ATF sting put home invaders in legal vise
Plan tested extent to which officials could lure criminals
A year ago, metro Phoenix was in national headlines for another immigration-related reason: the spate of home-invasion kidnappings that led to the Valley's unfortunate title of top U.S. city for such crimes.
Coverage of the disturbing trend was widespread, eventually grabbing the attention of federal officials in Washington, D.C.
To combat the problem, administrators with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives authorized a unique "reverse sting" operation, the likes of which had never been tried in Arizona.
It was a gamble. The plan tested the extent to which federal agents could lure criminals into a sting without illegally entrapping them. Nobody could be sure then what the outcome would be of their legal theories.
Today, the verdicts are largely in. The feds consider their gambit a resounding success, and Arizona is likely to see more in the future.
"The juries were obviously very supportive of our theories," said Dennis Burke, U.S. attorney for Arizona. "Of the defendants we did prosecute and take to trial and got convicted, we got the gun-toters and we got the drivers. These are some very violent people who had no qualms about doing rip-offs on other drug dealers."
In late spring 2009, about a dozen agents from around the country descended on the area with a plot that would ultimately ensnare more than 70 defendants who bit on the opportunity to burst into homes where, they were told, armed guards kept watch over large quantities of cocaine.
The homes, drugs and armed guards never existed. But the suspects showed up with guns, duct tape and zip ties, ready to steal the cocaine. Instead, they were arrested.
Nearly a year later, only one trial remains. The majority of defendants have taken plea deals that will average 10 years in federal prison. Those who took their chances at trial could face 15 years or more in prison, depending on their criminal histories.
In federal court, defense attorneys typically relied on one of two arguments: the government set up the scheme to entrap their clients, or the suspects were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The entrapment defense was dismissed by two judges, and jurors did not buy the "wrong place, wrong time" line of reasoning, said Bill Newell, special agent in charge of the ATF in Phoenix.
"The juries represent the community, and the juries have made it pretty clear that what we're doing is exactly what they want us to do," Newell said.
The scheme caught criminals with a variety of histories.
Bobby Joe Pierce, 31, had served an eight-year sentence for aggravated assault before he was released in March 2009. Three months later, he was in a car with four other armed men preparing to steal thousands of dollars' worth of cocaine when ATF agents arrested him, according to a plea agreement Pierce signed in April.
The sting also caught Herbert Holden, 41, as a member of a different crew. Holden was driving the car on the day he and five others were arrested. Unlike his co-defendants, Holden had never met the undercover ATF agent arranging the sting, according to court records.
Holden's prior Arizona offenses: running a red light and driving a bicycle at night without a light.
He was found guilty with his co-defendants and could face more than 15 years in federal prison for his role in the scheme.
ATF agents pointed out that about 20 percent of these types of home invasions are reported. Undercover agents created a scenario with lots of drugs and heavily armed guards, making it likely that the sting would entice only serious criminals.
"We had contact with individuals and a number of them decided, 'You know what, this ain't for me.' They put their hands up and walk away," said Pete Forcelli, an ATF supervisor in the Phoenix office. "We don't want them. By raising that level of danger to commit the crime, we're weeding out the bottom feeders, homing in on the violent criminal who's willing to take a bullet."
The stings, while effective, have done little to diminish the number of home invasions in the Valley, whose numbers have remained steady largely because of factors driven by the area's status as a hub for the smuggling of drugs and humans.
Phoenix police received 349 reports of home invasions in 2007 and 390 in 2009. Lt. Lauri Burgett, who oversees the city's Home Invasion Kidnapping Enforcement Unit, said her team's caseload has remained the same in 2010. The group of 10 investigators is called out as many as four times a week to potential kidnappings or home invasions.
Following the ATF operation, Newell and Burke said, they received calls about working with other law-enforcement agencies in the region to combat problems. ATF agents say they have heard anecdotal evidence that the sting operations have deterred some robbery crews from pulling jobs for fear they may be dealing with undercover agents.
But the factors that gave Phoenix the unwelcome title of home-invasion capital of North America remain in place.
"Fifty percent, roughly, of all the drugs in the U.S. come through Arizona, and the human trafficking, when you have all those things added together, the home-invasion thing isn't going away anytime soon," Newell said. "It's a target-rich environment if you're a home invader."
But armed with a court-tested tactic to go after the robbery crews, authorities say their sting operations - like the drug couriers and the opportunists who target their stash houses - are here to stay.