Mitch McLean said the drug enforcement agent told him his son would be safe. The officer, who was Jeremy McLean’s “handler” with the Cowlitz-Wahkiakum Narcotics Task Force, said he would look out for Jeremy and that the people Jeremy would be ratting out “were not dangerous anyway,” Mitch McLean said.
But the people Jeremy McLean set up last summer turned out to be very dangerous. They figured out that the 26-year-old Mark Morris graduate had been working as an undercover drug informant. On Dec. 29, they lured him to a motor home where William Vance Reagan Jr., one of the two heroin dealers Jeremy helped bust, was hiding in a closet. Reagan shot Jeremy four times in the head and face, then dumped his body in the Columbia River.
Members of Jeremy McLean’s family said last week they tried repeatedly to warn the narcotics task force that Jeremy was in danger, but the agents ignored them and Jeremy was left to fend for himself.
“They were negligent in their handling of my son’s case,” said Mitch McLean, 50, of Longview. “They blew it big time, and my advice to anybody out there (who is) connected in the drug situation and wants to work with the task force is they’d better get it in writing or take their lumps — get their safety in writing.”
Jeremy McLean’s sister, Jenny McLean, said in a written statement to the newspaper that the task force’s handling of her brother’s case was “unacceptable and disappointing.”
The task force, she said, needs to “do some readjusting so that in the future no other individual or family has to go through this nightmare.”
Cowlitz County Sheriff Bill Mahoney, who is the chairman of the task force’s executive board, declined to discuss specific details of Jeremy McLean’s involvement with the unit, saying authorities still are investigating his murder. On Friday he said, “To the best of my knowledge, we’ve never ignored any threat.”
In a written statement to the newspaper, Mahoney said: “Everyone in the criminal justice field is saddened by the death of Mr. McLean and angered at Mr. Reagan for his deed. Our hearts go out to the McLean family for their loss. No one should die so drug dealers can make money.”
When Jeremy McLean was killed, the task force lost an informant with tight ties to the law enforcement and legal communities. Jeremy’s grandfather, Mick McLean, now retired, is a well-known local defense attorney. Jeremy’s aunt, Kelso attorney Noelle McLean, is married to Kelso Police Chief Andrew Hamilton.
The case has raised questions about the safety of informants who help arrest local drug dealers — and about the task force’s responsibility to protect those informants. It has also alarmed prosecutors and law enforcement officials, who say the safety of witnesses and informants is vital to the justice system.
“To the best of our knowledge, no (confidential informant) has ever been murdered as a result of working with us, until Mr. Reagan came along,” Mahoney said.
Terry Mulligan, the director of the Cowlitz County public defender’s office, said he doesn’t know enough about the task force program to “have any opinion as far as how they handle people or how they should handle people.”
Yet, he said, “The fact of the matter is, becoming a snitch is dangerous, and I tell my clients that. Of course, I don’t have to tell them — they’re usually the ones telling me that it’s dangerous.”
For example, Mulligan, who represents Reagan, said during Reagan’s sentencing hearing last month: “Another individual working for the task force was shot on one occasion and kidnapped and held at gunpoint on another. Working with the task force is dangerous business, and that’s not something that Mr. Reagan created.”
Mulligan declined to elaborate. Asked about the public defender’s comments, Mahoney said, “We are not aware of any such situation.”
Sniffing out a snitch
Court records say an informant helped the task force arrest Reagan, 52, and his live-in girlfriend, Victoria Louise Gatti, 47, last summer. The records identify the confidential informant only as “CI,” but the prosecutor’s office acknowledged last month that the informant was Jeremy McLean.
Authorities and the McLean family have declined to say how Jeremy McLean came to work as a confidential informant for the task force.
Most informants, Mahoney said, “come to us and volunteer information. We rarely recruit.” Many, he said, are facing their own drug charges and “help investigators in hopes of mitigating their punishment.”
The court documents say Jeremy met with detectives several times in June, July and August to help bust Reagan and Gatti. The detectives searched Jeremy, gave him “pre-recorded buy money” and then watched as he bought heroin from either Reagan or Gatti, the documents said. Jeremy then returned to the task force agents and handed over the drugs.
Reagan and Gatti were arrested on suspicion of delivery of heroin Aug. 20. Authorities say Jeremy was scheduled to testify against them in their drug trials in January.
It’s still unclear how Reagan and Gatti learned that Jeremy had set them up. John Hays, a Longview defense attorney who knows the McLean family, said it’s easy for defendants to figure out who snitched on them through the discovery process as they prepare for trial. (The Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution gives defendants the right to confront their accusers in court.)
However he found out, McLean’s family said, Reagan immediately began threatening Jeremy. The night he bailed out of jail, Reagan called Jeremy’s mother, Shelly McLean, and said Jeremy should fear for his life, according to McLean’s friends and family.
On another occasion, one of Reagan’s friends called Jeremy saying he had a job for him, which was clearly a lie, Mitch McLean said.
Another man tried to warn Jeremy that he was in danger, Mitch McLean said. The man, according to Jeremy’s father, said Reagan was offering people money to lure Jeremy into the woods.
The threats were reported to the Cowlitz-Wahkiakum Narcotics Task Force, Mitch McLean said. A task force agent, he said, told the family that no crime had been committed and dismissed the threats as “hearsay.”
“The police kept reassuring me he wasn’t in danger,” he said. “Immediately they should have dispatched the officer to come over and talk with Jeremy, verify the phone calls, go out and make contact with the people that were trying to lure Jeremy into the woods.”
Authorities should have “put him in some kind of protective custody if need be,” Mitch McLean said. “To say, ‘Don’t worry, these people are harmless, it’s just hearsay’ — that’s just kind of sweeping it under the rug.”
Jeremy’s father and sister said they are still waiting for the task force to explain what went wrong. Agents, they said, won’t return the family’s phone calls.
Mitch McLean said he does not plan to file a civil liability suit against the narcotics task force. Rather, he said, Jeremy’s family members have decided to focus on ensuring that the people who killed Jeremy are “brought to justice.” In addition, Mitch McLean said his frustration is targeted at the narcotics task force, not the sheriff’s detectives who have been investigating Jeremy’s murder.
“They have been impressive,” he said of the homicide detectives. “They’ve done an awesome job investigating this and they’re not giving up. … I only wish they were the ones handling the task force. If they handled the task force the way they handled the murder investigation, none of this would have ever happened.”
Sheriff Mahoney declined to discuss in detail measures that are taken to protect confidential informants. In his written statement to the newspaper, he said: “Law enforcement has a very, very limited ability to protect people who choose to be involved in the very dangerous world of drug dealing.”
Detectives discuss the risks with informants, Mahoney said, and many already know the dangers. Each informant, he said, signs an agreement acknowledging “the risks of his involvement.”
Tod Burke, a former Maryland cop and professor of criminal justice at Radford University in Virginia, said confidential informants are not part of a witness protection program. “It’s TV stuff that you’re going to have 24-hour protection,” he said. “That’s not realistic.”
Still, there are some measures police can take to protect their sources. Cameron Campbell, an Oregon police academy instructor, said that when he was a cop he would sometimes get a group of people together, load an informant’s furniture in a truck and “help them move out of town.”
Campbell, who is the director of training for the Oregon Department of Public Safety Standards and Training, said he is reluctant to “Monday morning quarterback somebody’s active case.” But, he said, he advises his students to “assess the threat” if they believe an informant is in danger. If the threat is credible, he said, “they need to bring that to the attention of a supervisor.”
‘Scared for his life’
As the intimidation continued in the months leading up his murder, Jeremy McLean became frightened, his father said. He spent more time around the house and avoided “going off by himself.”
It had become clear that the police weren’t going to help Jeremy, Mitch McLean said.
“He was obviously scared for his life,” he said. “It wasn’t so much what he said as how he was behaving, just like he was in fear. He was always very concerned.”
A fisherman found Jeremy McLean’s body on the morning of New Year’s Eve along the Columbia River in Willow Grove County Park.
“Shelly and I knew exactly what happened and who murdered our son,” Mitch McLean said.
Authorities said that on Dec. 29, a still-unnamed accomplice lured Jeremy to a motor home where Reagan was hiding in a closet with a .22-caliber pistol. When Jeremy, paranoid after enduring months of threats, checked behind the closet door, Reagan leaped out and shot him three times in the top and back of the head.
As Jeremy lay on the floor, still breathing, Reagan shot him once more, then pitched his body into the Columbia River, according to court documents.
Reagan pleaded guilty to aggravated murder last month and will spend the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of parole. Gatti, his girlfriend, has been formally charged with helping Reagan cover his tracks following the shooting, and the prosecutor’s office said she may face additional charges related to the murder. Police continue to round up additional suspects who are thought to be Reagan’s and Gatti’s co-conspirators.
“I have never, ever in my life experienced such horror,” Mitch McLean said. “I would not wish that pain on any man. When I received the phone call that my son was missing and then (was) told two days later that they had found him dead, there’s nothing anybody can ever do that would bring any more pain than that.”
“Obviously I’m angry that I’ve lost my son,” he continued. “I’m angry that I couldn’t have done something to stop this from happening. I’m very upset with the way they handled it.”
Reagan ambushed McLean, police say (Jan. 17)
Editor's note: Out of respect to the family of Jeremy McLean and in the interest of fairness to all points of view on this article, we have deleted all existing reader comments and will not be accepting future comments on this story.