It was a rundown store in a rundown neighborhood on the edge of Brownsville. The secondhand retail shop near the corner of Pace Boulevard and Godfrey Street had little signage, no website, no radio or television ads and no social media strategy. The store only put out a crappy little flyer to announce its “grand” opening in February.
Still, the word-of-mouth was fantastic. Customers were steady, thanks to a catchy slogan–“We buy anything. No questions asked.” The clientele provided a brisk business for the fledgling operation and brought in a steady stream of merchandise.
The shop might have qualified for Best of the Bay or Best of the Coast for the most successful new retail shop, except for one problem. The shop, Anything for a Buck, was an undercover sting operation run by the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office (ECSO) with the help of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) and the Pensacola Police Department.
The top commodities were illegal firearms that customers sold to store employees at rates higher than similar undercover storefront operations around the country. There were no special prices. Market price, which was computed by the ATF experts, was paid for all firearms, with prices ranging from $3 to $3000 each. All types of guns were brought in, including sawed-off shotguns and assault rifles.
By the time the operation was shutdown in early October, over 270 guns had been taken off the streets, a phenomenal number according to Lt. Ray Briggs, who headed the operation for the ECSO.
“The average storefront operation nets about two guns per week,” Briggs told the IN. “Operation Anything for a Buck averaged eight illegal guns a week, making the operation’s haul one of the largest per capita when the county’s population is taken into account.”
ATF Special Agent Randy Beach worked with Briggs on running the operation. He talked about other similar undercover operations in Phoenix, Ariz., Atlanta and Augusta, Ga. that seized a lot of guns and generated several arrests, but the Pace Boulevard storefront did more arms dealing than those operations in much larger metropolitan areas. Both Briggs and Beach admitted that they were stunned by the number of guns taken off the streets by Operation Anything for a Buck.
The Escambia County storefront was run similarly to other such undercover operations that ATF and local law enforcement agencies have conducted all over the country.
This past summer, a seven-month undercover operation, Operation ATL Blaze, that was run out of a smoke shop in southwest Atlanta, led to the indictments of 49 suspects involved in trading 373 illegal firearms. Undercover agents posed as employees of ATL Blaze and, like the Brownsville faux-secondhand shop, the store spread the word they were interested in purchasing firearms and narcotics.
Fulton County, where Atlanta is located, has a population of 920,581, according to the 2010 Census. That’s three times more people than Escambia County, Florida. Operation ATL Blaze seized less than one gun for every 500 residents. Operation Anything for a Buck seized nearly two guns for every 500 residents.
In March 2011, Operation 602 Exchange led to 49 indictments on federal firearms and drug trafficking offenses, and another 54 on state charges, as part of a nine–month undercover operation at a Phoenix, Ariz. secondhand shop. Over its duration, the operation resulted in the seizure of 223 weapons, including handguns, assault rifles, rifles and sawed–off shotguns.
Operation 602 Exchange run a month longer than the Escambia County operation and seized fewer guns. Phoenix has a population of 1,445,632.
Special Agent Beach participated in a storefront undercover operation four years ago in Richmond County, Ga. Operation Augusta Ink, in which the undercover officers posed as
employees of the Colur Tyme Tattoo Parlor in Augusta, made illegal gun and drug purchases. When the parlor’s doors were closed after operating for 16 months, 71 arrests were made and more than 400 firearms were recovered.
Operation Augusta Ink averaged 25 firearms per month. Operation Anything for Buck averaged nearly 35 guns taken off the streets every month.
No matter how you look at it Escambia County can lay rightful claim to the title “Gun Capitol USA.”
TAKING GUNS OFF THE STREET
On the afternoon of Wednesday, Nov. 2, reporters, photographers and cameramen huddled in the lobby of the ECSO Administrative Building waiting for a press conference that had been announced less than two hours before. No one knew for sure what the announcement would be, but the media had been told it would involve a major operation involving the several agencies, including the U.S. Attorney.
The WEAR TV cameraman said that he heard that it involved guns, and he was right. When the media was escorted into the training room, there were tables covered with guns–pistols, rifles, sawed-off shotguns and semi-automatic weapons. A sign identified the weapons as having been seized as part of Operation Anything for a Buck and credited the U.S. Attorney’s Office, State Attorney’s Office, ATF, ECSO, Pensacola Police Department, Florida Department of Law Enforcement, U.S. Marshalls, NCIS and the Santa Rosa County Sheriff’s Office.
The U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Florida, Pamela Marsh, stood at the podium, flanked by Sheriff Morgan, State Attorney Bill Eddins, Santa Rosa Sheriff Wendell Hall, ATF Special Agent from the Tampa office, Virginia O’Brien, and Pensacola Police Chief Chip Simmons.
Marsh announced 22 federal indictments that charged 22 separate defendants with federal firearm violations. An additional 53 defendants were charged by state authorities on violations related to illegal firearm possession, drug distribution, and dealing in stolen property. She said the federal and state charges followed an eight-month undercover investigation referred to as Operation Anything for a Buck.
During the operation, undercover agents and investigators purchased 270 firearms, including handguns, rifles, assault rifles and sawed-off shotguns, and more than 2,600 rounds of ammunition. In over 100 individual drug deals, they also obtained illegal drugs, including cocaine, marijuana, heroin, hydrocodone, Xanax, and oxycodone.
“The residents of Escambia County and communities across the state can feel a little safer today thanks to the tireless efforts of the brave law enforcement officers and agents who took part in this effort,” said Marsh. “We know from experience that gun violence goes hand-in-hand with gangs and drugs. Our law enforcement officers worked incredibly hard, in the heat of a Florida summer, to take these guns and drugs out of our community. They deserve all the credit for this successful joint effort. I assure you we will not stop here and together we will continue to do what it takes to rid our streets of criminal activity.”
State Attorney Bill Eddins said the operation was very successful in both the arrests made and the amount of guns, drugs and stolen property recovered. He expected the number of arrests to grow as the guns were processed by the ATF lab and tied to other crimes. He credited the leadership and support of Sheriff Morgan for that success.
“He committed an unbelievable allocation of manpower and resources to this operation,” said Eddins. “It was his leadership and that of Lt. Ray Briggs from his office, and AFT Special Agent Randy Beach, that made this possible, along with the unselfish cooperation of all the agencies involved.”
Eddins said that he had assigned special prosecutors, who had been involved in the undercover operation and knew the issues and the defendants, to these cases.
U.S. Attorney Marsh emphasized that an indictment was merely an allegation by a grand jury and not evidence of guilt. All defendants were entitled to a fair trial, during which it would be the government’s burden to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law. Assistant U.S. attorneys J. Ryan Love and David Goldberg are prosecuting the federal cases.
RESPONDING TO GUN VIOLENCE
The IN met with Sheriff Morgan, Chief Deputy Larry Aiken and Lt. Briggs the next afternoon to gain a better understanding why Operation Anything for a Buck was initiated and what did it say for Escambia County that so many weapons were seized over eight months.
“Last year we had spikes in some crime areas and the chief was tracking it very closely,” said Morgan to explain why he initiated the undercover operation. “In August of 2010, Chief Aiken began to develop a strategic plan in response to violence and gun-related crimes that we were seeing in the stats.”
Morgan said the strategy was to be based on what he called the “modern practice of intelligence-led policing.”
“It’s where we are proactive, not reactive, and allocate resources where they best can protect the public,” he said. “In this day of shrinking budgets, you have to take what you’ve been given and use it to the best of your ability.”
In 2010, Escambia County saw a decrease in violent crimes overall about 14 percent, according to Aiken. “But we were seeing a trend of more guns and weapons in the neighborhoods,” said the chief deputy.
“The strategic plan included Operation Clean Sweep, reorganizing the community policing, creating the TAC unit and putting them in the neighborhoods where the crime was occurring,” said Aiken. “This was in response to the gun violence that we were seeing.”
The Sheriff’s Office originally focused on the gang violence, but then they expanded their approach because the crimes being committed weren’t just gang-related. “We needed a plan to go after the guns and the gun violence,” said Aiken, “it was clear that the most serious of issues was gun violence.”
“Our initial approach was to start in August 2010 a six-man TAC unit, which has grown to 14 officers,” he said. “We started in December our Desk to Roads, in which officers here went out on the streets, and we started to see some dramatic decreases in our violent crime. But those things were only a piece of the overall plan. They were the easiest to start and reaped some benefit.
Sheriff Morgan added, “We also worked on improving our neighborhood watch programs. We reached out to community outreach groups and local churches to have them go out with us into the neighborhoods, like Montclair and Diego Circle.”
They looked at operations and programs that had worked in the past, but hadn’t been used in a long time. Capt. Bruce Wood and Lt. Briggs suggested the Sheriff’s Office do an undercover storefront operation because they had been hugely successful in the past.
“We were seeking ways to partner with our court system and other law enforcement agencies in various undercover operations,” said Aiken. “You saw with Operation Anything for a Buck that when all the agencies banded together our resources become ten-fold.”
Morgan didn’t want to duplicate the mistakes of his predecessor in the fanfare around Operation Brownsville that focused on crime and code enforcement for 30 days in 2007. “The worst thing we could do is fall in the trap of Operation Brownsville, which was 30 days of hoopla and then they went off and worried about something else,” said the sheriff. “We know the key to successful crime suppression is consistency.”
“The lesson from Brownsville,” said Aiken, “was that if you concentrate your resources in one area, you may suppress certain elements in that area but the crime moves elsewhere, like Montclair, Diego Circle or Mayfair.”
Aiken pointed to how the community policing has been modified to provide a more consistent approach. In the past, patrol deputies had districts and they didn’t leave them during their shifts. The sheriff’s office identified common patrol areas, neighborhoods where crimes are occurring currently. The patrol shifts are encouraged to put some of their officers during their downtime in those common areas where trends show burglaries and other crimes are happening.
SETTING UP SHOP
To open the storefront, the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office looked for help from ATF Special Agent Beach, who had been involved in these types of operations before.
“He was the one who basically told us how to do it and everything,” said Briggs. “Once the decision was made to do the operation, it took us about two months to find the location in an area that needed assistance, identify the undercovers that we were going to use and get organized.”
“We had legal guidance from our own attorney, Col. Darlene Dickey, the U.S. Attorney and State Attorney, to make sure we ran it properly,” said Morgan. “Because the danger in this type of operation is you can be accused of assisting or aiding a criminal enterprise. We had several safeguards in place. One was as simple as the price that we paid for the weapons. We had officers from ATF involved because they’re gun experts and knew what the market values were for the guns being brought in the store.”
Why open up shop in the Brownsville area? Chief Aiken said the Pace Blvd location was chosen because it was easy access to several areas that had problems with gun violence. The store was stocked with items the agency had seized in arrests over the years and which would have normally been auctioned off.
“The cost to Escambia County taxpayers was the salaries of the two officers involved in the investigations,” said Aiken. “Everything else used funds confiscated from drug deals and from the Law Enforcement Trust Fund.”
Once opened, the store had a steady stream of customers. “It was literally like Cheers,” said Morgan. “They had a regular clientele.”
“What’s important to point out is that 21 of the people announced as arrested at the press conference we already had in jail,” said Briggs. “The reason they were in jail is because we knew they were going to hurt the community and we used other methods to arrest them and get them off the street.”
For example, they passed on information to Santa Rosa County Sheriff’s Office on people that they believed were committing burglaries in its county and unloading stolen goods at the Brownsville store.
“We’re very cognizant of how serious an offender they may be,” said Aiken. “And we made every effort to make sure they didn’t stay on the street.”
Business stayed steady, and the undercover officers continued to get phone calls from suspects wanting to unload goods even after the store closed in early October. “I was literally getting phone calls during the press conference,” said Briggs.
MORE GUNS SEIZED THAN OTHER STINGS
“Percentage-wise, this is the largest number of guns taken off the street in the United States, according to ATF, for the time and effort committed,” said Morgan. “They compare us to Houston, Shreveport and Atlanta.”
Where did the guns from? “It would appear from this that a lot of guns float around this community,” said Briggs. “We recovered several guns that were literally stolen decades ago. One was stolen from Los Angeles back in, like, 1984.”
Morgan added, “There was a 1911 Colt and some antique Smith & Wesson that you might say was from someone’s gun collection. I think it will be all over the map, but the nice thing about today’s technology, we can track the history of nearly every gun. The ATF has it down to a science.”
Once Briggs and his team began tracing the guns, they found some gun owners didn’t know their firearm had been stolen. “We’d call and the owner would say, ‘Let me go see where my gun is,’” said Briggs. “They didn’t even know their gun was stolen.”
He explained that some owners throw their pistols under the seat of the truck or car and forget about it. They may not see it for weeks or months and never think to report it as stolen.
“I was surprised at how much stolen property we were able to identify and when we went to the owner, they didn’t even know it was missing,” said Briggs. “We would have GPSs that had the owner’s address programed in it. The owner didn’t realize it had been stolen out of the car. Same thing with laptops that owner’s never reported stolen or didn’t have the serial number on file.”
WHY SO MANY?
When asked what the large number of guns seized by his undercover operation says about Escambia County, Sheriff Morgan hesitated a second or two before he responded.
“I guess we’re more of a gun culture than we thought, especially on the thug side,” he said. “I think it also has to do with us being on the I-10 corridor, the most dangerous corridor in the United States. There are more rapes, murders, drugs committed along Interstate 10 than anywhere else and that drops right into the center of our community.”
The sheriff also pointed to the mix of cultures that has an odd blend of metropolitan, urban and rural.
“We have ignored our problems for years,” he said. “We have the third highest incarceration rate in the state, out of 67 counties. Escambia County has a lot of crime activity.”
In his conversations with youth across the county, Morgan believes that there has been a shift in attitudes, especially among teens. “There is more acceptance of the thug culture,” said Morgan. “Some are almost embracing it. Guns have become a status symbol.”
He echoed a familiar theme that has become part of talks around the community.
“We are no longer tethered to those principles-faith, family, community and nation–that make us a decent society. It’s no longer being taught in the homes, schools and churches,” said Morgan. “We in law enforcement unfortunately deal with the repercussions of this.”
Aiken chimed in. “With our neighborhood watch program, we’re trying to make people aware of the problem and then get them involved in the solution. In these tight-budgetary times, the temptation is to become reactive and just answer calls as they come in. We don’t want to do that.”
Both Sheriff Morgan and Chief Deputy Aiken are proud of the success of Operation Anything for a Buck and have faith in their strategic plan to combat gun violence.
“If an agency chooses to be proactive and does it in the appropriate manner, it will measure almost immeasurable benefits,” said Aiken. “This is resounding throughout the community and it will have a long-term effect. It’s incumbent upon us to remain consistent and make sure that we don’t ever take a step back. We have to continue to move forward.”
He added that the Brownsville storefront was just one of several undercover operations that are part of the strategic plan and he had a warning for other criminals.
“There are others going on right now and they will come later as part of this plan. We’re not stopping with just one storefront operation.”