A sting gone awry (cont.)
Burdens on the psyche
Besides Brown, only Sharon Hogue of Houston pleaded innocent in Operation Lightning Strike.
A judge dismissed all charges against her after the prosecution concluded its four-week case, ruling there was no evidence to find her guilty.
Had other targets of the sting not succumbed to the governments tactics, they, too, would have been exonerated, Brown believes.
Anthony Verrengia, a retired Air Force reserve general, was indicted for accepting a kickback in Operation Lightning Strike. He said the money was payment for legitimate work. The indictment cost him his job as the manager of advanced programs for the Space and Aeronautics Division of Martin Marietta Services Group.
He said he pleaded guilty because fighting the charge seemed an insurmountable task.
The ordeal destroyed him mentally.
"It was a culmination of knowing youre trapped, knowing youre not guilty, but there is no way for you to escape this situation," he said. He ingested 200 sleeping pills in a suicide attempt a few months after his indictment.
Other targets of the sting also plunged into depression.
Verrengia has asked a federal court judge to allow him to withdraw the guilty plea he says was coerced.
The other targets of Operation Lightning Strike are considering similar actions.
Charges costly legacy
Brown knew there was no way he could win.
Even if he were exonerated, his business was destroyed. The indictment ensured that Brown would never win another contract in the space community.
At the time of his arrest, Brown had little money to pay an attorney. His uncle hired Dick DeGuerin, a well-known criminal lawyer, to take the case.
The government almost immediately reduced the 21 felonies against Brown to one bribery charge. DeGuerins defense was that Brown would never have committed a crime if prosecutors could even prove his action constituted a crime had the government not entrapped him.
FBI Agent Francis assured jurors that Brown knew the lithotripter, the device he was trying to sell, was phony and was part of the effort to defraud NASA by trying to win contracts for a bogus product. Francis said Brown had never seen a prototype of the device because none existed.
Thats when Brown produced the picture of the prototype.
Francis also testified about the "bribe" Brown had offered a lobbyist to help get the lithotripter noticed. Brown said Francis gave him the $500 and called it "entertainment money." Brown said he thought thats exactly what it was spending money to give to the lobbyist while he was in Houston.
The FBI recorded the March 1993 conversation that followed the "bribe":
Francis: "How did that feel?"
Brown: "I didnt mind doing it. We gave the guy five hundred bucks. Youre making it sound bad."
Francis: "You bribed that guy."
Brown: "I did?"
Brown said that conversation exemplified the governments approach in Operation Lightning Strike: convoluted actions aimed at trapping someone into saying or doing something that might be construed as incriminating.
The jury deadlocked in Browns case. Rather than retry him, prosecutors asked the judge to dismiss the charges.
Brown was elated, broke and outraged. He spent the next two years investigating the governments sting. He said he found 200 occasions where government agents and prosecutors had lied or destroyed evidence.
He battled health problems. While he was under investigation, the 33-year-old Brown had a massive heart attack that led to open-heart surgery. That caused a viral infection that forced another operation; he was on life support in a California hospital on the day he was indicted.
A few days after he turned over the information hed gathered about government misconduct to his attorneys to prepare a lawsuit, he had a massive stroke that left the right side of his body partially paralyzed. "I lost my [fiancee], my health, my cars, my house, was forced into bankruptcy and underwent two open-heart surgeries, intestinal surgery and brain surgery because of a massive stroke due to the stress," he said.
During a recent walk down a Houston street, Brown lamented the disastrous turn in his life. He had been an athletic entrepreneur who enjoyed skydiving, deep-sea diving and fast living. Now he is almost destitute and physically broken. Brown refuses to use crutches, braces or a wheelchair, despite having problems walking. He swears he will again go deep-sea diving but also admits that doctors believe his health problems have shortened his life.
His lawsuit charging misconduct against the government and others involved in the sting was dismissed, though he has appealed. His chances are slim. The Supreme Court has long ruled that federal law enforcement officers are immune from most civil lawsuits related to their job-related actions.
"No one wants to listen, but I wont stop until someone does," he said.
Agent Francis left the FBI. He is a private investigator in Houston. He has not responded to written requests for an interview.
Brown remembers the last time he heard from Francis outside a courtroom. On Oct. 20, 1993, his voice was on Browns answering machine, though Francis didnt realize it. An associate of Francis had made the call then forgot to hit the end button on her cellular phone. Browns answering machine picked up her subsequent conversation with Francis.
Francis talked about Operation Lightning Strike. He described himself as a "study in aberrant behavior" who could get anyone to do anything.
Brown thought at first Francis might be talking in jest, then he decided he wasnt. "He sure got me to do what he wanted." Brown said those few minutes of conversation scared him more than anything else hed heard in Operation Lightning Strike.