Undercover work is fun, but it’s not as sexy as what you see on TV. For a while I was fortunate enough to be selected and worked with a very talented and dedicated group of people in the Marin County Major Crimes Task Force. Back in 1989 it was just that, a group of detectives from San Rafael PD, Novato PD, Sausalito PD the Sheriff’s Office and the CHP, whose job was to hunt down major drug offenders, work some murder cases, roll informants and provide surveillance for other agencies that needed people to fit in better. We worked hand in hand with the DEA, State Narcotics the local and US Attorney, not to mention the US Marshal’s and Customs Agents. Our leader and biggest supporter was then Lieutenant Walt Kosta from San Rafael PD.
The whole surveillance – stakeout thing is equivalent to hours of boredom, highlighted by minutes of anxiety. Following drug dealers to their massages, their lunch and dinners, not to mention a variety of encounters, waiting to see a deal or identify the “source” was tiring. Some of that anxiety was as simple as having to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night while you are watching a bad guy’s house. They don’t show you that stuff on TV. How do you step out of the car and not activate the interior light in your car – giving you up to the world? Well, you use what you have…in my case it was climbing out of the sunroof! That only happened once. I got wise and took out the light after about a month on the job.
For most of my life I have been in uniforms, so this was a departure and an adventure on a couple of levels. I was a nice Italian - Catholic boy with very traditional parents who decided how my hair was going to look – all of my kid life. They were pleased when I became a cop, because I think, in part; they knew I would not become one of those “American’s with long hair.” I’ll never forget the day, when I was a kid; I parted my hair down the middle. My dad responded, in Italian, “What are you a sheep?” “Only sheep comb their hair down the middle. What’s wrong with you?”
The Task Force was kind of a coming out party for me. I grew my hair long. Then I colored it. Yes, I grew a mullet, once. I did all kinds of things with my face. I grew a “biker” moustache, then a goatee. All of that was disturbing to my parents, which I sinisterly enjoyed. My dad’s antacid intake increased exponentially. The big day for me was when I decided to put blonde streaks in my hair AND, an earring. I was so intimidated by this little act of defiance, that I could not show my dad in private. So, I picked the next best place, church. I will never forget my father shrugging when he saw the streaks, and then shouting “Oh my God!” When he saw the earring. Needless to say, it attracted a little attention. But he got over it.
Undercover work can be intimidating and scary at times. The funny thing is that there is an armada of back-up to bail you out of trouble, normally, and you usually have a gun concealed and are wearing a wire, but for some reason, there is this fear factor built in to buying drugs. You are not supposed to do it, and in narcotic’s school you see video after video of cops getting shot in drug deals. I especially remembered the one where the undercover was accidently shot by his own partners. Nice.
One time I was buying crack cocaine in a southern Marin city I was in a bright red car and I totally stood out. I pulled up to this corner and there were at least 5 crack dealers across the street. They came over and I ordered up. Buying street drugs is kind of a trick, you don’t want to give the money before you get the product and they don’t want to give up the product until they get the money. So it’s kind of like a quick trade. You also don’t want to buy a $20.00 piece of Styrofoam or gravel instead of the real deal. The problem was on this day these guys didn’t want my money…they wanted to rob me and take my car.
I remember during the robbery there were all of these hands in my driver’s window holding me back against the seat as another set of hands turned off my car. The problem was that when they did that, the microphone in my car turned off so my back-up could not hear me. My gun was under my thigh and now I was not worried about the money or the car, I did not want them to get my gun and I was busy fighting these jerks off, so I did not have a hand to spare. While I was being restrained, the bad guys were also trying to open my door and the passenger door to get to me. I had a brief flash before my eyes of these guys taking my pants and I was going end up running away, down the street, in my boxers… that little image gave me some extra strength to fight harder.
I went for the hand that was on my ignition key and I twisted it as hard as I could. I was able to get the car started and drove away with one of them stuck in my window, for a few feet. I was proud that they only got half of my $20.00 bill as they tried to rip it from my hands. When my radio kicked on, I called out, my voice now about 5 octaves higher – that I had been robbed. Unfortunately for the criminals, the whole thing was on video tape, kind of a police candid camera event for them. They were all identified, caught and some went to prison. I on the other hand, went directly to a bar! Robbery is not my idea of an extreme sport. It was a once in a lifetime experience for me.
In the 1990’s there was a murder for hire case I was working on with my team. I had to watch the “money drop” for the murder at a gas station in Oakland. The crook was an older man. He and his paramour hired a group of amateurs to kill the woman’s husband. Well, they did, but it was not like a TV scripted hit. The murderers made lots of mistakes. As it turned out, the good guys at the Marin Sheriff’s Office figured out who the bad guy was. He rolled on this pals and set up the money transfer.
My team of heavily armed, long-haired partner’s and I set up on the surveillance spot. I was, pretending to work on my car at a gas station in a very bad part of Oakland. I had a nice Chevy Camero. I had the hood up, when along came a group of not so nice citizens. They made a couple of passes.
I had my gun in the engine compartment, just in case…I did not want to be disturbed because I needed to witness the money drop. The group confronted me with “Nice car – want to sell it?” I said no. They then said “How about we take it! (Expletives deleted.)”
I told them it didn’t work, but if they wanted it…to come and get it. The hood-up should have been a clue for these guys. (Of course my bravery was driven by my annoyance that these guys were bugging me during a real important moment and the not-so optional equipment lying in front of me on the air filter.) I was thinking this was not going to be good and I did not have a radio with me, it was inside the car. So, it was tense for a few minutes, and then the drop happened. I was able to do my job and leave as quickly as I got there. All of the bad guys and the woman were arrested for murder and conspiracy to commit murder. So it had a happy ending for us.
I really enjoyed my time in the Task Force. I felt like I was making a difference and it was during a time where we had some pretty big drug dealers in Marin, to include a member of the Cali-Cartel. Our time in the Unit also introduced us to the largest LSD manufacturing ring in the world, based out of a west Marin community with operators all over the globe, and it was the birth of asset forfeiture, where we took away illicit property from drug dealers. It was a great time to be a narcotics agent. .It was also a time where I became “one” with my hair. The ponytail is gone, but the memories live on.
You can’t make this stuff up.
More another time. Stay safe. Ralph.