ROMEOVILLE, Ill. (USA TODAY)- The three men in the back seat were supposed to be ready for battle.
They were waiting for a phone call that would launch a daring and dangerous crime, sending them charging through the front door of a Mexican drug ring's stash house to steal 50 pounds or more of cocaine from three armed guards. Their plan was to disguise themselves as police officers, tie up the guards, and slip away with a half-million dollars worth of drugs. If tying them up didn't work, they'd kill them all.
Only the small army of federal agents watching them knew that it was all a lie.
There was no house. No drugs.
And the only things waiting for them when the call came were a team of camouflaged federal agents with rifles and stun grenades, and the promise of a long prison sentence for a plot to steal and re-sell non-existent cocaine.
The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the agency in charge of enforcing the nation's gun laws, has locked up more than 1,000 people by enticing them to rob drug stash houses that did not exist. The ploy has quietly become a key part of the ATF's crime-fighting arsenal, but also a controversial one: The stings are so aggressive and costly that some prosecutors have refused to allow them. They skirt the boundaries of entrapment, and in the past decade they have left at least seven suspects dead.
The ATF has more than quadrupled its use of such drug house operations since 2003, and officials say it intends to conduct even more as it seeks to lock up the "trigger pullers" who menace some of the most dangerous parts of inner-city America. Yet the vast scale of that effort has so far remained unknown outside the U.S. Justice Department.
To gauge its extent, USA TODAY reviewed thousands of pages of court records and agency files, plus hours of undercover recordings. Those records - many of which had never been made public - tell the story of how an ATF strategy meant to target armed and violent criminals has regularly used risky and expensive undercover stings to ensnare low-level crooks who jump at the bait of a criminal windfall.
In many cases, the records show the ATF accomplished precisely what it set out to do, arresting men outfitted with heavy weapons and body armor, and linked to repeated, and sometimes bloody, crimes. In the process, however, the agency also scooped up small-time drug dealers and even people with no criminal records at all, including Army Rangers. It has offered would-be robbers the chance to score millions of dollars of cocaine for a few hours of work. In at least one case, the ATF had to supply its supposed armed robbers with a gun.
The stings are the latest and perhaps clearest reflection of a broad shift by federal law enforcement away from solving crimes in favor of investigating people the government thinks are criminals. Such tactics are common in law enforcement's efforts to prevent terrorist attacks, but they are also becoming a staple of its fight against everyday street crime.
Critics, among them federal judges, say the ATF's operations are flawed. In an opinion last year, Judge Richard Posner of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago dismissed the drug-house stings as a "disreputable tactic" that creates "an increased risk of entrapment because of the potential for the extensive use of inducements and unrealistic temptations to encourage the suspects' criminal conduct."
The stings work like this: When agents identify someone they suspect is ripping off drug dealers, they send in an undercover operative posing as a disgruntled courier or security guard to pitch the idea of stealing a shipment from his bosses. The potential score is almost always more than 5 kilograms of cocaine - enough drugs to fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars on the street, or to trigger sentences of 10 years or more in prison.
When the target shows up ready to commit the robbery, he and anyone else he brings with him are arrested and charged with a raft of federal crimes, the most serious of which is conspiring to sell the non-existent cocaine.
The arrests don't come cheap. A single case can go on for months and require dozens of federal agents and local police officers.
Former ATF supervisor David Chipman, who left the agency last year, said the public deserves to know more about how the ATF is using its resources. "There are huge benefits, and there are huge downsides," he said. "Do you want police to solve crimes, or do you want them to go out and prevent crimes that haven't occurred yet? What are the things you're willing to do so that your kid doesn't get shot?"
A CRACK DEALER AND A BIG SCORE
William Alexander boasted that he was exactly the type of armed and dangerous criminal the ATF is after. He was an experienced drug robber, he told an undercover agent, and a chief of Chicago's notorious Four Corner Hustlers, who commanded 17 blocks on the city's west side and had men ready to kill at his command.
Alexander was 32 years old the afternoon in January 2011 when he first slid into the passenger seat of an undercover ATF agent's pickup in a 7-Eleven parking lot in Woodridge, Ill., one of the middle-class suburbs that sprawl out west of Chicago. Alexander, 5 feet tall, introduced himself as "Little." He was, by then, a career crack dealer and recent cosmetology school dropout, though he was also out of jail and off parole for the first time in his adult life.
And while his record was long, it hardly identified him as dangerous.
Most of the people the ATF arrested in drug-house stings last year - about 80% - already had criminal records that included at least two felony convictions before the agency targeted them. But 13% had never before been found guilty of a serious crime, and even some of those with long rap sheets had not been charged with anything that would mark them as violent.
ATF officials reject the idea that they should focus only on people with violent records. "Are we supposed to wait for him to commit a (obscenity) murder before we start to target him as a bad guy?" said Charlie Smith, the head of ATF's Special Operations Division, which is responsible for approving each sting. "Are we going to sit back and say, well, this guy doesn't have a bad record? OK, so you know, throw him back out there, let him kill somebody, then when he gets a bad record, then we're going to put him in jail?"
For all the times Alexander was arrested - court records list dozens - police never found him with a gun, and he was charged with a violent crime only once, after his girlfriend, Demonisha Winters, accused him of domestic battery. The charge was dropped a few weeks later, and Winters said in an interview that Alexander never hit her.
What he did do was sell crack, though seldom more than a gram or two at a time. When Alexander was 18, police in Kokomo, Ind., caught him trying to flush two baggies of crack down an apartment toilet. Four years after that, Chicago police arrested him with a half-gram. The next year, they caught him with 10 baggies of crack. Two years later, they caught him carrying a gram of crack and a half-gram of heroin, worth about $40, according to police reports and court files.
The ATF was about to offer him something much bigger.
The undercover agent, Andrew Karceski, introduced himself as Joe. He pulled his truck around the corner, cut the engine and flipped a switch to show Alexander a hidden compartment, called a "trap," commonly used for running drugs. "They promise you one thing, and they (obscenity), they make all the money, and I take all the (obscenity) risk," he said in an exchange captured on a blurry hidden-camera video.
"They haven't paid me in two months now, and that's (obscenity)," he said. "It's just got to a point where I got to feed my kids, too, you know what I'm saying?"
"You're (obscenity) right," Alexander replied.
Then the agent laid out the basics of his proposal: Once a month, he said, his bosses had him pick up a load of cocaine from a house in the suburbs. They used a different house every time, always with two or three men inside, always armed. But the payoff would be big: "I know there's going to be (obscenity) in there. I know that," he said, a reference to drugs. "How much I can't guarantee, but I know there's going to be big (obscenity) in there. I've never seen cash, but I don't know."
Alexander said it wouldn't be a problem. "I got guys I could just say, 'Go in there and shoot everybody.' I got guys that I'll say they're smart enough to know go in there and lay everybody down without hurting anybody. I know (obscenity) that will get it done," he said.
"We'll plan it right," he promised. "We've got enough time."
'I CALL THIS GOOD LAW ENFORCEMENT'
The ATF's drug-house stings began in Miami in the early 1990s. Drug cartels were moving huge quantities of cocaine through South Florida, creating rich targets for criminals brazen enough to try to poach the shipments. The robberies were turning into shootouts - or, worse, attacks on innocent people when the robbers got the wrong address - and ATF agents wanted a way to stop them. At first, agents actually set up fake drug houses, loaded with fake cocaine. When that led to car chases and shootings in residential neighborhoods, they adopted a fictional approach instead.
The stings proliferated over the past decade. Last year, the ATF said it arrested 208 people in drug-house operations, compared with 41 a decade earlier. Most of the operations took place in Miami, Chicago, Phoenix and a few other cities, though court records show the ATF has conducted them in at least 22 states.
At the same time, the ATF dispatched agents around the country to teach the technique to other local and federal police agencies, including the U.S. Border Patrol.
As drug-house operations became more common, the agency issued a confidential order laying down the ground rules for conducting them. Officials instructed agents to make sure Justice Department lawyers would be willing to prosecute "home invasion" cases, and told them to try other techniques first, including executing search warrants. Most of the rules covered the tactical details of safely arresting the suspects.
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