Cops’ national reputation isn’t exactly sterling right now, and it won’t be helped by The Dakota Entrapment Tapes, a two-part Sundance Now docuseries premiering Oct. 27 that serves as a case study in law enforcement misconduct and the larger failure of America’s war on drugs. Even in a genre rife with tales of slipshod police behavior, it’s a story destined to make one’s blood boil.
Director Trevor Birney’s series—which, after originally screening as a feature-length documentary at festivals earlier this year, has been split into two parts—relays the unnecessary tragedy that befell Andrew Sadek. A student at North Dakota State College of Science, the 20-year-old Sadek went missing on May 1, 2014. Nearly two months later, his body was found in the nearby Red River with a fatal gunshot wound to the head, sporting clothes that were different than the ones he was last seen wearing, and saddled with a backpack filled with rocks. For his parents John and Tammy Sadek, whose older son had previously perished in an automobile accident, the loss was cataclysmic. And it was made worse by the fact that NDSCS Campus Police Sergeant Steve Helgeson, who led the investigation, had few answers as to why Andrew met this untimely fate, which Helgeson initially deemed a suicide.
Revelations were forthcoming, however, and what they exposed about those carrying out the inquiry weren’t flattering. As it turned out, Andrew—a recreational pot smoker, like his close friends and millions of other undergraduates—had been caught selling $20 and $60 of marijuana, respectively, to two separate NDSCS students by Richland County deputy sheriff Jason Weber. In a recorded interrogation-room interview that The Dakota Entrapment Tapes uses to damning effect, Weber explains to Andrew (on his 20th birthday) that because these sales occurred on a college campus, they were felonies, and carried with them a maximum jail sentence of 40 years. The prospect of a lifetime behind bars naturally terrified the kid, and made it easier for Weber to execute his subsequent plan: turning Andrew into a confidential informant tasked with making drug sales that would lead to further arrests.
This was nothing short of outrageous, for a host of reasons. First, Weber outright lied about the likely punishment for such paltry marijuana sales (Sadek family attorney Tim O’Keeffe surmises that Andrew probably would have received probation and community service). Second, those trivial transactions implied that Andrew wasn’t a legitimate dealer, and therefore was in no position to be a useful informant. And third, the students to whom Andrew had sold pot were also Weber informants who’d been instructed to make drug purchases—meaning Weber had employed his own people to entrap Andrew into committing a crime, and to coerce him into becoming an informant (which is illegal).
That an on-campus police officer would deceive an innocent 20-year-old in this way, and ensnare him in undercover work, is despicable, as is the fact that, before his body was found, Andrew was publicly charged with dealing drugs. Nonetheless, officers were apparently encouraged by North Dakota’s draconian illicit-substance laws to go after young adults for possessing minor amounts of marijuana. Preying on average kids for the occasional toke was a means of seeming “tough on crime,” and in North Dakota, officers from the Southeast Multi-County Agency (SEMCA)—a narcotics task force that received federal funding based on the number of arrests they made—were financially incentivized to rack up low-level busts. Worse, SEMCA agents were allowed to operate freely, and covertly, on campuses such as NDSCS, and Campus Police chief Helgeson was even on SEMCA’s board of directors.
The Dakota Entrapment Tapes is thus an indictment of not only individual officer villainy, but of a state that vilifies and persecutes kids for behavior that’s widely accepted throughout the country; of a college administration that permits outside agencies to monitor and manipulate its students; and of a campus police force that overstepped its boundaries by a county mile—including by spearheading the eventual investigation into Andrew’s disappearance and death, despite being thoroughly unqualified for that undertaking. It’s no wonder that John and Tammy, as well as Andrew’s closest college friends, are alternately outraged and heartbroken in new interviews about this situation, which resulted in few conclusions and even fewer convictions.
Director Birney has a habit of amplifying suspense through ominous shots of nighttime rivers and hazy car headlights set to foreboding music, and he embellishes his non-fiction action with slow-motion sequences of Andrew’s friend Eric Maragos performing fire-spinning routines with a flaming baton—interludes that barely speak to the material’s thematic concerns. Nonetheless, The Dakota Entrapment Tapes largely tells its story in straightforward fashion, all while maintaining strict focus on the pain and suffering of those closest to Andrew. Painting a vivid portrait of the young man as a bright, friendly kid with a gift for electrical work—and a promising future in a field that was taking off in a North Dakota enjoying an oil-industry boom—the series ably humanizes its subject, the better to hammer home the outrageous injustice that befell him simply because he sometimes enjoyed getting high with his friends.
It’s Andrew’s normality that makes The Dakota Entrapment Tapes so galling, since it suggests that any college-age kid could, for no good reason, fall victim to a nefarious cop. To this day, no one knows for sure if Andrew killed himself or was murdered—although his rock-laden backpack indicates that his body was meant to stay hidden underwater, thereby negating the former theory. Yet as radio broadcaster Joel Heitkamp astutely states, that’s secondary to the more significant wrong perpetrated by Weber, whose actions were directly responsible for putting Andrew in desperate do-or-die straits, and sending him on the treacherous path that ultimately cost him his life.
“All of this for $80 worth of pot,” laments a still-seething Tammy. In doing so, she succinctly articulates the needlessness of Andrew’s death, and underscores the too-big-for-their-britches arrogance of campus police, the misguided priorities of North Dakota’s anti-marijuana attitudes and measures, and the shamefulness of a law enforcement system that prizes quantity over quality with regard to drug arrests.