King Of The Drugbusters

Fast-talking, streetwise and cool as ice, Andrew Chambers was utterly convincing when he played the role of a big-time drug dealer. For 16 years, working undercover for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, Chambers would fly into a strange city, make contact with local druggies and pass himself off as a gangsta Crip from L.A., a coke dealer from St. Louis or a half-Cuban heroin dealer from Miami. He talked the talk and walked the walk--a consummate actor, the Eddie Murphy of confidential informants. "Some people have the ability to sing or paint," says Jeff McCaskill, a former DEA agent who ran some of Chambers's more successful stings. "He has the ability to get in with those types of people and make them believe."

In the twilight world of undercover drug investigations, Chambers's lifetime stats are legendary: 445 arrests in nearly 300 separate cases, plus seizures totaling 1.5 tons of cocaine, heroin and other drugs. Between 1984 and February 2000, Chambers fronted for DEA investigations in Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, Minneapolis, Newark, New Orleans, San Diego and St. Louis. For this work, he collected approximately $2.2 million in rewards and expenses as a "CI," or confidential informant. "The guys called me 'CI slash agent'," he told NEWSWEEK. "They thought I could do anybody." But now Chambers has been "deactivated," and red-faced DEA officials are conducting an investigation to see how badly the federal rules on confidential informants were broken. The reason? In 16 cases where he gave crucial testimony for the prosecution, Chambers is alleged to have lied under oath.

Some of his war stories, corroborated by DEA sources and court records, read like a real-world version of "Beverly Hills Cop." (This week, Chambers's exploits will be featured on ABC's "20/20" news show.) In one case, Chambers was driving his blue Corvette down a freeway in L.A. when another driver waved to him and started a conversation car to car. Chambers quickly sized up the man as a drug dealer seeking an L.A. connection: within weeks, the chance encounter on the freeway took Chambers to Detroit and a DEA sting that led to the arrest of three coke dealers. When a suspect in a Florida case noticed the lens of a surveillance camera in the dashboard of his car, Chambers told him it was only a device for "monitoring my engine"--and got away with it. To convince a Houston suspect that he, too, was a crook, Chambers bought dozens of silk shirts at government expense, distributed them to the suspect's homies and grandly told the bad guys that the shirts had been stolen by "my people." It was pure Axel Foley, and it worked.

Chambers's career as a drug informant began in St. Louis, when he walked into the local DEA office and said he wanted to become an agent. He was a former Marine with a GED, but he wasn't eligible to be an agent because he had no college degree. But the Feds wanted him as a freelance informant and he said yes. The DEA relies heavily on informants--it has about 4,000 right now--but the vast majority are criminal suspects ratting out confederates in hopes of getting lighter sentences for themselves. Chambers wasn't facing criminal charges at all, which made him far more believable as a witness, and he loved the excitement of the job. "It's cool to just sit back and say, 'Damn, I can get that mother'," he says proudly. He liked the money, too: federal informants are paid for expenses and information, and DEA pays rewards that can run as high as $250,000.

Time and again, Chambers played the key role in elaborate DEA stings. One such investigation was targeted at Cecil Fuller, a Long Beach, Calif., nightclub owner who was suspected of being a major supplier of cocaine and crack. Chambers told Fuller he was a coke dealer from St. Louis, and Fuller sent his son Darren (Hootie) Fuller to check on Chambers's story. In St. Louis, Chambers squired Hootie around town while he collected fake drug proceeds from scruffy DEA agents playing bit parts for the ruse. Then he let Hootie count the take. "Man, you got it going on," Hootie said admiringly. Later, Chambers steered Hootie to a Las Vegas "financial adviser"--actually, an IRS agent--who reported that the Fullers' cocaine business earned as much as $50,000 a day. Cecil and Hootie went to prison. Chambers collected a $250,000 reward, his biggest.

It all began to unravel with a 1996 case in Los Angeles, when Chambers got the goods on a drug-dealing restaurant owner named Edward (Fast Eddie) Stanley. Among other details, Chambers provided federal agents with Fast Eddie's cell-phone number, and that in turn produced a wiretapped conversation in which Stanley hired a hit man, Daniel Ray Bennett, to carry out a contract killing. Enter Dean Steward, a veteran public defender who represented Bennett. In a last-ditch attempt to overturn his client's plea-bargained murder conviction, Steward challenged the search warrant for the tap on Stanley's cell phone.

That led to Chambers and his credibility problem. Steward checked on past cases and quickly found that in at least some, Chambers had lied on the stand. Chambers said he had never been arrested, when in fact he had been--10 times between 1984 and 1998, according to government records, although he was convicted only once. The charges ranged from forging his brother's name on loan documents to assault and disturbing the peace (the complainant was his future wife). Chambers was arrested twice, in 1995 and 1998, for soliciting sex from prostitutes, and in one of these cases he pleaded guilty and paid a $475 fine. He also concealed the fact that he got in trouble with the IRS by failing to pay taxes in the late 1980s and again in the late '90s.

Steward, now in private practice, says Chambers "perjured himself virtually every time he's testified." The former public defender posted a simulated "Wanted" poster about Chambers on the Internet, effectively alerting defense attorneys across the country to the discrepancies in Chambers's record. The issue is dead-serious because the government has a legal obligation to disclose all damaging material about its witnesses so that defense lawyers can challenge their credibility at trial. Both DEA and federal prosecutors failed this obligation in some of Chambers's cases. So far no case in which Chambers testified has been overturned, but that could happen. Defense lawyers are beginning to file motions citing his credibility problems, and prosecutors, concerned that their star witness had been tarnished beyond repair, have already dropped 14 pending drug prosecutions in Florida and South Carolina. Richard Fiano, DEA's operations chief, says he is "baffled" by Chambers's lack of truthfulness. "Whether it looks good for you or bad for you," Fiano adds, "you gotta tell the truth."

Chambers insists he never lied about the cases he worked on, though he admits he lied about himself. Probably he was just embarrassed--after all, he saw himself as a "CI slash agent." He still dreams of going back to DEA, but if that doesn't work he's got a plan: a book deal, and maybe a movie about his life. Spike Lee, he says, seems interested.