ATF uses rogue tactics in storefront stings across nation
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Illustration by Lou Saldivar
Documents, interviews show agents employed tactics similar to those used in Milwaukee
A Journal Sentinel investigation uncovered mistakes and failures in an undercover sting in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives – stolen guns, sensitive documents lost, wrong people charged and a burglary of the sting storefront.
Aaron Key wasn’t sure he wanted a tattoo on his neck. Especially one of a giant squid smoking a joint.
But the guys running Squid’s Smoke Shop in Portland, Ore., convinced him: It would be a perfect way to promote their store.
They would even pay him and a friend $150 apiece if they agreed to turn their bodies into walking billboards.
Key, who is mentally disabled, was swayed.
He and his friend, Marquis Glover, liked Squid’s. It was their hangout. The 19-year-olds spent many afternoons there playing Xbox and chatting with the owner, “Squid,” and the store clerks.
So they took the money and got the ink etched on their necks, tentacles creeping down to their collarbones.
It would be months before the young men learned the whole thing was a setup. The guys running Squid’s were actually undercover ATF agents conducting a sting to get guns away from criminals and drugs off the street.
The tattoos had been sponsored by the U.S. government; advertisements for a fake storefront.
The teens found out as they were arrested and booked into jail.
Earlier this year when the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel exposed a botched ATF sting in Milwaukee — that included agents hiring a brain-damaged man to promote an undercover storefront and then arresting him for his work — ATF officials told Congress the failed Milwaukee operation was an isolated case of inadequate supervision.
The Journal Sentinel reviewed thousands of pages of court records, police reports and other documents and interviewed dozens of people involved in six ATF operations nationwide that were publicly praised by the ATF in recent years for nabbing violent criminals and making cities safer.
Agents with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives employed rogue tactics similar to those used in Milwaukee in every operation, from Portland, Ore., to Pensacola, Fla.
Among the findings:
■ ATF agents befriended mentally disabled people to drum up business and later arrested them in at least four cities in addition to Milwaukee. In Wichita, Kan., ATF agents referred to a man with a low IQ as “slow-headed” before deciding to secretly use him as a key cog in their sting. And agents in Albuquerque, N.M., gave a brain-damaged drug addict with little knowledge of weapons a “tutorial” on machine guns, hoping he could find them one.
■ Agents in several cities opened undercover gun- and drug-buying operations in safe zones near churches and schools, allowed juveniles to come in and play video games and teens to smoke marijuana, and provided alcohol to underage youths. In Portland, attorneys for three teens who were charged said a female agent dressed provocatively, flirted with the boys and encouraged them to bring drugs and weapons to the store to sell.
■ As they did in Milwaukee, agents in other cities offered sky-high prices for guns, leading suspects to buy firearms at stores and turn around and sell them to undercover agents for a quick profit. In other stings, agents ran fake pawnshops and readily bought stolen items, such as electronics and bikes — no questions asked — spurring burglaries and theft. In Atlanta, agents bought guns that had been stolen just hours earlier, several ripped off from police cars.
■ Agents damaged buildings they rented for their operations, tearing out walls and rewiring electricity — then stuck landlords with the repair bills. A property owner in Portland said agents removed a parking lot spotlight,damaging her new $30,000 roof and causing leaks, before they shut down the operation and disappeared without a way for her to contact them.
■ Agents pressed suspects for specific firearms that could fetch tougher penalties in court. They allowed felons to walk out of the stores armed with guns. In Wichita, agents suggested a felon take a shotgun, saw it off and bring it back — and provided instructions on how to do it. The sawed-off gun allowed them to charge the man with a more serious crime.
■ In Pensacola, the ATF hired a felon to run its pawnshop. The move widened the pool of potential targets, boosting arrest numbers.Even those trying to sell guns legally could be charged if they knowingly sold to a felon. The ATF’s pawnshop partner was later convicted of pointing a loaded gun at someone outside a bar. Instead of a stiff sentence typically handed down to repeat offenders in federal court, he got six months in jail — and a pat on the back from the prosecutor.
“To say this is just a few people, a few bad apples, I don’t buy it,” said David Harris, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law and an expert on law enforcement tactics and regulation. “If your agency is in good shape with policy, training, supervision and accountability, the bad apples will not be able to take things to this level.”
The ATF refused the Journal Sentinel’s request for an interview with Director B. Todd Jones or other agency officials to address findings of the investigation. Instead, the agency provided a written statement that failed to answer any questions, and spokeswoman Ginger Colbrun suggested reporters read ATF news releases issued after the stings.
In an email, Colbrun wrote that the ATF — the primary agency entrusted with enforcing the nation’s gun laws — uses storefront stings to target violent criminals.
“Long-term undercover investigations are one of many tools used by ATF in locations that have high levels of violence occurring in the demographics and a mechanism is needed to rid the area of a large volume of individuals (as) opposed to a handful of individuals,” she wrote.
It’s impossible to know the scope of the problems within the $1.2 billion agency.
The agency won’t say how many undercover storefronts it operates every year or disclose their locations. Agency officials don’t publicize all of the busts. Court records in many districts are sealed by judges or otherwise unavailable to the public. If an operation is flawed, as in Milwaukee, there may be no publicity at all.
Concerns about planning and oversight of undercover operations date to at least the late 1990s when the ATF was part of the Treasury Department. Discussions were held by top officials not only from Treasury but from the Department of Justice and others in hopes of bringing ATF investigations in line with other federal agency standards.
“It was a source of frustration for everybody,” said Rory Little, a former longtime federal prosecutor who participated in the meetings.
Nearly 20 years later, many of the same problems exist.
But because much of the agency’s work is done secretly, the public hasn’t known.
Problems with storefront stings surfaced publicly earlier this year when the Journal Sentinel followed up on a tip from a Milwaukee landlord that the ATF had damaged his building and left behind sensitive documents revealing details about undercover agents and their operation.
The newspaper’s investigation found the operation, dubbed Fearless Distributing, was marred by far more than the landlord knew. A machine gun and other weapons had been stolen from an agent’s car, the storefront was burglarized, agents arrested the wrong people and hired the brain-damaged man, who had an IQ of 54, to set up gun and drug deals.
The machine gun has not been recovered.
Members of Congress from both parties demanded answers, sparking an internal investigation by the ATF and a review by the Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General. Eight months later, the ATF has not released its findings and the Justice Department investigation is not complete.
In a briefing with congressional staffers, ATF officials acknowledged the failures in Milwaukee but indicated they were isolated incidents. At the same time, agency officials admitted they had no written procedures, policies or guidelines for running such undercover operations. They promised to create a written policy.
For years, agents have been setting up everything from phony pawnshops and tattoo parlors to recording studios and thrift stores with no official protocol.
It’s no surprise that, with few rules and little oversight, stings have gone astray, said a veteran ATF agent who asked that his name not be published because he was not authorized to speak on the issue and feared retribution.
Many of the problems stem from poor management in the field divisions coupled with pressure on agents to make cases and prove their worth, he said.
“Unfortunately, when it comes to reporting to Congress for budget reasons, the numbers are all that count,” the agent said. “It is hard to define in a meaningful way to Congress that arresting one person with a long criminal history of 15 felonies is better than arresting 15 people with one felony each.”
The way it works
The storefronts generally sell items such as hip-hop clothing and shoes, cigarettes and drug paraphernalia.
ATF agents offer their goods at steep discounts, hoping to generate traffic. Cigarettes might sell for $2 below retail. Hundred-dollar jeans might go for $10.
When it comes to pawnshops, agents might buy just about anything, paying top dollar, and welcome stolen items.
No matter the type of store, they wire the places with high-resolution cameras and build secret closets with recording equipment.
Growing scraggly beards and speaking street lingo, agents work to build trust among potential targets, spreading the word they are looking to buy guns and drugs. They print up fliers and pump neighbors for leads.
And then they make deals, dishing out cash for pistols and shotguns, heroin and ecstasy, sometimes repeatedly from the same “customers.”
After several months, sometimes a year, they shut down and bust those who came in and conducted illegal business. They tally up the weapons seized and tout the number of defendants — the more the better — displaying guns and drugs before local TV cameras and print journalists, showcasing their work.
With defendants caught on camera, the cases typically lead to guilty pleas and swift convictions. Seldom do the cases go to trial.
Instead,they quickly disappear from public attention.
“There is enough crime out there, why do you have to manufacture it?” said Jeff Griffith, a lawyer for a defendant in Wichita. “You are really creating crime, which then you are prosecuting. You wonder where the moral high ground is in this.”
To be sure, the operations have led to hundreds of convictions and long prison sentences for offenders, some with violent records.
In Albuquerque, for example, a man who was twice indicted on first-degree murder charges, once for killing a man in prison, was later busted in a storefront sting for being a felon in possession of weapon.
But in many cases examined by the Journal Sentinel, the people charged in the stings had minor criminal histories or nonviolent convictions such as burglary or drug possession.
In several of those cases, defendants still got stiff sentences, but others resulted in little or no punishment. In Wichita, nearly a third of the roughly 50 federal cases charged led to no prison time. Defendants got probation or had their case dismissed, records showed. One was acquitted by a jury.
Not the results federal agents typically trumpet.
Former prosecutors and other experts say the success of storefront stings should be measured by the capture of high-level targets, not street-level criminals looking to make a quick buck.
“For street crime in the federal system, we want cases to take us beyond the immediate person into a more significant, dangerous group,” said defense attorney Rodney Cubbie, former head of the organized crime unit of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Milwaukee. “It seems like these cases stop with the particular individual. That is a waste of federal resources.”
Cubbie called the stings ineffective and lazy law enforcement. He and others said it’s unsurprising that stings failed to take down criminal organizations or nab many major offenders. Federal stings work best when they are tailored to a specific person or group, they said.
“To open a storefront and just have an ad hoc potluck kind of a hope that maybe you’ll find somebody who might commit crimes in your presence, that makes no sense to me,” said defense attorney Franklyn Gimbel, a former assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted Milwaukee mob boss Frank Balistrieri. “They got a bunch of table scraps, that’s what they got, when it comes down to it.”
Agents ensnare ‘slow-headed’ man
Tony Bruner was looking for a job when he noticed a new store opening a few blocks from where he lived with his grandmother in a lower-income neighborhood in Wichita just east of Interstate 135.
With an IQ in the mid-50s — considered extremely intellectually deficient — Bruner hadn’t been able to hold down a job. His 2009 felony burglary conviction didn’t help. Still he was under pressure from his probation agent and grandmother to find work.
Bruner hadn’t heard of Bandit Trading, but the thrift shop full of hip-hop clothes and shoes looked like a good prospect when he walked in.
The 20-year-old Bruner was just what undercover agents running the store were looking for.
Agents could see Bruner was intellectually disabled. On a video of one of their first meetings in November 2010, agents referred to him as “slow-headed,” according to Griffith, Bruner’s attorney.
“It was essential to have someone like Tony or your low-IQ guy in Milwaukee for this operation,” Griffith said. “These 30-something bearded and tattooed white guys aren’t going to knock on doors in the hood and say ‘Do you have guns?’ They had to get someone to do it for them.”
Agent Jason Fuller hired Bruner to hand out cards in the neighborhood; do odd jobs, such as clean up the parking lot; and watch out for police. The agents paid him in cigarettes, clothing from the store and cash — $20 to $50 in commission to find them electronics and other goods. And they took him to McDonald’s when he was hungry.
Eventually they asked him to find guns.
Bruner said he didn’t have any but he would try to find some. He ended up brokering dozens of gun sales.
And then, they arrested him on more than 100 counts of being a felon in possession of a weapon.
“I thought I was doing, I was just doing my job. I didn’t think I was doing anything wrong,” Bruner told the judge. “And they tricked me into believing I was doing a good job. And they’d tell me I was doing a good job, pat me on the back, telling me, ‘You’re doing a good job.’ We’d hug each other and stuff like that, and they treated me like they cared about me. I told ’em I had a felony, I’m trying to stay out of trouble.”
While other defendants suspected the store was a front — one was captured on video saying, “You are straight-up police!” — Bruner kept telling the people in the neighborhood that the agents were his guys, “his bosses.”
Glenda Thomas, Bruner’s grandmother, said the ATF officers duped him. She warned him to stay away — just like a grandmother in Milwaukee warned her brain-damaged grandson about Fearless Distributing.
“Those guys kept preying on him about everything — giving him a shirt, a pair of pants, shoes, and a pair of shorts —that’s how they paid him,” Thomas told the Journal Sentinel.
“I told him, I said, ‘Tony, those people are not real. Why would they pay you to look out for a police car?’ I said, ‘Tony, you need to stop messing around with them.’ He said, ‘Oh, Grandma, those are my friends.'”
The judge found Bruner legally competent to proceed in his case.
Bruner told the judge he worried he would be killed in prison because the government made it look like he was working with the agents, and most of the defendants believed it.
He was sentenced to three years in prison. The judge told him he was getting a big break because he could have gotten 10 to 12 years.
Advocates for the developmentally disabled called the ATF’s tactics disturbing.
People with mental disabilities “have a responsibility to be law-abiding citizens like anyone else,” said Leigh Ann Davis, a program manager for the Arc, a national advocacy organization for people with developmental and intellectual disabilities. “The question that comes into play is ‘How much do they know they were committing a crime, and were they used?'”
People working in the justice system — from street cops to federal judges — need to give additional consideration to circumstances involving people with disabilities, Davis said. “This is a population of people that are easy to get to do things. They are easy prey…. They can’t make good judgment calls. That’s a serious issue if an ATF agent comes up and wants to be your friend.”
Anything for a Buck snags ‘Little Squirrel’ in Pensacola
Jeremy Norris wasn’t a felon. He wasn’t prohibited from owning or selling weapons when he put his guns up for sale in March 2010 in a local weekly newspaper.
The unemployed 24-year-old Norris — who lived with his parents and girlfriend — got into trouble when he answered a phone call from someone inquiring about the guns.
He didn’t know the caller was working for an undercover federal sting. Norris has an IQ of 76, defined by experts as diminished mental capacity, bordering mental retardation.
In hours of ATFsurveillance video, Norris can be seen stumbling around, at one point with his girlfriend leading him around by the back of his shirt, according to Norris’ attorney Jennifer Hart.
Norris didn’t have a car, so ATF agent Craig Saier — assigned to a fake pawnshop called Anything for a Buck — went to him. And he brought along the operation’s top asset, a felon named Gary Renaud.
Anyone who sold to Renaud — knowing he was felon — could be criminally charged.
That first day, Renaud bought guns from Norris — but because he never said he was a felon, Norris could not be charged with a crime.
The next time was different. Renaud told Norris he was a felon. Norris sold him a gun anyway. And Renaud and agents went back.
Again and again. Each time paying far more than retail for the guns. So much that sometimes Norris, his parents and his girlfriend went to gun stores, bought firearms and sold them to Renaud at the storefront for a profit the same day, according to court documents.
The agents called Norris “Little Squirrel.” Surveillance video captured one of them saying, “I can use his desperation against him,” according to court documents.
“They were abusive to him,” Hart said in an interview. “These are federal agents. Jeremy was like shooting fish in a barrel for them. Jeremy Norris is mentally retarded and the agents in this case used that to take advantage of him.”
Renaud told the Journal Sentinel that nobody took advantage of Norris. Although he and agents joked that Norris was “half retarded,” he knew what he was doing, Renaud said.
“He was money-hungry,” he said, adding Norris was willing to do anything to get money for drugs. “He wanted them drugs and he wasn’t afraid to let anybody know it, either.”
Citing Norris’ low IQ, the judge sentenced him to probation.
Norris was not the only mentally diminished defendant involved in the Anything for a Buck operation.
John Molchan, a state prosecutor in Florida, said his office reviewed and prosecuted several of the storefront cases. He said they decided not to pursue cases against a number of low-mental-functioning defendants.
They didn’t even arrest those people, Molchan said, noting prosecutors have great discretion when deciding whether to charge in such cases.
“I tell all the assistants, ‘Do the right thing.’ What is the right thing when dealing with someone who is not as gifted as everybody else?” Molchan said. “There is a great deal of responsibility placed on us to deal with that kind of problem.”
Attorney says defendant got ‘tutorial’ on gun
Guillermo Medel was a heroin addict and drug dealer hoping to make some cash to support his habit when a friend brought him to Jokerz Traderz pawnshop in a strip mall in a working-class neighborhood on San Mateo Blvd. in Albuquerque.
The 28-year-old Medel, who had been convicted of felony drug possession and conspiracy to commit aggravated assault, carried a revolver for protection but had never dealt in guns, according to court records.
When undercover ATF agents running the store offered him $400 for his gun, he saw an opportunity. He didn’t sell it then — he said he needed it — but over time he developed a relationship with the agents, bringing them guns he would get from trading drugs on the street.
When they asked for a machine gun, Medel thought he had one for them.
One problem: he didn’t know what a machine gun was.
Medel had brain damage. Hit by a drunken driver when he was 7, Medel had spent months in the hospital and never fully recovered.
Agents took advantage of that and his drug addiction when they offered such high prices for guns, Medel’s attorney, Brian Pori, said in court.
Pori told the Journal Sentinel he is “certain that the agents were aware that Guillermo was a drug-addicted, brain-damaged street hustler who never trafficked guns in his life.”
“He wouldn’t know how to use a machine gun to save his ass,” Pori said.
Pori said agents gave Medel a “tutorial” in the back room of the pawnshop to help him distinguish a machine gun from a semiautomatic weapon.
ATF agent Brandon Garcia acknowledged in court Medel didn’t know how to identify a machine gun. Garcia said he “field tested” the machine gun in front of Medel to determine whether it was a machine gun but wasn’t teaching Medel how to use it.
“And even though he saw me do it he still doesn’t know how to do it,” Garcia said in a March 2, 2011, hearing.
Garcia denied knowing Medel was brain damaged.
Ultimately Medel brought them a fully automatic machine gun, the only one seized in the sting. Medel was sentenced to eight years in federal prison.
In another case stemming from the Albuquerque sting, federal charges were dismissed against a defendant with “an extensive psychiatric history.”
Beating a path to storefronts with stolen goods
Aside from ensnaring mentally disabled people in their stings, ATF storefronts in several cities stimulated a market for stolen goods, boosting the appeal of theft and burglary.
In Phoenix, James Arthur Lewis was charged with selling 11 weapons to agents at an undercover storefront. Lewis “obtained most of the firearms during residential burglaries he committed in late 2010,” according to a May 16, 2012, U.S. Department of Justice news release.
In Pensacola, Roderick Jones committed seven burglaries in six weeks, stealing generators, air compressors, leaf blowers, oxygen tanks and pressure washers from workers’ trucks, reaping more than $2,000 from Anything for a Buck.
Warren Phillips did the same thing, breaking into cars and homes, snagging GPS devices, satellite radios and even a U.S. Navy-owned computer, racing immediately to the undercover pawnshop to make quick cash, as much as $500 at a time, according to police reports.
On several occasions, Phillips told the agents the goods were stolen. And one time he sold them back a DVD player that he had actually stolen from them.
Maurice Rembert, too, knew about Anything for a Buck and on a June afternoon in 2011 grabbed a bike outside of a Walgreens and rode it straight to the store for $25.
One of the larger thefts linked to the operation was that of engagement and wedding rings, worth $15,000, that were stolen four months after the store opened.
“It requires no great thinking to know if you accept stolen goods in a pawnshop … people are going to sell you stolen goods,” said Harris, the professor from Pittsburgh. “You’re asking people who frequent that place to rob and burglarize their neighbors.”
It’s unclear how many of the stolen items were returned to their rightful owners. The Escambia County Sheriff’s Office put thousands of items on display at an open house after the bust and invited the public to come in to claim their belongings. Laptops, GPS devices, tools and jewelry filled the room.
According to local news accounts at the time, just 23 items — not including guns — were returned to 10 people. The sheriff’s office refused to answer Journal Sentinel questions.
An undercover operation in Atlanta, a smoke shop called ATL Blaze, experienced similar problems. Some defendants came to the store as many as 20 times after stealing weapons and other goods.
Some guns were stolen from police squad cars. ATF agents said in court documents they tried to deter such thefts by paying less for police guns.
The burglaries associated with ATL Blaze caused other problems for local law enforcement. Sheriff’s deputies and local police — unaware the weapons had already been recovered by federal agents — scrambled around to solve the burglaries, spending untold resources interviewing witnesses.
At times, they never solved the case. And the weapons never made it back to the owners.
A Hi-Point pistol stolen from a car just after Christmas in 2010, for example, was still listed as stolen by the Fulton County Police Department when the Journal Sentinel contacted the department last month. ATF agents bought the gun at their secret storefront a week after it was taken.
“If the ATF recovered this weapon, it should be in our system.” said Lt. G.T. Johnson, of the department. “We have not received any notification that it was recovered.”
The lack of communication not only affects the clearance rate for the police department but also is a problem for whoever has the gun now, Johnson said.
Molchan, the state prosecutor in Pensacola, said there were worries at the outset that the sting might encourage more burglaries, but agents in charge concluded the risk was worth it.
“That is one of the concerns that you have going into something like this,” he said. “That is certainly worrisome.”
And it’s not just residents that got hit by the thieves. Anything for a Buck itself was ripped off, just like the agency’s Fearless storefront in Milwaukee. The Pensacola sting was burglarized at least twice, records show.
“I remember hearing that and kind of laughing about it, ‘We got burglarized,'” Molchan said.
Despite those problems, Molchan said he thinks the operation was successful.
“We did accomplish getting the bad guys off the street and incarcerated them,” he said. “Certainly no operation is perfect, but overall we view it as a major success.”
Armed felons allowed to leave stores
In Milwaukee, agents let a felon with a violent history leave their undercover store armed with a gun, saying he needed it for retaliation.
It wasn’t the only time federal agents let armed felons leave their sight.
In Albuquerque, agents said they didn’t know one man was a felon when they let him leave with a revolver. It took them two weeks to figure it out.
In Wichita, agents running Bandit Trading let felons leave the store with guns at least three times.
In the case of Keandre Johnson, prosecutors noted in a news release after the bust that he sold 16 guns to agents. The news release didn’t mention that agents turned away one of his guns because it was not sawed-off.
Johnson and his friend Jeremy Love brought a shotgun into Bandit Trading in mid-2011, but the agents weren’t happy with it, according to attorneys for the men.
The agents told Johnson they wanted a “shorty” — meaning a sawed-off shotgun. Having such a gun — more deadly at close range and easier to conceal — is illegal and can mean additional prison time. Johnson left with the gun to go saw it off, but then called the agents to ask what kind of saw to use, said Steve Gradert, attorney for Johnson. The agent told him how to do it, Gradert said.
In another case, Johnny E. Griffith brought in two AK-47s to sell. But agents only had enough money to buy one, according to court documents. Griffith, a felon, was allowed to leave with the other. Agents never recovered it.
ATF officials acknowledged to Congress in April that Operation Fearless in Milwaukee had no counter-surveillance set up to monitor or take down targets when they left the store — even armed felons threatening to shoot someone. They called the failure the result of poor judgment and planning.
“It’s basic police work,” said Peter Henning, a law professor at Wayne State University and a former federal prosecutor. “The agency needs to develop experts and come up with some protocol.”
Landlord left with the bill
Beyond letting armed felons loose on the streets, ATF stings examined by the Journal Sentinel shared another similarity. They left unhappy landlords in their wake.
As agents did in Milwaukee, their Portland counterparts damaged a building and stuck the landlord with the bill.
Jan Gilbertson, who owns the building where agents set up Squid’s Smoke Shop, said she had no idea she was leasing to federal agents. She found out from news reports after they had made the bust and cleared out.
And when she saw what they had done to her building, it all made sense.
The agents cut holes in the walls for cameras, damaged the carpet and left behind junk.
Worst of all, they tore out a large spotlight and in the process punctured a new $30,000 roof that then leaked and had to be repaired.
The security deposit didn’t cover it and the agents were nowhere to be found, she said.
“They know what they’re doing when they do it and not telling you anything and then they disappear. It’s not like they come back and fix it,” she said. “It is the U.S. government. It’s real difficult to figure that all out. What do you do? … It ended up being a real bad situation for us.”
Portland sting across from school
The ATF opened Squid’s Smoke Shop in 2010 in an aging strip mall near a tax service, hairdresser and a coffee shop — and across the street from H.B. Lee Middle School.
ATF agents said the location near a school — which allowed enhanced penalties for selling in a safe zone — was an accident.
Agent Ben Ziesemer told defense attorney Kathleen Dunn he didn’t realize it was across the street from the school. When they toured the property, he said he entered the building through a different door and didn’t see the school.
Ziesemer, who ran the store and went by the name “Squid,” also said it was the only place in that part of town that they could find that offered month-to-month rent, Dunn said. But Gilbertson, the owner, told the Journal Sentinel the ATF signed a one-year lease.
Those charged with dealing drugs and weapons near a school can’t use ignorance of their location as a defense, experts said. If agents didn’t realize they were near the school, it is a damning indictment of the planning of the operation.
“That won’t hold water,” said Little, the former prosecutor who is now a professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law. “It shows they are not doing their homework. If you’re not doing your homework to find everything you can, you’re as bad as the criminals.”
Squid’s was one of at leasta half-dozen storefronts opened in safe zones, the Journal Sentinel investigation found.
Laws that increase penalties for selling guns or drugs within 1,000 feet of a school include an exception for law enforcement officers who are acting in their “official capacity.”
Multnomah County Deputy District Attorney David Hannon, who prosecuted 17 people on state charges, most with selling drugs within 1,000 feet of a school, said the operation was a benefit to Portland and that area of the city. He called the sting an effective tool against illegal activity and said there were advantagesto having it close to a school.
“We might not have been aware of all the activity next to a school without the undercover operation in place,” he said.
James Shanks, 54, who has lived in the area for nearly five years and had two sons attending Lee Middle School at the time, was not happy to learn the ATF set up a gun- and drug-buying operation nearby.
“I think it is OK to do it, but did they have to put it there? Couldn’t they find somewhere else?” he said. “It’s too close to the school. When you have kids around guns, anything can happen.”
Agents suggest — and pay for — tattoo
With a school nearby and an Xbox video game console to play for free, Squid’s frequently drew a crowd that included juveniles.
At least three juveniles were arrested and charged in children’s court in the sting. Squid’s was among at least four ATF storefronts investigated by the Journal Sentinel where kids were ensnared in the operation.
“These are kids who don’t have positive adult connections in their lives and if someone takes an interest in them it’s going to be extremely influential,” said Mark McKechnie, executive director of Youth, Rights & Justice, which represented three juveniles in Portland. “I think we were all just disturbed that they (ATF agents) seemed to be focusing on low-hanging fruit.”
Glover and Key, both 19 at the time, were regulars at Squid’s. Glover lived right around the corner and spent hours at a time playing video games with Squid and people he thought were store workers.
One day the idea of getting a tattoo came up, Glover told the Journal Sentinel.
Glover said he was reluctant, but that he was persuaded by the guys at Squid’s, who he thought were his friends.
“It was like, ‘Now you guys are honorary members of the club,'” Glover said. “We was young at the time … I was so naive.”
After they got the tattoos, he said agents took pictures and posted them on the phony storefront’s Facebook page and website.
“They humiliated us,” he said. “They were making a mockery of us.”
Glover was ultimately charged with trading an ounce of marijuana for clothing at the store. The charge included selling drugs within 1,000 feet of a school.
Little, who spent eight years as a federal prosecutor in California and a year as associate deputy attorney general in Washington, D.C., said he had never heard of such out-of-bounds behavior by federal agents.
“That’s about as far over the line as you can imagine,” Little said. “The government shouldn’t be encouraging people to permanently disfigure their bodies.”
Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Karin Immergut, who handled Glover’s case, chided the agents as well, asking the state prosecutor to “send a message back (to the ATF)” about the tattoos.
“It’s really a bad idea,” she said. “They should not be recommending that.”
In federal court, a prosecutor who handled several of the ATF cases, including Key’s, tried to explain to a judge why the agents employed the tactic.
The agents said they thought Key and Glover were testing them to see if they were law enforcement, Assistant U.S. Attorney Scott Kerin said in a January 2012 sentencing hearing.
Key and Glover supposedly did this by suggesting they all smoke marijuana.
Kerin said the agents then proposed Key and Glover get tattoos as a way to get them off their trail.
The explanation didn’t make sense to U.S. District Judge Michael Mosman, a former federal prosecutor.
“I guess I don’t make the connection,” Mosman said. “They’re concerned that if, among other things, they don’t smoke marijuana with this guy that they’ll be given up as law enforcement, so they think a way to derail that is to suggest that he get a tattoo?”
Kerin tried again to explain.
“Mr. Key and Mr. Glover were trying to identify them as law enforcement or possibly testing to determine if they were law enforcement.”
The judge cut in: “I think I understand that part. I just don’t understand why you put someone off your trail by suggesting they get a tattoo. How does that help?”
Kerin didn’t answer directly. He said agents were looking for people to promote the store. They paid one person to hold up a sign on the street. Others to get tattoos.
They told their customers: “Hey, we’re looking for people to advertise, we’re looking for people to get tattoos,” Kerin said.
“That simply is not a legitimate law enforcement tactic,” said Key’s attorney, Alison Clark. “This wasn’t simply just a suggestion: ‘Hey, you would look really great if you had a tattoo.’ This was suggested and paid for by the government.”
The severity of Key’s mental disability was not listed in the documents, but the prosecutor left no doubt he was intellectually challenged.
“The one thing we do agree on is the Court can and should take the defendant’s low-intellectual functioning into account in determining a proper sentence in this case,” Kerin wrote in a sentencing memo.
Mosman sentenced Key to 18 months in prison for selling a sawed-off shotgun and arranging for prostitutes to come to a party being thrown by the undercover agents.
He then asked Key if he wanted the squid tattoo removed.
“Yes,” Key told the judge.
Mosman ordered the tattoo be removed after Key was released from prison.
“And I require the ATF to pay for the removal,” he said.
HOW WE REPORTED THIS STORY
In the wake of a flawed storefront sting in Milwaukee, reporters from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel sought to examine similar operations around the country. The ATF refused to provide a list of past stings. Reporters discovered the stings, in part, through tips, court records, news coverage and news releases issued by the ATF, the U.S. Department of Justice and local law enforcement. Reporters limited their examination to stings that were publicized since 2010.
Using the online federal court records system, Pacer, the reporters pieced together the cases and then combed through thousands of pages of documents — indictments and criminal complaints, plea agreements and sentencing transcripts. Where transcripts were not available online, the Journal Sentinel ordered them. In some districts, nearly all documents related to stings were either sealed by judges or unavailable.
The reporters also reviewed hundreds of pages of state court records, police reports and other records in several states. In addition, the reporters interviewed dozens of defense attorneys, prosecutors, defendants and their families, people who lived and worked near the stings, legal experts and insiders at the ATF and other law enforcement agencies.
What could go wrong?
■ Agents pay for tattoos to promote store
■ Mentally disabled used, then charged
■ Stings near schools and churches
■ Felons hired to boost arrest numbers
■ High gun prices spur thefts
■ Buildings damaged, landlords unpaid
■ Felons leave storefronts with guns
INFORMATION NOT RELEASED
The ATF has refused to release its internal investigation into the failures of its flawed Fearless Distributing sting in Milwaukee. The report has been sought by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and members of Congress since its completion earlier this year.
The internal review was launched after a Journal Sentinel investigation revealed numerous foul-ups in the operation. For nine months, the ATF also has refused to provide any documents to the Journal Sentinel, which has filed a dozen requests under the federal Freedom of Information Act, including the cost of the operations and rules on agents keeping guns in their vehicles.
In late November, Department of Justice attorney Anne D. Work affirmed the ATF’s position that its entire internal report on the closed Milwaukee operation should be kept secret and not released to the public. Work wrote that releasing the investigation “could reasonably be expected to interfere with (law) enforcement proceedings.”
Read more from Journal Sentinel: http://www.jsonline.com/watchdog/watchdogreports/atf-uses-rogue-tactics-in-storefront-stings-across-the-nation-b99146765z1-234916641.html#ixzz2n20DtK3d
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