DEA agent Samuel Landis was in a hurry.
On a rainy spring day in Salem, he’d fallen behind a team of other agents following a drug courier. They had the driver in sight.
Landis sped along a central Salem road, approaching a busy cross street. He braked the government-owned Dodge Ram pickup truck as he approached. A retaining wall and brush obscured his vision.
Despite that, Landis rolled the pickup through the intersection at nearly 20 miles an hour – and into the path of a cyclist.
Nearly six months later, he would be charged with negligence in the death of the cyclist, Marganne Allen, on March 28, 2023.
Authorities have kept much about the fatal crash from the public – until now. Landis’ efforts to escape criminal liability for the crash have brought into public view crucial documents. They tell the full story of that day, when the focus was on tracking yet another tentacle of Mexican drug cartels using Salem as a depot.
This account is based on the transcript of the grand jury testimony of Landis, his fellow DEA agents and local police investigators and the 17-page accident reconstruction report. The documents were unsealed by a federal court on Friday, Feb. 2.
Drug cartel connections
At 11 a.m. on March 28, DEA agents got a briefing on the day’s surveillance mission.
A joint task force of federal agents working with undercover officers from the Salem Police Department had long been investigating a trafficking network dealing in fentanyl.
On this day, an informant who had bought drugs before from couriers arranged to meet yet another courier in the parking lot of a central Salem restaurant.
“The primary goal of this controlled purchase is to identify the current courier’s vehicle so a tracker can be placed on it at a later time,” according to the DEA’s operations plan for the day.
The operation was to start at noon and be done by 6 p.m. No arrest was planned, though the operations plan devised a response should the courier unexpectedly turn violent.
Agents watched as the buy happened, then they set to work trailing the courier.
Four DEA agents and three Salem police officers were scattered in separate, unmarked vehicles. They would tag-team the courier, hoping to avoid alerting the driver he was being followed.
Landis was on the team.
He was 37, had worked for the DEA for seven years, now assigned to the Salem office.
He was alone in the gray pickup truck as the courier led the surveillance team on a winding course on the south edge of downtown Salem.
At about 3:30 p.m. the courier traveled east on Southeast Mission Street and then turned south onto Southeast 12th Street. Two agents were five blocks behind and three more were scattered back along Mission Street.
Landis was nearly a mile away, weaving through the hilly streets of central Salem’s Gaiety Hill.
He knew the team had the courier in view but he wanted to catch up with the other agents and was driving, he would later explain, “with a purpose.”
There was no operational need for his haste. Agents testified later there was no urgency and Landis himself would say so.
He was not far behind a government SUV driven by DEA agent Todd Hoagland. Landis followed Hoagland as they turned off Liberty Street onto Leslie Street. Hoagland slowed at the intersection a block later with High Street, but didn’t stop as he turned onto High Street.
Landis drove along Leslie at what police later calculated was about 37 mph. He tapped his brakes as he approached the intersection, but then let up again as he approached the stop sign he was supposed to obey.
He later couldn’t recall if he stopped. His colleague, Hoagland, said under oath he saw Landis stop.
But residents’ video told a different story. Landis never touched his brakes again as he approached the stop sign.
Up the hill on High Street to his left, cyclist Marganne Allen was gathering speed as she rolled to the intersection, holding the right of way. She was on her way home to her husband and children after a shift at her state job.
It wasn’t yet dark. Allen wore a bright yellow jacket. A white light on the front of her bike flashed. She was traveling an estimated 25 mph – the speed limit.
At the northwest corner of the intersection, a retaining wall and overgrown shrub obscured Landis’ vision. He also said the thick front window post of the truck made him lean forward to look.
He saw nothing – no car, no pedestrian, no cyclist.
He drove his pickup into Allen’s path. She struck the front fender and crashed to the ground.
Agents, neighbors respond
Landis later said his “heart sank” when Allen hit his truck.
Witnesses later said that Landis didn’t appear to approach the woman, but testimony from agents said otherwise.
He parked and went to attend her, kneeling down in her blood, holding her arm.
Another DEA agent, Adam Otte, had followed Allen down the hill and saw the collision. He and Landis both reached Allen at the same time.
As Landis tried to comfort the stricken cyclist, Otte bent himself over her, shielding her from the rain.
Otte put his hand on Allen’s shoulder, telling her that they were there and help was on the way.
He asked if she could hear him. She made no response.
Landis checked for a pulse, bloodying his hand. He talked to her, asking questions.
Landis asked an agent with trauma experience if he should take off Allen’s helmet. He was advised to leave it.
As neighbors began to gather, Otte asked for a blanket or umbrella. Hoagland had arrived meantime and fetched his coat from his vehicle. He held it over Allen until neighbors brought an umbrella and blanket.
Another agent urged Landis to step away and he did.
Medics, fire crews and police were called to the scene at 3:44 p.m. – just two minutes after a camera captured Landis speeding through the neighborhood.
The agents’ phones pinged as they alerted one another to the crash. One by one, they abandoned their surveillance mission and converged at the intersection.
Medics arrived about three and a half minutes after they were called, with Salem police officers arriving a minute later and parking on various streets nearby to control traffic.
Medics quickly got Allen onto a backboard, lifted her onto a gurney and put her in the ambulance, which took off immediately. She was taken to Salem Hospital three blocks away.
Landis by then had moved away, appearing blank-faced and dazed. One agent recalled later that Landis muttered that he didn’t see the cyclist.
Soon after, a Salem undercover officer flashed photos from the crash scene to a DEA supervisor in Seattle. A Salem traffic officer took the lead on investigating. He walked through the scene, using a drone to take pictures from the air and marked evidence on the ground.
Authorities wouldn’t determine the cyclist’s name until later and by then Allen had died. Police notified her family about five hours later.
The following day, Salem police reached out to their Keizer counterparts, asking them to take over the investigation.
Around then, the DEA had moved the truck Landis was driving to Eugene, requiring investigators to travel there to gather evidence.
Keizer police submitted their initial report to District Attorney Paige Clarkson on May 12.
The report concluded that Landis had disobeyed the stop sign but it wasn’t clear he had engaged in reckless driving or any crime. The officer wrote that he hadn’t been able to question Landis.
“I must give him the benefit of any doubt and attribute this crash to him simply failing to see a traffic stop sign while traveling at least six MPH below the posted speed limit,” a Keizer investigator wrote.
But Clarkson’s office asked for more investigation after a Salem Reporter investigation found that a video showed Landis speeding through the neighborhood.
The additional investigation verified the published account.
On Sept. 6, a Marion County grand jury indicted Landis for criminally negligent homicide, a felony.
Court records indicate he continues working as a DEA agent while pressing in court for immunity from criminal blame for Allen’s death.
Contact reporter Ardeshir Tabrizian: [email protected] or 503-929-3053.
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Ardeshir Tabrizian has covered criminal justice and housing for Salem Reporter since September 2021. As an Oregon native, his award-winning watchdog journalism has traversed the state. He has done reporting for The Oregonian, Eugene Weekly and Malheur Enterprise.