Back in 1989 I was a new cop. I tested and got the best job in the world, undercover guy in the Marin County Major Crimes Task Force. It still remains one of my fondest memories and the pals I made in the unit have become life-long friends and really are like family. I worked with I think the best Marin County had to offer back then. An eclectic group of professional’s who thought outside of the box, politely teased and poked each other, but when it was time to get to work, or pick on the Fire Investigators that shared our office for a couple of months…we did the heavy lifting on serious cases and did a great job of messing with the hosers and chasing them out of our office. Regarding the best job in the world thing…OK, food taster for Food and Wine magazine and Bed – Room comfort researcher for the Four Season’s Hotels might be a better job.
We were a “Major” unit because we were not limited to just narcotics. It was our focus, but back then, there was a nice variety of criminals for us to pick on. The beginning of our unit was pretty cool. We were each hand selected for our strengths and personalities. Then Lt. Walt Kosta and then Sgt. Scott Sibbald were the team leaders. I will never forget the interview. I was totally nervous. I gave the panel all of the standard cop answers about why I wanted to be in the unit.
I think I wore a J.C. Penny Blue suit and a horrid wide tie to this little soiree. Oh, the humanity! Let me take this minute to apologize to the late Gianni Versace and Mr. Armani and Zegna. I’m certain my punishment will be purgatory consigned to a WalMart brand suit, or worse, shoes.
At the end of the questioning the stoned faced leadership thawed a little. Sgt. Sibbald looked at me and reminded me that while all of my answers were correct and very professional, that being in the unit would be “a blast” too. He was not kidding.
After I was selected I packed my bags and left behind SRPD for the Task Force. There was a certain lieutenant who was not supportive of my move and did not feel I was a good candidate, so, I had something to prove. And, prove it, I did. Neener neener neener, ya big meanie. – Oh and thanks for your office!
It was a cool experience. I remember saying goodbye to my pals and did not look back for a number of years. That was a little problematic, when one day my black and white buddies forgot what I looked like.
You see I was setting up a drug deal in a parking lot when my beautiful paramour Beretta 92F Pistol, apparently made a surprise performance. The very hip Hawaiian shirt, pulled up and over my gun which was in the small of my back. So there I am at a really nice grocery store in a really nice part of town looking like one of characters from Miami Vice on the payphone and my pistol is making friends with all of the housewives. I told you, God likes to play hide and seek with me.
Oblivious to my armed rear-end’s “how ya doin’” act, I sat in my car waiting for a delivery of cocaine. Suddenly I see a number of black and white patrol cars circling me like I was a seal and they were sharks. I am getting a little frustrated because Mr. Drug Dealer only likes to deal one on one, not with a bunch of cops as spectators. Suddenly a group of police cars pull in behind me and I hear that nauseating sound a universally recognized sound that can only be a police issued Remington Model 870 shotgun. It is a beautiful sound when you are on the trigger side and you hear the gentle steel hands of your long-legged long gun escorting the plastic canister of death to receiver of the gun. That little canister containing those 9, 32 caliber hemisphere’s suitable for non-voluntary insertion into the unwilling recipient. This time, ME!
My frustrated fog of boredom is then illuminated by the following unfriendly demand: “YOU IN THE CAR PUT YOUR HANDS UP!” My brain had the following conversation with the rest of my body…Holy @&$! My eyes dilated, the eyelids of my “ravioli eyes” opened way past their intended aperture, nostrils-open wide and take over breathing duty as Mr. Mouth prepares for babbling and, or vomiting. Hands slllllooooowwwly move from the steering wheel to the roof of the car. Lower gastrointestinal tract, secure the aft hatch!
I look in the rear view mirror and I thought I was facing the firing squad. There were 4 cop cars and all of them were pointing guns at little old me. My arms were spring activated and immediately attached themselves to the roof of the car.
Now a couple of things were going through my mind. 1: If I get shot I am really going to be upset. 2: If I get shot, I am going to a hospital, where I dig this nurse and they are going to cut off my pants and she will see my beer-mug patterned boxer shorts. 3: #2 won’t matter, because in a second it will look like I spilled a beer on my boxers. And Finally, I knew if they pulled the trigger none of this would matter because I would be an ornament on a cold stainless steel table and some ghoul doctor would be taking pictures of me naked as they part my waterproof full body leather container and expose my insides.
It is never a good idea to negotiate with the cops when they are ordering you to do things. Especially with guns. So, I am trying to comply, but I also don’t want them to feel silly when they discover it’s me. I shout out of the window, “Jimmy – it’s me Ralph!” After I am told to be quiet and comply, I start to wonder if I owed any of these guys time off from a shift trade or something…I finally get someone’s attention and my pals put away the arsenal and dust me off. I thank them, and they drive off, probably to coffee. Of course my deal never happened and I drove out of the area quickly, completely embarrassed. I wanted to take up smoking. One gun pointed at you is bad. Four with a couple of shotguns mixed in, sucks.
The first week at the Task Force was kind of an introduction to how things used to work. But I was not selected to do things the way they used to be. We were all selected to do this job our way. Walt was the best boss. He was very supportive and he was a giant in the cop world. Lt. Kosta had worked a number of homicides and was really a star at SRPD and in the county. I mean when Detective Magazine writes a story about one of your cases, well, then you hit the big-time! He also had two master’s degrees, so he was not a slouch. Walt gave all of us enough room to get the job done. I can still remember seeing Walt standing in the door of his car at a shopping center after my team arrested a prison guard for buying cocaine to smuggle into prison. I recall handcuffing this dirty cop and hearing loud claps and someone (Walt) speaking loudly to a crowd of people in the lot “Another drug dealer goes to jail ladies and gentlemen!” The whole crowd started clapping and some sang the tune to “bad boys,” seriously, as we lead this guy away. This was a pretty cool experience.
The Task Force was located in a non-descript building, far away from any police station. Of course we were the undercover pool for the county and to do our job we all dressed funny, grew our hair and drove a combination of cool cars. Except mine, of course. My first car was a Chevy Beretta. What a dump-truck car. (Sorry to the Beretta owners of America, but seriously, yuck.)
We ended up switching cars pretty often, because some entrepreneur decided to sell a list of “Task Force” cars, with their descriptions, capabilities – like monitoring conversations (You know James Bond stuff) and license plates to patrons of local bars. Of course they were all wrong, but you have to hand it to the guy that thought that little one up. I think he sold them for $20.00 a pop. Nice. By the time I was out of the unit, I had a Buick Regal convertible, A Mercedes Benz convertible, A BMW, a Camaro and a Toyota and a few others.
One of our jobs was to attach ourselves to the feds when they came to town. The DEA liked us because we played well with others. So did the FBI and State Narcotics. Our unit had a great reputation because we worked pretty hard and were not territorial. All we wanted to do was catch crooks and send them to jail. By the way DEA does not stand for Don’t Ever Apply but FBI does mean Forever Bothering Italians. I keep trying to tell them what my dad told me, the “Mafia” was invented by Richard Nixon. That’s my pop…I love him, but he needs a little work.
One afternoon my pals were ready to leave and the DEA blew into town. The group was doing this “reach out and play with the local’s” thing. So, I was single and had no life and volunteered to go out with these guys. I was doubled up with this agent in a car in a Southern Marin restaurant parking lot when without provocation or warning, this high-roller in a really really nice car parks next to us and starts talking about ounces. Seriously, it was like Christmas. We are in a parking lot and a drug dealer pulls in next to us and starts talking about ounce deals of cocaine in what would later become my car.
The agent looked at me in amazement and asked if I heard the same thing he heard. We watched this arrogant guy (completely metro by the way) drive across the street into a secured parking lot. Well, it was not that secured because I got into it and watched in amazement as this dealer stocked the front seats of a half dozen unlocked cars with ounces of cocaine. Each car was parked next to each other and the driver’s doors were unlocked.
The suspect opened each one and slid a Ziploc bag containing cocaine under the front seat of each car. The cocaine gods were all over me. I should have bought a lottery ticket.
We took this guy off and found a kilo of cocaine and a huge amount of money in the trunk of his – now OUR car! We whisked him away and towed all six cars. All six cars would later be forfeited and sold at auction.
This guy thought he was Pablo Escobar or something. We get him to the county jail and roll him. Its funny these guys never hold their own. They roll over on their sources pretty easily but they like to feel like they are getting a deal. The art of the roll – to develop a client into an informant – will test your patience at times because these guys and gals are generally self-centered, and greedy. We nicely make the wannabe government informant disappear from jail because it seems that everyone knows everyone and the word gets out that the police talked to the them. It’s kind of like government sanctioned and consensual kidnapping, or “Rendition.”
I decided to let this guy cool his ego in the jail for a night and brought him down for a nice talk the next morning. The crook got escorted down to the sheriff’s office to a private room where I and the DEA agent were waiting for him. Immediately this loser starts to mouth off about what he wants and needs. He looks terrible. He has a little stubble on his face and the gel wore off. He tells me that he can’t talk to us or do anything without an espresso. Hey, it’s Marin. I have had about as much of this princess that I could have and its only 7AM. I didn’t get much sleep and one could say I was grumpy. I was not in my happy place.
I agree to get him an “espresso” – at the sheriff’s office, right!
I go over to the coffee machine in the hallway with the institutional prison quality coffee; you know the stuff that comes in a foil pack. I dump yesterday’s all day long brewed coffee into a cup. I look around and then dump some of grounds into the cup and give it a stir and bring it back. He drinks it and looks into the bottom of the cup after taking a sip and gave me one of those looks like, “OK, ya got me.” I smile back and ask if I can get anything else for him. Surprisingly, he says no. It’s too bad too because I had a great idea for a cold cup of water.
We set up the deal and like all good dope deals, we wait and wait and wait then set up the deal in a couple of locations. Dealers always want to change the location. We like to control the location because on more times than I can remember on major deals there usually is help or some other person you don’t know about hiding. It’s a huge risk, but one we try to plan for. Try is the optimum word.
Once the deal is arranged, we give Mr. Drug Dealer back his car, temporarily, of course. We set up a 5 key deal with his crime partner another pathetic pretty boy, from southern Marin. You know, tanned, manicured fingers, probably wore a little makeup. Because of the weight of the deal and the amount of money involved we pulled out the stops and manned this case with several agents and detectives.
We put my crook up on a wire and my boss and I team up in a car nearby to monitor the wire and eat Doritos. The wire car calls the shots usually with the case agent inside.
After our team is set up we sit there for what seems like forever. We wait and wait for the deal to go down. My boss and I are parked across from the meet location and we send in our crook to wait for the connection. Finally after about four hours the middle-man drives up in his foreign convertible. He gets in my bad guys car and the two of them start to talk.
After a little small talk the middleman says to my crook, “Crook, I heard you got arrested.” Of course I am now preparing to make a boom in my pants. He then says, “Lift up your shirt and show me you don’t have a wire.” My heart squeezed shut. This is my first big case and it’s going to go down the toilet. My quick-thinking criminal reminds the suspect of their long business history and blows him off. The two have a little more small talk and then the middle man says “Um Crook, you have not shaved today, you never not shave…show me that you don’t have a wire.” My informant tells the middleman that he got up late and did not shave. I’m telling you the transmission in my car was smoking because each time the guy did that, we went from park to drive thinking we were going to have to rescue this informant. My hair was starting to fall out.
Finally, the middleman says, “Crook, you’re wearing the same clothes you did yesterday and there is a helicopter up there that has not moved….show me your not wearing a wire.” My whole team is on edge, I am feeling like I am going to barf and we are ready to end this when suddenly the cocaine gods shined upon us again. The middleman’s pager goes off and he exits the car to use the pay phone.
When he does this my informant rips his wire off and ditches it under the seat of his car. OK, I dated this, right? Pager and pay phones? For those of you to young to remember,
we used to not have cell phones. Pay phones usually came in a booth and were popular places to make calls, change into superheroes outfits and pee.
When the middleman comes back to the car, I could see my informant lift up his shirt. Once he did this, the middleman left the car and made a telephone call from the phone booth. When he returned, the informant gave us a prearranged visual cue that the deal was being completed.
Without notice and right freaking in front of us, a new guy appears from the bushes and runs across the street. The freaking mule was right next to us in the bushes! He too was watching the deal. I wonder if he needed to down a bottle of Tums to keep from getting sick like we did.
Once the mule crossed the street, he delivered a key to the middleman and ran off. The middleman gave the key to my informant and the group split up. OK, now we had a little problem. Um, where’s the dope? Who do we follow? A team split and followed Mr. Middleman while a team stayed with our informant and another team split off to follow the guy on foot who delivered the key.
Within minutes we stopped the middleman, stopped our informant and arrested the key guy. But we still did not have a car or dope and no one was talking. It’s not against the law to talk about drugs and last time I checked, it’s not a crime to carry a key. So, I now feel like I have been slugged in the gut. Of course it was nothing, just God poking me and having more fun with me. What a knee slapper! I am guessing John the Baptist and St. Raphael, the Saint who was “represntin’” for the home team here in San Rafael had a big laugh.
Our high-stakes game of hide and go seek was just beginning. We carefully delivered all the criminals back to the local police station where we tried our best to motivate some truth from our drug dealers. Of course everyone was worried they would get whacked by the source, who is now out 5 kilos of cocaine (more than 10 pounds) AND the money.
I applied that fear liberally as leverage to get one person to roll. Loudly talking to your pals like “WOW! I’d be really mad if I lost 5 Keys and all that money. Sheesh! Glad its not me!” And roll they did. Later this case would get a little dicey and Mr. Mule would end up rolling. But not until we found the drugs for ourselves.
It took a couple of hours but our group found the car in a parking lot. It had a broken window. Not what you would expect to carry tens of thousands of dollars worth of cocaine. The cocaine was wrapped up, just like you see it on TV and was lying in the hatchback, not even under a dirty sheet.
So everyone went to prison. The source was never fully disclosed, but the mule, our informant and the middleman all went to federal prison for some time. The mule however had a much harsher sentence. He was deported back to his native country after being released from prison. When he was returned, I was told by the feds that he was hanged by his fellow countrymen for violating his religion. I still have a picture of him. He was younger than 25 years old.
For perspective drug dealers: It’s not like TV. Only three things happen to dealers. They go to prison, they get killed or they start using and end up dead.
I have not seen many successful dope dealers. The guys in the big house on the hill that you see glorified in movies are few and far between. Even they get killed. One of ours ended up being the spare tire in his car left at the park and ride for a while. Eventually, like in this case, someone will talk. They always do…and it’s been my experience that the girlfriends you promised to take care of, and ex-wives really, really like to consult undercover narcotics agents for the purpose of blab therapy. Thanks girls.
More later. Ralph.
DUI Checkpoint, August 18 from 6PM-2AM
1 day ago