G-Man: ATF Special Agent Talks Publicly
1994: A gangster gets greedy during an undercover Colorado Springs gun buy and tries to steal the G-man's money. A shootout leaves one agent with a bullet wound in the leg; the injured criminal escapes and is later nabbed in California.1995: Goaded by rabid radio talk shows, Widefield, Colo. resident Francisco Duran gets in his pickup, drives to Washington, D.C. and shoots up the White House.1995: An undercover drug, gun and stolen car deal takes on a new twist when a young woman's bullet-riddled body is found in a ditch near Limon, Colo . 1997: G-men discover a booby-trapped house filled with bombs - and a bunker - in a neighborhood in the suburbian Colorado Springs community of Fountain.1997: The Colorado Springs Internal Revenue Service office is torched, causing $1 million in damage. The arsonists leave behind a spray-painted calling card that suggests they are anti-government rebels. Special Agent Joe Gordon has headed all of these investigations. He is the G-man in charge of the southern Colorado field office of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the favorite whipping boy of right-wing, anti-government groups. Since the office opened Oct. 1, 1992, Gordon's crew has grabbed the attention of the big guys in Washington, D.C., while regularly cracking these and other high-profile and sometimes-bizarre cases. This month, Agent Gordon is transferring to the bureau's internal investigations department in the nation's capitol. In this exit interview, Gordon shares his thoughts on guns, nuts, the daily Colorado Springs Gazette, the FBI, Swartzenegger flicks, strawmen, Big Brother, Oklahoma City, Ruby Ridge, G.Gordon, Op Sec, breaking donuts with other cops, and what it's like to get shot.Indy How many busts have you overseen since you've been in charge here? Gordon In four years, this field office has convicted 211 people of federal crimes - about one a week.Indy Are you satisfied by that number? Gordon Hell, yeah. That's been done with four agents.Indy Why is an ATF presence necessary in El Paso County? Gordon We're not saying it's necessary or not necessary. It's appropriate since the bureau is a federal law enforcement agency that's funded by taxpayers of the United States.Indy But why can't local police handle things? Gordon The police and sheriff's department's primary responsibility is immediate response to dangerous situations and to conduct follow-up investigation of violations of Colorado state laws. They do not have the jurisdiction, the resources or the manpower to investigate crimes of a federal nature.Indy Traditionally, there's usually quite a bit of friction between federal and local police agencies. How's your relationship with the local agencies? Gordon Initially they took us with a grain of salt. We had to prove ourselves. I'm absolutely satisfied that's been done. I can say without reservation that our relationships with local law enforcement agencies are the best that I have ever seen in my 26 years in law enforcement.Indy Do you regularly meet with the local Sheriff John Anderson, and Colorado Springs Police Chief Lorne Kramer? Gordon It's not necessarily a trifecta, but I regularly meet with those two guys. We'll have lunch together, we'll have breakfast together, we'll have coffee together. I bounce a lot of things off them and keep them fully informed.Indy Who's replacing you? Gordon They haven't made a decision yet. There were 28 applicants.Indy Why on earth would an ATF agent or boss want to come to Colorado Springs? Gordon This is a very desirable place to live. My family and I have enjoyed our time here more than any place that we've been. Number two: This is a very busy office. It has a high profile in this bureau.Indy What's been high profile? Gordon Jesus, think of some of the cases that have come out of this office. Our name is constantly on the desk of the director. We've done multiple major gang group cases. We wrote and served search warrants on Francisco Duran's house. We removed 75 improvised explosive devices from one house with a bunker in it right here in the little old suburbs - that's like a world record. The crime-scene photos from that case were used in a slide show for Congress two weeks ago. This Internal Revenue Service office fire is being monitored at headquarters. An agent from this office was shot during an undercover bust. Three of our agents have been given the bureau's Medal of Valor. We solved a murder. Our agents testified in trial in Washington, D.C. in the Francisco Duran trial from evidence we put together out here. It's an everyday occurrence that our work is recognized back at headquarters. The word comes back to us that man, everybody's putting in for your job, because your office is one that gets talked about.Indy How much does it also have to do with the nuttiness of cases like Francisco Duran, and Colorado Springs seeming to foster that kind of anti-government behavior? Gordon There are segments of this community that do send that message. That's a very small, minor part of the community. However, one person can do a lot of damage. Even the editorial page of the Gazette is, without exception, anti-government. At no time in the four-and-a-half years that we've been here has that newspaper ever acknowledged the good work of this field office, the good things we have done and the violent criminals that we have identified and, at great risk to our people, put in prison. The chief of police has applauded us. The sheriff of El Paso County has applauded us. And yet any time the editorial page of that paper has mentioned the ATF, it is negative, negative, negative, negative. It's like they're oblivious.Indy Does that add fuel to the fire when it comes to community opinion? Gordon It does make our agents always feel that although they live here, they own homes here, they have children in school here, their spouses work here, they pay taxes here, they go to Little League games here, that they're never welcome here. That newspaper has done a good job of making us know that we've never been welcome.Indy What about radio talk show hosts like Chuck Baker, G. Gordon Liddy and others who engage in anti-government vitriol? Gordon Nauseating. They make me sick. None of those critics have the guts or courage to do what we do. They're all talk, and they're full of hot air. They couldn't deal with one, two, three o'clock in the morning surveillance of these criminals we take into custody on weekends and holidays. They represent a very small but loud segment of society. In my opinion, they're quite inconsequential.Indy Should their commentary be curbed? Gordon No. Let 'em go. The rank-and-file American that never really paid attention to them before now knows what their evil faces look like.Indy What about the stepped-up anti-government activity of the past couple of years? Gordon The movement is small, but how many people does it take to screw in a light bulb? If there's one sick person out there that's getting the message that it's acceptable behavior in the little demented world that they live in, then that one person can do substantial damage. They get a lot of attention, but if you study history, it's cyclical. Study the Vietnam War and the Weathermen and the Students for Democratic Society. It doesn't matter what wing they call themselves: They're all wing nuts.Indy The ATF took a lot of heat after Waco and Ruby Ridge. Actually, both were FBI operations. Yet ATF really took the rap. The result: a lot of tension between the agencies ... Gordon Very true.Indy ... How much of that tension has filtered down to the local level? Gordon Not that much. Those events caused a lot of tension between (FBI and ATF) agents, and in time, it's actually brought us to the closest working relationship that we've had in our respective histories. We've both been beaten up and vilified so much that all of a sudden we've found very common ground. We went into a long black tunnel together and came out the other side understanding each other a lot better.Indy Do you agree with the laws that you enforce? Gordon Sometimes, sometimes not. I would never go on the record, though, about my personal feelings, because they are not relevant in an official setting.Several years ago, the ATF was a little-known branch of the federal government. But the shooting of white separatist Vicky Weaver and her son in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and the Waco raid on the Branch Davidians elevated the bureau to national prominence, drawing sharp criticism from government critics. Several years ago, Gordon was as often as not met with a blank stare when he told someone his occupation. These days, his wife doesn't talk about her husband's job to her colleagues.Indy How does one become an ATF agent? Gordon File an application and take a Treasury enforcement agency exam.Indy Seriously, when you were a little boy you wanted to join the ATF? Gordon I wanted to be a policeman.Indy How did the ATF come about? Gordon I was a Georgia state trooper for 16 years; I'd finished my master's degree, and I'd been shot one time. That was in 1986. I was making $23,000-a-year plus a take-home car. I found out I could come on this job as a rookie making $23,000 plus a take-home car and in time, I could make more money than the commissioner of the [Georgia] state police. It was a pretty logical jump.Indy You were shot? Gordon In the lower abdomen and pelvis.Indy Who shot you? Gordon A prison escapee from California who was operating a stolen car that he had taken from a woman he had abducted and had attempted to beat to death with the same pistol, I guess. He escaped from another trooper, and I found him boarding an Atlanta city transit bus. I tried to take him into custody. He had a gun, we struggled, and he shot me. Then I shot him back. And then I win, he loses.Indy He died. Gordon Um hmm. On the spot.Indy And you decided to go into the ATF. Gordon Well I started thinking about it. I loved being a trooper. To this day I don't think I've spent a minute loving anything more than that. Every single day, without exception, you got to help somebody. I never will completely get over how much I miss that.Indy You don't get to do that now. Gordon No. I'm in a job where groups of people and powerful lobbying organizations do everything in their power to vilify you. We investigate criminals and put them in prison. Not a lot of people are grateful about that. It's rewarding, don't get me wrong. But the rewards are just spread out more.Indy Do you have to live secretly? Gordon No. Not at all. Our neighbors all know me, and they know what I do. We have mild Op Sec (Operation Security) in our lives. My children don't discuss my work or anything with their peers or contemporaries. We don't discuss anything outside our home about my job.Indy What do your kids say that you do? Gordon Why do they have to say anything? That I work for the government. They may say that I'm an ATF agent if they're good friends and we know their parents. When my kids were little [the agency] wasn't so vilified as we have been inappropriately and wrongly vilified in the last four years.Indy Are there regions of the country more apt to accept ATF? Gordon Heavily populated areas that are repeatedly exposed to violent crime carried out by firearms or explosives, who feel like victims and realize it's our job to stop that.After the Oklahoma City bombing, Gordon flew to the shell-shocked city to serve as part of the bureau's national peer -upport team, trained to counsel his colleagues and help them work through the trauma.Indy Most people wouldn't think of ATF agents as being particularly sensitive or affected by traumatic events. Gordon That's the way that people that don't like the laws that Congress gave us want to portray us. We don't ask for the laws; we enforce 'em. But they have to hate us. They can't portray us as human beings, because it would be counterproductive to their cause.Indy There were many rumors flying about that agents staked out the Alfred P. Murrah building the night before the bombing and had actually been falsely tipped off. Gordon That's nothing but a laughable bald-faced lie. Like somebody woke up from a dream and quoted it as fact.Indy Were you disappointed when you heard Colorado state Sen. Charlie Duke stood on the steps of the capitol and suggested to a group of NRA activists that the government was possibly involved? Gordon To be disappointed in somebody, you would have had to believe in them or had faith in them in the first place. What is the emotion that you're looking for, when you look at someone and just go 'psheeeeew'? I thought it very sad.Indy What's your take on the Republic of Texas' argument that the Constitution grants them the ability to secede from the union? Gordon Their version of history is ludicrous. To me, you just put them up there with UFO watchers. They're just pathetic people - it's just too bad they don't take their resources and contribute something to life. Why don't they volunteer and help retarded kids, or do something with their day?Indy Actually, doesn't your office investigate gang members involved in criminal activity much more than anti-government activists? Gordon Nationally, it's 95 percent (gangs) to 5 percent (others). Locally, it's 98 to 2 percent.Indy Yet you don't really hear too much about what's happening with gangs unless there's a headline-grabbing bust. What is the climate for criminal gang activity here? Gordon It's greatly diminished. That's a coincidence; in no way do I want to infer that it's because of ATF. I saw it almost at its peak in '94 and '95. Our office - working with local agencies - has made some pretty good cases. We've arrested handfuls at a time. It's becoming evident to the more sophisticated gang members - the older more mature ones and career criminals - that there's a system in place. As far as them thinking that they can freely roam the streets here and do as they damn well please with impunity, I really don't think they think that way anymore.Indy Your signature project - Young Guns - how is that progressing? Gordon Going strong. We have a couple gun trafficking cases a year. Last summer, we identified three guys here that were involved in trafficking guns to New York, where they were being used in very violent crimes. Their guns came from little old Colorado Springs.Indy What exactly is Project Young Guns? Gordon We started it here Oct. 1, 1993. The police department reports to us the identity and circumstances of every firearm they take into their custody. We then use that information to determine the original purchaser of the firearm, and try to determine how it got from retail sale to the hands of the juvenile or the criminal. This ancillary information was always available, but no one put it together before. It gives us a profile. If one guy goes into a different store every month and buys a handful of [guns], that would strike us as odd and we would likely do some more research.Indy What kind of working relationship do you have with gun dealers here in town? Gordon For the most part, very good. A lot of them have my private number and don't hesitate to call me. Of course there's always going to be a few that are from a bent of thinking that they have to despise the bureau, so they can't develop any normal civil relationship with us.Indy Which ones are those? Gordon I wouldn't say.Indy Most people outside law enforcement have never heard the term "strawman." Yet straws are a key component for running and obtaining illegal weapons. Gordon Straws are people who enter firearms dealerships, present themselves as purchasers, fill out the forms, present their identification, clear the instant check or the Brady Law waiting period, take possession of the firearms and leave the dealers records to indicate that they are the true recipient of the guns. However, as soon as they depart the premises, they surrender the firearm to someone else - half the time to someone who they don't even know. We've had cases where they do it for money. We've had it where they do it to obtain relief for unpaid narcotics debts, or where they've traded them just for drugs.Indy Are the majority of the guns illegally obtained by convicted criminals done this way? Gordon The newer guns, yeah. But don't forget the gun shows or garage sales. A person can go buy 10 handguns, then set up a table at a gun show. They have no requirement to maintain a record of who they transfer a firearm to - criminals flock to those tables. That's part of the law that's weird to me. The law has this big loophole you can drive a truck through.Indy How serious of a problem are strawmen? Gordon It's the problem. Strawmen and gun shows.Indy The level of politics attached to your job has got to be far more intense than what you faced as a state trooper. Was that a tough adjustment? Gordon I was astounded. I had no idea how political the job was. The first three years were the hardest, because I went from something where you had a very proud and positive image, to a job where an investigation might take months before you solve the fruit of your labors. I didn't know the true labyrinth and complexity of politics involved in gun laws until I got inside the ATF and had to start working cases. We found federal judges that wouldn't punish anybody that broke gun laws because they personally disagreed with them; prosecutors that wouldn't prosecute them because they didn't want judges to get mad at 'em.Indy You've said that the Second Amendment to the Constitution doesn't preclude laws restricting the sale and possession of firearms. Where do you draw the line between Big Brother government control and freedom as defined by the Constitution? Gordon We're nowhere near that point. Some of the things we're precluded from being able to do are ridiculous. Everyone knows that a majority of homicides are committed with firearms. But because the word "arms" is in the Constitution - which was written at a time when society probably had 1 percent total of the crime or the population we have now - we continue to fight over very basic rudimentary procedures to connect firearms to people when they're used in crimes.Indy That said, what's your position on the anti-terrorist bill passed last year by Congress? Should agents be allowed to tap phones and storm homes of suspected criminals? Gordon We can't storm homes without warrants. And there certainly would be no sense in tapping a phone if you notify the person that your tapping their phones.Indy How often do your guys use the kicking-in-the-door tactic? Gordon We serve about 18 search warrants a year. Ninety-nine percent of the time we knock on the door, someone opens it, and we walk in. The kick-in doors and flash-bangs make good Schwartzenegger movies, but they're rarely necessary. Bullets go both ways. It's a last resort to use force to enforce the law.Indy Do you like guns? Gordon I don't dislike them. I'm an excellent shot. I understand guns. I'm good with guns. I'm not afraid of guns. But they're not a driving force in my life. They're just a tool I use, like a draftsman uses a drawing board. I don't dream about them, and I don't spend my family's money on them. I own one firearm that is not issued to me by the government. That was my handgun when I was a state trooper, and it has sentimental value. It was the gun I was involved in the shooting with, and I hope it will be an heirloom in my family forever.Indy Does it haunt you that you killed a man? Gordon No, not at all. I'm very thankful that I had the skills and the training to come out on top.Indy As you're wrapping up, getting ready to move on, what is the case your proudest of? Gordon Our 1994 investigation of the Carver Park Crips based in Los Angeles (who were in Colorado Springs to buy guns) during which they shot one of our agents during an undercover operation and escaped from the scene. In fact, three of them escaped from the State of Colorado within 24 hours. Our field office developed information where we identified, located and apprehended the person that shot our agent in under 72 hours in Los Angeles. Within 72 hours after that, we identified, located and apprehended the two others that had escaped. We shook off the shock, and we took care of our business. The agent fully recovered. He and the other two primary agents at the shooting were awarded the Medal of Valor. It will be hard to top the pride of how we took care of our own.