The Great Smokeout

By mid-afternoon on April 19, law enforcement agencies across the country were on the lookout for suspects in the bombing of the federal office building in Oklahoma City that had occurred earlier that day.

But while the nation's attention was focused on that heinous crime, those police officers who weren't perusing their files of known terrorists and wackos were going about the workaday business of keeping the streets of their communities safe.

Here in Houston, for example, members of the Houston Police Department's Central Tactical Unit were preparing to hatch a sting operation that involved nearly a week of undercover surveillance by a half-dozen or so specially trained undercover officers. The unit's members suspected that the perpetrators they were about to encounter had ties to an inner-city gang, so there was an air of danger about the whole affair. Timing was crucial, as was coordination of backup personnel.

By all accounts, the operation, which resulted in the arrest of seven suspects for burglary and theft, was swiftly executed. But as details of what can only be called "Operation Marlboro" emerged, it became clear that this was a rather peculiar piece of police work. The following is an account pieced together from interviews with eyewitnesses, a police spokesman and the suspects themselves.

At 3:15 p.m. every weekday, dozens of students from Lamar High School gather on the sidewalk in front of a strip center along Westheimer, across the street from the school. According to HPD spokesman Fred King, Lamar was recently the focus of a "gang investigation" by the Central Tactical Unit, one of several squads of undercover officers assigned to specialized duties.

"For some reason, they identified a potential problem there," King says.
Among those commonly lingering at the strip center are a teenager named Michael and his friends (who asked that they be identified in this story by their first names only). While they hang out with a certain swagger, smoking cigarettes and flirting with the girls with a studied indifference, Michael and company never considered themselves worthy of HPD scrutiny. Still, the presence of police officers hovering around was hardly a secret, and they had become accustomed to being watched. On occasion, a car would pull up and an undercover officer would ask them to move along.

On April 19, a white 1986 Ford Taurus pulled into a parking space near to where Michael and his friends were standing. According to Michael, the driver got out, mumbled something to no one in particular and hurried off down the sidewalk, leaving the car doors unlocked, the windows down and the keys in the ignition.

In the back seat of the car were a television, a VCR and a cellular phone. In the front seat were several cartons of Marlboro cigarettes, which, despite the obvious setup, proved irresistible to one 17-year-old in Michael's group. The lad reached into the window and grabbed the smokes. He dropped one carton, which burst open, spilling the individual packs onto the ground.

Michael and several other students each grabbed a pack or two and started moving away. That apparently was what the Central Tactical Unit was waiting for.

Within moments, a marked HPD vehicle came out of nowhere and screeched to a stop alongside the group; a United cab driven by an undercover officer followed. Then two unmarked police cars pulled up. Finally, at least two more undercover cops ran out of a dry cleaners in the strip center.

This impressive display of strength resulted in the apprehension of seven students, including a couple of apparent non-smokers who had no incriminating evidence in their possession. But instead of issuing a strict warning to the youths, who could have attempted to make off with much more expensive booty, the officers handcuffed them all, herded them into the police cars and hustled them off to HPD's southeast command station, where the five 16-year-old minors were separated from the two 17 year olds, one of whom was Michael.

At that point, what appeared to be nothing more than an embarrassing episode that would end with a sheepish phone call to mom and dad turned into something much more serious and, in Michael's case, rather chilling.

Carlos, a 16-year-old Hispanic with a tiny hoop earring in each ear, says that police at the command station asked him several times if he was "legal," didn't let him call his parents until 9:30 that evening and repeatedly threatened him with a trip to the county jail. Another 16 year old said an officer promised to call his parents when he was ready to be released, but didn't. His parents weren't told their son was ready to come home until they finally called late that night. Meanwhile, the youth was told that his thievery had been videotaped and that his friends had already ratted him out.

But their experiences pale in comparison to that of Michael, who, because he's 17, was taken to the downtown city jail. A tall, thin youth whose teen uniform of T-shirt and droopy jeans is accompanied by a large, conspicuous crucifix dangling from a chain around his neck, Michael snapped to the seriousness of his situation almost immediately when he was told he could call his parents from the lockup's pay phone.

"The people sitting around the phone were pretty rough looking, and I didn't want to go near them," he recalls.

It was several hours before Michael found either the nerve or the chance to call his parents. By then, it was too late for his father to pull together the $425 in cash needed to bail out his son. Michael ended up spending the night in jail, where he says he got into a fight with a drunk who was harassing him. When his father was finally able to spring him, he found Michael dirty, shaken and with his shirt half torn off.

Michael was charged with a Class C misdemeanor for theft of less than $20. The charge was dismissed when the arresting officer failed to appear in court. But Michael's father says that's not the point. The whole episode has him wondering whether the HPD's gang investigation really focuses on gangs.

"None of these kids are in a gang," he says. "Why are they spending their time on things like this when there are a lot of other serious things going on?"

Michael says that there are kids who look like they might be in gangs who congregate near where he and his friends meet after school. But from his description, they sound more like gangsta wannabees than serious hoodlums worthy of the time and expense of a weeklong sting operation.

"Some of them are all right, they're not hard-core gang members or anything. They're just from the same neighborhood and hang around together," says Michael, adding that no one has ever asked him to join a gang.

But while Michael suspects that those students might be drawing HPD's attention, he has noticed that unlike him and his friends -- who were once issued citations for "obstructing a sidewalk" -- they are hardly ever approached by the police.

"They hang around, too, but the cops never go over and tell them to move," Michael says. "I think they come and tell us because it's less likely that we'll have a gun."

HPD spokesman King defends the tactical unit's actions, saying that schools are a particular focus for gang investigations and that such stings are a common strategy. But he admits that tossing teenagers in an adult jail could result in a "life threatening situation."

Still, he warns, HPD is "doing similar things all over the city, and they'll be back [to Lamar]. They might not be back in a white Ford Taurus, but they'll be back.

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