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Monday, December 09, 2013
ATF uses rogue tactics in storefront stings across nation
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
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 forhis work — ATF officials told Congress the
failed Milwaukee operation was an isolated case of inadequate
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
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
■ 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
■ 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
■ 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