The Long Con
Anatomy of a Two-Year Undercover Sting and What It Has to Do with Law Enforcement’s Habit of Wasting Large Amounts of Money on Investigating People for Their Social Habits and Political Beliefs
Because this story has to start somewhere, let's begin on any given night in early 2009. It's probably drizzling, and a cluster of people is standing outside the wooden apartment building on the corner of 11th Avenue and Pike Street, the one with motel-style exterior hallways and severely chipped paint. A lightbulb above one door is glowing green, a signal that visitors are welcome. When the lightbulb glows yellow, visitors are supposed to come back later. When the lightbulb glows red, they are supposed to keep away.
Sometimes when visitors enter the apartment, they're asked to hand over any weapons they might be carrying—hardly anybody ever is—and sometimes there's a cursory pat-down. Inside the apartment are a lot of artists, plus a military guy or two on a night away from the base. Some are sitting around a card table playing poker. Others are sitting on couches and chairs, smoking and drinking.
They're all being watched, but only one of them knows it.
There's Mia Brown, in the corner, who is into scuba diving and spends her days working with the homeless. There's Jake, a musician. There's Jimmy the Dwarf, an actor and model who works with a local circus troupe. There's Brady McGarry, who has devoted his free time over the years to political and environmental causes. There's DK Pan, a Butoh dancer, performance artist, and curator. There's Jaybird, a skinny kid in leather quietly trying to peddle small bags of cocaine. There's Thoren Honeycutt, who has a few priors for theft, including theft of a firearm. And there's Rick Wilson—tall, broad-shouldered, wearing a suit. This is Rick's apartment, called Rick's Cafe (un)American during Rick's after-hours parties.
For a time, some members of this crowd threw these after-hours parties at a place called the Cthulhu Building, just three blocks uphill from Rick's. Later, some members of this crowd will throw after-hours parties at a place in Belltown called Cafe Corsair. Attendees often referred to them as speakeasies, although the people running them merely thought of them as private parties in private places. Court documents would later call them "underground illegal gambling enterprises (concurrent with illegal liquor sales)." A lot of people went to these parties—they were big events with bands and burlesque dancers. Guests were encouraged to dress up and usually did. Sometimes it seemed like half the city was there in suits and vintage dresses: artists, activists, politicians, cultural bigwigs, musicians, computer programmers, soldiers, criminals.
A lot of these parties happened because Rick's good friend Bryan T. Owens had money and connections. Not everyone liked Bryan, but because he was Rick's good friend he was often around—drinking Maker's and Coke after-hours, playing poker, telling stories. He had a bald head and a goatee and a blustery bro-dude personality—one of the party regulars described him as a "mini–Fred Durst"—but he was a trust-fund baby and he was generous with his cash.
One day, Brady McGarry showed up at the Belltown space. The day before had been a long, weird day for him, and he and Bryan got to talking. Brady had been helping stage a protest at the Weyerhaeuser headquarters in Federal Way—a "lockdown" some friends from California had come up for. "It was mostly a symbolic protest," Brady remembers. "We blocked an entrance for an hour or so, just long enough to make the papers."
Brady had driven down in a car he'd borrowed from a friend, and on his way home, he got pulled over. "It was a state patrol officer, and he told me: 'I have a warrant for your arrest.' I said: 'Um, you haven't even asked for my ID—you don't know who I am yet.' Plus, I was driving my friend's car. It was weird." But the officer seemed to know exactly who Brady was and took him into custody. (This was not Brady's first time in jail. He had been hauled into custody a few times during his protest career. He also says it might have had something to do with some unpaid traffic tickets.) Brady bailed himself out for $1,500, which made him short on rent.
"Man, that sucks," Bryan said, according to Brady. "Cops fucking suck." Bryan offered to pay Brady's rent that month. After that, they started going to dinner together and became friends. Bryan kept pushing Brady toward more radical "real militant action," asked Brady to teach him how to make Molotov cocktails, and hinted that he wanted to "make explosives" and do some "property damage" at Weyerhaeuser or at CEOs' houses, Brady remembers. He wanted to talk about the Earth Liberation Front. Brady remembers telling Bryan to take it easy. "It weirded me out," Brady says. He gave Bryan some books to read and documentaries to watch.
On July 11, 2008, Brady and Bryan drove to Tacoma to meet some "young, stinky, and disorganized" punk-rock protesters—Brady's description—at a meet and greet for people going to protest at the 2008 Republican National Convention. Bryan ended up buying plane tickets for Brady, DK Pan, and himself to get to Minneapolis–St. Paul for the convention. But on the day of the flight, shortly after they'd boarded the plane and just before taxiing, Bryan was escorted off the plane by the authorities. The reason wasn't immediately clear: He had a pot pipe on him or a warrant out or something. (Several people remember Bryan bragging that he had a record and had been arrested for political action.) So Brady and DK went to the convention without the guy who was supposed to be paying for everything. While they were there, Bryan wired them $400 for food and expenses.
And it was Bryan who, after the Cafe (un)American and Cthulhu Building parties had run their course, pushed Rick and DK and Brady into renting a space in Belltown so they could throw more speakeasy parties. "At that point, everybody walked away—except Bryan," says Junior, another regular at the parties. "He kept saying, 'Let's do it again, let's do it again.'"
Bryan said he had some family connection with Martin Selig's real-estate company and that he could get a cheap space in Belltown, down on Third Avenue and Battery Street—the space that came to be called Cafe Corsair. Bryan would sign the lease and put up the money so they could build out one section for parties and another section for DK's art group, called the Free Sheep Foundation. "Bryan said, 'I can pay for it as long as I get paid back,'" Junior remembers. "Rent, paint, locks, lumber, drywall, new plumbing—it all came out of Bryan's pocket."
Junior shakes his head as he's remembering all this. Junior has met a lot of criminals in his life. Criminals who have double-crossed him, stabbed him, shot him—he shows me his scars, impressive burls of flesh—but he says he's never met a con artist like Bryan. "Bryan looked big and dumb, but he was a fucking grifter," Junior concludes, half admiringly and half begrudgingly. "Dude lived parallel lives," he says, and he did it well enough to keep up with a "large, shrewd" roomful of people.
Mia Brown, the scuba diver and DK's then girlfriend, remembers Bryan as a guy who "always ranted about how he hates cops" and who tried to talk an enlisted friend of hers—who was on his way to a tour in Afghanistan—into stealing weapons from Fort Lewis. But it wasn't until she visited Bryan at his apartment one night and found it nearly empty that she knew something was up. "When I went to the bathroom, there was nothing in there," she says. "You'd expect some soap or towels or something. I started asking how long he'd been living there, and he got all aggravated."
After that incident at the apartment, Mia told DK to stop talking to Bryan. When DK stopped answering Bryan's calls, Bryan tried to wheedle his way into her life by talking about scuba diving. Then Mia mentioned that one of her current dive partners was in the Seattle Police Department (SPD). "And he avoided me forevermore," she says. This only ratcheted up her suspicions. Bryan's no-show act at the Republican National Convention struck her as odd. Bryan's agitation about starting up a new speakeasy and insisting that it turn a profit (when everyone in the group had been taking losses for the parties) struck her as odd. And the thing about Bryan asking a friend of hers to steal weapons from Fort Lewis struck her as odd and dangerous.
Meanwhile, Bryan had been pushing Rick—and everyone in their social set—for years to help him buy ever-larger amounts of cocaine. Bryan started buying a gram here, a gram there. Then he tried to play on people's greed. "He's like, 'I can make you a millionaire,'" Rick remembers. "'I've got this inheritance, and you've got credibility with this underground economy of parties.' He said he would pay for the drugs and I would take no financial risk. I told him to go fuck himself. He kept pestering me. I did, to my eternal shame, help him out," Rick says. "I asked around to some people who asked around to some people who eventually gave him some."
One night, Mia tried to tell Rick she had a funny feeling about Bryan, but Rick wasn't having it. When Rick told Mia he'd just agreed to help Bryan out with a favor, they got into a fight. "Rick was going on about how he had to help Bryan," Mia remembers. "He was all, 'I know a lot of you guys don't like Bryan, but you don't know him like I do.'"
Bryan's brother out in Eastern Washington was under serious physical threat—life, limb, family—as Rick understood it. He'd been dealing drugs and doing it wrong, and he'd gotten himself into trouble. The only way out was for Bryan to complete a drug transaction here in Seattle to bail out his brother. Bryan said he didn't know these guys and he needed someone he knew and trusted to come along, to watch the deal from a distance and be on hand in case things went sideways. Could Rick just show up—just to get Bryan's back in case something bad happened? "At first I told him not to do the drug deal at all," Rick says. "He comes to me a dozen times with this 'I've got to stand with my family, I've got to stand with my brother.' Finally, he cracks me."
Bryan offered Rick $500 in cash for his help. Rick handed back $300, saying he'd just take $200 to help with his rent. Mostly he just thought of it as a favor for his good friend.
Mia remembers Rick justifying his helping Bryan by telling her: "We've become like brothers, and he's in a predicament and can't get out. And when it comes to brothers, you sink or swim together."
Mia shot back, "Your brother doesn't grab you by your ankles and pull you down! He doesn't drag you into trouble. What the hell is this guy getting you involved in?"
The following day, June 10, 2009, around noon, Rick is driving through Seattle in a borrowed car, thinking he's going to protect his best friend. The next thing he knows, he's swarmed by a SWAT team. They smash out the windows on both sides of the car and drag Rick onto the pavement. Rick has two loaded handguns in his possession, a .38 Special and a .357 revolver—both legal.
He is arrested, held for a while in a detention facility in SeaTac, and brought into an interrogation room to be questioned by detectives and FBI agents. At some point during the conversation, the revelation hits him: His close friend of two years, the friend he was risking his own life to protect, isn't who he said he is. He isn't a trust-fund baby. He isn't an activist.
He's an undercover SPD detective named Bryan Van Brunt.
"So Bryan's a cop," Rick says aloud in a grainy DVD of the interrogation, looking stunned and heartbroken while he recalibrates his understanding of his world. "Okay."
Rick Wilson sits in a chair, looking exhausted. During breaks in the interrogation room, he leans his head against a wall or rests it on the table. SPD officers and FBI agents come and go, trying to get him to talk.
I got to see (and take notes on) the DVD of the interrogation only once. It begins at 11:13 p.m., almost 12 hours after the arrest and after, according to Rick, extensive questioning about ecoterrorism.
At 11:13 p.m., the police read him his rights and tell him he can talk to a lawyer.
"Do you understand that right?" one of the officers asks.
"You're aware I've previously asked for an attorney," Rick says.
"You haven't technically asked for an attorney," the officer says. "Are you asking for one at this time? If you choose to do so—and you have that right—we can no longer speak to you."
It's clear that Rick and the officers are in the middle of a long discussion about Rick's long-term future. Rick grew up with a defense attorney for a father, who always told him not to talk to police without a lawyer present. ("Never miss a chance to shut the fuck up," Rick remembers him saying. "You give me four complete sentences from an innocent man, and I'll give you a conviction.")
But Rick is talking—carefully, but he's still talking. The officers want Rick to tell them about things (poker, drugs, corrupt city politicians) without calling for a lawyer. Rick clearly wants to call a lawyer, but he is intimidated by the officers' claim that he's looking at 35 to 40 years for showing up to a drug deal at Bryan's request. Rick's interrogators say that if he tells them the things they want to know, the law will go easy on him. But, they hint darkly, if he calls a lawyer, he's fucked—even though they keep mentioning that he has every right to call a lawyer. At some moments, the exchanges are almost comically contradictory. Officers reiterate that if he asks for a lawyer, they can't talk to him. "Aren't you already talking to me?" Rick mutters. "This is like a Kafka play."
FBI agent Dan Simmons says to Rick, "We talked about rash decisions, and I'm being put in a position where I'm gonna have to make a rash decision, whether to take these charges"—Simmons taps an imaginary stack of papers on the table—"and put them away, or whether to have the US Attorney's Office file them. I don't wanna do that. You don't wanna spend the next 40 years in prison."
"Are you telling me straight-up that tonight—and tonight only—is my only chance?" Rick asks haltingly, with a faint hint of panic in his voice. "And that any desire to negotiate cooperation through an attorney would void your willingness to cooperate, and that I'd be maliciously punished for seeking an attorney?"
"No, not at all," the agent says, exasperated. "I'm not gonna punish you. You're punishing yourself. You don't talk to me, I can't help you. This is mandatory federal time. There's no parole. We cut a deal, you'll probably get a little less than 35 years..."
"I'd consider cooperating," Rick says, "and I'd like to negotiate that through an attorney... You guys are professionals in here, and I'm an amateur. I'm underqualified... People mess up the first time they do anything—if you build a cabinet for the first time, you're going to mess up."
And so it goes, for hours and hours on the grainy DVD, while Rick tries to figure out just how fucked he actually is. His interrogators, Rick later remembers, were unusually interested in environmental groups and the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), which totally bewildered him. Here he was getting hauled in for trying to cover a friend, and the police want to talk about radical politics?
Years earlier, Rick had been the singer for a protest band called ¡Tchkung!, which toured to places like El Salvador and had ties to radical, revolutionary causes with an emphasis on indigenous rights. In the ¡Tchkung! song "Solidarity," Rick sings: "Wealth and justice, great disparity/Stand together, answer the call/What we need is solidarity/Injury to one is an injury to all... What part of 'fuck you' didn't you understand?/There ain't no compromise, it ain't your land!"
Rick points out that even if the FBI had gotten to him eight years earlier, when he was closer to that world, he wouldn't have been much help. ELF operates in a fundamentally nonhierarchical, cell-based way so that nobody can flip anybody else whom he or she hasn't directly worked with on an action. A person doesn't join ELF with any kind of process or ceremony. A person commits an action (burning down a McMansion, spray-painting slogans on Weyerhaeuser headquarters, whatever) and then attributes that action to ELF (via a letter or graffiti), and boom—it's an ELF action. But the FBI, despite years of experience, tries to investigate, infiltrate, and bring down the group like it's an old-time mob.
"I wish I could say I was surprised," says Seattle attorney Amanda Lee when I explain this years-long investigation and all the futile effort that went into it. Lee is familiar with this kind of case, having argued several entrapment and radical- environmentalist cases during her career, representing defendants from Operation Backfire (a notorious FBI investigation against people associated with ELF by putting the screws to a guy facing narcotics charges) and a detainee at Guantánamo Bay accused of being involved with the 9/11 hijacking. But, she says, the FBI keeps trying to hammer at ELF through whatever tangential, specious means it can, following weak leads that cost it—and taxpayers—much time and expense.
"FBI domestic terrorism investigations," she says, "are frequently out of proportion to the danger of the crime involved."
The heart of the investigation, the search for terrorists and corrupt politicians, was a flop—a very intense, expensive, invasive flop.
Nevertheless, during Rick's interrogation, SPD officers and FBI agents reiterate that if Rick asks for a lawyer, he's facing certain decades in prison. "It's real simple: If you don't talk tonight, we don't negotiate, and discussions are closed," one interrogator says. Watching the video is like a 101 course in intimidation and interrogation tactics. In the background, another man in another cell is audibly weeping.
"You're it!" one of the officers says to Rick. "You're big-time tagged! I've got a lot more questions, and it will be obvious I'm giving you the opportunity to tag someone else... You ever hear the saying that the first to talk is the first to walk?"
The officers ask about other people who've been to the speakeasies. "Peter Steinbrueck?" someone asks eagerly, referring to the former Seattle City Council president. "Nick Licata?" someone asks, referring to a current city council member.
"This is undignified," Rick sniffs. "This is witch-hunting. This is undignified for you and me both."
And then the SPD officer and Rick have an unusually candid exchange, one that shows how costly and futile this whole investigation has been.
"The degree of surveillance and monitoring has been extremely expensive," the officer tells Rick, sounding equal parts intimidating and frustrated. "When you've gone to the QFC and Corsair and Tubs. Think over the last two years—everything you've done in private and on the streets, people you've talked to, what you've had in your possession, conversations, intentions, plans... I have to emphasize the level of surveillance we've run over the last two years. Tell us about all the drug deals in The Yard. You want me to tell you about the red cabinet where you keep the drugs? The cocaine? We have hundreds of hours of surveillance, wire, video..."
"That would seem to be an absurd waste of state financing and funding," Rick says. "And that actually scares me more than the charges... You guys aren't after anything bigger than this? This is it?"
Later, Rick asks them pointedly: "Didn't it, at some point in this investigation, get frustrating to discover that there's nothing?"
"We have enough to charge you with multiple crimes that could put you away for 30 to 40 years," the officer snaps back. Later, FBI agent Simmons says, "I hate to keep beating a dead horse, man, but we've been looking at you for a year at least."
"Well," Rick replies, "that must have been pretty unsatisfying for you."
The FBI agent doesn't answer.
The Seattle police seem to think that Rick's guns point toward some kind of guilt.
"Why the need to have so many weapons on the premises?" one of the officers asks.
"My home?" Rick asks, sounding flabbergasted. "That's my home. I own a small amount of firearms legally, most of which are locked in an extremely secure gun safe in an unloaded manner. I'm a man from Oklahoma," he continues, "and there's no such thing as a man from Oklahoma who doesn't own a firearm or two. Even the hippies own guns."
The agents sit silent, seemingly flummoxed. They've pursued this target for years, luring him into a bust that they hoped would scare him into giving up some valuable intelligence about domestic terrorists, or city politicians, or at least some drug dealers. But they've fundamentally misunderstood their own investigation.
This story fits into a national pattern of law enforcement going to great lengths to prosecute people who are perceived as serious threats to national security, but who are (for the most part) just people with big mouths and weird lifestyles.
Former Chicago Tribune reporter Will Potter, author of Green Is the New Red (just published by City Lights), says that after years of looking into these kinds of cases, he's never figured out exactly why the FBI is doing this: "The best explanation I ever heard was from a former FBI agent. She said: 'In the 1980s, it was drugs; in the '90s, it was gangs; and post-9/11, the institutional focus of law enforcement is terrorism.'"
Potter says, "This case you're looking into sounds like one of the extremes among the extremes." The Bryan/Rick investigation isn't an anomaly—not just a couple of crazy cops on a tear—and Seattle isn't the only community where the FBI and local law enforcement have teamed up to investigate people for what DK Pan's attorney David Whedbee calls "their beliefs and expressive conduct."
"This has happened quite a bit," Potter says. "I don't mean to be too glib, but if it can't find people committing so-called ecoterrorism, the FBI seems willing to create ecoterrorism and then arrest people for it. It sucks to put it in those terms because it sounds so conspiracy theorist, and I don't want it to sound that way. It's not the norm but it's increasing that the FBI is clamoring for these arrests and is willing to break the law in the process."
"At the very top of my list is the Eric McDavid case out of California," Potter says. After an FBI investigation of at least three years (from 2004 to 2007), during which McDavid developed a romantic attachment to "Anna," the alter ego of an FBI agent, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison for "conspiring to damage or destroy property by fire and an explosive." Potter describes the sentence as "mind-bogglingly insane."
"The guy didn't do anything," he says. "At the worst, he hung around with a group of people who talked tough. In court, Anna actually complained that the group spent too much time hanging around and smoking pot." All the while, Anna was on the FBI payroll and was "supplying the group with bomb-making materials and supplies and traveling around on the FBI's dime."
The FBI, Potter says, has been playing this make-believe game with "domestic terrorists" off and on since 9/11, even though it has been directly criticized for it by the US Department of Justice.
The DOJ's 95-page audit report from 2003 opens and closes with the inspector general basically saying that the FBI has been doing a crappy job of protecting American citizens from terrorism because it's not good at sharing information with other agencies, and it's been too busy busting the likes of vegans, hippies, artists, anarchists, and other low-risk dissident American subcultures.
From page 63 of the DOJ report: "Frequently, the information being shared on terrorism could be described as background; often the subject of the FBI's communications is not the high risk of radical Islamic fundamentalist terrorism but social protests or the criminal activities of environmental or animal activists."
On the 11th page of the report's introduction, the DOJ suggests that the FBI concentrate on "actionable information on the high risk of international terrorism and any domestic terrorist activities aimed at creating mass casualties or destroying critical infrastructure, rather than information on social protests and domestic radicals' criminal activities."
In other words, the DOJ is telling the FBI to stop wasting its time with the vegans, the hippies, and the anarchists. They're fine—people are allowed to be weird in America. Those people aren't a threat, anyway. The FBI should spend its time looking for murder- minded international terrorists instead.
Colleen Rowley, who was an FBI agent for 24 years, says she saw a dramatic change in the agency after 9/11. "It's a repeat of the COINTELPRO programs at the end of the Vietnam War," she says. "They are targeting groups just for political dissent. It's history repeating." When she saw this shift after 9/11, Rowley became a whistle-blower—and very unpopular at the bureau. She retired in 2004.
She lives in the Twin Cities now and says she saw an incredible concentration of agents trying to infiltrate and target protest groups around the time of the 2008 Republican National Convention.
In retrospect, the plane incident with Bryan makes sense. The SPD was hoping those plane tickets to protest at the RNC would bolster its undercover officer's street cred among presumed radicals. Bryan said he'd go with them, but he had authorities stage an incident on the airplane that resulted in him being "detained" and unable to go. That was just one of the many bizarre (and expensive) stunts that local and federal law-enforcement officials put together to infiltrate their target of wild-eyed, drug-crazed, bomb-throwing terrorists with heavy connections at city hall.
But that target was a figment of their imagination.
A Cafe Corsair regular remembers Bryan asking him one night if a certain security guy was armed. "I said yes. He said, 'Good, we should encourage that,'" the regular remembers. "Now you have this cop who built this place, condoning and encouraging sales of drugs to an uncontrolled demographic of people and that they be policed with guns."
"Every person Bryan had friendships with, he had an agenda," Brady McGarry says now, adding, "I fell for it. In a way, I'm the luckiest guy in the world—if I had been a little more stupid or a little more weak, I might have actually done some of the shit he was trying to talk me into."
"Bryan was trying to get people to do shit they wouldn't normally do, things that were more dangerous, just to make his case," says Junior, who started sending me cryptic, urgent-sounding messages after Rick's arrest. A few people immediately flip out when Rick is arrested and insist it's unjust, but nobody offers specifics. Junior is the first to offer specifics.
He says he's hiding out in South Seattle. I agree to drive down and meet him in a public place (and to change a few identifying details about him). We move locations during our hours-long conversation because Junior is worried about who might be watching. He says he split town for some family business just a few days before the big bust went down and that he had nothing to do with anything, but he's worried because he's not sure who's suspecting him of what. Nevertheless, he thinks this whole thing stinks and he wants somebody to know it.
He hopes talking to me will help Rick out. "Rick likes to think he's a cross between Don King and Rick from Casablanca, but he really isn't," Junior says. "He's just a 38-year-old guy who used to be in a band... but he'll try to show off in front of the jury, and I'm here to keep him from shooting himself in the dick."
Junior tells me a little about himself. He says he began doing speed at the age of 8, when he started stealing his mom's asthma medication. By 11, he was scoring speed off the street, though he says he's been clean for a while. He says the authorities are trying to set Rick up as a drug kingpin. "A drug kingpin Rick was not. I don't care what the cops say. Look, here's what happened with the Hondurans..."
I will paraphrase Junior's version of what happened, since it took him many hours (and many digressions) to tell: His friend Rick likes a little coke and a little meth in a small-scale, personal way but has never shown any interest in serious dealing. Junior and Rick's mutual friend Bryan—some trust-fund kid who's always instigating bigger parties, more drugs, more everything—wants to make some big score. Bryan spends at least a year stymied by the limitations of his friends, because the drug users in Rick's social group are all pretty small-time. But then Bryan finally gets what he's looking for: Rick knows a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy who might be able to help Bryan out.
This third-removed guy is named Marshall. And Marshall suddenly becomes the keyhole, the pot of gold, the one who justifies Bryan's whole card-playing, protester-haranguing, Maker's-and-Coke-drinking ruse—because Marshall happens to know some Honduran dudes who can sell a lot of drugs.
Marshall's part in this story is crazy and sad, Junior warns me. Marshall used to be an ace drug dealer. "What people say about being a drug dealer is all bullshit," Junior says. "With selling drugs, either you're born with it or not. It's not how good you are with money or how scary you are or how much of your own supply you do. That doesn't really matter. All that shit is a skill set that can be developed—but you need the DNA. And part of this DNA is the Jesse James factor, this Spidey-sense. Believe it or not, the most important thing is to be an empath, to know what other people are feeling."
Junior takes a look around the bar we're in. "And three things above all: Be on time, be polite, and have good product. You do that and you'll go far."
Marshall did those things, street lore says. He was careful. He got raided a few times, got chased a few times, but he always got away. According to one story, Marshall got to know some local Honduran drug traffickers simply because he had the guts to go straight to a crack house in the Central District and insist he could move kilos of cocaine very quickly. Another story says Marshall placed an order with the Hondurans for a quarter ounce of cocaine and got four ounces instead. When he told the Hondurans he couldn't move four ounces, the Hondurans said he'd better learn to move four ounces, and suddenly Marshall was a big-league drug dealer.
Either way, something unlucky happened, the story goes, and an unrelated drug bust interrupted Marshall's flow of cash and product. He went to the Hondurans and said he needed some time to get himself sorted out. The Hondurans said no. They had a schedule and a payment plan, and Marshall would meet it or face the consequences.
So Marshall, the legendarily canny drug dealer, starts putting together sloppy deals with people he doesn't necessarily know all that well. He hears that some guy named Bryan is desperate to buy. Marshall is desperate to sell.
This is the part of the story most people are familiar with, the cinematic moment: Having arranged to buy seven kilos of cocaine, three pounds of meth, and a Honda Accord tricked out with secret compartments for smuggling contraband—for a total of $217,000—Bryan meets Marshall (an Anglo) and the three other sellers, Carlos, Cesar, and Edwan (Hondurans), in the parking lot of a restaurant in South Lake Union. It's a moment that Bryan and his superiors have been anticipating for years. For them, all the trouble and expense of this investigation are about to pay off. They're about to catch Rick being party to a drug deal of such magnitude, he'll have no choice but to give up whatever he knows about the Earth Liberation Front, whatever he knows about getting guns, whatever he knows about the guys on the city council—everything.
All of the players tied to the day's drug deal (except for one, who thinks he's there to help his friend) seem to understand how serious the stakes are. At one point during the sale, the undercover detective makes a joke about not wanting the car to "die" on him. According to a police report, Carlos "did not laugh but said, fairly sternly, that he doesn't mess around."
Soon it's flashing lights, drawn guns, shouting, handcuffs. Once he's in custody, Carlos refuses to talk about the people he works for, saying that if he does, "they will kill me." He is sentenced to 10 years in prison. Cesar and Edwan are sentenced to five years in prison. Marshall gets three years and six months.
This drug bust will get spun successfully by the cops and the media—including a story in the June 18, 2009, issue of The Stranger—as a major accomplishment, but Rick had almost nothing to do with it. Marshall was several degrees removed from Rick. Bryan was lucky to meet Marshall and lucky that Marshall was desperate to sell and lucky that he had known Rick for so long that all he had to do was offer Rick a little cash to cajole him to show up. I haven't been able to find the documents that show how many agents and officers were listening in on the conversation when Bryan asked Rick for his big favor, but the amount of resources (that we know of) that went into tracking Rick's life and his friends' lives for two years is staggering.
We may never know exactly how much money the police and the FBI spent on Operation Big Slick, as they called their two-year surveillance of Rick and Cafe (un)American and the Cthulhu Building and Cafe Corsair, from at least August 2007 to June 2009, but the expenses include multiple SWAT teams, surveillance teams, two years of Bryan Van Brunt's salary (in 2009, he made $134,657 and $46,829 of overtime pay), Bryan's fake apartment that made Mia Brown suspicious, DK Pan and Brady McGarry's plane tickets to protest at the Republican National Convention, the speakeasy costs (rent and tenant improvements at the Cafe Corsair space), and meals (people say Bryan bought them a lot of dinners in those two years, sometimes at expensive steak houses).
On July 11, 2008, for example, when Bryan went with Brady McGarry to Tacoma to meet the "young, stinky, and disorganized" protest kids, at least seven other officers—plus a SWAT team, according to a vice-unit surveillance log acquired by The Stranger—monitored the situation. The officers named in the police report are Sergeant Ryan Long (who made $133,339 in 2009, with $28,805 in overtime), Sergeant Jim Kelly ($120,503, with $14,196 in overtime), Detective Todd Novisedlak ($109,888, with $15,158 in overtime), Detective Dale Williams (there are two detectives identified as "Williams, D" in city salary records, one who made $111,638 and $2,151 in overtime and one who made $115,086, with $17,748 in overtime), Detective Ron Brundage Jr. ($109,974, with $13,371 in overtime), Detective Trent Bergman ($137,274, with $44,296 in overtime), and Detective Rick Hall ($112,659, with $20,822 in overtime).
"Oh wow, oh my god," Brady says when I tell him how many police officers had been trailing him that day. "That's terrifying. That's terrifying. That was such a nothing day, such a disorganized, nothing meeting. Did you say the SWAT team was there? Why the hell was the SWAT team there? That's insane."
By the end of this investigation, Bryan Van Brunt will have won SPD's Distinguished Service Award, even though his investigation was largely a flop. The SPD was investigating the political-corruption side of the case, looking into city council members Peter Steinbrueck and Nick Licata, according to FBI special agent David Gomez, who runs the counterterrorism program from Seattle's field office. "With us," he says, "it was a domestic terrorism case." The FBI seemed to believe that Rick's apartment and speakeasy parties were in fact linked to radical environmentalists, including the Earth Liberation Front. "There was a sense that there was information that would've helped us, if it had worked out," Gomez says. "But I don't believe that it did."
The SPD thought it had a big corruption case, the FBI thought it had a big counterterrorism case, and a few folks in Seattle thought they had a friend in Bryan T. Owens.
Nobody got what they wanted—not the SPD, not the FBI, not the taxpayers, not Rick Wilson or his friends. But we have to give credit where it's due: Bryan did get the Honduran cocaine dealers, even though they didn't have anything to do with anything he'd been investigating. The Hondurans fell into Bryan's lap—they were his lucky break. Without them, this case would have been a total embarrassment.
Here's a little more math about the public resources that this investigation sucked up. According to documents acquired by The Stranger, during May and June of 2008, Bryan showed up to play cards at Rick's apartment eight times. For those eight card games (i.e., eight police shifts for Bryan), the investigation paid for 112 shifts by supporting officers: 9 officers one night, 5 officers another night, 11 officers another night, etc. One night, an FBI agent came out. Another night, a SWAT team was there. And that's just in a two-month window.
According to a source, SPD surveillance logs show that police were following the families of suspects, their sisters and mothers, and that some family members' homes (like the West Seattle home of Rick's sister, a veterinarian) were raided and turned upside down for evidence.
Some detectives, such as Sergeant Long and Detective Novisedlak, show up in the surveillance reports on dozens of occasions over the years, waiting and watching while Bryan played cards. In an interview, Rick told me about a friend of his who was paranoid that he was being followed. Rick says he sat the friend down and explained that he was being unrealistic, that he wasn't in the middle of a big government conspiracy that was investigating him. "But it was true!" Rick laughs. "This is the worst-case scenario for this guy's mental health."
During the interrogation following his arrest, Rick tried to put the parties he'd hosted in perspective. "Nobody's ever been hurt or harmed or mistreated or roofied," he said. "Women have never had hands laid on them, like at other clubs. There's never been anyone underage, to my knowledge, which you guys would know if you've been watching me as closely as you say you have."
"We do know that. Now let's focus on city officials," one of his interrogators said, turning to the topic of Council Members Steinbrueck and Licata.
Former city council member Peter Steinbrueck says he knew nothing about any of this. "The police were looking for what?" he says when I ask about the investigation into corruption and gambling and environmental terrorism. "It was just an after-hours party." He says he had been to some of the parties, but that was it.
Detectives got in touch with current city council member Nick Licata before I did, first dropping his name as a person of interest to a friend of his on the Allied Arts Foundation board. The detectives had come to warn this friend that DK Pan may have laundered money through the foundation. (The allegation is demonstrably false, as his group Free Sheep never got any money from Allied Arts but merely asked them if they'd be fiscal sponsors while they were considering nonprofit status. If this story teaches us anything, it's to never underestimate the misguided zeal of the SPD.)
The Allied Arts board member called Licata, who called then–acting police chief John Diaz. "Diaz said, 'This is really bad form, I don't know what's going on with these detectives,'" Licata remembers. Diaz told Licata he'd find out and call him back. Then two detectives dropped by Licata's office to question him. "They said, 'Well, you know, your name came up and we feel obligated to follow through,'" Licata says. "They ask me if I've ever been there, and I said, 'No, but it sounded kinda cool!'"
The Stranger filed a public records request with the department, asking for information about the length and breadth of the investigation, but SPD has not been very forthcoming about the resources it devoted to the case. The thin stack of documents the SPD sent back begins in September 2008, at least a full year after the investigation actually began—according to SPD spokesperson Sean Whitcomb, Operation Big Slick began in the summer of 2007—and includes information about only a handful of the officers shown on department surveillance logs.
Around 8:40 a.m. on March 30, 2011, four years after the investigation began, four men show up at the King County Courthouse to face charges for violating RCW 9.46.220, the state law regulating "professional gambling in the first degree." A few reporters are taking notes and tweeting the proceedings. They are here to see the "speakeasy defendants" who've been all over the local papers and blogs, guys arrested for throwing parties where people drank after-hours and played cards.
In the past 10 years, according to the prosecutor's office, King County has pressed charges against only one other person for violating RCW 9.46.220. It's a law that the government doesn't seem to care that much about. After all, from Seattle you can drive 20 miles south to Tukwila or 10 miles north to the Drift On Inn Roadhouse Casino on Aurora Avenue and gamble legally.
But these four men (all of them, I later learn, poor—if they really were "professional gamblers," they were lousy at it) are being prosecuted for the crime of playing poker somewhere between Tukwila and Shoreline with the wrong guy, an undercover cop.
The defendants are quiet, well dressed, and bewildered by the charges. One of them told me that the poker stakes were so low, he would lose or win $100 at most in the course of a night. ("All those guys were broke, broke as a joke," Mia Brown agrees. "They'd borrow five dollars from someone to go put on the card table. It was small and it was stupid.")
The defense lawyers will be bewildered by what they find in the discovery process—all the paperwork and evidence and audio and video surveillance accumulated by the two-year investigation that involved the FBI, SPD, SWAT teams, and federal firearms and immigration and customs agents. One defendant's discovery request turned up nearly 2,000 pages of documentation and over 100 CDs and DVDs, and even that defendant's attorney had to file extra requests because he said there were big gaps of time missing.
Why did law enforcement dedicate such massive resources to bust some penny-ante card players for charges that only one person has faced in the past 10 years?
One of the defendants, Brady McGarry, had a simple explanation: "If you spend that much time and money, you have to put somebody up on that cross."
In a prepared statement, David Whedbee, the defense attorney representing DK Pan, wrote:
It's puzzling that the Seattle Police Department would commit such law enforcement resources to punish people for playing poker. Our investigation is yet in its early stages, but our preliminary review of the records indicates, for instance, that from October 2007 to November 2008, Officer Van Brunt made more than 70 outings to these establishments. And each time, he was assisted by on average five or six other officers. We believe Officer Van Brunt continued to have such outings from November 2008 through June 2009, but documentation is incomplete. We have made a public records request to the SPD to figure out how extensive the investigation was in terms of money and man-hours, so we'll see what those records show.
It's also astonishing the number of days (and hence public resources) Officer Van Brunt dedicated to keeping tabs on the defendants and many, many others who were political activists, journalists, and established artists, and that he did so largely on account of their beliefs and expressive conduct.
Whatever the FBI and the SPD and Van Brunt were looking for—and whatever lengths they went to in order to find it—they've probably handed King County prosecutors the biggest pile of surveillance for gambling charges in state history. A few days ago, I asked an officer at the SPD about the extremes of the investigation and the paltriness of the charges.
"Yeah," he sighed. "This case was pretty low-yield."
The "journalists" in the "political activists, journalists, and established artists" part of Whedbee's prepared statement piqued my curiosity. What "journalists"? It turns out that my colleague Jen Graves, The Stranger's art critic, made the investigation reports (they mistakenly name her as "Jenna") because she wrote a profile of the Free Sheep Foundation in The Stranger. Free Sheep is a two-man arts organization (run by DK Pan and the painter NKO) that began curating arts events in 2007, starting with the Bridge Motel project, a collection of site-specific performances and installations in a soon-to-be-demolished motel on Aurora. Free Sheep has since worked for years with all kinds of legitimate arts institutions, including the Moore Theatre and 4Culture.
According to police reports and court charging papers, Free Sheep is nothing more than "a front" for a gambling operation that was "created only to generate plausible deniability to law enforcement, should suspicion arise."
But that's just not true.
I ask Graves if she had written about Free Sheep in The Stranger in order to "provide legitimacy" to a "front" for a criminal operation.
"How do I even answer that question?" she says. "It is completely absurd. Free Sheep was interesting and important artists in the city doing projects that really meant something to a lot of people. My first time experiencing them was the Bridge Motel project which was totally poignant and, frankly, one of the more meaningful public art projects I have ever seen."
I had also entered the investigation for my work covering the 2008 Republican National Convention in Minneapolis–St. Paul for The Stranger. According to the investigation reports, I was "a reporter covering the RNC during the day" so I could be "a protester at night." Which is so untrue that it's funny. I'm not the protesting type. I'm more of the stand-nearby-and-take-notes type. (But I do appreciate the robustness of the officer's imagination.)
The attorney Whedbee got a little shy about communicating with me when I wanted to talk to him about being in the police reports myself. "Is it possible," he asked, "that the police might be watching you?"
So. Here we have a local, small-stakes gambling case that involves just shy of two years of surveillance by multiple federal agencies profiling all kinds of people, including artists and journalists, for their social contacts—sometimes in ways that are sinister-sounding but in fact untrue, leading authorities to all kinds of dead ends about environmental activists, terrorists, and corrupt politicians.
"Look, I am not anti-cop," Rick Wilson tells me while sitting on a porch in West Seattle, a few days before leaving to begin his four-year prison sentence in Colorado. Rick, the main target in the two-year investigation, wound up sentenced to prison for an unrelated crime he committed years before the investigation began: buying guns (which is legal) to get them into the hands of Zapatista revolutionaries in Chiapas (which is illegal).
During the activist phase of his life, Rick sent aid to the Zapatistas, starting with medical supplies. He says it was "stupid" of him to buy guns for them but that he was moved to do so after hearing stories of government paramilitary soldiers killing women and children in Zapatista villages and men marching into combat with wooden facsimiles of guns. They didn't have the guns to defend themselves.
During Rick's sentencing hearing, even the prosecuting lawyer—US Attorney Andrew Friedman—pointed out that Rick "was not trying to make money" but was moved to help out of a sense of altruism. "In fact, he spent money doing this."
After Bryan's investigation, Rick says, the government needed something to charge him with. "We had to go charge shopping!" Rick says, laughing. "My lawyer was like, 'What have you done?' And I said: 'In my life, I've sold some untaxed cigarettes.' My lawyer was like, 'Good! That's great! How many?' I told him I'd sold a few packs and he was like, 'Boring, boring. That's not enough. Do you know about any unsolved murders?'"
Rick was eventually sentenced to 40 months in prison for agreeing to show up to that drug deal and for the Zapatista guns—"conspiracy to export firearms without a license." Conspiracy, says attorney Amanda Lee, is what the state charges you with when it doesn't have anything more robust. "Conspiracy law makes it very easy to rope in people on the periphery," she says, "and put them on the hook for something happening at the center."
In Rick's opinion: "Laws exist to protect people or communal things. If the state says, 'Don't dump toxic waste in that river,' I'm like, 'Go state!'" But, he asks, "is this what we want our government doing? Creating criminals to charge? Spending millions of dollars and years of officers' time to pressure someone to do something he'd never normally do?"
In a letter to a probation officer, prosecuting attorney Friedman admits that the government spent years trying to pressure Rick into doing something he'd never normally do. That letter is sealed by the court, but Rick's lawyer, Peter Offenbecher, summarizes its argument in the transcript of Rick's sentencing hearing: "In a real sense, and as Mr. Friedman accurately points out... Mr. Wilson had no role at all in negotiating the size of these transactions. He was simply an add-on, an extra person added to the sting... there are elements of entrapment... the local government spent two years insinuating a false friend to Mr. Wilson to the point where by the time he was arrested, Mr. Wilson actually thought this was his best friend, or one of his best friends... He had no clue. He was clueless."
"Bryan wanted me to go do radical stuff," Rick says. "He said, 'I've got the fire in my belly and my eyes are opened about how horrible the police are.' He wanted to do radical action. I sat him down and told him to cool his jets, gave him some books to read. I told him—in no uncertain terms—the pointlessness of indiscriminate environmental action. But he wanted me to burn things down."
Rick is smoking a pipe. He sets it down on the deck table and stares out at Puget Sound. "I'd like to line up all the people involved in this investigation," he says, "line them up in front of parents of missing children—of people who actually need law enforcement—and explain to them why they wasted years of officers' time on this when their kids are still missing. I want them to look them in the eye and see how good they feel about their fucking lives. I'm not that important. I'm really not. Society is no safer with me in prison."
Then he says something I've heard him (and DK and Brady and Junior and several others) say variations of before: "I didn't realize I was playing a chess game for my life with the FBI. They were playing chess, and I was off finger-painting in the corner."
The list of people who declined to comment for the record, either directly or through an intermediary, includes Detective Bryan Van Brunt and Sergeant Ryan Long as well as all the other police officers involved in the investigation; defendants DK Pan, Eric Sun, and Thoren Honeycutt; the soldier Bryan tried to convince to steal weapons from Fort Lewis; Rick Wilson's sister; real-estate mogul Martin Selig; Rick's attorney Peter Offenbecher; US Attorney Andrew Friedman; and Rick's sentencing judge, the Honorable Richard A. Jones, brother of internationally renowned jazz musician Quincy Jones.