6 Realities of Buying Drugs (While Wearing a Wire)
In cop movies, any time they want to take down a big-time kingpin, they start small: by arresting some lowly hoodlum and convincing him to "roll over" on his boss by becoming a double agent for the good guys. This street criminal then starts risking his life to feed information to the police, knowing there will be hell to pay if he or she gets caught, and prison if they refuse.
If you think about it, it's kind of weird that the story almost always follows the cops in that situation, because it seems like the snitch -- or "confidential informant" -- is the one playing the high-stakes game of cat and mouse. Well, we talked to one of these CI's, who'll remain anonymous for obvious reasons. He told us ...
You Get Threatened Into Compliance
If you want to live the glamorous life of the confidential informant, you don't need to be a former mafia assassin who gets busted by the feds. If you've committed even a minor crime -- especially if it involved drugs -- The Man might come calling with an offer to turn into a CI and start feeding them information from the inside. According to our source:
"I was young and stupid and made a mistake, and I was willing to pay the price for it, but they used the girl I loved as bait. We were both addicted. I'd written a stolen check, she had cashed it, but she didn't know at all it was stolen. ... They were gonna hold her accountable as well, and I was told that if I played ball, her and I could both walk away like it never happened."
Don't ever try to cash a check for "a lot" of money.
Spoiler alert: It wouldn't turn out to be that easy. Our source didn't wind up getting shot and dumped off a boat like Big Pussy on The Sopranos (this interview wasn't conducted with an ouija board), but he still got more than he bargained for.
First, working with the police as an informant doesn't come with many guarantees, but there are some rough rules of thumb: You can rely on the prosecutor dismissing a charge for every two arrests of equal or greater value. Get busted for possessing and intending to distribute cocaine? You'd better be able to help the police bust two other coke dealers. Two-for-one is a great deal whether you're talking about felonies or Little Caesars pizzas, which is why cops are so willing to work with young ne'er-do-wells like our source.
"We'll even take ruffians and no-goodniks."
But already you can start to see how messed up this is. For one, the police now have motivation for you to stay in that criminal life -- the moment you go straight, they lose their leverage and your valuable connection to the underworld. If you watched The Wire, this might not be a big surprise. It sounds exactly like how the Baltimore PD used Bubbles:
AKA the most beloved heroin addict without his own name on a star in Hollywood.
Think about it: If the only interaction you had with bad guys were ones that resulted in them all getting arrested a few weeks later, how long would it take them to figure it out? No, it only works if they know you're part of the scene, which means you're going to be routinely doing the things that your tips are getting other people busted for. You can get caught doing heroin and truthfully say, "I'm doing this for justice!"
And if you're wondering ...
Yes, Informants Get Killed
Did you think we were being over-dramatic with our Sopranos example up there? After all, those guys were the mafia, our guy was just taking down his local coke dealer. Well, let's look at the case of Rachel Hoffman.
Hoffman had barely committed a crime -- in 2008 she was selling small amounts of pot on the side while working on her master's degree. Rather than lose out on her student loans and start her career with a criminal record, Hoffman decided to work with the police, because obviously they wouldn't put a young woman charged with a minor drug offense in a deadly situation. Surprise! They would, and Hoffman was murdered once the dealer they set her up with spotted the wire. This happens with uncomfortable regularity. The police are sometimes held accountable, like when Kentucky officers lost track of an 18-year-old informant who was then abducted, tortured, and killed, but the informant really just has to hope the cops are good at their jobs and/or give a shit about the CI's life.
"He might be in trouble, but it's League Night. What do you want to do?"
That is the context someone like our source is all too familiar with when they start down this road. So, how do they get a CI to push themselves further and further into a dangerous criminal network without outright threatening or coercing them? In our source's case, the answer was simple ass-kissing:
"The agents are good at stroking your ego. 'Oh man we haven't had anyone get inside this group before.' You don't know whether it's true or not, but they are good at playing you. They know what makes a person tick. They know when to say the right thing. And they also know they have you by the balls."
"Also, we just want you to know that you have, by far, the nicest balls of anyone we've worked with."
And speaking of balls, next came the wire.
"The wires today are about the size of a matchbox. ... The mic is just a little cord. So you've got this taped to the bottom of your testicles and you're hiding the mic behind the button of your jeans. It makes for uncomfortable moments with a federal agent."
It Doesn't End With the First Bust
If you're a CI, you're in it for the long haul -- this isn't one single dramatic buy or attempt to get somebody talking on a wire. It's about establishing a long-term relationship, first between the cops and the CI, and then the CI and the dealer they're trying to take down.
"The very first thing they had me do was, essentially, a trust buy. It's just a small amount of substance; they're gonna tell you how much they want. You're gonna tell them how much it costs. They give you the money. You purchase it ... they weigh it, and if everything comes as it's supposed to, you've bought yourself a bit of trust."
You can get away with blowing the money on pizza and claiming you got confused once, but after that you lose trust fast.
After that, it was just a series of buys -- heroin and cocaine -- because the sales are cumulative when building a criminal case. ("It all goes into the piggy bank and eventually the full bust should be large enough to make it a felony.") Now, in a TV show, the story ends with the bust -- the CI only has to keep his cover until the target is safely in jail. But in real life, that's not the end of the story -- they want to keep using the informant for bust after bust (remember how we said it takes multiple busts to make one charge go away?) So how do they protect their source even after kicking down the dealers' door? It's surprisingly easy -- and horrifying:
"Finally they had me order a large amount. I placed an order and said, 'I'm gonna come buy and pick it up later today.' At this point, the police set up shop outside the dealer's house. I never actually came by to make that purchase. The police wait for the first unlucky person of the day to make a buy, then they come up behind him and bust the dealer, so he thinks that last customer was the real snitch. That's how they protect the actual snitch. It's horrible, but it works."
"Snitches get crippling emotional guilt" isn't catchy, but it's more accurate.
And really, what could possibly go wrong? But even after bringing home a big bust, our source wasn't done. A good informant is hard to find, and if you show any aptitude for clandestine work, you can be sure ...
You Will Keep Going Deeper
Most street-level drug dealers tend to have at least semipersonal relationships with their regular clients. Having a dealer that is part of the user's social circle makes the whole drug-buying process safer for the user and dealer both (nobody wants a transaction to go down like the Christmas tree buying scene in Lethal Weapon), but from the cops' point of view, that's how they turn one CI into a series of arrests that fall like dominoes:
"Immediately I'm being called by that person's family, 'hey don't come by, just got busted, we'll have everything up and running in a few hours.' Then their sibling calls and says, 'hey if you need something call me.' So I wound up being responsible for the other people being busted."
"Man, he's the third dealer you know that's been busted this month. Your luck is terrible! Anyway, come on over whenever."
When our source's personal connections exposed the deeper organization, the cops got real interested. And then ...
"That's when the feds started to take over. I'd mostly been working with local guys at this point, but once it became clear the organization was larger, the big guys stepped in."
This meant more drug buys for our source, which wound up giving him a crash course in police surveillance:
"You meet them at a location, decide to take your vehicle or theirs. You roll out, there's a lead car and a follow-up car. The lead shows up 10 minutes early. They're gonna position themselves so they look like they're cruising. People don't usually pay attention to vehicles; they look at the driver. So they'll change hats and sunglasses. It's the same vehicle for miles, but if you look and see the driver is different, you don't think it's the same car."
"Don't be paranoid, man; that last car's driver was Cocker spaniel."
Our source reported that he found himself enjoying the work the longer he did it, feeling like a "secret agent" and liking the feeling of working for the side of law and order for once (This is an incredibly common motivation among CIs). And at that point ...
It Can Become Your Career
Once our source successfully busted enough of his former compatriots to clear his own name, the feds started offering him money to keep going. That -- and the thrill of the hunt -- were strong motivation.
"You kinda start thinking, OK maybe I should go ahead and finish it out. So we get a couple ounces, but the feds want their guy to finish the buy. I'm introduced to this young black dude who is supposed to be undercover. He looked straight laced, like he'd just gotten out of the military. Didn't know certain slang terms. It was bad. I was like, we're gonna get shot."
"Good morrow. I'm interested in acquiring a recreational amount of narcotic opiates. Can you aid me in this endeavor?"
It's pretty typical police business to introduce an undercover cop to an illegal organization via a trusted informant. So as the informant, you're now trying to worm your way into getting someone to sell you illegal drugs while teaching a very cop-looking young undercover how to fit in with your particular level of the criminal underworld. Drug dealers aren't, by nature, the most trusting of souls, so this often turns into a crapshoot:
" calls me on the phone says 'I'm only gonna deal with you.' But the undercover agent says, 'I gotta see it, I gotta see it,' and I'm like, 'dude I know what fucking heroin looks like.'"
"Perfect. Three syringes' worth, please."
Our source was used to drug dealers who occasionally freak out, and have very strict rules about who they'll see in a "business" setting. Our source's new "partner" and his fellow cops weren't as used to this. The original plan had been to just follow the dealer after the buy to do a bust at (hopefully) the stash-house, with our snitch nowhere to be seen. The police didn't wind up having the patience for that, and just busted them right in the McDonald's parking lot where they did the initial buy:
"Next thing I know, the SWAT team rolls up in four vans and they bust out the windows we're in, bust out the windows she's in, and pull her out -- really scratched her up when they did that. It was fucked up. ... That led to me really distrusting the feds. I'd told myself, never again at that point. Quitting was easier said than done, though."
And "Turn in your needles and testicle tape recorder" just doesn't have the same ring to it.
The thing is, our source never got off the heroin. In fact, his work with the police just made getting his fix safer and more affordable than ever before. In other words ...
You're Doing Nothing to Actually Break the Cycle
As we mentioned, being a CI isn't just about getting out from under your criminal charges -- the police aren't above issuing cash payments for "services rendered":
"I was ready to quit after that disastrous bust, but right after it wound down, the local cops called me and said, 'hey the feds just dropped off the money for you,' so I go meet them, get a couple thousand dollars. I'm like ... well, shit. That's really not that bad. From the info, they took down the whole organization, these two busts lead to about eight."
There's a fine line between "I want to do my civic duty" and "I need rent money."
And it's not just money. While the police are expressly forbidden from paying informants in illegal drugs, like a lot of other "expressly forbidden" things, they simply turn a blind eye to it:
"They make you sign a contract, say if we catch you stealing drugs, you'll be in lots of trouble. But that's just paperwork. How it really works is you skim a little off the top, and if the three grams they bought weighs out to 2.6, no one asks any questions. Say you're doing a $300 buy. You'll put $260 of it in one bag, and give that to the cops, and keep $40 in another little bag for yourself. They're aware of it. Hell, there were times I'd go to the same dealer twice in a day -- once to buy some heroin for the cops, and once to buy it for myself. At this point, you keeping up good drug buying helps the police, so they aren't about to get onto you for it."
Although when even your dealer starts to worry about your habit, you've got to tone it down a little.
And ... that's pretty much the most succinct summary of the War on Drugs you'll ever find. The police are tasked with eradicating drug use. So they arrest drug users, use them to bust dealers, and pay the users enough money to continue their addiction, thus helping to fund more drug dealers. The wheels of drug commerce keep turning unabated, everyone getting their cut along the way, no one with any motivation to actually solve the problem. But hey, at least we get a lot of good TV shows out of it.
Robert Evans wrote a whole book about trying ancient drugs, A Brief History of Vice. You can pre-order it now!
For more insider perspectives, check out 6 Unexpected Things I Learned From Being a Drug Dealer and 6 Realities of Cooking Illegal Drugs (Not Seen on TV).
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