Shortly before midnight on July 3, 2012, Fernando Palma-Carias called his handler in a panic. Lance Anthony, a Wake County sheriff's investigator assigned to the Drug Enforcement Administration, was looking into the local arm of a Mexican drug cartel. Carias was his snitch. And Carias was in trouble.
"The police, they are trying to kill me!"
"What are you talking about?" Anthony replied, according to a case report. "Why are they trying to kill you?"
"I did something bad. I shot her."
"Who did you shoot?"
"Is she OK?"
"I don't know. I think I killed her."
"I won't let anything happen to you," Anthony promised. He told Carias to meet him at the DEA office on Falls of Neuse Road.
Few people knew about Carias's secret life. To friends and neighbors, he was a rags-to-riches story, the owner of a South Saunders Street grocery store called Mexico Lindo—"beautiful Mexico." After escaping poverty in his native Honduras in the early nineties, he'd met a woman in Durham. Though they never married or fell in love, Carias says, they moved into a $385,000 cul-de-sac home in southern Wake County in 2008, where they raised twin sons.
But that night, Carias was freaking out. He drove to the DEA office and stopped his car; Anthony and another agent motioned him forward with a flashlight. Carias, however, detoured a short distance up a road and parked. He jumped out and pointed a 9-millimeter to his chin. The agents took cover behind a parked car.
"The gun is not for you or Lance," Carias shouted. "I like you guys. The gun is for me!"
Cops and journalists soon flooded the area. Carias's mother saw his breakdown on TV and sped to the scene. Through a police megaphone, she begged her son to give up. As the sun began its ascent on the Fourth of July, Carias spotted a sniper out of the corner of his eye and surrendered.
He was correct: Marisol Rojas, the woman with whom he shared a house and children, was dead. She was thirty-seven.
Though he now claims the killing was self-defense, Carias pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in 2013 and was sentenced to sixteen to twenty-one years in prison. He'll be eligible for parole in 2029; if that happens, he'll almost certainly be immediately deported.
But that was just the beginning. Four months after his conviction, Carias filed a federal lawsuit—still ongoing—accusing the DEA of luring vulnerable immigrants into dangerous drug operations through empty promises of citizenship. Though his lawsuit is full of sensational claims, Carias is hardly the first undocumented immigrant to accuse the DEA of coercing him into the dangerous world of snitching. (See "The Informant Game," page 17.)
Among the defendants Carias names in his lawsuit is Wake County sheriff's deputy Jim Cornaire, whom Carias says was his personal DEA escort. Carias alleges that Cornaire extorted money from him and outed him as a snitch to Rojas, prompting the fight that led to her death. (Cornaire, who declined an interview, has denied those accusations.)
- Illustration by Shan Stumpf
From there, Carias's tale gets even stranger.
With Rojas dead and Carias in prison, on August 3, 2012, Cornaire—in accordance with Rojas's will—took custody of Carias's twins, who are now eighteen. A year later, on the twins' behalf, Cornaire lodged a wrongful-death lawsuit against Carias. A judge ordered Carias to pay $8 million in damages.
As much as interviews and court documents reveal about this case, there's plenty we don't know. Many of Carias's claims lack independent corroboration, and the circumstances under which he became an informant are disputed.
But we do know that it is against DEA rules to promise undocumented immigrants citizenship, and that the agency's handling of its informants has recently come under fire.
We also know that, not long ago, Carias was living the American dream. If the DEA hadn't made him a snitch, would he still be? And might Marisol Rojas still be alive?