Saturday, April 12, 2014

A Convenience Store for Professional Criminals

“The weather here is gorgeous. It's mild and feels like it's in the eighties. The hot dog vendors got confused because of the weather and thought it was spring, so they accidentally changed the hot dog water in their carts.”
--David Letterman

The little silver cart with the white and beige umbrella that sat in the parking strip at Alum Rock and Foss avenues may have looked like a garden variety food stand but looks can be deceiving.

Lethally deceiving.

Until Sept. 2, 2011, the innocent-looking cart alongside the Valero gas station was actually a sort of convenience store for criminals.

A Dairy Mart for dirtbags, so to speak. A veritable 7-Eleven for shitbirds.

If you needed Schedule "A" drugs, you could hit the stand up for blue crystal in large quantities. The cart jockeys would hook you up with a pound of the stuff, enough to wire your eyeballs to the max but still leave you some to peddle to the kids at James Lick High less than a mile away.

You say you want to withdraw a little walking around money from the till of the local 7-Eleven but you forgot to stock up on the ammo you need to get the job done? No sweat: With just a couple hours lead time, the cats behind the food cart's steam table could set you up with 2,000 high-grade rounds and five magazines to contain them.

Got guns? If not, you're covered, homes: your friendly food stand vatos could front you revolvers, automatic pistols, sawed off shotguns -- everything right up to a full rock 'n' roll AK-47, a handful of clips and enough shells to pop a cap in every one-timer wearing a badge in Santa Clara County.

A fully automatic AK-47 like one of these was available through the hot dog stand in San Jose less than a mile from a city high school. Federal gun experts test fired the weapon after they bought it and found it was a true "street sweeper" that would empty a magazine with a single pull of the trigger. 

When undercover cops posing as criminals bought the machine gun, the food  stand's proprietors tossed in a Ruger magnum six-shooter like this for a few bucks more. Such a bargain!

Hell, if you worked up un poco apetito while you were shopping for illicit merchandise, the two carneros who ran the wagon could even provide you with a fully-loaded perro caliente, complete with chips and a cold can of soda to wash it all down.

Dig it: a hot dog stand that actually sold dogs -- along with virtually all the tools of the criminal's trade.

Sure the dogs might be made out of horsemeat and contain more fat that a chunk of cheap chorizo, but at least they were filling; Consider them a convenience for customers, sort of like eating the rubbery meatballs at Ikea after you've wandered around for an hour or two trying to locate the bathroom.

This wasn't some cheap-jack set up, either: no drugs stepped on so many times they looked like a welcome mat at a Nevada whorehouse; no nickel-plated Saturday Night Specials more likely to blow away your fingertips than the manager between you and the money on the other side of your neighborhood  mom-and-pop's check-out counter.

No sir: this was the real deal, the genuine article. The cart moved methamphetamine that assayed out at 73 percent pure; that's primo toot, my friend. What's more, it dealt 17 firearms in only four and a half months -- and those were just the guns it sold to undercover cops! 

God only knows how many more it put into circulation when the 5-Oh was looking the other way.

As Ginzo the grifter once said: "They'd sell you everything you needed  but a piece of ass."

These days the food stand is still sitting in the Valero parking strip with an ice chest full of cold ones on the ground alongside, surrounded by locals with a junk food Jones. But the cart's lucrative sideline arming the underworld and supplying those damned blue-collar tweakers with Tina are through.

As it turns out, the food stand was the target of an undercover investigation by the San Jose police and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

The probe went on for nearly five months. On Sept. 2, 2011, during the second of two crystal meth buys engineered by undercover cops and the feds, the men behind the underworld convenience store were collared like a pair of gimps at a BDSM play party.

That was then; this is now. Last week, the saga of the crime cart was scheduled to come to a partial close when one of the two proprietors, Guillermo Gonzalez  Castillo, 23, was up for sentencing in U.S. District Court in San Jose.

It isn't clear from court records what happened at his April 7 sentencing. The last document in the case was filed on April 4, and U.S. District Court Judge Edward Davila placed the record under a court-ordered seal that makes it unavailable to the public.

What we do know is that Castillo, who goes by the street name "Gallo" (Rooster), has been cooling his heels in jail since his arrest back in 2011. He agreed to plead guilty to thirteen separate violations of the federal criminal code last Sept. 16. 

Those counts included dealing in firearms without a federal license, sneaking back into the U.S. after being deported, selling undercover officers illegal AK-47 assault rifles, being an illegal alien in possession of firearms, possession of a Ruger Mini-14, a 9-millimeter Marlin Model 9 rifle, a Simonov Semiautomatic carbine, a second AK-47, a sawed-off Remington twelve gauge and selling methamphetamine.

And don't let the NRA jerk you around: these weren't guns for repelling burglars, protecting yourself from muggers or resisting the U.S. government when it comes to take you away in chains. With only a couple of exceptions, these were military grade weapons -- the kind being used to kill and cripple American G.I.s in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.

"Gallo" and his crime partner, 58-year-old Jose Gilberto Ortiz, an ex-con who is known on the street as "Chepe," were indicted by a federal grand jury on Oct. 12, 2011. 

Prosecutors identified Ortiz as the man who actually owned and ran the hot dog stand and acted as a contact and intermediary for Castillo. 

The grand jury said Ortiz had violated the federal criminal code a total of eleven times. Specifically he was charged with: engaging in gun sales without a license; being an ex-con in possession of firearms; possession of an unregistered .357-magnum Smith and Wesson revolver; a 5.56-millimeter Romarm SAR 3 rifle that resembles an AK-47; an A.A. Arms, Inc. 9-millimeter semiautomatic pistol; a Norinco 9-millimeter knock-off of the Russian Tokarev military automatic; and a Mauser 9-millimeter, a German handgun that looks like a Luger.

"Chepe" Ortiz was an ex-con barred from legally owning firearms, but that didn't keep him from possessing a Romarm 5.56-millimeter AK knock off like the two at the top of this illustration, a Chinese-made Tokarev copy like the one in the middle or a Mauser 9-millimeter like the pistol at the bottom.

Ortiz was originally schedule to stand trial last Aug. 24, but after a court hearing a couple of weeks earlier his trial date was vacated. The court docket for the case does not disclose the status of the criminal charges against Ortiz at the time, and no new trial date has been scheduled to date.

Both men were arrested Sept. 2, 2011, during the second of two transactions in which they allegedly sold crystal methamphetamine to undercover officers at Ortiz' hot dog cart.  Court record said the pinches were the result of a five-month undercover probe.

The charges against Castillo could put him behind bars for 60 years; those pending for Ortiz could result in a 20 year prison sentence.

According to court records, the cart and its unusual merchandise came to the attention of police sometime prior to April 17, 2011. An affidavit sworn by BATF agent Dennis M. Larko said an undercover San Jose police investigator identified only as Flores had learned Ortiz was dealing guns early in the investigation and contacted him by telephone.

"Ortiz told [undercover officer] Flores that he knew someone selling an AK 47 rifle," the affidavit says.  "Ortiz gave . . . Flores the phone number of a person who he referred to as 'Gallo.' UC  Flores contacted 'Gallo' and arranged to purchase the AK 47 with four magazines and 2000 rounds of 7.62 ammunition for $1,400."

It was the first of what would end up being a series of illicit transactions over the next four and a half months. Additional arms buys were made on June 17, June 22, July 8 and 26, 2011, and two months later on Sept. 2. Court records say that during two of those sales, Castillo met with undercover investigators near a house on 343 West Court where the guns apparently were being stored while awaiting a buyer. He used a baby stroller to transport the weapons from his pick-up truck to the buyers' car for sale.

343 West Court, San Jose, California.

In addition to guns, methamphetamine was purchased from the food cart duo during the undercover investigation.

It is comforting to know that Castillo, a scoff-law who clearly was not slowed down by his prior deportation, is facing a long prison sentence, but it is troubling that  the charges against Ortiz have gone nowhere. After all, court records indicate that he owned the food cart and acted as the broker for the gun and drug deals.

What is even more disturbing is the fact that the really big fish in the case is the person that supplied Castillo and Ortiz with their weapons and drugs -- and he (assuming it is a man and not a woman) is not mentioned in the indictment or any other court documents available to the public.

That means that even though the hot dog cart has stopped arming the underworld, there is still somebody in the San Jose area who is putting guns on the street without difficulty: "Gallo" and "Chepe's" original supplier.  

Let's hope that the ATF and San Jose cops are looking for him, too. Otherwise, we may be hearing about another convenience store for hoodlums in the near future. Only this time the weapons it sells may end up wounding or killing some innocent citizen.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Hilarious Spy, Laugh-out-loud Dialog and Sharp Characterizations Put World War Two Yarn at the Top of the "To Read" Stack

By Jerry Jay Carroll
(Published by the author)
362 pages
ISBN-10: 0989826902
ISBN-13: 978-0989826907
(Also available in Kindle format through Amazon Digital Services, Inc.)

Lowell Brady, Jerry Jay Carroll's fictional whistle-blower in The Great Liars, is the damnedest spy in contemporary literature.

Brady lacks even rudimentary tradecraft, has no particular expertise with weapons, and operates under a cover that is anything but glamorous, passing himself off as a southern "hog grower." In fact, Brady resembles James Bond, the gold standard for fictional undercover operatives, only in his overactive libido and seemingly insatiable desire for fine wine, four-star dining and expensive clothes.

All of which is to say he is a splendid antidote to the Jack Ryans, Jack Bauers and Jason Bournes that currently clog spy fiction, a trio of supermen who always manage to stay mentally at least one step ahead of their enemies, can knock an ant's eye out with a nine millimeter from 100 feet and know every type of martial art practiced in the mysterious East.

If you are looking for a protagonist who tries to avoid danger (or even hard work), constantly pursues his own self-interest and still makes out like a bandit, Brady's your huckleberry: in the entire 362-page yarn former San Francisco Chronicle reporter Carroll has written about Brady and his misadventures immediately before, during and after World War Two, the only time Brady gets into trouble is when he succumbs to a momentary urge to do the right thing.

Author and former San Francisco Chronicle reporter Jerry Jay Carroll

It is just such an altruistic error that makes him a target of the White House, the Central Intelligence Agency and the FBI.

Here's the set-up: Brady is a spoiled only child who oils his way through life on personal charm and a deft wit. He uses his family connection to a powerful U.S. Senator to win appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy and, despite his mediocre performance at that institution, he gloms an assignment to the White House after graduation and becomes a pipeline for intelligence between Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill.

From this vantage point he is privy to some of the most closely guarded secrets of World War Two, and shortly before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor he learns that the U.S. has broken the Japanese diplomatic codes and is reading messages that presage the attack on the Army aircraft and U.S. Navy vessels that are there.

The attack will give the U.S. the excuse it needs to enter World War Two, just as Roosevelt wishes. The president has been manipulating the fleet to put dozens of ships and thousands of men at risk solely for this purpose -- to inject the country into the conflict before England and Russia are defeated.

Senior officers who have ferreted out Roosevelt's plan persuade Brady to warn the admiral in charge of the Pacific fleet that the attack is coming. He reluctantly agrees, but the Japanese attack wipes out most of the fleet despite his warning. The U.S. is able to enter the war as Roosevelt planned, but the moves taken by the fleet prior to the attack make it clear that somebody in Roosevelt's inner circle has blown the whistle. The White House quickly settles on Brady as the backstabber responsible.

Afraid to have Brady eliminated outright for fear his death might give J. Edgar Hoover material to blackmail the White House, Roosevelt and his aides have the captain dispatched to the Pacific where they hope the Japanese will do the job for them. Brady survives, however, and winds up fleeing agents of the CIA and the FBI after the war.

To find out how everything sorts out, you will simply have to read the book. Don't worry: you will enjoy yourself thoroughly.

Carroll unfolds Brady's story by shifting the novel's point of view back and forth from the first-person recollections of the protagonist, a patient enrolled in a veterans' medical facility under the pseudonym Kermit Crockett, to those of Harriet Gallatin, a researcher from the Smithsonian Institution who is interviewing him as part of an oral history project.  Later in the narrative, he kicks the plot along by including confidential memoranda commenting on the action from Hoover to Clyde Tolson, his paramour and top deputy.

To a large degree, the plot follows fact in Carroll's book. The U.S. did break the Japanese codes and had advance notice that ships were being deployed for a massive attack against the U.S. And there is no question that information was withheld from the fleet units at Pearl; the only debate is whether this occurred deliberately or through ineptitude. The evidence, best summarized in Day of Deceit by Robert Stinnett, suggests it was deliberate.

But whether the White House conspired to lure the Japanese into sinking of much of the U.S. fleet and killing more than 2,000 people is really secondary in Carroll's book; the real subject of the novel is Lowell Brady, one of the most memorable protagonists in recent memory.

Carroll grabs the reader from the first paragraph when he has Brady tell Harriet, "What I told you about not knowing Franklin or any of the other big shots back then was a crock. I knew him, but not well -- a mile from it. I don't think people even close to him knew the man, not even Eleanor."

This immediately identifies Brady as an eyewitness to important events in U.S. history and also has the effect of forcing readers to engage with Brady's story by forcing them to fill in the blanks -- namely that the Franklin and Eleanor whose names are being dropped are the Roosevelts, critical figures in Twentieth Century America.

What follows is a wild ride in which Brady is a veritable Leonard Zelig, who not only spends time with the Roosevelts and Winston Churchill, but also Harry Hopkins, Wallis Simpson, Charlie Chaplin, Lord Mountbatten, Dylan Thomas, Joseph Stalin, Clare Booth Luce, Douglas MacArthur and many more.

It doesn't hurt that the reader spends most of the book smirking at Brady and the jams he finds himself in; The Great Liars is filled with hilarious dialogue that makes most of it flat-out hysterical.

There are generally two ways to write a funny thriller: have the characters find themselves in humorous situations or have the characters say witty things. Carl Hiaasen (Tourist Season, Bad Monkey, Skinny Dip) generally uses the first, putting his characters in the middle of events so ludicrous that the reader can't help but guffaw. Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep, Farewell My Lovely, The Lady in the Lake) uses the second, filling his detective Philip Marlowe's mouth with wisecracks and witticisms, often during tense moments in his plots.

While Carroll exploits the former he tends toward the latter. Thus, when Brady tells his young interrogator of an assignation he had with Luce, the playwright and politician whose husband, Henry, was the founder of Time Magazine, Carroll writes:

"She was a woman of 'robust appetites,' she said over a cocktail in the hotel lounge. Fifteen minutes later she was proving it. I never saw a woman get out of her clothes so fast."

"'A brainless fuck; just what I needed,' she said afterward....'I was desperate enough to pick up a stevedore at the loading docks.'"

The novel is liberally strewn with these little pearls. Of a steersman aboard a Naval vessel Brady says: "If dumb was dirt, he'd cover an acre." On transferring to a Navy base in Rhode Island, he says "We arrived back at Newport after the bars closed. It was so quiet the crack of billy clubs on heads carried across the water." Of his own courage during combat, he comments "When bullets fly, give me a job shuffling papers behind the lines and you have a friend for life."

Similar bon mots reward the reader on almost every page, and their quality remains consistently high. For example, toward the end of the book, Brady describes the Marines who were assigned to take and hold Guadalcanal thusly:

"Rough as tree bark, those men. They had brawled with soldiers and sailors in bars from Manila to Peking. They preferred hair tonic to post-exchange beer and could live on goat jerky. But they were crack shots with rifles and pistols and had expert badges for machine guns, grenades,         mortars and bayonets and just about every other weapon you could name. You didn't want to mess with those ol' boys."

The frequent laugh lines will leave readers wearing silly grins that will last for hours -- and don't be surprised if you find yourself trying to work them into your conversations with others.

Despite the book being advertised as a thriller of sorts ("Lt. Lowell Brady knew the government's secret. So he had to die," its jacket says, ominously), there are only a few moments of actual suspense scattered throughout its 362 pages. But this is one of those novels in which thrills are really of negligible importance. The laughs and sharp characterizations that The Great Liars contains more than make up for any nail biting moments it skips, and the humor, alone, is well worth the price of admission.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Under Attack? Send in the Calvary -- Martin Calvary, that is. .

Annihilation Myths
By Tim Stevens
File Size: 1249 KB
Print Length: 278 pages
Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.

Tim Stevens' reluctant British assassin, Martin Calvary, is back in Annihilation Myths, Stevens' most recent thriller. This time, however, Calvary is not working for the Chapel, the agency that employed him in his first outing. 

At least, he doesn't think he is. Honestly, there are so many double identities and triple agents in this novel, there must have been times when Stevens himself wasn't sure!

Tim Stevens: his library of thrillers expands constantly.

In any event, this book finds Calvary on the run from his old outfit, sporting a new identity, a new country and a new challenge: ferreting out the deadly scheme of a political leader who plots to throw La Belle France into turmoil,.

In his first outing, The Severance Kill, Calvary was dispatched to the Czech Republic to eliminate Sir Ivor Gaines, a double agent who supposedly was planning to sell a list of British spies to the Russians.

It was supposed to be his last job, after which he would be free to leave the Chapel and walk the earth a free man. But it turned out that Calvary's boss had lied to him. Gaines planned no treachery at all, and Calgary ended up being forced to rescue him from a vicious group of Czech gangsters who took him hostage.

At the same time, the Russian secret police were trying to find and kill Gaines for their own reasons, forcing Calvary into a series of fistfights and gun battles on the streets of Prague with two different groups of heavily armed thugs.

Annihilation Myths is set nine months later. Calvary is in France, hiding from his former employers and certain he is the target of a Chapel contract for disobeying his masters in the first book. 

When he encounters Harper, a down-and-out Army chum who is working as an unofficial private eye, Calvary is initially suspicious. Harper has been hired to find Marie Le Clerc, a young woman who went missing after joining a sinister French patriotic organization, Soleil Levant. The organization is headed by Didier-Luc Durand, a charismatic leader who has his own dark plan for his native country.

Calvary initially refuses, infuriating Harper by offering him money. They part on bad terms but Calvary rethinks his reluctance and goes looking for his former military pal. When he finds him, Harper is dead, tortured to death in a grisly fashion. Wracked with guilt, Calvary decides to pick up the girl's trail, and ends up infiltrating Soleil Levant to find out what has happened to her.

To reveal any more of the plot would expose the key secrets Calvary must unveil. Suffice to say that in the fashion we have come to expect from a Stevens thriller, the action is fast-paced and the violence nearly non-stop. Some of the people who originally seem to be his enemies turn out to be allies, while some he likes turn out to be no-goodniks. One of the challenges facing Calvary -- and the book's readers -- is figuring out which is which.

All but one of the characters who appear in the novel are carefully drawn individuals whose personalities are fully realized. The main villain, while clearly a monomaniac, is much more than just a cardboard cutout, and his motivation is quite credible. He is surrounded by thugs who are dreadfully rotten and pose a constant danger to our intrepid assassin.

Unfortunately, the one major character who is something of a cipher plays a key part in the story.

The novel includes some truly unique bits -- plot twists that I certainly didn't see coming. For example, Calvary is forced to improvise an explanation for injuries he has received at one point during the novel. He comes up with a believable one by deliberately throwing himself in front of a moving car, which not only excuses his wounds, but actually makes them worse.

That Martin Calvary is one tough guy!

Annihilation Myths has a plot that is more devious and opaque than that of Severance Kill. Throughout the book significant characters turn out to be something other than they seem and a good part of the suspense is generated by the fact that Calvary is never certain which of them are good guys and which are bad.

For the reader, trying to dope out the heroes and villains is half the fun of the novel. The remainder comes from watching how Calvary works to prevent the conspirators from launching a devastating attack on France -- and wondering whether he will stop them or die trying.

Annihilation Myths meets the high standards Stevens has set in his earlier novels.  It is a first-rate thriller and a worthy addition to the other volumes in his rapidly expanding espionage library.

Annihilation Myths is for sale through Amazon, as well as the following dealers: