For the second time in four months, a major criminal prosecution is falling apart because of informants who allegedly lied to police.
The result is likely to be the dismissal of charges against most of the 26 people arrested in what investigators called a large drug ring in Niagara Falls.
About half of the cases have been dismissed so far, and federal prosecutors have turned around and charged one of the informants with lying to Falls investigators.
"This guy pulled the wool over their eyes," defense attorney Angelo Musitano said of the Niagara Falls police. "These informants are very intelligent, and they know how to play the drug game."
Musitano said one of the informants, Maurice Ubiles, lied to Falls detectives about a cocaine buy he claimed to have made as part of an undercover investigation last July.
He recanted his claims when confronted by detectives last month.
Defense attorneys say Ubiles is not the only informant in the Falls drug case whose credibility is being questioned. A second, unnamed informant also has come under scrutiny by federal prosecutors.
"Turns out the guy made up a lot of information," said James P. Harrington, an attorney for one of the defendants in the case. "All of a sudden I got a call from the U.S. Attorney's Office saying there was a problem with the informant."
In one instance, a tape recording the unidentified informant claims to have made of a drug buy did not include the defendant who was later charged with selling cocaine, another lawyer said.
"The recording is clearly not my client," said defense attorney James Auricchio. "It's my belief the informant had charges of his own he needed to work off."
Auricchio believes he was the first defense attorney to bring the unnamed informant's alleged lies to the attention of prosecutors, who acted quickly to investigate the allegations.
"This informant was setting up the Niagara Falls police," said Terry Granger, a defense attorney in the case. "It was pretty clear from the beginning that something was up with this informant."
The case, which centered around a large drug bust in December by 125 law enforcement officials, is believed to be one of the first to result in criminal charges against a confidential informant.
Niagara Falls police acknowledged a problem with Ubiles on Monday and said prosecutors are moving quickly to remedy the mistake.
"We were duped," said Police Superintendent John R. Chella, "and we're taking the proper steps in court to dismiss the charges against the defendants."
Court papers indicate Ubiles was one of four informants in a drug case that garnered a lot of media attention when it was first announced in December after predawn drug raids in the Falls.
At the time, law enforcement officials said the case involved several different gangs, including the 9th & Wild, 8th Street Boys, 20th & Center, Stash Team and Get Money Nation groups.
As part of yearlong investigation called Operation Wild Nation, police arrested 17 alleged gang members at the time of the raids and another nine alleged gang members later.
"Our office recognizes we are not a department of prosecution, we're a department of justice," U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. said Monday.
Hochul said his lawyers depend on credible information from police agencies when prosecuting cases and that his office acted quickly when informed of the allegations against Ubiles.
What went wrong in the investigation is unclear, though defense attorneys believe Falls police dropped the ball.
"The question that needs to be asked is how the officers let this happen," said one defense attorney who spoke on the condition he not be identified.
Several lawyers suggested Falls detectives did not adequately track Ubiles and the other informant while they were allegedly making drug buys. They noted that video or audio surveillance is important to successful prosecution.
"There's always this seven-minute gap when he would leave the cops and come back with the coke he claims to have bought," Granger said of the unidentified informant in his case.
Defense attorneys also wonder if previous cases involving the two informants may be subject to further scrutiny, an allegation Chella dismissed Monday.
"We're not going to pull up our stakes," he said when asked if other cases may now be at risk.
The Falls drug case is not the first criminal prosecution to fall apart because of an informant accused of wrongdoing.
In December, prosecutors dismissed charges against the Chosen Few motorcycle club, a case involving allegations of firebombings, death threats and assaults.
By most accounts, that prosecution fell apart because of David Ignasiak, a biker-turned-confidential source.
Ignasiak, who even the FBI described as a "loose cannon," was accused in court papers of lying to investigators and taking part in attacks on a rival gang member while serving as an informant.