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Wednesday, April 8, 1992 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Police Used Rapist As Agent In Sting -- Des Moines Informant Had Sex With Suspects

As part of an undercover sting operation three years ago, the Des Moines Police Department hired a convicted rapist to have sex with women suspected of being prostitutes, the police chief has acknowledged.

The rapist, police informant Robert Berdue, was authorized not only to get an agreement of sex for money but to actually engage in sexual acts, which he did, according to court records and Martin Pratt, police chief in the suburb south of Seattle.

Critics of the ploy include defense attorneys, prosecutors, rape-relief counselors and Seattle police.

"I think it's probably the most outrageous investigative technique that I've encountered in my 20 years of practice by a police agency," said Seattle defense attorney David Leen, who represented one of the women arrested in the sting.

"What it does essentially is involve the government in greater criminal participation than the people they're trying to apprehend. . . . I think there's incredible risk for government being exposed to liability if this guy brutalizes an innocent victim."

Pratt, 46, acknowledged that some people might be offended by what the department did. But, given the same circumstances, he says he'd do it again to protect the public interest and keep his town free from organized prostitution.

"I'm willing to take the heat," said Pratt, who joined the Des Moines department in 1969 and has been chief since 1975.

Berdue, the subject of a Seattle Times investigation last month, has a history of being a full-time hustler and part-time informant for a variety of local and federal police agencies.

Berdue, 29, was last reported in jail in Oregon, where he was being held on $100,000 bail on charges recently filed in King County. He was scheduled to appear in court in Portland today for violating conditions of his release after he bailed out on fugitive warrants.

Pratt said he authorized using Berdue after efforts by plainclothes Des Moines officers were unsuccessful.

STING AT MASSAGE PARLOR

Starting in April 1989, Berdue was sent undercover to the Body Care Center, a massage parlor police suspected was operating as a house of prostitution. The city eventually revoked the Body Care Center's business license and several women were charged with prostitution in Des Moines Municipal Court.

Records show the charges ultimately were dismissed in all but one case, in which a woman who didn't get a defense attorney received a three-day jail sentence.

It never crossed his mind, Pratt said, that Berdue might rape the targets of the sting. No Des Moines police officers were present when Berdue consummated sexual acts. The chief couldn't recall whether Berdue was told to take precautions against spreading or contracting sexually transmitted diseases.

A Seattle police spokesman said the department never uses informants to pose as "johns." Also, officers never go through with sex acts because only an "offer and agreement" of sex for money is necessary for an arrest.

Dan Satterberg, chief of staff in the King County prosecutor's office, said, "I'd think it unwise in practically every criminal investigation to hire a convicted sex offender to work as a police agent. . . . The nature of sex offenders is such that unless they have undergone really intensive treatment they're likely to re-engage in future sex offenses. . . . Unlike property criminals, who steal because they want money, sex offenders operate on a different motive, one we don't fully understand."

Lucy Berliner, director of research at Harborview Medical Center's sexual-assault center, said, "For every reason I could think of, this is a bad idea that reveals a real lack of concern about the risks rapists pose to the community. . . . Would you hire a convicted child molester to go on an undercover operation with children? I don't think anyone would consider that, and what's the difference, really?"

Pratt, however, said Berdue was uniquely qualified for the job because he had been a customer at the Body Care Center before offering his undercover services to the police department. The department had received complaints from the public regarding the facility. Police officers had failed in the sting because the suspected prostitutes screened customers too closely.

In addition, the FBI and federal Drug Enforcement Administration had vouched for Berdue's credentials as an informant, although Pratt was unaware of any other police agencies that had used him to help investigate suspected sex crimes. Berdue was the only informant available at the time, Pratt said.

Asked why Berdue had to go through with sex acts, Pratt said that stopping short "wouldn't have been appropriate." He declined to elaborate.

Court files show that an assistant city prosecutor was advised of the department's intent to use Berdue as an undercover informant in 1989. That prosecutor did not return phone calls. His boss, city attorney Jim Gorham, referred all questions on the case to Pratt.

Berdue, a native of the Bronx, N.Y., was convicted of rape while in the Navy in 1982, according to federal records. He first served time in military jail, then was transferred to federal prison in 1984. He was released the following year.

For violating conditions of his release - including convictions for forgery in Washington in 1987 and theft in California in 1988 - he was returned to federal custody in 1988 to finish serving the rape sentence.

He was finally released in January 1989. About four months later he was hired by Des Moines police.

Des Moines paid Berdue several hundred dollars over a roughly two-month period to have sex with women at the Body Care Center and report back to the police, according to Pratt.

Once he quit working for Des Moines, Berdue went to work for the city of Kirkland, which paid him $2,000 for working undercover in a drug investigation, according to Detective Pat Haster.

A HIDDEN MICROPHONE

At the time he worked for Haster, Berdue also turned up information that was instrumental in the state attorney general's decision last summer to fire Chris Welch, a veteran investigator in the Seattle-based antitrust division. Welch has appealed his dismissal, claiming that incriminating evidence indicating he was present where drugs were used and dealt - which Berdue gathered wearing a hidden microphone - was based on events and conversations manipulated by Berdue.

Last fall - when Berdue was wanted by local prosecutors in Colorado and Washington - the Washington state attorney general's office spent more than $3,000 in taxpayer money to fly Berdue from Colorado to Washington, put him up in a hotel and pay for his meals.

Assistant state attorney general Spencer Daniels, who said he needed Berdue's help to defend the decision to fire Welch, denied he was aware of the warrants. But documents obtained by The Times demonstrate Daniels had been notified of the warrants.

Late last month, King County prosecutors charged Berdue with 11 counts of forgery and first-degree theft involving about a dozen Eastside individuals and businesses who collectively lost about $100,000.

The charges stem from a series of rip-offs Berdue allegedly committed before leaving the area in the fall of 1990. The crimes occurred after Berdue had been told by police to hang around Seattle in case his testimony was needed during trials in the drug case, authorities acknowledge.

They deny, however, that they were aware of Berdue's criminal activities.

Copyright (c) 1992 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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