Maryland State Police Lt. Byron Hubble leaned over his two-way radio and pushed the transmit button. "Proceed to make your arrests," he barked, and 200 lawmen fanned out into the predawn darkness to bring in the bad guys in the nation's 89th "Sting" operation.
A minute later, Hubble repeated the command for television.
Thus began a police and media extravaganza that resulted in 45 arrests, the recovery of stolen goods worth an estimated $1.5 million and plenty of action pictures for the photographers and television crews on hand to record the event.
They called it Operation Bear Trap II, and the trap was sprung at 6 a.m. today.
Two hours earlier, state troopers, Baltimore City police officers, FBI agents, reporters and camera crews had assembled in the state police gymnasium, which was being turned into a makeshift processing center, complete with a fingerprinting table, a camera and backdrop for mug shots and piles of cardboard file boxes.
The directors of the operation wore maroon windbreakers bearing the legend "Bear Trap II," and patiently posed for pictures and answered the questions of bleary-eyed reporters trying to decipher the press releases.
In a classroom behind the gym hung photographs of the materials recovered during the fencing operation, including a backhoe, a front-end loader, a Peterbilt tractor-trailer, and a truckload of Lucky Strike cigarettes.
On a blackboard in the same room, State Police information officer Bill Clark left a space for his men to keep a running tally showing how many of the 71 people sought had actually been arrested.
One of the first and best-known of these police ploys ended in Washington, D.C. 3 1/2 years ago with the arrest of 108 people, many of whom were apprehended as they arrived at what they believed was a party.
The operation was dubbed the "Sting" after a movie about the grand scheme of two appealing con men. The name stuck.
Two years ago, Maryland state police completed their first "Sting" operation, called Bear Trap, which resulted in 139 arrests and the recovery of $900,000 in stolen goods.
Since the "Sting" operations began four years ago, they have become something of a symbol of ingenious detective work and a source of great pride and equally great publicity for the departments that pull them off.
The basic script is simple: the police set up a phony storefront business and start fencing goods for criminals who request their aid.
After months of building credibility in the criminal community -- and amassing evidence against assorted car thieves, burglars, truck hijackers and fences -- the police close up shop and swoop down on their former customers.
"These operations are still successful, in spite of all the publicity -- amazingly," said Lane Bonner, a special agent in the FBI's Baltimore office.
"We felt this event was of such import that it justified a press conference," he added. "We don't normally do that."
This time, having been called in advance, about 20 reporters photographers and technicians were on hand as the arresting officers were briefed on procedures and given the names and addresses of the suspects being sought.
They clustered in the doorways at 6:15 a.m. as the first suspect, a 27-year-old Baltimore City man named Bernard Elliott, was led in. Klieg lights burned through the darkness and persistent showers as the cameras followed Elliott from the police car to the door of the gym.
Public Information Officer Clark headed off one camera crew which tried to photograph Elliott inside the gym, where he was being booked for auto theft.
As a gloomy dawn broke at 7:02 a.m., 18 suspects had been led into the gym, all but a few juveniles taken in past the cameras and through doors to which a triumphant red-and-white sign had been taped.
"Operation Bear Trap II," it read, "Home of America's 89th 'Sting' operation."
"These have been a real success," said James Golden, Director of the criminal conspiracies division of the federal Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, which advanced between $350,000 and $400,000 for the 17-month Bear Trap II project. Golden was on hand, observing this proceedings with a proprietary smile.
Across the country in the last four years, he said, $6.1 million in federal funds have been spent on similar "sting" efforts. The result has been 6,700 arrests and the recovery of what police estimate is $230 million worth of stolen goods.
Among the goods recovered in the Bear Trap II operation according to police, were a tractor-trailer load of sugar valued at $66,000, the Lucky Strike cigarettes valued at $314,000, stero equipment worth $180,000, and 34 cases of porcelain figurines of Norman Rockwell characters, valued at more than $60,000.
In 1978, the operators of "Bear Trap II" set up three phony businesses: Gallery Antiques on N. Howard Street in Baltimore; Capitol Enterprises on Elkridge Landing Road in Linthicum, Anne Arundel County; and Cycle-Vette Auto Shop on Old Alexandria Ferry Road in Clinton.
As a result of the evidence gathered in these storefronts, 71 arrest warrants -- 54 for state and 17 for federal offenses -- were issued today for individuals living in Baltimore City, eight Maryland counties and six other states. In an earlier, unpublicized phase of the investigation, 21 arrests were made, police said.
As the operation unfolded with few apparent hitches, the gym filled with suspects, most staring woodenly ahead, their eyes clouded with sleepiness and confusion. Most wore T-shirts pulled over their heads at the last minute, some held up beltless pants and tried to avoid treading on their cuffs. One man chuckled continuously.
"Assessment studies of these operations by the Washington Corp. show that they unquestionably have a psychological effect in the criminal community," the LEAA's Golden said, adding that "Stings" disrupt the normal flow of criminal business.
"I like to go to as many of these as I can," he said.