The Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) regularly targeted and used the mentally disabled and teenagers in sting operations designed to get illegal guns off the street. That is only one of several outrageous actions by ATF uncovered by an investigation by The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Several articles in the newspaper reveal a pattern of bungling, entrapment of law-abiding citizens and other outrageous behaviors on the part of ATF agents. The agents were running sting operations in pawn shops and tattoo parlors that were designed to catch criminals selling illegal guns.
The most outrageous case involved Chauncey Wright, a 28-year-old Milwaukee resident with an IQ of 54 who had suffered brain damage. Agents hired Wright to work in a fake tattoo parlor and promote the parlor by handing out fliers. They later arrested Wright and charged him with a felony.
Exploiting the Mentally Disabled
“This is real exploitation,” Shirin Cabraal, an attorney with Disability Rights Wisconsin, said “It’s morally outrageous.”
“With him being slow, they knew that and they used him,” Wright’s grandmother, Willie Campbell, complained. “He was too slow to catch on to what was going on. He was saying, ‘These are my good friends. These are my guys. They are looking out for me.’”
The agents paid Wright in cigarettes and money and used him to set up gun and drug deals. Then when the sting operation was shut down, Wright was charged with some of the crimes.
What’s most disturbing is that Wright wasn’t the only mentally disabled person the ATF exploited. Articles by John Diedirch and Raquel Rutledge indicate that agents exploited at least one other mentally disabled man in Portland, Oregon.
The agents paid 19-year old Aaron Key $150 to get a tattoo of a giant squid on his neck. The tattoo was a promotion for Squid’s Smoke Shop, which was a front for an ATF sting operation. Like Wright, Key was later charged with crimes because of his “work” for the ATF. At least one other man was also paid to get a similar tattoo.
“We are appalled by ATF agents’ lack of judgment in recruiting juveniles and developmentally disabled individuals,” a letter from three members of Congress that reviewed the ATF’s actions stated. The letter was signed by U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), Rep. Darrell Issa (R-California) and Rep. Robert Goodlatte (R-Virginia). “It is almost unimaginable that any law enforcement agency would recklessly endanger children in this way — particularly an agency that is tasked with responding to school shootings,”
Pattern of Rogue Tactics Uncovered
The targeting of the mentally disabled was only one example of what the reporters called “Rogue Tactics.” Some of the bungling by ATF agents described included:
- Providing alcohol and marijuana to underage teenagers who helped agents in the stings. The drugs and alcohol were dispensed from storefronts — some of which were near schools.
- Using free Xbox video games to lure teenagers into sting operations.
- A female agent in Portland dressed provocatively in an attempt to get teenaged boys to sell her guns and drugs.
- Bought stolen weapons, including guns taken from police cars in Atlanta.
- Agents told a man in Wichita, Kansas, how to saw off a shotgun. They then arrested the man for possessing an illegal weapon they had told him how to create.
- Employed a brain-damaged drug addict in a sting designed to catch machine gun dealers in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
- Damaged buildings they rented for the storefront sting operations. Agents reportedly did $30,000 in damage to the building where Squid’s Smoke Shop was located then vanished without paying for the repairs.
- ATF officials were apparently aware of some of the rogue tactics in Milwaukee before the Journal Sentinel exposed them, U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wisconsin) noted in a statement.
“The ATF’s mishandling of storefront operations is obviously more widespread than we were initially led to believe,” Sensenbrenner (R-Wisconsin) told the press.
The Inspector General of the US Justice Department and Congress are investigating the sting operations. The Journal Sentinel did not say whether such operations are continuing.