Photo by Jim Crogan

Donna Warren, a former Defense Department auditor, didn’t need Gary Webb’s three-part 1996 San Jose Mercury News series alleging connections between the CIA, Nicaraguan contras, convicted cocaine trafficker Ricky Ross and L.A. street gangs to understand how this insidious drug trade had savaged families in South-Central Los Angeles.

Donna’s son, Joey Patrick, a solid student and athlete, graduated from Crenshaw High in 1984 and enrolled in a local community college. Then something went very wrong. Things began disappearing from the Warren household, and her son began losing, then regaining, weight with alarming regularity.

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  • “He became listless. He started hanging around the house more and didn’t want to go to school.” Warren says she thought her son was using marijuana and that she tried to persuade him to get some help. At the time, Warren says, she knew very little about cocaine, and even less about the devastating addictive effects of crack. Her son got busted for possession of crack cocaine and was eventually placed on probation. In 1992, Joey Patrick was sent to prison for violating his probation.

    For those two years in jail, 1992 to 1994, her son remained clean, Warren says, but when he got home “it was like he never left.” He started using crack again and then repeatedly tried, but failed, to quit.

    In the interim, Warren says, her son’s legal trouble, the Rodney King beating and the subsequent riot politicized her. She became a community activist and a member of the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression. At “Free the L.A. 4+” meetings in 1992, Warren became acquainted with Ricarllo Porter, a young man who presented himself as a political activist. He needed a place to stay and asked if he could move into her garage. She agreed.

    On November 1, 1997, Warren returned home to find her 31-year-old son and Porter talking inside the house. Their discussion became an argument, and Porter challenged her son to take it outside.

    “Joey refused, and Porter left the house. Moments later, he returned. He walked into the house with a gun. I was in the kitchen. My mother was in the doorway and saw the weapon. She moved out of the way,” says Warren. But Joey was not so lucky. He was standing in the living room with his back to the doorway when her boarder opened fire.

    “My son was finally turning his life around. He had no weapon. He was no threat. And yet this man shot him nine times in cold blood,” Warren says.

    At trial, Porter claimed it was his own mother’s crack addiction that had led him to snap in his confrontation with Joey Patrick. Convicted of manslaughter, he was sentenced to 10 years in state prison.

    Today, Donna Warren is using her family’s tragedy as motivation in a war she’s helping to wage on drugs. She is one of two named plaintiffs in an ambitious class-action suit filed against the CIA, the Justice Department and their former leaders, for their alleged involvement in the crack epidemic that exploded in minority communities during the 1980s.

    Filed in U.S. District Courts in Los Angeles and Oakland on March 15 by several Oakland-based lawyers, the suit alleges two main causes of action. First, the CIA’s failure to report allegations of drug crimes, coupled with the Department of Justice’s acquiescence, interfered with government efforts to stop the flow of cocaine, thus violating the plaintiffs’ right to due process and equal protection under the Fifth Amendment.

    Second, failure to report and respond to these alleged drug crimes caused a “public nuisance” in which the plaintiffs’ communities became increasingly “dangerous, impoverished and inadequately supported by social services.”

    This past weekend, Katya Komisaruk and two of her four fellow litigators came to the Los Angeles Citizens’ Fact-Finding Commission on U.S. Drug Policy, held at USC, to give an update on the case.

    “We filed the case on March 15 because we were running up against a one-year statute of limitations on damages,” explained Komisaruk. She said the clock started based on the government’s own acknowledgment of complicity in the drug traffic, which, she said, first took place last year.

    “We decided to use the date of March 16, 1998, when CIA Inspector General Frederick Hitz informed the House Intelligence Committee about the 1982 secret agreement between the CIA and Justice, allowing CIA officers to not report alleged drug trafficking by its agents, assets and non-staff employees.”

    Komisaruk calls this 1982 memo, between late Attorney General William French Smith and late CIA director William Casey, the “smoking gun” and the “petard on which they plan to hoist the CIA and Justice.”

    The lawyers have not yet served the named defendants, which include the CIA, its past directors dating to Casey, the Department of Justice, and attorneys general dating back to French Smith, but she said she expected the case to be served next month.

    Komisaruk said the first big hurdle is to win standing for the suit in federal court, and that she expects the CIA to fight hard to bar the claim from being heard. “We believe we can show [the government’s] connection and the resulting damages by collecting info from the courts, hospitals, businesses and the police. And we plan to use the tobacco-litigation strategy, which opened up brand-new legal ground.”

    As for Warren, she wants the government to take responsibility for its alleged role in cocaine trafficking. “I also want those people in jail for drug usage and small sales to have their cases reviewed. And I want these agencies [the CIA and the Department of Justice] to pay out a lot of money so we can rebuild South-Central and set up the kinds of treatment facilities we need to end this crack epidemic.”

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