by R.T. Lawton
You've no doubt heard the siren call of carny barkers at their stands on the midway, "Step right up, folks, everybody's a winner." And maybe you did step up, and maybe you didn't. Them guys have an enticing come-on to scam the unwary. Many of us suspect as much, yet somehow people keep trying their luck to beat the carny's game.
As scams went, we had a good one working for us too, everybody was a winner. Come on in and play. By combining federal, state and local resources, our task force picked out a one-room, one-story, old wooden building on the west side of the city and set up a t-shirt shop. This particular shop offered custom printing on any shirts or ball caps a customer wished to purchase. Inside and out, the setup was a totally legit business. Natuarally, there were a few extras not everyone knew about.
Behind the small counter at the back of the shop, sat the 300 pound proprietor. This part was pretty obvious to anyone entering the establishment. What patrons didn't know was that this previous motorcycle club member (he and I once wore the same club patch) was now a signed up Cooperating Individual for both the state and the feds. As part of our sting, he put word on the street that while he was in the business of selling t-shirts and ball caps, he also had an under the counter trade in purchasing illicit controlled substances. Business soon got busy. (At the left, we had our own shirts printed.)
In the side wall, just above the countertop was a microphone hidden behind the wall paneling. Behind the 300 pound C.I. and hanging on the wall above his head was a video camera installed inside a boxed mirror that advertised the shop in glass etching. Outside the store and across the four-lane street and half a block down was the safe house. Here, surveillance could watch a vehicle pull into the parking lot and see who went inside. A quick walk around the block by a member of the surveillance team provided a license plate number to help identify those entering the store. Plus, this is where the monitors were located for the video camera hidden behind the C.I.
A typical deal went like this:
The future defendant enters the store, looks around and waits until it's just him and the C.I. inside the building. Then, he approaches the front of the counter and negotiations commence for whatever product he has for sale. Let's say he's offering two ounces of coke or a pound of marijuana or both. The price soon gets set.
"Let me see the stuff," says the C.I.
The dealer hands over the contraband.
Our C.I. now holds up both bags of illegal drugs, one in each hand out to opposite sides, looks from one to the other and muses aloud, "Which one should I buy?"
Suddenly, the store telephone rings, He answers.
"Buy the coke," whispers a voice.
"Yes sir," our C.I. replies to one of the surveillance agents in the safe house, "your shirts will be ready on time." He hangs up and turns to the drug dealer. "Guess I'll take the coke."
Thus, we end up with drugs in evidence, and the conversation and action on tape. The seller is free to go, for now. But wait, this is too easy. We've got to have a little fun on the job, something to laugh about later over beers.
After the purchase is concluded, the C.I. points to slips of paper and a miniature plastic trash can setting on the counter. "My store has a once a week drawing for a free t-shirt and a free ball cap for our good customers," says the C.I. "So, write your name, address and phone number on an entry slip and stick it in that small trash can there. If you win, I'll call you."
Guess who won the drawing every week. Yep, anyone who sold us drugs. And when they came to the store to collect their prize, it got even better. The C.I. had them pose with their newly won prize proudly displayed in hand just below their smiling face so he could put their photo on his Winner's Wall, which was right above the hidden microphone.
When it was time to close up shop, we had names, addresses, telephone numbers and facial photos to hand out to all the arrest teams. Not surprisinly, all of our under the counter clients pled guilty as soon as possible. Guess they didn't want to have the entirety of their stupidity exposed in open court.
For us, it was all blue smoke, mirrors and fun. Unfortunately, the other side often failed to see the humor in all this. (On the right is our personal t-shirt logo.)