Federal agents involved with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives have run numerous sting operations around the United States that relied on taking advantage of local mentally disabled men to net arrests, according to a new report.
Investigative writers at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in Wisconsin published over the weekend their findings of a months’ long report that has uncovered a number of questionable practices occurring throughout the country as part of a disturbing trend among undercover ATF sting operations that is now raising serious ethical questions about law enforcement’s tactics.
Time and time again, the Sentinel reporters note throughout their 6,000-plus word exposé, regional ATF officers opened up phony pawn shops and second-hand stores, then encouraged area men to commit serious crimes, like trade in stolen firearms for profit.
In several instances, the undercover agents roped in mentally disabled men by befriending them, then offering them compensation in the form of loose cigarettes or clothing to keep them committing crimes. In one case, the officers convinced a pair of teenagers to have the fake shop’s logo — a joint smoking squid — tattooed on their necks as a promotional stunt. One of those men was later sentenced to 18 months in prison for illegally selling a sawed-off shotgun and hiring prostitutes to attend a party at the storefront hosted by the same ATF agents who convinced him to get inked.
That man, like so many others, was mentally disabled and the ATF knew it. And according to the Sentinel’s John Diedrich and Raquel Rutledge, “ATF agents befriended mentally disabled people to drum up business and later arrested them” in similar operations at phone businesses in no fewer than five cities.
In Wichita, Kansas, for example, agents posing as proprietors there referred to a man with a low IQ as "slow-headed," then involved him in a similar sting. In New Mexico, a brain-damaged drug addict was shown by the undercovers how to identify a machine gun over a semi-automatic weapon, only to then be sent out into the wild to try and find one that could be sold in their store.
The Sentinel reporters began their work following reports of a flawed storefront sting there in Milwaukee, which ultimately led them to an array of all-too-similar incidents across the country. The paper claims that the ATF offered little assistance in their write-up, forcing them to instead examine thousands of pages of court documents and interviews in order to only begin to explore the full scope of the program.
In the case of that local incident, Sentinel reporters were alerted by the landlord of a building formerly leased, unknowingly to him, by the ATF. When they shut-down their phony shop, “Fearless Distributing," and announced news of the bust, the landlord discovered sensitive documents about their operation, as well as extensive damages to his building believed to be caused by federal agents.
That operation “was marred by far more than the landlord knew,” the Sentinel reported. “A machine gun and other weapons had been stolen from an agent's car, the storefront was burglarized, agents arrested the wrong people and hired the brain-damaged man, who had an IQ of 54, to set up gun and drug deals.”
In most instances profiled by the paper, the ATF acted almost identically: they’d open a store that sells second-hand good or perhaps drug paraphernalia, and offer them for sale at a tremendously steep discount to drive up traffic. “When it comes to pawnshops, agents might buy just about anything, paying top dollar, and welcome stolen items,” the Sentinel said. Then the undercover store operators mingle with the clientele until they can build trust up among targets and then ask them to find drugs or guns for them. Once the unknowing accomplice introduces them to local street merchants, the ATF agents will operate for upwards of a year, getting that illegal inventory off the street and before eventually arresting all those involved.
With regards to the brain-damaged man who helped with Fearless Distributing, he was paid in fresh clothing by the agents, according to his grandmother. According to the paper, the ATF agents asked him to find some guns. When he did, they arrested him on more than 100 counts.
"I thought I was doing, I was just doing my job,” the
man, Tony Bruner, told a judge on trial, according to court
documents obtained by the Sentinel. “I didn't think I was
doing anything wrong” he said." And they tricked me into
believing I was doing a good job. And they'd tell me I was doing
a good job, pat me on the back, telling me, 'You're doing a good
job.' We'd hug each other and stuff like that, and they treated
me like they cared about me. I told 'em I had a felony, I'm
trying to stay out of trouble."
Indeed, because Bruner was a convicted felon who found himself dabbling in gun sales, he got hit with a three year prison sentence when his case finally wrapped up.
"There is enough crime out there, why do you have to manufacture it?" Jeff Griffith, a lawyer for a one of the ATF-sting victims charged in Wichita. "You are really creating crime, which then you are prosecuting. You wonder where the moral high ground is in this."
And given the ATF’s tendency to repeatedly target mentally disadvantaged people, the moral high ground seems to be the last thing on the agency’s mind.
People with mental disabilities "have a responsibility to be law-abiding citizens like anyone else," Leigh Ann Davis, a program manager for the Arc national advocacy organization for people with developmental and intellectual disabilities. "The question that comes into play is 'How much do they know they were committing a crime, and were they used?'" she asked.