To identify the networks, the agents would watch and document as the straw buyers transferred guns to middlemen. The agents would be instructed not to move in and question the men but to let the guns go and see where they eventually ended up.
The reasoning was that an arrest of a straw purchaser would not get ATF the bigger fish; the buyer would get a light punishment, if any, and the cartel could just find another buyer. By not immediately arresting the straw buyers, the agents could follow them and their associates, wiretapping conversations, and possibly charge them with serious crimes such as conspiracy, drug trafficking and money laundering.
The plan they developed was permitted under ATF rules, had the legal backing of U.S. Attorney Dennis K. Burke in Phoenix, and had been approved and funded by a task force at the Justice Department, ATF’s parent agency.
Nevertheless, it was risky. In drug-trafficking cases, investigating agents, by law, cannot let drugs “walk” onto the street. Since gun sales are legal, agents on surveillance are not required to step in and stop weapons from hitting the streets and must have probable cause to make an arrest. But the danger in letting guns go is obvious.
In November 2009, Newell’s agents in “Group 7,” one of the squads in the office, began following a particularly busy suspected gun trafficker. In 24 days, he bought 34 firearms. The next month, the man and his associates bought 212 more.
The case began to grow exponentially, with more than two dozen suspected straw purchasers. It was named Fast and Furious because the suspects operated out of a sprawling auto repair shop and raced cars on the streets, like Vin Diesel, the star of the movie.
But a mutiny was brewing in Group 7. Dodson, Casa and two other agents were furious about letting the guns walk. The chemistry in the office was bad. Many of the agents had been sent in from outside Phoenix and were working together for the first time under David Voth, a Marine Corps veteran and brand-new supervisor sent in from Minnesota. The agents’ outrage overrode any sense of loyalty to their bosses.
Every day, Dodson and the other agents watched and stewed while the straw purchasers bought boxes of guns and sometimes took the weapons to stash houses and cars waiting in parking lots. Each time they called in to supervisors, they were told to stand down.
The agents, operating out of office space in downtown Phoenix, clashed with Voth and the agent running the case, Hope MacAllister, who they felt ignored their concerns. Neither Voth nor MacAllister responded to requests for comment.