Q & A With A Real Undercover Operative– Part I

The time has come, folks!

Since Mr. Big’s answers are so informative and candid I’ll be breaking this up and continuing the interview over the next three days. I don’t want you to miss anything. In its entirety the interview is 8K words long! Don’t worry, each day there will be plenty for you to sink your teeth into. Also, minimal images will be used to save space.

Disclaimer: Because this is a sensitive subject there is no reblogging allowed for this series without having your followers read the original content here, as permission was granted for this site only. You may share, and I hope you do, as long as you direct your followers to this site. By abiding by these rules people who work covertly might be more apt to allow us a look into their lives. Thank you for respecting my wishes.


Let’s begin…

First let me say, thank you for allowing us this peek into the life of an undercover operative. For crime writers this is a huge opportunity, and one that doesn’t often come along, if ever. In my eyes, you are a true hero, Mr. Big. Thank you for all of the difficult and dangerous work you have done so that we, the public, can sleep soundly at night. It’s men like you that make this world a better place.

Okay, enough schmoozing. Let’s get down to it, shall we? If ever there is something you don’t feel you can or should answer please do not hesitate to tell me. We don’t want any lives compromised. Our intention is only to help crime writers better understand the dynamics of what goes on inside the mind of an undercover operative and how he does his job for the betterment of our stories.

Mr. Big

Let’s say the police know the identity of a killer, but have no corroborating evidence to secure an arrest. You’re called in to get the ‘confession’. How do you go about mentally preparing yourself? In other words, how does an undercover operative get into the right mindset?

I would start answering this question by first saying that psychology is the over arching factor in all Undercover (UC) operations.  Here is what I mean – when a ‘target’ (or suspect) is identified a decision is made on who will be the ‘Primary UC’.  That decision is made sometimes collectively by the UC Team or the Team’s supervisor.  The factors in making the decision are for the most part based on the information known about the suspect (this is obtained by ‘Lifestyle Surveillance’ and available background information – I can explain that in more detail later). 

The objective in making this selection is to pick a UC Operator who is similar to the suspect.  The psychology behind this is the Persuasion Tactic of ‘similarity.’  Essentially, “people like people who are similar.”  So, to my point:  the UC Operator is selected because it is deemed that they will be liked and accepted by the target.  We would create ‘Cover Stories’ that are also similar to the target (i.e. the target has a 2 year old child, so I would have a 3 year old, etc.).  We may also dress similar, similar mannerisms, and the list goes on.  Essentially, the Operator would generally act the part and walk the walk in a similar way – as the target.   

Now to your question:  Right from the beginning, the Primary Operator is set up for success because history has taught us that the success in obtaining a confession is more likely if the Target will ‘like’ the Operator.  So, as an Operator I always had confidence beginning a file knowing I had this advantage.  This gave me a psychological edge.  The rest of the prepping process is not as formal. 

In fact, police agencies do conduct ‘after investigation’ psychological briefings, but not pre-psychological briefings.  The post file psychologist briefings involve a UC Operator meeting with a psychologist, who may decide to provide you with ongoing counselling, if needed..  But, frankly this was taboo by all the operators I worked with.  Even if we were psychologically affected by a file, we would ‘UC’ the psychologist and tell them we were just fine. The UC culture is an interesting thing… more about that later.   

Some of the prepping in terms of mindset that I would do to prepare for a file would include role playing and studying the target’s profile.  Without getting too in-depth, I have certainly gone through the motions of making sure my affairs were in order before starting a few files. Frankly, the danger/fear factor is always there– it’s something you just overcome with believing you are invincible– confidence and good training also goes a long way…. 

For me, I just had more guts than smarts.  That mindset had changed with age.  The personal sacrifices are probably the bigger issue as a UC Operator gets up in age..  Most of the officers I worked with who were UC’s were alcoholics, cheating on their wives (and going through divorces), and bit of a destructive personality type.  I believe this has gotten better, as there is more scrutiny and checks and balances on conduct and the mental health of an Operator.

How do you then detach from the ‘theatre of crime’ and return to everyday life, like doing dishes, making the bed, and hitting Walmart? I would think it’s extremely difficult to go back to “normal living” after being surrounded by killers/criminals for extended periods of time.

You ask good questions.  At times it is hard to detach.  I recall once having obtained a confession from a target who raped and murdered a woman (by the way these are the hardest confession to get– a  murder of a woman or a child will get you killed in prison, so target’s rarely confess to these). 

A day after that file ended I went to the grocery store and waited at the deli counter to place an order.  While I was standing there the two clerks continually overlooked me and helped other customers.  At first I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t being waited on, when it hit me… They saw a guy with long shoulder-length hair and a scraggly beard.  I wanted to yell at them and say something like, “Do you realize the risks and sacrifices I make to keep you safe?”  But the reality was that they thought I was a bum.  This is an example of how even when I was on my personal time, I was affected by my job and look.  Frankly, the UC work has many sacrifices that you don’t fully realize until your in it. 

I also found it a bit precarious to go out in public.  If I was with my son or wife, I would have too carry a gun in the event I ran into a target of a current or previous file.  The risks to family are something you, as an operator, don’t really consider at the time, and frankly the chances of harm to them is very rare.  But, there is always the possibility.  I have a few stories about running into targets at the wrong time, including being out one night and running into a former target, who at the time was ranked very high internationally in Organized Crime– long story for another time.  But, suffice to say it was a dicey and risky moment.   

Other things that really helped me was changing into ‘my clothes.’ And, some solitary hobbies.  At the time, I was really into fishing, and other solitary hobbies.  I would also say this, it is very hard a times to drop the ‘act.’  I recall one day I came home after days of contact with a target.  I walked in the door and greeted my wife.  Before I got to the kitchen she said, “Can you walk out the door and have the man I married walk in please.”  She said this because in a period of 5 seconds I used the word ‘fuck’ in every sentence.  If you knew me, you would be shocked– I wasn’t raised that way.  As a side bar, we are no longer married…  can’t blame her.

The key in general for me was to put my ‘regular’ clothes on, look in the mirror and try to look as much like myself as I could.  Also, to do the things I used to do.  You definitely at times loose your identity, and need to focus on who you were before going into UC work.  Some guys can’t do this… booze and destruction follow if you can’t find yourself.  I’ve seen it lots. 

What about the wives of undercover operatives? How do they deal with their husbands job? And what about cheating? After all, you’re playing a role, so would sleeping with another woman be allowed, and is that legal? If so, I bet there’s some angry women out there whose heart you broke.

Simply put, most ‘successful’ UC Operators are in general charismatic, alpha males, and know the psychology of persuasion (in practice that is).  While married over a period of about 3 years, I slept with over 40 different women– I was out of control!  BUT, this was in my spare time, not while working.   

Sex in a file is not a reality.  The actions of the UC Operators are highly scrutinized by the courts, and for that reason it could jeopardize the file.  These days its not the bad guy on trial, it’s the “integrity of the investigation.”  The test in the courts is to look at how ‘shocking’ the actions of the UC Operator were in achieving the objective of the file– this becomes the focus for the defence at trial. 

Now, on a side note, we can fake someone’s death and do other shocking tactics– but, importantly the shocking nature of the tactic must meet the shocking nature of the offence committed by the target.  That is, if a target is a suspect in a murder, it may be acceptable to use a tactic where the target witnesses what looks to be a murder in the presence of the UC Operator– this is done to create credibility and trust with the target…  We call this a ‘stim’ scenario– a scenario designed to ‘stimulate’ conversation about murder– thereby leading the target toward talking about the offence they committed.  

Okay, back to wives and your question…  first, it would not be illegal to sleep with a consenting woman during a file.  But, it would likely be highly scrutinized if the woman did not know you were a police officer and it came out in court.  A UC Team generally uses women UC’s (police officers) as eye candle in file.  And, we may pretend they are our girlfriends, and kissing and touching may occur– but that’s as far as it would go. 

I would frankly not tell my wife about scenarios where I had female UCs working with me.  It would just make her jealous and worried.  I can’t count how many times I came home smelling like alcohol and perfume, so my wife at the time certainly had her doubts.  But, in the time I was undercover we frankly just grew more apart everyday– being undercover is destructive on relationships– period, full stop!  It takes a strong and confident woman to be with an Undercover Operator.   

What happens if someone from your “real” life recognizes you while on a sting? Do you ignore them? Tell them they’re mistaken, that they must be confusing you with someone else? Or, do you walk away and pray the suspect didn’t hear? When this happens your heart must beat out of your chest.

All the above.  I was once doing an undercover operation on a ‘hit man’.  He murdered a male who he thought was the head an organized crime group.  What he didn’t know was that he actually ended up killing the brother of the intended target. 

Anyhow, while on this file we met the target at a hotel, where we had done UC operations before.  In fact, the manager of the hotel occasionally gave us a room as a prop for scenarios– this was a bad idea.  Ideally, no one should know except the UC Team Members.  But, the reality is that policing budgets are slim and we always looked for ways to cut costs.  The downside is that it also increases risks for the Operator.  When we went to check out, after the meeting with the target, the manager put two loaded magazines, or clips, on the counter and said you guys forgot these last time you were here.  The target of course hears this and began questioning… 

The back story is that the drug unit had used a room at the same hotel a few days before and some idiot member (police member) from the unit had left his magazines in the room.  The response was a ‘quick think on your feet’ thing– we convinced the target that the manager knows us and is supportive of our criminal operation (cover story), and that he was also getting his cut.  He bought it, but at some point did say, “If you guys aren’t who you say you are I am going to do my time, then come hunting.”  He’s currently serving 25 years for first degree.  We will see if he comes through on his promise– this is not the first time I heard those words… 

Can you tell us a little about the mind of a killer– what makes them tick? Crime writers need to nail the bad guy just as well as the good guy. So it would help a lot if you could elaborate on what makes someone want to kill. I understand a lot of killers were abused as children, but so were many others who never chopped someone’s head off. What ideology makes someone turn to murder? And I’m talking about cold-blooded murder here, not an abused wife or someone who’s only a danger to one specific person.

This is a tough question, and I have been asked this before.  I have to be honest and say I really don’t know, as in each case it is different.  I have seen killers who appear to me to have some form of mental illness (either diagnosed or not diagnosed), and others who have had a strange or sad upbringing.  There are sometimes small pieces of information that come out and give slivers of reasons as to why– but not a full understanding that would help people sleep at night.  For instance, I was Primary UC on a murder file where the target was a tall red-haired man. 

About 3 – 4 months after getting the confession (the file had completed and he was incarcerated), I was driving down a busy road.  I noticed a very tall woman on the side of the road with very long white hair standing beside a large man with reddish hair.  They both looked like they were from a circus freak show.  It was like a twilight zone moment…  I also caught a glimpse of the truck they appeared to be from (which they were standing beside) and noted it was from the same province as the target. I turned around and noticed they were actually manning a fruit stand. 

It was then that it fully hit me– some information on the file revealed that the killer’s uncle, who owned an orchard, had molested him (the Killer) as a child. I turned back and drove by again, this time I obtained the license plate number of the truck– it was registered to the killer’s parents.  My reaction to this was much like how you would feel watching a horror movie at the moment that you realize the killer’s background– the why behind the killings if that makes sense.  I almost felt like he didn’t stand a chance.  Obviously, the parents still had an association with the man (uncle) who molested their child.  What the target must have experienced growing up… 

Motive plays a big part, at times it’s money and other times it’s just out of interest.  I did a file on a male who at a young age (14-15) murdered a homeless man.  Actually, the file I was investigating was the same male some 8 years later.  At 14 this boy, abducted a homeless man and held him hostage in an abandoned building.  After torturing the man in several ways– cigarette burns, throwing rocks at close range, cutting him, beating him– the target took a hammer and struck the homeless man’s head with enough force to collapse his skull.  Then, the target took the claw part of the hammer and pulled back the skull, exposing the brain. 

The target later revealed that he did this because he was ‘interested’ in seeing the victim’s brain.  My involvement with this target was 8 years later as he was a suspect in a series of violent robberies. I believe at that point he was definitely a sociopath who enjoyed the risk/excitement/power in robbing people.  Incidentally, as a young offender he only received some 6 years for the murder offence– what a criminal justice system! 

Something I would add is that with all the killers I have spend time with, all have something (even if it’s very small) about them that is likeable.  Now, this is not to say that they don’t deserve to spend the rest of their life in prison, or be sentenced to death.  With the exposure to the target, you see all sides– I guess this is what I am trying to say here.  As an Operator, it’s hard not to see the good side as well.  I would always focus on the goal and remind myself of the consequences of the target’s actions to keep me on track.  It’s a mindset almost like saying, ‘its only business.’  Although, my business was taking the freedom away from a person for dozens of years.  The target certainly did not see it that way at the time of takedown.

That’s all for today. Tune in tomorrow when we’ll continue this interview. Let’s all show Mr. Big some love in comments. It took guts to do this– something he has in spades!


14 thoughts on “Q & A With A Real Undercover Operative– Part I

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  3. Pingback: Q & A With A Real Undercover Operative– Part III | Crime Fiction Writer Sue Coletta

  4. Pingback: Q & A With A Real Undercover Operative– Part II | Crime Fiction Writer Sue Coletta

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