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DEEP COVERInside Story of How DEA Infighting, Incompetence, and Subterfuge Lost Us the Biggest Battle of the Drug War
By MICHAEL LEVINE
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2000 Michael Levine
All right reserved.
Chapter OneOPERATION TRIFECTA
An Interesting Assignment
On September 17, 1987, at three P.M., I was in the middle of planning a drug raid when a telephone call came that would send me on the biggest and most bizarre undercover case in the history of law enforcement. I was just two years short of retirement and was supervising a street enforcement group out of DEA's New York City field division. The raid I had been planning was going to be a buy-bust operation for a kilo of cocaine. The bad guys were holed up in a heavily fortified apartment in the South Bronx, guarded by attack dogs. The twelve members of my group—ten men and two women—were sitting around trying to figure out a way to con the bad guys out onto the street to take them down without any of us getting hurt. We had been averaging two raids a week for the past year, with more or less the same setup, and no one had been hurt yet. I guess we were all feeling that our luck should be running out pretty soon.
During my twenty-three years of frontline combat in the so-called war on drugs, I had seen too much hypocrisy, lies, and corruption to keep kidding myself; I was OD'ing on it; it was as much bullshit as Vietnam. Most of the politicians and suits had their private little agendas and I didn't think there was a thing in this world that one man could do to stop them. I had tried once and the suits and the people behind the scenes had come after me and almost destroyed me. I knew I couldn't survive it again. They had frightened me into silence. Maybe, after I retired and felt safe, I'd go live in some secret place where no one could find me and try to tell the truth in a book or something ... maybe. At least the thought helped to keep me from feeling too much like a coward.
But the truth was that I was afraid. I had decided that my agenda, for my final two years at least, would be to do the job they paid me for—locking up as many dope dealers as I could—and, most important, keeping the guys who worked for me alive.
My other great fear was the thought that some screwup of mine might give the publicity-hungry suits another opportunity to make media hay over the funeral bier of one of my men. Those bastards secretly loved the attention. They just ate it up. I don't think I could have endured that.
"Call for you, Mike," said Louise, the group secretary, forgetting that I had told her no calls. I hesitated a moment. I needed a break. I had been getting this ominous feeling in the pit of my stomach. There had been a lot of action lately—too much—too many close calls. My life seemed to be reaching some sort of crazy crescendo and I was just too close to the end of my career. It was almost as though I were part of some bad movie script and being set up for a big fall. I stepped into my little office cubicle, just off the squad room, picked up the receiver, and jabbed my finger down on the red flashing button.
"Hiya doin', Mike?" I immediately recognized the hard, clipped New York tones of Richard "Dick" Slattery, in spite of the many years we had not seen each other. The last news I'd had of him was that he was second-in-command in DEA's San Diego office and was close to retirement himself. He was one of the very few guys who had managed to go from being a street man to a suit-level manager. I had always felt a kind of kinship with him in that we had shared experiences that put us solidly in the category of "very lucky to be alive."
I had once had a gun shoved in my stomach, the trigger pulled, and it misfired. Later, when tested, it had fired every single time. Years earlier, when Slattery was a New York street narc, he had tried to make an arrest by reaching into a drug dealer's car to grab his ignition keys. The guy had rolled his electric windows up and gunned the engine, dragging Slattery with him. With the car careening through New York streets, Slattery had emptied his revolver into the guy's head and neck. The car crashed and Slattery was thrown free, ending up with minor injuries. Incredibly, the doper also survived. The bullets had smashed through his neck, face, and jaw without hitting anything vital. Months later they faced each other in a courtroom.
"Suits," as the street men say, "have neither balls nor senses of humor." Slattery was not a suit; you cannot survive what he did and be one. If anyone but he had called, the incredible story you are about to read would probably never have happened.
"Are you real busy?"
"Why?" I asked, already feeling the pit of my stomach churning. I remembered his starting off a phone call, some ten years earlier, with the same question. Then, he had been assigned to the Internal Security Division and had asked if I would do an undercover job on some "bad DEA agents." I had accepted and traveled to Boston and Connecticut, where I posed as a Mafia don, convincing the agents to sell me the identities of informants from DEA's secret computer system.
I was shocked silly and depressed at how easy it had been to convince men carrying the same badge I did, to sell a human life so cheaply. I was good at what I did—sometimes too good. To placate my conscience I had to make sure I wasn't conning the two agents into doing something they wouldn't do for anybody. When I met one of them in a Connecticut hotel room to make the deal, I told him, in a loud, clear voice for the hidden microphones, that I was going to kill the guys they were naming.
It didn't bother them a bit; they just wanted their pay—five hundred dollars a name and some cocaine. It was a great case, one of the first, if not the first, computer theft cases in history. Two years later I was transferred to Argentina and Slattery to California. Then ten years flashed by during which, in typical DEA life-style, we had no contact.
"I know you're a short-timer, but I got something that might interest you," said Slattery as if we'd spent the last ten years in the same car pool. "You ever been to San Diego?"
"No," I said as I peered out the door of my little cubicle at my group lounging restlessly around the squad room in their flak jackets, their eyes signaling me that they were waiting for me to get off the phone. "I hear it's really nice," I heard myself say.
"It's fantastic. You'll love it."
"Why? Am I coming there for some reason?"
Slattery laughed. "I got a real interesting case—it's perfect for you. You got a few minutes to listen?"
"Only for you," I said, meaning it. The man knew I could never resist an interesting case.
Slattery quickly launched himself into the story of the arrest of a guy named David Laird Wheeler in Oklahoma for eight hundred grams of cocaine. "The guy flips right away and is ready to give up his mother to get out of jail. But he sounds like he's so full of shit that DEA tells him to take a fucking walk. So what do you think he does then? He calls Customs."
Wheeler, a voracious reader, had read of U.S. Commissioner of Customs William von Raab's having been harshly criticized by Congress for accusing the entire Mexican government of being corrupt, without having any hard evidence. He immediately contacted Customs from his jail cell in Oklahoma, with his claims of having a close association with Mexican corruption at the highest levels and offering his services as an informant. It was the aging con man/drug dealer's last hope.
Even Wheeler was astonished at how quickly Customs had gulped down his bait. Unbeknownst to the aspiring informer, Commissioner von Raab—not to make Congress eat its words—had al ready made personal visits to all his Mexican border offices to "inspire" his agents into making extra effort in their investigations of Mexican corruption. An official probe dubbed Operation Saber was begun. Quicker than you could say, "I'm gonna teach those Mex bastards a lesson," David Wheeler was out of the rough prison denims of the Oklahoma City jail and into a new wardrobe, provided by our taxpayers, including a twelve-hundred-dollar pair of alligator boots and a twelve-thousand-dollar Rolex watch, and living in a luxury beachfront home in La Jolla, California, from where he began attempting to contact all his alleged corrupt Mexican police friends. Wheeler had never had it so good. He suddenly found himself living in more luxury than he had ever had in his life. Not only was Customs paying his expenses, they were also footing the bill for two of his teenaged children. Once again the story took a strange and (for me) fateful twist.
The only undercover contact that Wheeler had made that seemed to be going anywhere was a telephone call to a Mexican named Pablo Girón, who claimed to be a member of the MFJP (Mexican federal police). Wheeler claimed that years before he and Girón, who at that time was a member of the DFS (the Mexican CIA), had trafficked in drugs together. Girón told Wheeler that he had "the biggest cocaine connection in the world" and wanted him to find a customer. Wheeler tried like hell to con the Mexican into violating any of the scores of laws coming under Customs's direct authority—and away from the jurisdiction of DEA, now hated by both Customs and Wheeler—like smuggling gold or laundering money, but the only laws Girón was ready, willing, and happily able to violate were our drug laws. Ironically, Customs was now mandated—by federal law—to turn the investigation back over to DEA.
"Where do I come in?" I asked.
"I need a guy that can play Mr. Big, with real experience working in South America," said Slattery. "I thought of you and the Roberto Suarez case. The word I got is that the coke connection is in Bolivia, so you fit the bill to a T. The other thing is, I need someone who can come in and kind of take the thing over. We don't want to get Customs pissed off or anything, but we are the lead agency."
"You mean take over the case, but don't let them know I'm doing it."
"You got it! Drugs is DEA turf, and they know it. The boss out here is getting along pretty good with the head Customs guy and he doesn't want to hurt his feelings. According to this guy Wheeler, it's a one-shot deal anyway. He claims that the Mexicans and Bolivians have already agreed to deliver a thousand kilos of coke off the Baja, California, coast, ship to ship. They just want to meet Mr. Big before the deal goes down. Customs got an undercover yacht ready for the deal, a whole crew.... You're perfect, Mike. What do you say?"
It did not sound right to me. I had made undercover drug deals with the top Bolivian cocaine traffickers and never heard of one of them delivering that kind of quantity outside their country. If you wanted Bolivian merchandise they could get you as many tons of the best-quality cocaine as you could handle, but you had to go there to get it. The mild-mannered, gentle people were not looking for the hassles, rip-offs, and all the problems and dangers that lay outside their borders. That was one of the reasons the Colombians had dominated the market for the past decade. They did not mind going to Bolivia, where the most potent coca leaf in the world is grown, to buy ninety percent of their cocaine base, converting it to cocaine in Colombia and then smuggling it into the U.S. But then again, the drug business was like any other—changes could be quick and drastic.
"Well, who's your case agent?" I asked, deciding not to voice my suspicions. A case agent with a strong personality would take a lot of the turf battle off my shoulders. I was as much intrigued by the constant interagency territory wars as I was by the phony-sounding drug case. I had been on both sides of the battle lines in the "secret war." I had been a Customs agent prior to becoming a DEA agent in 1973, during a time when arresting or embarrassing an agent from the opposing agency would win you more praise, rewards, and promotions than locking up the biggest drug dealer alive. I had sort of half-consciously planned on writing a book called The War No One Knew About, and had already gathered a pile of material. Maybe this case would give me some more. But as the Suárez case had taught me, being alone in the spotlight was not worth it. I needed a good case agent to face some of the heat with me.
"That's part of the problem," said Slattery. You know how laidback some of these California guys are. I need someone who can run with the ball. Mike, I'm telling you, this case can be a monster. Hey, I got nothing to gain by it. I'm retiring in two months. I'd just like to see the thing go."
I had had no experience working in California. I just could not imagine any street narc being that laid-back. I had to see for myself. It was also quite flattering that he would—with an agency full of narcs—reach across the country for me. My curiosity was working overtime.
"What about headquarters, did they say it was okay to use me?" I asked doubtfully. Since the Suarez case the suits were very sensitive about using me for anything. The case sounded like pure bullshit, but something was piquing my curiosity.
"I already checked. I won't lie, I got a lot of static; but they finally said okay. I also checked with Kevin [Kevin Gallagher, associate special agent in charge, New York DEA]. It's all cleared. It's up to you. Like I said, Mike, I got nothing to gain. I got a funny feeling about this case; it could be real big."
He had no idea how much of an understatement that was. "Okay, I'll do it," said a voice sounding suspiciously like my own. I couldn't resist. I never could resist.
"There's one more thing, Mike. You know Lydia Soto?"
"Yes," I said, recalling an attractive young Customs agent who had been assigned to then Vice President Bush's Miami Task Force at the same time I was. I had never known her well, but she had seemed nice enough.
"Well, she's a Customs supervisor out here now. She asked if we could bring this DEA agent from Miami out here to do a little UC work with you on the case. Tommy Sharp, it's her boyfriend. I told her I'd ask you if you had any objections."
I remembered Sharp from Miami too. He was supposed to be ex-CIA, an expert boat handler and fluent in Spanish. I didn't think it would hurt. "Sure. If it's, like you say, a one-shot deal, why not? The more the merrier."
* * *
On September 19, 1987, I arrived in San Diego, where I was met by the case agent, Hubert Hoopel. He was, as Dick had described, a very laid-back, quiet, almost lethargic young guy who drove his OGV very slowly and carefully. He smiled a lot at nothing and seemed barely to notice as California drivers angrily swerved around him cursing and waving their arms. One almost clipped his fender. For a moment I wondered if he was on Valium. He was the silent, unassuming type that in movies makes a great hero, but in the narc's world—for lack of aggression—is the most dangerous kind of partner to have. By the time we reached the San Diego DEA office I had decided that Slattery's "laid-back" description might have been one hell of an understatement.
At the office I said hello to Slattery and noticed that Hoopel's mailbox had the notation Helmet Head scrawled in crayon above his name.
I would try to reserve decision.
In the evening, after I had been furnished a black Mercedes 450SL sports coupe as my undercover car, checked into the Catamaran Hotel in La Jolla, showered, and changed, Hoopel drove me to the undercover house to meet the rest of the cast. The moment we parked the car I could hear the roar of the surf and smell the sea. I loved the smell of that air. I took a deep breath, smiled, and thought to myself. Maybe I didn't make such a bad decision after all. What the hell, a quick trip to San Diego for a one-shot deal; who had it luckier than me?
I would never have that thought again.
The house was an impressive California ranch house perched on the edge of a cliff overlooking the Pacific.
"They're really going all out," I said as Hoopel led me through the garage into the main house.
"They sure are," he said dully.
The living room, long, spacious, and plushly furnished, with an entire glass wall facing the ocean, was alive with activity. Technicians worked at perfecting the wiring of hidden cameras and electronic listening devices as the members of the undercover team and another half-dozen Customs agents assigned for surveillance lounged on plush, comfortable furniture. Hoopel introduced me around.
Excerpted from DEEP COVER by MICHAEL LEVINE Copyright © 2000 by Michael Levine. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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