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A former supervisory Drug Enforcement Administration agent based in Little Rock was released from jail Monday after 11 months of being detained on bribery and drug-conspiracy charges that so far haven't resulted in an indictment.

Nathan Koen, 43, was arrested early Dec. 4 by FBI agents after he arrived at the Little Rock airport on a flight from Las Vegas. FBI agents had him under surveillance Dec. 3 in Las Vegas when, agents say, he accepted a $9,000 cash bribe from a large-scale drug trafficker being investigated in California, Arkansas and Florida.

Until Monday afternoon, Koen remained in federal custody, held on a criminal complaint, which is often used to hold a defendant until a grand jury can review the government's case and decide whether to hand up an indictment. Cases are typically presented to a grand jury within a month of a person's arrest, and prosecutors haven't explained why Koen's case has lingered so long without being presented to a grand jury, except to say it is an "unusual case."

Defense attorney Blake Hendrix of Little Rock, who represents Koen along with attorney Annie Depper, argued Monday in a detention hearing before U.S. Magistrate Judge Tricia Harris that because Koen is a law enforcement officer, he has spent much of his time behind bars in protective custody, confined to a 6-by-8-foot room for 23 hours a day, which is "destructive" to his well-being.

"He hasn't had a hug in almost a year," his sister, Kadence Koen of Auburn, Ill., testified.

Hendrix presented testimony from Koen's parents, who live on the outskirts of Auburn and said they have a close relationship with him. They agreed to act as third-party custodians to ensure Koen follows all conditions of his release in the event he was granted permission to live in a barn apartment on their property under the supervision of federal probation officers in the Central District of Illinois.

Koen's sister, who owns rental property in the area and flips houses, said he could work for her. She told the judge that growing up, "We were thick as thieves," and that they remain close to each other and to their parents.

Kadence Koen also testified that after months of being in protective custody, her brother was placed in the general population in a jail in Miller County, and has told her that he has difficulty sleeping because he fears that two fellow inmates might discover that his name is on their arrest warrants.

Assistant U.S. attorneys Chris Givens and Benecia Moore asked Harris to keep Koen behind bars until his case is resolved, saying his connections with drug dealers who aren't U.S. citizens and his ability to "live a double life" make him dangerous to the community if released and a risk of flight.

Hendrix conceded that the prosecutors' bribery case against Koen is strong, as Koen admitted accepting money from well-known drug dealer Francisco Benitez, a Mexican national. However, Hendrix argued, accusations that Koen was part of a drug trafficking conspiracy are a stretch.

Hendrix said emails between Benitez and Koen may show Koen demanding payment for looking into potential drug buyers for Benitez to see if they were under investigation, but they don't necessarily show that Koen actually gathered that information for Benitez.

Hendrix suggested that Koen was "playing" Benitez but not actually providing him with valuable inside information.

Moore responded by arguing that Koen "was helping Benitez distribute large quantities of drugs in Little Rock," including pounds of heroin and methamphetamine.

"The evidence is strong on both counts," she argued.

She said that Koen was a master of deception, noting that while he worked as a DEA agent in Florida and accepted bribes from drug dealers, he was promoted and was transferred to the Little Rock office as a group supervisor.

Harris, noting that she was "impressed by Mr. Koen's family," agreed to release him under conditions that will require him to be on home detention with electronic monitoring at his own expense. The judge said he also must find and turn over his passport, which Koen told her he believes has expired.

Aaron Green, an FBI agent whose affidavit led to the criminal complaint filed against Koen last year, testified that two FBI agents were alerted a year ago by Benitez, whom they interviewed in California, that he was making payments to a DEA supervisor in Little Rock for information. Benitez had been arrested in 2012 in Jacksonville, Fla., and became acquainted with Koen after being referred to him by another inmate, Green said.

Green, who is one of many federal agents investigating Koen, testified that Benitez' claims have been corroborated by text messages and interviews with other criminals. He said agents were able to capture several of the text messages despite the use of a smartphone app that causes messages to be deleted 10 seconds after being read and alerts the sender if the recipient tries to screen-save them.

Green also testified Monday that Benitez told agents that since 2016, he had made seven or eight bribery payments of between $5,000 and $9,000 apiece to Koen, for a total of $50,000 to $55,000. The agent said the drug dealer revealed that he self-deported to Mexico in late 2017 and then came back to the United States under a fictitious name, using a fictitious passport he had obtained in Mexico, and continued meeting with Koen.

Benitez described how Koen provided the Mexican dealer with information about Nick Robinson, a Little Rock man who was later charged in a drug-trafficking investigation, Green testified. He said Koen told Benitez that Robinson "is already done here," meaning that he was already on the radar of DEA agents, but also told Benitez that "if you are careful and want to get one to him, you could try," referring to a drug shipment.

Benitez then attempted to get drugs to Robinson with the help of Koen, who provided Benitez with a photograph of Robinson, Green testified. He said that in the spring of 2018, Benitez shipped more than 13 pounds of heroin to Little Rock in return for $300,000 from Robinson, and came to Little Rock to accept a $60,000 down payment from Robinson for 40 pounds of methamphetamine. But because Benitez feared that Robinson might rip him off, he paid Koen $5,000 from the down payment to hold the money for 24 hours, Green testified.

In September 2018, Robinson eluded a "take-down" stemming from a large-scale drug operation in Little Rock, Green said. He said records show Benitez then asked Koen if he'd like to know Robinson's whereabouts, and Koen replied, "Don't worry about it." Robinson was later arrested in California, Green testified.

In the Las Vegas controlled buy in which Benitez cooperated with FBI agents, the drug dealer and Koen went into a hotel bathroom, out of view of cameras, and Benitez placed a brown paper bag containing $9,000 in FBI-supplied money into Koen's backpack, Green said. He said the money was still in the backpack when Koen arrived in Little Rock.

Green said Koen admitted he had accepted payments "beyond the $9,000" from Benitez, but "he didn't recall as many as Benitez, and recalled different amounts."

Asked if Koen revealed why he took bribes, Green said, "He said basically he was living beyond his means," and that his financial troubles had begun after moving to Little Rock.

Metro on 11/05/2019

Print Headline: Little Rock-based former DEA agent trades jail for home detention

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