ATF agents running an undercover storefront in Milwaukee used a brain-damaged man with a low IQ to set up gun and drug deals, paying him in cigarettes, merchandise and money, according to federal documents obtained by the Journal Sentinel.
For more than six months, federal agents relied on Chauncey Wright to promote “Fearless Distributing” by handing out fliers as he rode his bike around town recommending the store to friends, family and strangers, according to federal prosecutors and family members.
Wright, unaware that the store was an undercover operation being run by agents with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, also stocked shelves with shoes, clothing, drug paraphernalia and auto parts, according to his family.
Once authorities shut down the operation, they charged the 28-year-old man with federal gun and drug counts.
“I have never heard of anything so ludicrous in my life,” said Greg Thiele, who spent 30 years working for the Milwaukee Police Department including on undercover stings with federal agents, including those with the ATF. “Something is very wrong here.”
Wright’s IQ measures in the 50s, about half of a normal IQ, according to those familiar with him. Wright’s score is classified as mildly or moderately disabled, depending on the IQ scale used.
At Wright’s sentencing in June, prosecutors will recommend probation, based on his “mental functioning,” according to his plea agreement on file with the court.
Wright has undergone a competency evaluation “due to his low IQ,” according to a Feb. 14 email from then-Assistant U.S. Attorney Francis Schmitz to attorney Doug Bihler who represented James Warren, another defendant in the case.
Schmitz’s email to Bihler indicates prosecutors believe Wright is a vulnerable person. Prosecutors threatened Warren with stiffer penalties for “taking advantage” of Wright, according to the email.
But as the situation unfolded, it was ATF agents who were taking advantage of Wright.
“That’s just hugely inappropriate. It’s no different than using a kid,” said Jim Hoegemeier, executive director of the Arc-Wisconsin Disability Association. “They had to have known after working with him for more than a couple of hours.”
“This is real exploitation,” said Shirin Cabraal, managing attorney for Disability Rights Wisconsin. “It’s morally outrageous.”
Wright’s family said he was eager to be accepted by the undercover officers.
“With him being slow, they knew that and they used him,” said Willie Campbell, Wright’s grandmother. “He was too slow to catch on to what was going on. He was saying, ‘These are my good friends. These are my guys. They are looking out for me.’
“Whatever they told him to do, he would try to keep his job and he would do it.”
The issue of Wright’s mental capacity is another stain on an investigation marked by repeated failures and foul-ups identified by aJournal Sentinel investigation: ATF guns, including a machine gun, were stolen from an agent’s vehicle; agents lost a ballistic shield; the storefront was burglarized of what agents said was nearly $40,000 in merchandise; agents left behind sensitive documents after they shut down the operation; and at least three of the wrong people were charged.
In addition, agents damaged the building and ran up utility bills, then refused to pay the landlord and warned him against pursuing the matter.
Last week, the Journal Sentinel revealed how the agency failed to capitalize on early leads to find its stolen machine gun, instead keeping its storefront going. The automatic rifle remains unrecovered.
Members of both parties in Congress have demanded answers. The ATF has launched an internal investigation. The Department of Justice inspector general is considering an independent examination, saying the Milwaukee operation raises concern about the ATF’s oversight and management.
An ATF spokeswoman declined to comment because its investigation is not complete.
The 10-month operation resulted in charges against about 30 people, most on minor drug and gun counts, though federal officials have noted a few defendants are facing long prison terms. Some 145 guns were seized, but some came straight from stores such as Gander Mountain, because agents were paying as much as double the retail price for guns.
Schmitz, who recently retired as a federal prosecutor, took the unusual step of criticizing the investigation at a sentencing, saying it failed to get the kinds of violent criminals the operation was designed to bust.
Wright met the undercover ATF agents in the parking lot of Walmart on E. Capitol Drive, his girlfriend, Terri Giles, told the Journal Sentinel.
Wright spotted the men handing out fliers and walked up and asked for a job. Wright, who was living with Giles at the time, had long had trouble keeping a job.
Soon Wright was riding his bike around the city, distributing fliers for the store, drawing people to its out-of-the-way location on E. Meinecke Ave. in the Riverwest neighborhood.
The agents paid Wright with cigarettes, merchandise and $530 in cash for marketing and “generating business” from February to September of last year, according to a letter written by Assistant U.S. Attorney William Lipscomb and obtained by the Journal Sentinel from Warren, who remains incarcerated awaiting trial and could not be reached for comment. Lipscomb declined to comment.
Agents also spread the word by giving away T-shirts emblazoned with the Fearless logo - a skull with guns and knives fanned out behind, taken from the movie “The Expendables” – and attaching business cards to packages of cigar wrappers, often used to roll marijuana blunts.
Giles said she was suspicious from the beginning and told Wright as much. She went to the store a few times, browsing through the clothes, purses and shoes. They were running a raffle, asking customers to fill out a slip for a chance to win a big-screen TV.
They also had gun catalogs on the counter. When Giles asked if they sold guns, a man behind the counter said no, but quickly added they buy guns. The store was wired with sophisticated hidden cameras recording all the transactions.
“Everything was wrong about that place,” she said. “I told him, ‘It’s on a dead-end street. There’s no windows. Don’t you feel something funny about it?’ He said, ‘These are my guys.’ He really thought they were his friends.”
Wright is in the Waukesha County Jail awaiting sentencing on the federal charges. He also is facing a battery charge stemming from a domestic violence incident in June.
Wright’s attorney, Joseph Bugni, declined to comment and denied the Journal Sentinel’s request to interview Wright.
Wright presented an attractive target for the agents. He has a relatively minor criminal history, but it does include a felony, a 2007 conviction for selling $10 bags of cocaine on the street. He got probation.
That felony made it a federal crime for Wright to possess a gun.
Records from Wright’s previous cases don’t indicate that he received any tests for mental competency. However, his girlfriend said anyone who was around Wright for a period of time would notice his mind is not functioning properly. Giles said it is especially noticeable in conversations when he drifts off and appears to be talking to someone who is not there.
“I will say, ‘Do you know who you are talking to?’ ” she said. “His marbles aren’t clicking right together.”
His family said Wright’s mental difficulties are traced to an incident when he was an infant and nearly drowned when he was left for at least 10 minutes unattended in a bathtub. Wright was unconscious for several minutes before police arrived and revived him, his grandmother said.
Campbell recalled her daughter wailing over the phone that her baby was dead, that his head was just flopping.
“Somehow he survived,” she said.
Wright was noticeably slower than his two brothers and always had trouble in school. He did not attend much school past sixth grade, according to his family. He was on Social Security for his disability when he was a child but had refused to sign up as an adult.
His uncle, Tyrone Joiner, took him in after Wright’s mother died of an infection when he was in grade school. Joiner said his nephew worked a few jobs, at a school and the State Fair, but he could never hold one for long.
He knows how to drive a car but rarely does because he can’t afford to get one. His first serious relationship was with Giles, who is about 15 years older than he is.
“Chauncey (Wright) has never been right,” Joiner said.
Disability experts say people with traumatic brain injuries such as Wright’s are often desperate for acceptance and belonging.
“Even if they think what someone is asking them to do is a little unusual, they will say ‘yes’ because they want to be included. It’s part of their disability,” said Hoegemeier of the Arc-Wisconsin Disability Association. “They have a big, huge target on them for being used by other people.”
Campbell said she, too, warned her grandson against working at the store. She drove by the store once and told Wright it didn’t even look like a business – at least not a legitimate one.
“I told him, ‘You better be careful,’ ” she said. “He is a trusting person who loves to help people.”
Followed agents’ requests
The agents soon began asking Wright to get drugs and guns, according to his family. They kept asking and he complied, thinking it was part of his job, they said.
“He was faithful to that store,” his grandmother said.
Wright sold the agents cocaine in March 2012 and teamed with Warren, who is his cousin, to sell them ecstasy a few months later, according to court documents.
Wright then began to bring guns to the undercover agents, eight in all, according to court documents.
In October, when the store was burglarized, the agents called Wright and asked him if he knew what happened. He didn’t know. And that was the last he heard from them.
He was indicted on seven drug and gun counts and arrested a month later.
The counts carry a maximum of life in prison. Under federal sentencing guidelines, Wright faces about four years in prison. After the competency evaluation of Wright, an amended plea agreement was filed showing prosecutors agree to recommend probation if the U.S. Probation Office finds Wright can be successfully supervised in a setting “consistent with (Wright’s) mental functioning.”
At Wright’s plea hearing last month, Lipscomb said a doctor’s evaluation found Wright to be “mildly mentally retarded.”
Bugni, Wright’s attorney, told U.S. District Judge J.P. Stadtmueller an expert found Wright to be competent “under the governing legal standard.” He also told the judge he had to read the plea agreement to Wright, because Wright reads at a kindergarten level.
Attorney Daniel Stiller, head of the federal defender’s office, which is representing Wright, said his competency will be raised at the sentencing.
“It will be demonstrated that this law enforcement operation was capable of ensnaring some of the most vulnerable among us,” Stiller said.
Rory Little, a former longtime federal prosecutor, said unless Wright has tight ties to big-time drug or gun dealers it doesn’t make sense to recruit him into the operation.
“My choice would be to get a guy with enough brains not to do something crazy on my payroll,” said Little, now a professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law.
However, he said, agents don’t always have many options.
“You normally are stuck with whoever happens to be able to provide you with what you need, and usually they aren’t very attractive individuals,” Little said. “But I can’t believe he (Wright) is the only guy in Milwaukee who could fit that bill.”
A flawed operation
A Journal Sentinel investigation found failures and foul-ups in an undercover operation run by the ATF:
• ATF guns were stolen from an agent’s vehicle; a machine gun remains unrecovered.
• The storefront was burglarized of nearly $40,000 in merchandise.
• Agents left behind sensitive documents after they shut down the operation.
• Agents damaged the building, then refused to pay the landlord, warning him against pursuing the matter.
• At least three of the wrong people were arrested and charged, including one who was in prison at the time.
• Authorities failed to capitalize on early leads to find the stolen machine gun.