Undercover Police Get Intimate Look at Criminal World
by Tom Spalding, Associated Press
INDIANAPOLIS - J.G. Smith expected one man to show up when he asked to buy an illegal gun. But the recorder hidden under his jacket and bib overalls suddenly felt as big as a phonebook when eight people met him inside a Muncie clubhouse.
The 40-year-old Indianapolis police detective had posed successfully for months as a beer-drinking, lawbreaking biker named "Grumpy."
Now he stood seconds away from discovery.
The group, some of them members of a rogue outfit called The Lone Few, routinely threatened to search folks before talking business. Once they found a wire, retribution would be swift. Smith and months of a federal investigation teetered on the brink.
Undercover duty isn't as glamorous as it might look on TV, but it plays a key role in law enforcement. Indianapolis police expect to turn to it even more this year as they battle to reduce the city's homicide rate.
Most of those assignments won't be as challenging as Smith's. He spent more than a year inside a motorcycle club, one of several officers working on behalf of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. The Muncie group was notorious for illegal gun sales, vehicle theft and illegal drugs.
To make arrests, Smith had to make changes. This wouldn't be the one-week or one-month investigation he was used to - he had to commit to a new identity.
He let his normally buzzed brown hair grow to a shoulder-length ponytail. He grew a beard to complete the look.
He left his wife and children in Indianapolis, renting a house in Pendleton where he stayed many nights.
He created an alias so thorough that a suspicious biker would have found fictional parents and even a criminal record. Smith's fondness for the motorcycle life made some of the transformation easy.
It was tougher being away from his family for days at a time as he slowly tried to impress people he despised.
Lots of pool-playing. Lots of pot being smoked around him. Lots of waiting.
He didn't smoke marijuana, but he always had a beer in hand to avoid arousing suspicion.
"They think everybody new is either a snitch or the police," Smith said. "You just have to stick around them, whether it's a bike show or bar or a party. I don't know if they completely trust you. But they get used to seeing you around."
Eventually Smith was included in activities, learning how some club members used the proceeds from the sale of stolen bicycles and bike parts to fund frequent visits to strip joints.
He'd have to lie to gang members just so he could sneak home and see his four children. He avoided public places, even in Indianapolis, where he might be spotted.
When he felt confident that his bogus identity was trusted, Smith started building cases against club members he saw or heard were breaking the law.
But the danger of exposure remained constant. Buying guns last winter was one of the worst moments. Smith found himself surrounded by eight people, some of whom he didn't know.
He'd worked out a game plan for just such a situation: If he was grilled about being a snitch or asked if he wore a wire, he'd "get offended and walk out."
That day, the threat of a search turned out to be a bluff. The recorder, and his real identity, went undiscovered.
Months later, the crew had seen enough.
In October, agents with the ATF and Muncie, Delaware County, Bloomington and Indianapolis police raided two homes and the club's headquarters, leading to the arrest of five members and associates, and the seizure of guns, methamphetamines, marijuana and cocaine. Additional arrests are pending.
Smith said he has mixed feelings about his role in the operation. Staying undercover longer would have led to evidence linking Indianapolis club members to the Muncie crimes, but that would have meant another six months away from home and family.
Officials praised the work he did.
The ATF honored Smith, whose work "dismantled the Muncie area chapter of the Sons of Silence. They are no more," said Jeffrey Groh, a resident agent.
It was the first time the Indianapolis Police Department loaned an officer to a group for such a long period of time.
"To get somebody on the inside of those rough groups is amazing," said Indianapolis Police Chief Jerry Barker.
Smith, who eventually plans to return to a more clean-cut look, says with a smile that he's glad he earned the trust of another group - his bosses.
That came, he said, "even though you spend a lot of time in the clubhouse or strip clubs, drinking beer and shooting pool."