I served for five years with the US Customs Service Enforcement Division (now called ICE) and the Calcasieu Parish Sheriff’s Department, developing an undercover sting operation to catch child pornographers. I wrote about this in my essay called “Monster Hunting” which is also posted here on OS.ME. Shortly after I resigned from these duties, I moved from Louisiana to Houston, Texas, to work in the auction business.
We rented a house in Sugarland, Texas, just south of the city, and got to work on an enormous project to liquidate more than a hundred containers of merchandise for Sears/Craftsman. We were selling goods nationwide and even a little export.
Before I left for the office early one morning, a customer called me to ask if I could liquidate consumer electronics. He went on to tell me about an offer on brand new RCA six-disc CD changers and RCA DVD players for less than $100 each. He said that the goods were meant for export, and the customer had canceled the order. He said there was no RCA warranty and “the serial numbers needed to be removed.”
At this time, the low price for a CD changer was $300 and a DVD player closer to $500. In the surplus business, we call this “too good to be true.” I told him we would probably purchase all he had and asked him to FedEx me two samples at my expense. The moment they arrived, I pulled them out of the box to find the serial numbers intact.
Moments later, I made a phone call to my best friend at US Customs, who, within a few hours, confirmed the goods were stolen. He asked me to forward the samples to him at his office, which I did. He told me, “We’ll turn this over to the appropriate law enforcement agency.”
Customs had instructed me to tell the seller of the stolen goods we weren’t interested. Thus when I got to work, I made the call and told him there was “too much inventory in too few SKU’s for us to handle.” He was a customer of ours, so he politely thanked me and told me if I changed my mind to reach out to him again. I figured that was that, and I’d never hear any more about it.
Two days later, Customs called me again. It seemed the goods were not only stolen but had been “commerce inbound,” meaning that the duties had never been paid on the goods. RCA would ship goods from Los Angeles to the east coast and only pay the duties and taxes once the goods arrived. The thieves were stealing the containers before the products could make it to their destination. Therefore, without duties paid, the crimes fell under the jurisdiction of ICE.
The person who was offering the stolen goods was located in Cincinnati, Ohio, where ICE had limited resources. As a result, Customs called the FBI to ask for assistance with the case. When they made the call, they found out the FBI had been working the case for more than a year. News of this lead set off a jurisdictional dispute like you see in the movies.
When the dust settled, they decided to share the collar but had just one obstacle to overcome. They didn’t have an undercover agent that knew anything about consumer electronics. In the end, they decided the best person to make the buy for the stolen goods was me. After a few long conversations with my wife, I agreed to do the buy. I made an appointment with the seller of the stolen goods to inspect the goods in person the following week.
I flew with my two best friends from ICE to Cinncinatti, where we spent three days preparing for the bust. First, we met with the assistant federal prosecutor. Then we spent two days with more than a dozen FBI agents discussing every detail of the operation. The plan was pretty simple. Enter the premises, inspect the goods and get the seller (them?) to admit as many incriminating details as possible. Once we saw the stolen merchandise, we were to work the word “Panama” into the conversation, which would trigger law enforcement outside to raid the premises.
On the third day, I met “Clark,” a professional, undercover drug buyer who would be my backup for the operation. Yes, it was weird my last name and his first name were the same. The majority of the training on that last day was building a natural rapport between him and me so we would seem like business partners.
The morning of the raid, they fitted us with wireless microphones, and we rehearsed the entire plan in the FBI-ready room. We drove to an abandoned strip mall near the target’s warehouse, where a final check was made. In the end, there were more than twenty agents involved from both ICE and the FBI, including two snipers and two helicopters.
As the time for the appointment neared, Clark and I took a rental car and drove towards the suspect’s warehouse with me behind the wheel. Not two blocks away from the strip mall, I looked over at Clark in the passenger’s seat, and both his legs were bouncing like someone does when they are nervous or have too much energy. I said, “Everything OK with you?” to which he replied, “I don’t know shit about buying electronics – I hope we don’t get shot!” The guy who typically bought thousands of kilos of coke was nervous about DVD players!?!
The seller’s location was an old railroad warehouse in Cinncinatti that looked like something out of The Walking Dead. It was very dilapidated and dirty. The entrance was a sizeable roll-up warehouse door with a single personnel door beside it. We pulled up and parked. As we stepped out of the car, the business owner came out to greet us along with another guy he introduced as his “assistant,” who was obviously packing a weapon under his jacket.
The warehouse was full of pallets of merchandise from every category. While we were making a little small talk, I leaned up against a pallet of uncut, counterfeit Topps baseball cards and noticed there were a dozen more behind it. After a few minutes, the seller invited us to go see the RCA merchandise, and thus we followed him and his assistant deeper into the warehouse.
We came to a spiral forklift ramp that led downward to what I assumed was the basement. We made three loops down, and it got darker all the way. When we reached the bottom, it was completely black, and the seller turned on a flashlight. At this point, I’m pretty sure we’re about to get capped. I’m looking at Clark for a sign, and he’s watching the other two like a hawk.
We walk about ten to fifteen meters to a chain-link fence that is three to four meters tall and completely covered in black plastic. The seller opens a small personnel gate in the fence, which swings outward. He reaches inside, flips a light switch for just two bulbs, and invites me to proceed within. I look at Clark, and he says to me, “Why don’t you check first” and thus, I walk ahead of everyone inside, still sure I’m about to get killed.
What I found was a cavern full of more than ten containers of RCA goods. All brand new, crisp and clean. It seemed to go on forever, row-after-row, stacked to the ceiling. I walk back to the door and start talking to the seller, confirming some facts he’s said previously, like “all serial numbers have to be removed” and “the goods have to be exported,” etc. I then said, “This will certainly work for Panama.” Clark then steps past me to have a look.
A few minutes pass, and no raid. Clark noticing the absence of our friends comes to the door and says, “We can sell this entire load in Panama! My Panamanian buyers will love this stuff!” Immediately the seller asks me, “Do you have the money with you?” to which Clark replies, “In the trunk of the rental car – let’s do this deal now.”
We walk back up the ramp to the warehouse above and get nearly to the warehouse roll-up door when in burst all those federal agents. No one got shot, thank goodness. Everyone got arrested, including Clark and me. They took us all outside, put us in separate squad cars.
They put me in a car with two agents I’d never met before who drove me around the corner, removed my handcuffs, and then took me to a fast-food restaurant. They gave me $20 for a meal and a few quarters so I could call my wife. One of the agents said, “Wait here, and someone will meet you shortly.”
I called my wife and had a bite to eat. About forty-five minutes later, another government car pulled up, and two agents got out. They came inside and sat down at my table without ever removing their sunglasses. They asked me if I was John Clark and then gave me an envelope full of cash for which I signed a form. They told me my country appreciated me, and they left.
Shortly after that, my ICE buddies picked me up, and we went to dinner, where I discovered that the wires had been dead the entire time. They went into horrible static when we stepped into the warehouse and then completely dead when we went down that forklift ramp. My friends from ICE had been fighting with the FBI the entire time to raid immediately, but the FBI commander wouldn’t do it. When the raid finally came, it was due to pressure from ICE.
The recovery was one of the largest in federal law enforcement history – more than $5,000,000 in goods at RCA’s cost. Due to information obtained, a massive mafia-based hijacking ring was dismantled, recovering millions and millions more for other vendors. My involvement in the case was sealed for ten years.
I was bold and brave in my interactions with these criminals because I thought the full force of law enforcement was ready to help me when in actuality, they were hanging me out to dry! I kept on asking the seller questions thinking confidently they were being recorded, and assistance was forthcoming when we were totally on our own! It was my faith in non-existent teammates that saw me through like a placebo effect.
Maharaj-ji Baba Neem Karoli said, “When you think of me, I am there.” God’s wires never go dead. The connection between you and The Universe is always 100% clear. Whatever your Soul needs, God is going to provide in this lifetime or the next. The Divine is attentive to your every intention and thought – nothing passes unnoticed. The timing is God’s.
You might find yourself in a seriously dark place with some very dark people. Nonetheless, know that God hasn’t turned away from you. You are Divinity, and God has nothing but love for you even in the greatest obscurity. Ram Dass says to “love your dark thoughts.” If you do, you’ll see God in them, and they’ll change to light.
Courageous people are always so because they know that no matter how dim it gets, The Universe is perpetually listening and prepared to respond with the totality of love! All you need is faith the size of a mustard seed to move mountains!