The man with the diamond earrings passed out black-and-white photos showing the crew’s targets: a liquor store in Southeast Washington and its owner, a Mexican drug dealer. In the trunk of the getaway car were two machetes, three guns and enough wire to tie up the owner before taking off with a pile of cash and cocaine.
“We’ve done this . . . too many times, too many times,” one of the men bragged, insisting that his crew, suspected members of the Street Thug Criminals gang, was ready.
But the robbery was not real — not the target or the victim. The man with the earrings was an undercover police officer who had spent weeks gaining the trust of a crew leader. Waiting outside the room where the men had gathered was a SWAT team armed with semiautomatic weapons.
The D.C. police department is quietly turning to high-risk sting operations in which undercover officers recruit people they think are likely to commit armed robberies. The scenarios dreamed up by law enforcement officials, some involving the lure of liquor and strip clubs, are designed to put violent offenders in jail and to address one of the District’s most persistent and dangerous crimes.
The little-known local law enforcement tactic mimics controversial FBI operations that targeted would-be terrorists in the years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Similar sting operations conducted by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives have drawn rebukes in recent months from federal judges in California for “outrageous” government conduct.
In the past two years, the D.C. police stings have resulted in convictions of more than a dozen men in federal court. The tactic has overcome the few legal challenges it has faced in the District but has prompted harsh criticism. Defense attorneys and some legal experts have asked whether the police should be encouraging people to commit crimes they might not have otherwise committed by providing invented opportunities and, in some cases, guns and getaway cars.
Critics ask how law enforcement officials can distinguish between someone who is just “puffing” and someone who intends to carry out a crime. Law enforcement officials say they typically identify their targets through police sources and review their history before going after them.
“We have to feel comfortable and confident that these are bad guys, the guys we want,” said Cmdr. Melvin Scott of the narcotics and special investigations division, who oversees the undercover operations. “We’re not pressing these guys. They are boldly stating their job experience.”
On the evening of the planned robbery in September, five members of the crew met the undercover officer in a room made to look like a place where cocaine was stashed. They ordered Pizza Hut, sipped Corona and waited for the signal from the officer’s contact, a supposed drug courier who was actually an undercover federal agent.
The officer gave them an out. “If this is not your thing . . . that’s cool,” he said, according to a recording of the takedown. “I don’t care. I’m good either way.”
No one flinched. We’re ready, two of the men said.
Moments later, there was a bright flash and a deafening bang. The SWAT team dragged the men out by their feet.
In recent years, D.C. police have deployed extra patrol officers and teams of undercover decoys to respond to robberies. Officers have posed as subway commuters to catch would-be thieves of electronic devices, who Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier said in 2012 had “clobbered” her department.
The liquor store sting operations, outlined in court filings and trial testimony, are intended to infiltrate small teams of armed robbers whom police consider more violent than the typical street criminal. Assistant Chief Peter Newsham said the strategy has helped, contributing to a decline in robberies of more than 25 percent since the start of the year.
Still, the unpredictable, risky operations keep Lanier up at night. She asked The Washington Post not to print an article about the investigations for fear of revealing tactics to criminals. The Post is publishing the story because several of these cases have been heard in open court and many of the tactical details have been discussed there. Operational details that could put officers at risk have been withheld at the department’s request.
Instead of waiting for suspects to act, police are essentially bringing robbery opportunities, albeit fake ones, to them. Police officials and prosecutors say they work to ensure that the people they are dealing with are not all bluster.
“We don’t arrest people who don’t want to do this,” said Dale Sutherland, a recently retired D.C. police sergeant and an architect of the tactic who participated in undercover operations.
“The whole ticket to these is words. . . . Just get him talking. Let him talk,” Sutherland said.
In the four recent cases, undercover officers held several meetings with their targets. They exchanged text messages and discussed in detail the planned liquor store robberies, including the weapons they would use.
In April 2013, Sutherland, posing as “Papi,” and a second undercover officer met with three suspects. On the night of the planned robbery, an undercover officer brought the men a 9mm pistol and an AK-47 assault rifle.
In the meeting room in Northeast Washington, an officer handed a curling iron to one of the men who had said he would use it to “burn the inner thigh of the victim” if he refused to provide the combination to the safe, according to a court filing. The deal was sealed with a celebratory toast of Rémy Martin and Coke just before uniformed officers moved in.
A similar scene played out in June 2012, when three men were recruited to lift cash and jewelry from a liquor store in Adams Morgan. The officers agreed to provide semiautomatic pistols and an assault rifle. Police also bought two of the men — ages 18 and 19 — alcohol and tried unsuccessfully to get at least one of them into a strip club, according to court papers.
“Everything that was done to plan this alleged event was done by the police officers,” said Michelle Peterson, the attorney for one of the men. In arguing for a lighter sentence, Peterson said the police had “continued to ply this young, impressionable man with alcohol, scantily clad women and offers of obscene amounts of money if he did what they wanted him to do.”
The government argued that the men were eager to participate and to recruit others.
“The planning was done together with the undercover officers, and they had every intention to harm who they thought would be a victim in the liquor store,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Angela George said in court.
A judge agreed, finding a “disturbing eagerness to participate.” All three men pleaded guilty last year and are serving between three and four years in prison.
Some legal experts and defense attorneys are concerned that law enforcement may be ensnaring people who would not have tried to commit a robbery without the government’s involvement.
“When you have the government offering guns or the getaway car and making it really attractive, you have to ask: Is this an opportunity that would have really come around in real life? Would this person have been able to put together this type of crime without government assistance?” said Katharine Tinto, a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York who has studied undercover policing tactics.
Tinto and others also take issue with the government’s ability to essentially engineer tough penalties by controlling the details of the made-up crime. Part of the reason the District cases have been so successful, according to defense lawyers, is that the potential jail time for the federal conspiracy charge is steep enough that many defendants are more inclined to make a deal with prosecutors than risk losing at trial.
The government is on solid legal ground, experts say, when it comes to fending off allegations that suspects were set up — or entrapped — by the police. Even if the government entices the defendant, the target has to show that he was not predisposed to commit the crime.
There is some disagreement, however, among federal judges about the tactics used in similar operations run by ATF. Two California judges in recent months have thrown out indictments in ATF investigations for “outrageous” government conduct involving robberies of fake drug stash houses.
U.S. District Judge Otis D. Wright II said the government’s “extensive involvement in dreaming up this fanciful scheme — including the arbitrary amount of drugs and illusory need for weapons and extra associates — transcends the bounds of due process and renders the government’s actions outrageous.”
A federal appeals court in 2013 also found elements of the ATF's approach troubling, noting that a government informant randomly recruited would-be robbers from poor neighborhoods. Even so, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit upheld the convictions in part because of recordings that showed the defendant bragging about his past criminal activity.
Prosecutors in the District said that local investigators thoroughly research their initial targets. The phony robbery is not presented as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity with huge quantities of drugs but as a modest money-making endeavor.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jack Geise, who leads the narcotics and violent crimes division for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia, acknowledged that the police do not know the identities of some of those who show up for a planned robbery. Those individuals are charged based on the role they play, Geise said, and their limited participation is taken into consideration during plea deal negotiations.
“We give them every opportunity to walk away, to change their mind, until the last minute,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Karla-Dee Clark, who helped prosecute the most recent case.
The robberies are fake, but the risks are real.
The undercover officer with the earrings met his initial target, Pablo Lovo, through a police source. At one of their early meetings, in August at a Mexican restaurant in Northwest Washington, the undercover officer told Lovo that he was looking for a crew to rob a local businessman who smuggled large amounts of cocaine from Mexico to sell in the Washington area.
Lovo, a 26-year-old who worked in countertop installation, bragged about his crew’s experience robbing immigrant-run brothels, the officer testified.
D.C. police discovered three guns and two machetes in the trunk of the getaway car shown here with two of the defendants, Pablo Lovo and Joel Sorto. (Obtained by The Washington Post)
The next week at a diner in Northwest, Lovo brought a friend, Joel Sorto. Over egg sandwiches and lemonade, Sorto told the officer that he would bring his machete because “people were more afraid of being chopped up than shot,” according to court papers.
Law enforcement officials could not confirm the brothel robberies, but the undercover officer testified that he knew Lovo from two previous undercover drug buys. Sorto was on probation at the time for an attempted robbery conviction, according to court testimony.
A few days before the planned robbery, the officer arranged to meet with Lovo to show him the getaway car.
“Okay, we’re ready,” Lovo texted in Spanish.
“They were going to rob a fellow citizen,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Emory Cole told jurors during Lovo’s trial in May. “Someone could have gotten hurt. Somebody could have gotten killed.”
Lovo’s attorney, Eduardo Balarezo, responded, “Who is this fellow citizen?”
“You’re not going to hear from him. You’re not going to see him. He doesn’t exist.”
“The government created this crime. It’s a fiction,” Balarezo said.
On the night of the takedown last September, the undercover officer thought that two, maybe three other people would show up with Lovo. There were four.
One of the men was on edge from the start. “This is not a game. I want to make sure that you are not wearing anything under you,” he said, prompting the officer and the others to pull up their shirts and strip down to their boxer shorts.
As he dropped his pants, the undercover officer testified, he felt his police-issued Glock pistol, in the small of his back, slipping from the waistband.
“If my weapon falls, I have to be the first to get it,” the officer, a retired Marine, told jurors, adding that he was “afraid for his life.”
At his trial, Lovo told jurors that he never agreed to participate in a robbery. He planned only to sell the guns. The machetes, he testified, were for occasional landscaping jobs.
The jury sided with the government, finding all three men guilty of conspiracy. One of the men was acquitted of a second weapons charge. The men face prison time ranging from four to 19 years when they are sentenced in September.
The two others in the conspiracy pleaded guilty and were sentenced in June to more than 30 months in prison.
Peter Hermann and Clarence Williams contributed to this report.