John F. Clennan
Has this to say about this piece:
"The series of stories about Army Law Enforcement and the people assigned to it stems from a complex drug case which seemed to constantly revisit the 2nd Armored Courtroom every 6 months or so. The case in its entirety was the wildest case of my career and the people connected to it some of the most fascinating I've ever met."
.....by John Davis Collins - - - ©1997 All Rights Reserved by John F. Clennan
What went wrong ? What could have gone wrong ?
Slumped over a desk in the Drugs Section of the Army CID Office at Fort Gates, MP Sergeant Dirk Halpern was vaguely aware that his new blue ski jacket dripped mud, sludge and blood onto the bare wooden floor.
As he stared blankly at the institutional grey top of the metal desk, he pondered writing the report. Unsure whether he were asleep or awake, he wished he were back in his quarters, getting rip-roaring drunk. SA Watson, his CID counter part and the informant were probably drunk senseless already.
Was it two killed and one injured, or vice-versa ? Halpern couldn't remember. He turned away from the grey desk top; it kept reflecting a mess of grey sludge, slush, gravel and car and body parts. Halpern was certain that CID had the MPs as their fall guy for what in bureaucratic terms would be called "an unacceptable loss ratio."
As Halpern looked up, Standing over him was SA Frank Miller, the Chief of Operations, ever immaculate in his neatly pressed dark blue, undertaker suit. An open overcoat and a face etched in anguish were the Chief's only concession to the emergency.
"What went wrong ?," Agent Miller asked in a low voice. Halpern laughed hysterically. It was inane. He and SA Miller were linked by that very question, several months earlier.
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The lazy, hot, dirty Texas Spring seemed an eternity away. Sergeant Dirk Halpern a plain clothes MP, had drawn a routine assignment to take green MPs to an isolated part of Fort Gates for training to assist Army Criminal Investigations, the detectives division in the Army's police structure.
As the practice continued under the blazing Texas sun, dust from the dirt road choked Halpern, The other two onlookers, SA Frank Miller and SA Tom Watson tried to pretend to be unaffected.
The MPs performance was comical. Jeeps spun out of control as MPs charged through dust to the graveled parking lot and stumbled out of jeeps to secure a perimeter around the building.
The near collisions as the jeeps careened down the road may have been humorous. Fortunately no equipment had been damaged. Good equipment was hard, Halpern reflected, to replace.
Halpern laughed at the kids in the Military Police trying to be cops and the CID detectives whose superiority made them impervious to their surroundings.
Standing imperviously and dressed in a dark suit with a fedora squarely planted on head, SA Miller towered like a monument over the dusty road, the scrub brush, and the mangled dwarfed pines. Turning to his companion, a more casually dressed agent in his late 20's, Agent Miller asked, "They did this perfectly yesterday. What went wrong ?"
"Sir," Halpern chimed in, "Training Sergeant sent you different people." Halpern chuckled to himself. In treating outsiders like tools, CID was so arrogant that it didn't realize it didn't get the same ones back.
Agent Miller turned to shoot a disdainful glare at Halpern. "Say something , Mister ?" He challenged.
Even though Halpern on the MP's plainclothes detail was not in uniform, the failure to address him by title: Sergeant or Investigator was rude, if not deliberately offensive.
"Halpern, sir, Sergeant Dirk Halpern." Halpern stood up to the dare.
"Halpern," Agent Miller snorted. After a pause, the tone mellowed. "Dirk, tell me what they're doing wrong ?"
"Training sergeant sends you who's available, off duty, goofballs, incompetents and supernumeraries... They're never the same."
"Remedy it for me ?" Miller asked firmly. "Get volunteers, good cops, people who like to work."
Miller raised his eyebrows. "What about you... Like to work for me in drugs suppression ? It could be your gateway into CID. Better than babysitting sad sacks ?"
Halpern would like to have said 'No': CID served its own agenda, more of labyrinth of unfathomable political intrigue than law enforcement. Outsiders did not usually farewell with CID, but no one in the Army could survive long who turned down an opportunity for advancement. It was a paradox.
Halpern had no choice.
With the right people, the practices for the raid went smoothly. SA Miller complimented Halpern for precision and attention to detail.
However, the night of the raid, the head drug agent sent Halpern elsewhere to watch a drug deal under observation. The raid led by CID operatives was neatly executed failure, while Halpern acting alone nailed the buyer, but missed the seller.
"I was by myself. I could get either one or the other. I chose the guy I knew had the drugs." Halpern explained to Miller.
Miller replied, "Good choice...given the limitations you worked with..." Miller bit his lip deciding. "you might have brought the change in plans to my attention... Yet this turn of events and the failure of the raid confirmed my view that a shakeup is necessary in the drugs team here at Fort Gates..." Miller's voice trailed off as he looked about the wood paneled office reserved for the Chief of Operations.
Halpern expected to be summarily dismissed from the drugs team. CID served CID and outsiders were wise to be wary. And they had justification. The story that we got the buyer, but missed the seller rarely played well even in wrathful military courts martial.
Instead, Miller continued, "I need a younger drug team. I'm considering you to be the new assistant in charge of Drugs Suppression. My colleague Watson will be the lead agent... Get me two years of college and I'll put your application through for CID."
As Miller ended the meeting with a firm nod of encouragement, Halpern was perplexed: Should he be relieved or disappointed ?
Leaving Miller's walnut panelled office for the spartan unfinished drug suppression office on the second floor, Halpern passed neatly suited CID Agents clustered wishing good luck to the retiring head of the drug team. Today officially it's a fond farewell, Halpern thought, tomorrow he'll never be mentioned again. Kinda like the Mafia "back in his home town of Passaic, New Jersey," Halpern said to himself.
Despite his misgivings, Dirk took up his new duties with a great deal of enthusiasm. Upon assuming the post, he discovered that CID had no plans in place either to train MPs who volunteered for drug enforcement or to identify drug sources. His newly installed boss Tom Watson explained, "Work can be hairy when we're busy. Between tips from our informant, we wait."
The six Mps, dressed like ragamuffins in cast off civilian clothes were still chattering about the raid which while a failure from a law enforcement perspective had been perfectly executed.
Halpern intended to take up his complaint directly with SA Miller. His path to SA Miller's office brought him past CID Agents arriving for duty in other sections; all sporting neatly coffered hair and dark conservative business suits, drank coffee from cups on saucers and chatted quietly among themselves. Quite a contrast from the lockeroom atmosphere of the drugs suppression team.
In Miller's wood paneled office, Halpern protested, "Six hard chargers will go stale if I let them sit around an office. These guys and gals want to be cops. Let me throw them out on the installation and see what they can come up with."
"Hold off for now," the Chief temporized. "I expect a new project from Drug Enforcement Agency soon... The raid the MPs pulled was orderly, but a failure...I don't need to build a string of disasters."
Weeks of boredom followed. Allowed to read the Drugs Team's previous reports, Halpern was shocked to learn the work had depended on one informant alone.
"We have to develop other sources. Let me keep the plain clothes busy: put them out looking for drug activity, teach them to be cops... They're bored; two want to return to the road."
Halpern bit his lip. A private could ask for reassignment without risk. In the up-or-out army, a Sergeant who asked to relieved from a prestigious assignment was labeled incompetent and ignored.
"Their opportunity will come soon," Miller assured.
Early one Sunday morning, SA Watson called Sergeant Halpern into the office. In a brief presentation, Watson explained the plans with a map of an off post shopping center.
"Sergeant Halpern your people have the perimeter along the west side of the shopping center... Pvt Jamie Dexter will make the buy... Familiarize yourself with the signals..."
Halpern brought the plans right to Miller's desk.
"Somehow, I expected to hear from you... I have to meet with the DEA people shortly... Be brief..." Miller commanded.
"Too complicated... Look the list of signals...
"Leaving door open, walking away from car, ...
"Leaving door open, turning on the dome light,...
"Leaving door open, turning off head lights...
"Staying in car, turning on the light ...
"Revving motor... "Pumping on the brake ...
"Holding the brake down..."
"You have enough time," Miller shook his head, "to memorize the moves. I don't really see a problem."
"It's off post and outside our jurisdiction. If..." At the time, military jurisdiction was narrowly limited.
"We're assisting DEA... Who may prosecute is a question for the lawyers," Miller said returning to papers on his desk.
"It'll never work without practice... and we're set to roll tonight ?" Halpern asked.
"Watson will be in the command vehicle with DEA and you'll rein in the backup. Two experienced men ought to be enough... Why do you expect something to go wrong ?"
When Halpern returned to the Drugs Office, Watson said, "You ran off so quick. I didn't get the chance to introduce you to PFC Dexter, the new addition to the team who'll make the buy."
Halpern looked into the clear eyes of the tall, slender teenager and read total inexperience.
"I'd like to have used a more experienced person, but..." Watson continued in a pleasant voice, "higher ups wanted a face not seen around before."
It drizzled all day as the jittery 18 year old MPs nervously waited to move out. Halpern sat reading a book.
At the 4 p.m. winter twilight the rain started to change to snow. All roads outside the building sparkled treacherously. "Good cover people will not notice cars stopped along side the road for repairs," Halpern nodded reassuringly.
The MPs climbed into boxy shaped plymouths. Many of the windows were frozen shut by the plummeting temperature.
Traffic was light on the way to the shopping center. As Halpern took up position with two other vehicles on the West side, only the occasional swish of tires marked a passing motorist braving the accumulating puddles of watery slush.
"Keep your cool and wait for my signal." Halpern reminded the drivers as he and another plainclothes MP sloshed around the cars to feign a changing tire, The MPs nervously watched the darkened shopping center. In the distance, on the far side of the lot, Halpern could see a van he presumed to be the control van. Their attempts to raise it by radio were unsuccessful. "DEA must be using its own radios. They're incompatible with ours. We're on our own, " Halpern warned the MPs.
Scarcely a hour had passed, before the undercover vehicle appeared with the informant. A car unseen before flicked its lights in recognition. Stirring Halpern passed from car to car, Halpern restrained the MPs... "Easy, they're just checking each other out. Wait."
The MP's faces were flush. Halpern could feel the tension. It was like a batter stepping up to the plate for the first time in the major league.
"There's the signal..." a driver shouted. Halpern looked. The door of the undercover vehicle was open, the driver had leaned over to talk to someone standing on the pavement, the dome light was on and the brake lights flashed steadily... Which signal was being given ?
Halpern standing in the road tried to order the MPs to stand fast. Mass panic set in when someone yelled, "He's in trouble." Like lemmings the back-up cars took off and charged through the slush filled parking lot. Swirls of slush and snow stirred in their wake. In seconds Halpern heard the report of the crash between the police undercover vehicle and the rescuers. The targets peacefully surrendered to DEA on the other side of the parking lot.
Halpern remembered watching the ambulances and the cars from the local police department with their whirling flashing lights turn night into day, finding the CID's prize informant drenched but alive cowering behind a fence in the garden shop and learning the ultimate insult: Watson advised Halpern.
"DEA" Watson cleared his throat," is cutting the bad guys loose. Not enough drugs and no sale occurred."
"And us ?"
"Outside our jurisdiction."
Watson and the informant went off together to get drunk. Halpern wished he could have gone too, but someone had to see to the details: medical treatment for the injured and reports to be prepared to explain the disaster.
"What went wrong ?" billowed SA Miller.
"A bunch of kids playing cop reacted instead of listening." Halpern snapped back.
Halpern would have welcomed being dismissed on the spot. Instead on Monday, when he went to Miller's office to request return to the road, Miller urged him to stay. "Don't you think the guys and gals who jumped your command, know the importance of obeying orders ? Do you want to desert them, now they need you the most ?"
Halpern was still trapped in the paradox. "Do I fear becoming the fall guy to CID or acceptable to them ?," he asked himself.
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