Soon after Detective Omar Abdullah arrested Curtis Logan on January 2, 2020, Abdullah’s colleagues in the Raleigh Police Department’s Drugs and Vice Unit realized something was off.
Logan, then 33, had allegedly sold a police informant 20.74 grams of heroin, an amount that carries a 10-year prison sentence, for about $400. The street value of that much heroin was closer to $2,000.
The informant, Dennis Leon Williams Jr., had a history with counterfeit narcotics. He’d started working for the vice unit in August 2018 after Abdullah arrested him for selling crushed aspirin as cocaine—which earned him the nickname “Aspirin.” One of his first buys as an RPD informant produced fake cocaine, court records show.
A detective performed a field drug test on Logan’s alleged dope. It wasn’t heroin.
Documents filed in federal court over the last year indicate that vice detectives told Abdullah about the field test and voiced concerns to the unit’s supervisor, Sergeant William Rolfe. According to one officer’s deposition, Rolfe told them to send the substance to the county lab for more tests. He didn’t stop Abdullah from charging Logan with heroin trafficking.
After Abdullah told the magistrate that Logan had sold his informant heroin, Logan’s bond was set at $500,000. Logan sat in the Wake County jail for 104 days.
Experts have criticized the use of field drug tests because of concerns about their accuracy. But Brandon Garrett, director of the Wilson Center for Science and Justice at the Duke University School of Law, said the cops needed to tell prosecutors about the negative result. It’s unclear from court records whether that happened.
“If prosecutors know about the weaknesses in evidence, it’s their job to make the calls about what happens next,” Garrett told The Assembly. “If the police had hidden from the prosecutors that the presumptive field test had come out negative, that would be really serious because prosecutors can’t make that call.”
Logan pleaded guilty to selling counterfeit narcotics and was released on April 15, 2020, after the county lab confirmed the field test’s results. (His conviction was vacated five months later.) By then, the lab had also discredited the purported heroin in at least two other trafficking cases tied to Williams, according to court records. The vice unit continued to use Williams as an informant.
Over the next month, Abdullah, who is Black, charged at least three more Black men with selling Williams heroin. They were the last of more than a dozen Black men he charged with heroin trafficking between November 2019 and May 2020. In each case, the drugs proved counterfeit, and the charges were dismissed—though not before the men spent weeks or months in jail.
A source familiar with these cases said some defendants told detectives their deals with Williams involved marijuana, not heroin. None had prior heroin-related convictions, and police records show that the cops found marijuana (but never heroin) in several suspects’ cars and homes. There’s no indication the vice unit investigated their claims.
Citing the pending litigation, an RPD spokesman declined to comment for this article.
The department has been under scrutiny following the January 17 death of a 32-year-old Black man who, during an arrest for marijuana possession, was tased three times despite telling officers he had a heart condition. The RPD said in a report that its Internal Affairs Unit and the State Bureau of Investigation are investigating.
Even as critics demand sweeping reforms, they say the Abdullah affair has exposed the department’s reluctance to weed out bad cops.
“We know the Raleigh Police Department has a cancerous culture,” said Kerwin Pittman, a board member of the activist group Raleigh PACT, or People’s Actions Community Taskforce. “It’s built on a system that specifically targets Black and brown and marginalized communities.
“And it seems like this system has been getting away with these types of wrongdoings for years with really no oversight or accountability, so it just continues to fester.”
Raleigh paid $2 million in September 2021 to settle the claims of the 15 men Abdullah arrested on fabricated trafficking charges. City attorneys noted in a “mutual acknowledgment of facts” that vice detectives “took steps to raise concerns about the informant and fake heroin to Detective Abdullah and to their supervisor” on May 21, 2020.
The following day, a lieutenant ordered the vice unit to sever ties with Williams.
But the acknowledgment didn’t mention Logan. Nor did it mention that Marcus Vanirvin, the man Abdullah arrested on May 21, spent 18 days in jail even after a field test showed that he hadn’t sold Williams heroin and the RPD deemed Williams unreliable.
And it didn’t mention that the RPD booted Williams only after a counterfeit buy sent a SWAT team to the home of an innocent family, which led to a second lawsuit.
The RPD fired Abdullah in late October 2021—a year after he’d been placed on administrative duty, and a month after the city settled the first lawsuit—but no other officers appear to have lost their jobs. (By publication, the RPD had not fulfilled The Assembly’s request for records showing whether additional officers had been demoted or suspended. Abdullah has appealed his termination to the Raleigh Civil Service Commission.)
A Wake County grand jury indicted the former detective in July 2022 on one count of “providing false statements to a judicial official” in the Vanirvin case; he was released on an unsecured $10,000 bond. Wake prosecutors have not charged him in connection with the other false arrests.
Williams, on the other hand, was indicted on five counts of obstructing justice in August 2021, as The Assembly first reported. Since he was fired as an informant, Williams has also been charged with running a Facebook scam, possessing a stolen U-Haul van, and stealing furniture from a storage locker, court records show.
Both Williams and Abdullah have pleaded not guilty and are awaiting trial. Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman said in an email that she could not discuss pending cases.
“There are some prosecutors who will not charge cops,” said Seth Stoughton, a University of South Carolina law professor who was formerly a Florida police officer. “Or they might say, like, ‘Oh, of course I would uphold the law.’ But in practice, something has to be so incredibly egregious.”
Prosecutors’ discretion can lead to a double standard, Stoughton added.
“Sometimes what you see is a difference in the degree of certainty that prosecutors use to bring cases against officers as opposed to non-officers,” he said.
The end of Abdullah and Williams’ partnership began with a typo.
Abdullah applied for a warrant to search 1628-B Burgundy Street, in Raleigh North, a low-income apartment complex known for gang activity, on May 21, 2020. He told a magistrate that the day before, his informant “went to the subject’s apartment” and “was then observed by detectives being let into the residence by the target of this investigation, Marcus, and an amount of heroin was then purchased from the subject for an amount of U.S. currency.”
The informant has “provided information to this detective in the past that has always been proven to be truthful and reliable,” Abdullah said.
The target, Marcus Vanirvin, actually lived at 1620-B Burgundy Street, three buildings away.
At 1:35 p.m., armed SWAT agents burst into Yolanda Irving’s apartment “without knocking or announcing their intentions,” according to a lawsuit she filed in February 2022. They also entered her neighbor’s apartment—which wasn’t on the warrant—because a teenage boy ran inside from the front stoop when he saw the SWAT team coming.
Irving’s lawsuit said SWAT officers pointed assault rifles at her, her disabled adult son, teenage daughter, and 12-year-old son. “Ms. Irving and her three children were all terrified they would be killed if they made the wrong move,” the lawsuit alleged.
Police searched the Irvings’ apartment for an hour but found nothing. The neighbor, who was 16, was kept in handcuffs. In court filings, Abdullah’s lawyers admitted that the detective didn’t apologize when he realized he had the wrong house.
The SWAT team then moved down the street to the correct apartment, where police confiscated a digital scale, a pistol and ammunition, and a cell phone—but no heroin.
Abdullah’s colleagues field-tested the heroin Williams said he purchased while Abdullah was questioning Vanirvin, according to an officer’s deposition. It was negative.
Abdullah was told about the test but nonetheless charged Vanirvin with heroin trafficking, the officer testified.
Abdullah’s civil lawyers admitted in court filings that he’d told Williams the RPD would pay him more if he brought in bigger cases. They also said that “on occasion,” Abdullah met with Williams alone before or after the buys—a violation of RPD rules, according to court records.
His lawyers also admitted that colleagues informed Abdullah that “some, but not all, controlled buys involving Williams … field-tested negative for heroin.” But they “expressly denied that Abdullah conspired to fabricate any buys and charges.”
And they insisted that Abdullah searched Williams for contraband before and after every buy and found nothing.
To produce counterfeit heroin immediately after the controlled buys, Williams would have had to bring the fake drugs with him. In theory, Abdullah’s searches should have located them. What’s more, if Williams pocketed the cash the RPD gave him to buy heroin—or bought weed with it instead—Abdullah’s post-buy searches should have uncovered either the drugs or the money.
That leaves two possibilities: Either Abdullah’s searches were ineffective, or they never happened.
Beginning in February 2020, Jackie Willingham, then an attorney in the public defender’s office, raised alarms about suspicious drug busts involving poor Black men.
Prosecutors began paying attention in June 2020, when the county lab returned more analyses from Williams’ buys showing counterfeit heroin. They reviewed surveillance footage from the buys and discovered that Williams “shielded the surveillance camera on his person” during at least some of them, as Raleigh’s attorneys later admitted in court documents.
Rolfe, the vice unit’s supervisor, was told about counterfeit heroin in the Logan case almost six months earlier. But there were warning signs soon after Williams started working with Abdullah in August 2018.
Within weeks of becoming an informant, Williams claimed he twice bought cocaine from a man named Gregory Marshall Jr. But by the time Marshall was indicted in January 2019, the charges were reduced to selling counterfeit cocaine. The district attorney eventually dismissed all of Marshall’s charges stemming from the case, court records show.
Three weeks after Marshall’s indictment, Williams went on hiatus as an informant; he’d been sentenced to seven months in the Greenville Correctional Institution on a larceny conviction, his fifth stint behind bars, according to the North Carolina Department of Corrections. But he picked up work with RPD again soon after his release.
Rolfe acknowledged in court filings that he didn’t review “all” of the surveillance footage from Williams’ buys—RPD policy doesn’t require him to—and said he was unaware that Abdullah met alone with Williams.
Rolfe also admitted that RPD policies required “a supervisor” to review search warrant applications but said he “specifically” wasn’t responsible for doing so. (He was on vacation when Abdullah obtained the warrant to search Vanirvin’s home.) He added that he was not a “guarantor of the accuracy or completeness of Abdullah’s work.”
On May 30, 2020, Rolfe approved a report Abdullah had written 10 days earlier about the Vanirvin investigation. The report stated that Williams purchased “a plastic baggie that contained an amount of heroin” and listed as evidence “3G HEROIN AS PACKAGED.” Abdullah also vouched for Williams’ credibility.
Stoughton, the law professor, said Rolfe was obligated to ensure that information about the negative field test and the RPD’s disavowal of Williams made it into the report.
“Part of what a supervisor is supposed to be doing is making sure that the relevant information—good, bad, or indifferent—is included in the report and that the report is not omitting material information,” he said.
Lawyers for Irving, who filed the second lawsuit, claimed in court documents that Rolfe went easy on Abdullah out of self-preservation. Two officers in his unit had told SBI agents that Abdullah “was never disciplined or stopped from making false arrests by supervisors because he is Muslim, he had previously accused a supervisor of discrimination, and that Sergeant Rolfe was afraid of also being accused of discrimination,” they wrote.
SBI interviews are exempt from public records disclosures, so these remarks cannot be independently verified.
In court filings, Rolfe admitted that “Abdullah had previously claimed to be a victim of discrimination on account of being a Muslim” but denied the rest of the allegation.
In an SBI interview, Rolfe blamed an RPD policy discouraging officers from field-testing heroin—which detectives occasionally ignored—for his unit’s inability to prevent wrongful arrests, Irving’s lawyers said in court documents.
Along with supervisors’ failure to track county lab test results and review undercover buy footage, the field-testing policy prevented the RPD from discovering Williams’ phony buys earlier, they alleged.
The RPD did not respond to The Assembly’s questions about the policy. Rolfe retired at the end of January.
A Culture Change
Despite attempts to paint him as a rogue actor, Abdullah doesn’t seem to have operated solo.
“The RPD VICE officers worked as a team when making controlled buys and arrests,” his lawyers noted in court documents, including on “controlled buys involving Williams.”
The vice unit met before controlled buys and had a running group chat. Several officers processed the evidence Abdullah collected, including the counterfeit heroin. Multiple detectives were present for arrests and searches. Abdullah’s lawyers said that Rolfe and other vice officers signed forms to release money to Williams.
Detective Meghan Gay, who joined the vice unit in December 2019, testified in a deposition that she “regularly completed Incident Reports and Warrants on behalf of Officer Abdullah,” according to court records.
Stoughton told The Assembly that if Gay assisted with reports that she knew contained inaccurate or incomplete information—for example, a report that omitted a negative field test—a prosecutor could charge her with a crime. There’s no indication that will happen, however. Gay said in her deposition that she expects to testify against Abdullah.
Dawn Blagrove, executive director of the advocacy group Emancipate NC, a co-plaintiff in Irving’s lawsuit, argues that Freeman should prosecute more members of the vice unit.
“They let them sit in jail for all that time, knowing that it was bullshit,” she said. “The only person who’s being held accountable at all for any wrongdoing is Abdullah. Even Abdullah ain’t really being held accountable. It’s just that [Freeman] knew that she had to bring some damn charge.
“It also is not lost on me that Abdullah is Black and has a name like Abdullah,” Blagrove added.
“There’s no way you’re working together in a unit on these cases and don’t know what’s going on and can’t figure it out,” said Pittman, the Raleigh PACT board member. “But they chose to turn a blind eye.”
Making a false statement to a magistrate, as Abdullah is accused of doing, is explicitly illegal. But it’s more difficult to prosecute police for what they didn’t do, Stoughton said.
It’s not a crime to watch your neighbor drown and do nothing, he said. And without a statute that says otherwise—similar to child abuse reporting laws—it’s likely not a crime for officers to not act to free innocent people.
The General Assembly passed a law in 2021 requiring officers to intervene when they witness the excessive use of force. Lawmakers could build off of that approach, said Garrett, the Duke law professor.
“I really think there should be a recognized duty [to intervene] when they know that false facts or unreliable evidence has been used,” Garrett said. “But I’m not aware of any place that has either a practice or an actual rule like that.”
Garrett said police agencies also need stricter rules for use of informants.
“There are a number of states now that have really dug into these practices because they’re so corrosive and really harm the legitimacy of law enforcement,” he said. “Like, why would you trust law enforcement if they are actually promoting crime and lying?”
The RPD deems policies related to officers’ handling of informants confidential.
Pittman said he believes the vice unit’s failure to stop Abdullah and Williams “speaks to the culture that’s baked inside the Raleigh Police Department by senior-level staff. They’re used to committing these kinds of acts.”
On February 7, the Raleigh City Council agreed to consider demands from PACT and other activists for greater police accountability. Among other things, activists called for the RPD to fire the officers involved in the January death of Darryl Williams, and to overhaul its toothless police review board.
Attorney Benjamin Crump, who represents Darryl Williams’ family, has demanded that Freeman prosecute the officers involved in his death.
But since taking office in 2015, Freeman has never prosecuted a police officer over the fatal use of force. Under state law, the city council can’t order the police chief to fire individual officers. And the review board, like others in North Carolina, is hamstrung by statutes that shield cops from public scrutiny and civilian oversight. None of that is likely to change.
The RPD’s new chief, Estella Patterson, has emphasized rebuilding trust through community policing since taking over in August 2021. But Pittman said she hasn’t embraced reforms the department needs after the Abdullah scandal.
“Culture shifts start from the top down,” he said. “So if she set the tone and began to hold these people accountable by even just firing some of these officers, it will begin to shift that culture.”
Pittman pointed out that before Patterson became Raleigh’s police chief, she led the Charlotte Police Department’s Internal Affairs Bureau. “She knows the ins and outs of bad apples,” he said.
Stoughton told The Assembly that fixing a troubled department isn’t always as simple as firing bad cops.
“When you have an acute act of misconduct, sometimes there really is the bad-apple, rogue-cop-type explanation,” he said. “But very often when you dig into that a little bit, you find that there are some reasons that the apple went bad—that there was something wrong with a barrel.”
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.