Law enforcement

The two lives of IRS agent Patrick Earp

 

Did Patrick Earp, an IRS agent who worked undercover with drug dealers, die of his own hand? Cops think so. His family still has doubts.

jbrown@MiamiHerald.com

Patrick Joseph Murphy helped launder millions of dollars in drug cash and consorted with international cartels, Mexican drug gangs, and dirty cops and politicians.

He worked with white supremacist groups, crooked investment brokers, and gangsters, impressing seafaring drug runners with his two catamarans.

Patrick Joseph Earp was a former banker turned U.S. Treasury agent, a loving father and brother, and a man struggling with personal demons.

When Earp was found shot to death in a relative’s Coconut Grove cottage in February — a single slug to the head from a 9mm Glock — it was also the end of the line for Patrick Murphy.

The two men, different in so many ways, were one and the same.

Earp’s death at age 50 haunts his family and friends, who have been left hanging for months as Miami police and the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner’s office decide whether the shooting of Earp was a suicide or something more sinister. As of Friday, 10 months since his death, the cause and manner of death has not been officially determined.

Adrenaline rush

For 14 years, Patrick Earp lived a double life — working undercover with a phony name, Patrick Murphy, and a fistful of government-issued plastic under that assumed identity.

Standing just 5-foot-9, and sporting a goatee under a shock of thinning brown hair, Earp loved his swashbuckling, surreptitious missions, and lived much of his life on the fringes of the dark and violent criminal world he infiltrated.

“He lived for that,” said his brother, Rob, who discovered the body. “The adrenaline rush, the excitement.’’

A member of a prominent pioneering Miami family — they are also, the family says, related to the famous sheriff Wyatt Earp — he attended a private military boarding school in New Mexico, then graduated from Texas Tech with a degree in business administration. Shortly after college, he met his future wife, Malinda, with whom he would have two children. (Malinda Earp declined to comment for this story).

While Earp began his career in banking, he always dreamed of being a federal agent, and in 1991, he finally got his chance, joining the Internal Revenue Service. Within a few years, he was working undercover on various assignments across the country, fighting in the war against drugs.

In 1998, the IRS assigned Earp to a post in the Keys, as a member of the South Florida High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA), made up of teams of federal and local law enforcement agencies working together to combat drug crime. There was plenty of that in the Keys.

He was a federal agent, pretending to be a legitimate businessman, but one whose real business was working with drug smugglers and money launderers — for the purpose of building cases against them and bringing them to justice.

It can be a mind-bending house of mirrors, making your living pretending to be someone else, but the mission was simple:

Follow the money.

Inside his case files

Records obtained by The Miami Herald reveal that he was responsible for dozens of cases. There was the probe of the Key West city commissioner suspected of channeling millions of dollars in drug money through his businesses; and one involving allegedly corrupt cops with purported ties to Florida City elected officials.

Other cases involved targeting a cartel that trafficked drugs to Florida, then channeled the proceeds to Texas and Mexico through check-cashing businesses.

In 2007-08, he worked a case called “Operation Tarnished Blue,” targeting the distribution of cocaine, crack and heroin in Florida City and Homestead.

The head of the organization, who allegedly enjoyed police protection, purportedly operated several heroin and cocaine houses in Miami-Dade’s southernmost cities from which he and his cohorts generated thousands of dollars a day in narcotics sales. HIDTA tracked the drug trail to Miami and to temporary stash houses in South Dade, one of which was called the “Stump,” located in the Goulds area.

From there, the trail went to North Florida and to points as far north as Detroit.

Earp received good evaluations from his bosses. He traveled around the country while living most of the time in a waterfront Key Largo condo under the name Murphy. His case files, perused by The Herald, indicated he built a number of successful cases leading to convictions.

But for Earp, life began to unravel when, in April 2009, he was accused of mismanaging about $15,000 in government funds, known as Imprest Funds. In this case, it was money budgeted to cover the cost of storing and operating the vessels he bought with government money in the course of his undercover work, confidential government memos indicate.

Earp was scolded for using his personal credit cards to pay for docking fees, and for failing to properly expense the storage fees.

Nobody accused him of stealing, and Earp, who was meticulous about documenting his expenses, was ultimately able to provide all the necessary receipts, according to documents and emails reviewed by The Herald. But the ordeal was a slap in the face to Earp, who friends and family say was a loyal company man.

“There was some funds and they tried to blame the problem on him … He found out about this by accident, and the end result was a top commander and his immediate boss were gone right after he brought it to their attention,’’ Rob Earp said.

Michael Dobzinski, spokesman for the IRS in Florida, declined to comment for this story.

Sleeping with guns

Around that same time, Patrick Earp lodged an internal affairs complaint, alleging wrongdoing by his bosses in the IRS. He told family and friends that the problem went up to the highest levels of the agency. The files inspected by The Herald show no evidence of that wrongdoing.

Earp, estranged from his wife for 2 1/2 years, lived at the time with a girlfriend, Sandra Londono. She asserts that after that complaint was made, she received two anonymous, threatening messages on her phone, which she reported to authorities. She said Earp gave her his computer for safekeeping, telling her to turn it over to IRS investigators only if something happened to him, which she did.

Both began sleeping with guns. Though Earp always looked over his shoulder for the shadowy characters he tried to send to jail, he now became fearful that others closer to home were trying to silence him, Londono said.

“He was more scared of his agency than anyone else,’’ Londono said.

From that time on, Earp’s life became increasingly difficult. After the better part of a decade embedded in the Keys, Earp had become steeped in its boozy, laid-back culture, using his assignment as a seaside escape from his marital and work problems.

He began a mental and physical downward spiral, fueled by alcohol, pills and job stress, Londono and Rob Earp said.

One particular lowlight: On Aug. 21, 2011, police reports indicate, officers were summoned to a Loquat Avenue cottage owned by another brother. He sometimes stayed at the Coconut Grove dwelling while off-duty. Earp had pulled out an AK47 and begun firing.

He claimed he was shooting at a man who had first shot at him after Earp caught the interloper breaking into his Land Rover.

Earp appeared to be drunk, according to the police report, and investigators became skeptical when the agent had trouble keeping his story straight.

One of his IRS bosses arrived at the scene and took Earp’s weapons.

Feeling the heat

It was not the first time Earp felt threatened by enemies real or trumped up in his mind. His brother said it was hard to figure out whether his brother was buckling under agency pressure or whether someone in the criminal underworld really was trying to get him.

Around then, Earp reached out to Miami attorney Steven M. Harris, who said the agent definitely felt he was being wronged by his employer.

Harris said Earp, who earned $135,000 a year and had a daughter in college, feared he would be forced out of the agency before getting all the pension benefits he hoped to earn.

Earp’s former boss, Anthony Falcone, now retired from the IRS, said he had heard that Earp was having trouble with his bosses and that they were giving him a hard time.

“[When] Patrick worked for me … I never saw any discrepancies with what he was doing,” Falcone said. “There was a lot of stress on him. Yes, he was involved in some things with the agency, but he was getting ready to retire. He worked in the Keys, which is not for everybody.’’

Said another retired agent and former colleague, who asked to remain anonymous: “There were people within the agency who didn’t understand what we did in our undercover work. Some of them were educated paper-pushers who thought we were cowboyish.’’

In the months before his death, Earp was reassigned to a desk job in Miami. After more than a decade of working on his own, sitting in an office made him miserable, feeling like the agency put him out to pasture. His health suffered, and he began drinking heavily and taking Xanax, a drug to treat anxiety and panic attacks. His relationship with Londono deteriorated.

In November 2011, Earp checked into rehab, his brother and girlfriend said. Upon his release, suffering from vertigo and drinking anew, he briefly moved back in with his wife in an attempt to reconcile.

Ted Clausen, a fellow agent with whom he was close, said Earp was facing a lot of challenges. Despite the warning signs, few in the agency seemed to notice working undercover for so many years had taken such a toll on the veteran agent.

“I knew him, like, for 10-15 years. If I would have known this would have been the final outcome, I would have said something to someone. But how do you know? Everybody goes through problems and they come out of it,’’ Clausen said.

Rob Earp said his brother “felt as if his honor and integrity were destroyed, and these were the two qualities he lived by. And by far the worst part of his ordeal was the way he felt his organization had abandoned him and humiliated and questioned his character and assigned him to meaningless tasks.”

Lingering doubts

For months after Earp’s death, his brother suspected he may have been murdered. There was no suicide note, no squaring of accounts, nothing to indicate his state of mind. A lifelong Catholic, Earp had vowed that he would never take his life.

His body was found in the Loquat Avenue cottage of his other brother, John, about 11:30 a.m. on Feb. 28, but he had been dead for some time, Rob Earp said. His brother said he last saw him about 4:30 p.m. the day before. Though his brother’s vertigo was bothering him, they made plans to see each other the following morning.

“There was no indication he was going to do this,’’ Rob Earp said.

The deputy chief medical examiner, Emma Lew, was troubled by the trajectory of the bullet, Earp said. And the mortician confirmed that the path of the bullet was odd for a suicide. Rob Earp said he was told by the medical examiner that the bullet entered his skull from the back of his head and exited through the top. Rob Earp also said the medical examiner said his brother, who was right-handed, had fired the weapon with the thumb of his left hand. The gun was on the bed on his left side. Also on the bed: a gun-cleaning kit.

“There was no blood on his face. The sheets were completely soaked in blood, but he was more laying on the sheets and his body was in a position as if he was trying to stand up. His feet were almost on the floor and his hands were directly in front of him,” Rob Earp said.

Harris, the attorney, said he wouldn’t be surprised if Earp had killed himself as a result of the pressure of working for the agency. Harris, who has advised federal agents for 30 years, said it was “absurd” and irresponsible for the IRS to leave Earp undercover for such a long period of time, particularly in an area like the Keys.

“Working undercover could drive you nuts, and keeping him down in the Keys that long is against all common sense and policy,’’ Harris said.

Police “have no reason to suspect foul play,” said Miami P.D. spokesman Freddie Cruz. The initial police reports conclude that it was a suicide, but indicate that the case remains open.

Rob Earp said police should have investigated his brother’s death more thoroughly, given the fact that he confronted so many dangerous threats to his life while undercover. Rob Earp and Londono both said they were barely questioned by police.

Cruz said everything has been done by the book.

But Rob Earp said his brother planned to retire in a matter of weeks. It makes no sense, he said, that Patrick would have taken his own life so close to retirement.

Said the brother: “It was like police almost assumed from the start that he killed himself.’’

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