Each morning during early October, 1975, a detective and an FBI agent prowled in their Cadillac for likely criminals, while inside P.F.F. (Police FBI Fencing, Incognito), four white undercover men waited. The scouts cruised particularly along the 14th Street and T Street corridors in Northwest Washington, where thieves trafficking stolen goods looked for sales among packs of dope pushers, junkies, hustlers, kids, and bargain hunters lounging in smoky pool rooms or milling amid the litter in front of fast food stands and armored liquor stores.
The scouts found people stepping out of the shadows to listen to their pitch and look at their goods. Many suspected it was a setup and walked away. A few, like Tee Brisbon, weny with them to the warehouse, carried the goods inside, and asked no questions. Slowly, the word was spreading that people could go to this warehouse and come back with money.
For the white men inside, the first days were stretched with tension. The men realized how vuinerable they were. D.D. Police Lt. Robert Arscott, posing as a thief, had tested the operation just before it opened Oct. 1. Although the men thought they had planned for every possible surprise. Arscott had stunned them when he simply reached across the fencing counter, grabbed the counterman, and put a gun to his head. The counterman couldn't drop clear and the other men were helpless. They could only hope that a customer would never realize this.
The men were also aware that the project, unique in scope and method, had the blessing and attention of D.C. Police Chief, Maurice J. Cullinane and FBI Washington Bureau Chief Nick F. Stames. Each was pouring thousands of dollars from tight budgets into P.F.F. to catch thieves.
On Oct. 14, two weeks after the arehouse opened. the first customer walked in without a scout. It was Tee Brisbon, and he brought a friend, James Alfonso Washington. Tee, who had been to P.F.F. only once before - with a scout - greeted Pat and Mike as if they had been friends for years.
"They down from New Yawk to organize D.C." Tee beamed at his friend, savoring a big-brother role. "They pay the best prices in town." Washington asked Pat how he could get in touch with him in the future. "He'll give you his card, man, he's got a card," Tee interrupted.
Washington had brought movie equipment and Pat knowingly offered much more than they could get anywhere else, "S . . . man, you can do better than that!" Tee complained. Washington looked at his friend as if to lock his mouth up. It seemed to the lawmen he was after this connection and didn't want Tee messing it up.
"That's fine, man," Washington said. After the two customers left, the P.F.F. men grinned. Half in jest they chided Pat for paying too much for the equipment. But they all realized from the way they had been accepted by Washington, that they would not have to pay as much next time.
As Scouts worked through the last half of October, the world continued to spread on the street and by the end of the month, the scouts were no longer necessary. The trickle was becoming a stream. Customers began appearing on their own, bringing friends and coming back again.
Most of the thieves were street-wise drug addicts from black Washington. The four white men waiting for them in the warehouse lived in suburban Prince George's County, and were part of a predominantly white police force for the District of Columbia. This was consistent with the rest of the law-enforcement picture in Washington: most prosecutors, judges, and defense attorneys are white; the jails, prisons, courtrooms and drug treatment centers are filled with blacks.
To play the key role counterman, Pasquale Larocca. Arscott and Likk selected a natural salesman, Detective Patrick J. Lilly, an energetic 26-yeaold with down-home roots from his West Virginia childhood. Lilly "could con a wino out of his wine," one fellow officer claimed. He had been a police officer since the age of 20 and had distinguished himself with excellent undercover work.
Detective Robert W. Sheaffer Jr., Lilly's partner and the man who had pushed the K Street operation, gave himself an alias, Bohanna La Fontaine, that he could pronounce but never could spell. Sheaffer, a burly 200 pounds, ran the camera at first and worked behind the scenes at the evidence table, processing stolen goods brought in by customers.
William F. Gately Jr., a.K.a. Tony Bonano, was a quiet, dedicated law-man who soon took over the camera operation from Sheaffer and also helped process evidence. Gately, at 27, had received a Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts in the Marine Corps in Vietnam.
Micheal Hartman, a.k.a. Mike Franzino, was the FBI man of ware-house four. He had the build of a thug and the enthusiasm for the part, but like most FBI agents, he had in fact never done undercover work. He approached his assignment with some apprehension, although that quickly evaporated when he looked down his shotgun barrel at the first customers and realized they were much more tense than he.
What the customers saw inside P.F.F. was considerably less than what there was. The undercover men had built a room. Behind the false walls, in passageways carpeted to keep the noise down, they could walk to the hidden camera room, the hidden toilets. Bonana and La Fontaine silently prowledthese corridors, armed and on watch - shock troops kept out of sight of skittish customers.
The operation of P.F.F. had been designed so that the men themselves could exert maximum control, yet maintain the illusion of a fencing ring. Before a customer could enter P.F.F. he was instructed to telephone ahead from the pay booth outside the Amoco gas station a half-block away, at the corner of 25th Place and Bladensburg Road. Visitors could come up only after Pat called them back.
He admitted one person at a time, or two or three if they were connected with the same theft. "I don't want you interruptin' anybody else's business, and you don't want anybody interruptin' your business," he explained of the required advance call. The customers said they understood.
The men rigged a dead phone next to the counter, and when Pat occasionally found himself speechless, he scratched the back of his head, and Franzino pushed a button that rang the dead phone. Pat then pretended to talk to some Mafia boss in New York, and thus gained some time to prepare himself.
The way they had worked it out, no one was supposed to be able to surprise the lawmen. When the front door - unlocked during business hours - was opened, it set off a high-pitched flutter-noise alarm audible only inside the P.F.F. office. Once up the stairs, the customer was instructed to show his face in the Plexigas window of the door and let him in. As the customer entered, Pat would buzz the electric lock and let him in. As the customer entered. Pat checked a mirror on the opposite wall that enabled him to inspect the customer's back pocket for a gun. If anything looked suspicious any of the lawmen could summon the others to battle stations by triggering a silent alarm systemof red Christmas tree lights. The man in the camera booth also had a shotgun and as a last resort could blast through the mirror.
For added security. Pasquale and Mike told their customers that P.F.F. was protected on Weekends by a Mafioso armed with a shotgun. This New York Italian. Pasquale said, "had his tongue cut out in a gang war. He's crazy, he never sleeps, he just, shoots people."
As Pat and Mike gained more confidence, they pressed harder to find out, who the thieves were. Pat would come right out and ask, "Who the hell are you?" and sometimes the thief would give his real name. More often than not, however, the men were left to identify somebody like "Squirrelly." "Bow-legged Skip," "Zorro," "Weasel," "Pumpkin Head," "Graytop," "Blind," "Claws," and "We" ("Just call me "We,' like, We the People"), Other gave proper names that were made up.
Customers picking up a glass of wine or Jack Danies from the counter left fingerprints that were dusted off and taken after each visit. When the customers drove away, Tony Bonana, tracking them from the second floor with a set of binoculars, jotted down license numbers.
Pat and the other men in the ware-house talked freely of "the family,"and their bosss in New York, the capco of capos, the Don. "He sent me down to organize the city." Pat explained, "We got some friends in the police department: they'll leave us alone." The place had a front as a repair shop. Pat explained, pointing to posters of office machines and calculators on the P.F.F. walls.
"I'm Pasquale Larocca - call me Pat. What's your name?" he asked the customers. "Speak up, SPEAK UP!" he shouted at people who mumbled. "I got shot in the head in a gand was in New York; I no hear so good in a this ear - see the scar?" Gently he would lift some of his shaggy black hair and point at more hair. A few customers stared and nodded; others said, "Yeah," perhaps unwilling to admit they saw no scar. "Speak in-a this ear," he said, tugging at his right ear which was positioned just over the hidden microphome in a dead electric outlet on the countertop.
The customers, locked in this ware-house in Northeast Washington with these armed, beaeded men jabbering in Italian, had never experienced anything like it. "Eh, Mike, bacha-ma-gu, besamacu, me-dee-chi, me-dee-chi." Pat barked at his enforcer, gesturing widly as the made up what he thought were Italian-sounding words. "That's Micheal Franzino . . . he's my heavy, my heat," he explained.
"Eh, Pat, simpatico, simpatico." Franzino yelled back, waving his Remington pump-action FBI-issue riot shotgun. He had heard the world from his wife's grandmother, an Italian: she used it to describe food, but he felt he could make liberal use of it, anyway.
"Man" one astounded customer remarked, "this is just like on television."
Nest Cockeye steals the government blind.