From the outset, an undercover gun-buying sting by federal agents in Milwaukee was plagued by confusion.
Local ATF agents wanted to target their longtime nemesis, the Outlaws. They had been going after the aging motorcycle gang with what they dubbed “Operation Smokin’ Piston,” breaking up untaxed cigarette operations on the south side, but were having little success nailing the gang.
It was 2011. Fellow agents with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives familiar with the Outlaws elsewhere in the country came to Milwaukee to offer some advice: Ditch the tobacco operation. The Outlaws were savvy to that type of sting. Instead try a fake storefront, a “surplus shop” and sell T-shirts, motorcycle parts and other goods as a front. Situate the store in the gang’s prime territory: Police District 2.
That’s how to get the Outlaws, the experienced agents advised.
But higher-ups in the agency wanted a broader focus to the operation. With a violent crime rate double the national average, Milwaukee had more pressing problems. An ATF supervisor wanted the operation to target all gun violence in the city. The sting should be located on the north side, closer to a majority of the firearms violence in Milwaukee, they said.
After the plan had been approved and without permission from headquarters, the location of the storefront was changed and Operation Fearless Distributing was hatched — not in District 2 but in a former sign factory north of downtown on a quiet street in Riverwest.
It was just the beginning of an operation marred by mismanagement and mistakes that would ultimately spark major reforms in how the federal agency conducts undercover storefront stings.
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