In December 2015, a meme titled “Meet Rachel Hoffman” became popular on social media:
Meet Rachel Hoffman
She was arrested for marijuana and was facing 4 years in prison. Police told her the only way out of the prison time was to become a confidential informant. Her first undercover drug buy was to be one of the biggest in Tallahassee history. Police forced Rachel to buy 1,500 ecstasy pills, 1.5 ounces of cocaine, and a gun from drug dealers. The drug dealers murdered her when they found the wire in her purse.
Social media interest in Hoffman was piqued when the Facebook page Free Talk Live shared the meme on 7 December 2015:
The meme was spread as part of a debate over whether drug law enforcement was more detrimental to society as a whole than drug use. Although most commenters were horrified to hear of Hoffman’s fate, at least one was less than sympathetic, holding that Hoffman was not simply a recreational drug user caught up in a nightmare scenario with drug dealers but a drug dealer herself:
She was a dealer that was arrested on a narcotics bust (that turned up Marijuana along with the harder drugs) back in 2008, not someone that just smoked recreationally. They found Ecstasy, Valium, and over 5 ounces of weed when they searched her apartment. It wasn’t a simple case of police busting her for smoking pot and bullying her into actually attempting something worthwhile that ultimately went wrong. Furthermore, she failed to follow the established plan by leaving the planned deal area to go off with the drug dealers that killed her, she left the area that the cops had access to which resulted in them not being able to protect her. If they had followed they would’ve immediately tipped off the dealers to the bust and she would’ve had no chance of getting out alive. Painting her in a way that portrays her as some innocent victim that just liked to light up on occasion isn’t accurate in the slightest. The war on drugs didn’t kill her, she ended her own life by being impulsive and making choices that ultimately resulted in her death.
As many viewers surmised, Hoffman’s story was far too complex to be accurately summarized by an image meme. The basic assertions of the meme were accurate, though significant details were obscured by its brief verbiage.
On 22 February 2007, Florida State University graduate Rachel Hoffman was found to be in possession of a relatively small amount of marijuana (25 grams) during a routine traffic stop. Contemporaneous news reports about Hoffman tended to begin with her tragic death and work backwards, so details of her involvement with police after that traffic stop were revealed slowly and sometimes only after initial, less accurate information was reported.
According to a local news report, on 17 April 2008, while Hoffman was under drug court supervision stemming the February 2007 traffic stop, Tallahassee police searched her apartment and turned up cannabis and a small quantity of Ecstasy:
[P]olice searched Hoffman’s home and found cannabis, drug paraphernalia and six ecstasy pills. They found 151.7 grams (or 5.328 ounces) of cannabis, rolling papers, a digital scale with cannabis residue and a book titled “The Cannabible,” according to records [Tallahassee police] released.
A 13 May 2008 ABC News article (published on the same day Hoffman was buried) offered initial information about how that traffic stop eventually led to Hoffman’s bullet-ridden body being found in a ditch in April 2008:
Authorities began the process of explaining how Hoffman became a police informant, a relationship initiated when police executed a search warrant at her apartment April 17 and recovered more than 200 grams of marijuana as well as ecstasy.
Hoffman was already part of a drug court program after a 2007 traffic stop in which police found enough marijuana to arrest her.
As police wrote up the probable cause affidavit, McCranie said, an officer offered Hoffman, whom he described as “very bright” and “very talented,” a chance to potentially reduce the punishment for the new drug case against her by acting as an informant.
It’s a deal, McCranie said, that’s offered to “countless” drug defendants. “A lot of people say ‘no,'” he added.
Hoffman took the deal, however, which McCranie said did not guarantee that the charges would be dropped against her. “We’re not saying we’re dropping the charges,” he said. “Whatever you can provide, the state attorney will decide how to balance your assistance with your crime.”
Questions frequently up in discussions of Hoffman’s death involved the amounts of various drugs she purportedly possessed and whether she was herself selling marijuana and other substances. A September 2013 post written by Hoffman’s friend Elizabeth Patty-Lugo and titled “My Best Friend Rachel Hoffman Was Murdered at 23-Years-Old” said that police estimates of Hoffman’s involvement in the drug trade were wildly implausible:
For the first part of her Drug Court sentence she stayed clean and passed her urinalyses tests, but over the next few months she began smoking marijuana again and eventually began selling small amounts of marijuana to her friends.
This is the part of Rachel’s story where people begin to say things like, “well she was a criminal, she deserved what she got” and “don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time,” and like I said previously, nobody has ever said that what she was doing wasn’t wrong, it was wrong, but the argument here is that she wasn’t afforded her right to due process and didn’t deserve to pay with her life for a “baggie” of marijuana.
During her one year of Drug Court she had only missed one random urine test because she was out of town with one of her childhood friends from synagogue, his father had passed away suddenly leaving behind his wife and three children … Since she missed a random urine test while attending her friend’s father’s funeral in Tampa, she was sentenced to one weekend in jail.
The weekend in jail was a definite eye-opener for Rachel, she had a first-hand glimpse of what life is like for non-violent criminals in the Florida prison system. After she completed her weekend in jail she became much more selective when it came to selling marijuana.
Initial TPD reports claimed Rachel sold 35 pounds of marijuana per month, which would gross about $1.2-$1.5 million annually … Now Rachel was a generous person, often cooking meals for friends or buying a plate of sushi for all of us to share, but I can assure you that she did not live the lifestyle of someone who made $1.2-1.5 million tax-free profit every year.
Patty-Lugo’s lengthy account described the circumstances under which Hoffman’s home was raided, as well as the choice Hoffman faced following the raid (emphasizing Hoffman’s request that Patty-Lugo covertly film the buy-bust, and Hoffman’s fears that the police would deny her “credit” for the risky undertaking.) By Patty-Lugo’s account, police convinced Rachel that she would be “covered” at all times during the operation, and that the worst possible outcome would be a “fake arrest”:
While executing the search warrant in her apartment, police turned up just under a quarter pound of marijuana, four ecstasy pills, two Valium pills, and some pipes used for smoking marijuana.
Rachel was facing several possible felony charges including, possession of cannabis with intent to sell, possession of ecstasy, maintaining a drug house, possession of a controlled substance with intent to sell, and possession of paraphernalia.
However, she was never arrested on these charges and certainly never charged with these alleged crimes. Instead she was told by police she “could make all the charges go away” by agreeing to become a confidential informant … If Drug Court found out about the raid on her apartment, they would then extend her time in the program and she wouldn’t be allowed to be used as an informant to work off a possible four-year prison sentence. They had scared her into not telling an attorney.
Patty-Lugo maintained that she and Hoffman continued contact throughout the botched buy-bust, claiming that Hoffman was incorrectly wired and that she inaccurately believed law enforcement officers were tailing her. At the end of a detailed minute-by-minute account, Patty-Lugo wrote:
After her phone call to [suspect Andrea] Green ended at approximately 6:47pm I got the last text message that I would ever get from Rachel saying that she would call me later, but I never heard from her again. Little did I know, that less than five minutes after her last text message to me, she would be dead in the back seat of her car riddled with bullet holes … Tragically and unknown to her, the wire on her person as well as the one in her purse had failed and police could not hear her, she also did not know that police could not see her, or that they didn’t even know where she was.
The placement of the wire in Hoffman’s purse emerged as one of the key disputed procedures examined after her death. In September 2012, NPR interviewed New Yorker writer Sarah Stillman about an article she had written concerning Hoffman’s case. In that NPR segment, Stillman said:
[Hoffman’s killers] opened up her purse, because the wire had actually been placed in her purse, which was against, you know, standard procedures there, but it had all been done in a bit of haste, and she’d been sent off with the wires in her purse. And, you know, it’s a bit unclear exactly what occurred because, you know, no one was there to witness it, but the understanding was that they took her purse and found the wire, and she was shot.
Stillman’s September 2012 New Yorker piece examined the largely unmonitored involvement of individuals like Hoffman in drug enforcement operations. Focusing on the “recruitment of young informants often involves risks that are incommensurate with the charges that they are facing,” Stillman painted Hoffman as out of her depth and without recourse:
Despite Hoffman’s legal problems [involving drug court supervision for the traffic stop], in the months before her death she earned admission to a master’s program in mental-health counseling … She still made a habit of smoking pot, and she sold it in small quantities to friends.
The police were able to use Hoffman’s stash as leverage. The day after her apartment was raided, she arrived at Police Headquarters to initiate her C.I. contract. Panicked and eager to coöperate, Hoffman first tried to set up a student at Florida State who was a small-time campus dealer. But guilt quickly set in, and soon afterward she contacted the student to confess what she’d done. He not only forgave her but agreed to help her out with the police. Together, they would come up with someone to bust. In return for the favor, Hoffman promised to pay his overdue utility bill.
According to a confidential deposition from a friend of Hoffman’s, the police made it clear that run-of-the-mill pot busts wouldn’t be sufficient to work off her charges. Instead, the friend said, the cops were looking for large quantities of “heroin, cocaine, crack, Ecstasy, guns.”
Among the details uncovered in the years following Hoffman’s death was that the “raid” could never have succeeded as planned. Hoffman, pressured to participate in a narcotics transaction far out of her league, was pegged as a mark by her assailants:
The encounter had never really been a prospective drug deal. Green was apparently planning a con: he was going to hand Hoffman a bag full of aspirin in place of the Ecstasy, a relative of his told me, and take off with the money. When investigators spoke to Green’s wife in the days that followed, she acknowledged that her husband had called on the night of the botched operation. She described what had taken place: “They found a wire in her purse, and shot her.”
Another element Stillman focused on in her piece was the initial statements made by police when news of Hoffman’s death broke. On the morning Hoffman’s body was found, the Tallahassee Police Department (TPD) told the press Hoffman had brought about her own death not following protocol. Hoffman’s parents later described that moment as the start of “the smearing” of their daughter:
[J]ournalists descended on a forest clearing where Tallahassee Police Department officials were holding a press conference, not far from where Hoffman’s body still lay. (The two suspects had been apprehended, and, at around 6:30 a.m., they had led police to the site.) “We had established protocols in place to insure her safety,” Officer David McCranie told the crowd. “At some point during the investigation, she chose not to follow the instructions. She met Green and Bradshaw on her own. That meeting ultimately resulted in her murder.”
Rachel’s friends started coming by her apartment, and they, too, were almost as shocked by the initial coverage of the murder as by the death itself. “That was devastating for so many of us,” one of Hoffman’s childhood friends recalled. “The first stories tried to paint Rachel as a low-life druggie drug dealer.” Two months later, in a TV segment on Hoffman’s death, ABC News correspondent Brian Ross interviewed Police Chief Jones. “I’m calling her a criminal,” Jones told him. “That’s my job as a police chief — to find these criminals in our community and take them off the street, to make the proper arrests.” Ross asked about the department’s accountability. “Do we feel responsible?” Jones said. “We’re responsible for the safety of this community.”
Rachel’s body was found on 9 May 2008, and a local news article published that day included the following passage, suggesting her involvement with the buy-bust was voluntary and that she had ignored precautions set up for her in the preparations for the buy-bust:
When the slain Tallahassee woman Rachel Hoffman agreed to assist police in [a] buy-bust operation, she was facing multiple felony charges and was in a diversion program for possession of more than 20 grams of marijuana, said Tallahassee Police Chief Dennis Jones in a news conference today.
“It is not unusual to have known drug dealers or users offer to assist police in narcotics investigations,” Jones said. “Rachel was no exception.”
Hoffman was facing charges of possession of ecstasy with intent to sell, possession of controlled substance with intent to sell, maintaining a drug house and possession of drug paraphernalia, he said.
She agreed to buy 1,500 pills of ecstasy, 2 ounces of cocaine or crack cocaine and a gun from two men who are now suspected of kidnapping and robbing her.
“Unfortunately, Rachel chose to ignore precautions established in a previous briefing as well as the direction of her case agent,” Jones said.
According to Stillman’s piece (and several other articles), Hoffman’s parents were ultimately awarded $2.6 million in a wrongful death suit against the City of Tallahassee and provided a formal apology. Hoffman’s parents also founded an organization devoted to warning young people about the risks of becoming confidential informants.
On 1 July 2009 a bill known as “Rachel’s Law” was adopted in Florida, aimed at providing greater protection to individuals find themselves in situations such as Rachel Hoffman’s.
Andrea Green and Deneilo Bradshaw were sentenced to life in prison for the murder of Hoffman.
Ultimately, the basic facts of the meme were correct. Rachel Hoffman was caught at a traffic stop in possession of a small amount of marijuana; a raid conducted while she was under subsequent drug court supervision turned up a handful of pills and a few ounces of marijuana. Under threat of prosecution, Hoffman agreed to act as a confidential informant but lacked criminal connections to fulfill police requests. In an effort to avoid prosecution, she engaged in a police-supervised transaction with known criminals under orders to purchase massive quantities of drugs and a firearm. The men with whom she transacted intended to rip her off and sell her aspirin; upon discovering a wire improperly placed in her purse, they murdered her. By all accounts, Hoffman was a regular user of marijuana who sold small quantities to friends, and not a career drug dealer.