It was a hot summer afternoon in 1971, and I was a 22-year-old undercover narcotics officer in the Wayne County Sheriff’s Department, with a year and a half on the job. I was also a former US Army Ranger with a year in Vietnam. We were in Detroit’s east side, getting ready to make a raid.
By 1971, the Motor City had 1.4 million people, many of them employed in manufacturing millions of fabulous cars and trucks. But behind the veil of prosperity, a social pathology was brewing. Since the late 1960s, the drug culture had taken off, and Detroit had seen an exodus of nearly 300,000 people. The city had 15 percent of Michigan’s population, yet it accounted for 60 percent of murders statewide (561 out of 942). Homicides had more than doubled, and property crimes tripled. Fatal overdoses were commonplace, and drug-related crime, especially armed robberies and home invasions, was destroying the city and spreading into the suburbs.
Sheriff William Lucas, newly armed with a $200,000 federal grant, had fifty young officers from our 1,200-man department interviewed to determine their suitability for undercover work. Twelve men were selected, and Sheriff Lucas created our Metropolitan Narcotics Bureau, more commonly known as Metro Squad. It was located in our Patrol and Investigation Division in western Wayne County.
Because the Detroit Police had much more experience with narcotics trafficking, our bureau was led by two DPD crew chiefs, Bob Krichke and Bill Sherwood, along with Lieutenant Frank VanWulfen and Sergeant Vahan Kapagian. VanWulfen was from our department, but our real expert was Sgt. Kapagian, known on the street as “Louie.” Kapagian had worked undercover for DPD and the feds and was a legend in Michigan for arresting John Sinclair, chairman of the White Panther Party. We also had a chemist, Bohdar Komonytsky, a secretary, Darnell Cotham, and constant access to Chuck Art’s drug-sniffing dogs.
Our vehicles, ranging from a compact Mercury Comet to a full-size Lincoln Continental for bigger buys, were equipped with concealed police radios and sirens. I drove a Mustang and always kept a selective-fire .30-caliber M2 carbine and a 12-gauge High Standard riot shotgun in my trunk. Even before Vietnam, I had always been into weapons, and on the Metro Squad, seeing all the violent crime in the city, I felt that we should have a bit more firepower. So I did what seemed the logical thing: converted my M1 carbine into an M2 so that it could fire in fully automatic mode.
To ensure the confidentiality of our work, our cars had suppressed license plates that would come up blank if anyone ran them, and we had fake driver’s licenses issued by Michigan. I lived in Detroit and chose an address a couple of miles from home, where I knew the layout. I picked the alias “Bob Bezhani,” which went well with my dark complexion and vaguely Middle Eastern features, in a city with the largest ethnic Arab population in the country.
This was an era well before the Internet, cell phones, or Google Maps. Our ability to do our job depended on living the streets, socializing with seedy people, and developing a network of snitches. Six of our undercover officers—Jimmy Fowlkes, Lorenzo Hart, William Pack, Mel Turner, Al Wallace, and James West—were black. They gave us the ability to make buys and do surveillance in communities where a white guy would stand out. Frank Longhi was the unit’s investigator and surveillance expert. Our six white undercover officers were Michael Geldmacher, Gerald Scotti, and me. The other whites were from suburban departments, mainly Dearborn, Livonia, and Wayne State University in central Detroit. (Wayne State sent officers because the students there were in constant uproar against the Vietnam War and our government, and often protested in support of America’s enemies.)
Jimmy Fowlkes had already made heroin buys from the occupants of the house we were about to raid. He wore a bug, and if, for any reason, it quit transmitting or he uttered the prearranged code word, we would hit the house immediately. In making a raid, surprise is everything. Hesitate, and you give the bad guys time to grab weapons and start firing, or flush drugs down toilets.
I usually wore grungy motorcycle clothes with doubled-soled boots for kicking in doors, and a Mickey Mouse watch that was popular with hippies. My fellow officers called me “Iceman” because I was often first through the door. They thought I had nerves of steel, but it wasn’t really that. I just liked the rush.
Lorenzo Hart and I hit the door with a heavy metal ram and smashed it open. We seldom wore protective gear, because Kevlar vests were just coming into service, and our military flak vests were too heavy and cumbersome. As uniform and narcotics officers rushed in, Lorenzo and I charged upstairs into one of the second-floor bedrooms to grab suspects. The ones who didn’t try to run out the doors or jump from windows would usually flee upstairs and hide under beds or in closets, as if we wouldn’t think to look there. The bedroom is often where the dealers stash drugs, money, and weapons, and it’s generally there, in their last refuge, that they decide to fight or not.
Having Lorenzo at my side was a tremendous asset. A stocky former Marine Corps boxer who had served at Guantánamo, he could handle himself well. I carried a 9mm German Walther P1 semiautomatic pistol. (Since cops had revolvers, carrying one would have raised suspicions.) For backup, I kept a .25-caliber “Baby” Browning in a boot holster.
I swung open a bedroom closet door as Lorenzo covered me with a 12-gauge High Standard riot shotgun loaded with five Remington Magnum double-O bucks. Each round contained twelve .32-caliber lead balls. The recoil feels like a mule kick, but the effect on the other end is like being shot with twelve .32-caliber pistols at once.
I pushed away the crammed clothes and junk in the closet with one hand while pointing my pistol inside with the other, in case someone was hiding there. Suddenly, I saw an arm with a pistol leveled right at my chest. With no time to lose, I started to squeeze the long double-action trigger. But just when the sear would have dropped the hammer and fired the weapon, I realized I was staring into my own reflection from a mirror.
“Can you believe that?” I said. “I almost shot a fuckin’ mirror!” Lorenzo laughed, and we charged off to another room.
But we both understood the seriousness of such moments. Sometimes, fear of becoming a laughingstock in front of fellow officers can make a cop hesitate just long enough to cost him or a fellow officer his life.
* * *
It was another hot summer afternoon in 1971, and I was working on Bill Sherwood’s crew. This time, we were hitting what had once been a big, beautiful upscale house near Wayne State University in Detroit. Its occupants were selling marijuana and hallucinogenic drugs. Gerald Scotti had already made a buy, so we were good to go. Because large amounts of drugs and money were usually on the premises, drug dealers were often more afraid of other dealers ripping them off or killing them than of cops arresting them. So it was safe to assume that they would be armed.
As with most raids, surprise and speed were essential, and so was “violence of action.” This is a tactic used by police and special-operations troops to maintain psychological momentum, or “shock effect,” and get people under control quickly. Any sign of weakness when dealing with dangerous people can fast lead to a breakdown of control, and the consequent police use of deadly force—or, worse, deadly force being used against the police.
When conducting a raid, we typically had uniformed officers present so there could be no mistaking who was at the door, and no excuse for shooting because they “didn’t know it was the police.” To aid in prosecution, we tried to have several buys into the house and, if we could determine the suspect’s name or alias, come armed with a search or arrest warrant. But with a population of 1.4 million in the city, and over a million more throughout the county, there were just too many drug houses and not enough narcotics cops. So we adapted by doing “buy and busts.” That is, we made an undercover purchase and did a field litmus test on the suspected drugs. If specific colors appeared, we had probable cause, and since delivering controlled substances was a felony, no search or arrest warrant was needed. Thus, we could immediately hit the house and arrest the dealer, along with everyone else for the misdemeanor of loitering in a place where an illegal business is conducted.
It was great public relations, too, since most local residents were all for removing from their neighborhoods the unsavory people that drug houses attracted. Also, it gave cops the chance to do background checks and gather intel from those arrested. And if the raid happened in a neighborhood where people didn’t particularly respect the law, the dealer got a memorable send-off: once we rolled away with our prisoners, the neighbors would come in and strip the house of anything valuable.
Both our crews were involved, so we had enough people to do the raid and for two of us to stay outside, secure the cars, and watch in case anyone jumped from a window. (Because speed during a raid was paramount, we didn’t lock our doors, and our cars had weapons, portable radios, and all the necessary paperwork to process those arrested.) Having the paperwork on hand also gave us the ability to turn someone we arrested into a confidential informant (CI), or “snitch.” Then we could go directly to the CI’s supplier and have him introduce an undercover officer so he could make buys later, thereby keeping suspicion from falling on the CI. Then we could raid that house, eventually working our way up the food chain to the top suppliers. At that point, we would collaborate with the feds, who had the money to make major buys.
When Sherwood gave the word “the deal’s down,” everyone sped to the house in their cars and charged out. I was on the ram with Mel Turner. We slammed the door open, and as we ran in I saw a group of people in the front living room, and a guy dashing up a long flight of stairs. I charged after him. The guy made it to the bathroom and was halfway out the window when I grabbed him by the seat of his pants. There was a narrow roof ledge under the window, and from there he could have shinnied down a pipe and gotten away. The bathroom had a shit-stained toilet, and there was piss all over the floor. The guy was freaked out and put up a fight, so we ended up wrestling in the piss on the floor.
I was by myself, but I got on top and cuffed him. I hauled him to his feet and started to walk him away, hanging on to his long hair and the handcuffs. Even then, he kept thrashing about.
As I got to the top of the stairs, still struggling with my captive, Sherwood was at the bottom, shouting, “Where the fuck were you!” Apparently, they’d had problems subduing everyone downstairs.
“I was getting this asshole!” I hollered.
“Then bring his fuckin’ ass down!”
Sherwood was a great officer, but at that moment he was mad as hell. I was standing there covered in piss, when suddenly the prisoner lurched and I lost my balance. We tumbled down the stairs and landed at Sherwood’s feet. I was uninjured, but the prisoner, who bounced down the stairs with his arms cuffed behind him, wasn’t as lucky.
“Here’s his fuckin’ ass!” I said.
Sherwood looked at the prisoner moaning on the floor, then at me, and said, “Next time, don’t go it alone, Iceman, or I’m gonna put you on a tight leash!”
* * *
Not far from my home in southwest Detroit was a big two-story duplex on West Grand Boulevard and I-75. Once a very fashionable neighborhood, the area had fallen on hard times. And now, in the summer of 1971, both flats had people dealing drugs. Mel Turner and Michael Geldmacher had already made buys into both homes. Our plan was to raid them simultaneously.
Many drug dealers had Rottweilers or Dobermans. Dogs are loyal, no matter who owns them, and they will fight to the end protecting their turf. Both homes had dogs.
We decided to make forced entries through the front doors, followed quickly by entries through the back doors. A wooden stairway in back led to the back door of the upper flat. As soon as we heard the other officers storming in through the front doors of both units, Al Wallace kicked in the upstairs rear door as I started to do the same downstairs. But as the upstairs door flew open, a snarling Doberman charged out. Al started shooting it with his 9mm pistol. To a big, vicious dog, a nine-millimeter is like an ice pick—it makes a deep puncture, but it just doesn’t have the stopping power of a shotgun. So it took a lot of shots, and every time Al fired, the bullet whizzed right through the wooden porch deck, onto my position.
“Stop! Stop! I’m here!” I hollered, frantically trying to stay out of the way of bullets blasting down through the deck above.
Al killed the dog, and with no time to lose, we each charged inside to back up our fellow officers. We made arrests; confiscated drugs, weapons, and money; and moved on to hit another house. Just another wild day working narcotics in the Detroit Metro Squad.
* * *
On Wednesday, December 6, 1972, I was sitting in our Narcotics Bureau sharing a bucket of fried chicken with fellow undercover officer William Pack. We were alone in one of our offices, talking about weapons, when Pack pulled out his new 9mm Browning Hi Power pistol.
“That’s a great gun,” I said, “but I prefer my Walther because it’s double action.”
“But this has a double-stacked mag that holds thirteen rounds,” Pack replied, slapping the magazine back in.
“I know, but it’s single action, and that can be dangerous.”
“How’s that?” Pack asked.
“When I was in Nam, I was showing my Nineteen-eleven to our medic when it went off.”
“Yeah, we were in my hooch and I was playing with the hammer just like you, trying to put it on half cocked, when I almost shot him.”
“No, shit,” Pack said when suddenly, POW! The 9mm went off. The bullet zipped past my head and out the large plate-glass window behind me.
“Wow! That was fuckin’ close!” I cried.
“I’m sorry, man!” Pack said, setting his weapon down. “Think anybody heard?”
“I don’t know about anyone else, but my ears are still ringing.”
Pack and I waited for the rush of officers to charge in with guns drawn, ready for a fight, but nothing happened. We looked outside the second-story window at the dozens of black and white scout cars parked in the lot. Nobody was there. So I grabbed a chicken bone, stuck it in the bullet hole, and said, “Good kill, Pack!” We laughed, and I took a picture of Pack standing next to the window holding his 9mm.
Somehow, no one ever said anything about the window. I think it was because of the crazy times and the danger of our job. Two of our twelve undercover officers, Lorenzo Hart and Mel Turner, were shot in Detroit by criminals using .30-caliber M1 carbines. Lorenzo lost a lung but survived. He was one of the most loyal officers I knew. Mel Turner recovered from his wound and later became undersheriff. Other officers from our bureau became inspectors, police chiefs, federal agents, or heads of security.
In March 1973, Pack and I were transferred out of the Narcotics Bureau for disciplinary reasons. My department and the feds had come down on me when they realized that I had illegally converted a .30-caliber M1 carbine into a selective-fire M2 carbine—that is, I had made a machine gun, which I kept in the trunk of the car. As a result, I was assigned to uniformed motorized patrol. Meanwhile, Pack had to work the county jail. Seven years later, in 1980, I returned to the bureau as a detective sergeant and crew chief.
During the fifteen years I served as a cop, I was shot at three times—once by bad guys and twice, accidentally, by other cops—all while working narcotics in the early 1970s. It sounds odd, but working narcotics was the most fun I had in my life.
 When I became a detective and went to our morgue, I would occasionally see a young mother laid out on a gurney, dead from an overdose, with her infant at her feet, dead from neglect.
 Sheriff Lucas was a West Indian orphan, raised by his aunt in the Bronx. He was a high school track star, New York City undercover cop, law school grad, former FBI agent, and the most qualified sheriff Wayne County ever had. Though I was suspended four times without pay under his watch, I loved the guy because he gave me the opportunity to learn and move on. He was sheriff during 1970‑82, and Wayne County executive during 1983‑87.
 Vahan Kapagian had served in World War II at Saipan and Guam, as a 17-year-old Seabee. He contracted malaria but then served on destroyers and in the Marine Corps until joining the Detroit Police Department in 1954. He was in five shootouts but was never injured until he suffered a motorcycle accident in 1973. He retired as a lieutenant. Of all the officers I served with, Vahan was the best at understanding criminal minds. His wisdom and humor were matched only by his genuine concern for his men. Vahan is 88 now and in failing health, but I routinely call to swap stories and chuckle at his “colorful” descriptions of people and events.
 When I worked the Wayne County Jail in Detroit in 1970, we had about 1,100 inmates. Two inmates on my floor were John Sinclair, a Wayne State University grad student, and his “Secretary of Defense,” Lawrence “Pun” Plamondon. Both were radical revolutionaries in the White Panther Party and had previously been arrested by the FBI for bombing a CIA office in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Later, in cooperation with the FBI, Vahan Kapagian infiltrated a drug ring and arrested John Sinclair for the second time, for possession of marijuana.
 People become narcotics informants for many reasons. Some want a break on criminal charges they are facing. Some just need money for drugs. Some call in anonymously to eliminate competitors, want to divert us from larger activities, are seeking revenge for bad drugs or high prices, want to play narcotics cop, want the police to owe them a favor, or want inside knowledge of narcotics officers. Some are scorned women or betrayed lovers. And every now and then, people do it because they’re just decent citizens.
 In the nineteenth century, Mark Twain quipped, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics.” It should be noted that drug statistics are among the most unreliable of all crime data. When different agencies work together, contributing significant manpower to a task, they often add the arrests, drugs, and weapons confiscations to each department’s records. It’s still common practice, and these inflated stats are reported to the FBI and the public annually, just as, conversely, some communities underreport crime so they will appear safer. Only in homicides where there is an actual body accompanying the crime can the statistic be accepted as reflecting reality.
 The medic was Forrest Decker. We pulled seven long-range patrols together and stayed friends throughout the years, but he never came back into my hooch after the accidental discharge.
 For confidence and luck, I carried an 1879 silver dollar that my father, Edmond, had given me when I entered the army. The coin’s date is when his father, Alie, was born, and my dad had stamped my initials, “R.C.A.,” on its face. His coin was with me on every parachute jump I ever made in the States and in Europe, and on every patrol in Vietnam. I carried it always as a cop and finally removed it from my pocket when I retired on December 5, 1984. I gave it to my daughter, Catherine, who is now a major in the United States Air Force.
 Before becoming a cop, during the year I served as an Army Ranger in Vietnam, I was shot at by the enemy on only a few occasions. But friendly fire happened frequently. This included South Vietnamese soldiers shooting at us during the Tet Offensive, a quad .50-caliber machine gun crew testing its weapons and mistakenly lighting up our small reconnaissance team’s position outside their base, near hits by cold, impersonal mortars and artillery, helicopter door gunners strafing us, and deadly helicopter gunships mistaking us for the enemy and firing rockets and miniguns at us. And there were equally scary random events: narrowly escaping the slashing rotors as a helicopter crashed down on my position in A Shau Valley, getting stalked (twice) by tigers, and a McGuire rig extraction gone horribly wrong at Khe Sanh.