In January 2013, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel dropped a bombshell report showing ATF Agents who attempted to set up a storefront in the city, ended up damaging the building, owing the landlord money and lost a machine gun on the streets after it was stolen out of a government vehicle.
A store calling itself Fearless Distributing opened early last year on an out-of-the-way street in Milwaukee's Riverwest neighborhood, offering designer clothes, athletic shoes, jewelry and drug paraphernalia.
Those working behind the counter, however, weren't interested in selling anything.
They were undercover agents from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives running a storefront sting aimed at busting criminal operations in the city by purchasing drugs and guns from felons.
But the effort to date has not snared any major dealers or taken down a gang. Instead, it resulted in a string of mistakes and failures, including an ATF military-style machine gun landing on the streets of Milwaukee and the agency having $35,000 in merchandise stolen from its store, a Journal Sentinel investigation has found.
When the 10-month operation was shut down after the burglary, agents and Milwaukee police officers who participated in the sting cleared out the store but left behind a sensitive document that listed names, vehicles and phone numbers of undercover agents.
And the agency remains locked in a battle with the building's owner, who says he is owed about $15,000 because of utility bills, holes in the walls, broken doors and damage from an overflowing toilet.
Then, nearly a year later in December 2013, another Journal Sentinel story showed ATF agents ruined the lives of mentally disabled teenagers to solve a problem the Bureau created. ATF failed during another store front sting and punished teenagers they convinced to help them by throwing them in jail. ATF agents convinced mentally disabled kids to get giant squid neck tattoos, had them participate in a sting operation, arrested them for participating and then called it a success. ATF was also teaching people how to illegally saw off shotguns so they could turn around with an arrest for sawing off a shotgun. The same scenario played out with machine gun.
Guillermo Medel was a heroin addict and drug dealer hoping to make some cash to support his habit when a friend brought him to Jokerz Traderz pawnshop in a strip mall in a working-class neighborhood on San Mateo Blvd. in Albuquerque.
When they asked for a machine gun, Medel thought he had one for them [agents].
One problem: he didn't know what a machine gun was.
Medel had brain damage. Hit by a drunken driver when he was 7, Medel had spent months in the hospital and never fully recovered.
Agents took advantage of that and his drug addiction when they offered such high prices for guns, Medel's attorney, Brian Pori, said in court.
Pori told the Journal Sentinel he is "certain that the agents were aware that Guillermo was a drug-addicted, brain-damaged street hustler who never trafficked guns in his life."
"He wouldn't know how to use a machine gun to save his ass," Pori said.
Pori said agents gave Medel a "tutorial" in the back room of the pawnshop to help him distinguish a machine gun from a semiautomatic weapon.
Despite ATF's claims these were isolated incidents, they weren't and now, Senator Grassley and Chairman of the House Oversight Committee Darrell Issa have sent a letter to ATF Director Todd Jones demanding answers about how many times these tactics were used around the country.
"We are appalled by ATF agents' lack of judgement in recruiting juveniles and developmentally disabled individuals. Much as in Operation Fast and Furious and Operation Fearless, it appears that poor management was the norm in these other storefront operations. In Portland, the Journal Sentinel reports that ATF management approved putting an undercover storefront right across the street from a local middle school. It is almost unimaginable that any law enforcement agency would recklessly endanger children in this way -- particularly an agency that is tasked with responding to school shootings," Grassley and Issa wrote.
According to the letter, ATF has failed to be forthcoming with information about the cases.
"The continued lack of accountability at ATF is disturbing," the letter states, adding that many of the agents managing these cases have been promoted. "Around the conclusion of Operation Fearless in the fall of 2012, ATF management promoted Bernard Zapor, the Special Agent in Charge during the pendency of Operation Fearless, to ATF headquarters as Deputy Assistant Director of the Office of Field Operations -- Central Region. In its April 2013 briefing, ATF informed Congressional staff that a disciplinary action was pending against Mr. Zapor. And yet, ATF management later transferred Special Agent Zapor in the summer of 2013 to become the new Special Agent in Charge of the Phoenix Field Division -- the very office which suffered from such poor management during Operation Fast and Furious. And of course, ATF failed to terminate any employees for their role in Operation Fast and Furious."
Issa and Grassley have requested detailed information and documentation from ATF regarding storefront operations in Portland, Wichita, Albuquerque, Atlanta and Pensacola by January 23, 2013.