The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Squid Tattoos

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel brings us the further adventures of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, fresh of their triumphant delivery of thousands of guns to Mexican drug lords in Operation Fast and Furious:

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.

This wasn’t the first time the ATF took advantage of mentally disabled people, and it wasn’t just in Milwaukee.  A previous busted sting operation reported by the Journal-Sentinel also featured the exploitation of a man with an IQ in the 50s to promote a phony business called “Fearless Distributing,” which muscled out a church to rent space for a phony store, ripped off Sylvester Stallone’s “The Expendables” for its logo, lost track of at least one weapon in the “Fast and Furious” style, got robbed, made improper arrests, and caused $15,000 in damage to the rented building.  The agents operating Fearless Distributing jeopardized their cover by telling the local UPS guy that they didn’t expect to send or receive any deliveries, which he thought was a bit odd for a “distributing” operation.

But wait, there’s more!

??? 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.

Every sting operation carries the inherent risk of luring people into perpetrating criminal activity they might otherwise have avoided, but the ATF seems to have taken this to an absurd degree.  A great many low-level non-violent minor offenders have been lured into significant escalation of their activities by these storefront ops.  The cases uncovered by the Journal-Sentinel include a troubling pattern of making criminal activity worse by subsidizing, taking advantage of vulnerable people, and arrogantly destroying private property.  I can understand, in general terms, how law enforcement might find itself facing a crisis that requires trashing someone’s $30,000 roof, but not sticking the property owner with the bill.

These storefront sting operations do not appear to have a great track record for making major, valid arrests, although the Journal-Sentinel report concedes that some of the details have not been released to the public.  Secrecy and the pressure to produce a high volume of arrests seem to have combined with politics, poor management, and perhaps a shortage of the institutional experience that benefits older law-enforcement agencies.  If there’s one thing Washington agencies excel at these days, it’s creating problems and presenting themselves as the only solution.

Here’s the saga of another master criminal swept off the streets by an ATF storefront sting in Pensacola, Florida:

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.

One agent made a comment to the Journal-Sentinel that sums up the problem, and might explain some of the thinking behind the “Fast and Furious” debacle as well: “Unfortunately, when it comes to reporting to Congress for budget reasons, the numbers are all that count.  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.”  I can’t shake the nagging suspicion that somebody wants to be able to tout a big, scary number of firearms arrests during his next gun-control push.

The other key quote in the article comes from Wichita defense lawyer Jeff Griffith: “There is enough crime out there, why do you have to manufacture it?  You are really creating crime, which then you are prosecuting. You wonder where the moral high ground is in this.”  I’m pretty sure it lies well above the level at which federal agents talk mentally challenged people into getting squid tattoos.