WTF ATF: The ATF's Fake Retail Stores, Bad Behavior… And Why It Only Came Out Because They Failed To Pay Rent
from the wtf-indeed dept
This past week, on This American Life, the first 20 minutes or so are the incredible story of just how screwed up the ATF continues to be (the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms). Much of this has been reported on over the past year and a half by reporters in Milwaukee (and investigated by Congress), but it’s absolutely worth listening to the details — which you can do over on the This American Life page (I’d post the embed here, but unfortunately This American Life does not yet appear to support HTTPS, so we can’t). The story is all kinds of stunning, including the insane fact that most of the details came out, and the reporters only began their investigation, because some undercover ATF agents in Milwaukee had trashed the property they were renting, and refused to pay the rent or damages to the landlord — even threatening the landlord, claiming he was harassing federal agents by asking for the rent:
John Diedrich: I get a call. And it was from a landlord, a guy named Dave Salkin. And Dave Salkin owns this place that he, unbeknownst to him, rented to the ATF. Didn’t know who they were, they were undercover agents. And they had trashed his place, and they were behind on rent. They had threatened him. And I said, where are you, I’m coming right now.
Ira Glass: While they were undercover, agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives basically ripped up his place. Salkin said at the time that they owed $15,000 in damages and back rent. Later he said it was more. When he tried to collect, they didn’t pay up. In fact, an ATF lawyer warned him that if he kept asking for the money, it could be seen as harassing federal agents.
The other thing that becomes clear in all of this is that these “undercover” ATF agents aren’t just sloppy and stupid, they seem to go out of their way to be ineffective and dangerous.
Ira Glass: And they were robbed. These agents whose job it was to get guns out of the hands of criminals had three guns that were stolen out of an agent’s car while he was parked at a coffee shop. These included a fully automatic rifle. This is a machine gun, the kind that normally only law enforcement and military can legally have.
Not long after that, the store itself was burglarized of $39,000 in clothes, jewelry, and merch, reportedly, because the ATF had not bothered to do much to secure the store and just did not seem to care. Nobody was minding the store, literally.
John Diedrich: The ATF had no working burglar alarm on their building. So it was sort of, instead of a smash and grab, it was just this sort of like slow burglary. The neighbors report at one point, once they were able to get in– again, no burglar alarm– they kept the door propped open with a shoe. And they were just kind of taking stuff out.
And the word sort of spread. Hey, this place is just open. Nobody’s there. We can just go get stuff. And at one point they just pulled up a U-Haul. And they were just sort of emptying this. And this is over several days. And then even–
Ira Glass: Renting a U-Haul is such a crazy move, because is it means that somebody had to go and decide, I’m going to rent a truck. That’s how slow this burglary is, that you can do a rental.
John Diedrich: Yeah, exactly. And there’s no sort of concern that you’re going to be busted at that point, and just say, OK, I can only carry so much in my arms. Let’s get something bigger. Let’s get a U-Haul.
Ira Glass: The same day the burglary was reported, an ATF ballistic shield, the kind that they would use to raid a house or something, was turned in by a scrapper at a Milwaukee police station. One item that was just left lying around in the store after the robbery for anybody to pick up and read– it was there when reporter John Diedrich walked through– was a secret ATF document listing the names of undercover agents, their undercover vehicles from several law enforcement agencies in Milwaukee.
There’s a lot more like this. Including potential copyright infringement:
Ira Glass: And they distributed flyers with the store’s logo, which was a skull with angel wings made from assault rifles and knives with the words Buy, Sell, Trade, wink, wink. Federal agents actually ripped off the logo from the Sylvester Stallone film, The Expendables, possibly in violation of their copyright.
The story details just how incredibly counterproductive all these efforts were. Since they were paying super high prices for guns, people would suddenly start stealing guns just because the ATF was making them so valuable. And, despite the ATF pretending otherwise, the case in Milwaukee was hardly a one-off situation.
Raquel Rutledge: And as we started looking, really, truly, we came back to one other– you’re not going to believe this. I mean, we were shocked. I don’t think we expected to find this going on. Absolutely not, did we expect to find that it would go on elsewhere, because you can’t imagine this would be part of a playbook or an MO of a federal agency. So it was stunning to find. Had they been burglarized? Did they trash the landlord’s place?
We found in Portland the lady just said, I am so glad you called. She said, I have not known what to do. She said, they left my place in shambles. She had photos of what they left it like– I mean, like a college fraternity or something. Just trash everywhere, they tore out some walls and they rewired some stuff and caused a leaky roof. She estimates her damages were probably $20,000 roughly, $20,000, $25,000. So that, you think, how does that happen? Is that, again, part of the playbook?
Ira Glass: Raquel and John looked into ATF storefronts in Wichita, Portland, Oregon, Pensacola, Albuquerque, Atlanta, and Phoenix. Some of the Milwaukee problems they found examples of in those other cities? Agents paying extra high prices for guns, buying stolen goods, criminals committing burglaries in the neighborhoods around the stores and then selling the stuff to the ATF. Raquel and John say that the quality of the convictions from these operations around the country, the kinds of people that the ATF was catching were mostly small fry, just like in Milwaukee. The ATF store in Pensacola was robbed just like the Milwaukee store was, twice.
There’s a lot more in the story — and it’s totally worth listening to. But the most fascinating point of all may be the one right up front in the story, and then reinforced at the end. None of this likely would have come out if it were not for the unpaid rent.
It wasn’t the squid tattoos or the low-IQ employees or getting robbed over and over. It wasn’t the way they caught and charged suspects. It was that landlord in Milwaukee. If they hadn’t trashed his place, or if they had just paid him promptly to repair it instead of fighting him over every penny, apparently, he wouldn’t have called the newspaper. John and Raquel say the whole thing might never have come to light.
The whole effort has resulted in some attempts to actually disband the entire ATF, which might not be such a bad idea. While we hadn’t been following the agency that closely (and hadn’t been aware of all of these fake storefronts and the crazy stories behind them), in the past we’ve reported on how the ATF made up an entire robbery plot in order to entrap a group of poor young men in a “crime” that wouldn’t have existed, but for the ATF’s fantasy.
It would be nice to trust law enforcement officials, but they keep giving us reasons not to trust them at all.