A veteran Miami police officer who recruited two fellow cops into a racket that protected drug dealers and transported cocaine loads pleaded guilty Thursday to a drug-conspiracy charge that could send her to prison for at least 10 years and possibly more.
Schonton Harris, 53, admitted her central role in the protection ring, which was targeted by undercover federal investigators posing as drug dealers, and that she accepted a total of $17,000 for using her badge and firearm to help carry out a series of criminal activities.
In October, Harris was charged with two other Miami officers, Kelvin Harris and James Archibald, who are scheduled for trial later this year.
Schonton Harris was initially lured into the protection racket herself by a fourth Miami police officer who was suspected of committing the same type of crime, according to a statement of facts filed with her plea deal. That unidentified officer agreed to cooperate with investigators in a sting operation after they approached the cop. The fourth officer has yet to be charged.
Harris pleaded guilty to the first count in her indictment, conspiring to possess with intent to distribute controlled substances. She faces up to life in prison at her sentencing hearing before U.S. District Judge Cecilia Altonaga, but she won’t be getting such severe punishment. The mandatory minimum term is 10 years, and the sentencing guidelines for her offense call for about 15 years.
One of Harris’ defense attorneys, Andrew Rier, said the prosecution’s case was strong because of extensive undercover videotapes. His client had to look at the risk of trial and spending the rest of her life in prison.
“She realized she made a mistake and had to atone for that,” Rier said after Thursday’s hearing. “By agreeing with this [plea deal], she can serve her time, move on with her life and see her children again.”
Harris, a 20-year veteran with the Miami police force, last worked as a street cop in Model City.
Kelvin Harris worked the front desk at the city’s North District station and joined the force 26 years ago. Archibald, only two years on the job, worked as a Neighborhood Resource Officer, also in Model City.
Schonton Harris, who has been held in federal custody since her arrest in October, was initially charged with one count of conspiring to possess with intent to distribute controlled substances and three counts of attempted possession with intent to distribute cocaine. Those other charges will be dismissed under her plea agreement with federal prosecutor Harry Wallace.
Wallace said that Schonton Harris and the other two Miami officers collected a total of $33,500 in cash during a six-month FBI undercover operation in which they helped distribute opioids like Percocet, transported dozens of kilos of cocaine and acted as protection for dealers during drug transactions.
According to a criminal complaint, after the feds joined the investigation last April, FBI agents made audio and video recordings of the three officers’ actions. The complaint says Schonton Harris initially agreed to join a “cooperating witness” — who was actually a fourth Miami cop — in taking payments for protecting couriers who were carrying cash from the illegal sale of painkillers.
The witness told Schonton Harris that she was protecting a courier who was collecting drug proceeds from pharmacies and clinics engaged in the illegal sale of opioids and then driving to a bank to deposit the money, the complaint says.
Some details of the case seemed straight out of a rogue-cop movie.
The complaint says Schonton Harris sold a police uniform and badge to an undercover investigator for $1,500, despite being told the official gear would be used by a “sicario,” a drug cartel hit man.
In another instance, Schonton Harris was recorded telling the cooperating witness that she spotted a suspicious person during a courier’s cash run last June and purposely held her gun outside the patrol car door as a threat for him to back off.
“I take the damn seat belt off and I was sitting with my gun in my lap, and when the mother... started walking, I pulled that sh-- up. I let the window down a little bit, and I set [the gun] just like this,” Harris said in the recording, according to the complaint.
“I was gonna pop that mother...,” the officer was recorded saying.
A month later, during another recorded conversation, Harris admitted using and dealing narcotics and managing to fake a police-administered drug test while employed as a cop.
During a meeting in September with an undercover FBI investigator who was portrayed as a high-level member of a drug-trafficking organization, Harris identified Archibald as a willing participant. Kelvin Harris had been recruited earlier.
During the FBI undercover operation, the three Miami officers went from protecting cash couriers to protecting drug dealers and then to carrying multiple kilos of cocaine themselves. Because the investigation was a sting, the cocaine was fake.
The trio’s actions didn’t take place in any particular neighborhood of Miami and all the recorded activity happened while the officers were off duty. Sometimes they wore their uniforms. Other times they didn’t. But they always carried firearms.
Miami Police Chief Jorge Colina said his department made the decision to inform the FBI about the initial suspicious activities last April.
“Some stuff was going on before on a significantly smaller level,” Colina said after a press conference in October. “No one thought it would get to what it got to.”