Police decry Web site on informants
By MATT APUZZO, Associated Press Writer
Police and prosecutors are worried that a Web site claiming to identify
more than 4,000 informants and undercover agents will cripple
investigations and hang targets on witnesses.
The Web site, WhosaRat.com, first caught the attention of authorities
after a Massachusetts man put it online and named a few dozen people as
turncoats in 2004. Since then, it has grown into a clearinghouse for mug
shots, court papers and rumors.
Federal prosecutors say the site was set up to encourage violence, and
federal judges around the country were recently warned that witnesses in
their courtrooms may be profiled online.
"My concern is making sure cooperators are adequately protected from
retaliation," said Chief Judge Thomas Hogan, who alerted other judges in
Washington's federal courthouse. He said he learned about the site from
a federal judge in Maine.
The Web site is the latest unabashedly public effort to identify
witnesses or discourage helping police. "Stop Snitching" T-shirts have
been sold in cities around the country and popular hip-hop lyrics
disparage or threaten people who help police.
In 2004, NBA star Carmelo Anthony appeared in an underground Baltimore
DVD that warned people they could be killed for cooperating with police.
Anthony has said he was not aware of the DVD's message.
Such threats hinder criminal investigations, said Ronald Teachman,
police chief in New Bedford, Mass., where murder cases have been stymied
by witness silence and "Stop Snitching" T-shirts were recently for sale.
"Every shooting we have to treat like homicide. The victim's alive but
he's not cooperative," Teachman said. "These kids have the idea that the
worst offense they can commit is to cooperate with the police."
Sean Bucci, a former Boston-area disc jockey, set up WhosaRat.com after
federal prosecutors charged him with selling marijuana in bulk from his
house. Bucci is under house arrest awaiting trial and could not be
reached, but a WhosaRat spokesman identifying himself as Anthony Capone
said the site is a resource for criminal defendants and does not condone
"If people got hurt or killed, it's kind of on them. They knew the
dangers of becoming an informant," Capone said. "We'd feel bad, don't
get me wrong, but things happen to people. If they decide to become an
informant, with or without the Web site, that's a possibility."
The site offers biographical information about people whom users
identify as witnesses or undercover agents. Users can post court
documents, comments and pictures.
Some of those listed are well known, such as former Connecticut Gov.
John G. Rowland, who served 10 months in prison before testifying in a
public corruption case. But many never made headlines and were
identified as having helped investigators in drug cases.
For two years, anyone with an Internet connection could search the site.
On Thursday, a day after it was discussed at a courthouse conference in
Washington, the site became a subscription-only service. The site has
also disabled the ability to post photos of undercover agents, Capone
said, because administrators of the Web site do not want officers to be
Authorities disagree. In documents filed in Bucci's court case last
month, federal prosecutors said they have information that Bucci set up
the Web site to help intimidate and harm witnesses.
"Such information not only compromises pending or future government
investigations, but places informants and undercover agents in
potentially grave danger," Assistant U.S. Attorney Peter K. Levitt wrote.
While prosecutors haven't pointed to a case where a witness or officer
was harmed because of the Web site, it has been used to shatter an
undercover agent's anonymity. After Hawaiian doctor Kachun Yeung was
charged with distributing narcotic painkillers this spring, a
surveillance picture of an undercover Drug Enforcement Agent was posted
on the site.
Federal prosecutors said they traced the posting to the University of
Hawaii newspaper's photo department, where the doctor's son was a photo
editor. The posting identified the names of three agents and described
one as "a known liar and a dirty agent. He is an absolute disgrace to
the American justice system."
Prosecutors in Boston have discussed whether WhosaRat is protected as
free speech but have not moved to shut it down. In 2004, an Alabama
federal judge ruled that a defendant had the right to run a Web site
that included witness information in the form of "wanted" posters.
Earlier this month, federal judges from Minnesota and Utah urged their
colleagues to be careful about how much information about witnesses is
released in public files, noting that they could end up on WhosaRat.
Steve Bunnell, chief of the criminal division at the U.S. attorney's
office in Washington, said the rules of evidence already require
authorities to identity witnesses to the people most likely to harm
them: the defendants. Most of the documents labeled "top secret" on the
site are really public court records or information copied from other
Web sites, he said.
His concern is that the site disparages the reputation of people who
come forward to help solve crimes.
"We don't make those high-level gang and drug organization cases without
somebody on the inside telling us what's going on," Bunnell said.
Copyright 2006 The Associated Press.
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