undercover sting that took 1-year netted arrests, guns, drugs in D.C.

20 Dec

What Washington didn’t know at the time: The house, dressed up as a recording studio, was wired by the FBI, and his clients were undercover D.C. police. When an officer listening in on a telephone conversation overheard plans to rob them instead, Washington was soon arrested.

Those encounters, described in court papers, were among the many that occurred during a yearlong sting operation that was revealed Monday. Authorities say officers posing as gangsters, crooked businessmen and bodyguards helped snag $7.2 million in cocaine, methamphetamines and other drugs, buy and capture 161 weapons, and make 70 arrests.

“This was a significant result for the District,” D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier said at a Monday afternoon press conference. “Had those drugs and guns made it to our streets, the consequences would be devastating.”

The face of the the sting operation was D.C. Police Sgt. Dale Sutherland, a veteran of undercover work. Posing as Manic Enterprises impresario Richie Valdez, head of an international string of recording studios, he could convince criminals that he was one of them — and that he wasn’t afraid to rob banks and drug dealers to boost his trade in guns and drugs. Valdez’s associates were D.C. police narcotics investigators.

The team uncovered connections to a Mexican drug cartel and out-of-area gun traders, leading to federal investigations in a half-dozen states and a murder case in El Salvador. The year-long investigation gave authorities a rare opportunity to fight violent crime by attacking the sources of the dangerous weapons that flow into the city, authorities say.

“We concentrated on some higher-value targets,” ATF Assistant Special Agent in Charge Richard Marianos said Monday.

“They had real connections to real gun traffickers,” said Sutherland an interview. “It is unusual to get that many guys that have a ‘connect’ where they can get guns steady. … We know criminals have this kind of stuff on the street, but we don’t get to recover it very often.”

The salesman who claimed he could provide rocket launchers was Chris Washington, according to court papers that say he also sold officers drugs. Another man, James Deale, allegedly sold them AR-15 assault rifles — but also made-to-fit handgun silencers, which police said are rarely found on the streets.

“I never thought guys could get guns as fast as those guys can get guns,” said Officer Kief Green, who posed as Valdez’s bodyguard, in an interview. “Amazing.”

In October, after six people were shot — one fatally — in five incidents of gunfire on or after Halloween night, Lanier lamented an “uptick” in the number of gunshots reported in the city, calling the shootings “a symptom of the bigger problem.”

Around that time, D.C. police and ATF, FBI and ICE agents were working to wrap up the undercover operation, which used the Northeast house and other locations as bases.

The operation differed from some other recent undercover projects in the District. In 2009, Lanier and federal investigators revealed a sting run out of a phony auto body shop that helped them seize guns, drugs and stolen electronics. During that investigation, police sought to pull guns and drugs off the streets quickly.

Information graphic explaining the year-long police undercover sting operation dubbed “Manic Enterprises.”

 “This time it was more of a conversation: ‘Give me your résumé of what you do,’ ” said Lt. Eugene Bentley, who supervised both operations, in an interview. “This was totally different.”

Police declined to discuss many of the operation’s tactical details, but interviews and court documents provided a partial illustration of their methods.

Once inside the Northeast house’s iron gate, visitors found gleaming hardwood floors and a flat-screen television in the entryway. Upstairs, a Plexiglas window divided a studio built in a converted bedroom from a sound system, couches, a mini-fridge and a bar.

The furniture was purchased at the Salvation Army; the floors were buffed by Green. Police said some targets tried to book studio time but were rebuffed by Valdez.

The hidden audio and video equipment recorded hundreds of hours of meetings and deals struck by Sutherland, detective Frank Then — in the role of business associate — and others posing as girlfriends and bodyguards.

Confidential informants lured targets to the studio, courting them with food, beer and high-end tequila. Over days, weeks and months, police worked to set up bigger deals in the Washington area but also New York, North Carolina, Georgia and West Virginia.

A November 2010 meeting led to the eventual arrest of eight men authorities said were connected to the Mexican drug cartel “La Familia.”One of them allegedly claimed to run the area’s drug operations for the gang, which wanted to establish a methamphetamine market in the District. In October, six men pleaded guilty to federal drug charges in connection with the case.

This spring, detectives met with six other men they say needed guns, bulletproof vests, vehicles and a driver to rob a Pennsylvania bank, authorities said. They were professionals, investigators say — organized, determined and willing to face danger for the right price.

“They didn’t even drink alcohol,” said Sgt. Deryl Johnson an interview. “These guys were just cold.”

Some deals were struck in moments. Green often cut side deals for drugs or guns as he escorted people out of the rowhouse.

“They were willing to do anything,” he said. “It was unpredictable.”

That sometimes meant danger. On one occasion, police say, a suspected MS-13 gang member pulled out a silver pistol, waving it drunkenly around the room. He kissed it, called it his “baby” and bragged about using it in robberies, police said.

Officers offered to buy it from him, but the man refused. Officers persuaded him to put it back in his pocket, then radioed other officers to arrest him after he left the studio.

In June, police said, one target accidentally dialed the phone of an officer who was posing as “Tony Blanco.” When the officer picked up, he overheard men discussing a plan to storm the studio, guns blazing.

Investigators immediately began their own preparations. On June 20, a surveillance team overheard men finalizing their plot as they sat inside a hamburger shop in Northeast. Police were primed to stop them before they started — but the attack never came, and the men were eventually arrested in another part of the city.

In November, police and federal investigators who worked on the operation gathered at a barbecue to celebrate. Everyone received a plaque in the shape of a gold record marked with the sting’s name: “Operation Manic Enterprises.”

On Monday, Marianos recalled the city’s two latest high-profile undercover stings during the press conference with Lanier. “Two years ago, we made a commitment that this wouldn’t be a one-trick pony,” he said. “We are going to make moves against predators in this city”

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