Anyone who has heard of Operation Fast and Furious understands how corrupt and half assed ATF investigations can be.
And anyone who is at all familiar with recent, major ATF investigations of motorcycle clubs including Operation 22 Green, Operation Black Biscuit, Operation Black Rain and last summer’s Operation Pure Luck understands that all of those investigations were half assed and corrupt in exactly the same ways. Obviously the key qualifications to become an undercover agent provocateur for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are stupidity and psychopathy. In return for possessing these treasured qualities successful candidates can expect to make about $180 thousand a year not including what they steal.
ATF investigations are awe inspiringly expensive. Operation Black Rain, for example, cost more than $100 million dispersed among the budgets of multiple federal agencies and departments like the Marshals Service, the Bureau of Prisons, the Federal Judicial Districts, the Department of Homeland Security and multiple subsets of the Department of Justice. The question nobody with a real, national voice has yet thought to ask is how the ATF keeps getting away with it.
Part of the answer is journalistic sloth and gutlessness. Most reporters are terrified of motorcycle outlaws. It is the same reason many reporters seem to think The Devils Ride is “real” or “documentary.” Federal police agencies are adept at manipulating public opinion in books and news and television accounts. Virtually everything written or broadcast about these investigations has been written and verified by federal police. And nobody in television, news or publishing thinks there is anything amiss when the job of defining consensual reality is left to policemen. Unfortunately, the propagandization of journalism is the least disturbing and dangerous aspect of letting the stupid thugs do whatever they want.
More dangerous is that the ATF and other high profile police departments like the FBI are enabled, abetted and encouraged by both federal prosecutors and judges. Prosecutors now routinely use various unethical tactics to coerce defendants into plea deals. Defendants are punished on the basis of accusations made by federal cops. Typically, those defendants are kept locked up and threatened with mandatory, decades long sentences until they confess. Judges endorse the plea bargaining system because otherwise their courts would be swamped. The official lie on which this system rests is the fantasy that policemen tell the truth.
Judges can plausibly pretend to believe that but prosecutors know it is a lie. Assistant United States Attorneys regularly employ strategies and games to protect their symbiotic partners, the police. One thing accomplished by the plea bargaining system is that trial jurors rarely examine the evidence against defendants in context. Commonly defense attorneys don’t see much of that evidence either. Federal prosecutors routinely hide exculpatory evidence and when it must be turned over to defenders it is frequently hidden in great avalanches of paper and DVDs called “evidence dumps.”
Operation Pure Luck
No case epitomizes all of this more than the current federal prosecution that was born with Operation Pure Luck.
Pure Luck began in 2009, floundered for four years while its participants desperately tried to entrap their wily and street smart targets and finally concluded with a self-congratulatory press conference at the end of June 2013. The investigation was aimed at members of the Vagos Motorcycle Club. The ATF has been trying to pin something on the Vagos since the late 90s. Shortly before the press conference, police in Nevada, California, Utah, Arizona, Texas, New York and Hawaii arrested members of the Bandidos, Chosen Few, Wicked Riderz and Green Machine Motorcycle Clubs. Most of them faced state charges. Three Vagos named Jeremy Halgat, Anthony McCall, and Robert Morrow were indicted on federal charges of “Conspiracy to Possess with Intent to Deliver a Controlled Substance” and “Using and Carrying a Firearm.”
The investigation was supervised by an ATF agent named Matt Wear and a Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department officer named David Arboreen. Arboreen was assigned to the ATF as a Tactical Field Officer or TFO. Other active participants assigned to the investigation included Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy Agostino Brancato; Montebello, California Police Sergeant Christopher Cervantes and Montebello Detective Ray Camuy.
The Dirty Duo
Brancato and Cervantes had previously worked for the ATF during Operation Black Rain, the long infiltration of the Mongols Motorcycle Club. Cervantes has been accused of impropriety during a shooting at Nicola’s nightclub in Whittier. He participated in the two-years-long debriefing of former Mongols President Ruben “Doc” Cavazos and he was arrested in the middle of Operation Pure Luck, in July 2012 in San Diego, on charges of public drunkenness and resisting arrest.
Brancato and Cervantes were introduced to the Vagos in Las Vegas by an influential and well known Vago named Angel “Diablo” Ramirez. Ramirez was a board member of the Southern Nevada Confederation of Clubs. In that position, he lobbied against a Las Vegas bikers rights attorney named Stephen “Bowtie” Stubbs. Brancato patched into the Vagos with Ramirez assistance. The Aging Rebel believes but has been unable to confirm that Cervantes also became a full member of the Vagos Motorcycle Club.
Major Drug Deal
A year ago, on February 22, 2013 Brancato lured Halgat, McCall and Morrow to his electronically surveilled residence and told the three men, “I’ve got a $500,000 coke deal going on for my family. If I fuck it up, they’ll kill me.” The three accused men were led to believe that Brancato’s “family” was a Mexican drug cartel and they were enticed to help keep their club brother alive. Brancato told the men that he had to pick up a shipment of cocaine that would be flown in from Mexico and then ensure the drugs trans-shipment to Georgia. Brancato told the men all their lives would be endangered and urged them to bring firearms.
On March 2, the three accused men arrived at Brancato’s residence with four firearms: An AK-47 look alike, a shotgun and two revolvers. All of the guns were legally possessed and transported. Brancato then drove the Vagos to an airstrip in Searchlight, Nevada. As the four men watched, Camuy landed in a single engine Cessna aircraft and exited with a blue duffel bag containing ten kilos of cocaine. While Halgat, Morrow and McCall stood guard, Brancato loaded the cocaine into his car. The government charges that Morrow and McCall helped Brancato wrap the packages of cocaine with fabric softener sheets and load them in the TFOs car. Then Brancato paid each of the three men $1,000, which is the long established rate for providing security at bogus ATF drug deals.
The bogus drug deal was Brancato’s one bright and shining moment during Operation Pure Luck. According to multiple informed sources providing “deep background” on the case, Brancato, Cervantes and Ramirez all committed multiple crimes during the investigation in hopes of inspiring other members of the Vagos to commit similar crimes. In one instance, Brancato, wearing a recording device hidden in a key fob, tried to convince a high ranking Vago to sell him drugs. In an incident that echoes similar entrapments during Operation Black Biscuit, Brancato’s device continued to record while he telephoned Wear.
“You fucked that up,” Wear reproached the TFO. “Now he can prove entrapment.”
“I don’t care,” Brancato brazened. “Maniak sold me the shit.”
“But he didn’t,” Wear replied, displaying unusual honesty for an ATF agent. “Because you fucked up.”
Games Prosecutors Play
Sources with knowledge of the case also describe the Reports of Investigation or ROIs written by Brancato and Cervantes as being riddled with lies. It is customary in ATF undercover investigations to write ROIs well after the incidents they describe and for those reports to fabricate events and conversations. ROIs are almost never compared to the electronic surveillance that could either prove or disprove their veracity. The reports are, however, considered by grand jurors and judges to be unimpeachable proof.
In questionable investigations, prosecutors inevitably refuse to “discover” evidence that could undermine their cases: For example the audio and video recordings that could substantiate or disprove the investigative reports in Pure Luck. The case that resulted from Operation Black Biscuit was very diminished when prosecutors refused to turn over evidence to defense attorneys that might have proven that the agents and informants involved – the most well known of whom was best selling author and national treasure Jay Dobyns – lied, entrapped, broke laws, consumed drugs, enjoyed extramarital sex with one another and generally partied like rock stars.
The Pure Luck case echoes Black Biscuit. In the last six months defense attorneys have tried to exclude “transcripts of recordings due to inaudibility and unreliability;” have sought to examine the personnel files of Brancato, Cervantes and other ATF employees assigned to the case; have filed multiple motions and sent dozens of less formal emails in an attempt to inspect the evidence against their clients; filed an “Emergency Motion To (1) Compel… Discovery and Brady, Giglio And Jencks…Materials The Government Refuses To Disclose, (2) For The Production Of The Undercover And Confidential Informant Cell Phones For Expert Inspection And (3) Request For Exclusionary Sanctions;” and have filed motions to compel the discovery of surveillance logs and other materials that would support the government’s ROIs. The government has also formally moved to forbid defenders from using the entrapment defense.
Prosecutors are stonewalling which is why the trial has already been delayed several times. It is now scheduled to begin on May 13 which gives prosecutors another three months to intimidate the defendants into taking plea deals. It is an interesting game of chicken. If the defendants can be enticed to cop a plea, as they were once enticed break two laws, the government can sweep all of this mess under a rug.