ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) – By late spring, things had grown nearly unbearable for the family of Jason Estrada.
They’d lost a father, a brother, a son and a husband when Estrada was gunned down at his South Valley home on April 4. In the immediate aftermath, another allegation surfaced: Estrada’s 6-year-old son, who witnessed the shooting, had been the victim of sexual abuse.
“It’s a struggle everyday,” Gabriela Gallegos, Estrada’s widow, told KRQE News 13 earlier this week. The boy “has his moments where he’s just scared. He’s being scared of being outside, he’s scared of people, he doesn’t want to go to school sometimes. There’s nights where he’s just crying and screaming, because he’s scared of what he saw, what he heard.”
In August, the family learned another painful secret: 30-year-old Edward Quintana, the shooter and suspected child rapist, was, at the time he killed Estrada, an active informant for the Drug Enforcement Administration.
“I was devastated,” Gallegos said. “I felt betrayed by our government.”
Quintana, who is in jail awaiting trial on first-degree murder and child rape charges, said through his attorney that Estrada attacked him and chased him with a knife. He said he shot Estrada in self defense and has pleaded not guilty.
Quintana has a lengthy criminal history that includes violent felony charges such as aggravated battery with a deadly weapon and even attempted murder. At the time he killed Estrada, 30, Quintana had been snitching for the feds for nearly a year and a half, KRQE News 13 has learned.
Estrada’s family didn’t know any of that, even though Quintana lived with them for four months prior to the shooting.
“I think if we would have known, or if my brother would have known something, I think he would still be alive today,” said Jolene Estrada, Jason Estrada’s sister. “And that would have never happened to my nephew.”
The case raises questions about who the DEA is using as informants – and whether the nation’s largest and most powerful agency in the war on drugs is following its own policies and procedures to screen informants on the front end and supervise them once they’re on the federal books.
It echoes a case that rocked the local DEA office in the 1990s and, according to multiple sources who were close to that case, spurred tighter controls on the way agents choose informants and additional layers of supervision over how agents control those informants.
Members of Estrada’s family want those questions answered. They’ve hired attorney Erlinda Johnson, a former state and federal prosecutor whose husband is himself a retired DEA agent, to get to the bottom of what went wrong.
Johnson has filed an administrative action against the DEA and the Department of Justice. That’s the first step in filing a lawsuit against the federal agencies, which have six months to formally respond to the family’s claims.
“DEA was supposed to follow those regulations, those rules, and they didn’t in this case,” Johnson said. “They didn’t play by their own rules. As a result of their negligence, a man is dead and a little boy’s innocence has been taken away.”
The DEA would neither confirm nor deny that Quintana had been one of its informants. The agency declined KRQE News 13’s request for an interview. Instead, a spokesman sent a statement via email from Joseph M. Arabit, special agent in charge of the DEA’s El Paso division.
“Informants, like anyone else, are required to follow the law when going about their daily lives. If DEA learns that an informant has been involved in a violation of the law, DEA seeks to take immediate and appropriate action.”
It’s unclear whether DEA agents ran the background checks on Quintana mandated by the agency’s policies and the U.S. Attorney General’s Guidelines for confidential informants before they signed him up as a snitch in 2011.
If they did, there were plenty of cases that should have set off alarm bells on Quintana, who is originally from Las Vegas, N.M.
Quintana’s criminal history in Bernalillo County dates to the early 2000s. He was arrested 14 times here between 2002 and 2011.
Twice in 2005, Quintana was arrested on suspicion of beating his wife, according to court records. The second of those arrests resulted in nearly a year in the Metropolitan Detention Center and three years of probation after Quintana pleaded no contest to a felony charge of aggravated battery with a deadly weapon.
Quintana, according to court records, had threatened to kill his wife and forced a handgun against her mouth.
While he was in jail on that charge, Quintana was busted again — this time for his alleged role in the brutal beating of a fellow inmate.
Quintana, according to police reports obtained by KRQE News 13, had led the alleged victim into a janitor’s closet inside the jail and stood lookout while two other inmates beat the man. Bernalillo County Sheriff’s detectives charged him with attempted murder, kidnapping and conspiracy.
All three men were charged in the case, and prosecutors scheduled it for presentation to a grand jury, KRQE News 13 has learned. But the case fell apart at the last minute. It is unclear why.
Quintana was arrested six more times after he got out of jail in late 2005 — each time for violating his probation, court records show.
Then, on Sept. 20, 2011, sheriff’s deputies from the narcotics unit raided Quintana’s North Valley apartment, police reports show. Inside, they found 253 grams of heroin, three stolen handguns and $12,000 in cash.
He told deputies he had been selling heroin for months, the reports state. They charged Quintana with trafficking heroin, three counts of receiving or transferring a stolen firearm and three counts of being a felon in possession of a firearm. Detectives also charged him with three counts of child abuse because his children were living in the apartment.
Quintana posted bond. The case found its way into a stack of paperwork on a prosecutor’s desk. And that’s when the feds stepped in, according to multiple sources.
Sometime in October 2011, Quintana became a DEA informant.
It appears that, at the time, agents did not get approval from either a judge or prosecutors to add him to the snitch rolls, multiple sources told KRQE News 13. Such approval is mandated by the DEA’s own policies.
Asked whether she believes Quintana should’ve been used as an informant, Johnson, the Estrada family’s attorney, said: “Well, in my opinion, no.”
“Edward Quintana had a very violent background,” she said. “He was foreseeably violent. It was just a matter of time that he was going to become violent again. So that would have been one red flag: the fact that he had an extensive criminal history with violent offenses.”
The DEA’s policy manual requires agents to conduct a check for “prior criminal records” before putting an informant to work on drug cases. And the Attorney General’s guidelines say agents must consider “whether the person is reasonably believed to pose a danger to the public or other criminal threat.”
In any case, agents sent Quintana to his hometown of Las Vegas, N.M., to help them with a drug investigation there, KRQE News 13 has learned. It’s unclear how successful those operations were or how much of a help Quintana was.
Law enforcement officers often pay informants in cash, leniency in pending cases or both. Quintana was providing information to law enforcement in exchange for leniency in his pending case.
In October 2012, agents decided to memorialize their relationship with Quintana, who had been working for them for a year with no formal sign-off from the Bernalillo County justice system.
DEA agents met with District Attorney Kari Brandenburg, KRQE News 13 has learned, and made a sales pitch. They told her Quintana had been a tremendous help to their efforts. They said he was easy to manage and asked Brandenburg to hold off on prosecuting Quintana for the 2011 drug and firearm charges.
Brandenburg agreed, KRQE News 13 has learned, after agents promised they would prosecute Quintana federally if things went sideways with his role as an informant.
Things did, of course, when Quintana shot Estrada in last April — less than six months after the agents’ meeting with Brandenburg.
No federal charges have been filed against Quintana in connection with the 2011 drug case.
‘Failure to warn’
Quintana came back to Albuquerque from Las Vegas in 2012. He moved in with Estrada and his family.
The two had been friends, according to Quintana’s attorney. Estrada’s family members say they don’t know how the men met.
Jason Estrada had a criminal history of his own. He was convicted of residential burglary in 2002 and of being a felon in possession of a firearm in 2003, court records show. Estrada also was charged with drug possession and trafficking three times.
Quintana lived with the Estrada family for about four months. It was during that time that Quintana allegedly molested Estrada’s son.
“In fact, he was an active informant” during that time, Johnson said. “And at that point, again, DEA had established a special relationship with Edward Quintana as their informant, and they owed a duty, not just to the public, but to the Estradas, to warn them that Edward Quintana is a foreseeably violent individual. And they failed.”
She said Quintana threatened Estrada’s son “that if he told anybody, that things would happen to him and his dad — and indeed they did.”
Quintana went to Estrada’s South Valley home to confront Estrada, who had been telling people about the alleged sexual abuse. He shot Estrada four times.
According to Quintana’s attorney, John McCall, the shooting was in self defense.
“Mr. Estrada fabricated a horrific story to have Mr. Quintana killed by arranging for his son to accuse Mr. Quintana of molesting him … The effort to have Mr. Quintana killed ended when Mr. Quintana went to discuss the false accusations with Estrada … Mr. Quintana survived because he used a firearm to fend off Mr. Estrada who died in the confrontation. Mr. Quintana regrets what happened to his former friend, however, he will not stand still and allow his reputation to be repeatedly attacked by Mr. Estrada or Mr. Estrada’s heirs. Mr. Estrada was a desperate man who sought to destroy Edward Quintana, first by accusing him of child sexual molestation and now, reaching out from the grave (through surviving family members) to accuse Mr. Quintana of other things that are controversial and endangering.”
It took a daylong, statewide manhunt that involved multiple law enforcement agencies to find Quintana after the shooting. Authorities found him hiding out in a Southeast Albuquerque home. Two of his friends were arrested on suspicion of helping evade authorities.
The day after Quintana killed Estrada, the DEA deactivated him as an informant, KRQE News 13 has learned.
During Quintana’s time as an informant, agents should have been staying in regular contact with him and writing reports at mandated intervals about those contacts, according to DEA policies.
How agents and supervisors were handling Quintana was among the areas KRQE News 13 wanted to discuss with the DEA. The agency’s brief written response did not address that question.
Johnson said she doesn’t believe the DEA followed its own policies in its handling of Quintana.
“Close monitoring, their control of an informant,” she said. “That’s one of the key components that they have to control their informants, and they didn’t … They have to do the proper risk assessment, they have to do their close monitoring and their reports, and it is our opinion, our evidence, that they didn’t do that.”
Echoes of the past
In the summer of 1995, a bartender named Michael Robinson had been supplying information to law enforcement officers who were investigating the leaders of drug ring and a series of murders they had committed.
As the investigation was drawing to a close, Robinson kidnapped two 10-year-old boys, drove them to the East Mountains and sexually assaulted them.
At the time, he was on the books as a federal snitch — working for two Bernalillo County Sheriff’s detectives who were working on a task force with the DEA.
Before any of that, Robinson had a history of sexually assaulting young boys that stretched back to 1979. Three times, he had been convicted of sexual assaults on boys: twice in New Mexico and once in Delaware. He served about five years in prison and was released in 1990.
Authorities were aware of those cases when they signed Robinson up as a snitch.
In the end, the local U.S. Attorney’s Office paid $250,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by the family of one of Robinson’s victims. The state paid $50,000 to settle another claim.
The case raised many of the same questions now swirling around the Quintana case: should authorities have used Robinson as an informant given his background? Was Robinson monitored closely enough? Did the government fulfill its obligation to protect the public?
Johnson, the Estradas’ attorney, said both men had histories that provided clues toward possible future behavior. The two cases are similar, she said.
“You have an informant who is essentially running loose with impunity, doing whatever he wanted,” Johnson said. “And you have victims who became prey to these predators.”
A retired federal law enforcement official told News 13 that Robinson’s case led to tightened requirements at the DEA for how the agency vets and monitors confidential informants.
Before that case, snitches were established through local district offices. Afterward, the official said, supervisors at DEA headquarters became responsible for final authorization on informants. All confidential informants with any history of murder, rape or pedophilia also required a more thorough vetting and monitoring process, according to the official.
However, with every agent handling upwards of 12 to 15 informants at any given time, it is nearly impossible to monitor snitches around the clock, the official said.
One of the harsh realities of law enforcement is that to catch a criminal, sometimes agents have to use criminals.
“They’re critical because obviously DEA needs informants to work their cases,” Johnson said. “No one is disputing that. However, they’re essentially signing up people who are criminals, and they have very strict guidelines, very strict regulations that they have to follow in order to ensure that incidents like those don’t occur. This is pure and simple negligence on the part of DEA.”
Estrada’s family wants the case to serve as a check on who the DEA is using as informants — and to ensure the agency follows its own policies and procedures.
“I just want justice done for my son, for my husband,” said Gallegos, Estrada’s widow. “I want everyone that was involved to be held accountable for their actions, for their wrongdoings, for not following their procedures … I just want everyone to be accountable for what has happened.”
Jolene Estrada, Jason Estrada’s sister, added: “To know that our government failed us, and who knows, it could happen to someone else … other families.”
KRQE News 13 reached out to Bernalillo County jail officials before this story was published to let them know we were identifying Edward Quintana as a DEA informant.