AZTEC — An inmate at the San Juan County Adult Detention Center gathered information on suspects in at least two high-profile homicides in hopes of earning favor with law enforcement.
In recent months, Eric Lassiter, 33, worked with law enforcement from within the detention center. He is being released from jail today and is required to enter a rehabilitation facility.
Lassiter was in jail because of an alleged probation violation. He pleaded guilty in April to trafficking narcotics, and he was sentenced to probation. He violated probation by not enrolling in rehab, Chief Deputy District Attorney Dustin O'Brien said.
Lassiter told police that while in jail, he heard incriminating statements from Cody Soto, a Bloomfield man accused of killing Brandy Robinson, and Jacob Beach, a Farmington man accused of killing Sharolyn Keown, according to documents.
Farmington attorney Cosme Ripol represented Lassiter and Beach, and the lawyer had to recuse himself from both cases because of a conflict of interest.
According to court documents, Lassiter approached detectives in September and told them he had a conversation with Beach in the jail that was relevant to the case against him. Even before Lassiter told investigators about the conversation, there were recording devices in Lassiter and Beach's pod at the detention center. Prosecutors said they plan to use the recorded conversation between the two men in the case against Beach.
"Help!" Ripol wrote in an email to Chief New Mexico Public Defender Jacqueline Cooper last month. "What do I do? I want to take Beach to trial, but I also want to warn him to keep his mouth shut because there is a snitch in his (pod). If I warn Beach about the bug device, am I violating a duty to Lassiter? But if I do not warn Beach, am I violating a duty to Beach?"
Cooper responded that Ripol needed to recuse himself from both cases.
"What a mess!" she wrote in an email.
Lassiter worked with San Juan Sheriff's Office investigators in the Soto case, and he was named in the affidavit for Soto's arrest.
O'Brien said Lassiter admitted to his probation violation during a hearing on Tuesday, and he will enroll in rehab outside of San Juan County. He said he couldn't discuss the plea negotiations between Lassiter and the state in exchange for his testimony against the two murder suspects.
Detention Center Administrator Tom Havel said Lassiter will be in protective custody until he is released from the facility at noon.
Eric Morrow, who is representing Soto and now Beach, said using Lassiter and other "jailhouse snitches" creates legal questions because the inmates act as pseudo law-enforcement officers when they gather what becomes crucial evidence to court cases.
Morrow said if law enforcement directed Lassiter on what information they needed him to get from the murder suspects, then Lassiter was an "agent" of the state and he wouldn't have been allowed to talk to Soto or Beach without their attorneys present.
"Whether he was an agent of the state is an important question," Morrow said. "He said he hasn't been offered a deal and he's looking for good will. ... But (Lassiter) is a habitual offender, a drug user and a thief."
O'Brien said Lassiter wasn't acting as an agent for the state when he gathered evidence against Beach and Soto.
"If we went and said, 'You have to ask this question,' then it would create a problem," O'Brien said. "For prosecutors, it would create an ethical problem. For law enforcement, it would create an admissibility problem."
Sheriff's office Capt. Brice Current said the use of confidential informants and witnesses who overhear statements in jail is a crucial part of the evidence gathering process. He said he thought Lassiter's name should have been protected from the public record.
"Just because people have addictions and do bad things doesn't mean they are bad people and don't want to do what's right," he said. "We, in law enforcement, have an obligation and a duty to protect. However, the Sixth Amendment has a confrontation clause in it, and you have a right to confront your accuser. ... It's up to a judge to balance the needs of a witness's protection and the rights in the Constitution."