In retrospect, say people in Warroad, Minn., it's not surprising that "Doc" the junk man was actually a professional snitch.
"He left just as suddenly as he came," Jackie Bengtson, owner of Main Street Bar & Grill, said Thursday. "We didn't feel creeped out by him, but he was a shady character."
Doc - the only name he gave most people - breezed into the bar several times a day last summer for a Dewar's and water before returning to his rented secondhand shop, Bengtson said. The balding, 55-ish newcomer opened Doc's Superthrift Store in the former Hardware Hank last May and stayed in business four months.
Outwardly, he bought and sold what local grocer Steve Hagen described as "stuff you would find at a garage sale." But Doc also had a back room, police say, where he peeled bills off of a wad of federal Drug Enforcement Administration cash to buy drugs and guns from townsfolk who allegedly were on the wrong side of the law.
The "buy room" was fitted by police with hidden cameras and microphones wired to a hidden "monitoring site" less than a block away, police said.
"We suspected illegal things were going on over there, but we thought he was the one doing them," Bengtson said. What he actually was doing became clear Tuesday when 63 law-enforcement officers from 10 agencies swarmed the town of 1,700 and arrested 42 people. Eleven more are wanted on warrants.
"Most of them immediately denied that they had done anything," said Warroad Police Chief Robert Cudaback. "Then we showed them the complaints describing what we had on the recordings and their mouths just dropped."
Roseau County Sheriff Jule Hanson said the operation yielded some illegally traded firearms and "a large quantity" of methamphetamine, cocaine, ecstasy, marijuana and prescription narcotics.
Those charged ranged in age from 17 to mid-50s and included a father and his adult daughter and a mother and her adult son, said County Attorney Michelle Moren. Several defendants' children were placed with relatives or in foster care, Moren said.
Traveling `buy' man
Cudaback said that authorities organized the sting with the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) and the Paul Bunyan Gang and Drug Task Force after they became concerned about a rise in drug-related crimes.
Dave Bjerga, head of the BCA's northern Minnesota office, confirmed that the agency arranged to move Doc to Warroad, but he declined to describe the informant's financial arrangement with the agency, saying "we want to keep that close to the vest for now."
Bjerga called him a "law-abiding guy," not the type of informant whose motive is to get himself out of trouble. In 2005, he "made in excess of 200 controlled buys" of drugs and firearms in North Dakota, leading to charges filed or pending against 90 people, according to a complaint filed in one of the Warroad cases.
"The guy is good," Cudaback said. "It's his shady character, his personality, the way he can BS people and get the conversation rolling."
Extraordinary steps were taken to prepare for Tuesday's arrests. Cudaback said he pretended his department was hosting 60 outside officers for a training event.
The full county jail moved its 18 inmates into neighboring county jails and got a state variance to hold 27 temporarily, Moren said, sending 11 others to the nearby Lake of the Woods County jail.
Bjerga said he expects some defendants to claim that the informant entrapped them, enticing them into crime. "To counter that, you show through your documentation that these people were fully aware of what they were doing," Bjerga said. "We're real confident on this one."
`Drugs were a problem'