents indicted by a Denver grand jury on drug charges July 10. However, Sperry still chose to get a warrant for her arrest from a federal judge in Grand Junction Aug. 7.
Vreeman introduced the undercover drug agent to a cocaine dealer on May 29, Sperry alleged.
At the urging of Ken Buck, who works for the U.S. Attorney's Office, Sperry repeatedly told Townsend he could not answer questions about the investigation of Thompson or Vreeman. Townsend is appealing to the Drug Enforcement Administration to force Sperry to answer the questions.
Feldmann, who worked under McLimans for five years, said he never notified the district attorney that Sperry was investigating the judge and his girlfriend.
"Why did you not tell me?" McLimans asked his former deputy.
"At the time, it was a rumor being checked out," Feldmann said. "I didn't have any information that there was any hard evidence. I never thought about it again."
Because of Feldmann's testimony, Townsend argued McLimans and his office should be disqualified from the case.
"You may not like Charles Feldmann," Townsend said to prosecutors and the court. "But it does not change the fact an agent from the District Attorney's Office was aware of this matter."