On Sunday, Rolling Stone published a long feature on former Raleigh vice detective Omar Abdullah’s “reign of terror.” The RPD’s fake-heroin scandal has only gotten worse since The Assembly reported on it last month.
On March 13, Judge Terrence W. Boyle granted qualified immunity to the 10 SWAT officers who, acting on a faulty search warrant, burst into the homes of Yolanda Irving and her neighbor on May 21, 2020. Boyle said cops “do not violate any clearly established rights when they point their firearms at the unknown occupants of a residence.”
Boyle also removed Emancipate NC as a co-plaintiff in Irving’s lawsuit, saying the activist group lacked standing.
Then, on March 31, attorneys for three RPD vice detectives attached more than 1,300 pages of testimony from the detectives, their supervisor, Abdullah, and SWAT officers to a court filing – previously undisclosed depositions that provide insight into not only what went wrong but also how the RPD handles informants.
Here are six takeaways from the new documents:
Vice detectives knew something was off. Before Dennis Williams began working with Omar Abdullah, no RPD informant had arranged 10 trafficking-level heroin buys in six months. “It was too good to be true,” one detective testified.
What Williams produced didn’t look like heroin. It wasn’t packaged like heroin. He often paid far less than street value. Williams’ hidden cameras never recorded the transactions. And Williams made small buys before quickly jumping to larger ones, which is not how heroin dealers usually sell. Two detectives raised concerns about Williams with their supervisor, Sgt. William Rolfe.
But they said they didn’t go further up the chain—at least not at first—because they didn’t have proof.
The detectives did make jokes about it. The day the RPD executed the final search warrant in the Abdullah-Williams partnership, one detective texted colleagues to “Place your bets here!!” on what they’d find. He went first: “7 grams brown sugar mixture. 12 grams of weed. $230 (non-buy money). 3 red flags.” Another responded: “For sure fake heroin.”
Two detectives said they assumed that dealers were ripping Williams off. They didn’t realize that Williams was behind the scheme until they listened to the audio recording of the last controlled buy. They said they heard Williams ask for $60 worth of something (he didn’t say what). But the RPD had given him $800 to buy heroin—and the remaining $740 was never found.
One detective said he now believes Williams sometimes used the RPD’s money to purchase marijuana. After Williams claimed the men sold him heroin, the RPD paid him $200 or more for his work.
Williams shouldn’t have been an informant. Abdullah first recruited Williams in 2018 after he sold another informant crushed aspirin and said it was oxycodone. Soon after, though, Williams spent time in the Nash County jail for larceny; when he was released in 2019, a condition of his probation was that he not contact anyone involved in the drug business.
To work with Williams again, Abdullah needed his probation officer’s approval. His then-supervisor, Rolfe, testified in his deposition that he believed Abdullah had obtained that permission. But the RPD’s Internal Affairs Division concluded that Abdullah had never contacted Williams’ probation officer, let alone receive approval for Williams to become an informant.
For his part, Abdullah testified that he thought Williams “wasn’t on probation,” though he admitted that Williams’ girlfriend told him he was.
Abdullah’s defense is a lack of “initiative.” Abdullah testified that before these busts, he’d never seen heroin up close. He said he charged two men with heroin trafficking despite negative field tests—and his colleagues’ suspicions about whether it was real—because he didn’t believe the tests were reliable.
They aren’t. But as early as January 7, 2020—more than four months before the RPD cut ties with Williams—Wake County’s crime lab began reporting that the substances not only weren’t heroin, they weren’t drugs.
Abdullah’s own court filing says he “did not take the initiative to follow up and check on such results.” His colleagues said he didn’t know how. “It was just troubling that he was this far into his career with us and didn’t know how to look up lab results,” a detective testified.
The detective tried to teach him. Asked during his deposition if he used that training in cases involving Williams, Abdullah took the Fifth.
The RPD doesn’t field test suspected heroin. Abdullah pointed out in his deposition that, as policy, the RPD did not field test suspected heroin. The police weren’t just concerned about the test’s accuracy; they also worried that most things sold as heroin were cut with fentanyl, and that mere exposure to fentanyl during testing could, one detective testified, “cause an overdose.”
Still, that fear kept the RPD from conducting tests that might have uncovered Williams’ scheme earlier, Sgt. William Rolfe told Internal Affairs investigators. He said he lobbied for the department to buy equipment that allows officers to test drugs without removing their packaging and called the RPD “negligent” for not taking his advice.
The RPD has since purchased that equipment, but Rolfe—who recently retired—said he believes officers still don’t field-test anything that might contain fentanyl. The RPD has not responded to The Assembly’s questions about its field-testing policy.
Abdullah’s colleagues believed higher-ups protected him. Fellow detectives described him as a “lone wolf” who was “in over his head.” “You have to be sharp to succeed in a drug world, and I think Abdullah just—it wasn’t a good fit for him,” one testified.
They thought Rolfe treated him with kid gloves because Abdullah is Black and Muslim. “It would have been terrifying to supervise Abdullah out of fear of retaliation from supervisors or being transferred out if he was to file a complaint,” a detective explained.
The same detective said the former chief of police, Cassandra Deck-Brown, was “very fond” of Abdullah and “just gushed all over” him at an employee appreciation dinner in 2018.
Rolfe denied going easy on Abdullah. He said he had long tried to get Abdullah transferred and blamed others for “kick[ing] the can down the road.”
“Pretty much everywhere he had gone in the department, he had conflicts on his squads,” Rolfe said.
Rolfe thinks he took the fall for RPD dysfunction. Other than Abdullah, who was fired, Rolfe was the only officer punished for the debacle. He was demoted and transferred five months before his scheduled retirement.
Rolfe told Internal Affairs that “all of the responsible entities”—including the district attorney’s office and others in the police department—wanted to “distance themselves from their contribution to the problems and past failures” and “assign them all to me.”
While he was demoted in part for allowing his detectives to violate RPD policies, including one forbidding them from meeting alone with informants, he said this was “extremely common.”
“There are hundreds of policies that are on paper that are supposed to be followed as a practice and are not,” Rolfe explained.
Jeffrey Billman reports on politics and the law for The Assembly. He is the former editor-in-chief of INDY Week in Durham. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.