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Slain informant receives 'justice,' father says

Almost four years ago, Margie Weiss of Safety Harbor was on the road to Tallahassee, fielding panicked calls from friends of her daughter, Rachel. The college kids were frantic, reporting that the 23-year-old had disappeared while working as an informant for the Tallahassee police. Wednesday, Weiss again was headed to Tallahassee when she learned the Florida Senate had joined the House in passing a claims bill that would grant a $2.4 million settlement to her and her ex-husband in the death of their only child. Rachel Morningstar Hoffman, a recent Florida State University graduate, was shot to death by two men with long rap sheets in a botched drug sting in May 2008. The city of Tallahassee and Hoffman's parents settled a lawsuit in January; the approval of the Legislature was required before the city could disburse the sum from its liability fund.
"The city can't buy us back our daughter," said Weiss, a massage therapist, on Wednesday. "But I plan to use the money for the Rachel Morningstar Foundation to help other informants, and to try to strengthen and nationalize Rachel's Law." Rachel's Law, passed in 2009, says law enforcement officers can't promise an informant a reduced sentence in exchange for undercover work, and allows an informant to consult with a lawyer if one is requested. Irv Hoffman, the young woman's father, already has awarded scholarships in his daughter's name. "Today we have justice for Rachel," said Irv Hoffman, a mental health counselor, after the vote. He visits his daughter's grave near his Palm Harbor home every day. "She was my universe," he said.   House members voted 99-13 Monday to approve the bill, and the Senate voted 36-4 in favor Wednesday. No one spoke against the bill, although the Senate introduced an amendment related to attorney fees. The House will vote again on the amendment, then is expected to send the bill to Gov. Rick Scott for his signature.   These are the final steps in ameliorating the public black eye suffered by the Tallahassee Police Department in the case. It was roundly criticized for its treatment of Rachel Hoffman, a graduate of Countryside High School in Clearwater. She was described by family and friends as naïve when she agreed to help police. She had been arrested on drug charges, including possession of more than 20 grams of marijuana and possession with intent to sell Ecstasy. She told police she only sold drugs to her college friends. At police officers' instruction, she agreed to make contact with Deneilo Bradshaw, 24, and his stepbrother-in-law, Andrea Green, 27, asking for cocaine and a gun. On the day of the sting, police lost sight of Hoffman after the men changed the location of the deal and her wire went dead. Although she told police where she was going to meet the men, by the time police found the spot on a dead-end road, she, Green and Bradshaw were gone. Spent shell casings and one of her flip-flops were found on the pavement. Bradshaw and Green went on a spending spree the next day in Orlando, using the marked bills from the sting to buy gold jewelry and clothes. When they were arrested, they took police to Hoffman's body, which they had dumped in a ditch in Taylor County. An autopsy revealed she had been shot five times by the gun police had instructed her to buy. Bradshaw and Green, recorded on a convenience store videotape buying bleach to clean the young woman's car, were sentenced to life in prison without parole in late 2009 and early 2010. Ryan Pender, the Tallahassee police officer who devised the sting and was in charge of Hoffman that evening, was fired but later reinstated.   A Tallahassee grand jury hearing the case against Green and Bradshaw severely admonished police officers' actions that day.   "Through poor planning and supervision, and a series of mistakes … the Tallahassee Police Department handed Ms. Hoffman to Bradshaw and Green to rob and kill as they saw fit," grand jury members wrote. Rachel Hoffman's death, covered extensively by national media, sparked protests against the use of confidential informants as well as impassioned debates about treating marijuana users as felons. Tallahassee lawyer Lance Block, who has represented Hoffman's parents throughout the case, said he was pleased the Legislature supported them. "I'm so happy for Irv and Margie that this case is about to end," he said. "They can finally get this behind them and get on with their lives."

dkoehn@tampatrib.com (813) 259-8264

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