Well, in any tactical resolution situation that presented during my years with FBI SWAT or while serving on the Hostage Rescue Team (HRT), I was “one of many,” a choreographed and rehearsed set of maneuvers with equally capable professionals, standing, literally, shoulder to shoulder. And the bad guys knew who we were — The LAW.
Same with regular agents making arrests or serving warrants. Typically, we bring more of us to the place where we elect to take someone into custody. The numbers have to be in our favor, at a place and a time of our choosing.
When you are in an undercover capacity, the targets have TWO reasons to kill you. Firstly, if they’re crazy enough to kill a cop, knowing your involvement guarantees the certainty of a conviction and potential lengthy sentence, and there’s no time like the present to go out in a blaze of glory, taking your Judas-the-betrayer out with you.
The second dangerous set of circumstances involves the instances where the targets think you’re “one of them,” and therefore expendable. They may be protecting their business, administering a reprisal, exerting influence over their territory/turf, or sending a gruesome message to rivals. In any of these highlighted instances, it’s just a case of the criminal mind compelling body to act in a criminal fashion towards a fellow criminal. And far as the bag guy believes in the moment, fellow criminals don’t file police reports or lodge complaints with district attorneys.
That makes murder, in their criminal minds, a victimless crime. They just have to avoid getting caught.
Both of these two highlighted scenarios — they KNOW you’re a cop OR they DON’T KNOW you’re a cop — BOTH can get you the same kind of dead. And it’s why fear is a healthy and expected condition in even the most experienced undercover agents.
Two tragic undercover case tragedies greatly affected me throughout my FBI undercover career.
The first occurred in 1996, a little over a year after I joined C-13 and began supporting “Big Jack’s” undercover efforts. On March 22nd of that year, Philadelphia-based FBI undercover agent Charles Leo “Chuck” Reed was murdered during a drug deal while inside his undercover vehicle, in the midst of negotiating the price of a kilo of powdered cocaine with a local drug kingpin. It happened so quickly, in the blink of an eye — the furious close-quarters gun battle taking the lives of both the drug dealer and the heroic FBI agent, in the flash of a hot second, and before backup could arrive in support.
R.I.P. Chuck. We’ll take it from here, Brother.
The second incident involved two brave NYPD detectives, Rodney Andrews and James Nemorin, who were working undercover in an gun buy-and-bust operation on Staten Island in 2003. Their executions by a thug named Ronell Wilson, who has since avoided the death penalty on the grounds he was mentally incapable of understanding the consequences and gravity of his actions. Since his arrest for the murders, he has also succeeded in impregnating a clearly Stockholming prison guard and continues to remain in jail on a converted-to-life sentence.
What hurts the most about this tragic case was the fact that the FBI-NYPD task force that I worked on in 2003, C-11, had worked closely with Detective Andrews, on a narcotics-conspiracy case in Brownsville, Brooklyn, where he appeared in several undercover roles, on loan from the 122nd precinct he was assigned to in Staten Island. He was one of the family.
R.I.P. Rodney and James. We’ll take it from here, my Brothers.
Can’t imagine the last thoughts that went through Chuck’s, and Rodney’s, and James’ minds at that moment — that penultimate moment — when all three knew they were on the wrong end of a gun barrel and their watch would soon end. That stomach-churning, panicked, “It’s really OVER…” all-consuming realization. I grieve for them and can only imagine their final thoughts of friends and family and fear.
I understand the controlled fear they all must’ve carried into what was to be the last undercover encounters in their respective careers…and shortened lives.
I respect them for their obligation to duty and for their courage in moving past the paralyzing thoughts to turn back and hand off the responsibility to another undercover agent or officer.
But none of the three did that. They performed their duties with honor and courage to the very end.
They went where there was untold danger, and they went willingly and without coercion. No one compelled them.
And you know why they did?
The undercover’s grim marching order, borrowed from John A. Shedd:
A ship in the harbor is safe. But that’s not what ships are built for.
This first appeared in The Havok Journal on May 7, 2017.
James A. “Jimmy” Gagliano has some three decades’ worth of practical leadership experience, both in traditional military units as a U.S. Army Infantry Officer and in federal law enforcement executive-level assignments with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). He spent 25 years as an FBI criminal investigator, SWAT Team Leader, member of the FBI’s elite Hostage Rescue Team (HRT), Undercover Agent, Task Force Commander, Legal Attaché (Diplomat), and as Chief-of-Staff for the Assistant-Director-in-Charge of the FBI’s New York Division. He has led tactical and diplomatic operations in Afghanistan and México City, and served tours in parts of Africa, Europe, and the Middle East, as well as assignments in combat theaters in Afghanistan, while assigned to the military’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC).
He is a recipient of the FBI’s second highest award for valor, the Medal for Bravery. Now retired from the FBI, Jimmy serves as an Adjunct Assistant Professor, instructing undergraduates in Homeland Security, Criminal Justice, Military History, and Leadership courses at St. John’s University in Jamaica, Queens, and is a leadership consultant with the Thayer Leader Development Group (TLDG) located at West Point, NY. He is also a full-time Law Enforcement Analyst and Contributor on CNN and delivers speeches across the country in corporate and university settings.