On July 17, 2007, Jeremy McLean signed a contract that would get him killed.

McLean, a 26-year-old Mark Morris High School graduate who liked to golf and lift weights, got caught selling methadone and was offered a deal: Help police bust drug peddlers, or face at least three years in prison.

So McLean signed an agreement with the Cowlitz Wahkiakum Narcotics Task Force. He wore a wire. And, time and again, he bought drugs from his fellow dealers as task force agents watched and listened in.

McLean was not a cop. He had no training. Yet he was double-crossing criminals, one of whom was a bulky and bearded heroin dealer named William Vance Reagan. Within months, on Dec. 29, Reagan ambushed McLean and shot him four times in the head, then dumped his body in the Columbia River.

This week marks four years since McLean’s body washed ashore at Willow Grove. In the years following McLean’s death, the use of undercover drug informants has come under increased scrutiny. McLean’s parents filed a lawsuit, saying the task force put Jeremy at risk and failed to protect him. The New Yorker magazine included McLean’s story in a Sept. 3 article about the dangers of deploying young, inexperienced informants in the nation’s drug war.

And Adam Kline, a Democratic state senator from Seattle, plans to introduce legislation next year limiting how drug agents use informants. Kline said he was inspired by McLean’s story.

What stands out about McLean’s death is that he was murdered while serving the taxpayers of Cowlitz County. While he could have refused the task force’s amnesty offer, it’s also true the drug agents had leverage over him — the threat of incarceration. Critics of undercover informant programs say underfunded police agencies are using that leverage to pressure young people like McLean into participating in dangerous police work on the cheap.

“They’re conscripts,” Kline said of the young informants. “These are untrained people conscripted because they can be, and they’re put in harm’s way. ... These are — how do I say it? — collateral damage in the war on drugs.”

The Daily News has reviewed thousands of pages of documents related to the McLean investigation. They reveal new details about McLean’s death and the days leading up to it. For example, numerous drug addicts and dealers told sheriff’s detectives it was well-known for months that Reagan was offering bounties to anyone who would kill McLean. McLean, meanwhile, feared for his life and slept within reach of a rifle.

The documents also show that sheriff’s investigators identified two men who may have helped Reagan plot to kill McLean, but who never were charged.

Yet questions remain about what happened to McLean and why. Could the task force, which usually includes five agents and an annual budget of $870,000, have done more to protect him? Did it have an obligation to do so? Has the task force changed the way it handles confidential informants following McLean’s death?

No one will say. Sheriff Mark Nelson, who oversees the drug task force, declined comment for this story, citing the McLean family’s pending lawsuit. Prosecutor Sue Baur did not answer an inquiry from the newspaper. And McLean’s parents, Mitchell and Shelly McLean, did not respond to nearly a dozen phone calls and emails placed with their attorney.

* * *

It took only eight pills to bring Jeremy McLean down.

McLean was part of a prominent Cowlitz County family with tight connections to legal and law enforcement circles. His grandfather is retired attorney Mick McLean, who practiced here for decades. His aunt, Noelle McLean, is a family law attorney based in West Kelso and is married to Kelso Police Chief Andrew Hamilton.

Despite his family’s good standing, McLean had been using drugs for years and made friends with drug users and low-level dealers.

On Aug. 14, 2006, Cowlitz-Wahkiakum Narcotics Task Force agents used a confidential informant to buy $48 worth of methadone from McLean. Task force agents watched McLean hand the informant a brown medicine bottle containing eight white, 10-milligram methadone pills under the carport of a Longview apartment complex.

On July 17, 2007, McLean signed a contract, agreeing to serve as a task force undercover operative and, ironically, do the very same work that had resulted in his own arrest.

McLean completed a “personal history report” for the task force, reporting he used marijuana for the first time when he was 14, LSD when he was 17, cocaine when he was 18 and heroin at age 25.

After Jeremy’s death, his father, Mitchell McLean, told detectives that Jeremy “had a problem” with pills, then got into heroin. “He came to us and told us, you know, that, ‘I need help, dad. I need help.’ ”

McLean had recently gotten out of rehab and was trying to find a job, Jeremy’s mother, Shelly McLean, said.

McLean’s sister Jennifer told detectives her brother had been “sad ... depressed,” “wanted to be a better person” and was troubled by the choices he’d made. She said she’d been hard on her brother “for not getting a job and not getting himself together,” according to detectives’ reports.

The task force contract required McLean to help bust four people and testify against them in their trials. But it also said McLean would have to participate in as many stings as the task force wanted him to. In return, prosecutors agreed they would drop McLean’s charge of methadone delivery within a school zone, which could have landed him in prison for at least three years.

The contract also said: “McLean acknowledges the risks of his involvement with undercover narcotics operations.” He initialed “JM” next to a clause stating he would not blame the task force for any “injury or liability I may sustain resulting from these investigations.”

Cowlitz County Prosecutor Sue Baur personally signed the agreement, just above McLean’s swirling signature.

From then on McLean became known as “CI No. 048.”

McLean told detectives about the people from whom he’d been buying drugs. Among them were a 47-year-old woman who, McLean said, worked in a Vancouver nursing home and stole her patients’ Oxycodone. McLean also said he could buy from a group of men described in a detective’s notes as “the Mexicans in Rainier.”

On July 20, 2007, three days after he signed his task force contract, McLean began helping bust drug dealers. On each occasion, he was fitted with surveillance equipment and given cash.

Between July 2007 and August 2008, McLean participated in 12 drug stings for the task force and helped arrest six people, including Reagan and Reagan’s girlfriend and partner in the heroin trade, Victoria Louise Gatti. McLean bought cocaine, heroin and pills. In at least one case, he provided enough evidence for task force agents to get a search warrant and, with the assistance of federal officers, bust into the home of one of McLean’s dealers.

McLean participated in a heroin sting against William Reagan on July 24, 2008. McLean also participated in several undercover heroin operations targeting Gatti throughout that summer. Both Reagan and Gatti were arrested on suspicion of dealing heroin Aug. 25, 2008.

* * *

Drug users form a tight community. They shoot up together. They serve time together. They go to rehab together. So it didn’t take long for word to get around that Reagan wanted McLean dead, according to investigative documents.

McLean, according to his parents, started getting threats. Shelly McLean later told detectives her son had been staying with her at her Longview home and keeping a .22-caliber rifle under the futon where he slept in her living room. She said her son rarely left the house.

After McLean’s death, detectives interviewed numerous heroin users who said they’d heard Reagan wanted to kill Jeremy. Some said Reagan had even offered them drugs or money if they would lead him to McLean.

One woman who said she dabbled in drugs and knew Reagan and Gatti told detectives she ran into the couple in a local grocery store parking lot in September 2008, not long after Reagan’s arrest.

“Hey, did you hear about Jeremy?” Reagan asked the woman. “He’s a narc, an informant, and he got three or four buys on Vicky and a couple on me, and if I find the [expletive] I’m gonna blow his head off.”

Reagan asked her to tell him if she saw McLean around town. But the woman said she rolled her eyes. “I just thought, ‘Oh, yeah ... he doesn’t have the (nerve) or brains to do it.’”

Clinton Cosper, who described himself as McLean’s best friend, told detectives Dec. 31 that he had been visiting Reagan’s Bergly Lane home in the Coal Creek area to buy heroin as often as four times a day for the past six months. Cosper said Reagan asked him to set up a meeting between Reagan and McLean.

“He said he wanted to talk with him about it, you know? And ask him face-to-face, see his reaction,” Cosper told the detectives. “He said that he’d make it worth my while.”

There is no indication in any of the investigation records that Cosper took Reagan up on the offer.

Another man who used drugs and ran in the same circle of people said he, too, had heard Reagan had put out “a hit” on McLean. But the man said he didn’t take the threats seriously.

“It’s Longview,” he told detectives. “I just didn’t really think they were real.”

The word among local heroin users was that Reagan was now offering up to $5,000 to anyone who would help him get McLean, according transcripts of detectives interviews with local heroin users.

After McLean disappeared, “everybody thought Jeremy was dead because a bunch of people wanted to have him killed,” one of Reagan’s nephews, Tyler Reagan, told investigators.

Everyone knew “Jeremy was a narc, that he ratted on people to get out of jail,” Tyler Reagan said.

* * *

In December 2011, Jeremy’s parents, Mitchell and Shelly McLean, filed a federal lawsuit in U.S. District Court against the cities of Kelso and Longview, Cowlitz and Wahkiakum counties, the drug task force and several of its agents. The suit alleges McLean’s constitutional right to due process was violated when the task force acted with “deliberate indifference” to the “obvious danger” posed by Reagan.

The McLeans also filed in March of this year a negligence suit against the cities of Longview and Kelso, both partners in the drug task force, saying drug agents knew McLean was in danger and failed to protect him.

The suit, filed in Cowlitz County Superior Court, is scheduled to be heard on neutral ground in Clark County.

It says the task force “required” McLean to participate in “increasingly dangerous drug transactions involving high-volume narcotics dealers,” including Reagan.

As word spread that McLean was an informant, the task force agents “refused to release Jeremy from his obligation.” Instead, the McLeans’ attorneys said, the task force agents forced “Jeremy’s participation in more escalating and dangerous stings.”

Even after McLean helped bust four dealers, as required under his contract, he was forced to keep going, the McLeans’ lawyers contend. Jeremy’s contract required him to testify against the people he helped bust. But all of those dealers had taken plea bargains, so there was no trial and no need for McLean’s testimony. By the reasoning of the police, McLean had to “indefinitely serve the narcotics task force so long as arrestees continued to accept plea agreements,” according to the court documents.

Throughout 2007 and 2008, the task force agents were “overusing Jeremy as an informant” and word got out among dealers and users that McLean was a snitch, according to the lawsuit. By August 2007 — just weeks after McLean started working for the task force — agents with the team stopped using McLean for several months because the officers “realized the danger created for Jeremy had grown too great,” the court documents said.

But nearly a year later, the agents again deployed McLean and sent him after Reagan and Gatti.

Reagan bailed out of jail Aug. 21, 2008, a day after he was arrested on suspicion of dealing heroin, and started threatening McLean, according to the suit. Reagan began recruiting people to help him kill McLean and even called the McLean residence and said, “Tell Jeremy I am out of jail and that he better watch his back,” according to the lawsuit.

McLean complained about the threats to the task force, but he was ignored, according to the lawsuit.

“Don’t worry about it,” task force agents told McLean, according to civil court documents. “It’s just hearsay.”

The McLeans’ lawyers said it became clear during this time that Reagan was using and selling heroin again, in violation of the conditions of his release. McLean might have been saved if police had locked Reagan up again for violating those conditions, the attorneys said.

Monday: Informants like McLean are “essential” to drug enforcement, but are they overused?

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