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Champagne v. Ebbert

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

May 9, 2019


          Mariani Judge



         I. Introduction

         On November 3, 1993, Dennis Champagne murdered Brewster Bullard. At the time of this killing, Champagne, who was affiliated with the Huns Motorcycle gang, had been paid $25, 000 by other former gang members to kill Bullard. Bullard's death was worth $25, 000 to Champagne and those who hired him to kill Bullard because Bullard had become a witness in an on-going investigation of an interstate human trafficking ring operated by these men, who were affiliated with this violent motorcycle gang.

         At the time that Champagne committed this calculated killing of Bullard, Bullard's status as a potential cooperating witness in the investigation was known to those who contracted his murder. Moreover, at the time of Bullard's death, there were several active federal components to this investigation, and the principals behind Bullard's murder were on actual notice of federal involvement in this investigation. In fact, the human trafficking investigation that Champagne and others tried to obstruct through the murder of Bullard ultimately became a federal case, and resulted in convictions in federal court.

         Notwithstanding all of this evidence, which clearly underscored the complete, thorough and active involvement of federal authorities in the underlying investigation which Champagne attempted to stymie through murder, Champagne has now filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus that argues that he is actually innocent of the federal crime of witness murder under 18 U.S.C. § 1512. Champagne's actual innocence claim on this charges rests upon a single thin reed. Champagne does not dispute that he killed Bullard at the behest of fellow Huns Motorcycle gang members. Nor does he dispute that Bullard's cooperation with the authorities is what led Champagne to accept $25, 000 in return for executing this potential witness. Instead, Champagne invites us to set aside his conviction because he contends that there was no reasonable likelihood that Bullard would have communicated the evidence that he had disclosed of these federal crimes to federal investigators at some time during the course of the investigation-an investigation that ultimately led to the federal indictment and conviction of these human traffickers.

         Champagne can only succeed on this claim if he can show that the alleged federal involvement in this underlying investigation, which he tried to lethally obstruct, was “remote, outlandish, or simply hypothetical.” Fowler v. United States, 563 U.S. 668, 678, 131 S.Ct. 2045, 2052, 179 L.Ed.2d 1099 (2011). As discussed below, Champagne has not, and cannot, carry this heavy burden of proof and persuasion. Therefore, this petition should be denied.

         II. Statement of Facts and of the Case

         The factual background of this calculated murder-for-hire was detailed at Champagne's trial, a trial that led to the instant convictions. At trial, the government's evidence showed that on November 3, 1993, Dennis Champagne murdered Brewster Bullard at the behest of Robert Labak and Phillip Squillante, who wanted Bullard killed in order to prevent his on-going cooperation with federal and local authorities that were investigating a brutal interstate human trafficking ring run by these men.

         At the time of Bullard's murder, Champagne, Labak, and Squillante were associated with one another through their mutual affiliation with a violent motorcycle gang, the Huns Motorcycle Club. Labak and Squillante were also involved in an interstate commercial human trafficking trade. Together, these men operated and controlled more than a dozen brothels disguised as legitimate businesses in Florida and Connecticut. (Doc. 8, Trial Transcript, hereinafter “Tr.” 344-47, 355-57, 435-38, 478-79, 547-49, 712, 726-36.) Labak and Squillante profited handsomely from this human trafficking organization, earning tens of millions of dollars from the sexual exploitation of others. (Tr. 156, 172-76, 491-503, 743-46.)

         In order to cloak and conceal their involvement in this illicit lucrative trade in human lives, Labak and Squillante paid other people to place their names on the occupational licenses and bank accounts for the purportedly legitimate businesses which masked these brothels. (Tr. 142-43, 151-53, 159-60, 192, 416-21, 437-38, 445, 548-58, 760-66.) One of these straw parties who helped Labak and Squillante hide their profits from the sexual exploitation of others was a man named Brewster Bullard. Labak recruited Bullard to serve as a straw party and paid Bullard to travel from Connecticut to Florida to place his name on the occupational license and bank account for Xanadu Thee Club (“Xanadu”), a brothel located in the Middle District of Florida. (Tr. 220-24, 241, 766.) Bullard received $100 per month from these human traffickers for his assistance in hiding their crimes. (Tr. 221-24.) Ultimately, Bullard would pay with his life for his involvement in this illicit activity when he began cooperating with investigators who were combatting this human trade.

         During the summer of 1993, the Brevard County (Florida) Sheriff's Office (“BCSO”) launched an investigation in the Middle District of Florida into this human trafficking by Labak and Squillante at the Xanadu club. (Tr. 25-33, 206-07, 484, 697-701.) While the sheriff's office initially spearheaded this investigation, from its inception multiple federal agencies, including the IRS, the FBI, ATF and the United States Postal Service, actively assisted in this case. (Tr. 28-33, 51-52, 78-82, 476, 698-702, 1012.) Thus, from the earliest stages of this joint investigation, federal agencies were determining that federal crimes had been committed in the Middle District of Florida by these human traffickers, including potential tax evasion and racketeering offenses. (Tr. 32-33, 51- 75, 108-12, 116-17, 269-73.)

         The active federal role in this human trafficking investigation was well established at the time that Dennis Champagne murdered Brewster Bullard in order to silence him as a witness. Thus, the sheriff's office first contacted the Postal Service in October 1992 to provide mail covers for the investigation. (Tr. 26.) In June of 1993, the sheriff also contacted the IRS about the potential tax fraud being committed by Labak and Squillante. (Tr. 51.) The IRS was actively conducting an audit of Labak, Squillante, and their business ventures at the time of Bullard's murder, and in December 1993, referred the matter to IRS Criminal Investigations to pursue tax evasion charges against these human traffickers. (Tr. 54-56, 476-77, 516-17.) Furthermore, in July and August 1993, Officer Evers of the sheriff's office contacted the FBI[1] to assist in the investigation of this interstate human trafficking network linked to a violent motorcycle gang. (Tr. 699-700.) Thus, as Officer Evers testified, by August of 1993, “we were working a federal investigation for federal racketeering claims.” (Tr. 701.)

         Labak and Squillante learned of the IRS's role in this investigation during the summer of 1993 after receiving written notice from the IRS that an income tax audit was underway. (Tr. 52-56, 769.) The federal involvement in this investigation raised immediate concerns for Labak and Squillante, who recognized that the federal government would be able to dismantle their criminal human trafficking organization. (Tr. 770.) These concerns were heightened when it became apparent that the investigation was focusing on the traffickers' reliance on straw parties like Bullard to conceal their criminal activities. By 1993, during the federal and state investigation, the sheriff's office obtained a copy of the occupational license for Xanadu, which Brewster Bullard had signed. Investigators then requested the assistance of the Fairfield Police Department (“FPD”) in Connecticut to conduct an interview of Bullard about Xanadu. (Tr. 213, 701-02, 934-35.)

         In late September 1993, two FPD officers interviewed Bullard as part of this joint state-federal investigation. (Tr. 215-19, 529-31.) During this interview, Bullard acknowledged his role as a straw party, telling police that Labak had asked him to travel from Connecticut to the Middle District of Florida in early 1993 to sign documents regarding Xanadu. (Tr. 220-22, 261-63.) According to Bullard, Labak paid Bullard, whom he had known for many years, $100 each month for signing the documents. (Tr. 220-24, 241.)

         Even as Bullard provided this incriminating information against Labak and the other human traffickers, he expressed a concern for his own safety and voiced a fear of witness retaliation if his cooperation became known. Prophetically and tragically, Bullard stated that he would be killed if anyone found out that he had spoken with the police. (Tr. 256.) The FPD relayed the information acquired from Bullard to the investigators in Florida. (Tr. 229-30, 703.)

         Bullard's fears soon bore lethal fruit. Labak, who lived in the same area of Connecticut, learned about Bullard's conversation with the authorities and, in September 1993, called Squillante, who was in the Middle District of Florida. (Tr. 309, 773.) Labak and Squillante were concerned about Bullard making statements to the police, and the first thing they did was replace his name on the occupational license for Xanadu. (Tr. 774-75.) Squillante then traveled from Florida to Connecticut and met with Labak to conduct “damage control” and to find out what Bullard had said or done. (Tr. 775.) Labak stated to Squillante that he needed to find the “ultimate solution” to the Bullard problem, (Tr. 779), showed Squillante a .22 caliber semi-automatic pistol with an attached silencer, (Tr. 780) and later reported to Squillante that Dennis Champagne, also a former Huns member, had agreed to kill Bullard in order to silence him. (Tr. 124-25, 721, 781.)

         The conspirators scheduled this witness murder for November 3, 1993. At about 1:30 a.m. on November 3, 1993, Labak drove Bullard to the boarding house where Bullard lived. (Tr. 574-76, 799.) Labak then handed the unsuspecting Bullard a Dunkin' Donuts bag containing some trash and asked Bullard to throw it away for him. (Tr. 574-76, 799.) As Bullard walked to the side of the boarding house, where the garbage dumpster was located, Champagne was lying in wait for him. (Tr. 799.) Champagne then executed Bullard, shooting him three times with a .22 caliber semiautomatic firearm. (Tr. 597-98, 649-51, 672-73, 679-80.)

         The day after Bullard's murder, Labak called Squillante and reported that Bullard had been killed. (Tr. 784-85.) Later that same day, Squillante told another member of his organization that Labak had Bullard “whacked.” (Tr.. 199-200, 786.) About three weeks after Bullard's murder, Labak met Squillante in Florida. (Tr. 787-88.) The two men discussed the execution of their erstwhile confederate, Bullard, who had begun cooperating in this human trafficking investigation. Labak said the murder could not have been avoided and told Squillante that he had paid Champagne $25, 000 for the killing. (Tr. 787-88.) These criminal partners then agreed to split the cost of murdering this witness. Squillante promised to pay half of the amount, and he later paid Labak $12, 500-his share of the witness murder fee. (Tr. 787-89.)

         While Labak and Squillante hired Champagne to murder Bullard for the express purpose of silencing a potential witness in this joint state-federal human trafficking investigation, these efforts were unsuccessful in ultimately obstructing the investigation. Instead, Squillante and his criminal confederates were charged and convicted in federal court. United States v. Squillante, 120 F.3d 274 (11th Cir. 1997). In the course of this prosecution, Squillante began cooperating with the government and informed law enforcement that Champagne had murdered Bullard. (Tr. 800, 1012-13, 1020.) Champagne was then arrested for Bullard's murder in January 1996. (Tr. 906, 929.) While in custody, Champagne discussed Bullard's killing with two other inmates, Michael Kelly and James Neely, who later testified for the government at Champagne's trial. (Tr. 955, 988-89.) Champagne told Kelly that he was working on an alibi. (Tr. 967-73.) When Kelly asked Champagne whether he had killed Bullard, Champagne responded in a chilling fashion stating that only he and Bullard knew the answer to that question while smiling, winking, and forming his hand into the shape of a gun. (Tr. 971-73.) In turn, Champagne told Neely that he had been paid $25, 000 to commit the murder, (Tr. 994-95, 1001), explaining that he killed Bullard because he had been speaking with the authorities. (Tr.. 999.)

         It was against this factual backdrop that Champagne was indicted in 1996 on charges of conspiracy to commit murder, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 371, causing the death of a federal witness, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1512(a)(1)(C), and retaliating against a federal witness, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1513(a)(2). Champagne was convicted of these offenses and was sentenced on February 19, 1997 to life imprisonment. U.S. v. Champagne, No. 96-00007-cr-ORL-18 (M.D. Fla. 1997). On direct appeal, this conviction was affirmed on appeal, but reversed and remanded with instructions for the district court to clarify the sentence with respect to each count. On remand, he was sentenced to concurrent terms of five years on Count I, and life on Counts II and III, respectively. U.S. v. Champagne, No. 96-00007-cr-ORL-18 at Doc. 138 (M.D. Fla. 1997). Champagne then filed a motion ...

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