90 Church: Inside America’s Notorious First Narcotics Squad by Agent Dean Unkefer tells the true tale of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, the first federal organization tasked with stopping the distribution of illegal drugs in the United States, during the 1960s (available June 2, 2015).
Agent Unkefer was a young optimistic kid from Ohio hoping to land his dream job at the FBI in New York City; his personal creed mimicked the Superman TV show of the time, “truth, justice, and the American way.” Unfortunately, life had other plans for Agent Unkefer, and he instead found himself as a rookie working for the Federal Bureau of Narcotics located at 90 Church. The bureau was a gritty group of agents who would do anything necessary to fight against the major drug families of the time, sometimes committing acts similar to the drug lords they wished to stop.
Of course, when Agent Unkefer arrives at 90 Church, he is still a kid from Ohio and is mostly ignored by the other agents. This quickly changes as he attempts to prove himself and lands a position as an undercover agent buying heroin and infiltrating different drug families in New York City. From this point on, Agent Unkefer’s life radically changes and the lines between truth, justice, lies, and deceit became increasingly more blurred.
Then I got on the subway to face my fate. I rode with everyday, honest people living a dull, meaningless life and I envied every wretched one of them. I thought about my disastrous, comical first day at 90 Church and my silly Superman creed “to fight for truth, justice and the American way.” I certainly knew what it was to fight for truth and justice, but what was the American way?
His tale is dotted with a bizarre cast of characters who are quite literally stranger than fiction. With a variety of sub-plots and the actions of the other agents at the bureau, the novel reads like a mafia- and drug-ridden version of In the Garden of Good and Evil, but with a more literal look into the bounds of human morality. I enjoyed the truthfulness of the novel, in that none of the characters can be seen as fully good, and many of the actions taken by the agents can be seen as necessary evils for the greater good. It was also interesting to see the change in Agent Unkefer from his naïve younger self to a hardened senior agent with a more realistic, albeit depressing, outlook on the world as a whole. The methods of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics he joined are best summarized by a major mafia leader speaking about the bureau over wiretap:
The police, they’ll steal a hot stove, don’t worry about them; just give them a little something. The FBI, the FBI are kids. They go home at five o’clock. They have nice suits, but they don’t know what they’re doing. You only have one thing to worry about: 90 Church. They are evil. They will fuck your wife. They will steal your mistress. They will take your money. They will lie in court. You never know who they are, but worse, you never know who they’ve got. If they get you, they will turn you into a rat. If they want you dead, they won’t kill you; they’ll make your best friend do it. They have no soul. Their slaves are everywhere, fucking and ratting on people. The agents of 90 Church are the most dangerous, evil people on the face of the earth.
Overall, 90 Church is a fascinating and harrowing tale of one man’s journey for justice and the concessions he had to make to obtain it. Agent Unkefer’s story is an incredible larger-than-life exposé of the true cost of justice, and just how far some are willing to go to obtain it.
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EJ Tremols is a freelance blogger and true crime enthusiast living in New York City.