Takedown: A Small-Town Cop's Battle Against the Hells Angels and the Nation's Biggest Drug Gang by Jeff Buck, with Jon Land and Lindsay Preston, is the harrowing account of one cop's work to uncover a complex chain linking the Hells Angels biker gang to the Russian Mafia in a plot to use Native American tribal land to smuggle billions of dollars of drugs (Available March 8, 2016).
Jeff Buck thought he'd seen it all. Twenty years working undercover in the netherworld of drugs had left him burned out and grateful to assume the quiet job of police chief in the small town of Reminderville, Ohio. That is, until a simple domestic assault case turns out to have links to the murder of a drug runner in upstate New York and a syndicate smuggling billions of dollars in drugs across the U.S.-Canada border.
As Buck reluctantly plunges back into his old world of death and deceit, he uncovers a complex chain linking the Hells Angels to the Russian Mafia in a plot to use Native American tribal land to smuggle their deadly wares into the United States. From grow houses set ablaze in Quebec to the insular St. Regis Mohawk Indian Reservation, from board rooms and biker wars to the frozen rivers that serve as private turnpikes for the drug gangs, Buck opposes a serpentine criminal enterprise that has every reason to want to end his crusade in violence and bloodshed.
Ultimately, his efforts lead to an unprecedented slew of indictments on both sides of the border and prison terms for even the kingpins, toppling an empire once deemed invincible. Takedown spans the period of December 2007 to June 2009.
Youngstown, Ohio; 1995
Right around the time that Hells Angels bomb killed Daniel Desrochers, a single incident made me wonder if my time as an undercover drug officer was coming to an end. Incidents like this were what led me to give up the life I loved to spend the rest of it free of the kind of criminals who had left an eleven-year-old boy to die in a hospital bed four days after his brain was pierced by shrapnel.
I’d been working undercover for more than a decade already in 1995, an eternity in a world of deception, betrayal, loneliness, and constant danger. This particular case started with a guy named Mitchell. Mitchell was a runner that the Geauga County, Ohio, drug task force (DTF) had been watching for a year. They knew he was an underling for Terry Kincade, one of the most powerful drug guys in the entire Midwest. They knew that Kincade was impossible to find, let alone touch. Mitchell was his mope and a bad one at that, picked up by a simple beat cop for doing sixty-five in a forty-miles-per-hour zone. What idiot speeds when he’s carrying ten ounces of marijuana? It didn’t take long for me to get wind that Mitchell had been picked up. This was the task force’s chance to finally get to Terry Kincade, one of our primary targets. But things had to happen fast. I had to convince Mitchell to become an informant before Kincade got word that Mitchell was late for wherever he’d been headed.
Mitchell, pathetic mope that he was, was shaking and near tears when I arrived. He was so relieved I put freedom on the table as an option that he’d have turned in his own mother to avoid a stretch behind bars. He agreed to become an informant and get me into Kincade’s inner circle and, as a result, was back on the street an hour later to continue his run. We tagged the drugs he’d been carrying into evidence, then provided him with the money he needed to continue his run and maintain his credibility with Kincade. Six months later, with Mitchell’s help, I’d immersed myself in Kincade’s criminal organization under the undercover alias I went by, Jimmy Morgan.
That’s where the patience kicked in. Most ordinary narcs would’ve had Mitchell lead them to Kincade, set up some sort of deal, and pop him immediately. Not me. I wanted to build a case first. I was more a strategist than a cowboy and played a case the way a skilled gambler played poker. It was about not grabbing a guy like Kincade until you had everything you could possibly get on him. If you want to take down a drug dealer and make it hurt, you take his drugs, his money, his house, and his toys. If you don’t get everything, the dealer will get out of jail and open up shop again. Business as usual. My philosophy when it came to a drug bust was simple: If it floats, flies, or drives we seize it. Pulling this off, though, required time and research, as well as detailed search-and-seizure warrants. I was willing to do whatever it took to make the strongest possible case, the best way to ensure my climb up this particular drug-dealing food chain, toppling links as I went. Patience.
When I was finally ready to take down Kincade, I had agents at all of Kincade’s banks, and tow trucks ready to take his speedboat, Porsche, Lexus, Mercedes, two Jet Skis, three snowmobiles, turboprop plane, and bulldozer. I could never figure out why he had a bulldozer, but what the hell, I’d take that too. Hit the bastard everywhere to make it hurt as much as possible.
Everyone was in place for the final takedown. Detective Joe Miles from Reminderville was taking charge of the group of officers waiting for my command. I’d spent my undercover years as Jimmy Morgan and became Jimmy again that day, picking up three kilos of cocaine. Those three kilos would cost $75,000, and in a well-organized sting I, in the guise of Jimmy, would present Kincade with a suitcase packed with that amount in hundred-dollar bills. Unfortunately, the task force couldn’t pull together all the cash, so my suitcase was $30,000 short. Thirty thousand dollars! That left no room for error. The officers sitting outside couldn’t afford to waste any time moving on my position when I yelled out the signal phrase, “You ready to count?”
Mitchell and I pulled up to Terry Kincade’s house, where Kincade and his three drug soldiers were waiting for us inside the barn out back. I got out of the car and pulled out the suitcase short thirty grand in cash, helping to make Mitchell even more of a wreck.
Guys like Kincade could smell a setup plain as skunk odor. I needed Mitchell to pull it together and fast.
“You’re going to get us both killed!” I told him. “Stay cool. We’ll be out of there before you can blink an eye.”
Mitchell just looked at me.
“I’ve kept you safe and out of jail so far, haven’t I? Do you trust me?… Come on.”
Mitchell finally nodded. He was sweating badly and I was glad he’d at least chosen a dark shirt to better disguise it.
“We’re going in,” I whispered into the hidden microphone that was wired to the police van out front. “Stand by. Shouldn’t be more than five minutes.”
I walked into the barn just behind Mitchell. Kincade was rubbing the head of his thoroughbred racehorse. The kindness he was showing to his horse made him seem human, almost. Kincade had been running drugs for a good twenty years. His trips to Miami to find the goods had wrinkled and cratered his face thanks to too much sun. The dark hairs that hadn’t fallen out of his head were lacquered to his scalp. A chewed cigar hung from his dry thin lips. His three soldiers, clearly armed, stood back in the shadows like statues, not radiating any particular menace for now.
“How ya doing, Jimmy?” Kincade asked.
“I’m good. You?” I replied.
“Just fine. You wanna see the product?”
“Sure do,” I said, walking toward a fold-out card table set up in the middle of the barn under the watchful eye of Kincade’s soldiers.
Kincade had already begun pulling out the tightly packed bricks of white powder and laying them out for my inspection. I picked up a few, pretending to check the weight.
“Looks good,” I said, following up with the takedown signal. “You ready to count?”
My prosecutor, who’d accompanied us on the bust, was driving the takedown van and I waited for the welcome sound of the tires of the van and the other squad vehicles crunching gravel en route to the barn. The expected sixty seconds passed, but it didn’t come.
What the fuck was going on?
I felt my stomach drop. Drug dealers don’t like to chat and hang out. I’d stall as best I could, but before too much longer I was going to have to open that suitcase, at which point Kincade would know something was amiss as soon as he realized I was short.
“That my money?” Kincade asked, pointing to the suitcase.
But I moved his gaze away from the case to the thoroughbred instead. “Hey, that’s a nice-looking horse you have over there.”
“He’s a good moneymaker. Hand me the suitcase.”
There was no way I could stall any further. The officers outside were going to have to figure out something.
“You ready to count?” I asked him, uttering the takedown signal again.
I still couldn’t hear cars approaching. Shit! And not far away from me, Mitchell began sucking in big gulps of air. The man looked like he was about to cry.
“What’s the horse’s name?” I asked, still in distraction mode. “So I can bet on him sometime.”
“Miami Glory,” Kincade said.
“I like that.”
“Could you please just hand me the suitcase?”
“Oh, you’re ready to count,” I said, giving the takedown signal a third time, as I handed him the case.
“Didn’t I just say that?”
I felt my heart thudding in my chest, loud enough, I thought, for Kincade to maybe hear. I was going to have to think of something and fast. I started slowly backing up toward the barn door. My only option was to run. I was unarmed; I always went in unarmed on an undercover buy. Believe it or not, guns make big drug dealers nervous. So now here I was unarmed and trapped in a barn with a drug dealer and his three bodyguards.
As Kincade unzipped the suitcase, my mind raced and I calculated my chances of making it out the door before the bodyguards drew their guns.
“What the fuck is this?” Kincade said, looking up from the bag.
Before I could offer some lame explanation, the door burst open and tossed me across the length of the dirt floor, where I found myself lying at Kincade’s feet.
“Police!” a voice shouted. “Police! Police!”
And my officers surged in wielding the most-welcome guns I’d ever seen in my life. They arrested everyone, including me in my guise of Jimmy Morgan, my heart still pounding as the cuffs were slapped on.
Turned out my prosecutor was slowed by a school bus when he approached the scene, accounting for the delay. Meanwhile, anyone listening to the police band for a five-hundred-mile radius heard the angered plea of the driver of my squad’s lead vehicle behind the van:
“Get around the fucking school bus and get up there!”
Reminderville, Ohio; 1995
A week later, while Terry Kincade was out on bail awaiting trial, the number I kept for “Jimmy Morgan” rang. It was Kincade.
“Jimmy, I got a shipment of good shit if you want it,” he said.
“Huh? After what happened?”
“It’s good shit. Forget that you were short last time. We’re cool.”
“Cool with me. Where should we meet?” I laughed.
The asshole was out on bail and already back in business. But I greeted this as his opportunity to turn Kincade from a guy who would just do hard time to a guy who could work for me as an informant. Sure enough, a week later when the deal went down, Kincade rolled over to reduce his sentence, helping me take down the kingpin in his organization, which proved enough to keep me in the game for yet another decade.
That’s the thing about being undercover. It becomes an addiction. But nothing lasts forever, and my forever moment came in Cleveland in 2004. The Trumbull County drug task force and I had been after a known dealer, an inner-city man who’d climbed the food chain at a surprisingly rapid pace. At only twenty-two, Curtis Jones was moving mass volumes of anything you could shoot, snort, or smoke. He was the go-to guy for true street junkies, for whom drugs were no less vital than breathing.
This particular task force had worked a sting on Jones for six months before they were finally ready to nail him. I was already worn out, tired of “the Life” by this time. I’d just wrapped up a case where I had been undercover for seven years. Seven long years mostly away from my family, surrounded by drugs in a world utterly devoid of honor and dominated by paranoia and double crosses. I’d decided that the Curtis Jones case was going to be my last, my swan song.
Interestingly enough, and probably contrary to what most would think, my wife never minded me working narcotics; in fact, she preferred it. She was never afraid of me getting hurt on the job because, in her words, I did the undercover life “as easy as I breathed.” She worried plenty more about me in my job as chief of police later on than working undercover. I’m a team player and a big part of being a team player is keeping everyone happy, from the officers under me to the town councilmen, the prosecutors, the judges, the mayor—everyone. And Kathi worries that the stress of trying to manage that will kill me a long time before a bullet will.
While the Trumbull County DTF was setting up the sting, I told them I’d hang back and handle the wire, that I had no intentions of chasing or shooting anyone that night. They agreed, content with having me there and grateful for my help in getting them as far as I had.
So I parked my car behind the building where the bust was going to go down, no door or exit anywhere in sight, meaning no way anyone was escaping from the five-story apartment complex.
I sat in my car with the tape running. Everything was going as planned. The informant was in place, Curtis Jones was there, and the drug task force was ready to move in. I listened as the DTF agents entered the apartment, everything going just as planned until a piercing scream came over the wire.
“Shit! The guy jumped!” I heard one of my guys yell next.
My eyes crawled up the bricks to the fifth-floor apartment’s window just as Curtis Jones took a flying leap into the night. It was a sight to behold, one I would never forget, since this guy floated toward the ground like goddamn Batman. He’d grabbed hold of the floor-length curtains and now appeared to be soaring through the sky wearing a cape, albeit plaid instead of black.
“I’m going to have to fucking chase this guy?” I muttered to myself, annoyed by the bizarre turnabout my insistence on running the wire had brought on.
Curtis Jones ran out of curtains three stories above the pavement and plummeted the rest of the way, his body crashing to the ground.
“Maybe not,” I said, relieved as I reported in to my men over the radio. “Guy’s gotta be toast. Just come and hook him up.”
But as I was getting ready to pull my car around to the front of the building, Curtis somehow climbed to his feet.
“You gotta be fucking kidding,” I muttered to myself, before returning to the radio. “This jackass is standing up, you hear me? Five-story fall and he’s on his feet!”
The other officers would be there in no time and I figured this guy wasn’t in any shape to get anywhere fast. I was wrong again. Jones had somehow shaken off his five-story fall and had begun running. So maybe he was Batman; either way, I had to run after him now, exactly what I’d been trying to avoid. I lit out in pursuit, following Curtis over one fence and two hedges and down three blocks, my lungs burning the whole way, before I finally tackled him to the ground.
“You’re under arrest, asshole! You’re finished!”
And so was I.
Copyright © 2016 Jeff Buck, Jon Land, & Lindsay Preston.
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Jeff Buck spent more than twenty years working as an undercover drug officer involved in some of the biggest drug busts of the past generation. He resides in Ohio.
Jon Land is the USA Today bestselling author of more than thirty novels, including the acclaimed Caitlin Strong series and the co-written nonfiction bestseller, Betrayal.
Lindsay Preston has written numerous nonfiction works for some of the most prominent figures in finance, law, and sports.