Real Crime

'I Never Was Not Scared': What It's Like to Go Undercover with the ATF

ATF agents
ATF agents continue their investigation at a FedEx facility following an explosion on March 20, 2018 in Schertz, Texas. The explosion is believed to be related to several recent package bombs that have been detonated in Austin, Texas. Photo : Scott Olson/Getty Images
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    'I Never Was Not Scared': What It's Like to Go Undercover with the ATF

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      Robert Kahn

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      'I Never Was Not Scared': What It's Like to Go Undercover with the ATF

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      October 18, 2019

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      A+E Networks

In three decades as an undercover operative for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Vincent A. Cefalu risked his life investigating groups from outlaw motorcycle gangs to the Ku Klux Klan.

Cefalu, author of a new memoir, RatSnakes, spoke with A&E Real Crime about the undercover moments that frightened him most, and breaks down the waxing and waning fortunes of an agency saddled with baggage from deadly sieges in places like Waco, Texas.

‘RatSnakes’ is a name ATF agents have adopted to describe undercover officers who deal with street-level arson and firearm crimes. Why that term?
As you find out in the book, we were not the favorite children of the agency—we were more a necessary evil. We got dirty and got the job done. In pioneer days, a common technique was to keep rat snakes in jars in the basement, and when a house became infested with rodents, they [would] release the rat snakes on the property for a few days. But then, people didn’t want their neighbors seeing these snakes running around, so they’d put them back in the cellar until they were needed again.

I have a hunch many Americans would say they understand the missions of the FBI or CIA, but are foggy about just what the ATF does. What do you think?
I absolutely agree, and that’s a blessing in many circumstances. Unfortunately, the only thing the American public hears about the ATF is our monumental failures that make the media—Waco, Ruby Ridge.

You’ve said—colorfully—that agents spend time in environments that would ’cause a billy goat to vomit.’ What sacrifices does an officer make to work undercover?
It has the potential to be detrimental to the psyche, coming in and out of roles, pretending to be somebody you’re not… I’ve got a master’s degree in psychology, and I haven’t quite figured it out, but there are common threads between all the people who’ve gone down this road.

You made a mid-career segue to pursue that degree. How come?
I’ll be transparent: My ex-wife and I were attending marriage counseling with an outstanding licensed psychologist in Georgia, Dr. Steve Sampson. Although the marriage didn’t work out, Steve and I became friends. One of his specialties is dealing with public-responder PTSD, and things of that order. At some point, he saw in me an opportunity to somehow contribute to the process of keeping cops mentally healthy. And he started pushing me to grad school.

At about the same time, the ATF started a successful peer-support program. It was initially intended for in-house use, for agents that had been involved in shootings or bombings with multiple deaths. It was so successful that they started offering it to outside agencies. We would send our peer-support agents—I eventually became one—and then we took it a step further and mandated psychological oversight on long-term undercover operations.

Your book has a chapter devoted to the ‘Oh, sh*t’ moments, as you call them, throughout your career. Can you think of an investigation during which you had a particularly heightened sense of vulnerability?
Make no mistake, undercover contact in any capacity is so fluid that any one of us at any given time were petrified, near the point of shutting down and freezing in the moment. That’s where you rely on the skill set of working through your fears. Because if doing this didn’t scare you, you probably are operating in a dangerous mindset. I never was not scared.

The one I talk most about in the book took every bit of discipline and focus to get through, without telegraphing to the bad guy that I was as nervous as I was. It was in Atlanta, and I was doing an explosives purchase from a prior-convicted bank robber with a violent background. He’d been released from prison, and he was a tweaker (person who uses stimulants such as methamphetamine) during all of our contacts leading up to the buy, which made him hyper-paranoid. The first time we met, before we shook hands, he reached across the car and patted me down for a body wire.

Which I imagine he didn’t find?
I was wearing; he just wasn’t smart enough to find it. But it’s how the relationship started, and it got more intense from there, when a [shipment] of military grade high explosives [was] being delivered. They had the potential of leveling two city blocks… It was hard to maintain a cool persona the way this guy was flinging explosives around.

An agent in a situation like that can’t have much time to establish criminal bona fides.
There are occasions where I have been authorized to violate the law under strict conditions approved by the U.S. Attorney’s office—so I’m running with a bunch of bikers and I’d take off from a gas station without paying. Well, I promise you, within hours there was a suit-and-tie federal agent or local police officer coming in and paying for that gas, and explaining it was a necessary thing and we were sorry for the inconvenience.

You’ve said the entertainment industry is ‘getting closer’ to depicting reality in stories about the country’s crime-fighting agencies. When have they gotten it really right?
A perfect example of a long-term undercover investigation is Donnie Brasco (the 1997 film starring Johnny Depp as Joe Pistone, a former FBI agent who infiltrated two of New York’s crime families). It has some poignant, true-to-life scenes, but even that was “Hollywood.” I assure you that at no time did any ATF guy, much less Joe Pistone, ever chop up bodies in a basement. We don’t commit crimes undercover…but we are experts at giving the bad guy evidence that we are worse than he is.

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