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      Rip Off

      Death of an undercover narc... a drug buy-bust gone bad
      Bob Pilgrim

There are some things we want to forget, but cannot. We are forced to continuously acknowledge tragic events although we wish that it had never happened. When a colleague and friend is killed and it could just as easily have been one of us, and we were in a position to possibly influence the outcome, we search our souls deeply to identify what we could have done to make things different. Sometimes there is a substantial amount of guilt involved-why him and not me? Frank White carries this burden, and when it happened, it determined his approach to armed felons for the rest of his career.

It was a typical autumn afternoon in The Big Apple, but Frank's partner, "Frankie T," appeared to be deeply troubled and wanted to talk. At first, Frankie sort of beat around the bush and talked about his pending wedding, a month away. They shared laughs over his apartment painting trials and tribulations and the usual hassles involved in planning the perfect wedding. The two had been on many dangerous drug cappers together and over the past couple of years they had become as close as partners could become. Not only did they depend on each other to survive the life and death struggles of the street, but like close brothers they shared their most intimate thoughts, hopes and dreams. A "kick butt" team, for the dope dealers on the street and in the courtroom they had become one of their worst nightmares.

While working undercover Frankie had been working on a ten kilo coke deal that was to culminate that night. However, he was convinced that the perps could not deliver 10 grams, let alone 10 kilos. All his instincts and considerable experience shouted that a "rip off" was being planned. He told Frank that he had voiced his concerns to his group, but in spite of the anticipated danger to himself, he was being pressured to go through with the operation. Frank recognized the signs of trouble and advised Frankie that he was no untested rookie, that he had already proven himself on countless cases. He had nothing to prove to anyone. The two of them always had an understanding and that was if they felt something was wrong with the pre-incident indicators they would walk away from the situation and reassess. When Frankie got up, he told Frank that he was now determined more than before to call off the "buy-bust" and go home.

The dreadful phone call came at 2200 hours and the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (BNDD) radio room told Frank that Frankie had been shot during a "Rip-Off" and was fighting for his life at a local hospital."No, this can't be true," Frank thought, "it's impossible." Frankie had told him it was off because he knew it was going to be a "Rip."

It seems Frankie had been persuaded by one of his higher-ups to go through with it regardless of the risks. Dutifully, he had met with his two assassins at a Times Square motel frequented by whores, pimps and gunmen. At this festive rendezvous Frankie had shown the two his $160,000, which represented his end of the cocaine transaction. The two killers left, ostensibly to retrieve the coke from their stash house and told him they would return by 2300 hours and complete the deal. The higher-ups were always overly worried about the "flash roll," so it was moved to an adjoining room. However, this did nothing to protect Frankie, since the killers expected the green to be with him; but it did make the higher-ups feel less anxious about the money.

Surveillance was too thin and the troops quickly lost contact with the two dealers after a few crowded blocks. Murphy was lurking in the background, and by returning an hour early, the two gunmen caught the cover agents by surprise. The only agent to spot them was in the lobby, but without a radio. Nevertheless, he immediately telephoned the surveillance/undercover room, but the line was busy. To make matters worse, the small surveillance team was split up and half their team was uselessly deployed in a room on an upper floor. There was a knock on the undercover room's door and Frankie casually opened it, perhaps expecting one of his colleagues. Instead the pair of killers barged in, guns drawn and demanding, "Where's the money." Frankie offered no resistance and backed up across the room, but with utter coolness and presence of mind, closed the door to the adjoining room. Not knowing what was unfolding in the undercover room, one of the agents in the next room walked in thr! ough the connecting door and was shot twice. He drew, but was unable to return fire before he collapsed because he forgot the de-cocker on his pistol was in the "safe" position. In a split second, the two killers turned their attention back to Frankie and executed him with a pair of shots. By that time, the three remaining cover agents had charged into the room, terminating the killing spree with a hail of gunfire. Unfortunately, Frankie's instincts had proved to be correct-it had been a "Rip-Off."

As he arrived at the hospital, Frank's life was about to change. The higher-ups weren't there. They couldn't face up to their stupidity and poor planning, so they had the radio room tell Frank to inform Frankie's parents of his death. On top of a cold steel table in a small room in the emergency trauma center was a large body bag. It was absolutely quiet, save for the ripping sound the zipper made when Frank opened the seam. As he gazed upon his partner's unresponsive face and took in the dark bullet holes in his chest, he vowed then and there what happened to Frankie would never happen to another teammate of his. Any armed criminal that encountered Frank in the future would have only two choices and he had better make the right one fast.

The most lonely feeling in the world is when you have to inform loved ones that their son and fiancee is gone and you still don't know what you are going to say as you approach the house. As Frank slowly walked up to the door he heard heavy footsteps behind him. Partially out of breath was the captain of the BNDD pistol team, who was also his first partner. He had learned of the tragedy over the radio and said, "I had to come, and I'll go with you." His parents fully expected for Frankie to survive, but completely broke down when they realized he had not lived. Crushed relatives arrived and the home was filled with people expressing a broad rage of grief-stricken emotions. However, Frank's most difficult task was still to come and that was to break the tragic news to Frankie's intended bride. When he arrived at Carla's house he met her father at the front door. Her Dad opened the door to the kitchen and she was standing there. As soon as she saw the two of them, she put her ! fist to her mouth and cried, "Frank, don't you tell me that Frankie is dead."

Days later at the funeral the ones who'd given Frankie his fateful orders wore their most somber faces, but they could not face the family because they knew that it was their inordinate lust for statistics, their incompetence and negligence that contributed directly to Frankie's murder.

The BNDD office was in complete disarray and confidence in its administration did not exist. Fortunately, the office had a leader in Jim Hunt, an old-timer who was very tough and resourceful. He was machine-gunned in the leg during WW2, almost one mile from where his father had been wounded on French soil in WW1. A Golden Gloves boxer and Fordham University graduate, by sheer strength of will, Jim Hunt was able to refocus the agents' energy into working even harder to rid the streets of the pushers. Like many of the "greatest generation," he died last year, one of the thousand WW2 vets we lose each day.

LESSONS LEARNED:

  • Trust your gut instincts. Heed your inner voice and don't be intimidated into compromising yourself. Remember, there is always tomorrow and greed will eventually make criminals vulnerable.

  • Always have control over the situation. Never let the bad guys set the terms and conditions of a meet. Don't let them introduce last minute changes.

  • Never forget that there are two people lying during negotiations. The UCA in misrepresenting himself as a bad guy and sometimes forgets that the bad guy is also fabricating a story. Always anticipate treachery and expect the unexpected.

  • Have a sound and well-thought-out plan. Always have sufficient assets to make it work.

  • Anticipate Murphy and always have contingency plans.

  • Never assume anything. Always consider the worst possible scenario and prepare for it at least mentally.

  • Whenever possible, while undercover, wear body armor.

  • Career advancement should never take precedence over an agent's welfare.

  • Know your firearm and always maintain it in the condition you put it in when training.

  • Bosses must know their men and always look out for their welfare. No amount of contraband is worth an agent's life. Respect your personnel's concerns and give them appropriate weight when making potentially life-threatening decisions.

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