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Baton Rouge Police investigate the scene of a homicide on Spain Street, Wednesday, January 27, 2021, in Baton Rouge, La.

When a friend texted Christopher Gregoire asking for some weed, he agreed to smoke with her and arrived at her Baton Rouge hotel room about 20 minutes later.

He knocked on the door, but instead of his friend welcoming him inside, Gregoire found himself confronted with undercover narcotics detectives, he said during a recent interview. He quickly realized that his friend had cooperated with police at his expense. He said she was working as a prostitute at the time, though he knew her from smoking weed and was unsure whether she used other drugs.

Gregoire, 25, was booked into jail last year on possession with intent to distribute marijuana.

The case exemplifies a controversial practice in the BRPD narcotics division: so-called "troll rips" where detectives would set up dates with prostitutes via online ads, then show up and threaten to arrest the women unless they agreed to set up a drug dealer, according to a recent internal department memo containing widespread misconduct allegations. The practice has come under scrutiny amid a widening corruption probe focused on the division.

Two narcotics detectives have been arrested, one accused of stealing marijuana seized as evidence, another of buying stolen electronics. BRPD leaders also transferred four supervisors from narcotics to street patrols, effectively halving the division, removing its leadership and suspending normal operations.

Meanwhile, East Baton Rouge prosecutors have dropped charges against at least 115 defendants, including Gregoire, because their cases relied on testimony from detectives accused of criminal wrongdoing. The dropped charges — a small handful of them stemming from apparent "troll rips" — prompted questions about whether some detectives were focusing on low-level drug arrests rather than conducting long-term investigations and bringing charges against dealers farther up the chain.

Gregoire said he believes his case illustrates a similar point. He had no criminal record in East Baton Rouge before his May 2020 arrest. He works and pays taxes.

"To be honest, it seems like a waste of time and tax dollars," he said. "Maybe they were looking for something bigger that night, like heroin or whatever. But using these women to catch people with weed on them … how is that helping anyone?"

Gregoire said the detectives who arrested him appeared relatively uninterested in building a bigger case or figuring out where his weed came from. He was arrested for possessing 9.5 grams of marijuana, less than the 14-gram threshold that carries stiffer penalties under Louisiana law.

The sting occurred during the peak of the pandemic, when local law enforcement agencies had been explicitly discouraged from booking people on minor offenses in hopes of reducing the jail population and minimizing the spread of COVID behind bars.

In an arrest report, police disclosed some details about the circumstances but stopped short of describing all their techniques. The BPRD narrative describes how Jason Acree — who was arrested weeks later and booked into jail for possession of intent to distribute marijuana and malfeasance in office — and other detectives contacted a confidential informant at the Econo Lodge off Siegen Lane. While under police supervision, the informant texted Gregoire asking him to bring her marijuana, according to detectives. The report does not refer to the informant as a prostitute, though Gregoire said she was a sex worker.

Policing experts and local law enforcement leaders interviewed by The Advocate agree that a good narcotics unit should focus on more substantial investigations than one-off drug busts and street-dealer arrests. 

Jillian Snider, an adjunct lecturer at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said she never saw detectives use a similar technique targeting prostitutes during her 14 years at NYPD, where she worked in narcotics, vice operations and street crimes. She said their prostitution operations focused instead on uncovering human trafficking cases and holding johns accountable. 

"Often prostitutes are also the victims of violent crime," she said. "Some are forced into the act of prostitution, so now if you're trying to force them into cooperating with police, that creates an even more sensitive situation. That never was a practice we used." 

She said using the tactic to achieve a relatively minor arrest, like the case involving Gregoire, seems unproductive.

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"To me, that's so low level," she said. "I think it's investing way too much manpower and resources into such a low-level charge. I would rather arrest someone with 200 pounds of marijuana."

However, Snider also noted there are still too many unanswered questions about the case to know for certain whether detectives were totally off base. She said police often use low-level offenses to solicit information from suspects and build bigger cases. And court records don't reveal whether the officers who arrested Gregoire had some higher-level intelligence or a potential endgame in mind. 

Since his charges were dropped, Gregoire said he wonders whether he'll get back the money he spent on bail, and whether the arrest should be expunged from his record. He pointed out that marijuana use has been legalized in many states.

He also said another man was arrested under similar circumstances that night, using the same informant. Court records show a second marijuana distribution arrest originating from a Reiger Road hotel. The defendant in that case was planning to sell $50 worth of weed, according to police. He was also booked into jail despite the pandemic, and his charges were recently dismissed.

In addition to those cases, the list of dropped charges reveals several other similar investigations.

One police report describes an investigation "targeting illegal narcotics and prostitution" in the Baton Rouge area. In that case, an informant contacted a woman through SnapChat and arranged to buy $80 worth of Xanax. The woman was arrested after showing up with the drugs. She had no prior criminal history in East Baton Rouge.

In other cases, detectives ended up arresting the sex workers, either for prostitution or because there were drugs inside their hotel rooms. 

According to one arrest report, detectives contacted a woman via an online prostitution ad, arrived at her hotel room and found loose meth on the coffee table. Her arrest also occurred in May 2020. The report does not mention whether she declined an offer to cooperate and avoid arrest.

Charges against at least two other women arrested under similar circumstances were also dropped. Both were advertising sex work online, then found in possession of drugs, according to police. Recent attempts to reach those defendants and other women who cooperated with police were not successful. 

The BRPD internal memo that describes so-called "troll rips" was prepared by one of the arrested detectives, Jeremiah Ardoin, who received a misdemeanor summons in December for allegedly buying stolen electronics. He wrote the memo not long after his arrest and gave it to department leadership, alleging widespread corruption among his close colleagues. 

The memo presented some specific allegations against other detectives, including Acree. He was rearrested this week on an additional obstruction of justice count. His name appears on arresting documents and subpoena lists for the majority of dropped cases, including the handful involving prostitutes. 

Ron Haley, a local civil rights attorney representing Ardoin, called such cases "the lowest hanging fruit of narcotics investigations."

In an interview last week, Baton Rouge Police Chief Murphy Paul declined to comment on the specific allegations, citing an ongoing internal investigation into division operations.

But Paul, who once served as narcotics commander for Louisiana State Police, said best practices call for detectives to focus on large-scale narcotics investigations targeting the leadership of violent drug trafficking networks; smaller offenses should fall to the BRPD street crimes division. He said prosecuting drug users should never be the end goal. 

Paul said he repeatedly communicated that message to the BRPD narcotics division after taking office in 2018, and the ongoing investigation will reveal how closely detectives followed his instructions. He declined to comment on specific changes coming to the division, but said there is room for improvement.


Email Lea Skene at lskene@theadvocate.com.