Breaking the story: Interview with journalist John Diedrich

It began as a “sort of dumb cop story,” according to investigative journalist John Diedrich, who got a tip that an agent working for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) had his machine gun stolen from his car, which was parked outside a coffee shop in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood. Little did Diedrich suspect that this tip would lead to a months-long investigative process, an award-winning series of articles, a spot on “This American Life” and a national outcry about the fallout from a botched ATF sting memorably called “Operation Fearless.”

In a recent conversation with To Catch a Fish co-dramaturg Tanya Palmer (TP), John Diedrich (JD) talks about the ATF storefront operation that brought undercover agents to an out-of-the-way warehouse, where they set up a store and hired 28-year-old Chauncey Wright to pass out flyers and eventually set up deals to purchase illegal guns and drugs. When the operation was shut down—in no small part because of the attention of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel—Wright was charged with federal drug and gun counts and sentenced to six months of house arrest and four years of probation.

Diedrich, along with fellow journalist Raquel Rutledge, first wrote about Wright on April 6, 2013, in an article published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel titled “Botched ATF Sting Ensnares Brain Damaged Man.” The two reporters went on to write a series of articles about the Milwaukee operation and its fallout, as well as similar storefront operations nationwide.

Journalist John Diedrich talks with members of the “To Catch a Fish” cast and production team in Milwaukee.

TP: How did you come upon this story?

JD: I got a tip that an agent had his gun stolen. I knew that it happened at this particular coffee shop. Then I got a call out of the blue from a David Salkin, a landlord who had rented a building to federal agents. He told me that they tore up the place, backed up the toilet, and now they wouldn’t pay him his security deposit. I went out to his place, which was kind of out of the way, and as I’m standing there, I realize it’s less than a mile away from the coffee shop where the gun was stolen. So that’s when it all kicked in and I realized these two stories were connected. And eventually we found our way to Chauncey Wright.

TP: Why do you think they chose that particular location to set up shop?

JD: Demographically, they wanted to be in the census tract where there was a high crime rate. The problem with where they chose was it was out of the way in a quiet, sleepy, pretty pleasant neighborhood. But it happens to be within a mile of some really tough areas. They wanted to be able to say, “we were in zip code such and such, where all the bad stuff happens,” but they weren’t really in the heart of it. Although it seems like they might have sparked some crimes; we heard about things like hubcaps being stolen and then traded at the store.

They were just looking for a place where they wouldn’t stand out too much, because [the agents] were all white, and the targets, the defendants, were all black. Milwaukee is very segregated—it may be the most segregated city in the country by some measurements. There are parts of Milwaukee that are 100% black, no white people are living there at all. [Riverwest] is more of a multicultural neighborhood, so they wouldn’t stand out as much. Their cover story was that they were biker guys from New York who were just bringing these guns back east to commit crimes.

The exact location is a very odd choice. It’s kind of a head scratcher. It doesn’t even look like you’d have a store there. It’s all brick on the outside, and there’s a leather tannery across the street, and there are houses all around it, factories and houses mixed together—but no retail. We talked to the UPS guy in the area and he said, “It was curious how they were a distributing company but they told me from day one that they’d never be sending or receiving anything.”

A view of Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood, where events that inspired “To Catch a Fish” took place.

TP: It’s interesting how many mistakes the agents made. What do you think motivated them to work as they did?

JD: These storefront operations had been going on for a while. They are, in the estimation of a lot of people who looked at them, problematic for a lot of reasons. From the ATF’s perspective, they lead to quick convictions, because you are essentially creating the forum by which the crime happens. And because you’re creating the forum, you have the ability to put in video cameras and gather really strong evidence that often prompts somebody to plead guilty. There’s a lot of pressure on these agents to make cases. It’s a numbers game. You need to get firearms and drugs off the street any way you can.

One of the big sources of information we had for finding out about other stings around the country was the ATF’s own press releases. They would say, look, we got 45 guns. What they weren’t saying was where those guns were coming from. Because they were paying such inflated rates, people were going and buying them at gun stores and then bringing them in to make a profit.

There’s also a sense from talking to other police officers that this approach is just lazy law enforcement. It’d be like me sitting at my desk and just waiting for a story to come to me rather than going out and getting it. You have to go and find out who are the significant people. The problem is that this kind of, for lack of a better term, lazy policing, is going to draw in somebody like Chauncey.

TP: What do you think has been the impact of your reporting on the way ATF operates? Has it resulted in any changes in policies and procedures?

JD: There ended up being an Inspector General’s Report on this and other similar operations by the ATF, and it was pretty damning. They said there was no targeting [of individuals with I/DD] that they could detect. But again, nobody in their right mind would say that the point of the plan is to target people with intellectual disabilities. It’s just sort of a natural result of a lazy, poorly planned operation, and a fixation on numbers to get guns on the table for the press conference.

There were two hearings on Capitol Hill, so [the ATF] had to answer questions about this. They vowed at that point that they were going to stop doing these kinds of [storefront] operations. What we don’t know is whether they just tweaked them and then called them something else. By and large these operations have ceased. But no one from the ATF went to jail, and we don’t know that anyone lost their jobs. There were a couple of people who were moved to positions that appeared to be demotions. But the irony is that the boss who was really responsible didn’t pay the price for this.

I’m on their big black list—no one in the country is allowed to talk to me, at least not officially. That doesn’t mean that I don’t hear from plenty of ATF people—the bread and butter of what we do is talking to people who aren’t asking their bosses first. That’s kind of what source work is all about.

An edited version of this interview was published in the “To Catch a Fish” Backstory.

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