Slain Teen Informant’s Kin Settle for $1 Million
The cities of Brea and Yorba Linda agreed Monday to pay $1 million to the family of a 17-year-old boy who was beaten and strangled by drug dealers in 1998 after working as an undercover drug informant.
Chad MacDonald’s death prompted nationwide scrutiny of the use of juveniles as police informants and sparked a state law that restricted the practice. Some police departments feared that a victory for the family would make using teenage informants too great a legal liability.
Law enforcement officials on Monday said the settlement will probably lead to more aggressive training for police who deal with teenagers. But they said the use of juvenile informants, while still infrequent compared with use of adults, will probably continue.
“I am sure each city attorney and risk management [office] is going to look at this to determine a response,” said Fremont Police Chief Craig Steckler, past president of the California Police Chiefs Assn. “But you have to remember that informants are our lifeblood, and I don’t think that’s going to change.”
Brea police arrested MacDonald in January 1998 after finding half an ounce of methamphetamine in his pickup during a traffic stop in Yorba Linda. (Brea officers patrol Yorba Linda under a contract.)
That night at Brea police headquarters, MacDonald agreed to cooperate with future drug investigations; his mother signed a waiver authorizing his role.
The teenager made one undercover drug buy while wearing a hidden recording device and told police about two other suspected drug dealers.
When officers arrested him a second time with methamphetamine, Brea police booted him from the informant program and told him he would be charged.
Less than two weeks later, MacDonald was robbed and killed at a Norwalk drug house. His teenage girlfriend, who accompanied him to the house, was raped, shot in the face and abandoned near the Angeles National Forest.
The assailants, who were gang members, were convicted and sentenced to life in prison without parole for the crimes against MacDonald and his girlfriend.
During the trial, the defense argued that the three suspects determined that MacDonald was an informant and were trying to teach him a lesson when he accidentally died.
The MacDonald family lawyer, Lloyd Charton, argued that Brea police were responsible for MacDonald’s death because the gang members killed him as retaliation for the teenager’s informant work. Charton also charged the police did not do enough to protect MacDonald.
The settlement Monday marked one of the largest police department payouts in Orange County history and came about a month after a state appeals court reinstated the family’s lawsuit. A lower court had earlier thrown out the case, finding that police were protected by the waiver MacDonald’s mother signed.
Brea police have long insisted they did nothing improper, noting that MacDonald was acting without their knowledge when he drove to the Norwalk house.
But after more than three years of litigation and hundreds of thousands in legal bills, the city’s insurance carrier decided the settlement made the most financial sense, said Brea City Manager Tim O’Donnell.
MacDonald’s mother, Cindy, said the settlement sends a strong message about the danger of police using teenagers as their agents. She said she hopes the lawsuit settlement and the new law, which requires a judge’s approval before a juvenile can work as an informant, make police think twice.
“If Chad’s life saves another child, which I know that it has, then he meant something,” Cindy MacDonald said. “My goal was for this to never happen to another child again. Hopefully, it won’t.”
Jerry L. Steering, an attorney who represents plaintiffs in police misconduct cases, said police throughout the state should take notice of the settlement.
“The cops should know better than having a 17-year-old wearing a wire,” Steering said. “He’s not even allowed to buy beer or a cigarette.”
The family decided four years ago that they would settle for nothing less than $1 million--a figure they believed would send a message to police throughout the state, Charton said.
“This will have a huge impact,” Charton said. “Any time a police officer reads that another police department had to pay out $1 million, they will think seriously before they engage in those acts. Aren’t we all supposed to learn from our mistakes?”
Shortly after all sides agreed to the settlement, Cindy MacDonald drove to Fairhaven Memorial Park in Santa Ana on Monday to visit her son’s crypt.
“I’m telling him how good he did ... and how his life touched others,” she said.