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Earl McNeil, who died after an encounter with the National City Police, is shown in an undated photo.
Tammy Davis
Earl McNeil, who died after an encounter with the National City Police, is shown in an undated photo.

Dr J's Part 5: The Use Of Informants In The Shooting At Dr J's Liquor

This is a special six-part series called Dr J's. A new story will be published every day.

After the shooting at Dr J's, police and prosecutors looked for informants who would trade information for reduced sentences and money to move away from San Diego. One informant in particular shows what a difficult decision that can be.

Usually when I talked to James Carter on the phone, he was so focused on how he said there was no evidence to convict him of the murders at Dr J's. But in one conversation, he deviated from that script and started telling me about his favorite movies.

"My top five movies are 'Fast Times at Ridgemont High,' 'Cooley High,' 'Grease,' 'West Side Story,'" he said.


I laughed a little at the thought of an alleged gang member enjoying the dancing gangs in "West Side Story." Carter noticed.

"Oh are you laughing at me?" he said. "Oh that's cold, Claire, that's messed up. What's so funny about that?"

"Those are good movies," I said.

This conversation made me realize Carter is a flirt. I already sort of knew this — his mom told me he often had multiple girlfriends, and it actually came up in his trial. His defense lawyer suggested at one point that other gang members ended up naming Carter as the shooter because they didn't like him since he was always stealing their girlfriends.

Laila Aziz knew Carter before he was arrested and said, yeah, people in the Skyline area didn't like him. She's now head of Pillars of the Community, a nonprofit that advocates for criminal justice reform.


"They needed a conviction, and so when you're working in a community and you need a conviction, you have to get somebody who's convictable," she said. "Did I make up a word?"

No, she didn't. She said this happens a lot after a crime — police find people with other convictions and try to get them to give up information in exchange for reduced sentences.

Dr J's Part 5: The Use Of Informants In The Shooting At Dr J's Liquor

"They went in there and started making deals with people who didn't want to go to prison for having drugs or didn't want to go to prison for domestic violence," Aziz said. "And they got them to testify. They'd say, 'Just give me a name.' And finally, they got a name that could stick with enough people who didn't care about him. He was a throwaway."

Robert Hickey, the prosecutor in Carter's trial, paints it differently. The District Attorney's office wouldn't let me interview him for this story, but he actually talked to me about this case a few years ago. Back then, he was running for San Diego City Attorney and brought up the case multiple times as evidence that he knew how to work with the Southeast San Diego community.

"I was a prosecutor of the year in 2011 for work I did on a double murder down in Southeast San Diego," he told me during our interview.

"I know the district attorney got the best work out of me when I was empowered on the Dr. J's case, the double murder down in Southeast San Diego where these two innocent women were murdered," he said later.

In an interview with The San Diego Union-Tribune after the trial, Hickey talked about collecting informants against Carter.

"There is nothing more believable on the (witness) stand than a career criminal when they tell the truth," he was quoted as saying. "They’re in a position to know."

He went on to say that some of those informants helped solve other murder cases in Southeast San Diego and that there could be more people arrested for the Dr J's shooting in the future. But that never happened.

The informants against Carter

So who were these informants? There were four big ones who testified in the trial. Two were jailhouse informants, meaning they were in prison with Carter and said that he told them he did the shooting. Both got less jail time in exchange for their testimony.

A man shouts "Who killed Earl McNeil?" at the National City Police Chief during a City Council meeting, July 17, 2018.
Kris Arciaga
A man shouts "Who killed Earl McNeil?" at the National City Police Chief during a City Council meeting, July 17, 2018.

Another was Earl McNeil. He's the man who sparked protests in National City last summer because he went into a coma and died after police arrested him. We now know that McNeil was an informant for the District Attorney's office at least for the Dr J's case and possibly for others. After he testified in Carter's trial, the DA gave him almost $30,000 in expenses so he and his family could move away from San Diego.

RELATED: What Happened To Earl McNeil?

Payments like those can be a big incentive for informants, even if they don't get reduced jail time. It's guaranteed paid rent and food, and a chance to leave a bad situation in San Diego and start over somewhere else.

This came up with the fourth informant in Carter's case, who we'll call SP to protect his identity.

"It's not just to help me but I can end for my family this gangster lifestyle," he said in a recorded interview with the prosecutor Hickey. In that recording, he showed what a hard decision it can be for an informant to decide to cooperate with police.

"This is snitching," he said. "This is against everything I believe, everything I've been grown up to understand."

Hickey told him he knows it goes against the gang code to give information to police.

"I understand the code, but maybe you'll get a new code today," he said.

SP clearly did not want to testify. In fact, he said at the trial that he only decided that morning to go through with it and that the District Attorney's office had to keep him in jail to stop him from, as he said, "ducking them," and skipping testifying.

In that recording, SP said that Carter was the main organizer of the shooting. But then, at the trial, Carter's defense attorney played another tape.

"Everything I said to the DA has been a lie," SP said in a recorded interview with the defense's private investigator. In it, SP said he was in jail and found out his mom was sick. He hoped that by talking to the DA, they'd let him out so he could see his mom before she died of cancer.

So he said he made up a bunch of information about Dr J's. The investigator asked if anything he told the DA was true and he said no.

After that tape, the jury must have been thinking there's no way they can believe SP, right? But then, he reversed himself again. When he testified at the trial, he said he told the defense investigator he lied to the DA because he was trying to save his reputation.

"I was trying to see if there was some way I can keep my respect," he said. "In the hood, with the homies. I thought if I switched up what I said, took back everything that I'm saying, maybe I wouldn't be looked at as a snitch, maybe just somebody trying to get out of a situation and that I will still be able to come back around and have face value with the homies."

Then he went back to his original story, that Carter did the shooting. He said he decided to testify because the DA promised he likely would be let out of jail and moved out of San Diego for protection, and he hoped this would give him and his family a fresh start.

A playing card used in prisons to collect informants who might talk about the shooting at Dr J's Liquor.
Claire Trageser
A playing card used in prisons to collect informants who might talk about the shooting at Dr J's Liquor.

Testimony that comes at a price

Alexandra Natapoff sees deals like the one SP made as a problem. She's an expert on informants and a law professor at UC Irvine.

"We permit the government to pay its witnesses in the most valuable currency you can imagine, which is their own liberty," she said. "We have permitted the creation of an enormous informal off-the-record market exchanging information for liberty and leniency in sentencing. We don't regulate it."

Offering people deals in exchange for testimony increases the likelihood that they will make up information, she said.

"But we also pay in the fact that in effect every informant deal is letting a criminal off the hook," she said. "These leniency deals are by definition a way that criminal suspects, criminal defendants are avoiding punishment for their own crimes, for their own wrongdoing, sometimes very serious criminals."

Letting the guilty go free is what Laila Aziz, the Southeast San Diego resident you heard from at the beginning of this story, said happened in the Dr J's case. She thinks James Carter didn't do it, and that to her shows the District Attorney doesn't care about her community.

"Because if you will convict a person you know did not do it, you don't care," she said. "That's where we get the wrongful convictions, the devastation, and that does not assist our community in being resilient."

In our next story, we'll hear more from Aziz and other Southeast San Diego residents about what would assist their community in the future.

As deputy investigations team and digital fellowship editor, Claire helps lead the investigations team and digital-first content like podcasts, YouTube videos and data visualizations. She works collaboratively with the news team to produce and enhance investigative and enterprising stories.
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