HOUSTON (CN) - DEA officials "commandeered" a small businessman's truck and left him to pay for the damage after it was "shot to smithereens" in a shootout between federal agents and the Zeta drug cartel, the businessman claims in court.
Steven Craig Patty sued the United States of America, Houston DEA Chief Javier Peña, Harris County, Harris County Det. Mark Reynolds, and 12 John Doe law enforcement officers, in Federal Court.
Looking to profit from the South Texas oil and gas boom, Patty says, he quit his job of 15 years and started a trucking company with his father in July 2011.
"He purchased a truck and hired a man named Joe Lopez to drive it," the complaint states.
With the business going well, Patty say, he bought a second truck, a 2006 Kenworth, in September 2011.
"That same month his driver Lopez was sharing a room with [Lawrence] Chapa at a truck driver seminar in Fort Worth," the complaint states. "Through Lopez, Chapa approached Craig about being hired to drive the second red Kenworth. Patty checked Chapa's record with the Department of Transportation. The record was free of criminal convictions. ... It is alleged that the Drug Task Force officers named herein arranged to have a clean record and orchestrated his hiring by Patty."
Unknown to Patty, he says in the lawsuit, Chapa was working undercover for a drug task force organized by Houston DEA boss Peña, made up of DEA agents and Harris County sheriff's deputies.
The task force hatched a plan "straight out a television script ... to catch some bad guys from the Mexican Zeta Cartel," according to the complaint.
"Therefore, although Patty was paying Chapa's salary, providing the truck for him to drive, and paying for the gas, instead of pursuing Patty's legitimate business interests, Lawrence Chapa was actually working in an undercover sting operation for the Drug Task Force," the complaint states.
It continues: "On or about November 21, 2011, in furtherance of their plan for the sting, officers of the Drug Task Force arranged for Lawrence Chapa to drive Patty's truck to Rio Grande City, Texas. Chapa told Patty that he was having the truck repaired in Houston for a return drive to California. In fact, on orders of his Drug Task Force handlers, he drove it to Rio Grande City instead, where it was loaded up with marijuana, and, perhaps, other illegal narcotics or contraband."
The task force "precleared" the truck so Chapa was not pulled over during his trip to Houston, Patty claims.
The lawsuit states: "When the red Kenworth arrived in Houston, all hell broke loose. The plan for the sting was for Lawrence Chapa to rendezvous with the bad guys so that a transfer of the illegal drugs could be made. At that point, the Task Force officers would swoop in and make arrests. But the officers of the Drug Task Force were outwitted by the Mexican drug lords. On Monday afternoon, November 21, 2011, the truck was intercepted in northwest Houston by outlaws from the Zeta cartel, driving in three sport utility vehicles. An intense firefight ensued. An undercover Harris County sheriff's deputy was wounded, and Lawrence Chapa was shot eight times and killed. Patty's red truck was wrecked and riddled with bullet holes.
"It was a major fiasco; and a major media event on the evening news. For example, KTRK ran a six and a half minute story on the shooting. The footage clearly depicted the license plate of Patty's truck, making him fear, of course, that his identity would be discovered by the Zeta cartel and that they, believing he had cooperated with Chapa and the Task Force, might seek retribution."
The Zetas are among the most feared, and most violent, of the Mexican drug cartels.
Patty says he expected an apology from Peña after the fiasco, but the DEA boss "said absolutely nothing" to him.
In fact, Patty says, the task force tapped defendant Det. Reynolds to play the part of "bad cop" to bully him.
"He started by telling Patty that he had to arrange to have his own bullet-ridden, bloodstained truck removed from the scene of the crime, or that he would be charged a daily storage fee," the complaint states.
"Patty's truck contained a tracking device known as a 'Tele a Tracker.' It is akin to a black box that records the locations where the truck has been. When the law enforcement officials learned about this device, Detective Reynolds demanded that Patty sign a search warrant, and threatened him with seizure of his truck and trailer if he did not cooperate. Amazingly, the search warrant that was tendered included an authorization to search the Pattys' home."
With no choice but to cooperate with the authorities, Patty says, he let them search his truck and gave them the tracking device data, but he declined to let them search his house.
As for his truck, he says, Uncle Sam left him to deal with it on his own.
"The government never paid to have Craig Patty's truck repaired," according to the complaint. "Nor did his insurance company. The insurance company took the position that the damage was caused by 'unauthorized' or 'illegal' activity. Consequently, Patty ultimately had to take money out of his 401k retirement funds to pay to have the bullet holes and other physical damage to his truck repaired and to have the blood and other stains removed from the cab."
His truck was out of service for 100 days, he says.
He filed a pre-suit, administrative claim under the Federal Torts Claim Act, seeking $1.48 million.
He seeks that amount as damages in the lawsuit.
He is represented by Arnold Vickery in Houston.
A DEA spokeswoman declined comment.Follow @@cam_langford
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