ARTICLE SHOWS SCHOOL HEART TOWARD AUTISTIC KID IN HIGH SCHOOL
It smacks of suburban myth or TV make believe, but undercover drug stings occur in high schools with surprising frequency. Cops love the stings, too, which not only served as a major morale boost but could also be lucrative. "Any increase in narcotics arrests is good for police departments. It's all about numbers," says former LAPD Deputy Chief Stephen Downing, who now works with the advocacy group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. He now views these operations with scorn.
"This is not about public safety – the public is no safer, and the school grounds are no safer. The more arrests you have, the more funding you can get through federal grants and overtime."
From his seat at a worktable in the art room, Deputy Daniel Zipperstein observed his target and tablemate, Jesse Snodgrass, clearly flummoxed by the project's complexity. Their ponytailed teacher, James Taylor [no relation to the singer is supposed], paused by the boys' table. "OK Jesse," Taylor instructed, holding up a piece of cardboard. "Today's task will be to cut out six cardboard squares of this size." Taylor took pains to pare down each assignment into bite-size chunks for Jesse, but even so, he'd need to keep circling back to remind Jesse to stay on his single small task. Zipperstein watched Jesse slowly pick up the scissors and get to work.
No one at Chaparral High School knew that transfer student "Daniel Briggs" was in fact this cop in his mid-twenties. Due to his habit of interrupting strangers' conversations whenever the subject of drugs came up he quickly acquired the nickname "Deputy Dan."
Deputy Dan was just as aggressive with Jesse Snodgrass, pursuing the friendless boy outside the confines of school. Jesse's mom, Catherine, and his dad, Doug, an engineer, had been delighted when Jesse had come home talking about his new friend from art class; they'd been even more surprised when Daniel had started buzzing Jesse's otherwise silent phone with texts. Jesse had only ever had one friend before, another special-ed kid who'd recently moved to Alabama, leaving Jesse bereft. And now that Jesse had switched to a new school – a move foisted upon the Snodgrasses when their old house had gone into foreclosure – he had been especially agitated lately. It was only the latest distress in a lifetime of everyday struggles, which Catherine and Doug did their best to help Jesse navigate, fighting the constant battles waged by the parents of children on the autism spectrum.
Though the Snodgrasses also had two younger children at home, Jesse's needs had long made him a focal point. They were ready for his life to get easier and were thrilled with the calming prospect of this new friendship.
"Why don't you tell Daniel to come over?" Catherine urged.
"He can't do it today, he's grounded," Jesse recited. Made sense to him. Daniel had already told Jesse that he was always in trouble with his strict mom, a conflict that left him super stressed – which was why Daniel "really needed" Jesse to hook him up with some pot.
"You could see right away that there's something off about him," says Perry Pickett, who at the time was a Chaparral junior. And as soon as Jesse spoke with his flat affect, slow response time and inability to follow any but the simplest instructions – his impairment was obvious.
And yet Deputy Dan was unrelenting. As the weeks went by and Jesse continued to stall, Daniel sent Jesse 60 text messages, hounding him to deliver on his promise to get marijuana. "He was pretty much stalking me," remembers Jesse. "With the begging for the drugs and everything, it was kind of a drag."
He didn't really want to get marijuana for Daniel – not that he even knew how – and the the drug requests were ratcheting up his anxiety to an intolerable level. But Jesse also desperately wanted Daniel to like him and didn't want to fail his new friend. Daniel's oft-stated plight that his home life made him so unhappy that he needed to self-medicate struck a certain chord with Jesse, who also needed pharmaceuticals in order to function. "I take medication for my own issues," Jesse confessed to Daniel, rattling them off: Depakote, Lamictal, Clonazepam. Burdened by his sense of obligation, frightened and helpless, the pressure was too much for Jesse to handle. One day the turmoil had been so great that after art class Jesse fled to the boys' bathroom and burned his arm with a lighter.
Three weeks into the school year, Doug and Catherine Snodgrass held a meeting with Jesse's educational-support team, in light of Jesse's self-inflicted burn, to discuss their son's transition to Chaparral. Elsewhere in the building that same day, Daniel pressed $20 into Jesse's hand.
"I'll see what I can get you," Jesse told him.
I'm gonna meet Daniel before class," Jesse told his father five days later while on the drive to school. He bent to read the screen of his phone. "Take me to the Outback Steakhouse." Jesse was jumpy. He'd asked Daniel to come over to his house for the marijuana handoff, but Daniel was insisting on meeting at a strip mall adjacent to Chaparral's ball fields. Daniel's car was already parked in the empty lot when Doug and Jesse arrived at 7:10 a.m.
The previous weekend, saddled with Daniel's $20 bill, Jesse wandered toward the [then opened pot] dispensary and approached a pale man with bad skin and longish hair – "he kind of had that look of a junkie," Jesse says – who took his $20 and, to Jesse's infinite relief, and handed him a clear sandwich baggie with weed inside.
Standing with Daniel beside his car and in a hurry to get this nerve-racking errand over with, Jesse thrust the precious stash into his hands. Daniel glanced at it. It was a pathetic half-gram of dried-up flakes – about five dollars' worth of marijuana, maybe enough to roll a single skinny joint. Still, Daniel seemed satisfied. He threw it in his glove compartment and suggested they get to class. Later that day, Deputy Zipperstein handed off the baggie to another deputy, who transported it to a police station, where the drugs were field-tested by yet another officer, then ceremoniously weighed, photographed and tagged as evidence: SUS – SNODGRASS, JESSE $20/.6 GRAM MARIJUANA BUY #1. The picture was transferred onto CD for posterity.
On the morning of December 11th, the door to Jesse's art classroom burst open, and five armed police officers in bulletproof vests rushed in, calling his name. Jesse was handcuffed in front of his classmates. He thought maybe he was asleep and dreaming. "I was confused," he remembers. "I didn't know what was going on," and he didn't connect the events back to Daniel. Neither did Madalyn or Jessica, who also were arrested in their classrooms; the three of them, along with two other boys, were paraded in handcuffs out of Chaparral and into a police van. At the same time, in a classroom at nearby Rancho Vista continuation high school, Perry – who'd transferred to get better one-on-one special-needs attention – was being shackled; and Sebastian, sick at home, awoke to find his bedroom filled with cops. Fifteen students from Temecula Valley High School were also rounded up, bringing the number of students arrested in Operation Glasshouse to an impressive 22.
The scale of the takedown operation was enormous, from the swarming officers in tactical gear to the police helicopter hovering overhead. Authorities announced they had seized marijuana, Ecstasy, LSD, heroin, cocaine, meth and prescription drugs. Though it declined to divulge the quantities, the sheriff's office insisted that the amounts collected were beside the point: "The program is not designed to recover large amounts of drugs," it said in a statement to RS. "The program is designed to quell hand-to-hand narcotics transactions on campus." That evening, the big drug bust would be the talk of Southern California, with newscasts leading with the story – prominently featuring a dramatic photograph of a tall boy dressed in a gray hoodie and black Dickies, his hands cuffed behind his back, flanked by armed officers. Jesse Snodgrass had just become Operation Glasshouse's unlikely poster child.
For more than an hour, he'd been waiting in a common area in tense silence with 21 other kids, the vast majority of them Mexican-American boys, desperately studying their downcast faces for clues. None had been told the reason for their arrests and were forbidden to talk. Any time they'd made a sound, officers barked, "You better shut your mouth." Jesse had watched as one by one they'd been called into this little room, although one key nuance had eluded him: Each had emerged looking shocked and terrified; one girl had a full-blown panic attack.
Jesse's parents were never notified of their son's arrest, but learned of it when he didn't surface after school; a cascade of calls had finally put Doug in touch with the school principal, who informed him in a businesslike way that Jesse had been arrested hours earlier.
The district's director of Child Welfare and Attendance, Michael Hubbard, who was one of only three district administrators with foreknowledge of the sting, further testified that his faith in Operation Glasshouse was so complete that he'd felt fine about Jesse's arrest. "I didn't believe it was coercion or entrapment for any of the kids," Hubbard testified. In March last year, Judge Marian Tully's 19-page ruling lambasted the school district for setting Jesse up to fail.
"The district placed Student in an extremely difficult social-problem scenario that would have been difficult even for typical high school students," she wrote, much less a special-needs kid. Chastising the district for "leaving Student to fend for himself, anxious and alone, against an undercover police officer," she ordered that Jesse be returned to school immediately.
Yet Jesse's victories did little to ease his frayed mental state as he headed back to Chaparral High School. He shook with anxiety in the car on the drive there and hadn't yet overcome his new habit of crumpling to the floor anytime they passed a police car. During the three-month suspension since his arrest, Jesse had been overwhelmed by paranoia so great that once when their doorbell rang, he tackled his mother to the floor, begging, "Don't answer!" Plagued by panic attacks and nightmares – the back of his left hand was gouged by a deep groove where he'd anxiously scratched himself raw – Jesse had been diagnosed with PTSD. He was frightened to be back at Chaparral, where the other kids stared and counselors who'd testified against him now smiled at him, and where, to his parents' disbelief, the school district had filed an appeal of the administrative ruling – it was still fighting to expel him.
After the Los Angeles school district began openly questioning its efficacy in 2004, the LAPD abruptly shut down its 30-year-old undercover School Buy program.
Nevertheless, Riverside County is undeterred. This past December – one year after the raid that arrested Jesse Snodgrass – the sheriff's department announced yet another successful undercover operation: a semester-long sting that nabbed 25 high school students in the nearby cities of Perris and Meniffee, most for small amounts of marijuana. Among the arrestees was reportedly a 15-year-old special-ed student who reads at a third-grade level, arrested for selling a single Vicodin pill for $3, which he used to buy snacks. Perris Superintendent Jonathan Greenberg has called the operation "an unqualified success."
The Snodgrasses don't want their experience to be in vain and are now suing the Temecula Valley Unified School District, accusing it of negligence for allowing their son to be targeted despite his disabilities. "We think that we can make these operations stop," says Doug. "We want to use this to send a message to administrators everywhere. When they're approached by police departments about having an undercover operation at their school, they'll remember a district got sued."
Jesse Snodgrass managed to graduate this past December and has started a job in construction. In the meantime, he has gleaned a few important lessons from the ordeal: "To not trust everyone you see," he says thoughtfully. Through his friend's harsh betrayal, he has come to understand that people aren't always what they appear to be, a cruel but necessary lesson that all children must learn sometime. He has realized that even adults are capable of acting with terrible unkindness and duplicity.
And Jesse learned one more valuable lesson.
"I mean, the Riverside County Sheriff's Department, they taught me how to buy pot," he says, and breaks into a grin.
This story is from the March 13th, 2014 issue of Rolling Stone. Edited for content length and emphasis.