Law-enforcement officials say that undercover work helps them catch sophisticated criminals when more traditional methods have failed, but many operations are open-ended and indiscriminate. They simply lay a trap and see who falls in. In 2006, the New York City Police Department launched Operation Lucky Bag, placing backpacks and purses around the subway system and waiting to catch the people who took them. It resulted in more than two hundred arrests. Two years later, according to New Orleans City Business, local police parked a car loaded with Budweiser, candy, cigarettes, and cans of baked beans at three locations, including one a block away from a homeless encampment. They left the doors unlocked and the windows rolled down. Eight people, two of whom were homeless and six of whom had no prior convictions, were arrested for taking some of the items and charged with burglary, an offense that carries a prison term of up to twelve years. (A spokesperson for the New Orleans Police Department said that such tactics “are not tolerated at N.O.P.D.”) Hinton, the historian, has observed that undercover operations are often concentrated in poor Black neighborhoods, writing, “Stings offered police an easy means to remove a population they saw as latently criminal from the streets and place them behind bars.”
Many people caught in these plots initially assume that they have been entrapped, but the popular understanding of entrapment is far from the legal standard. The concept doesn’t appear anywhere in the Constitution. The Supreme Court first recognized the defense in Sorrells v. United States, a 1932 case in which a Prohibition agent posing as a furniture dealer persuaded a North Carolina man to sell him a half gallon of whiskey. That case laid the foundation for the Court’s “subjective test” of entrapment, which emphasizes the suspect’s state of mind. If a person is “predisposed” to commit the crime—prior convictions, drug addiction, and even poverty could qualify as predispositions—then almost any degree of government involvement is permitted. A sting usually doesn’t count as entrapment even if agents conceived, financed, and helped execute the plan.
That winter, when Boyer filed an appeal, he decided to forego an entrapment defense, arguing instead that he should have received a lighter sentence because he was a minor participant in the plot. “Entrapment wasn’t so much a defense as an urban legend,” he said. Boyer filed dozens of Freedom of Information Act requests concerning Zayas and the A.T.F.’s undercover operations, but the documents came back heavily redacted, if the requests were processed at all. After two years in prison, he received a letter informing him that he had lost his appeal. Other men at Pekin were astonished. “It didn’t make sense to me that I walked into five banks with guns, got twelve years and three months, and he got a twenty-four-year sentence,” Shon Hopwood, a former inmate who is now a professor at Georgetown Law, told me.
By then, Boyer had accumulated four trunks of documents and transcripts, which he kept padlocked in his cell, and he had earned a reputation as a jailhouse lawyer, someone who could help write briefs or give advice on cases. During free hours each day, a line of men waited to consult with Boyer at his regular table in the library. It was against prison rules to be caught with another inmate’s legal paperwork, and Boyer often ended up in segregated housing after being discovered in his cell reading a motion for someone else.
Several years into Boyer’s sentence, an inmate told him a familiar story. Marlyn Barnes, a delicate man with thin dreadlocks, said that he had been working at a medical facility in Gary, Indiana, when he was persuaded to help rob a cartel’s stash house. Not long afterward, Boyer heard the same thing from James McKenzie, a man in his twenties from Chicago. Soon, stash-house targets were arriving in Pekin from across the Midwest. “They were showing up from all over,” Boyer told me. “That’s kind of when I had an idea that this thing had taken off.” When Boyer started reviewing their cases, he saw that many of them had been recruited by Zayas. “He seemed to be at the center of all of this stuff,” Boyer said. “I was seeing his name pop up everywhere.”
In the late eighties, Richard Zayas attended the A.T.F.’s undercover-training academy, in Glynco, Georgia, where agents learn how to recognize the weights, textures, smells, and street names of certain drugs, and how to play an undercover role in operations ranging from murder-for-hire plots to robbery investigations. Zayas was soon assigned to an anti-narcotics task force in Miami. At the time, South American cartels were moving large shipments of cocaine through Florida. According to Carlos Baixauli, an A.T.F. agent who worked with Zayas then, robberies of stash houses were turning into violent clashes between armed groups. “We started coming up on homes and there would be five or six dead Colombians, Venezuelans, or some other South American nationality in the house,” Baixauli told a military-news Web site.
Zayas helped invent the stash-house sting as a way to investigate these robberies. At first, the A.T.F. kept real cocaine in a house in a residential Miami neighborhood, but arresting people as they made their getaway proved dangerous. “After a number of car chases and shootings, we decided that that wasn’t a good idea,” Zayas testified in 2012. “So we tried tractor-trailer trucks where we put [drugs] in the sleeper area. Also that resulted in violence. We tried an airplane strip. That resulted in violence. We tried a boat, drugs on a boat. That resulted in violence.” Eventually, Zayas and his colleagues decided that real cocaine was unnecessary; agents would now make the arrests before a robbery took place.
In the years after Boyer was arrested, the A.T.F. significantly increased its use of stash-house stings. A 2013 investigation by USA Today found that, in the previous decade, the number of these operations run by the A.T.F. had quadrupled. Zayas travelled from Miami to Las Vegas, Phoenix, New Orleans, San Diego, Chicago, Cleveland, and St. Louis, teaching his methods to A.T.F. teams and police departments. He played the role of Disgruntled Drug Courier in more than fifty operations and shared the stash-house playbook with agents in the United States, Canada, and Germany. “The longer that you work undercover, the more you’re able to get into the role,” Zayas said on the witness stand in 2010. “You’re able to suppress that fear.”
In “RatSnakes,” a 2019 memoir, a retired undercover A.T.F. agent named Vincent Cefalu writes, “We were (and many of us still are) the quintessential human rodent hunters, released from our jars when an unsavory task needed attention.” Undercover agents “are dispatched to infiltrate a sordid, blood-spattered, degraded world, dominated by characters accustomed to vulgarity and violence. Only those mentally resilient and clever enough can navigate their way inside this dangerously clandestine setting, and then survive in its confines while doing their jobs.” John Kirby, a defense lawyer in San Diego who cross-examined Zayas in a 2012 stash-house case, got the impression that Zayas had a similar mentality. “He thought he was doing the greatest thing, putting all these people in jail,” Kirby said. “His demeanor on the stand was ‘I’m smarter than you, I’m better than you, and I’m doing God’s work here.’ ”
City leaders boasted about the high rates of arrests and convictions stemming from stash-house stings. In Phoenix, in 2009, a team led by the A.T.F. rounded up seventy people in the course of several months. “The results are stunning, and meaningful,” Phil Gordon, the mayor, said in a statement. “These people really are the worst of the worst and now they’re off the streets.” In Oakland, in 2012, the A.T.F. helped make sixty arrests in a hundred and twenty days. Officials announced at a press conference that agents had “strategically saturated criminally infested areas” in order to target people “who carry guns in the way that most of us carry cell phones.” Jean Quan, the mayor, thanked the agency on behalf of “the mothers of Oakland.” The next year, Zayas received an award for “distinguished service” from the Department of Justice for his role in stash-house stings. “Richie Zayas made his name on these cases,” a defense lawyer told me. “It was his thing.”
The A.T.F. claims that stash-house stings catch established crews who already have the means to commit armed robbery. “If we wanted to go out and cast a wide net, we could do one of these a week—that’s not what we want to do,” an agent said in 2014, according to the Los Angeles Times. “This technique is designed to take trigger-pullers off the streets.” Through the years, the A.T.F. has targeted many men with long and violent criminal histories, some of whom have shown up on the day of the robbery armed with assault rifles and bulletproof vests. “We don’t want to create a criminal,” Baixauli, Zayas’s colleague, said in an interview. “Superiors review our checks on the viability of targets.”
Nevertheless, the agency has also ensnared low-level offenders, and even people with no criminal records. I reviewed thousands of pages of court transcripts from more than a dozen stash-house cases and found that many of the so-called crews were haphazard groups of family members, acquaintances, or strangers thrown together at the last minute, as targets scrambled to find willing participants. Suspects in these cases frequently asked the undercover agents for help distributing cocaine or obtaining guns. One Chicago crew, after a failed search for handguns, showed up with only a five-shot revolver, manufactured sometime between 1898 and 1918, whose grip was duct-taped together. When targets struggled to put together a plan, agents sometimes helped them instead of abandoning the operation. In several cases, including Boyer’s, the A.T.F. promised to provide the would-be robbers with a vehicle. In at least one case, the A.T.F. provided a gun.
William Buchanan was one of about forty people arrested in a run of stash-house operations in St. Louis. In 2013, he and his three co-defendants showed up on the day of the robbery without guns, and, when interviewed later by a legal officer, Buchanan was unable to answer basic questions about his family. In an article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, his mother, Shirley Gill, said that he had suffered head injuries in a car crash and a fight. To be friendly, he tended to nod along while others were talking. “He’ll probably act like he understand,” she said. “But he don’t.” After nearly two years, Missouri prosecutors decided to dismiss the case against Buchanan, but John Ham, a spokesperson for the A.T.F., said that the St. Louis operations “were well planned out and targeted exactly the violent criminals that needed to be targeted.”