You may have seen a recent news story about two Baltimore Corrections Officers exploiting the recent protests by looting a 7-11 store. This case brought to my mind one I tried many years ago, wherein a Federal Corrections Officer and his girlfriend passed counterfeit $20 bills at Las Vegas casinos.
And it spawned another guest column, this time by my go-to ATF agent in Las Vegas, Terry Clark.
– Tom O’Connell
GANGS AND LAW ENFORCEMENT
I wondered if the counterfeiting gang members behind the McGee-Welch case were related to the gang members who stole hand grenades from the USS Pelleliu in our case, U.S. vs Soto.
In that undercover investigation, we were able to buy ten M-67s in the back parking lot of a bar off Arville and Flamingo in Las Vegas. It’s now the Bourbon St. Bar. LVMPD Detectives Pat Fielding and Eric Cruze and ATF agents Jay Dobyns and Vince Cefalu did the undercover (“UC”) work.
We met the subject through a storefront sting operation we were running at the time. The Federal Firearms Licensee (“FFL”) / informant would do his legitimate business during the day. Meetings with our UCs for purposes of illegal activity were done at night.
This was during the militia phase, around the time of the Oklahoma City Bombing.
When the CI got the offer from the subject, Edward Soto, to sell the grenades, he thought the offer was 7 grenades for $700. Detective Fielding showed up with seven $100 dollar bills that we had photocopied. Soto showed up with the grenades in a cardboard box in the rear of his Nissan hatchback. But he showed Fielding ten grenades. Fortunately, Soto agreed to “front” him the additional 3. Soto agreed to meet Fielding later to collect the $300 balance.
That agreement was a very good thing, because we couldn’t let the suspect walk with three live grenades. The deal had to be a “buy/walk”. The plan was to identify the subject, then follow him to his residence. Next we would set up Pen Registers and Traps/Traces. Later we put a Firefly, a physical tracker, on his vehicle.
I tracked him back to San Diego and got toll information from a San Diego phone number. It tuned out to be Soto’s girlfriend. She had a teenage son. He played pickup football games on the weekends with personnel from the USS Pelleliu.
After a few weeks we had probable cause to take Soto down. We searched his residence on the West side of Vegas. I obtained a full confession from him. Soto was a white guy in his mid 50s. Actually, he was closer to yellow, because he was dying of liver cancer. He had a morphine pump in his abdomen for pain.
The Vegas ATF boss, Ed Verkin, was out of town on leave. He had left me “Acting” Resident Agent in Charge. I needed to get my happy ass to San Diego to supervise the execution of the search warrant of Soto’s girlfriends house. Local ATF agents and a Naval Criminal Investigative Service agent assisted. Then we had a glitch.
A FLY IN THE OINTMENT
I contacted Lenny Boyer, the acting Chief Deputy at the U.S. Marshalls Service, about Soto. He told me that he did not have the manpower to sit on Soto in the jail hospital ward 24/7.
So if I booked him, we would have to babysit him until his court appearance on Monday.
Howard Zlotnick, the First Assistant U.S. Attorney, was not happy when I told him that I couldn’t take the guy into custody. I didn’t feel that Soto was either an escape risk or a danger to the community. He was extremely ill, and very cooperative with us. I always respected and enjoyed working with Howard but this time he and I didn’t agree.
So, off I went to San Diego with my search warrant in hand. Flying low in the gray Police Cruiser Lincoln Continental that was nominally a “cool car”. Made record time to San Diego. Met up with the team in San Diego, did the warrant, cuffed the son (an adult) and obtained a full confession from him. He agreed to cooperate. He didn’t have any more grenades but agreed to try to find the two guys who had sold the case of ten to him.
He said they were gang members – and members of the U.S. Navy.
Working with NICS we were able to identify the two sailors. One had the key to the armory. He had not stolen only the ten grenades our UC had purchased. Also recovered, a few weeks earlier, were 13 more. They were in the closet of a San Diego prostitute. The NICS took that prosecution to the Navy JAG Corps and the two gang-banging sailors received military prison sentences. And, of course, they were courtmartialed.
In January 2000 I was promoted to Group Supervisor in San Francisco. The agents who inherited my case load didn’t follow up. They let this case just fade away.
I would have liked to have seen the telephone link analysis charts from our case compared to those of the counterfeiters.
As we all used to say about working Fed cases in Vegas, “It’s a target rich environment”.