Third District detective Johnny Mathis had worked seven intense years to hit the drug trade where it counts--the concealed network of intermediaries, the ever-elusive suppliers who seem to have completely insulated themselves behind the crowds on 14th Street.

High on the list of local suppliers Mathis wanted to arrest was a man who had twice beaten him in court: Ronald (Heavy) Hinton.

Hinton was suspected of supplying large quantities of Preludin pills, a heroin booster known on the streets as Bam. Several teen-agers interviewed by Mathis alleged that Hinton had given them the pills to sell.

Mathis knew that the key to cracking the multimillion-dollar drug problem in Washington was to persuade one of the street pushers to become an informant, a snitch, to turn on his suppliers and give names and details that would help Mathis close off the pipeline.

His break came in August 1980, when he got a tip that John Henry Tate III was selling Bam on the street. Mathis had arrested Tate two times before. As a teen-ager Tate had been a "runner" for local drug pushers, who would give him pills to sell on commission. Both times Mathis had tried to turn Tate into an informant. Both times Tate had adamantly refused.

Tate was now out on parole and had become a pusher himself. Mathis wanted to find out who was supplying Tate. Maybe, if Mathis tried hard enough and the right circumstances presented themselves, this time the 25-year-old Tate could be persuaded to switch loyalties from his criminal colleagues to the police.

When Mathis confronted Tate he did not resist arrest.

"Basically his bubble had burst," Mathis recalled. "The thought of jail for some reason scared him."

"I can't go back," Mathis recalls Tate saying.

Mathis had heard this plea many times before, and began applying leverage. "Man, you're going to have to do something," Mathis said, realizing Tate understood the alternative being proposed. If Tate cooperated, Mathis said, he would try to get Tate a new identity through the federal witness protection program after the investigation ended.

For five hours, Mathis played on the agony of the choice he was putting before Tate.

"It made him feel less than a man. He would be setting up people who were his friends," Mathis says. "We would tell him that these guys got him into this . . . . He had to make a decision in his life. We stayed on him. It took us about a month."

Tate finally agreed to cooperate, and the police began an investigation they called "Operation Groundhog," which they hoped to finish by Groundhog Day 1981. Groundhog would go where Tate would lead them--and Mathis hoped it would lead them to local drug suppliers, including the man who taught Tate the streets as a teen-ager: Heavy Hinton.

Tate's decision to become an informant for Mathis was born of necessity; and it reflected a combination of luck and skill on Mathis' part. The relationship between the cop and the two-bit drug dealer grew stronger as each stage of the investigation became more complicated.

Tate spent the next nine months in the same criminal environment he had worked most of his life--arranging narcotics sales with nearly a dozen suppliers. This time, however, Tate would be "a walking, talking legal wiretap," as one detective put it, who would conduct business while Mathis secretly listened to every word. And instead of receiving the $300,000 Tate claimed to be earning as a pusher, his payoff eventually would be freedom, a new name, a new identity, a new life.

He became such a valuable informant that he regularly walked undercover police officers into dangerous drug organizations in Washington and in Philadelphia, producing 16 arrests, and stopping--for a while at least--a major supply of Bam from reaching downtown Washington.

Mathis and the other police officers who worked on the case knew they had considerable clout over their informant, who continued to work under the threat of jail. But Tate had the ultimate power. For he could, through design or carelessness, blow their cover and perhaps get an officer killed.

The officer with the most to lose was Robert D. Swygert, the undercover cop recruited for the investigation. Swygert had been selected in part because Mathis needed a black police officer to infiltrate their targets, many of whom were black.

Swygert recalled: "If I even thought he Tate was going to set me up, I was going to protect myself. He was going to be the first to go." For the 3rd District drug squad, and especially for Johnny Mathis, Groundhog was a big opportunity. Mathis, 30, had spent most of his adult life busting runners and street-level pushers in Washington. He had cruised the drug corridors and learned the names of every suspected junkie and dealer he encountered, memorized their language and their procedures. After each arrest, he worked for countless hours trying to convert the suspects into informants, the police department's most valued instruments of infiltration--and also its most risky.

The 3-D drug squad has a confidential list of informants (called "Special Employees"). Each is given a number, and when they call with information, they identify themselves by their code. For tipping off the police to a routine drug buy, perhaps an arrest of a person holding several bags of heroin, an informant can receive $30 from the police. That is less than the D.C. police department's citywide drug squad pays, so the snitches sometimes threaten to take their information downtown.

Still, there are so many people who want to be informants at 3-D that the detectives cannot always handle the tips and have to ask the informants to call back later.

"They have a need. We have a need," says Lt. Ronald Harvey, who runs the 3-D drug squad. "You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours. The trust goes as far as the need." In late summer of 1980, 3-D's newest informant, John Henry Tate III, provided a list of 17 Bam dealers and suppliers in Washington and Philadelphia. On trips to Philadelphia, Tate pointed out the street dealers and the offices of doctors writing illegal Bam prescriptions and the pharmacies that filled them.

It was important that as few people as possible knew about the investigation so there was no chance of its being leaked on the street. Mathis discussed the details only with two other detectives and his two supervisors, keeping Tate out of the 3-D station, and meeting him outside 3-D or at the U.S. attorney's office.

As the investigation progressed, Tate's role expanded. Soon the detectives were listening to him. Tate suggested an acceptable cover for Swygert: the officer would pose as a Richmond drug dealer, trying to make connections. And when the operation got off to a slow start, and Mathis feared that the word might be out that Tate was working for the police, Tate counseled him to be patient.

For the first couple of days, Tate and Swygert cruised the streets. He told Swygert how each of the dealers operated and what he could expect. He showed him "Joe Brown's Alley" at Sixth and S streets NW, named because Brown allegedly controlled all the Bam sold there. He pointed out the runners and jugglers, persons who sold drugs for dealers such as Heavy Hinton.

Swygert was still uneasy about Tate. "He got shook up," Mathis recalled. "But it was hard for him to believe that everything would be all right. It was his life on the line."

By this time, Mathis' faith in Tate was growing.

"I began to trust him," Mathis recalled. "A lot of times we would say, 'We're going home. You go out and arrange some buys for tomorrow.' The next morning, he would call and tell us a buy was set for a certain time."

Because police officers generally carry .38s, Swygert traded in his gun for a .32. He discarded his holster and stuffed the gun under his belt. He decided if he was going to pose as a Richmond dealer, he had to act the role. He developed a southern accent, asked a friend who had lived in Richmond to give him details about the drug areas and the color of the police cars there. He drove to Richmond one day to be sure, and even subscribed to a Richmond paper to keep up with the local news.

Tate insisted that Swygert was wasting his time on needless information. Tate told Swygert that dealers rarely ask a lot of questions because asking questions create suspicions.

"They never asked about Richmond," Swygert said.

On Oct. 31, the first undercover buy in Operation Groundhog was made. Swygert and Tate made most of the purchases from the Bam dealers. Once a 16-year-old youth who worked for one of the suppliers got in the car with Swygert. Before he counted out 200 Bam tablets worth $1,500, the young pusher placed a foot-long knife in clear sight. "I guess he wanted me to know he wasn't taking any chances," said Swygert.

Though Mathis insisted all the drug buys be made on the streets so officers could watch, Swygert found that things did not always go as planned. One dealer insisted Swygert come into a dimly lit club to make his purchase. "When I walked in, an iron door closed behind me," Swygert recalled. "There was a guy at the door and another guy over in the corner. It was the first time that I had conducted a buy with my left hand. I kept the other one on my gun the whole time."

Swygert did such a good job playing the role of a drug dealer that one supplier invited him to snort cocaine with him. Swygert was willing to buy drugs in order to show his good faith, but not to use them. He begged off, saying he was an alcoholic.

Swygert would spend a half-hour unwinding before going home. He had to separate his two identities, his two lives. "Just because I purchased $2,000 worth of drugs from Joe Brown didn't mean I didn't have to fix the faucet at home," he said.

Swygert's unusual working hours concerned some of his friends and relatives. "My brother called and asked me, 'Did you get fired?' "Heavy Hinton was not going to be easy to catch. He never handled any Bam on the streets, though Mathis was told Hinton arranged the time and place for the drug buys his runners made. Hinton usually sent a teen-ager to deal with Tate and Swygert.

On May 14, 1981, Tate telephoned his one-time mentor at home to arrange a buy. As Mathis secretly taped the conversation, Hinton complained that the streets were too dangerous for him, and said he would send his pregnant girlfriend to deliver the pills.

Mathis knew he finally had enough evidence to arrest Hinton, but decided to wait until they could move in on the other suspects. This time they would try selling Bam; another undercover officer would pose as a bitter ex-employe who wanted to unload thousands of Bam tablets that he claimed he stole from his old company.

On June 6, four months after the original Groundhog deadline, Tate showed up at the 3-D drug squad office for the first time since his arrest. He undressed and had the recording device taped to his body.

Mathis had borrowed 40,000 Bam tablets from a pharmaceutical manufacturer in Connecticut and had reserved a local motel room that the police had equipped with a hidden camera. While the undercover officer waited at the motel, Mathis gave Tate last-minute instructions. Tate went off to meet four dealers, with Mathis following closely in another car, listening on the wire.

When Tate met with the dealers, one of them voiced suspicions about the plan. Heavy Hinton and another dealer decided they would go with Tate to the motel and report back to the others.

Hinton waited in the car while Tate took the other dealer inside. The dealer was caught on hidden cameras counting out $17,836 for 5,700 tablets, and was arrested. Mathis picked up Hinton at the motel parking lot, and charged him with selling Bam three weeks earlier.

By the end of the day, 10 persons were arrested by Mathis and the 3-D drug squad; six more were later arrested in Philadelphia. A few days later, an informant reported to police that a $25,000 contract had been placed on Tate's life. Tate was placed in the witness protection program, and has a new identity.

Within a month all 10 of the local suppliers, including Ronald (Heavy) Hinton, pleaded guilty as charged, and were sent to jail.

Mathis, says officer David Willis, became known as "the Golden Boy" of the drug squad. "He was the number one head honcho."

He had gone behind the drug crowds of 3-D, and gotten a pusher and his suppliers. One year later, the addicts are still on the streets, the supply of drugs has not slowed, and Mathis and the drug squad are looking for their next informant.