I’m now more than fifty blogs into this experience and I’ve not written a single story about my first, most identifiable, big-boy career. How is it possible that I could so easily avoid writing at least one anecdotal story from these umbilical years of my professional life?
I just haven’t been all that inclined to do it…yet. It’s as if I’ve sort of moved on into a different life-path and disregard those tense and tumultuous years. That said, despite moving on and living in the moment, the man I’ve become was in large part shaped by a lot of those early experiences. Particularly the way I process stress or how I view egoism. When I look back at the level of responsibility I took on at such a tender age, its no wonder people view me as aloof and stoic.
When the first decision you make everyday is to decide what clothing will allow you to conceal a large caliber handgun; or to consciously put yourself in harm’s way knowing full well the risks are very high, you either learn how to cope with your fears and anxieties or you find another profession. Similarly, when you work alongside others, some with an inflated sense of self and a bullet-proof mentality, and you’re witness to these friends falling into self-destructive cracks as a result of a painful realization of their own limitations, you gain certain perspectives on personality.
I’m one of those people who can barely tell you the time of day without a detailed conversation on the Prague Orloj Astronomical Clock to follow. So, if I decide to share a personal experience from my former undercover drug agent days, how could I possibly do that in 500 words or less? I can’t; so, buckle up for a long ride or put this thing down and come back when you’ve got a strong pot of coffee and some serious time.
The police investigation for which I’m about to describe for you would have taken place around the year 1994. I would have been a recently divorced dad to a 5 years old son. A year earlier, I had accepted a position as the project director for the 17th Judicial District Drug & Violent Crimes Task Force (JDDVCTF).
Here is a little background for those of you who are interested in the details. The state of Tennessee is broken up into 95 counties and 31 Judicial Districts. The 17th Judicial District consists of Bedford, Lincoln, Marshall, and Moore counties.
Drug & Violent Crimes Task Forces are specialized multi-jurisdictional police units tasked with investigating illicit drugs and violent crimes. They are organized at the state level and overseen by the District Attorney General who has jurisdiction in every county within the boundaries of each judicial district.
This particular job assignment, for me, would be the impetus for how I ended up living in the rural Tennessee town I now call home. More importantly, how I later got lucky and met/married my second wife, the great love of my life to which I often refer in these blogs; Emily.
I was actually very young for a position with so much responsibility; I would turn thirty years old in this position later in the same year. I’ve been told I was a 40 year old man the day I exited my mother’s womb although I’ve never been able to use it on any resumes.
There may be some tiny bit of truth to the description of me, but I can very easily admit now, I was nowhere near mature enough for the job. Oh well, too late to go back now. Aside from the enormity of inherent responsibility, the task force I took over had recently been completely reorganized and all its agents were inexperienced. My whole team was made up of men with almost no drug enforcement experience whatsoever – all but one older than me.
I’d been working the five previous years as an assistant project director for the 23rd JDDVCTF (5 west-middle TN counties) and an undercover narcotics agent. Prior to working dope, however, I’d worked for 3 years as a police patrolman and 2 years as a deputy sheriff. My marriage to my first wife, Tammy, took me west to live in Houston County although I worked in adjoining Humphreys County as a deputy sheriff. By the time this opportunity came around, Tammy and I had already divorced.
Having first begun my rookie police career in the city of Murfreesboro, a comparatively large city, my wife wanted us to move westward to be close to her family. It was all a great big adventure to me, having grown up in Nashville, to be so far from home and in such a predominantly rural environment.
Governor Ned Ray McWherter, a huge figure in Tennessee politics of that era, imagined the first Tennessee Judicial District Drug Task Forces in about 1987. I was immediately interested to pursue any opportunity I might have to be a part of it although I was all of 23 years old. I was not the first agent hired but was delighted to be their second pick.
The 23rd Judicial District was made up of five counties: Dickson, Cheatham, Houston, Humphreys, and Stewart Counties. If you were to look at a Tennessee map and notice the lone little section on the northern boundary that juts up into the state of Kentucky between the Tennessee River and the Cumberland River…well, that is what we rednecks call “The Land Between the Lakes” and that area is part of Stewart County.
The rather large District travels south from Stewart County, hugging the east bank of the Tennessee River through Houston, then Humphreys County till it arrives at an area just south of Interstate 40, then travels east toward Nashville in an almost perfect “L” shape, first through Dickson then onto Cheatham County’s. Finally, Cheatham County borders the west side of Metropolitan Nashville – Davidson County.
The 17th Judicial District; the place where I landed, lies in southern Middle Tennessee. It consists of Bedford, Marshall, Lincoln, and Moore Counties. If you’re still lost, Lincoln County boarders the state of Alabama near Hunstville and Moore County is the home of the famous Jack Daniel Tennessee Whisky distillery. So, my move took me literally from the top of the state to the bottom of the state.
The previous Director of the 17th, (Steve M.) the guy I’d just replaced, had gotten involved in some interesting but serious criminal behavior himself, resulting in an FBI/TBI investigation where he ultimately winds up changing his home address to a jail cell. The Task Force itself had, as a result, been dismantled and completely shut down for about a year. None of the experienced agents were left on the job – their lives insanely complicated by an intense investigation of their leader which left several good men as suspects and potential co-conspirators.
What was the specific criminal activity you ask? I thought you might want to know. Well, it seems the notorious bachelor director ended up in the arms of a Memphis prostitute who absolutely stole his heart – and every bit of his common sense.
Her skill sets, no doubt obtained through an intensely professional means, helped her to convince this Mensa member police official to steal a kilo of cocaine from the task force evidence room, replace it with an equal weight of a similarly textured white powder, then allow his new Boo to flex her entrepreneurial muscle on the streets of Memphis.
Unfortunately, the love match made in dysfunctional heaven fell flat when Steve’s new Boo got herself busted for selling cocaine. In case you haven’t already thought about this, the arresting agency was actually very interested to know from whom the object of our director’s misguided desire was getting all that 100% pure cocaine. Pure cocaine is not something commonly found in street level cocaine buys.
Apparently, a sudden bout of amnesia meant the only drug dealers’ name she could think to give the police at that very instance was the name of her more than generous new true love – Drug Task Force Director Steve. The next chapter of that love story read just like how’d you would expect it to read; a twisted fate of quid-pro-quo. She goes free; he goes down.
I should say, none of the other agents were found to have been involved in the love-distracted director’s illegal activity. Nonetheless, the District Attorney General decided it would be too uncomfortable to bring any of them back into the unit.
I was the young, naïve, out-of-town lab rat who was asked to put humpty dumpy back together again with nothing but duct tape and a flimsy rubber mallet. Way too ignorant to know I was incapable of taking on such an enormous task, I jumped at the opportunity to prove my young self.
One of the five operational drug agents I’d just inherited was in the process of signing up a new confidential informant (CI) who’d last been working for a sister Task Force just west of our 4-county southern middle Tennessee jurisdiction. The CI had just wrapped up a big investigation for them and wanted to keep working in the realm of undercover (UC) work. To stay safe, he needed to immediately leave the town he’d just been working for fertile ground elsewhere. For the sake of simplicity and privacy, I’ll just continue to use first names and call him Kenny.
I knew the Director over there, Mike, where Kenny had just been working. He was a crusty ole former Green Beret, Vietnam era, who most famously told me once, while sippin on a high-ball glass of Jack Daniel: “If my damn coon dog could piss Tennessee whiskey, I’d suck his dick till we both passed out!”
Cop humor is bad…narc humor is really bad.
Moving on from Mike’s personal life, he had called me and asked if we could take Kenny on as a personal favor to him. Mike wanted Kenny to be stable, working, and nearby, if possible, in the event he may be needed for court testimony from time to time.
Kenny was a young guy who’d been brought up without his parents. His grandmother gave him a place to live in her subsidized public housing apartment. Although it wouldn’t be fair nor Christian-like to judge someone I’d never met, I saw no evidence in Kenny that anyone had ever really mentored him. As we southerners are fond of saying, “he’s a natural born durn’d fool.” Said slightly differently, if Kenny can’t con you out of it, he’ll just steal it from you.
Kenny is a white guy who was brought up and socialized in a predominantly black environment. But he could be totally comfortable among both white and black people. Kenny is most definitely a type A personality, is very out-going; a walking-talking social enigma.
I’d love for you to humor me for just one moment. In your minds, picture the famous rapper Eminem. Not only are his looks, swagger, and urban voice very similar, Kenny also had his neck tattooed with a common nickname for the famous entertainer, “Slim Shady”. To this very day, I cannot see Eminem on television or hear one of his songs on the radio without being reminded of Kenny.
His real gift as an informant lies in his ability to wedge himself comfortably in almost any environment, so long as the environment happens to be filled with thugs, thieves, reprobates, and drug dealers. Sounds perfect for the job right? Only in government does any of this make sense.
Kenny immediately hit the ground running, and in no time he and his control agent were turning in dozens of cases involving small quantities of crack cocaine. Unfortunately, it also didn’t take very long before I suspected Kenny was taking advantage of his agent/handlers’ inexperience.
The agent I assigned to manage Kenny was a mature cop in his 40’s, with 10+ years on the job as a police patrolman. But he was a rookie drug agent and had almost no experience in handling CI’s or working undercover. Alternatively, Kenny was an experienced hustler who had no more regard for hustling a cop as he would any other scrote on the street.
There are hard and fast rules associated with the development and management of CI’s. First and most importantly, you’ve got to define their psychological motivations for becoming an informant in the first place. Is it power; revenge-jealousy; repentance; altruism; mercenary-greed; egotistical; wannabe cop; fear of imprisonment; or perversely motivated such as an attempt to gain intelligence on the police? There are many reasons people choose to help the police. Not all are good.
You have to figure them out! If the thing that motivates them is not a good fit for you or the particular assignment, you let them go…quickly! Informants can and often do make or break police careers.
If you’re unable to understand the motives behind the people you’re risking your lives alongside, you’re bound to get blindsided. Generally, the greedy mercenary type can be the most productive informant because greed is a simple trait. These guys just wanna make money. Therefore, they’re generally easy to predict and usually very effective.
Egotistical informants, however, often want a more aggressive role in an investigation in order to justify as much praise and/or money as possible. They will often prolong an investigation unnecessarily to justify more money or praise – satisfying a strong desire to exercise control over a demographic that pretty much invented control. These guys need to feel as if they’re the mastermind behind all your success. Informants in this category will demand payment for services rendered, but in reality, the praise he expects to receive from an authority figure is the primary motivating factor for their participation.
The ego of the informant is many times in direct competition with the ego of the handling investigator. This is especially so for inexperienced agents. Kenny was/is an egotistically motivated CI. Therefore, you could never give him enough praise or credit for any successful case outcome. He was always seeking my attention and always on the prowl for an opportunity to seek approval from persons in even higher positions.
The thing that initially aroused my suspicions were that Kenny was repeatedly buying and turning in counterfeit crack cocaine. This is a guy who knows the difference. If the inexperienced agent was working an inexperienced CI, I wouldn’t have been so suspicious.
Mysteriously and also true, was that every case where he’d turn in counterfeit crack were also cases where the audio recordings were either inaudible or non-existent. I examined the faux drugs from all of cases from dozens of different defendants and ironically all of the fake crack looked like it was made by the same person with the same bar of soap and the same toothpick.
It became obvious Kenny was taking advantage of the inexperienced narc and getting paid for his elaborately prepared chunks of soap. Not just once; he got paid fifty bucks for each undercover buy and he kept the money used for each drug buy, because there were no real defendants – he paid himself.
Clearly his ego was way out of control – he was getting off on manipulating his control agent. In order to teach the rookie narc a few tricks and also stop the nonsense, I met with the agent and the CI together to explain how the Agent would begin working undercover alongside the CI on all future buys.
I also took some soap and cut it into little irregular chunks and pieces then took a toothpick to create little faux air-bubble holes and indentions on the surface and spread a handful of the rocks on the table for our conversation. I demonstrated to Kenny that I too knew how to make fake crack and in true drill sergeant fashion, helped him to understand how his act was now over.
I explained, in not so nice terms, that he would work for free until he paid us back for all the fake crack cases. I also explained that filing a false police report is a crime and he’d be charged himself if he failed to pay us back or were to be caught doing it again.
In lots of city police departments, it is commonplace to let general detectives “handle” or “work” CI’s without ever working undercover in the field themselves. In fact, it’s very rare that a police detective ever buys drugs directly from a drug dealer.
Instead, police detectives usually “wire-up” a CI with an audio transmitter and separate micro-cassette recorder and send them into an undercover environment in order to make what is called “controlled” buys”. The actual police officers are typically outside in cars listening to their CI’s via electronic surveillance, recording the audio to be used as evidence in court.
But, in task force groups such as I then worked, it was feasible to actually do the undercover work ourselves, making more solid cases and not being hamstrung by a CI who may not object to setting up a few rival drug dealers but has no interest whatsoever in targeting the people they know best or especially reliable sources of drugs. Each CI has a limit as to how far they will actually go.
When the cops can themselves go undercover, they can take each case to wherever it leads them. “Controlled buys” with CI’s are exactly the opposite. There’s so much opportunity for the CI to manipulate the deal, the cases made can often be unreliable at best. But going undercover is dangerous, and not everyone is cut out for doing that sort of work.
My agent was a bit uncomfortable with the new arrangement at first, he’d never been asked to work undercover before. But he did eventually warm up to it. I also cut off Kenny from buying anything for a short period while he busied himself introducing his undercover handler among his friends and associates. My goal was for people on the street to assume the narc was a small-time drug dealer himself and that Kenny was buying some of his own drugs from him (the narc).
Drug dealers are instantly suspicious of a new person in their circle, especially if that new person is trying to buy drugs. They’re less curious with a new person who doesn’t really want anything. So, I sent my agent undercover to just go around with the CI and hang out; to get to know the players and the lay of the land. We, of course, gave him a cover story that would make future drug buys more plausible.
Within a couple months or so, Kenny had introduced the undercover agent all around the area and the pair had already started making occasional small drug buys here and there. But the cases were insanely crappy. The CI was holding back, not opening doors for the agent to meet the more substantial dealers.
When the CI had initially interviewed with us, he’d expressed in writing his relationships with bigger dealers. Yet he wasn’t taking our UC agent around or in those circles. I suspected our CI was manipulating the circumstances for his own advantage yet again; milking our resources and trying to string us along for more money than we’d set aside for this investigation. This was beginning to be more than I’d bargained for.
Kenny wanted the credit for himself, not wanting to share in the glory with his UC handler. Sadly, I came to the realization that my UC agent was too inexperienced to understand just how dangerous it is to be led around by a CI who knows more about you than you know about him.
I pulled the UC agent from the case for his own safety. Of course, the agent was pissed at me, but what choice did I have? He argued, “That’s my CI, these are my cases!” I, in a serious but gentle way, informed the agent that all CI’s are resources for the Task Force, they don’t belong to anyone.
I brought Kenny into my office for another interview. I let him know I was aware of his expertise but also of his ability to manipulate – I conveyed this to him in a way that appealed to his ego. I told him I was pulling my agent from working him and I was taking over all investigations associated with him. “You are not to call or interact with any of my agents. From here forward, you’re only to work directly with me.”
I was like, “Kenny, you’ve already wasted months of our time and we’ve paid you more money than any of your cases are worth. If you’re going to make another dime from this task force, it’s gonna be for a real case; a real drug dealer, not some pitiful drug addicted asshole on the street who just wants to get high. You’re far more capable than you are letting on and I’m not interested in wasting your talent and my time on bullshit cases. Call me when you’ve got a real case. Until then, I don’t wanna see you.”
Kenny seemed amused by the whole thing, but I did get his attention. He teased me with an idea for a potential case in Alabama. He’d met some guys in Muscle Shoals who appeared to be well-connected drug dealers. He gave me what little information he had on them, so I could do some background inquiries on them. But he wanted to be paid for his information.
I wasn’t stupid, I instantly sensed that he had been holding back, shopping the deal to other task forces to see who’d pay him most. I was sure he’d been cultivating the potential deal to Alabama law enforcement, but I had no idea he’d also been shopping a sister Tennessee task force. This fact I would learn much later.
“Look dude, I don’t pay for words, I pay for prosecutable drug cases.” The experienced CI responded quickly, “Ok, so, what I get paid if I can buy a key?” Kenny was referring to a kilo of cocaine. He couldn’t help himself but to tease me with the idea of making a big case.
I never flinched. “I can pay you $100 bucks on every recorded call or conversation as long as I’m the one who sets up the recording…leading up to the actual buy and $2000 bucks for the controlled-buy itself, with me actually buying the dope. Not you.”
“What about seized stuff, money, cars…? Can I get paid on dat?” It’s customary on bigger drug cases that the agency will seize personal property used in the commission of a felony or any property believed to have been obtained with assets gained from illegal activity. Sometimes, the seized property can be very valuable. The agency is required to prove their seizure cases separately in an administrative civil hearing separate from the criminal charges.
“Ok, I’ll pay you 10 percent of the value of all seizure proceeds after the court awards them and immediately after they are sold at public auction. That’s the best I can do.” Kenny suddenly changed his body language and responded, “What if I can sell them the key? What I get paid for that?” I didn’t miss a beat, “If you can put together a reverse, I’ll give you ten-percent of the cash seized upon the court awarding it to us. You will not be selling it, I will. You will just be helping me put the case together. But if a key sells for 30k, you’ll get 3k. Same deal on seized property.”
In police work, a reverse-sting operation is a case where the undercover cop will sell drugs instead of buy drugs. It’s not a very common police procedure because of the inherent problems with navigating the entrapment defense laws. An entrapment defense is a very fine line to navigate legally and if the casework isn’t cultivated and followed through precisely right, your whole case could be thrown out of court, and you’ll end up looking shady yourself.
Essentially, the police can commit entrapment when they use investigative techniques which could entice any reasonable person to commit a crime when ordinarily the same person wouldn’t. Sexual enticement is a great example of one common technique used to lure such a person to do something outside of their ordinary behavior. Selling drugs too cheap, creating the potential for extraordinary profit, could also be considered a method of entrapment.
All that said, I had just taken over a drug task force where my predecessor had been jailed for selling drugs. There was no way I was going to sell drugs undercover, legal or not, unless I controlled every aspect of the deal and sought approval from the District Attorney General himself. Having a narcissist for a CI isn’t ideal in any situation but I felt I could exploit his ego for a successful outcome, simply because the stakes were higher, and the rewards were bigger. More than that, my CI was more interested in showing off than earning the money.
Kenny told me he was driving to Alabama to meet with the targets and wanted me to front him some travel money. I refused to authorize him any cash, known in the investigative world as confidential funds, and reiterated my deal to the ambitious informant. I told Kenny to just go out and cultivate the relationships, when he was ready to record some calls or a meeting, to let me know and I’d drive down to set it up then pay him for any work that contributed toward making the case. He wasn’t happy but he listened.
I didn’t hear from Kenny for about two months. When he finally paged me, he included a “911” after his number. At the time, it was common among most people using digital pager devices to use numerical codes such as this behind their phone number in order to convey a sense of urgency or some other hidden message. I knew from experience, when a CI calls with an urgent message, you better call them back quick or risk losing a big deal.
When I called Kenny back, he sounded very excited. The CI explained how his targets had allowed him to move into their house. The CI wanted to arrange a drug deal immediately. What he really wanted was some cash. But based upon his good fortune to wind up living with them, I realized there was an enormous vulnerability to the criminal organization that could definitely be exploited. Not only could we hit the organization hard, we could cripple them.
Kenny was certain he could arrange the sale of a kilo of cocaine to these guys. But my instincts told me the potential was much higher. My biggest vulnerability was trusting an untrustworthy CI. The development of this complicated drug deal was something I needed to personally orchestrate. I let Kenny know that we were gonna play, but we were gonna play hard to get.
Kenny was instructed to continue to do his best to keep the targets feeling confident, that a deal would eventually happen. Kenny was to convince the targets that he needed to work harder on his source (me) in order to convince him (me) to trust them, new unknowns. The strategy would buy us some time to build a record of recorded conversations and evidence which could survive and overcome any entrapment defense.
Although he was more interested in seeing some sort of deal come through quickly, Kenny understood exactly what I was doing, and I could tell he was totally into doing this my way.
I had been thinking about an investigative strategy wherein I could openly say very harsh or even offensive things directly to the bad guys. This in order to better convince them that I was legitimate. I needed to be raw, and offensive, but I didn’t want it to be personal. To accomplish everything I wanted, they would need to believe I was oblivious to them hearing me say those things. That way, I could be free to say exactly what was on my mind.
I couldn’t trust Kenny to say what needed to be said. He was in another state. I couldn’t record him from a state away. So, I created this method which was enormously successful.
From that day forward, Kenny and I would communicate in two ways. One type where he or I would page the other with our respective phone numbers, as normal. When we connected by phone, we’d have a private call with an intended purpose to strategize the case.
The way we accomplished this was when either of us would page the other with our phone number along with a numerical code of #99 following, which meant Kenny was to encourage the target of the investigation to secretly listen in on the two of us talking from another phone extension.
First, it allowed the target to feel as if he was given a window into the psyche of the drug dealer (me) that he normally wouldn’t have access to. He had secret access to my confidential conversations and that gave him perceived power over me.
Second, it allowed me to make demands of Kenny or the suspect without me having to speak directly to the suspect. It left Kenny to be the bearer of bad news and it also gave him an opportunity to take up for them, which they loved to hear.
Third, we would build trust and realism with the target as well as to pass along instructions that were not negotiable. Kenny could use it to build their trust because he could regularly come to their defense with me, constantly going to bat for them with a guy (me) who really doesn’t trust nor want to do business with them.
I built additional trust because I could be the son of a bitch that talked trash about them all the time and clearly didn’t trust them. It would put them in the very complicated role of making me happy.
I wanted to be able to say outrageous inflammatory things, suggest my suspicions of the suspect, threaten to call off the deal, or whatever I felt would be a great strategy for specific moments in the investigation. I could buy more time, or whatever I needed. I explained to Kenny that his responses would always have the same effect; he’d say or do whatever he needed to say in order to keep me interested in doing a deal with his friends.
For me to be able to safely control this deal, at the level I suspected it could be cultivated, it would require that I be able to keep the bad guys off balance. It also required that the bad guys understood they needed me and that I neither needed nor wanted them. Otherwise, I had no leverage to get them to agree make the sort of unorthodox allowances I would need in order to get the deal authorized by my District Attorney General.
Why? Remember when I told you about my predecessor having been arrested for criminal behavior? Well, you can imagine the level of distrust senior law enforcement officials held for members of the drug task force at that time. The General was cautious, as were the Sheriffs and police chiefs who oversaw law enforcement across the multiple counties making up the multi-county Judicial District I served.
The reverse sting which was being cultivated was an out-of-the-box investigative technique that the General was uncomfortable with me doing. It would require that I borrow and take possession of a large quantity of cocaine from another law enforcement entity, then negotiate and sell that cocaine to individuals in exchange for a large quantity of cash.
There was a rational fear that the cocaine ends up lost and, on the street, with the General having approved the deal. Reverse stings are not only a difficult technique to navigate legally, but they’re also dangerous situations of our own creation which are ripe for robbery, rip-off, and violence. Just months before this, a nearby agency was ripped off and the UC officer shot during a reverse turned robbery. The UC became too focused on the success of the deal and ignored all the warning signs.
One thing that can be the kiss of death for any undercover operative is to get emotionally invested in the success of any deal. You have to be willing to walk away from it. Unfortunately, ego plays an enormous part in this type of work on both sides of the coin. You pit your intellect against that of the target and you really want to win.
Once your identity becomes confused with your profession, especially a profession in which you live and present yourself in an alternative reality, you’re in deep shit. Principally because any professional failure feels like a personal failure. You become emotionally blind, unable to see the signs of danger which may be obvious to others, because you can’t allow distractions to get in the way of your own professional accomplishment.
Upon my request, the Metro Nashville Police Department Vice Squad agreed to loan me as many kilos of cocaine as I might need. The deal between them and my DAG was that they send the cocaine off to a crime lab for a qualitative and quantitative analysis prior to my receipt and again for the same analysis upon my returning it. That way, it could be proven that I didn’t tamper with their coke while in my possession.
So, you know all those movies where the bad guys shove a knife into the kilo, pull some out and inhale or taste the coke to see if its “good stuff”? Well, that sort of nonsense couldn’t possibly happen, because I couldn’t risk the quantitative analysis coming back short and having to explain why. It was clear I was going to have to pull yet another rabbit out of my hat.
The bad guys started upping their interest in order to get me interested to do business with them. Instead of one kilo, the were now wanting three kilos. I would tell Kenny, with them listening, that I wouldn’t waste my time fucking with a bunch of amateurs and he shouldn’t either. I kept telling him that he should get the hell out of there, that they were either cops or amateurs. You get the gist of it. Kenny would constantly defend them to me, saying they weren’t amateurs, they were just cautious. Of course, I would say something like, “Fuck Kenny, I’m cautious and their cautious, so lets just forget we met and move on. I don’t want anything to do with them motherfuckers.”
About 6 weeks into the relationship, Kenny requested he and his new friends come up to Nashville from Alabama in order to meet with me, so I could judge them for myself. Knowing they were listening in to our conversation, I reluctantly agreed but told him that we would not talk about business, I just wanted to look them over and get a feel for them.
They picked a day, so I had some work to do. I called in some favors with a couple more task force units to get about 20 undercover agents to help me put on a little side show. I also called in a favor from a childhood friend turned Nashville businessman/entrepreneur who happened to own, among other things, the fanciest strip joint in Nashville.
On the day of the first UC meeting, I met Kenny and them in their rooms at the Renaissance Hotel, I purposefully didn’t engage in a lot of chatter. My goal was to be aloof, observant, and keep them off balance.
Aside from the CI, I met with three individuals, all black males. One was an older guy, maybe fifty years old, who appeared to just be there to feel me out. I think his name was Jay. Bertrum, my main target, was about thirty years old, excited to be a part of something important for his little Muscle Shoals Cartel. He did most of the talking. Lastly, there was a gang-banger named Reynard who came with them as security. He was the most skeptical of the three and never spoke a word.
I learned a great deal about human nature during those highly formative years. But one thing that always gave me a bit of an advantage is that I can be naturally aloof and somewhat unapproachable. Not that I try to be or even see myself that way. In fact, the inner workings of my mind tell me that I’m anything but those things. I’ve just learned from others, including my wife, that people generally find me hard to know, at least until I open up to them.
In this undercover role, it was important that I just be myself. You never want to veer too far from your normal persona anyway, especially when dealing with street-smart individuals who can smell a rat in two seconds flat. The more you try to be something you’re not, the more easily the bad guys will sense something artificial about you. They may not know for sure you’re phony, but their back-hair will let them know something’s not right which is a dangerous thing for you.
You never want to consummate illegal activity with dangerous individuals when there are still questions about your legitimacy. If they sense a deception, it could be a recipe for a dangerous outcome. And you won’t know until its too late. Sometimes, your poorly executed pretense doesn’t necessarily translate as cop. It may actually look more like robbery in their minds. In which case, they may try to turn the tables and plan to rob you instead.
That said, it’s much easier to just do you. Aside from it being easy to do, it feels genuine to them.
In advance preparation, I had assembled four separate tables at a favorite BBQ restaurant in downtown Nashville with four undercover narcs at each table. My goal was very simple. When I would walk through the restaurant with my entourage to be seated, the men at each random table would stand up and greet me, calling me by my name and acting as if I were an important figure. I would greet them back, hug and shake hands with all four, then move on toward my table. Because it happened four separate times, it gave the appearance that I was a very well-known person in a very large city.
Me and my group had a great dinner, with light conversation, focused more on good food and good company, never talking about drugs at all. My next stop was planned as well. I asked them if they wanted to go see some girls. Of course, it was a given that we’d end up at a strip club.
When we arrived, we were once again escorted through the club, passing tables where seemingly everyone in the club knew me. Again, I had set it up with 4 tables of totally different guys to greet me as I walked through. The last table were a mix of white and black guys, all agents in different units except one, Robert, who was my assistant director. I had asked Robert to dress up in a suit and tie for a specific purpose.
As I walked through the club, I would simply hug or shake hands with the men addressing me. When I got to Robert, however, I actually took the additional step of introducing him to Bertrum as my banker. I suggested they may want or need his financial services from time to time but provided no other details – leaving the rest to their active imaginations.
We all had a great time at the club then I took them back to their hotel. Since I had Kenny living with them, I had the opportunity to keep filling their heads full of ideas, and also get feedback on what was working.
Once they got back to Muscle Shoals, Bertrum and his duo had a meeting with higher up members of their cartel. Kenny was invited to go with them. Kenny called me excited to tell me what happened after the meeting. It seems that one of the senior members was still very skeptical, not having participated in any of the phone calls or the meeting in Nashville. Reynard, the gang banger, spoke up boldly and said, “No ya’ll, this white muthafucka for real”!
When the same senior individual continued to question the legitimacy of the deal, Reynard became increasingly violent toward that member, standing up to address him physically over his lack of respect for his judgement. Kenny was blown away at just how far Reynard was willing to go to have his voice heard. Honestly, so was I. It meant all the effort had told a story I couldn’t have told on my own.
At the end of the day, they all decided to trust Bertrum and Reynard and agreed to do the deal. They decided to invest nearly $200,000 toward a first introduction purchase. This after Kenny told them I wouldn’t consider selling them less than 6 kilos on a first deal. Once Kenny called to inform me that they were willing to buy 6 kilos on their first buy, I agreed we would go ahead and do the deal, believing I had pushed it as far as I could.
Secretly, I told Kenny that I would go ahead and map out the deal, but I would need to have some conversations with him, Bertrum listening, where I could lay down some important ground rules. Kenny was interested to know the ground rules, so I told him. “They can’t test the coke, Kenny. They can’t cut into it, and they can’t test it. I’m allowed to borrow 6 kilos of cocaine but they’re not going to let me do anything to tamper with or alter them in any way.”
Kenny was blown away, he told me how ridiculous the plan was and that it would never happen. I told him to just let me talk to him about it with Bertrum listening and I would take care of it. I asked Kenny to be the one to initiate the call to me, then at some point ask me how I felt about them testing it.
Later, when Kenny called me, he informed me that they would be interested in 6 kilos and asked me what the price would be. I priced each kilo of cocaine at $30,000 each for a total of $180,000. Kenny said on que, “ok man, they boss is nervous, he wanna test it, dat ok right?”. I acted as if I was furious about it. “What? Is this fucking Romper Room Kenny? Who are these muthafuckers anyway, they don’t know what real cocaine looks like? These guys gotta be cops Kenny. This ain’t no fucking TV show…Miami Vice bullshit! I’m out! Don’t call me about this shit no more Kenny!”
Kenny acted panicked! “What – no? Come on man, don’t be like that. I just thought they might, I ain’t never done nothin like this man. I’ll just ask Bertrum, he probably cool, I mean, he do dis crazy shit all the time, not me. Don’t hang up, I’ll talk to him real quick.”
Kenny looked at Bertrum and Bertrum nodded his head in the affirmative, in essence, agreeing to buy the coke without cutting into the key’s.
Kenny came back on the phone, “He’s cool, he’s cool! It was my dumb ass, not them. I just didn’t know.”
Relief in my voice, I followed with, “Damn Kenny, you done made me paranoid as shit! Took three years off my life! So, let me think on when I can get you taken care of, ok? I’ll call you back tomorrow to let you know what to do.”
Kenny agreed and we hung up. Now I had to come up with a plan to deliver 6 kilos of cocaine to some bad guys in a controlled setting without getting killed, robbed, or ran out of town. The process began with conversations with the Assistant District Attorney assigned to my task force – Eddie.
Eddie was this larger-than-life figure, reminiscent of John Wayne with slicked-back black hair. He was about 6’ 5” and an easy 250 pounds, with cowboy boots and a swagger about him that exudes the type of confidence you only get from winning…winning at every thing you do. Well, all except one thing.
Eddie had been an ADA in Nashville during the 70’s and 80’s, having made a failed attempt at running for the high office of District Attorney General himself. The enormously contentious election loss meant he’d need to find another Judicial District in middle Tennessee in which to hang his ten-gallon hat.
There were a great many things I grew to respect about Eddie during the times I served under his leadership. In fact, the unique salutation I still use in all my personal written correspondence to this day was something I “borrowed” from Eddie and something Eddie “borrowed” from no other than JFK.
It wasn’t lost on me that Eddie was quite nervous about his new Director selling 6 kilos of cocaine. His boss, Mike, the General, was far more nervous than Eddie. The first thing I was told, unambiguously, was that I could do it but I would be doing the deal in Marshall County – not negotiable.
Eddie was assigned to Marshall County and was very close to the Sheriff there at the time. Eddie surmised that if we were able to pull off such a large deal and subsequently confiscate large sums of cash, then it would be customary to share a percentage of those funds with the agencies that participate in the investigation. That meant, the Marshall Co. Sheriff’s Department might receive a large sum of cash in which to utilize for their own drug enforcement program.
Eddie smoothed things over with his boss and commenced to letting me know just how and with whom this deal would take place. I was asked to meet with the Sheriff in order to explain the details of the case with them and formally ask for their assistance.
In Lewisburg, at the Sheriff’s office, I sat in a room with the Sheriff, his chief deputy and two detectives as well as Eddie the ADA. Once I’d gone over the entire scenario with them, one of the detectives commenced to tell me how the deal could never go down in the way I’d described it – it was implausible to believe guys would drive that far, not knowing me, to buy such a large quantity of cocaine on a first deal. He believed it was a rip-off scenario. Despite his detective’s concerns, the Sheriff committed his men to assist, but none had any confidence that it would ever happen. So, when it was time to negotiate the rate of sharing, I offered them ten percent.
The Sheriff was happy to agree to that sum, as they had zero confidence in it happening at all. But all that negativity put extra pressure on me to see this deal through to fruition as well. There’s nothing like a general lack of confidence from your colleagues to help give you the energy needed to rise to any occasion.
Of course, none of these cops knew anything about me anyway. I was the new guy in town, having moved from another task force a 100 miles away. Aside from that, none of these guys had any full-time drug enforcement experience whatsoever. So, it made sense to me that none of them really understood much of what I was doing or why I was doing it this way.
These guys were living in a world where you would lure a bad guy into agreeing to sell you drugs then when they show up you’d just bust them. I was coming from a different place, was familiar with alternative techniques and law, knowing that I had an opportunity to disrupt a major drug supplier, and I was willing to invest the time and energy into cultivating something more than just a simple buy-bust.
Although I wasn’t particularly happy with the content of the meeting, I was happy that we’d reached a positive conclusion and that I was turned loose to come up with an executable plan for this Reverse Sting Operation. I went to work on the details immediately.
Keep in mind, this took place about 25 years ago, things were a bit different. The biggest difference was the widespread use of digital pagers and the proliferation of phone booths. The way people communicated with each other was momentously different than the way we know it today.
I’d sent out a team to scout out every phone booth in Marshall County and log down the actual phone number with its address on a spread sheet. Back then, if you didn’t know the number of a pay phone, you could punch in a simple code and the phone would repeat its own number back to you.
While my team was busy scouting out pay phones, I began visiting hotels in the area to analyze the safety logistics for pulling off something which could turn deadly in a moments notice. There was only one suitable location, a hotel near the Shoney’s restaurant which will go nameless at this time.
I rented the entire 2nd floor of the hotel so that I could better ensure the safety of their staff and any customers that may have a room near us. I placed a couple cameras and microphones in the room intended for the undercover deal, which transmitted their wireless signals to the adjoining room where they could be monitored by the security team and recorded.
I wanted Bertrum to sit in a designated chair, one that had great video coverage, so I positioned my luggage and other props around the bed in order to discourage him from sitting in a place my team couldn’t see great. The principal camera I used in the room was a Watec B&W camera with a 12mm pin hole lens mounted on the inside of a hair dryer.
I used it quite often in hotel room scenarios. I used it particularly because I could always place it on the vanity by the bathroom, a good distance from where the action normally happens. With its 12mm wide-angle pin hole lens, it provided a great overview of the entire room.
The covert camera was great, but it’s biggest vulnerability was that it could be easily moved and lose its intended view. So, I took a pair of clean underwear and some brown rouge, then dipped my finger into the rouge to make a prominent streak of brown in the area where a skid mark would typically occur, then laid the “faux soiled” underwear across the hair dryer camera, just to discourage anyone from wanting to touch or move the hair dryer.
The hotel room now completely setup, I called Kenny to give him the arrangements. I gave instructions to Kenny to have his friend drive to the Cornersville exit off of Interstate 65, find a payphone, then to call my pager from that payphone, leaving its number, and I’d call him back as quickly as possible. I had two surveillance cars in the area in order to initiate a visual surveillance on them, just as soon as we could identify their location.
Once Bertrum, and the older gentleman who turned out to be Bertram’s father, showed up and called my pager, I quickly identified their exact location from the spreadsheet. I radioed my team to let them know their location and asked them to watch them closely, to identify the exact number in the party, and to establish if there were other cars with them. After about 20 minutes of watching them, I called Bertrum back on the payphone and told him to meet me in Lewisburg at the McDonalds parking lot in its rear and gave him directions.
My surveillance team followed them from Cornersville to Lewisburg, looking for additional cars or anything of concern. Nothing was noticed. Once they showed up at McDonalds, I pulled in next to them and asked to see the money. He opened his trunk and opened two duffle bags of cash to let me inspect it. Once I felt good about the amount, I told them to follow me to my hotel room where I was keeping what he wanted.
On the trip around the city of Lewisburg, I had several additional surveillance vehicles watching and following along the designated route, familiar with the entire team. I intentionally ran through yellow traffic lights in order to ferret out potential additional bad guys, just in case. Nothing suspicious was noted. So by the time we’d made the long circuitous route around the city, back to the hotel right next to the same McDonalds we’d just met, I drove into the hotel and began walking toward my room. Bertrum grabbed his duffle bags and followed closely behind.
Once we entered the room. I turned to Bertrum and said, look bro, I show you, you show me, that way we both know what’s up. I pulled up my shirt to expose the Smith and Wesson 645 that was tucked into the waistband my jeans. Bertrum followed suit, pulling up his shirt and showing me the Lorcin .380 semi-automatic, tucked into the waistband of his jeans. I had him do a little pirouette so that my team could see on video that he was armed and so the arrest team would know exactly where his gun was carried.
It’s common for undercover officers to have unique take-down signals that we use when its time for the arrest team to come in and make the arrest. We generally have both visual and audible signals, so that if a piece of equipment fails (audio or video), one technology may still be working. In other words, if the camera fails, my mic is still catching the audio and visa-versa.
My own personal all-time take down word was “Birmingham”, because there were no other words that sounded like it. I would just come up with a response that used that word somewhere in the sentence while simultaneously giving my visual take-down signal which was the removal of my ball cap.
Once I felt like I had sufficiently gotten Bertrum to verbally discuss the terms of the deal and I had counted the money and he’d visually inspected the drugs on camera, I just sat on the couch removed my hat and uttered the phrase, “Damn Bertrum, them boy’s in Birmingham gonna be happy with you today? Oh, you’re in Muscle Shoals, I forgot…”
Almost immediately, the door burst open, as if by the force of an explosion, except the explosion was made by a lot of ass and muscle, not explosives. Burtrum was handcuffed and his handgun removed safely from his waist with no violence whatsoever. Most importantly, none of the kilo’s were damaged or manhandled during the filming of the movie. Also good things; no cocaine made it to the street, and, despite the initial lack of confidence from my Marshall County brethren, Bertrum and his cartel donated $180,000 to my tiny little task force.
Both the Sheriff and the District Attorney General were, of course, very excited to be on camera holding up all that cash money and talking about what was nearly exaggerated to be a tractor trailer load (13 + pounds) of cocaine. Oh well.
Of course, the very guy who predicted the bust would never happen, decided after the fact, that their department deserved twenty percent of the cash instead of the agreed ten percent. This, although they made no effort to make any contribution to the case other than to show up and assist in the arrest. They did, however, come through on a very nice group photograph after the fact.
Aside from what was going on in Tennessee, I’d spoken to the task force in Muscle Shoals prior to inform them of what we were doing, in order to have their team conduct surveillance on the men headed to our state with cash. That way, search warrants could be executed there, once I confirmed our bust had been successful.
My team and I drove to Alabama that same evening to assist them in their efforts. Several pounds of cocaine was seized there, and several hundred thousand dollars in cash was also found and seized. Mission accomplished!
Kenny earned himself quite a payday. That didn’t stop him from illegally charging all the phone calls made from his hotel room over the next couple months to my task force office number. I ended up charging him with theft after I noticed my phone bill had mysteriously doubled two months straight. The calls were all derived from a hotel room in LaVergne, a place a close friend of mine put Kenny in to start anew.
Kenny was convicted of theft and served 10 days in the Marshall Co. Jail, the same jail where Bertrum was housed. For a guy driven by his ego, I’d definitely given him some high times and some hard times. And despite him having a ten-day tight pucker, Kenny was never really in danger. I’d ensured his safety with the Sheriff. He did, however, learn his lesson with me. I make good on my promises.