Being an undercover police officer has its exciting moments. The hobnobbing with drug dealers and arms traders; the creating of elaborate false identities; the insights into the intricate workings of the criminal underworld. Equally, it has its terrifying moments: the hobnobbing with drug dealers and arms traders, the insights into the intricate workings of the often unpleasant criminal underworld.
To find out the extent of the risk undercovers are exposed to, I asked four retired officers about the most dangerous scenario they ever experienced on the job: former Crime Squad officer David Corbett; undercover witness-protection officer Frank Matthews; elite Metropolitan Police undercover detective Duncan MacLaughlin; and Stephen Bentley, who was involved in deep cover policing.
The riskiest situation I found myself in was during a major infiltration involving purchasing drugs and firearms. I went to a house to buy a substantial amount of cannabis with a recording device concealed down the front of my underwear. The householder told me that the supplier hadn't arrived yet, but that I was welcome to wait, so I took a seat.
Unfortunately, the guy had a large German Shepherd. Dogs have a very acute sense of hearing, so it could hear the tape going round in my recording device, which caused it to pay my crotch a great deal of attention. The householder picked up on this and remarked that the dog must like me. I played with it in an attempt to conceal the true reason behind its interest in my groin, but was extremely worried. When I listened back to the recording later on, I could hear the anxiety in my voice.
Luckily my cover remained intact. If it'd been blown, I'd be likely to have been found in an alleyway somewhere with numerous broken limbs.
Going undercover allows a witness protection officer to freely move around with witnesses in the community, in order to enable them to have a normal life while waiting to give evidence. It also means that we can travel to and from their location without criminals following us to get to them. We don't even disclose our full identities to the witnesses.
One case involved protecting a serving prisoner. He'd been sent to Whitemoor, which houses some of the UK's most dangerous inmates, and became embroiled in a plot to defraud banks of £800 million. He was a computer buff and had told the organised-crime group behind the fraud that he could deal with the technical aspects of the plan.
The gang wanted to get the witness back on the streets as soon as possible so that they could put their scheme into action, so they bribed key prison-service figures to get him transferred to an open prison and given weekend release. He eventually decided he was in above his head and contacted the police. When a witness is being protected, members of the operations team – whose job it is to put together the case – are only supposed to be able to gain access to him via arrangement with the protection unit. However, one day we drove past the safe house and noticed a car containing a member of this team. We hadn't told anyone where the safe house was, so this indicated possible corruption. It suggested that a team member had put a tracking device on our car.
We reported what had happened, but the witness was still left in the same location. This eventually resulted in a gangland gunman knocking on the door. There were armed officers guarding the witness, but they weren’t allowed to leave the building. By the time the police arrived, the gunman had left. This scared the witness, who then refused to testify against the gang leader. Being involved in a case that was compromised like that was extremely dangerous. Corrupt officers could have leaked my identity, which would have placed my life at risk.
My undercover buddy and I had travelled to Liverpool, where we met with a Canadian. It soon became clear he was connected to the mob and South American drug cartels. He set out the deal. It involved my partner and I importing huge quantities of cocaine.
Following a curry, we ended up at the She Club in Liverpool. The Canadian carried on setting out the deal. It was clear he was a ruthless top player. He suddenly glared at me with a killer look. "Are you guys cops?" he asked. I laughed it off as he added, "If you are…" and touched my forehead with his two fingers, imitating a gun. "Pop! Pop!" he spat, imitating an execution.
I later learned my operational boss handed him over to the DEA. He ended up being sentenced to 25 years in America.
The situation that scared me the most during my time infiltrating criminals happened while I was taking part in Operation Dakota, which involved going undercover with Asian heroin dealers. An informant took me to a party that their leader was attending. The leader was serving a prison sentence but was released on temporary license at weekends. I used the cover story that I was a deserter from the military and that I had previously been used to parachute equipment into the UK.
I gained the leader's trust and we met up a few times. She then asked me if I knew any pilots who could import heroin. We had a pilot on the books at Scotland Yard, so I said yes. She told me that some people would be flying over from Pakistan and that they wanted to meet the pilot. I picked them up from London and took them out to an airfield in Essex to see him. I was surprised at what big guys they were; all three of them were huge!
We had to drive through miles of secluded landscape to get to our destination, and the fact that I was alone with three massive drug dealers in such an isolated place made me quite anxious. I stopped at a petrol station partway through the journey to give my passengers a chance to go through the glove-box and find a number of items we'd put in there to make my cover story check out. When I got back in the car, my feet were shaking so much from nerves that I couldn't control the clutch. I had to stall the Pakistani guys by making small talk. If they'd have seen that I was shaking, my cover could have been blown. Fortunately the moment of fear soon passed.
Corbett, MacLaughlin and Bentley have books out about their time as undercover officers, which you can check out here, here and here.