Saturday, October 17, 2015
The day after Christmas in 2012, Rick walked inside an Omaha brothel, headed into a bedroom and stripped down.
A woman wearing a yellow plaid dress picked up condom wrappers and said, “People don’t know how to clean up around here.” Rick paid for a hand job and left.
He showed up again in early January 2013. After taking off his clothes, Rick made small talk with a woman while “Fly Like an Eagle” by the Steve Miller Band played loudly. The two performed oral sex on each other.
On Rick’s third visit to Goodfellas, he again offered a woman money and had sex.
When he walked outside, two Omaha police officers met him — not to arrest him for soliciting prostitution, but to collect the evidence he had gathered for them to expose the owners of Goodfellas, a bikini bar virtually across the street from the Douglas County Correctional Center that fronted a long-standing prostitution ring.
Rick was paid by police for his Goodfellas encounters, which were recorded with police equipment while police conducted surveillance outside the club, according to law enforcement and court records.
The brothel has been closed, and three people have been indicted in federal court, but the Omaha Police Department’s investigative tactics in the Goodfellas case have since been questioned by the attorney for the brothel operator and by officials in the law enforcement community.
A national expert on human trafficking, a former leader of the Nebraska office of the FBI and the Douglas County sheriff said they never have allowed an informant to engage in sex acts. All three said it is standard for confidential informants to pay for sex but then not go through with the sex act.
The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office and the FBI worked with a second informant on the Goodfellas case: a woman who worked there, according to court records.
The FBI paid the woman $1,000 for providing details about the brothel operation, its owners, its employees and the buying and selling of sex, court records said.
Douglas County Sheriff Tim Dunning said he had no knowledge of the sexual encounters that occurred between the Omaha police informant and Goodfellas workers. Dunning said he wouldn’t authorize sex acts during a brothel investigation. He said recording the solicitation is all the proof law enforcement needs to arrest someone.
“Morally, I just wouldn’t do that,” Dunning said. “You don’t have to engage in that sex act.”
The U.S. Attorney’s Office and FBI declined to comment on the informant’s actions. The Omaha Police Department and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Omaha also declined to say how much Rick was paid. Court documents and the video evidence indicate he paid $200 each time he visited Goodfellas.
Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer declined interview requests to discuss the case.
“There are a number of policies regarding utilizing confidential informants and operations including prostitution that would apply, but these are strategic and tactical in nature so we aren’t able to release them,” said Lt. Darci Tierney, an Omaha police spokeswoman.
Omaha Police Sgt. Jeremy Christensen and Officer Brian McDowell interviewed the confidential informant after each of his visits to the brothel and retrieved the recording equipment. They said they did not have authorization to talk about the investigation.
On the first visit, the informant threw his shirt over the camera, blocking the view of the sex act. During the second visit, he and the woman turned off the lights, so only their silhouettes could be seen. By the third visit, Omaha police officers can be heard on video before Rick goes into the brothel, telling him to leave the lights on, keep the woman talking and capture the exchange of money.
It’s unclear whether public funds were used to pay the prostitutes. But attorney James Martin Davis, who is representing brothel operator Louis Venditte, said it is standard procedure for police to provide the money informants use to solicit sex.
John Vanek, a former California police lieutenant who led a human-trafficking task force for the San Jose Police Department, said his department investigated brothels, but he said it never was necessary for officers or informants to engage in illegal activities to catch the brothel managers. Vanek said doing so only further victimizes the sex workers, which he said police shouldn’t do.
Vanek said he has managed many confidential informants, and it was standard procedure to instruct informants not to violate any laws. Vanek now is an anti-human trafficking consultant and has been a member of the U.S. Justice Department's anti-trafficking planning committee.
“I am not saying the (Omaha) police condoned this, but it is certainly not ethical to have a confidential informant to engage in sex to collect proof,” Vanek said. “The vast majority of prostitution investigations have occurred without sex occurring.”
Weysan Dun, the former special agent in charge of the Nebraska FBI office, declined to speak specifically about the Goodfellas case, but in general said he never came across a case where his officers needed approval for an informant to engage in sexual activity.
“I definitely would not approve for an informant to engage in that sort of activity,” said Dun, who created a law enforcement task force in 2010 to combat human trafficking.
Davis said he was appalled by the tactics police used to gain evidence against his client.
Police went too far to gather evidence, Davis said, noting that he considers the video recorded by the informant to be pornography rather than evidence.
“In 40 years of practicing law, I have never seen an instance where the police officers have instructed somebody to perform sexual acts and to record them,” Davis said.
“You have the City of Omaha directly getting involved in the commission of sexual acts and then filming it,” he said. “It is a step down the wrong path for police. In some circles, it shocks the conscience.”
The Goodfellas investigation began in August 2012 when police visited an escort website using an undercover account and connected with a longtime Goodfellas customer named David G. Shirley, 51.
Shirley was responsible for recruiting new customers to Goodfellas, FBI Special Agent Anna Brewer said in court documents. Brewer alleged that Shirley vouched for the Omaha police informant, who Davis said went by the name Rick. Davis was unsure if Rick is his real name, because he is not named in court documents.
Shirley, whose street name is Nash, told an undercover officer the location of the club and said women who worked at Goodfellas offered sex. When reached recently, Shirley denied any association with Goodfellas.
A local and federal task force executed a search warrant at Goodfellas in October 2013.
The confidential informant’s videos, recorded 10 months earlier, played a role in nabbing the leaders of the brothel. Louis Venditte, 68, along with his wife, Ruby Venditte, 67, and John Wagstaffe, 65, all were indicted in federal court for running the business. The Vendittes have pleaded guilty to reduced prostitution charges and are scheduled to face sentencing in November. Wagstaffe’s trial is scheduled to begin Oct. 26.
Former State Sen. Amanda McGill said she helped pass a law that requires law enforcement to be trained on how to properly investigate sex trafficking. The training has not been fully implemented, but McGill said she hopes it will include training police on ways to not revictimize women during an investigation.
The Nebraska Attorney General’s Office created a human trafficking task force this year to improve education, train law enforcement and develop recommendations for victim services. The Governor’s Office also has a human trafficking task force.
Dun, a member of the governor’s task force, said the group has created training for new police hires. The attorney general’s task force plans to create a curriculum that develops guidelines for police investigative tactics used during human-trafficking probes, Dun said.
“I think there is a great need for law enforcement training at all levels for how to investigate these types of cases,” Dun said. “The investigation of these cases is very complex, and there are a lot of issues involved.”