Louie McKinney, Robert Leschorn, Herb Rutherford and several other key figures behind one of the most creative and successful stings in American law enforcement history gathered at U.S. Marshal Headquarters in Arlington last week for a private screening of “Strike Team,” a new ESPN “3o for 30” documentary short that features never-before-seen footage of their elaborate ruse.
The incredible story of the U.S. Marshals Service luring 100 fugitives to the Washington Convention Center in mid-December 1985 under the guise that they had won free Redskins tickets from a new all-sports television channel is legendary in law enforcement circles. NFL Films produced a 12-minute documentary about the sting last year, but it only included three minutes of actual footage of the operation from a CBS News report. “Strike Team” director Willie Ebersol says his 24-minute documentary, which will premiere at 9:30 p.m. Tuesday on ESPN, features 20 minutes of original footage, placing viewers in the room as the fugitives were duped and eventually apprehended.
Most of the TV stations that Ebersol and co-producer Fairouz El-Baz called while researching the project laughed when asked if they still had any footage from an event that happened more than 30 years ago. They eventually stumbled upon a gold mine with CBS, which embedded a team of reporters and videographers with the U.S. Marshals Service from the early planning stages of the sting in September 1985 through the main event on Dec. 15. What’s more, CBS still had 72 Beta tapes featuring about 24 hours of footage of the operation.
“That was a really special discovery for us,” Ebersol said.
The U.S. Marshals Service was eager to improve its reputation and earn some recognition under director Stanley Morris in 1985. Allowing CBS to document an ambitious sting in the nation’s capital was one means of doing so.
“Stan Morris came in with a personal mission to enhance the Marshals’ footprint in the law enforcement community,” Rutherford, the U.S. Marshal for D.C., said. “He and [associate director of operations] Howard Safir both were risk takers. We weren’t going to take on unnecessary risks, but we were going to be out there. We were going to do our jobs in a safe, unique and creative way.”
The D.C. sting resulted in 100 arrests without a single shot being fired.
“This was the culmination of 140 people who worked their butts off,” Leschorn, who wrote the operations plan for the sting, said. “Everybody stayed deep cover. Everybody knew their role. Everybody understood what was riding on it — instantaneous name recognition. I was happy to be a part of it and working with these guys and everyone involved was an honor. It was like laying the foundation of the building of what has become today the greatest law enforcement agency with the best fugitive hunters in the world.”
“Strike Team” captures the moment when McKinney, who wore a tuxedo and top hat as the master of ceremonies at the party for the unsuspecting fugitives, gave the signal for the Special Operations Group team to burst into the room at the convention center with a different sort of surprise. There’s footage of undercover officers dressed as Redskins cheerleaders conducting discreet weapons checks by offering hugs or arms around the shoulders of criminals as they checked in, and deputy Tom Spillane wearing a chicken costume with a nine-millimeter concealed inside the suit. (Headquarters had nixed the idea of Spillane wearing a Santa suit, in case the operation went awry.)
The U.S. Marshals Service mailed letters and invitations to the last known addresses of more than 3,000 fugitives with more than 5,000 outstanding warrants among them as part of the sting. There’s amusing footage in the documentary of U.S. Marshals answering calls from fugitives replying to the letters, which instructed them to call a number and ask for a Markus Cran (that’s narc spelled backward). Another fictitious name used in the sting? I. Michael Detnaw. (Spell the last name backward and say the first and middle initials.)
“That’s the thing about the Marshals that’s so much fun,” Ebersol said. “The number of jokes that they work into it really gives a levity to the story that made it fun to tell.”
“Strike Team” isn’t the only Redskins-related programming on ESPN on Tuesday. It will air immediately following the 90-minute premiere of “Year of the Scab,” a full-length “30 for 30” documentary about the replacement players who helped the Redskins win the Super Bowl during the strike-shortened 1987 season.