Showing posts with label undercover. Show all posts
Showing posts with label undercover. Show all posts

30 October 2016

What's in a Name?


by R.T. Lawton

For most people, their name and their reputation go hand in hand. Someone mentions a person by name and another person in that conversation automatically recalls whatever information they know or have heard about that name. If it is something honest or good about the name then fine. However, if the receiver in that conversation has negative information about that name, or receives derogatory information, then he or she will feel wary about that particular individual. And, therein lies a true story. True as in it actually happened, but...let's just say some of the details were changed, like names, for instance.

We had a federal warrant for a guy named Jerry Goldsmith. Jerry was alleged to be a young up and comer as a Jewish associate to the Kansas City mafia. He supposedly had a legit job working for a local insurance agency, but it was also rumored that he didn't have to show up and do actual work in order to receive a paycheck. In any case, Jerry turned to dealing drugs in order to supplement whatever income he did have. And, that's how the guy came to our attention. Seems one of our agents made a case on Jerry for distribution of several thousand amphetamine tablets, also known on the street as white crosses in the old days. With arrest warrant in hand, my partner and I were sent out to fit the young gentleman with a set of shiny metal bracelets.

Big Jim and I checked out the usual hangouts, but Jerry was nowhere to be found. Last on our list of addresses was an apartment for Jerry's ex-girlfriend over on the Missouri side of the river. Her residence was in a two-story, red brick, four-plex. We knocked on the front door at ground level. A young woman came to the door. "Yes, that's me," she said, "but Jerry isn't here."

While we were talking with her, a four year old boy appeared at his mother's side. "Daddy?" he inquired. "Yeah, he's upstairs."

Jerry, who must have been listening to our conversation while he stayed just out of sight at the head of the stairs, now descended to the front door. At this point, Big Jim and I took Jerry into custody and read him his Miranda Rights. As the cuffs went on, Jerry did not take his new circumstances well, nor did he choose to employ his right to silence. Since it looked like it was not going to be a quiet ride to the holding cell anyway, I took this opportunity to remind Jerry that his immediate situation was his own fault. I'm sure he expected a lecture about the long term consequences of dealing drugs, however, what he got was something closer to home. "Jerry," I said, "you really should have married the little guy's mother and made him legitimate. Cuz it was your own son who gave you up to the law."

Jerry was quiet for a few heartbeats while he digested that thought, but then he started up again with his loud tirade. Seems I'd touched on a new sore spot.

The man was so disagreeable that a few months later, I started using a close variation of his name whenever I went undercover to buy drugs and make cases on dealers and their distribution organizations. For the next several years, even though Jerry was sitting in a federal pen staring out through iron bars, his name got used a lot. By the time Jerry got out on parole, his name was mud. Nobody trusted him as far as doing business with him in the criminal world. For years after, I often wondered if I'd helped Jerry keep to the straight and narrow path in his later life when he'd returned to the civilian world.

One of the main goals of U.S. Parole and Probation for its many clients is to guide each of those clients towards leading an honest life. One of their requirements is for said client to remove himself from his old ways and distance himself from his previous criminal companions. To accomplish this goal, the parole/probation agent tries to accentuate the positive aspects of doing so. I, on the other hand, I guess you could say, was on the other end of the balance, letting Jerry know in my own fashion that there were some negative repercussions waiting for him if he tried to return to his old environment, repercussions that had nothing to do with the threat of him going back to prison. It's a known factor on the streets that some hard core criminals don't take kindly to those low lifes who have allegedly made cases for the feds, whether they actually did or not.

After all, a rep and a name go hand in hand.

So yeah, I've wondered how Jerry's future went.  Was he smart enough to see the handwriting on the wall and therefore change his ways? Or did he take that long slide back down, the slide that would put him into the high percentage of recidivists where so many other convicts end up? And of course, there's always the cemetery or a car trunk if the bad guys can't take a joke.

Sometimes, it's all in a name.


So now, put on a costume and mask, go out in the world and pretend to be someone else.

HAPPY HALLOWEEN!!!

30 August 2013

Street Psyche, Part 2


by R.T. Lawton

To continue my last post on state of mind or psy-ops while working undercover, here's a tale from the streets of getting into an opponent's head and staying alive. Remember, what you're doing out there may not be real, but you're portraying it as reality so the other side believes it.

Snake (his street name) was a state agent working a large river town known for its criminal past. That evening, he was setting up to do a buy-bust on a cocaine dealer we'll call Sammy Di Luna, a real hardcore street criminal. Snake needed a money man to guard his flash roll, so he invited me in on the deal. All I would probably have to do was sit in the car across the street from the dealer's house until the go-down. Surveillance was made up of local police detectives I hadn't worked with before this deal. They were supposed to set up a couple of blocks away as back up. Everything ready, Snake went into the house, while I waited in the undercover car with my 9mm automatic in one hand and a .357 revolver in the other. All was well.

Ten minutes later, Snake was back to the car. He told me that Di Luna had called a runner to bring a pound of coke to the back door at the side of the house. When the back porch light went off, then Snake was supposed to go back in the house to see what he was buying. He also warned me that standing just inside the kitchen door frame, Di Luna had an AR-15 with the sears filed down so it would operate as an automatic assault rifle. Stuff like that is always comforting to know.

Pretty soon, we observed someone appear at the side door, then leave. The back porch light went off. Snake went inside to see the goods. I got on the concealed radio and warned the surveillance cops about the altered rifle. But then those guys were already aware of Di Luna's rep for violence.

When Snake returned to the car, he said the coke was there. Time for the go-down. I got on the radio and told surveillance to hit the house. In the meantime, to get a head start, Snake and I got out of the car. Di Luna now showed at his front window watching us, so I flashed the money over the top of the vehicle to allay any suspicions on his part. Apparently satisfied, Di Luna left the window and closed the front curtains. Snake and I headed across the sidewalk, up the cement steps, across the short front lawn and onto the front porch.

Surveillance arrived and took up positions. Turned out, they weren't keen on hitting houses containing violent felons. They positioned themselves behind trees and cement objects well away from the door, leaving Snake and I as sole occupants of the porch to make any entry. Not the type of gung-ho cops I was used to working with. By this time, Di Luna looked out the window to see what was taking so long to give him his money. He quickly locked his front door.

It wasn't any time to delay entry and give Di Luna opportunity to flush the coke. Snake held the screen door open while I started kicking at the door and hollering FEDERAL AGENTS at the top of my lungs. Damn door was solid oak. Took several kicks to crack it open. By now, Di Luna had retreated to the back of the house, probably where his rifle was located. I finally stepped into his living room with a big pistol in each hand and bellowed that he was under arrest. Don't know if his mind got frozen by all the loud noises, he thought the situation out and decided to go with the live-to-fight-another-day philosophy or if he firmly believed he had suddenly met someone as crazy as he was even though he clearly had superior firepower. (I picked the last.) In any case, his head slowly appeared around the kitchen doorway. He peered into the living room, then his empty hands showed. Shaking his head, he surrendered.

Snake and I cuffed him, took him down to the police station and into the processing room, a small enclosure with one door and no windows. After fingerprinting Di Luna, Snake let me know he wanted to have a conversation with the prisoner to make sure his informant didn't get harmed later. I stepped back and those two had their conversation, but it didn't go well. Snake looked at me, so I figured to give it a try. Using short words and direct speech, I made it plain that the informant was to come to no harm. Di Luna smiled and said, "Yeah, well what about...?" and he brought up the name of an informant used by the city cops in this same river town against a motorcycle gang president, but who was killed later in a different state while working for another agency. In his own sly way, Di Luna was trying to tell us something we didn't want to hear.

I tried a different tack. Using the speech that Don Corleone used in the Godfather to let his enemies know that as part of the truce he was bringing his youngest son home and would not accept any accidents, even lightning or being shot by a cop, I told Di Luna we too weren't accepting anything that even looked like an accident. Same reply from this hard core criminal still being sly.

Last resort, I took off my long-sleeve denim shirt and bullet proof vest. (In those days, the vests did not protect the wearer from rifle bullets, so it wouldn't have done me much good in Di Luna's living room anyway.) Then I handed my pistol to Snake and asked him to wait outside. At that point, Di Luna let us both know he understood what we were saying. This time he was serious, the slyness was gone.

How far would I have gone? Not far. We weren't and aren't allowed to beat up prisoners. Worst case scenario, I'd have had to come up with some kind of snappy retort that movie heroes have screenwriters for and then found an excuse for not following through on an implied threat. What the hell, I had two things going for me on the way in. One, people in the past have told me I have hard eyes. It's a look that unsettles some people, criminals included. Two, I'd already bluffed out Di Luna in his own living room. Figured I had the mental edge to do it one more time. Call it a second round of psy-ops. I'm not a tough guy, I merely projected that image once upon a time period in my life.

There's probably some of you out there wondering now if maybe Sammy Di Luna wasn't as tough as his reputation led others to believe and that's why he backed down. Maybe he was hard on the outside and all soft jelly when it came to actual blood letting. So, here's the rest of the story as I got it from detectives years later.

Shortly after Di Luna served his time and got out, he and his old partner in the cocaine trade were playing pool in a dirt floor bar in that same river town. They had a few beers and walked out into the parking lot with Di Luna's arm around the shoulders of his old friend. Turned out Di Luna had been holding a grudge for his old partner having brought Snake into the fold even though his partner was not the informant. Whipping out a long-blade folding knife, Di Luna cut his old partner's throat and bleed him out in the parking lot.

Hey, on second thought, maybe I just got lucky on using a quick psy-ops concept on that crazy guy in his own living room, but it seemed like the thing to do at the time. In any case, the winners get to tell the story in their own way and go home at night. The losers, well they usually get to walk around muttering to themselves in a confined space.

Ride easy until next time.

16 August 2013

Street Psyche, Part 1


by R.T. Lawton

When you're working the streets, it helps to have a certain mind set. Perhaps one of the best ways to explain this matter of the mind is to use a portion of Wikipedia's definition of Psy-Ops: "Various techniques are used...to influence a target audience's...belief systems, emotions, motives, reasoning or behavior. It is used to...reinforce attitudes and behaviors favorable to the originator's objectives... Target audiences can be...organizations, groups and individuals."

Whereas psy-ops is generally a technique employed by the military in order to out maneuver the enemy, law enforcement and undercover agents also find it useful on a smaller scale. Here's a couple of examples which fit the definition, one for fun and games and the other as self-protection.

We knew where a smack house was operating in Kansas City, but at the time we didn't have any informants who could go into that particular house and make a heroin buy to give us probable cause for a search warrant. But then, the dealers in that house weren't aware we had that problem. So, for fun and games, we designed a little play action, knowing full well that the opposition kept a lookout at their front window to watch the street, plus they located their stash of several ounces close to their bathroom toilet for a quick flush should The Man suddenly appear at their place of business.

One nice summer day, to play with their minds, we had a car with two agents suddenly come screeching up to the curb in front of their house. The two jumped out of the car, loudly slammed the vehicle doors and ran towards the front door (covering a lot of distance from side to side) while screaming FEDERAL AGENTS. It was said later, that the dealer's toilet got a good workout before the two agents inexplicably turned around, quietly walked back to their vehicle and drove off. Then we waited a week.

The next time, the car had four agents decked out in bright blue raid jackets come screeching up to the curb. Loud door slams again. Screaming, the agents ran as far as the edge of the front porch before turning and walking back to their vehicle. Once again, the toilet saw lots of action. After that, we gave them two weeks to calm down.

The third time, we used two cars of agents in raid jackets. And, every time after that, we escalated the appearance of an actual raid by sending more cars, more agents, even having some of the vehicles jump the curb to imply this time was serious. We also varied the times and intervals to keep them off balance.

Eventually, the dealers realized we were playing with them and that much of their illicit profits were literally going down the drain.They gradually became more confident and lackadaisical, even quit flushing their bags of smack when we showed up. We gladly allowed them these little victories of finally beating us.

Then, one day we got an informant into the house for a buy. Shortly afterwards,. we descended upon that house with a search warrant, several cars, a multitude of agents and a sledge hammer for the door. This time we didn't walk away. One agent held the screen door open, the hammer man took it down and the first two-man team went all the way through to the bathroom. To keep the flusher from hitting the handle, they had to body check him into the bath tub. Ouch. Meanwhile, the rest of the teams secured the house and those within it. We got the heroin for evidence in court and had fun playing with their minds while working up to it. Our version of Psy-Ops.

It also helps when you're figuring out your role for undercover.

The majority of times I went under for a buy, I took advantage of the general public's perception of those bad-ass bikers riding Harleys. Even if dealers didn't personally know a biker, they had probably seen some old B-movie depicting bikers as scary dudes who carried guns. And, since I was going to always carry a gun while undercover, I went with the biker image. One, most dealers were careful how they treated me, and two, if anyone happened to see the handgun in my waistband, they were more apt to accept it as part of the image. In short, I was manipulating an individual's reasoning and behavior.

To further the military concept of "false colors," four of us on a task force went so far as to create our own motorcycle gang, colors and all. That way, when the undercover agent went in to make a buy, his surveillance (the rest of the gang) normally stationed outside, instead went in with him. There were no problems with rip-offs under these circumstances, there were several law enforcement witness to the buy details when it came court time, and the dealers assumed it was a natural situation for the whole gang to be in their living room during a purchase. Yep, if he did it right, a guy could have a good time outsmarting criminals, even bikers in other gangs.

Next time, a more dire set of circumstances where even one-man psy-ops could mean survival.