The Life and Death of Eric Sinacori, UMass Confidential Informant

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A pair of journalism students from UMass wrote an article recently for the Boston Globe about the death of a student. The student, Eric Sinacori, died in October of 2013. The cause of his death was not reported at the time. It turns out that he died of a heroin overdose.

That’s sad enough, but the details … ah, the devil is always in the details.

Eric, it turns out had been a confidential informant. Like so many others before him, he’d been informed on by another CI run by the campus police. They were told that he was a dealer, so an undercover campus cop – possibly along with a DEA agent – made what’s referred to as a controlled buy from him, that is, they bought a little ecstasy.

Soon after, according to the story in the Globe, in December 2012 the undercover campus cop approached him about making another purchase. Eric didn’t have any mushrooms but he could find some acid, so he agreed to sell the undercover some acid, and allegedly sold two hits for $20. The undercover unveiled himself at that point and instead of taking Eric into custody, offered him a deal: they’d forget everything if Eric would become a confidential informant for the campus police and help them bust another student. He agreed.

So, the story goes, the campus cops gave Eric some money, and he then bought some acid from another student. That person was then arrested, along with another student. According to the Globe story, both of them were suspended from school, but it’s not known whether they were offered the chance of becoming informants themselves.

For his cooperation, Eric’s troubles were made to disappear. According to the Globe story, the campus police even refunded the $700 they had seized from him the night he got busted.

If he had not cooperated, in addition to any actual criminal charges, Eric would have been suspended, and his parents would definitely have been notified. I noticed an objection to the latter concern in a comments section. It is true that criminal records are supposed to be confidential, and Eric was 20 years old at the time. What those people fail to realize, or are just ignoring, is the fact that – again in addition to any criminal charges which might have been pursued – Eric was facing disciplinary action from the school for violating its code of conduct by being involved with illegal drugs. Parental notification would have been automatic.

Further, a criminal felony conviction would have meant that Eric would have had to pay back his scholarship money – $40,000 total.

Eric was faced with the prospect of having his life and his future destroyed. So, like so many others before him, he became a snitch.

His identity as a CI did not remain confidential. It was later reported that he had actually been used as a witness in the trial of the two he helped bust. He started getting flack from people he knew for what he’d done. In spite of this, Eric was still able to buy and use drugs. It seems he may have been doing heroin all this time. In early October 2013, his dealer brought him some heroin. Eric was found the next day in his bathroom, dead. Some time later, his death was attributed to an opiate overdose. According to the Globe, the person who allegedly provided Eric with that heroin may still be a student at the University.

This story has, as you might expect, generated controversy, and people in authority are running for cover.

The Daily Hampshire Gazette‘s Rebecca Everett reported on Friday October 3:

In a statement issued Wednesday, District Attorney David E. Sullivan and Assistant District Attorney Jeremy Bucci said that Sinacori, who died of a heroin overdose death on Oct. 4, 2013, was a “cooperating witness,” not an informant, in a drug case. In a later interview Wednesday night, UMass officials said that Sinacori was both a witness and an informant, but at different times.

According to the Gazette, UMass spokesman Edward F. Blaguszewski said that UMass Deputy Police Chief Patrick Archbald confirmed to him that Sinacori had agreed to become a CI in 2012 after police arrested him for sale of LSD and ecstasy. Sinacori later became a cooperating witness in the trial. He informed on two people who were arrested in connection with a single drug case and was given informant number 12-8-CI.

Reportedly it’s not unusual for a prosecutor to not know the name of an informant. Police make an arrest go away in exchange for the person becoming an informant, so the arrest never gets to the prosecutor. In the Sinacori case, as noted above, the police even refunded the $700 that they seized from him when he was arrested.

For the time being, the University’s confidential informant program has been suspended. On Sept. 30, Umass chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy wrote an email to the campus community in response to the Globe article, in it the chancellor wrote:

With that student focus in mind I have ordered a full review of the campus’s current confidential informant program. The review will consider whether the program should be discontinued or revised to include mandatory substance abuse treatment and parental notification. While that review continues, I have suspended the use of student confidential informants by the UMass Amherst Police Department. The department is not currently working with any student confidential informants and the suspension of the practice will not affect any ongoing investigations. Furthermore, in order to ensure that UMPD is more aligned with and responsive to the concerns of students, I have decided that the UMass Police Department, which has reported to the Vice Chancellor for Administration and Finance, will now report to the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs and Campus Life.

I’m still having a hard time wrapping my head around the idea of campus cops carrying sidearms, doing drug investigations, running snitches and undercover operations. I’ve always thought of campus security as just that: security guards, people who enforce parking rules, sometimes enforce liquor laws, who come in to quiet down a party at the dormitory or at a frat if people get badly out of hand. I am having a hard time envisioning campus security as a serious police department capable of doing much more than that, and I think I’m being realistic. There is something drastically wrong when a college puts that much power and authority into the hands of what are basically glorified security guards. That is what I find frightening.

The University of Massachusetts Amherst’s police department is a full-on 60-member police department, not just a campus security office. This is from the Chief’s Message in the Umass PD’s 2013 annual report: “The UMass Police Department has been accredited by the Massachusetts Police Accreditation Commission since 2011, and less than two years later, in November of 2012, was accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, Inc. (CALEA).”

Beyond that, the Umass PD is serious about its law enforcement mission. I don’t see them giving up or changing without a fight. This is also from their 2013 annual report:

To combat crime and ensure public tranquility, the University of Massachusetts Amherst Police Department is a visible part of campus life. UMPD is organized, trained, and equipped to provide progressive law enforcement and emergency services to our community. As set forth in Massachusetts General law: “The (University) trustees may appoint as police officers persons in the employ of the University who in the enforcement of said rules and regulations and throughout university property shall have the powers of police officers, except as to service of civil process.” (MGL: Ch. 75, Sec.32A) Therefore, our officers possess the power and authority to apprehend and arrest anyone involved in illegal acts on campus. In addition, the University of Massachusetts Amherst Police Department and the Towns of Amherst, Hadley, Belchertown and Deerfield have ratified mutual aid agreements which give UMPD officers the authority to take police action in those jurisdictions while on duty. Each department augments the other within their jurisdiction during mutual responses, investigations, arrests and prosecutions. It is a regular practice for these agencies to work together on investigations that may cross jurisdictional UMass Amherst boundaries. Local police and the University police attend weekly meetings with the Dean of Students’ Office to exchange ideas and concerns of interest to both communities.

So the core mission of this campus police department is to combat crime and ensure public tranquility. I’ll get to the question of whether running undercover operations and employing confidential informants is appropriate in a bit, and we’ll leave aside question of whether the UMass Amherst PD is competent enough run undercover ops and employ confidential informants for the moment other than to say that they’re obviously not. Let’s take a look for a moment instead at the job the UMass Amherst PD did in October 2013, the month that Eric Sinacori died.

According to the crime statistics compiled by the UMass Amherst PD and available at their website, in the month of October 2013, the University of Massachusetts Amherst PD received the few reports of crimes. There were two assault & battery domestics, one of which ended in an arrest, the other closed with no charges. By the way, that’s closed as in the report is closed, no actions of any kind are being taken. The official definition, according to the report, is: “the listed crime is no longer under investigation due to a resolution, or a lack of further leads. ”

Going on, again from October 2013:
Three Breaking & Entering, all open, though admittedly one does say that a suspect has been ID’d. Possibly that case involved a young student who hadn’t yet decided on whether to become an informant.
One Burglary, open.
Two Disorderly Conduct, one arrested, one still open.
One Disturbing The Peace, arrested.
15 counts of Failure To Disperse, Disorderly Conduct, and Resisting Arrest. No surprises here, that was around Halloween.
One False Fire Alarm, open but with a suspect IDed.
Indecent Exposure, open.

Now, the Larcenies.
Five Larcenies were closed because the items were recovered.
Eleven Larcenies were listed as open.
Quite a few, though Vandalism was top of the list for most reports listed as open: Twelve. I won’t bore you with the rest of the list, it’s available here.

I will however note one more thing: there were two reports of possession of a Class B drug that month. One resulted in arrest, the other was listed as open. The arrest included additional charges: possession with intent to distribute a class d drug and possession of more than an ounce of marijuana. They mostly issued summonses for liquor law violations that month, a total of 6 in all, along with one arrest.

I realize that some drugs are illegal. I understand how it would be helpful for a campus police department to be able to enforce laws. But what kind of priorities are we setting?

A lot of those reports were left open, or they were closed because they had no hope of ever finding someone on whom to pin the blame. The month of October 2013 isn’t unique in that regard. There are also no violent crimes there. In most cases, I wouldn’t find that remarkable because I don’t think of campus security as the first agency to go to for a real crime, and I doubt I’m unique, at least in that way. Still, they’re doing undercover drug operations and running informants, and their mission is to combat crime and ensure public tranquility. So let’s see how well they’re doing.

The Department of Education maintains a database of reported crimes on university campuses around the country. It’s called the Campus Safety and Security Data Analysis Cutting Tool.

These data are reported by the universities themselves, and they include incidents reported to the local police agencies as well as their own. The most recent reporting year available is 2012, and mind you the data are not verified so we only have the Umass’s word for it, however in 2012 the university reported that on the Umass Amherst campus there were 15 rapes, one robbery, seven aggravated assaults, and 59 burglaries. Eleven of those rapes reportedly occurred in dorms.

I’m not sure how it’s supposed to be measured, but I don’t believe the Umass Amherst PD is ensuring much tranquility on that campus.

Of course, it’s now 2014. The data from 2013 have only just been released. And in December 2013, after reviewing a lengthy report by consultants hired to advise on campus security following a dormitory gang-rape in October 2012, UMass-Amherst announced that they were spending $2 million to enhance campus security.

Hopefully that money will be well spent, because it’s much too late: According to the data released by Umass-Amherst PD per the Clery Act, in 2013, forcible sexual offenses on campus increased from the year before – 22 incidents on-campus, with 16 of them in residence halls.

What happened to this young man is tragic, and his story needs to be told. It almost wasn’t.

When Eric died, his work as an informant could have died with him. No arrest had been recorded, remember. Presumably, the cops threatened to file the old charges against him if he didn’t agree to become a cooperating witness, blowing his own confidentiality. After all, it’s not like any charges had been dismissed or he’d been found not guilty. Like most people, Eric probably thought that “confidential” meant what it said in the dictionary.

From all accounts, Eric was a good kid. He graduated in 2011 from Hunterdon Central High School in New Jersey. He played ice hockey while he was there, varsity for three years, though he wasn’t involved in school athletics at college. Eric was an honors student. He got a chancellor’s scholarship to attend the University of Massachusetts. At the time of his death, he was a third-year student majoring in kinesiology and may have had plans to become a physical therapist.

He was interested in electronic dance music, in particular a variety called glitch-hop, according to his then-girlfriend.
That’s evident from his YouTube channel, too.

Eric was well-loved, and he’s missed. His family set up a foundation in his name to grant scholarships to students like Eric. Here’s their mission statement:

The mission of the Eric Sinacori Memorial Foundation is twofold – first, to provide need based financial support to graduating seniors at Hunterdon Central Regional High School, as well as upperclassmen enrolled in the Kinesiology program at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, via annual scholarships, and secondly, to provide funding for enrollment and equipment to children who meet specific educational objectives, yet lack the financial resources to experience the many benefits provided by recognized youth ice hockey or other youth sports programs. The foundation aspires to allow Eric’s name to live on by honoring his passion for learning, as well as his passion for sports and the many life enhancing values these programs offer. Eric knew he wanted to help others and it is our desire to strive towards his goal.

Donations can be made online or mailed to Eric Sinacori Scholarship Fund, P.O. Box 268, Whitehouse Station, N.J., 08888.

What happened to Eric is sad, and more than a little scary. We have gone so far over the top in this, our century-long war on drugs, that we have campus security guards running playing at being real cops, doing undercover drug investigations and coercing students into acting as informants, possibly putting these students at great risk. Things did not go as badly in this case as they did in the case of Rachel Hoffman, the Florida student who was coerced into becoming a CI and who was killed by a violent narcotics dealer from whom she was supposed to be making a controlled buy. No, it didn’t go as badly for Eric as it did for Rachel, yet they’re both just as dead.

Is this really what we’ve become?

I got involved in drug policy reform 31 years ago, as a student at the University of Iowa. We’ve made so much progress since then, there have been so many advances, yet in that time we’ve also suffered many losses. Until the drug war is brought to an end there will be more unnecessary deaths, more people like Rachel and Eric will be caught in the meatgrinder of our criminal justice system, more families will suffer. We still have a lot of work yet to do, and together, dear listeners, we will make a difference.

For previous Ladybud articles about confidential informants, click here.

Photo Credit: Rhobite at the English language Wikipedia under (CC-BY-SA-3.0) from Wikimedia Commons