ATF agents have been exploiting mentally disabled people, allowing children to use drugs, teaching criminals new tricks, and even employing female agents to hit on underaged males as part of their storefront sting operations, a new investigative report charges.

Yesterday, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published a damning "Watchdog report" on the ATF's activities, conclusions that they say are based on thousands of pages of court documents, police reports, and interviews with dozens of people who were involved in six different ATF operations.

According to the Journal's findings, the ATF routinely uses storefront sting operations, where they open up undercover storefronts in an effort to ferret out guns and drugs.

The high-tech AV-wired fronts take the shape of one of two forms — as stores that sell items like "hip-hop clothing and shoes," cigarettes, and drug paraphernalia, and as pawn shops with reputations for buying anything.

But to make these storefronts seem more legitimate, the ATF apparently regularly employs children and mentally handicapped people, some of whom are later arrested for their involvement in the stings.

In April, the Journal exposed an ATF sting operation that went sour after they used a brain damaged man named Chaucey Wright to hand out fliers to attract people to one of their fake storefronts. The ATF paid Wright — who had an IQ in the 50's — in cigarettes and cash. They never told him the store was a front, although his girlfriend suspected something wasn't right.

"Everything was wrong about that place," she told the Journal. "I told him, 'It's on a dead-end street. There's no windows. Don't you feel something funny about it?' He said, 'These are my guys.' He really thought they were his friends."

At some point, the undercover agents began asking him to procure cocaine and guns for them, which he did. Once the sting was over, they arrested him on federal drug and gun counts, charges which could land him life in prison.

The Assistant US Attorney on the case told the judge that a doctor's evaluation found Wright to be "mildly mentally retarded."

(That case also some separate, jarring issues; among them, a machine gun and other weapons were stolen from an undercover agent's car and were never found, the fake storefront was burglarized, agents arrested the wrong people, and the ATF severely damaged the building, sticking the landlord with the bill.)

The Journal says agents involved underaged children in their operations.

Agents in several cities opened undercover gun- and drug-buying operations in safe zones near churches and schools, allowed juveniles to come in and play video games and teens to smoke marijuana, and provided alcohol to underage youths. In Portland, attorneys for three teens who were charged said a female agent dressed provocatively, flirted with the boys and encouraged them to bring drugs and weapons to the store to sell.

Operations also appeared to spur the very crimes they were trying to prevent. According to the Journal, agents offered such high prices for guns that criminals bought firearms at other stores, then sold them to the undercover ATF agents for profit. The agents running fake pawnshops also regularly paid for stolen goods, even guns stolen "just hours earlier, several ripped off from police cars."

Once ATF agents bust their suspects, they usually put on a media show before quietly pleading out the defendants. The cases rarely go to court, and so the ATF's practices are largely shielded from public view.

The Journal has an exhaustive list of similar cases — including one where two suspicious teenagers tried to get agents to smoke marijuana with them. Instead, the undercover agents encouraged the teenagers — one of whom was apparently mentally disabled — to get neck tattoos, which even the judge overseeing the case balked at.

"I guess I don't make the connection," Judge Mosman said. "They're concerned that if, among other things, they don't smoke marijuana with this guy that they'll be given up as law enforcement, so they think a way to derail that is to suggest that he get a tattoo?"

The judge ended up ordering the ATF to pay for the tattoo removal.

[image via AP]