Armed & Dangerous
On TV and the big screen, law enforcement officers kick down doors fearlessly, produce warrants instantaneously, and never, ever get stopped for speeding. But reality is different. If you want a reality check, pick up a copy of Armed & Dangerous, William Queen’s latest chronicle of his years as an ATF agent. The ostensible subject of this book is Queen’s hunt for a gun-toting, back-to-the-land marijuana grower named Mark Stephens.
He “was the real McCoy,” Queen writes, “the most brazen fearless criminal I encountered in my early years with ATF … equal parts gunman, mountain man, drug trafficker, and out and out thug.”
When confronting people who owed him money, Stephens shot first and asked questions later. His favorite weapon was the MAC-10 machine gun, but he was also partial to grenades. By the mid ’80s, this behavior meant Stephens was wanted in several countries. The problem was grabbing him from his wilderness hideout in the San Bernardino hills. Two SWAT teams had tried and come back empty-handed.
To hear Queen tell it, the thorniest problem wasn’t terrain—he is, after all, an ex spec-ops marine—it was the “adminners.” It turns out Queen’s superiors just wouldn’t let him go in.
Accordingly, Queen spends the first 175 pages fighting the system, filling out paperwork and jumping in on other cases. The stories of these other adventures are fascinating and well-told, creating a vivid picture of the risks in undercover work. In one chapter, Queen recalls infiltrating a gang of racist bikers whose idea of fun was feeding kittens to their pit bulls.
Another case involves a potential terrorist caught with several IEDS (improvised explosive devices) in his trailer park home. In a chilling reminder of how poorly federal agencies cooperate, Queen writes that the FBI office hung up when he called for support.
It must take a certain personality to navigate both danger on the streets and an obtuse hierarchy at the office. Queen eventually make an end-run around this friction through undercover work, a life he described in his well-selling 2004 debut, Under and Alone, which tells of infiltrating a biker gang under the weirdly pornogenic name of Billy St. John.
Still, we see why Queen might rub his superiors the wrong way. A self-admitted adrenaline junky, he woke at 3 or 4 a.m. in those days, hit the gym before work and tooled around town in his Mustang “G-Ride.”
Eventually, persistence paid off—at work, at least. When the green light came, Queen already had a roster of cops and ATF officers lined up to go into the hills after the grower/gunman. Before that happens, Queen has a few close calls—both times tangled in the checks and balances of law enforcement teams crossing paths. In one instance, he is closing in on Stephens on foot when a cop mistakes him for Stephens. Game over.
On another occasion, Queen gets a tip Stephens has gone home to visit his parents (like Thoreau, all mountain men need their mothers). Queen drives so fast getting there he is pulled over twice by patrolmen.
In the book, it’s an exciting moment—a lawman gunning in and out of traffic to beat a criminal home. But imagine being one of those L.A. freeway drivers, sitting in traffic while some yahoo in a Red Mustang blasts by at triple-digit speed. Then the title of this gripping, enlightening book takes on an entirely different meaning.