Operation Switch: Setting up the sting
Inside the first long-term undercover operation in the United States — part one of a four-part series
By Jack Miller
Got a theft problem? Considering a sting? In this four-part series I will share with you some details about how Las Vegas Metro Police handled their problem in the first long-term undercover operation in the United States. It was called Operation Switch. I was there.
Operation Switch was designed by two Metro detectives, financed by a Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA) grant issued to the District Attorney’s office and supported by the FBI. Later on it became necessary to involve the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (forerunner to the DEA), the ATF, the Secret Service, and US Postal Inspectors due to jurisdiction and investigations.
The two detectives and two investigators from the DA’s office selected the storefront location in an industrial area where strangers could come and go unnoticed by neighbors. After leasing the building using false business identification, they set upon hardening the walls of the storefront because of having businesses on both sides — if a firefight broke out, the chance of an errant shot had to be considered. Cinder blocks filled with sand and covered with painted wallboard did the trick.
On one side, a false wall with a knockdown panel and a one-way mirror was built. Because the team’s cover was a specialized cardboard box company, empty boxes were stacked on a portion of that wall, which helped conceal the knockdown panel. Next to the mirror was placed a photo of a swimsuit model, which ensured that the customer would take at least one look at the mirror for a good ID photo.
On the opposing wall was a calendar and clock, which would be used to record the time and date of the incident.
The counter was built of cinder block filled with sand and was high enough for the two LVMPD undercover detectives to lean on but would be a struggle for a customer to jump over. A shelf was built to hold the UCs’ weapons.
Behind the space for the countermen was a wall with a door, and behind that was the work area where a DA investigator and an FBI agent watched a real-time televised feed from the camera behind the one-way mirror. Both were armed with shotguns in the event trouble broke out in the front. They were primarily concerned with an attempt to rob the store, because customers were shown cash when being paid.
The officers leased a professional camera and recorder, wired the store with concealed microphones and purchased a quantity of videotapes. Behind the false wall one FBI agent would run the camera and one FBI agent stood ready with a shotgun as backup.
They were almost ready to open for business.
Homework consisted of reading catalogs and learning retail prices. They visited pawn brokers with items to learn the trade and the language, and they took classes from reputable jewelers and learned about classifying diamonds and using a diamond-mate to test diamonds. They also had to learn about gold.
They leased a safe house in a quiet neighborhood with big trees and a large parking area behind the house. To maintain anonymity, they would use this area to park their vehicles and not use the regular police parking lots. The team would gather there and discuss events and possible situations, then five would go to the storefront with three of the members hiding in the back of the van.
The second DA investigator would work in the safe house. He was selected because of his excellent memory for detail and strong organizational skills, as it might be weeks before a stolen item would be sold.
Now that you know a bit about the storefront, the personnel, and some of the training the officers received, we’ll look next at the operation itself. That will be in this space in two weeks (on October 17).
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