The D.C. police department and four of its officers were found negligent yesterday in the death of informant Eric Butera, who was fatally beaten and robbed while working in the Starbucks triple-slaying investigation.
A jury in U.S. District Court also found that the police officers violated Butera's civil rights in their handling of his undercover work. The verdict capped an eight-day civil trial in which an expert witness said the actions by police violated national standards, as well as D.C. police regulations.
Butera's mother, Terry Butera, filed the $115 million civil suit against the police, alleging that detectives put him in an extremely dangerous situation and took few if any precautions. Soon after returning the verdict, the jurors began hearing evidence to help them assess damages. Terry Butera was among the first witnesses, testifying that she has been determined to find out exactly what happened to her son ever since his death on Dec. 4, 1997.
"This is probably the most emotionally and physically crippling experience a person can ever go through," she said of her son's slaying. "It doesn't seem to get better. It doesn't seem to go away. There is no closure."
Eric Butera, 31, a waiter who was trying to overcome a history of drug abuse, had gone to police with information concerning the July 1997 slaying of three people at a Starbucks coffee shop in Northwest Washington. Butera told police that he had overheard people talking about the slayings that summer when he bought drugs in a row house in a crime-ridden block in Southwest Washington.
Police gave Butera $80 in marked money and took him to the house, hoping he could purchase crack cocaine. Detectives believed that if he bought drugs there, they would be able to get a warrant to search the row house and possibly turn up leads in the Starbucks slayings.
The plan fell apart for many reasons, according to James Bradley Jr., a former D.C. official who testified as an expert witness for Butera's family.
Bradley said police failed to keep watch on Butera, failed to equip him with surveillance or warning equipment and failed to set a time limit on the drug buy. Butera was attacked by three men as he left the row house, robbed of the $80 and kicked to death. It wasn't until 40 minutes later that the officers working with him discovered what had happened, and that was only after a neighborhood resident saw Butera on the ground and called 911.
The four officers involved--Lt. Brian McAllister, Sgt. Nicholas Breul and Detectives Anthony Brigidini and Anthony Patterson--testified that they took precautions but wanted to avoid having anyone find out that Butera was working for them.
Three people have been convicted of criminal charges in Butera's slaying. It turned out that his information was of no use in the Starbucks case, according to authorities. A suspect with no ties to the row house is charged with those killings.