There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Lost in the billions of records at the National Archives and Records Administration is a Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms file marked No. 742207-98-0020. It may be of little interest to historians, but David Wilson believes it’s his best and last chance of proving he had nothing to do with the 1998 murders of Ronnie “Squid” Middleton and Sabrina Bradley in Congress Park.
Wilson, who is serving more than 40 years for aiding and abetting in the murders, knows this much about the missing file:
On June 14, 1999, in a joint undercover operation, MPD and ATF agents wired a confidential informant to talk to a man named “LT” about the murders of Middleton, a hitman for the infamous 1-5 Mob, and his girlfriend Bradley, an innocent bystander. Antonio “LT” Robinson is long since dead, but he unknowingly bragged on tape to the undercover informant about killing Middleton and Bradley, an MPD memo shows. But the recording of exactly what LT said that day never made it into Wilson’s trial in U.S. District Court.
After his conviction, Wilson filed multiple open records requests from prison, and MPD ultimately acknowledged the tape existed. Even then, a police official swore under penalty of perjury that an internal MPD memo shows police turned it over years ago to the ATF. Now ATF officials say the agency can’t find it and may never have had it in the first place.
Whether or not Wilson is guilty, the troubling disclosures he’s prying loose from federal and local agencies regarding the whereabouts of a lost murder confession ought to concern anyone who cares about preservation of evidence and the handling of public records.
“That information is out there, and they don’t want me to have it because it’s exonerating evidence,” Wilson says in a recent phone interview from prison. “It was negligent on their part. Plain and simple, it was supposed to have been turned over to me.”
There’s no way of knowing without hearing the tape, of course, whether the words on it help or hurt Wilson’s case. While LT admitted being the triggerman, prosecutors point out that Wilson was convicted of being the getaway driver. So the existence of a confession by LT alone may not impact his case. Prosecutors said there’s no reason to believe Wilson’s story, but Wilson insists the tape will show he’s innocent. Either way, it’s hard to argue he doesn’t deserve at least to hear what was said if he’s going to spend the rest of his life in prison.
Recent developments in Wilson’s latest open records lawsuit muddle things even more. In February court papers, ATF attorneys argued that a judge should dismiss Wilson’s lawsuit against the agency, saying ATF only assisted MPD and that the agency searched its internal computer files and found no mention of Wilson.
But through earlier open records work, Wilson uncovered a 1999 MPD internal memo summing up LT’s admission—and the fact the tape was turned over to ATF.
“In what was described as a very brief conversation, the source advised that Robinson engaged the source in a conversation regarding the captioned shooting,” then MPD Detective Michael Will wrote. The detective added that the information was taken to the Seventh District headquarters, where “the body recorder was turned off and turned over to agent Hester.”
Another MPD detective, Daniel Whalen, said in a sworn statement years later that MPD records showed “the instrument to record this conversation, along with the content, was surrendered directly to a special agent of the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms.”
Paul Wright, editor of Prison Legal News and director of the Human Rights Defense Center who has extensive experience filing FOIA requests with local and federal prisons, says the government makes it difficult for prisoners like Wilson.
“The reality is the criminal justice system in America is the least transparent of all government institutions,” says Wright, who characterizes Wilson’s FOIA frustrations as “par for the course.”
“It seems kind of obvious that when they’ve got a vested interest in maintaining someone’s conviction, they really do go to serious lengths to keep them in prison and keep them locked up,” Wright says.
After Wilson was unable to turn up the tape following open records requests with MPD and the US Attorney’s Office, he filed yet another request with ATF. Later, he filed a lawsuit against the agency, which did not respond to City Paper’s requests for comment.
But in court papers, ATF attorneys urged a judge to toss Wilson’s case. “Disappointing though it may be, [ATF] is simply unable to provide plaintiff David Wilson with the recording that he seeks,” the attorneys wrote in a Feb. 27 memo. “The ATF searched everywhere it possibly can, but cannot find the requested record.”
The agency did not say one way or another whether MPD was correct about turning over the tape to ATF, but attorneys noted Wilson’s name never came up in its internal records and database searches. The agency also said it went “above and beyond” in trying to locate one file consisting of work the agency did assisting MPD in the Seventh District in the late 1990s. In its motion to dismiss, ATF said the file is unlikely to contain the murder confession.
Still, there was enough of a possibility that ATF formally requested that the National Archives pull the file out of storage. Unfortunately for Wilson, though, the National Archives couldn’t find the file. That’s because ATF lost a transmission slip required to track the file’s whereabouts in storage.
In a declaration, Stephanie Boucher, ATF’s chief disclosure officer, said the missing file “may or may not contain” the information Wilson is seeking. She told a federal judge now weighing Wilson’s FOIA lawsuit that the agency doesn’t have any more information and that ATF has done enough already under the law.
“ATF has met the reasonable search obligation required by the FOIA,” she wrote.
Wilson filed his own lengthy response, but the heart of his argument is simple: When it comes to missing murder confessions, reasonable search isn’t enough. Keep looking. Find it.