by Darcia Helle
A recent article in Rolling Stone magazine titled The Entrapment of Jesse Snodgrass prompted me to write this piece. I wanted to keep my professional distance but, when I sat down to write, I found it nearly impossible to keep my outrage from bleeding into my words. This is Jesse’s story, though it could belong to anyone.
In August 2012, Jesse Snodgrass was a 17-year-old high school student at Chaparral High School in Temecula, California. Jesse was troubled, though not in the way that leads to criminal problems. Jesse has Asperger’s syndrome, which is a form of autism. He also suffers with Tourette’s syndrome and bipolar disorder. Because of these challenges, Jesse was an easy target for bullies. Throughout his school years, he’d been taunted, teased, and called “retard”. The anxiety caused Jesse to turn inward and injure himself; he would bang his head, scratch and punch himself during the worst times.
Needless to say, making friends was a momentous struggle for Jesse. Under the best of circumstances, socializing can be a challenge for teens. Add psychological problems to the mix, and you can pretty much guarantee that child will be shunned. Jesse had only one friend in school, a developmentally-challenged boy also in special education classes. But the boy and his family had recently moved to another state, leaving Jesse on his own. To further complicate matters, Jesse’s parents had lost their home and they had to move to a new school district. The loss and disruption set Jesse back and worried his parents.
All of this would have been difficult but tolerable for Jesse had it not been for what happened next. Early in the school year, Jesse was approached by another new student called Daniel. To Jesse’s amazed delight, Daniel wanted to be his friend. And this, right here, is what derailed Jesse and almost destroyed him. This boy calling himself Daniel was not a boy at all. He was actually Deputy Dan Zipperstein, and he was on a mission to get kids to sell him drugs, whether they wanted to or not.
This practice of undercover school stings started in 1974 with the LAPD. Youthful-looking cops pose as teenagers. They attend classes, turn in homework, go to house parties, and generally insinuate themselves into the lives of these kids. As a rule, only the superintendent and one or two others are aware of the sting operation. Neither the teachers nor the school principal know the new kid is actually a cop. And no child is off limits.
By the 1980s, the anti-drug fervor caused by the “war on drugs” made school stings a favored practice with law enforcement. San Diego Sheriff Bill Gore once boasted this method of wrangling in and arresting teens was “almost too easy”. The stings are highly organized events, with names such as Operation D-Minus and Operation Jump Street. In the case of Jesse and Chaparral High School, it was Operation Glasshouse.
Jesse and Daniel attended art class together. By all accounts, Jesse’s psychological issues were obvious. He required extra attention and guidance during class. He clearly struggled with the material. He spoke in a kind of flat monotone, and was slow to respond during conversations. While some of his classes were mainstream, he was a special-ed student. There could be no doubt in Deputy Daniel’s mind that Jesse was a child with developmental problems, not a drug dealing threat. Still Daniel pursued Jesse relentlessly.
t began with Daniel attempting to bond with Jesse. He told Jesse about his problems at home, about how his parents didn’t understand him and how he was always in trouble for no reason. Once Jesse felt comfortable with Daniel, and no doubt thrilled to have a friend confiding in him, Daniel went into destructive mode. He asked Jesse to get him some weed, because he was stressed and needed to relax his mind. Jesse wanted to be cool and helpful in his friend’s eyes, but he knew nothing about marijuana, and so he stalled. Daniel, though, kept pushing to the point of insanity. As the weeks passed, Daniel sent Jesse 60 text messages, all focused on getting Jesse to fulfill his “promise” of getting the marijuana.
Jesse felt trapped. He wanted nothing more than to make his friend happy. And, to some extent, he understood the need for self-medication. He was on medication himself and, to Jesse, there wasn’t much difference between the pills he took to feel better and the marijuana Daniel claimed to need to make himself feel better. Still, he had no idea where or how to get the stuff.
Jesse’s anxiety built along with Daniel’s insistent hounding. One day the pressure became unbearable, and he raced to the boys’ bathroom where he burned his arm with a lighter. Later that same day, Daniel handed Jesse a $20 bill in exchange for a promise that Jesse would bring him the weed.
Now Jesse believed he had no choice but to keep his promise. Days passed, and each day Daniel pestered him for the weed that he had no idea how to purchase. Finally, he remembered there was a marijuana dispensary near where his parents shopped. Jesse went there with the $20. Unsure what to do next, he hung around until he found someone who agreed to get the bag of weed for him. Jesse handed the person the money and received a baggie of marijuana. At that moment, he was probably elated to have succeeded for his friend, as well as terrified to have the marijuana in his possession.
Jesse wanted Daniel to come to his house to make the exchange but Daniel refused. Instead, Daniel asked Jesse to meet him at a nearby strip mall before school. Jesse asked his father to drop him off there. To Doug, Jesse’s father, this was an exciting moment. His son had made a friend and was going to hang out for a bit before school. He was thrilled that Jesse was adjusting to his new school, and happily dropped him off with a smile and a wave to Daniel.
In that parking lot, Jesse nervously handed Daniel the baggie of marijuana. Daniel was careful not to show his disappointment at the meager contents, which turned out to be about a half-gram; $5 worth of marijuana. The two drove to school together, and later that day Deputy Daniel gave the baggie to another deputy to be taken in as evidence.
Evidently, Daniel was undeterred at the measly amount of weed Jesse had given him. Two weeks later, he gave Jesse another $20 for which he received an even skimpier amount of marijuana. Daniel then asked Jesse to sell him some Clonazepam, which is a benzodiazepine Jesse took for his anxiety. Jesse refused, because that was his medication and he needed it. Despite Daniel’s persistence, Jesse remained adamant that he would not sell his medication. Eventually Daniel lost interest in both Jesse and their friendship, and he moved on to other kids at the school.
Daniel’s behavior hurt Jesse. He thought he’d finally made a friend, but Daniel no longer seemed interested in him at all. He didn’t understand what he’d done wrong. Things would only get worse and more confusing for Jesse.
On December 11, 2012, five armed police officers wearing bulletproof vests stormed into Jesse’s art class calling his name. A police helicopter hovered over the school. Jesse was immediately handcuffed and dragged out in front of his classmates. Fifteen other kids were arrested at Chaparral High School that same day.
At the police station, Jesse waived his Miranda rights. He didn’t understand those rights, but agreed because he wanted to cooperate with the police. He did not want to be a problem to them. When asked about selling drugs, he denied the charge. Deputy Daniel Zipperstein was then brought into the interview room, which further confused Jesse. Deputies had to break the situation down and explain several times to Jesse that he’d “sold” drugs to Deputy Zipperstein when he’d taken money in exchange for the marijuana. Still, Jesse could not make sense of the situation, which became even more disconcerting when he was ushered to the hospital for drug testing along with a half-dozen other kids who’d admitted to doing drugs within the past 24 hours.
At the hospital, a cop asked Jesse, “Are you mentally retarded?” to which Jesse replied that he had Asperger’s. The cop reportedly groaned but made no effort to intervene. Instead, Jesse was brought to Juvenile Hall and placed in a holding cell.
Throughout this ordeal, no one – not the police and not any of the school officials – notified Jesse’s parents of his arrest. Frantic with worry when he didn’t return home, his mother finally made contact with someone at the school who informed her of the situation.
When Catherine, Jesse’s mother, made contact with the police, she was informed that Jesse would be detained a minimum of two days. During this time, the Snodgrasses would not be allowed to see him. Catherine explained her son’s situation, detailing his tendency to self-injure when anxious. When she dropped off his medications at Juvenile Hall, a female officer told her, “You know, Mama, the kids here love it. They get three square meals and a bed. They love it here, and they keep coming back.” The sarcastic implication that Jesse was destined to become a career criminal had to be surreal to the Snodgrasses.
Imagine what it must have been like for Jesse’s parents that day. They sent their child off to school, with every expectation that he would be supervised in an environment meant to help kids thrive. Instead, their son is swept up in an arrest under highly questionable circumstances, and not one person bothered to let them know. Jesse’s special needs aside, these are minors. They cannot be absent a day without a parent’s consent. They cannot go on field trips without a parent’s consent. Yet, these same parents are not told about undercover police stings or the arrest of their child. We are supposed to send our children to school in order to provide them with the necessary tools to succeed in life. Instead, police and school officials are teaming up in order to set them up for failure.
Jesse’s case seemed to get even crazier after his arrest. Two days later, when his parents were finally allowed to see him, Senior Deputy District Attorney Blaine Hopp strode into the room where the Snodgrasses waited with other parents and announced, “This should be a wake-up call to all of you. Your children are drug dealers.”
Jesse was charged with two felonies – one for each marijuana sale. Despite the probation department having recommended Jesse be released, Hopp fought for Jesse to be retained in custody for at least one month. Hopp insisted each child arrested posed a danger to the community. The judge, fortunately, did not agree and ordered Jesse’s immediate release.
During his two days in a cell, Jesse had regressed horribly. For the next six weeks, he barely spoke. He sat still, sometimes waving his hand in front of his face like he’d done as a toddler. Eventually, he told his parents he wanted to die. He had emergency therapy sessions and adjustments to his medications. His parents kept all-night vigils to ensure he would not hurt himself. And through all this, the school was threatening to expel Jesse for the drug offense.
In a rare moment of relative sanity throughout this ordeal, the criminal judge cited Jesse’s autism as “unusual and exceptional circumstances”, and sentenced him to informal probation with 20 hours of community service. This meant that, if he kept out of trouble and did his community service, his record would then be wiped clean. The Snodgrasses accepted the quickie plea deal in part to protect Jesse from the trauma of a trial, but also because they had a second fight on their hands. The school still wanted to expel Jesse and his parents weren’t going to let that happen.
Few families in their situation fight back. Sometimes it’s a financial issue. Lawyers are expensive. But often it’s because of shame. Parents feel their children are in fact guilty of some terrible crime. They’re embarrassed. But Jesse’s parents had been fighting for Jesse’s rights from his early years, and they weren’t about to back down. “We have nothing to be ashamed of, Jesse has nothing to be ashamed of,” Doug Snodgrass stated. “The people who do this, they’re the ones who should be ashamed.”
In February 2013, Jesse endured a six-day hearing to fight the school expulsion. Witnesses who’d been part of his trusted school support team now testified against him, assuring Jesse knew right from wrong and therefore knew what he was doing when he sold Deputy Zipperstein marijuana. Michael Hubbard, the school district’s Director of Child Welfare and Attendance, who was one of only three administrators with prior knowledge of the sting, testified about his faith in Operation Glasshouse and Jesse’s subsequent arrest. He stated, “I didn’t believe it was coercion or entrapment for any of the kids.”
In March 2013, Judge Marian Tully’s 19-page ruling said otherwise. “The district placed Student in an extremely difficult social-problem scenario that would have been difficult even for typical high school students.” Judge Tully ordered that Jesse be allowed to return to school immediately.
Throughout all this, Jesse’s emotional and mental health declined horribly. He suffered panic attacks and nightmares. He continually scratched at the back of his hand, gouging a deep groove. He was diagnosed with PTSD and dealt with paranoia. Perhaps most telling of the damage done is this: while driving with his parents, he would crumple to the floor any time they passed a police car. His faith in the people he’d been taught to look toward for help had not only shattered, but turned into intense fear. The very sight of a police car sent him spiraling downward.
Back at school, Jesse was faced with the school counselors who’d testified against him but now offered smiles. The other kids shunned him even more than usual. And in a stunning example of idiocy, the school district filed an appeal to fight the administration’s ruling. They wanted Jesse expelled.
Readers might assume that Jesse’s case is an anomaly. Most of the kids arrested must be troublemakers, drug dealers, little criminals in the making. In reality, that doesn’t appear to be the case at all. These kids are not bad, they’re just kids. Every teenager wants to fit in. It’s human nature. Kids do things for each other because they want to be liked. Often the decisions they make aren’t particularly smart, but they’re far from criminal masterminds.
Stephen Downing, a former LAPD Deputy Chief who now works with the advocacy group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, had this to say about school drug stings, “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.”
Using our children for financial gain is what this is about.
These high school drug stings are typically shrouded in secrecy. The public is not given details. We are, however, given 15-second media hype and provocative headlines designed to make police look as if they’ve infiltrated a major drug ring.
In the case of Operation Glasshouse, officials declined to divulge the quantities of the drug sales, insisting that the amount confiscated was beside the point.
The answer to those questions appears to be a resounding no. State Director Lyman said, “These kinds of practices push students out of school and toward the criminal justice system. It is known as the school-to-prison pipeline.”
This should come as no surprise. Once arrested for their crime, these kids are expelled from school. They have a criminal record, even if they’re lucky enough to escape without being sentenced to do time in a juvenile facility. If they manage to get their GED, most colleges won’t accept them. Most employers won’t hire them.
This is only part of the long-term problem. These kids have suffered absolute betrayal at the hands of people they trusted. The school system, which is supposed to be protecting them, has allowed them to be set up. The police, who they are taught to respect, have pursued them, used them, set them up for absolute failure. The children have learned the hard way not to trust anyone.
Studies have shown these stings do more bad than good for communities. In 2004, questions about these tactics led the LAPD to abruptly shut down its 30-year-old undercover School Buy program. But Riverside County, where Jesse lives, is undeterred by the controversy. In December 2013, one year after the raid that swept Jesse into the system, 25 high school students in the cities of Perris and Meniffee were arrested in a new sting. Among those students was a 15-year-old special-ed student who reads at a third grade level. Jonathan Greenberg, the Perris Superintendent, deemed the operation “an unqualified success”.
As for Jesse, he graduated high school at the end of last year. He still suffers with PTSD and various setbacks. When asked his thoughts about all that happened, he had this to say, “They were actually out to get us.”
Indeed they were.
As I ponder this case, I can’t help but consider adults in similar circumstances. How many adults share their medications, despite knowing it’s wrong? Your coworker asks for one of your painkillers because he threw his back out over the weekend. Your friend asks if she can buy some of your sleeping pills because she has severe insomnia and can’t afford a visit to the doctor. In these circumstances, we’re dealing adults who know right from wrong, and we are not dealing with entrapment. Still, adults do these things all the time. Does supplying a prescription painkiller or a sleeping pill to a friend make you a drug dealer?
I am unable to find one single redeeming factor in all of this. As a teenager, I did a lot of stupid things. That’s all part of growing up. Social psychology and neuroscience has proven that adolescents are most inclined toward risky reward-seeking behavior and most vulnerable to peer-pressure. This combination naturally predisposes teenagers toward riskier behavior. Had an undercover cop been placed in my school, my life might have been much different than it is now.
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Suspense, random blood splatter and mismatched socks consume Darcia’s days. She writes because the characters trespassing through her mind leave her no alternative. Only then are the voices free to haunt someone else’s mind.
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