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RatSnakes: Cheating Death by Living A Lie: Inside the Explosive World of ATF's Undercover Agents and How We Changed the Game

RatSnakes: Cheating Death by Living A Lie: Inside the Explosive World of ATF's Undercover Agents and How We Changed the Game

by Vincent A. Cefalu
RatSnakes: Cheating Death by Living A Lie: Inside the Explosive World of ATF's Undercover Agents and How We Changed the Game

RatSnakes: Cheating Death by Living A Lie: Inside the Explosive World of ATF's Undercover Agents and How We Changed the Game

by Vincent A. Cefalu


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Get ready to infiltrate the dangerous, secret world of criminals and cover identities by way of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF)—where the world's greatest undercover agents are known as RatSnakes.

RatSnakes are rarely, if ever, visible to the public they move among and risk their lives to protect. In fact, thanks to their cover personas, they're often assumed to be members of the clandestine criminal world they investigate. Real-life undercover work is a far cry from the sexy, candy-colored world you've seen in Hollywood movies. Only those strong and clever enough get inside and survive.

Vincent A. Cefalu would know. He spent 30 years as an ATF undercover operative, in assignments ranging from the Symbionese Liberation Army to Asian organized crime. He has infiltrated notorious outlaw motorcycle gangs as well as splinter groups of the Ku Klux Klan, and in RatSnakes he provides a transparent look at the organization and the operatives with whom he risked his life.

Part field guide, part heart-pounding thrill-ride, Cefalu takes readers on a tour of what it's like to confront death on a daily basis. En route, he gives us a look at the on-the-job techniques of kicking in doors, orchestrating "street theater" to ensnare criminals, and making high-stakes gun buys. His irreverent, explicit stories from the inside are a mix of danger and unexpected hilarity that will have readers laughing one minute and then biting their nails when things break bad.

Immersive and brutal, RatSnakes offers an in-depth and eye-opening look into the lives of an elite group of men and women who volunteer to do things most couldn't and wouldn't stomach. Civilians with common sense and good judgment run from danger, while RatSnakes sprint toward it—smiling.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781946885968
Publisher: BenBella Books, Inc.
Publication date: 05/28/2019
Pages: 319
Sales rank: 1,079,489
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

Vincent A. Cefalu was born and raised just north of San Francisco in Marin County, California. After a troubled youth and lackluster academic performance, he enlisted in the US Marines, where he spent six years in the military police and ultimately served in a classified Special Operations unit. The hook was set. Continuing to pursue his law enforcement career, he joined the Athens, GA, police department while finishing his bachelor's degree in criminal justice in hopes of securing a position in federal law enforcement. After being hired by and spending a couple years with the US Customs Service chasing drug smugglers in south Florida, Vince had a life-changing experience with some very scary ATF special agents, and, as they say, "the rest is history." Vince had found a home. Later, earning a master's degree in the psychological sciences, Vince's trajectory took him into the shadows of undercover work, SRT (special response team member and hostage negotiations).

Read an Excerpt



On my first solo undercover meet, I was wearing so much electronics, I was afraid I was going to shut down the city's electrical grid.

It was 1987 in San Francisco, and my job was to be introduced by a confidential informant (CI) to a violator. I was going to meet the bad guy at his house to buy a small amount of cocaine and a stolen pistol — a quick in-and-out deal. I had a one-watt transmitter with a range of about two city blocks, on a good day, and if there weren't too many structures between me and the agents monitoring the wire. I had the transmitter taped to my inner thigh. I had a repeater in place to boost the signal. I was wearing a Nagra recorder taped to the small of my back.

This was before the days of microrecorders and computer chips, and we had limited equipment options. The Nagra recorder was our best solution in the day. These reel-to-reel tape machines dated back to the 1950s and were revered for their stereo-quality recording. When I first saw this thing, I couldn't believe it was the best the feds had, but it was. You didn't just slap a tape in it and hit Record. Nor could you play it back without a playback unit. It was large and bulky — roughly the size of a big handheld calculator — with two microphones at the end of two eighteen-inch wires. There were several preferred ways to carry this device. You could place the recorder on your back and wrap surgical tape around and around to hold it in place. You then ran the wires up your back and over your shoulders and taped the microphones to your chest. This made it impossible to wear the Nagra with just a T-shirt or light clothing. The other way to carry the device was to wear a medical wrap around your ribs that was specially designed to hold it. Neither scenario was easy for me because I only weighed about 175 pounds.

I was also carrying a panic — a.k.a. "oh, shit" — button. This was a simple battery-operated pressure switch that would send a unique squelch over our police radios, signaling distress by the UC, i.e., my rookie ass. The panic button was about half the size of a pack of cigarettes and really couldn't be concealed too carefully or it would be hard to use. Most UCs who did carry it just stuck it in their pocket, which ran the risk of accidentally depressing the button due to the device's rudimentary design.

With the electronics loaded on, the next dilemma was to figure out where to carry my handgun. A bad guy carrying a gun to a meet isn't too worried about who sees it. But our duty weapons back then had serial numbers — starting with the letters US — and some even had a Treasury badge on the side of the pistol. In other words, you couldn't let the violator see or handle your pistol. That first time, I had my gun stuck in my belt on my hip toward the back. Nothing says cop like a leather holster, so I never used one. For those who have seen the 1992 Tarantino movie Reservoir Dogs, where the undercover cop practices his role in front of a mirror before the meet, that was me on my first deal.

The average civilian has seen shows where the cool undercover cop walks in, buys the dope or guns, and busts the bad guy. We wish it were that simple. In reality, a simple fifteen-minute undercover meeting can be the most stressful time in a man or woman's life. There are no rules. Anything can happen. On more than one occasion, agents have gotten ripped off. It's not like you can break out a test kit for a twenty-dollar crack rock buy. Those test kits cost money, plus when you are buying only a small amount of drugs, it would look silly to be wasting some of the crack to test it. It was not uncommon on larger-scale buys to test the drugs before exchanging money.

Agents are often "flexed" (sold fake dope). It looks like dope, but it isn't. Although most states and the federal government have laws prohibiting the sale of counterfeit substances, most jurisdictions won't prosecute these cases. They lack jury appeal and, after all, it's not even dope. Some of the larger rip-off cases would be prosecuted. It also depended on who the violator was and the extent of their criminal history.

Now, when it comes to agents purchasing guns on the street, you might think that is an easy one. It's not so easy in a dark alley with your heart threatening to pound out of your chest. Not to mention that street thugs call practically every firearm an Uzi. In fact, an Uzi is an Israeli-made submachine gun first designed in the late 1940s. It's known as one of the first weapons to employ a telescoping bolt design, meaning the magazine or clip is in the pistol grip, allowing for a shorter weapon, which is an obvious advantage. But most street thugs don't have a clue about the firearms they sell. Sometimes the guns don't work, or they are broken. Sometimes they are purported to be "machine guns," and they are not. There are field test procedures to determine if a firearm is fully automatic, but sometimes it's impossible to tell until the gun is actually fired at a range. It's the agent's job to examine the product closely. Unfortunately, some UCs have been duped into purchasing toy guns. It looks like a gun, acts like a gun, but when you get back to the office, you realize you have spent five hundred dollars on an air pistol. This never happened to me, but it could have. Try living that one down in your group.

Undercover work is scary — every time. But nothing is as scary as your first significant UC assignment. Everything is on the line: the respect of your fellow UCs, the confidence of your bosses, and ultimately your life. Will you choke? Will you be compromised? Will you remember the bust signal? Will you talk too much? The goal of undercover work is to develop evidence and capture a recording of the violator talking, not a recording of the undercover talking.

That first time for me was not all that stellar. The deal went fine, but I learned a lot from the debriefing with the cover agents. Apparently, the wire was cutting in and out after I left the vehicle and entered the residence. When the wire did work, the only person the cover team could hear talking was me. After I had seen the dope and guns, I just handed the violator the money and left. I never counted the cash for the recording or described the merchandise for the recorder. Live and learn.

* * *

You might be wondering why anybody would want to be an undercover operator. Few normal jobs result in death if you are not good at them, and undercover work entails tiptoeing on the edge of a cliff in a storm every minute of every day. Frankly, not everybody possesses the skill set, the personality, or the balls to be an undercover agent. Although ATF is one of the premier agencies when it comes to undercover investigations, not all agents are expected to do undercover work, despite the fact they all have received the necessary training. Within ATF, undercover work is voluntary, and no agent can be forced to do undercover.

There are many reasons — some good, some not so good — for crossing into the undercover world. The textbook answers, which are all true, are to protect our communities, make a difference, stand up for the law.

However, hidden within those reasons is the juice, a.k.a. adrenaline rush, the recognition/fame/glory, personal challenge, and — full disclosure — pussy. Some girls love Good Bad Boys and Bad Good Boys.

You know from meeting Bambi that, of course, there are female undercover agents. They are some of the finest operators this bureau has ever produced. I initially thought about dedicating a chapter to our female UCs and calling it "SheSnakes," but that would suggest they were different, and that their contributions were less heroic or somehow different. In short, we can be country girls or boys, kids from wealthy families, inner-city youths, or the girl next door. We come from New York, California, Texas farms, Detroit suburbs, and the beaches of South Florida. Some are model gorgeous and many of us are just stone-cold ugly. Some are physically huge, others are small and nondescript looking. Some barely graduated from college, others possess advanced degrees from Ivy League schools. But the dynamic we all have in common is the need for speed.

For me, that need for speed started in my youth and ultimately led me to ATF, although after getting an honorable discharge from the military at age twenty-three, I initially envisioned my career would be as a detective or some kind of agent with the US Customs Service. When I attended basic investigators' school, in the class of forty-eight students there were approximately thirty US Customs agents, a couple ATF agents, a Secret Service agent or two, and the rest were recruits from the Office of Inspector General, or OIG agents, who investigated fraud and other crime for the US Department of Commerce. The Criminal Investigator Training Program (CITP), as it was called in the 1980s, was a generic investigators' academy that most federal agents had to attend before moving on to another academy for agency-specific training. Suffice to say, I didn't leave that school knowing much of anything about ATF. Although I had applied to almost every federal law enforcement agency out there, Customs was the first to offer me a job. My foot was in the door.

Once I finished my advanced training and boat school, I was supposed to report to Key Largo, but at the last minute my assignment was switched to Key West. It didn't matter to me because I didn't know where either one was. When I arrived in Key West and got settled, it was interesting to find out that my supervisor was a former ATF agent, as were four of the senior agents in my office. Eight of the nine drug task force Customs agents in Key West were former ATF agents. I remember thinking: "I sure am glad I didn't go to that apparently fucking train wreck of an agency" — especially the Philly office, which had the worst reputation. As time went on, I learned why ATF had such a bad rep.

During the drug wars of the 1970s and '80s, the United States built up its drug interdiction capabilities using the US Customs Service. They were hiring busloads of agents, buying airplanes, blimps, fast boats, helicopters. It looked like they would take over the world. Around the same time, in the early 1980s, rumors began circulating that the Bureau of ATF might be abolished. WTF? The ATF had only been a bureau for approximately ten years. Hell, it hadn't had enough time to fuck shit up good, and they already wanted to abolish it. When I say "they," I mean then US president Ronald Reagan (and some others). Case in point, ATF agent Ariel Rios, a member of the presidential anti-drug task force in South Florida, was allegedly in possession of a reduction in force (RIF) notice at the time of his tragic murder during an undercover deal in 1982.

The word was out — you'd better start looking for somewhere to go in another agency, because there wasn't going to be an ATF in the near future. That was why agents were jumping ship en masse and heading to Customs. Plus the fact that, due to regulations and the small size of ATF back in those days, the bureau was promoting at a much slower rate than at Customs. The ATF agents who came over to Customs were super- stars and rose through the ranks at lightning speed. I didn't give a fuck about climbing that ladder. After working a big smuggling case with one token ATF agent sent down from Miami, I realized these ATF guys could investigate circles around the other agencies. Besides, I didn't like bobbing around in a boat on the ocean all that much.

By the time I considered going to ATF, the bureau had fought off attempts to abolish the agency — with the incidental help of the insurance industry, which benefited from ATF's expertise in arson investigations, as well as the National Rifle Association (NRA), which hated us but also was horrified at the thought of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), a.k.a. Big Brother, taking over the enforcement of gun laws.

After they heard I was going to ATF, the guys in the Key West office took every opportunity to bust my balls. One agent, whom I later found out had been a no-shit ATF legend, handed me a knife one day when we all were at lunch. I asked him: What's this for? He replied, "If I was going to ATF, I'd slit my wrists." However, to a man, one by one they came up to me at my going-away party and whispered, "You're going to love ATF. It was the best job I ever had."

They were right, although another one of my early undercover experiences was a study in what not to do. Generally speaking, the UC designates a distress or bust signal he or she will use. That signal will determine the actions of the cover team — the group of agents monitoring the operation, who are ready to move in when it's time to make arrests or extract the UC from an operation gone bad. The bust signal should be something the UC would not generally say by mistake but easy enough to remember. My youth and inexperience, and maybe a little too much bravado, caused me to pick the absolute worst verbal signal I ever could have come up with.

I chose "motherfucker" or something like that as my signal. I recall the senior agents questioning my choice, but they let me make my own mistakes. The problem with using that particular term as my bust signal was that after six years in the US Marine Corps, I was very familiar and loose with that little epithet.

With the cover team in place, I called the violator, in this case a street methamphetamine dealer in Sonoma County, California. I was going to buy a small amount of meth, and the deal was set to happen at his house in a shitty, white-trash neighborhood. He said, "Come on, let's do this." I proceeded to the house and shook hands with the dealer, and he invited me inside. Literally, within thirty seconds of entering the residence, you guessed it, the first of many "motherfuckers" passed my lips — well before the dope had exchanged hands. I heard engines rev and doors slam down the block — shit, I just gave the bust signal. As luck would have it, the violator was in another room, and I was able to call off the dogs by telling them over the wire it was a mistake.

Not two minutes later, I motherfucked somebody again. This time the violator was standing right next to me. I said, "I'm going to step out and get a smoke." I went out on the front porch and waved off the vehicles slowly rolling my way. I made my way back into the house and closed that deal as fast as I could. Then I used the bust signal — on purpose — and the cavalry came. Needless to say, I never used that bust signal again.



By the time I came on, ATF was moving away from investigating the illegal liquor business and focusing more on the illegal firearms trade and other violent crime. I did, however, have one occasion to be present in court as a uniformed police officer sitting in on a magistrate's hearing regarding bootlegged liquor. All officers who had issued citations or made misdemeanor arrests would sit in the jury box and wait for their case to be called. This was in Georgia around 1983, and one of the longtime barbers in Athens had a nice shop in the town square. He was an old African American guy, and many of us would have him cut our hair. His shop was a meeting place right out of a Norman Rockwell painting. So, I was surprised to see him in court that morning.

When they called his case, he was charged with selling moonshine out of his shop. As he was answering the magistrate's questions regarding the violation, he stated his defense, something along these lines: "Judge, I didn't know it was illegal to sell shine, because I've been selling gallons of it over the years to those fellas over there."

I had a good chuckle watching several of the old-timers in our group awkwardly avert their eyes as the barber pointed straight to the jury box where we police officers sat.

To be honest, I came to ATF with exactly zero experience or knowledge about moonshine. I didn't understand the bootleg liquor trade or its culture. From my perspective, it was old news. And yet, as I learned to respect and appreciate, long before modern-day ATF agents arrived on the scene, or, for that matter, before we were born, a group of brave agents established a tradition of heroism that serves as a model and reminder of what an ATF agent should strive to achieve. These law enforcement agents of days gone by were the ones who ran toward the sound of gunfire. They repeatedly answered the nation's call to service in the most dangerous and unfavorable law enforcement operations in the history of the United States. They did so because that's what dedicated agents do. "They" were the special agents working under the auspices of the US Treasury Department, charged with enforcing US Prohibition laws in the 1920s and early 1930s.

Viewed as progressive in its time, the temperance movement already had gained widespread traction when the US government, via the Eighteenth Amendment of the Constitution, put a nationwide ban on alcohol production, transportation, and sales. The actions of those who saw a profit to be made through illicit alcohol sales, coupled with the violence that protected their activities, put them on a collision course with the US Treasury Department and those who enforced its laws, the Alcohol Tax Unit of the IRS.


Excerpted from "Ratsnakes"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Vincent A. Cefalu.
Excerpted by permission of BenBella Books, Inc..
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.

Table of Contents

Foreword by James Ross Lightfoot

Introduction: To Know Them Is to Love Them. Or Not.

Chapter 1: Wired for Speed
Chapter 2: T-Men
Chapter 3: Acting School with Sand Gnats
Chapter 4: Crème de la Crème
Chapter 5: Snake Code
Chapter 6: Out of the Cage
Chapter 7: Freedom
Chapter 8: “Oh, Shit” Moments
Chapter 9: More with Less
Chapter 10: Executive Douchebags
Chapter 11: Have Gun, Will Travel
Chapter 12: Cold Knocks
Chapter 13: IA
Chapter 14: 5150s
Chapter 15: Hollywood on Crack
Chapter 16: Dysfunksional
Chapter 17: The Cost of Doing America’s Business
Chapter 18: A Special Place in Heaven

Encore: Smokin’ and Jokin’



About the Author

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"RatSnakes is more thrilling than the best thriller you have ever read. You will surely enjoy reading this heart-pounding book and fall in love with the ATF RatSnakes."
Washington Book Review

“Cefalu bares all and lays out the gritty and true life of an undercover agent and the workings of the ATF. A must-read for law enforcement and the public.”

—Joe Pistone, former undercover FBI agent, alias “Donnie Brasco”

“The law enforcement undercover community is limited to those who are born with the ability to take on some of the most dangerous, ‘up close and personal’ assignments. In that select group, Vince Cefalu is one who stands out because of his bravery and his ability to walk undetected among the most hardened criminals.”

—Joaquin “Jack” Garcia, former undercover FBI agent and New York Times bestselling author of Making Jack Falcone

“Vincent Cefalu is the real deal. In RatSnakes, he takes us on a wild ride through his dark world of paranoia, danger, fear, hard living, hard drinking, and the chase. In the end, it’s a gripping story revealing how some of our most effective federal undercover agents earn their chops, make their living, and work to protect their fellow Americans in ways that usually go unrecognized.”

—Sharyl Attkisson, host of Full Measure and former CBS investigative correspondent

“Retired ATF undercover agent Vince Cefalu has created a read that’s going to leave readers with their mouths open. If you’ve never used the terms, ‘oh my god,’ ‘holy shit,’ or ‘what the f*&%$,’ Ratsnakes is going to introduce you to a new emotional feeling. It’s not just about real world undercover operations; it’s about the people and the agencies willing to operate behind enemy lines.”

—William Queen, ATF special agent (retired) and New York Times bestselling author of Under and Alone

“With each page, Vincent Cefalu brings the heart-pounding reality of the street and tough undercover work to life. If you’re looking for a read you won’t be able to put down, this is it.”

—Katie Pavlich, New York Times bestselling author of Fast and Furious, journalist, and editor of

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