Law enforcement officials of all kinds necessarily put themselves in dangerous situations regularly. The work of an undercover agent isn’t necessarily gunfights and high-speed car chases, though: It’s the undercover’s job to become part of a secret criminal world to get the evidence they need, for however long necessary. But gun fights and chases do happen and are constant sources of potential danger. An undercover agent is never completely safe.
Liam Thomas was an undercover agent for more than 12 years. After having a gun in his mouth, and a series of other near-fatal close calls, Thomas couldn’t bear much more. The imminent threat of death makes anyone reconsider their chosen profession. Undercover police (UCs) face other psychological trauma – not just through the crimes they often commit, but through the double live they must lead. In his 12 years of covert operations, Thomas had to pretend to enjoy explicit material featuring children, he had to create seemingly real friendships over the span of months, and to enter the mob where one slip up could kill him. The stress and pressure of being both a dedicated law enforcer and ruthless criminal simultaneously was so huge, Thomas eventually suffered a nervous breakdown and attempted suicide. Margaret Sasso, a UC based in New York City, faced the same kind of emotional anguish in her work with drug cartels and traffickers. One morning, police found her overdosed on prescription muscle relaxers in her car. She told police it was a failed suicide attempt.
According to Thomas in an interview with The Independent, “Covert policing is the last bastion of pure policing” and is one of the best methods of getting the highest numbers of convictions. Despite the inherent danger faced by UCs, their exceptional work ensures that every case going to court is “an unassailable combination of eyewitness and covertly recorded evidence.”
UCs are not always police. Criminals can also can act as UCs when they are arrested and recruited as a secret informant. Some UC operations involve drugs and money in city crime, while others are so covert they reach the highest levels of government. In any situation, UCs put their lives at risk. Of the many undercover operations that have been successful, the following are six of the most high profile, successful and shocking in their intricacy.
6. Joran Van Der Sloot
Joran van der Sloot robbed and murdered Stephany Flores in 2010. He was also a major suspect in the disappearance of an American teenager in Aruba. He was arrested in Peru, confessed to killing Flores, and was found guilty. Crime reporter and television host Peter R. de Vries befriended Sloot and videotaped him on several occasions confessing his involvement in various crimes, including the disappearance of the American teenager. Facing potential backlash, De Vries aired the recordings on his show, Pauw & Witteman, to some 6 million viewers. One such tape revealed Sloot discussing the illegal trafficking of sex workers in Thailand. Although the disappearance of the other teenager is still unsolved, Sloot was sentenced to 28 years in prison for the death of Flores.
5. Canadian RCMP Goes “Mr. Big”
The Canadian RCMP has a time-tested undercover tactic they call “Mr. Big”, reportedly used more then a dozen times a year. Agents get close to a target and put them in a series of situations to gain their trust. Eventually, the target meets a fake gang leader nicknamed “Mr. Big”. Mr. Big presents the target with an ultimatum: tell them the truth about the crimes they are being investigated for, or be kicked out of the gang. With audio and video recording devices in place, they coerce the target’s confession. The Mr. Big undercover sting has been used by the RCMP for years, leading to several convictions, and freeing those discovered innocent through the confessions.
4. Operation Iceman
Richard Kuklinski was a mafia hit man who claimed to have killed up to 250 people in his criminal career. In a year-long undercover operation run by various law enforcement agencies, he was taken down by agent Dominick Polifrone. Polifrone pretended to be a hit man to get close to Kuklinski, and hired him for a fake murder. When they met, Kuklinski was given cyanide to carry out the planned murder. He was on to Polifrone, though, when he tested the poison on a stray dog, and left the scene. Polifrone recorded every conversation, and Kuklinski was arrested not long after their exchange and charged with 5 counts of murder. Polifrone stared a cold-blooded killer in the face as he pretended to be someone else, and his courage paid off.
3. The Iranian Hostage Crisis
Among a powerful revolution in Iran, students seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, taking up to 20 hostages for 444 days. Six diplomats escaped the embassy and were kept safe in the Canadian Ambassador’s home. Tensions were so high between America and Iran during the crisis that Americans in the country faced serious potential danger. When the American government failed to end the crisis, Canada and the CIA launched a joint operation to safely extricate the diplomats using a fake movie as the cover. The diplomats, especially, had their lives at risk. CIA operative Tony Mendez entered Iran undercover with a false identity to provide the diplomats with forged documents, clothing, and the full background story. In January of 1980, everyone involved successfully escaped the country disguised as a movie production team. If their cover was blown, they faced arrest, jail, or worse.
2. The Assassination of Osama Bin Laden
In May of 2011, U.S. Special Forces infiltrated a heavily guarded compound in Pakistan and assassinated Osama Bin Laden. U.S. Intelligence learned that Bin Laden was hiding in a house in Abbottabad. President Barrack Obama ordered the raid and announced that Bin Laden had been captured and killed. As President Obama said, the death of Bin Laden was a milestone in the war against Al Queda. A team of 25 covert Navy Seals dropped down from two Black Hawk helicopters and breached the wall. They killed four people and found Bin Laden on the 2nd floor and shot him twice in the chest. The Seals in the operation relied on their specialty training as top officers in the field to covertly and efficiently take down a dangerous terrorist.
1. Drug Informant Sting
When 23-year old Rachel Hoffman was arrested in her apartment in Tallahassee, Florida, she had 5 ounces of marijuana and more than a hundred pills of ecstasy. Facing jail time, she was recruited as an undercover informant to avoid a sentence. She was ordered by the police to set up a deal between two male dealers for cocaine, hundreds of ecstasy pills, and a handgun. With a wire in her purse recording everything, she met with the two men. Soon after the deal, the police surveillance team lost track of her car, and Hoffman completely disappeared. As an untrained undercover informant, Hoffman was found out during the deal. Two days later, she was found dead in a ravine, after being shot 6 times.