ATF agents running an undercover storefront in Milwaukee used a brain-damaged man with a low IQ to set up gun and drug deals, paying him in cigarettes, merchandise and money, according to federal documents obtained by the Journal Sentinel.
For more than six months, federal agents relied on Chauncey Wright to promote “Fearless Distributing” by handing out fliers as he rode his bike around town recommending the store to friends, family and strangers, according to federal prosecutors and family members.
Wright, unaware that the store was an undercover operation being run by agents with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, also stocked shelves with shoes, clothing, drug paraphernalia and auto parts, according to his family.
Once authorities shut down the operation, they charged the 28-year-old man with federal gun and drug counts.
“I have never heard of anything so ludicrous in my life,” said Greg Thiele, who spent 30 years working for the Milwaukee Police Department including on undercover stings with federal agents, including those with the ATF. “Something is very wrong here.”
Wright’s IQ measures in the 50s, about half of a normal IQ, according to those familiar with him. Wright’s score is classified as mildly or moderately disabled, depending on the IQ scale used.
At Wright’s sentencing in June, prosecutors will recommend probation, based on his “mental functioning,” according to his plea agreement on file with the court.
Wright has undergone a competency evaluation “due to his low IQ,” according to a Feb. 14 email from then-Assistant U.S. Attorney Francis Schmitz to attorney Doug Bihler who represented James Warren, another defendant in the case.
Schmitz’s email to Bihler indicates prosecutors believe Wright is a vulnerable person. Prosecutors threatened Warren with stiffer penalties for “taking advantage” of Wright, according to the email.
But as the situation unfolded, it was ATF agents who were taking advantage of Wright.
“That’s just hugely inappropriate. It’s no different than using a kid,” said Jim Hoegemeier, executive director of the Arc-Wisconsin Disability Association. “They had to have known after working with him for more than a couple of hours.”
“This is real exploitation,” said Shirin Cabraal, managing attorney for Disability Rights Wisconsin. “It’s morally outrageous.”
Wright’s family said he was eager to be accepted by the undercover officers.
“With him being slow, they knew that and they used him,” said Willie Campbell, Wright’s grandmother. “He was too slow to catch on to what was going on. He was saying, ‘These are my good friends. These are my guys. They are looking out for me.’
“Whatever they told him to do, he would try to keep his job and he would do it.”
The issue of Wright’s mental capacity is another stain on an investigation marked by repeated failures and foul-ups identified by a Journal Sentinel investigation: ATF guns, including a machine gun, were stolen from an agent’s vehicle; agents lost a ballistic shield; the storefront was burglarized of what agents said was nearly $40,000 in merchandise; agents left behind sensitive documents after they shut down the operation; and at least three of the wrong people were charged.
In addition, agents damaged the building and ran up utility bills, then refused to pay the landlord and warned him against pursuing the matter.
Last week, the Journal Sentinel revealed how the agency failed to capitalize on early leads to find its stolen machine gun, instead keeping its storefront going. The automatic rifle remains unrecovered.
Members of both parties in Congress have demanded answers. The ATF has launched an internal investigation. The Department of Justice inspector general is considering an independent examination, saying the Milwaukee operation raises concern about the ATF’s oversight and management.
An ATF spokeswoman declined to comment because its investigation is not complete.