I wondered what my grandma would say if she knew I was wearing body armor and a gun under the hot pink sweater she gave me for my twenty-third birthday. She had always encouraged me to be what I wanted to be, but I don't think Grandma would be happy if she knew I had spent the past two years posing as a Mob-connected cocaine dealer. Grandma died four months before I joined the FBI.
As I strode up Jerome Avenue in the Bronx, a Number 4 train rumbled over my head. Though it was about 45 degrees outside, sweat rolled down my back. My mouth was so dry it felt like I'd been chewing sawdust, but I didn't stop at the bodega for a drink. I wanted to keep my hands free.
Two teenage boys loitering on the corner were staring at me. They should have been in school, but probably they were working as lookouts for a local drug dealer. Were they staring at me because my jeans were so tight? Because they were wondering if I was a potential customer? Because they were planning to rob me? Or had I been made?
I knew the longer I played my undercover role, the more likely it was that my cover would get blown. Working undercover makes even the most level-headed agents get paranoid, and today all my senses were on high alert. I knew that my black leather motorcycle jacket was bulky enough to conceal that I was wearing the Kevlar vest and my SIG Sauer 9mm pistol, but I still worried that someone would be able to tell.
It was the first time I'd worn body armor to a meet. It was the first time I'd worn my gun in a hip holster while working UC. But this was no routine meet. Usually I left my guns at home while I worked UC because most of the criminals I did business with would get suspicious if they saw I was carrying. They'd worry I was going to rip them off or that I was a cop if they saw I had a weapon. For suspects considered particularly dangerous, I brought a gun but carried it in a hidden holster, sacrificing ease of access for subterfuge. But today I needed to get to my gun fast.
At locations spread across the Bronx, White Plains, Yonkers, Queens, and Upper Manhattan, FBI Special Agents on 45 arrest teams were conducting a coordinated take-down. Somewhere on the side streets bordering Jerome Avenue, three of those arrest teams and a search team were waiting for my signal.
Two Years of Work
The busts would be the culmination of more than two years of work. Initially, the investigation had focused on public corruption, targeting corrupt employees at the DMV who sold fraudulent driver's licenses and vehicle registrations to drug dealers, terrorists, organized crime figures, and other scumbags who used aliases to enter and leave the U.S. and otherwise facilitate their criminal activity. But as evidence was gathered through undercover buys, surveillance, and other investigative methods, the case expanded to include additional corrupt government employees who sold passports, green cards, social security cards, and birth certificates.[PAGEBREAK]
Though none of the government employees were known to be armed and dangerous, some of the subjects at other locations carried weapons and had extensive criminal histories. They used their travel agencies, insurance agencies, and other businesses as fronts, laundering money and dealing in forged documents, drugs, guns, and counterfeit currency. Over the past two years, I had become quite close to some of these individuals. I knew that people like the brother and sister team I was about to do another transaction with would not hesitate to kill me if they thought that violence would keep them out of jail.
Closed for Business
Five minutes before the scheduled take-down time, I arrived at the location where I was supposed to do the final deal and discovered that the business was closed, the glass front sealed off by a rolled-down graffiti-covered metal door. "Closed," I muttered for the benefit of agents monitoring the transmitter I was wearing.
Despite my concern about getting made, I didn't think that the subjects had been tipped off about their impending arrest. Criminals are notoriously flaky. They'd probably partied hard the night before and were sleeping off a hangover.
Even during the daytime, that section of Jerome Avenue is not the type of neighborhood you want to hang out in. I glanced around me, wondering if any of the arrest or search team cars were watching, then I walked a couple doors down and paused in front of a pawn shop, pretending to admire a stereo and a pair of gaudy gold earrings in the window. Probably both were stolen. And I'd bet that most of the new merchandise sold in the pawn shop "fell off a truck."
After waiting a few more minutes, I glanced at my watch and headed up the block. It would look suspicious if I waited on the street too long, and I couldn't risk meeting agents surveilling the area. I stopped at a fast food joint up the street, used the bathroom and grabbed a drink, then headed back. All the time, I surreptitiously looked for agents and the subjects I was supposed to meet. No sign of anyone.
Twenty minutes later, the business was still shuttered. I felt edgy and cold, but I didn't want to call off the bust. I knew that if we didn't grab Tina, Joey, and their associates that morning, they would likely hear about the other subjects' arrests and flee the jurisdiction. And they were more likely to be armed and resist arrest if they were busted at their homes. Plus, doing one more deal right before the bust would be additional evidence against them that could be used at trial. I kept walking.
One Last Transaction
I circled the block again. The metal door was rolled up. The lights were on. I saw Tina at her desk. I felt my heart start pounding harder. Not from the brisk walk or the caffeine I'd been chugging all morning, but from the excitement that leads up to a
"Hey, Tina, how you doing?" I put the paperwork and photos for two passport applications on her desk. She didn't ask who the men in the photos were. She never did. She didn't care if they were drug dealers or terrorists or what their real names were. All she cared about was money.
"Good, real good." She shoved the paperwork in her top desk drawer and then looked back at me. "Where's Alex?"
"He had to take care of other business." I smiled. Tina didn't try to hide that she thought my undercover partner was sexy. She was like a dog in heat. Her husband was incarcerated in Greece. Her common-law husband in the U.S. also was behind bars for murder. If she knew that "Alex" was an FBI agent, she wouldn't be so eager to get in his pants. I smiled wider, knowing that my undercover partner was back at the command post, preparing to interrogate subjects after their arrests.[PAGEBREAK]
Tina's brother Joey came out of the back room and dumped a file on a clerk's desk. He always strutted around like he was a big man, but I knew his sister was the one in the family who ran the business. He was the type of man who was only good for bashing heads.
For once, I didn't have to fake that I was happy when he put his hand on my shoulder and tried to flirt with me. I was genuinely pleased that everyone we wanted to arrest at that location was on the premises.
I looked back at Tina. "The passports will be ready Monday?"
"No problem," she said.
"Catch you later." I smiled at Tina, nodded at Joey, and headed toward the door. I'd barely made it to the street when I heard sirens in the distance. Then saw flashing lights. The transmitter had worked.
Pretending to be just another bystander, I joined a group of gawkers on the corner and watched the cars skid to a stop. A procession of raid jacket-wearing FBI agents charged through the door. A couple of NYPD patrol cars arrived to assist with crowd control. No shots were fired. A few minutes later, Tina and Joey were led out, their hands cuffed behind their backs, and loaded into the back of separate Bureau cars.
I strolled up the street. An agent by the door waved me in. The members of the arrest and search teams who hadn't met me before had been shown my picture to eliminate the risk I'd be mistaken for a subject. Now that the bust had been made, I'd assist the search team in identifying evidence.
I opened Tina's desk drawer and pulled out the passport photos and applications. The middle drawer contained a stack of checks. Two were made out to Tina's aliases. Welfare checks. One had been sent to an address in New Jersey, the other to an address in New York. The woman's annual income likely was several times higher than mine, and she had the nerve to scam the U.S. government for aid. Disgusted, I yanked open the bottom desk drawer and found an open box of colored condoms. One for each color of the rainbow.
In the back room, I found more surprises. A framed poster of Beavis and Butt-Head was hanging on the wall over a filing cabinet. The only other furniture in the room was a single chair that faced a battered wood table. At one end of the table, there was a dirty bird cage with a cockatiel inside it, pecking at a bowl of seed.
The part of the table furthest from the door had been turned into a make-shift altar. Burning red and white candles of various sizes and shapes flanked a statue of the Virgin Mary. Her expression was serene as she bowed her head in prayer, quite a contrast to the snarl I'd seen on Tina's face when she was led out of her business in handcuffs. Imagining Tina and Joey riding in the back of the Bureau cars, cursing their fate, I laughed. Today, God was on the side of the FBI.
Alicia Hilton is a former law school professor and a former FBI Special Agent whose articles have been published in law journals and law enforcement magazines. She is taking time off from teaching to write a collection of essays and a novel.