This is the third post about my recent run in with the ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives). A few months back, several of my sculptures (and a citizen complaint about them) led the ATF to accuse and later define me as an illegal firearms manufacturer and trafficker. Following a five month investigation, the ATF opted not to charge my for my alleged crimes and instead issued a Cease and Desist.
Perhaps the most interesting outcome was that the Cease and Desist letter had to be issued in person, signed and witnessed. This is the story of that brief encounter.
After my case was transferred from L.A. to the local field office I received a phone call from Special Agent Martinez, the agent in charge. Like every call I received from the Agency, her number came up unlisted on caller ID. The number carried the signature of an unassigned VOIP line (e.g. 00-2, etc.), which I am fairly certain they use for easy recording. This theory was solidified on an earlier call when agent asked, mid-call, to call me right back, then rang me with a 000 number and began a line of questioning I assume he'd recorded. Of course, I spoke to them exclusively on my Skype number for the exact same reason.
To get back to story, agent Martinez suggested we meet at 8:40 am in a lot next to a gas station in a light industrial part of town (seen above). A bit dramatic for sure, but assumed ATF agents spend a lot of time working out of their cars like beat cops. So, we exchanged vehicle descriptions and I showed up at the gas station about 15 min early on the morning in question.
At exactly 8:40 AM the gray Dodge Charger I was expecting rolled into the lot and parked inches from my car (drivers door to drivers door). I sat there for about 90 seconds, with no cues (her windows were pitch black), until deciding she was waiting for me to make a move.
I got out and, as expected, she followed suit moments later. This is where the story gets interesting. Simultaneously a huge guy in plain (read: working in the yard) clothes gets out of a truck across the lot and hustles over to meet us. This guy had been there long before I showed up on the scene, and I had completely missed it. While I'm momentarily stunned by this set-up, Agent Martinez casually introduces herself and Agent Thug and pulls out the paperwork.
I felt owned, and I'm still a bit shocked to have been taken so seriously as to require backup; And not just backup, but backup forced to stake out a gas station at 8:00 AM on a Tuesday. I suppose these were gun charges after all (as ridiculous as that sounds), and in retrospect I think the agency demonstrated excellent planning and protocol. If I'm ever in a similar situation, I plan to bring a little discreet backup of my own. "Hi Agent Martinez, Agent Thug, I'm Chad and over there in that minivan is my wife and child; my neighbor Bob is at the diesel pump filling his dually, and my mother-in-law is on a plane headed back east that should be passing overhead right about now..."
In all seriousness, the agents were very professional and cordial. I signed the letter and a property release claim, and took copies for my records. I left feeling very relieved, but also very aware at how entirely unprepared I was in that situation. I was disarmed by my own trust and the assumptions I'd made about the apparent outcome. Point well taken.