HOPEWELL, Va. — The mother of a former Hopewell Police informant said the police department was responsible for her son’s death.
“If you look at what a policeman does, they protect people. They didn't protect my son," Troy Howlett’s mother Donna Watson said. "They put him in harm's way."
Watson said her son was a great student and athlete.
But things changed in high school after he was run over by a car.
While he healed from those injuries, he became addicted to his pain medication.
"It was the beginning to the end it really was,” Watson said. “At the time, I was going to do everything in my power, and I did. Until I finally learned that I can't do it, he's got to do it."
Watson said her son, who was on probation due to his addiction, thought that opportunity came when he was revived after a 2018 overdose.
Hopewell Police made him an offer at his bedside in the hospital, she said.
“They proceed to tell him, ‘you know, well, you have two choices. You can sit your probation out in jail, or you can be an informant for us,'" Watson said.
“That's not a real choice. It's sort of, it's almost a coerced situation,” University of Alabama Professor and former FBI Special Agent Dr. Luke Hunt said. “I think informants are vital.”
But Hunt said addicts like Howlett are not good candidates.
“Putting someone in a situation in which their life is at serious risk, either through being harmed in an operation when they're buying or selling drugs, or by relapsing, which could, of course, be deadly like in this case, it seems like there's no other way around it,” said Hunt. “That you have weighed the enforcement of a drug law over or greater than the value of the informant’s life and well-being,” he added.
The CBS 6 Problem Solvers obtained text messages purportedly between Howlett and the Hopewell detective he was working with undercover.
They show Howlett failed his drug tests at least three times in between his undercover operations of controlled buys of illegal drugs. Yet the officer assured him he was “good to go.” Howlett replied, ”Okay I will not mess up again.”
“My son was crying out for help; they should have taken him off. They put my son in harm's way,” said Watson.
“So, when you are warned that an informant is not doing what they agreed to do, and they're relapsing, in my opinion, that is no longer a viable relationship between the informant and the source in an operational way, because you can't control what the informant’s doing,” said Hunt. “You're basically putting them in a situation that, you know, is untenable,” he added.
The Hopewell Police Department denied CBS 6’s Freedom of Information Act request for records pertaining to Troy Howlett citing privacy protections. The department did provide its policy and guidelines on informants which states a confidential file will be created on the informant and they will be issued a number.
Yet text communication between Howlett and the Hopewell officer from June 5, 2018, stated:
“I told my attorney of the work I am doing for you and he said the Commonwealth didn’t have any knowledge of it.”
However, on May 1, 2018, the month prior, the detective had assured Howlett he’d been “approved by the CA to work.”
The informant policy also states, when funds are provided by the department for a controlled purchase the officer shall have the informant sign the Hopewell Police Department receipt for information and /or evidence form. Yet, Watson said she was told by the department there were no records of any of her son’s sales.
She does however have a final text from the Hopewell Police-issued phone on July 31, 2018, at 8:47 a.m. She said it acknowledged her son was working with the department.
That was the day Watson informed them via text that her son had died.
“We are so sorry for your loss. We were doing everything in our power to help him get the court mess behind him. He was working extremely hard with us and we are so sad about this news.”
After numerous failed restitution attempts, Watson, the administrator of Howlett’s estate, is representing herself in a wrongful death lawsuit totaling $10,350,000 against the Hopewell Police Department, the retired police chief, and Hopewell Commonwealth’s Attorney.
Her complaint alleges Hopewell Police and the city were aware that her son was addicted to opiates and that he took some of the drugs he was instructed to buy as an informant and that Howlett died of a fentanyl-laced overdose.
Watson initially filed a lawsuit in Chesterfield court.
In late 2021, a judge dismissed the suit.
Watson appealed to the Virginia Supreme Court, but the re-hearing was denied at which time she filed her new complaint in Petersburg.
Watson is hoping the text messages will be admitted into evidence in this case.
Howlett kept a daily spiritual journal.
His story caught the attention of Justice Pictures and a movie called Justice Pictures “Hope in the Dark.”
The movie is in development.
“We want to make this movie to help as many people,” said Watson. “It's going to be for not only people going through what my son had gone through, but people that are in recovery, people that have never even tried drugs, to not do it."
Watson joined with other families who have lost loved ones to fentanyl on May 9, as Governor Glenn Youngkin (R - Virginia) signed a proclamation for Fentanyl Awareness Day.
Watson shared the movie details with the Youngkins and made them t-shirts. The First Lady also presented Watson with a gift.
Watson said she wanted to take her fight to the state capital to regulate informants in the Commonwealth.
“We need rules, rules and guidelines. I am trying to get a Troy bill passed. I'm going to keep going. That's exactly what I'm going to do,” said Watson.
“Who dropped the ball in this case?” Problem Solver Laura French asked Hunt.
“In my opinion, it was the police department,” Hunt responded. “I think with the evidence of the lack of documentation, the evidence of not seeing the red flags that this person was using should have all been significant red flags,” he added. “In my view, this was not the kind of person that should be used in an operational way by the police.”
CBS 6 reached out to the Hopewell Police Department, the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office, and the other defendants concerning Watson’s allegations but did not receive a response.
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