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Chemical Cowboys: The DEA's Secret Mission to Hunt down a Notorious Ecstasy Kingpin

Chemical Cowboys: The DEA's Secret Mission to Hunt down a Notorious Ecstasy Kingpin

4.0 4
by Lisa Sweetingham
For nearly a decade, Ecstasy kingpin Oded Tuito was the mastermind behind a drug ring that used strippers and Hassidic teenagers to mule millions of pills from Holland to the party triangle—Los Angeles, New York, and Miami.

Chemical Cowboys is a thrilling journey through the groundbreaking undercover investigations that led to the toppling of a


For nearly a decade, Ecstasy kingpin Oded Tuito was the mastermind behind a drug ring that used strippers and Hassidic teenagers to mule millions of pills from Holland to the party triangle—Los Angeles, New York, and Miami.

Chemical Cowboys is a thrilling journey through the groundbreaking undercover investigations that led to the toppling of a billion-dollar Ecstasy trafficking network— starting in 1995 when NewYork DEA Agent Robert Gagne infiltrated club land to uncover a thriving drug scene supported by two cultures: pill-popping club kids and Israeli dealers.

Gagne’s obsessive mission to take down Tuito’s network met unexpected challenges and personal discoveries that almost crippled his own family.Weaved into the narrative are the stories of Tuito’s underlings who struggled with addiction as they ran from the law, and the compelling experiences of a veteran Israeli police officer who aided Gagne while chasing after his own target—a violent Mob boss who saw the riches to be made in Ecstasy and began to import his own pills and turf warfare to the U.S.

Chemical Cowboys offers a taut, behind-the-scenes glimpse into an international criminal enterprise as daring as it is deadly.

Editorial Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
Sweetingham, a former CourtTV.com reporter best known for covering the trials of Michael Jackson, Robert Blake and Scott Peterson, chronicles the undercover DEA operation to bust a lucrative ecstasy trade. The drug was perfected in 1976, became widespread in the early '80s and was made illegal in 1985; it all but defined the burgeoning the late-'80s rave scene. Since ravers were throwing them down like candy, the demand grew, and domestic dealers couldn't keep up. Enter Oded Tuito, a slick dealer from Israel who was doggedly tracked by Robert Gagne, a crusty DEA agent from New York. Sweetingham spent four years traveling the world in search of answers. Her debut is loaded with facts and figures about the dealers and their clients-how many pills were bought and/or sold, how much said pills cost, etc.-but she's such a skilled storyteller that the numbers never get in the way of the narrative. Her portrayal of Gagne is particularly on-point. He comes off as heroic-not necessarily a hero, per se, but an obsessive workingman whose only goal is to get the job done. Sweetingham also does a nice job depicting the "Club Kids" scene, and her coverage of the Michael Alig murder case is so smooth that it's well worth revisiting this oft-reported story. Most importantly, she manages to humanize many of the criminals, notably Tuito. If her bad guys were merely monsters, her book would be merely competent. Imbued with complexity, Sweetingham's readable text should reach an audience beyond true-crime buffs. A gripping international cat-and-mouse-and-Club-Kids thriller. Agent: David Halpern/The Robbins Office

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.40(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.70(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chemical Cowboys

The DEA's Secret Mission to Hunt Down a Notorious Ecstasy Kingpin
By Lisa Sweetingham

Ballantine Books

Copyright © 2009 Lisa Sweetingham
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780345499950

Chapter One



"BOBBY, LISTEN. Ray's a little nervous," the informant whispered over the phone. "He just has to make sure that, you know-that you're all right."

"Okay," Gagne said. "Tomorrow morning."

Gagne heard the urgency in "Tommy's" voice. A few months earlier, the informant had introduced Gagne to Ray Solomon, a lanky ninety-pound Dominican dealer with a disarming three-toothed smile. Since then, Solomon had sold Gagne crack, heroin, cocaine, and two automatic Uzis with silencers. Solomon didn't know that "Bobby" and his partner "Jimmy" were really Robert Gagne and Matthew Germanowski, special agents with the Drug Enforcement Administration, investigating Solomon's involvement with a crooked longshoreman who was helping to bring guns and drugs into New York via cargo ships.

Drug traffickers have a choice of land, air, or sea when delivering product to American soil. Seaport routes are the slowest mode of transportation, but they carry the least risk of detection due to the tremendous volume of containers being moved in and out of American ports. Drug smugglers will take a container filled with typical imports-furniture, detergent, avocados-and hide millions of dollars' worth of drugs inside the goods or behind false walls of the container. But they still need an unscrupulous longshoreman to help move the contraband-laden containers past Customs agents. It's an easy job: the longshoreman simply hands the agent ninety-eight bills of lading for a shipment of a hundred containers-but he's already hidden the paperwork for the two containers loaded with the heroin. The Customs agent randomly pulls five bills of lading out of the ninety- eight and says: "Show me these containers." He inspects the five, they pass muster, and the entire shipment is approved to move out.

Gagne and his partner, Germanowski, figured that Ray Solomon's cohort was pushing about five hundred kilos of cocaine per shipment simply by pulling a couple of bills of lading out of a stack in the morning and then tucking them back in the stack at the end of the day. And for that ten seconds of work, he was paid roughly $5,000 for each drug- loaded container.

A good DEA agent arrests a target and keeps fishing, throwing the little fish back, hoping to bait a bigger fish. Gagne and Germanowski caught the informant Tommy, who was used to bait Ray Solomon, who could be used to bait the bigger fish-the crooked longshoreman and his foreign bosses who were supplying the drugs. But Solomon was feeling "a little nervous." Gagne knew he needed to build more trust with Solomon. He decided it was time to make a social call: no drugs, no guns, no deals, just cards, TV, and beer on a Saturday afternoon in Tommy's Sunset Park, Brooklyn, apartment.

All DEA operations-from buy to bust-are supposed to be conducted on the books, with official operating plans that include a team of agents standing in the shadows. Agents are not to go out undercover by themselves. Gagne knew this. But he was a gutsy agent, known for finding creative ways to bend the rules in order to get his job done. He didn't want to take his partner away from his wife on a weekend, and he certainly didn't want to pull together a full DEA team presence with twenty-four hours' notice just so the other agents could spend their Saturday morning listening to him play cards with Tommy and Ray Solomon.

The next morning, Gagne was sitting on Tommy's couch when Solomon showed up.

"Hey, Ray," Gagne said.

The dealer strutted in, all wiry limbs and crazy smile, walked straight up to Gagne, and pulled a loaded gun from his waistband.

"What's up?" Solomon sneered as he pointed the weapon at Gagne's head.

Every nerve in Gagne's body tensed as he trained his focus on the black steel barrel of the .25 three inches from his face. Tommy went pale.

Gagne could feel the butt of his own gun, a point-and-shoot Glock, against the small of his back. He calculated the time it would take to get his hands on his weapon, three layers deep, past his checkered field coat, sweatshirt, and sweatpants.

I'm just not getting to it, he thought. There's no way. He struggled to suppress the paralyzing tunnel vision that made the barrel of Solomon's gun seem to get bigger, closer.

Easy . . . stay calm, he told himself. He's testing me. Keep the cover. Keep talking.

Gagne leaned forward, looked Solomon in the eye, and smiled. "Hey, what the fuck you got there?" Gagne reached for the gun. There was an awkward pause: Gagne's hand in midair, Solomon's eyes fixed on his.

Keep talking.

"That's a beauty," Gagne said.

Solomon was listening now. He glanced at the piece, admiring its cold form, then looked back into Gagne's eyes like a stray dog looking for signs of weakness.

"Is that a twenty-five?" Gagne put his fingers around the barrel.

"Yeah," Solomon said. "I just got it."

Solomon loosened his grip and Gagne casually took the gun from the dealer's hands.

"No kidding?" He willed his fingers steady as the instrument traded hands. Any visible tremors would clue Solomon that he'd been bluffed.

"Yeah, this is nice." Gagne gauged the weapon's weight. "I'll give you three hundred bucks for it."

"Get outta here!"

"No, really! I'll give you three for it right now."

"Nah, I'm not selling it," Solomon said, betraying a shy, goofy smile as he accepted the gun back from Gagne and stuffed it down his waistband.

"No?" Gagne went to the kitchen to grab a beer out of the refrigerator for Solomon. "Change your mind"-he pulled out his wallet-"I got your money right here." There was $10 in that wallet.

Tommy was wan and mute from watching the near-disaster unfold in his living room. Gagne figured he had probably been racking his brain, trying to come up with an explanation he could give his drug-dealing buddies about how a dead DEA agent came to be found in his apartment.


THERE'S AN OLD SAYING around DEA: "Our best undercovers could talk a starving dog off a meat wagon."

Special Agent Robert Gagne was one of the best. He knew that if a target was listening to him, he couldn't act at the same time-he couldn't pull a trigger. It was talk or perish. Agent Gagne had had a lot of practice talking his way in and out of trouble. He grew up in working-class Pawtucket, Rhode Island, the second eldest child in a competitive brood of three boys and two girls.

Skilled undercover agents seem to fade into the scenery when surveilling a target. As a child, Bobby believed he had powers of invisibility. He would climb to the highest tree branch and watch the babysitter frantically search him out. He would tuck himself low on the floorboards of the green-upholstered backseat of "Old Betsy," his father's Chevy, and quietly stare at the back of his father's neck as he drove to work. Young Bobby wanted to be closer to his French Canadian father, René, to know what kind of man he was in the moments he believed he was alone. Problem was, Bobby didn't like what he saw. René had a part-time job pumping gas and a full-time job selling meat for Tarpy's Beef. When he wasn't at work, René was coaching his children in sports, hiding out at his girlfriend's place, or warming a seat at the bar and coaxing one more beer down his throat.

Gagne left his childhood hiding games for a life of hiding behind undercover personas and watching the "bad guys."

Agents and dealers share a common language. When a DEA agent says, "We had five bad guys up on a wire, scheduling loads, and then they all dropped their phones," the five suspects whose phone lines DEA was tapping literally chucked their Motorolas. When a drug dealer is arrested, his partners will say he's "sick" or he "got his legs broken." Sometimes he gets his legs broken by "our friends at the three letters." And when our friends at the three letters (DEA) talk in shorthand about arrests, it's all about taking down the bad guys while making sure that no good guys-agents and civilians-get hurt in the process.

Gagne saw his job in simple terms: arrest the bad guys. But sometimes, like in Ray Solomon's case, someone else gets there first. Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms agents arrested Solomon a few weeks later on gun charges. (The crooked longshoreman was also later nabbed and pleaded guilty to weapons charges.) Gagne decided to pay Solomon a visit in his holding cell.

"I knew it!" Solomon said, shaking his head at Gagne's shiny badge.

"Ray, if you knew," Gagne replied, "you woulda shot me that day."

"You got me!" Solomon said, laughing. "You son of a bitch, you got me."

"The guys are gonna go get McDonald's, Ray. What do you want?"

Gagne felt like he owed Solomon a parting meal. He knew the dealer already had two prior felony convictions, which made him a three-time loser, facing a mandatory life sentence. Gagne had empathy for a lot of his targets.

Agents and the men they chase often have the same start in life. They are creative problem solvers, natural leaders with street smarts and an ability to anticipate their adversary's next ten moves. Somewhere along the way, guys like Gagne choose the law, and guys like Solomon choose crime. Gagne understood that there is a fine line between them, and he believed deeply in sticking to his side of the line.

Still, he knew his risk-taking nature irked his bosses. If Solomon had shot him that day in Brooklyn, Gagne would have preferred death to injury, because if he'd been shot and survived, his integrity would forever be in question. Even if DEA had let him keep his job, he'd be reassigned to special agent in charge of handing out batteries.

"Are you fucking cartooning me?" Germanowski had said when he learned about his partner's off-the-books meeting with Solomon. "Gags, you could have been killed-or worse, fired. That's really fucked up."

Gagne was always pushing the boundaries and pushing his luck. It irritated his partners. But it was what made him such a standout member of DEA New York's Group D-35.

DEA agents are typically assigned to groups based on their knowledge of a specific drug, their language capabilities, or their interest in a particular trafficking organization. Division 35 emerged in the early 1990s out of a thirty-four-agent-strong group known as D-31, which focused on money-laundering cases. The agents of D-31 slowly self-segregated into "inside" and "outside" teams. Inside agents wrote subpoenas and studied bank records and intelligence-the kind of work that gave them nine-to-five security and a clean shot at getting home in time to be with their families. The outside agents were a small corps of meat eaters-men who wanted to be on the streets, doing surveillance, putting their hands on people. They weren't afraid to get dirty, stay out late, work weekends.

When the front office decided D-31 was too large, they pulled a half- dozen meat eaters out of D-31 and formed Group D-35-an elite team of aggressive case makers. Special agents Matthew Germanowski and Jay Flaherty were Gagne's closest colleagues in D-35.

Jay Flaherty, twenty-eight, had wispy dark hair, gentle eyes, and an accounting background. He began his law enforcement career in 1988 as a special agent with the IRS Criminal Investigation Division. A year later the IRS rookie was assigned to work money-laundering cases with DEA agents. Flaherty liked the camaraderie and the fieldwork at DEA. He switched gears, entered DEA Academy at Quantico, and soon was chasing drug dealers alongside Gagne and Germanowski.

Matt Germanowski was twenty-six, tall, and barrel-chested, with biceps like bocce balls. He had an easy charm and a warm voice; he was the kind of guy who likes his beer from the bottle but always offers others a glass. Gagne called him "G."

Germanowski grew up in Pittsburgh, the son of Polish steel mill workers. A college baseball scholarship was his ticket out of a dreary life in the mills, and he even had a couple of tryouts with the Cincinnati Reds. But when a shoulder injury sidelined his sports-star dreams, he took an internship with the Pittsburgh police department and played on the police softball team for kicks. The drug agents on an opposing team convinced Germanowski to fill out an application for DEA, but he didn't give it much thought-he was determined to become a Pennsylvania state trooper. In early 1992, about a week before Germanowski was to report to duty as a state trooper, DEA called-his application was approved. He was torn, so he turned to his trooper friends for advice. For the next five years you'll work the highways, they told him. You'll give moving-violation tickets, and with any luck, you'll work your way into a criminal investigator position.

Germanowski knew that with DEA, he'd start as a federal investigator right out of the gate, with opportunities to travel to country offices around the world. In most federal law enforcement agencies, such as CIA or FBI, the positions are task-specific. But in DEA, agents are expected to take part in every aspect of a case: surveillance, undercover, intelligence, wiretaps, tactical operations, chemical analysis, trial testimony. Germanowski chose DEA.

Gagne was a handsome twenty-nine-year-old with hazel eyes, dark curly hair, and a faint scar that curled up the left side of his lip like a trigger-a painful reminder

of his father. Like his partners, Gagne had gravitated toward law enforcement growing up, but he scoffed at the small-town cop beat. He wanted out of Pawtucket. He joined the Army National Guard at nineteen, and by twenty-two he was commissioned a second lieutenant, Military Intelligence, specializing in cryptologic tactical operations- conducting electronic warfare, intercepting transmissions, decoding conversations.

When Gagne wasn't training he was studying. He attended Southeastern Massachusetts University, dropped out because he felt the program was too liberal, and considered becoming a fireman. He took one EMT class at Rhode Island Community College and stayed on to earn his associate's degree in business administration with a concentration in law enforcement. At twenty-three, he enrolled at Northeastern University and majored in criminal justice.

When he wasn't training or studying, Gagne was working-sometimes holding two or three jobs at once. He taught martial arts, waited tables, caddied at a country club, and drove an ambulance. One spring, he invested in a meat truck with a friend and sold cheesesteaks on Friday and Saturday nights to the tipplers who stumbled out of Providence nightclubs. He would study in the ambulance when it was slow, hop the train to Boston to school, study more on the train, come home in time for dinner, and then work the meat truck until 3:00 a.m.

From the Paperback edition.


Excerpted from Chemical Cowboys by Lisa Sweetingham Copyright © 2009 by Lisa Sweetingham. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Journalist Lisa Sweetingham has written for the New York Times, Parade, Spin, Time Out New York, Health Affairs, and many other publications. Previously she covered high-profile murder trials and Supreme Court nomination hearings for Court TV online. Sweetingham is a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She resides in Los Angeles. CHEMICAL COWBOYS is her first book.

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Chemical Cowboys 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Em18966 More than 1 year ago
When I started reading Chemical Cowboys, I will admit it was with some trepidation. I am generally a fiction buff, and what I had before me was about as nonfiction as it gets. However, it didn't take long to realize that the facts uncovered by Lisa Sweetingham were going to weave a story too unbelievable to be anything other than true crime at its most brazen, and more entertaining than fiction for that fact alone. Chemical Cowboys is the story of a massive ecstasy trafficking ring that is investigated and ultimately brought down by the DEA. Acting on a tip received from an informant, DEA agents Robert Gange and Matthew Germanowski become aquatinted with who they believe is a small time ecstasy peddler. Ecstasy, in the summer of 1995, is seen as a less threatening drug than cocaine, heroin, and marijuana by the DEA, and often referred to as `kiddie dope.' Because it has not gained the status of the harder drugs, ecstasy has been allowed to flow pretty much unfettered through the underground New York nightclubs. The agents begin to realize the scope of the problem when their `small time' dealer offers to score thousands of pills for them. With a street value of upwards of $20 a hit, and promises of an almost limitless supply of pills, the agents know that they have discovered a hugely unacknowledged and potentially dangerous threat. Sweetingham really pulls out on the stops. The story of the investigation and subsequent prosecution of ecstasy ring kingpin Oded Tuito is told from various points of view and no detail is ignored. Readers will enjoy a history of the pharmaceutical MDMA, which is a drug that was developed for the treatment of severe depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. You will also get a brief history of the DEA, as well as an inside look at its operation. The main focus of the book, though, is the influx of ecstasy into the United Stated and the lengths that drug enforcement agents were willing to go to in order to try to curb the problem. All in all, Chemical Cowboys was a hugely informative and entertaining read. It is a must for lovers of true crime nonfiction and crime novels alike. With Father's Day closing in (Sunday the 21st of June for those who haven't been paying close enough attention), Chemical Cowboys would make the perfect gift for anyone's bookworm dad. Easily four stars.
grumpydan More than 1 year ago
Lisa Sweetingham does an excellent job of making non-fiction not dry and boring. CHEMICAL COWBOYS flows easily and one gets to know the characters involved by the comprehensive information that she has gathered about the players. At first, I thought maybe I was reading a novel, but photographs proved otherwise. This book is about on how the drug "Ecstasy" became so popular in the clubs, the people who got them into this country and the DEA agents who fought to bring it all down. Ms. Sweetingham's research is thorough and detailed and she leaves no stone unturned. This is an enjoyable true crime story.