Tom Becka: Well, here we are again with another edition of tombecka.com. By the way, you can listen not only on tombecka.com, you can also listen on iTunes. You can listen on YouTube and, now, you can also listen on the TuneIn Radio app.
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Today, we’re talking to a cop. We’re talking to a former cop, not just a former cop, but a former vice cop, a guy that went underground, went undercover and dealt with prostitutes, drug dealers, dealt with gamblers and vice. We get into not only what he experienced after all these years as an undercover cop but also talk a little about basic philosophies.
The libertarian in me sometimes think we spend too much time and energy going after people that are, you know, living what I consider to be more victimless crimes although Mark Langan the officer here does not seem to think that way. He offers his perspective I offer mine. And it’s a interesting discussion here. He has written a book, the book is called “Busting Bad Guys,” and his name is Mark Langan. If you want to check out the book it’s available on Amazon and all the other places. We started off by just talking about what he did and how he got to be the guy that was out there busting bad guys.
Mark Langan: You know I held a wide variety of jobs while I was on the police department. I was an undercover vice cop so I worked prostitution, went undercover and gambling operations, small-town, downtown bookie joints and the big time gamblers. And then, I was actually undercover at the narcotics unit for a number of years buying dope from drug dealers and then end up supervising undercover cops; so wide variety of jobs I had.
Tom: OK now help me through this, you are an undercover cop and you are working a prostitution sting. OK, so you are hitting on the women, right? And how does that work? Do you actually end up having sex? If you were working a big sting could you have sex with them? Or how does that work?
Mark: No we could not have sex with the prostitutes.
Tom: Well what’s the point with the job?
Mark: And my wife is listening to this right now. We did not have sex with the prostitutes. It was a game, a battle of wits between us and the prostitutes because we had to get them to name the sex act. When we were driving around down town we’d pull up to the girls and, we couldn’t just say “Hey, how about a blowjob for 20 bucks?”
We had to get them to either agree to the sex act or the price, one of the two, or else the deal wasn’t good enough for the prosecutor to prosecute, so you know, it was, I got better through experience by doing this with the girls, some were easier to deal with than others. Some were very wary that the guys driving up to them were undercover cops. I write the chapter in the book about meeting “Rush Limbaugh.” That’s a funny story because for a while the girls wanted us to show our privates to prove we weren’t cops, but the undercover cops, including me, didn’t really feel like pulling out our penises to show the girls that we were not undercover cops.
Tom: By the way is that legal, or in other words is that legit? If you showed your, you’re an undercover cop and you showed your penis to them, would that mean that you couldn’t bust them?
Mark: That would mean that, I think you could legally do it, I think as a cop you could legally expose yourself if you wanted to, but it’s kind of an ethical situation. Do cops really want to be exposing themselves to downtown streetwalkers? I didn’t want to be honest with you. So one of the guys had this great idea of buying a dildo and sticking the dildo down our pants at night, when the girls were out, the girls would say let me see it, well the girls wouldn’t know the difference and then they’d make the deal and you’d bust them. Well, somehow the Associated Press found out about this police vice squad dildo.
How they did I have no idea but they did and they ran a story about the innovative tactics the Omaha police were using to snare downtown prostitutes and Rush Limbaugh found out about this. Rush just thought it was the greatest thing in the world, he was talking about us on his national radio show and the Omaha police vice squad are using dildos to catch the girls with.
He just thought it was the greatest thing. Well that was when Rush was doing his “Rush to Excellence” tours. He used to go around the country and he’d have audiences and auditoriums, 10,000 people would show up to watch Rush Limbaugh. We noticed that he was actually going be in Des Moines Iowa. This was probably 1990. Myself and one of the guys drove to the Rush to Excellence show with the dildo in a brown paper sack.
We attached an Omaha police evidence tag to it to make it look more legit, we walk in, and that’s before they even checked bags or purses or anything, so we walked right through the ticket gate and got inside and there was a uniformed police officer standing there. I walked up to him and I said “Hey, my name is Mark Langan, I’m with the Omaha Police Department and can you get word to Rush Limbaugh that we’ve got something that he needs to see from the Omaha police?” The Des Moines cop looked at me like “Well, what are you talking about?”, and I said, “We wanna show him this”, and I show him this dildo, well the cop looked at me like I was frickin’ crazy.
Tom: I can’t imagine why.
Mark: Almost wanted to arrest me right then and there. I said “This is legit.” Tell Rush the Omaha Police Vice Squad dildo is in the building. The guy rolls his eyes, comes back about 10 minutes later. He says, “Come on back, he wants to meet you.” So we got backstage.
Mark Langan: Presented Rush with the Omaha Police Department dildo, affectionately named Little Dave, after a person who will remain nameless for this interview, who was kind of a dick. That’s why we named it Little Dave and showed it to Rush.
Rush just thought that was the greatest thing in the world. He goes, “Can I take it onstage”? I’m like, “Well, God, I guess you can, Rush.” Even Rush Limbaugh, who’s not the most politically correct person in the world, thought about it and says, “I probably better not take this on stage.”
We go back, sit in our seats, just me and the other undercover cop. Two couples in front of us, two young girls sitting next to each other, guys on the outside.
They heard us talking about how we met Rush. The girls turned around in their seats and they go, “How did you meet Rush Limbaugh”? I said, “By showing him this,” and I whipped this dildo out.
Their eyes got to be the size of 50-cent pieces. They turned around. They didn’t look at us the whole time Rush was on stage, but funny story about how we met Rush Limbaugh through showing him a dildo.
Tom: OK, I want to talk more about the actual, being the cop, though, OK? I’ll deal with all the different vices, you know, systematically here, so we’re talking about prostitution. You’re working streetwalkers or were you going for big call girl rings, or both?
Mark: You know, back in the mid-80s when I was really undercover vice, we didn’t have the high-priced call girls here in Omaha because you didn’t have the Internet. The Internet really started the idea of the high-priced call girl, the escort services that would meet you in a hotel room, have sex with you for 200 bucks. Back in the 80s, it was mainly street-walking girls, so that’s what we concentrated on in downtown Omaha.
The Johns would come from all parts of town and it was like a drive-through Burger King window, cars circling the block, especially the good-looking girls, the kind of younger girls that were standing out. Literally 10, 15, 20 cars that would be circling it like piranha coming in for the bait.
Then the girls would end up getting in a car. We’d follow them to their secret location, get out, catch the girl blowing the guy or having sex in the back seat with the guy, and arrest them for those kind of charges.
Sometimes we’d approach them and try to proposition them, get them in the car with us. I was always worried about allegations being made against me and the other officers. You’re in a car, 11 o’clock at night, with a downtown prostitute.
She could make up any kind of allegation she wanted to. We were really careful how we went about trying to get the girls in the car, but our job was to get them off the street. We tried to do as good a job as we could.
Tom: OK. How many were out on the street back then? I mean, Omaha at the time had a big prostitution issue, or didn’t they?
Mark: Oh, hundreds, hundreds of street-walking girls in the downtown area, North Omaha area, Park Avenue, South 24th Street at times. That’s mainly the location where the streetwalkers were.
Guys, them being the Johns from all parts of Omaha, Iowa, the Midwest area. Omaha was a well-known area for street-walking prostitutes, so we had out-of-state plates in downtown Omaha circling the girls.
We’d catch these guys and girls doing all kinds of stuff in the cars, guys going down on the girls. Just imagine how sick that is if you think about it, where these girls have been.
The girls obviously going down on the guys, unprotected intercourse, unprotected anal sex. We caught one guy having anal sex with a prostitute down by the tennis courts at Dewey Park.
Tom: Now this is before AIDS though, wasn’t it?
Mark: Well, you’re talking late 80s or early 90s when we found this, and AIDS was pretty well known back then.
Tom: It was, OK, yeah, so it was.
Mark: We followed a guy and this girl and they got out and walked in back of the tennis courts. We got out real covertly at night, kind of got up on them and saw the guy having anal sex with the girl by the tennis court.
I mean, how stupid is that? No rubber, no condom or anything like that.
Tom: Was there a unifying theme, both with the hookers and with the Johns as far as, when you bust these people? What were the issues here that would make somebody be a hooker or go be a John?
Mark: Well, the vast majority of hookers that we busted were drug addicts and were downtown making money to support their, either crack cocaine habit or methamphetamine habit. We have pimps in Omaha.
Especially in the early 80s, mid-80s, we had 2 or 3 or 4, maybe more, bonafide pimps just right out of the movies, who would drive around downtown in their Lincoln Continentals or their Cadillacs, with their wide-brimmed hats and their gold chains.
They had four or five girls working on the street until two or three o’clock in the morning. These guys were making a ton of money.
In fact, one of them has written a book here in Omaha, Jack Coleman, who is a self-admitted pimp from the 80s. I think it’s called “My Pimp Life” or something like that, based on his life as a pimp here in Omaha. These guys are raking in a lot of money, tax-free money back in the day.
Tom: Before we get to the other vices and everything, what made you want to be a vice cop? What made you want to do this sort of thing?
Mark: I worked uniform patrol, just like all the cops do, loved it. Went into the burglar unit for two years, investigated burglars. Boring, but I developed a lot of skills, interrogation skills, search warrant skills. A chance came open in, what was called at the time, the organized crime, which is a fancy word for the vice squad.
Tim Dunning was a lieutenant, he’s now the Douglas county sheriff. I thought, he was just the greatest thing since sliced bread, very aggressive for a lieutenant. He asked me to come work for him and I was crazy to say no.
So I told him, yep, and we took off from there.
Tom: It was just from wanting to be a cop? It wasn’t necessarily a driving force early on to be in vice.
Mark: While I always wanted to be a cop and never considered myself a vice cop. When kids want to be cops, they want to be like Adam-12, which I still watch by the way on MeTV. I love that show. You want to be a uniform cop and lights and sirens and stuff like that.
But once I got in the detective bureau in the burglary unit, I saw the fun the vice squad guys were having, the challenges the vice squad guys were doing. I thought, I can talk to anybody, I could be an undercover guy, I can talk with the best of them.
So I wanted to give it a shot. Once I went in there 1985, I never left an undercover unit until I retired in 2004. For 19 years, I was either supervisor or an undercover officer on either vice or narcotics.
Tom: You worked with the hookers and that? You never really busted the johns, it was always the girls that got busted?
Mark: No, we would bust the johns, like I talked about earlier, if we could catch the john in the act with the girl. We did that a lot. We called that being ninja’d. We tell the guy, you been ninja’d, because we acted like ninjas.
The covert top-secret ninjas, jumping on cement walls or going over fences to try to catch him in the act. Because the girls knew where to take the johns to, in order to give a blowjob, or do whatever. They knew the very secluded dark alleys or dark parking lots with wide open spaces.
We literally had to crawl on hands and knees at times. Normally the john was in another world anyway, so he wouldn’t have seen us coming. Normally the girls face was in the guys’ laps, so she’s not going to see us coming.
So we had to covertly crawl up on the car, beam our flashlight in real quick, catch him in the sex act, then we had him. We arrested a lot of johns over the years.
I write in the book “Busting Bad Guys,” that several of these johns committed suicide after being caught, because they could not face the shame of going home and telling their wife, they’d been caught with a prostitute. Back in those days, any fine over $100 was put in the “Omaha World Harold” from County Court.
That was a normal fine for soliciting a prostitute. If John Doe from West Omaha got caught by me or anybody, getting a blowjob from a prostitute and got arrested, his name was going to be proud in the Omaha World Harold for soliciting prostitution.
A couple of guys we arrested could not bear that.
Tom: How do you feel about that?
Mark: I felt terrible about that! But I didn’t make the decision for them to go downtown. We always treated them with respect and I always told them, this is not the end of the world. You were getting a blowjob from a prostitute. Don’t let this ruin your life.
Some people have a higher threshold of stress than others, they can handle stress better. I know of at least two guys, that one guy went home and turned the car on in the garage, and another guy shot himself because of getting caught downtown with a downtown prostitute. Sad situations.
Tom: That where I’m a libertarian. For me, it’s legalize it, test the women, make sure they’re healthy and tax it. Regulate it. Because I don’t think that some guy getting a blowjob in his car is worth killing yourself over.
Mark: I agree. But if you think of the social stigma, especially back in the ’80s, the social stigma of seeing your name in the paper. Tom Becka, $100, soliciting prostitution and having your wife see it.
Tom: By the way, I wasn’t in there! That wasn’t me! [jokingly]
Mark: [laughs] Just used you as an example. Neighbors seeing it, coworkers seeing it. That was a tough deal to have your name in the paper for that.
Tom: I know, but again, I guess it was the libertarian in me thinks that that wasn’t worth it, for that sort of a thing. Ruin some guy’s life.
Mark: I don’t think it was worth it, anybody taking their life over, I agree with you.
Tom: How about guys that ruin their marriages or lose their jobs or all of that. Was it worth it for that?
Mark: I will say, that prostitution certainly is not a victimless crime. Very few prostitutes that we ever arrested, weren’t drug addicts, weren’t involved in drug dealing with their pimp or their associates. We had a lot of strong-arm robberies in that area. A lot of girls would pull out knifes and try to rob the johns.
I’m not saying every street walking girl back in the day was anything more than a prostitute, but a lot of them were. There was a lot of other crimes associated with downtown street walking.
Tom: As I go through town now, and again, I was here back in those days, too, and I saw a lot more hookers on the street. I don’t see them downtown anymore. Am I just not driving the same? Have they moved to neighborhoods I don’t drive through any more or what?
Is there still that sort of a street walking going on here?
Mark: No. What’s funny is, whenever my wife and I go downtown for dinner at Pickle O’Pete’s or Cascio’s in the old market, I always want to drive through Park Ave and 24th and Leavenworth with her in the car. She is so used to it. I just wanna see if the girls are still out.
Tom: That’s all been renovated now.
Mark: We don’t see a lot of street walking girls out, but I think, that’s obviously because of the advent of the Internet back in the mid-’90s to late-’90s. There is a website out right now, I think I can probably give the address, it’s www.naughtynightlife.com, which is a national database of escort girls, swingers’ clubs.
It’s just a bizarre website. If you go to that website and click on Nebraska and click on Omaha, I guarantee you right now, and this website has been up for about 10 or 15 years, way before I retired.
There’s going to be 30 or 40 girls, some naked, some partially clothed, phone numbers, advertising sexual services, reviews by customers, I mean it’s absolutely bizarre. That’s the way of prostitution now. You go online, you find a girl, you call her, you meet her somewhere, you pay her, have sex in a hotel room or her place or your place.
It’s really tough for the police to enforce that.
Tom: It’s all online now, as opposed to walking the streets?
Mark: Way more online than it is walking the streets, way more online than it was 20 years ago.
Tom: Did after a while the girls get to know you? In other words, I would think that you, out there doing that on a regular basis. Is that the sort of thing, if you’re busting hookers, you’re out five nights a week doing it, or do you just go out randomly? How does that work?
Mark: It certainly wasn’t five nights a week, because we had other responsibilities to do, I mean narcotics investigations, gambling investigations. So [inaudible 17:17] was just one of many job responsibilities we had.
But I write about going back to your question about the girls. I write about one in the book, that I actually grew up with. Who ran away from home at 16 years of age. Our lives paralleled for, now going on close to 40 years.
Her, a livelong downtown streetwalker, 25 to 30 years on the streets; imagine the live she went through. I write about her in the book and she writes a chapter in my book” Busting Bad Guys”, about what it was like to being a downtown streetwalker for 25 years.
Some of the bizarre things she had to do for johns. It’s a rough life for these girls and it probably still is for these escort girls. But these downtown streetwalkers that were out there four seasons a year, 10:00 at night until 3:00 in the morning that was a rough life. The girl that writes a chapter in my book really talks about how tough it was on her.
Tom: What about the gambling? You say you’re also doing vice things on gambling.
Mark: Gambling was really viewed a lot differently in the ’70’s and ’80’s, then it is now. Back in those days there was a State Wiretap law. We took full advantage of that. Also, there were a lot of downtown bookie joints spread out all over.
There’s a great book out now by the way. It’s written by Jon Blecha, who’s a retired Omaha Police Officer, called “Cigars and Wires,” where he talks about the downtown bookie joints from the ’30’s, all the way up to the ’70’s and ’80’s, just bizarre stories. They were all over the place downtown.
A lot more enforcement on gambling in the ’70’s, ’80’s, then there is now. Probably, rightfully so. These were guys, even these downtown bookie joints or the bookies that we wiretapped, they were taken in upwards of $250,000, half a million, maybe a million dollars in bets a weekend, the large scale Omaha bookmakers, and there were plenty of them.
Jon talks about them in his book by name. These guys were organized. They were ties to Kansas City mob figures, coming here to Omaha and meeting with Omaha bookmakers. These were guys we targeted, wiretapped in the ’70’s and ’80’s.
The thing about bookmakers was you could wiretap them. You could serve search warrants, You could spend a year on the investigation, and you’d be lucky to get two years in prison, 18 months in prison, probation. IRS would go after them, and tax the heck out of them for all the money they made and they didn’t pay taxes on.
Slowly as the gang members came into town, Bloods and Crips, and brought crack cocaine, the influx of methamphetamine in the ’90’s here in Omaha, gambling investigations kind of faded away. There’s very little gambling enforcement right now.
Tom: They had to prioritize what was important to them then.
Mark: Obviously, drug dealing is the higher priority than bookmaking.
Tom: Did the gamblers, the bookies and that, did they ever attempt to, maybe the same thing with the hookers or the drug dealers for that matter, did they ever attempt to buy you off, or pay you off, or look the other way, “Here’s a few bucks”?
Mark: I’m not aware of any bribery arrests, or anything like that. I certainly was never approached by either a prostitute or a bookmaker, and bribed not to arrest them.
You asked earlier if the girls, if the prostitutes recognized us after a while? I knew most of them by name. They knew me by name, because I arrested them so many times.
Same with the bookmakers. These weren’t bad guys. They were just degenerate gamblers, who just couldn’t get it out of their system. Like I said, the large scale ones were taken in a lot of money a week over the phone that we worked.
They weren’t bad guys at all. Not like the drug dealers we arrested, who were not good guys. I kind of liked the gamblers to be honest with you. A lot of them, I kind of got to be friends with in a way.
Tom: I would imagine, and again based-on just Hollywood and stuff like that, that these gamblers and that, were probably like real characters and fun to be around.
Mark: A lot of characters, a lot of street names. The “Toad” was one, “Junior” was another. These guys were right out of central casting in movies.
I write about the “Club Delmar,” which was a hotel/bar at 24th and Farnam for years. The building is gone now. I went undercover at age 25 or 26, in the Club Delmar.
I write about how when I first walked in, there were about eight guys at the bar. They’re all about 60 to 70-years old. I thought all of them were dead and just propped up by their beer bottle. Nobody is talking.
When somebody wanted a drink, they’d grunt. Mary the Bartender, who looked like Ma Barker, mug shots of Ma Barker that I’ve seen, would come over and give them a beer.
I talk about how when I ordered a beer, the bar top was so sticky. I had to literally pry the beer bottle off the bar top. The hard boiled eggs and the pickle jar behind the bar, it just looked like it had been there 20 years.
I describe all this in the chapter, how the closer you got back to the bathroom, it smelled like piss in the bar. Then I have a line in the book, “This is quite possibly the coolest place I’d ever seen in my life.” It was just right out of a movie.
Sean Penn later came in town and filmed “The Indian Runner.” The Club Delmar was featured prominently in The Indian Runner. Even Sean Penn saw in that building and that bar just a great potential for a Hollywood movie.
Tom: You mentioned about the coolest place and all that, and you liked some of these guys. I read an article one time, and they did an analysis. Psychologists will say that a mindset of a cop and the mindset of a criminal are very similar.
Mark: I wouldn’t doubt that for a second. I’ll tell you my view on cops is if I wanted to be a large scale bookmaker right now with what I know about bookmaking, I doubt I’d get caught. I’d probably be a very successful bookmaker.
If I wanted to be a drug dealer, which I never would in a million years, but with what I learned about drug dealing, I could probably be very successful at it. Good cops get into the mind of the people that they’re investigating. They understand the mind frame and the psyche of the people that they’re investigating.
What happens to some cops is they cross the line, and they start acting like those people or acting out the fantasies of those people, whether it be a prostitution thing or before they know what they’re involved in taking some bets, they’re involved in using some cocaine. Those are the guys that get in trouble.
The vast majority of cops don’t cross that line. I’ll tell you, there’s temptations there, especially in the vice world. I found the bookmaking world fascinating. I found some drug dealing investigations fascinating, the lifestyle that these guys led, but I couldn’t let myself cross that line.
Tom: You mentioned if you were working prostitution, you couldn’t have sex with the girls. If you were working gambling, you know to prove your case and get more into it, could you give, “Hey, here’s $100 bucks on the Husker game”?
Mark: Oh, sure. Yeah. I bet all the time undercover in gambling operations, but it was all documented in the police reports.
The thing that really ticked me off during one investigation was I was hitting three team parlays every week with city money, and I couldn’t keep it. I had to book it into evidence. If it would have been my own money, I would have been up $1,000. I was in a hot streak in ’85.
I went undercover in several gambling investigations, became a runner for the large scale bookmaker, would meet him once-a-week at West Groves in a department store out there, exchange envelopes, money to him, point spreadsheets to me every week.
It was a fascinating world that these guys led. I will say in that organization, the top level guys, cocaine use, prostitution involved in that large scale bookmaking operation.
When I say, “I kind of like these guys,” there were a lot of negatives with a lot of these large scale bookmakers. They fell into the trap of living the big lifestyle. Girls were involved, prostitutes, drugs. We had some strong-arm tactics, threats being made towards people who weren’t making good on their bets.
It sounds like a great deal being a bookmaker, like a victimless crime, believe me it’s not.
Tom: Were you working in conjunction with the FBI on stuff like this? Because what you’re describing sounds to me as being a lot of organized mafia sort of stuff.
Mark: Yeah. I worked with the FBI from 1985, until I retired in 2004, both on gambling investigations and drug investigations. In fact, an FBI agent writes the forward in my book that I worked with for many, many years.
If the investigation reached a certain level, whether it gambling lives or drug lives, we’d bring in the Feds, because those cases were going to be prosecuted by the US Attorney’s Office, anyway. Federal violations were taking place. The Federal agencies, FBI, had access to a lot more resources than we did in regards to equipment, overtime, rental cars, just a wide variety of things.
Plus, I enjoyed working with them. Many of them are friends of mine to this day.
Tom: When you were busting guys at the level here that you were doing, like you said you were being a runner and that sort of stuff, busting guys at that level, obviously, not you but the powers that be, want to get higher up the ladder.
What in reality versus what we see on TV and in the movies, as far as busting these low life guys or the lower level guys, to get them to sing, to get you up to a few higher levels up in the chain?
Mark: Let’s talk about drug dealers in regards to that, because the pyramid structure really applies to drug dealing operations here in Omaha.
I write in the book and I firmly believe, there’s probably seven to eight layers of drug dealers, from the top level outside of this country, to the street level user here in Omaha. Probably, seven to eight different levels that it passes through.
A great example of that would be the source in Mexico ships 50 pounds of methamphetamine to Omaha. Then 10 dealers here in Omaha spread five pounds each, so that’s 10 dealers there.
Those guys spread a pound out to other large scale dealers, and I get 50 large scale dealers. Then those pound dealers break it down into half pound quantities, quarter pound quantities, which is four ounces. That spreads out to maybe 200 people that maybe now have access to that cocaine.
Then they break it down into quarter ounces, eight balls, which is 3.5 grams, to the real small level street dealers. Now you’re talking three or 400 people that are selling portions of that 50 pounds of methamphetamine here in Omaha.
Then those people sell it to the customers, which probably number 1,000, that get methamphetamine from that 50 pounds. So, you’re talking again, seven or eight different levels.
Our job in the Drug Squad, and my crew normally worked the large scale investigations, was to move our way up the ladder as high as we could, until we finally couldn’t go any further.
We were very successful at that. The vast majority of our investigations were prosecuted federally by the US Attorney’s Office. The FBI was involved with us for years. That was our goal was to turn people.
If we arrested a low level dealer on the street, to get him or her to roll over on who their supplier was, arrest that person, get him or her to roll over on their supplier.
Sometimes these investigations would take months before they promenaded.
Tom: Were they willing to roll over?
Mark: Yes. I talk in the book about snitches and informants. I don’t give away a lot of trade secrets, and I won’t. There’s active investigations out there now. I try to stay pretty high level on the use of informants, but I do write in the book, “There’s no loyalty among drug dealers.”
Especially when that drug dealer, when it’s explained to him or her, when I take them into an interrogation room and say, “You’re looking at 10 year minimum Federal sentence. Now if you want to tell us who you’re getting your drugs from, I’ll go and talk to the prosecutor and see what I can work out.”
Nine times out of ten that dealer would say, “I’ll give you what you want.” Within minutes, we knew who their supplier was. Then we had to decide who we were going to go after.
That’s a pretty accepted practice in law enforcement is rolling people over under who their source is. We had to be careful what we promised. We couldn’t promise anything we couldn’t come through on the end. Our job again was to work our way up the ladder as high as we could.
Tom: I assume again, with this you could buy drugs. Would you ever be a runner or go and sell drugs in ways, or were you just there acting as a junkie?
Mark: In a lot of investigations the dealer that was above us thought we were selling drugs for them, but we weren’t. They would give us an ounce and say, “Bring me back the money.” Then we would just bring them back the money, and they thought we sold the ounce.
Police Officers are not allowed to sell drugs during investigations, obviously. That’s kind of counterproductive to law enforcement. So, no. police officers don’t sell drugs during investigations. We certainly gave the impression to the dealer above us that we were.
Tom: What about doing drugs?
Mark: I write in the book about a very scary situation I was involved in, where I was buying cocaine from a guy, from an automotive shop at 74th and L. He called me one day and said his dealer was on the way, and for me to bring $500 to buy at that time a quarter ounce of cocaine, which was very high at the time.
I showed up with the $500. He took me in his dark, back storage room, and there was his dealer. I finally got to meet his dealer. After months of dealing with this guy, I got to meet his dealer.
The dealer put out a line of cocaine on the table and said, “Go ahead and try it.” Well, obviously, police officers are not allowed to use drugs during investigations.
Unless, the cardinal rule for me was as a Command Officer, if somebody puts a gun to your head, and we can’t get in there in time to get you out of there, and you think you have to snort that line of cocaine before that guy blows your brains out, snort the line of cocaine. We never had that happen. That’s just kind of common sense.
We always try to construct undercover investigations so the officers weren’t put in that kind of a situation, but I was early in my career.
I have the line in the book that I told the dealer. I said, “I’d love to, but I’ve got to go to work. My sinus cavities are” I use this line in the book, “My sinus cavities are so fucked up from snorting cocaine, that if I snort I’m going to be bleeding all day long.”
Right away the dealer goes, “I’ve got the same problem. I understand. No problem.” I gave him the $500 and got out of there with a quarter ounce. You had to be quick on your feet working undercover investigations, especially when the gangs came in town and the dangerous large-scale meth dealers.
I always, and I write this in the book, constructed investigations so that the undercover officers were not put in any more danger than they had to be.
Tom: You say the prostitutes knew who you were. The gamblers and the drug dealers also knew after a while?
Mark: Omaha’s a real small town when it comes to drug investigations, and we had to be very careful how we handled meeting drug dealers for the first time. We had to do background checks, check arrest records to make sure that if they had been arrested that the undercover officer that I’m sending in is not going to be recognizable. There are a lot of different agencies in Omaha that do drug investigations.
Sometimes we’d bring somebody in from another agency to meet the drug dealer if I wasn’t convinced that he wouldn’t recognize one of my people, but that was always a fear. We had several investigations where the undercover officer was recognized, and the drug dealer just walked away. Luckily nothing happened to the undercover officer, but that was always a fear.
Tom: That they would recognize you there. What was the biggest bust you made?
Mark: We have multiple 30, 40-pound methamphetamine seizures, which even today would be a lot of methamphetamine. We raided a large-scale crack dealer one time and found 800,000 cash in his house mostly in $20 bills, which is the most predominant bill used in drug transactions, that being the $20 bill.
Then we did federal investigations. We’d indict 20, 30, 40 people, large-scale drug dealers, so it’s hard to quantify what the biggest deal was. Whenever you seize 30 or 40 pounds of methamphetamine, you realize you’re taking a lot of meth off the street. Now I have no grand illusions that that wasn’t replaced within two or three days here in Omaha.
People frequently ask me and you probably will during this interview, do I think I made a difference? We put a lot of large-scale drug dealers in jail, in prison, for a long period of time. Did it slow things down? Absolutely not.
Tom: Then let’s talk about, again, the legalization. As a libertarian I look at this, and I’m not one of these libertarians that want heroin, crack, and meth all to be legal but marijuana, prostitution, gambling. People have desire to get away sometimes. Why do you think it benefits society to have all of this stuff illegal?
Mark: Well, because everything you named there’s violence associated with. Let’s talk about prostitution. A lot of violence associated with prostitution.
Tom: Is the violence because it’s illegal? In other words, is there violence associated with prostitution in Nevada where it’s legal? If you’re at those brothels in Nevada, is violence associated with it there?
Mark: Every once in a while I watch the “Moonlite Bunny Ranch” girls on HBO. I don’t see any of those girls getting beat up, but that’s my only exposure to that.
When you’re talking drug-dealing or even marijuana use, and you’re not going to like this answer — I guarantee you’re not going to like this answer but it’s the way I look at it and I’ve been investigating marijuana dealers for years — the vast majority of methamphetamine dealers, cocaine dealers, marijuana dealers that I investigated started out by smoking cigarettes at a very young age and then moving to marijuana as a teenager.
Then they went on to worse drugs after that. Does that mean everybody that smokes marijuana, which you told me previously in an interview you might have dabbled with it a little bit in your youth?
Tom: In my college days I might have tried it.
Mark: Do I think you sell marijuana, cocaine, or meth? Absolutely not. I don’t think you do.
Mark: I see it as a gateway drug to a lot of bigger things. I’ve seen lives destroyed by drug use/drug dealing, so you’re not going to convince me that marijuana should be legalized. However, I see the amount of money being made in Colorado by legalizing marijuana sales way more than anybody projected they were going to make.
Do I think Nebraska’s going to legalize marijuana in my lifetime? I used to say no. I’m 54 years old. I hope I have a few more years to go. After seeing what’s happened in Colorado, which is a very liberal state, about as liberal as Nebraska is conservative, but boy. You start talking revenue like that I’m not going to be surprised if in a few years the idea is at least resurrected here in Nebraska.
I hope they don’t do it. Tom, I’ve been an undercover narcotic cop for years. That’s my view on it, but when you see the money generated I’m not putting it beyond the realm of possibility that it will be considered one day in Nebraska.
Tom: I would say the same thing about alcohol. Alcohol can ruin lives, too, if not used properly. If somebody’s going to be self-destructive, you can go and criminalize everything. They’re still going to find a way to make it happen.
Mark: A lot of people say they can be recreational cocaine users. A lot of people claim to be recreational methamphetamine users. I don’t believe it, so where do you draw the line? If you legalize marijuana, then 10 years later are people going to say, “OK, this worked. Let’s legalize cocaine. Let’s legalize methamphetamine.” I don’t know if you buy those arguments or not, but I think it’s a concern.
Tom: With all this illegal, and at the same time you know that the second you make a big bust on drugs more drugs are going to be in town. The second you bust a hooker, she’s going to get sprung and back out on the street. The second you bust a bookie, they’re just going to find some other way. They’re going to be out doing it again.
Did you ever run into any of these hookers or bookies or drug dealers that you busted and they actually turned their life around that did it because of you, that maybe they wound up saving their lives or having a better life because of what you did?
Mark: Great question, and literally all the time. I have a fascinating life now. I’m at the Nebraska Humane Society enforcing animal cruelty laws, which you’re well aware of. Frequently I have people come out because I’m on TV a lot and the radio a lot. People know I work out there. Frequently I have people come out to the shelter and ask for me at the front counter. I’ll walk up, and I don’t recognize them.
They’ll say, “You arrested me back in 1995 for selling meth. I wanted to let you know I’ve been clean ever since then, turned my life around, and you saved my life.” They’re not just talking about me. They’re talking about everybody involved in that arrest, but Tom, I’m telling you that happens way more than people realize. It’s absolutely bizarre the people that’ll recognize me on the streets.
I never have problems with people coming up in a threatening fashion when I’m on the street or in a restaurant with my wife, shopping, or doing anything, at a sporting event. I’ll have people come up frequently, and they’ll say, “You saved my life” or “You saved my son’s life, my daughter’s life. Thank you for what you do.”
That’s why to me it was worth what I did for all those years because I think we did make a difference in hundreds if not thousands of people’s lives because we arrested thousands of people over the years. I think we made a difference.
Tom: What was the sneakiest way that you ever got somebody arrested because I would think that, other than just driving around looking for hookers on the street or going into a bar or a barber shop trying to place a bet, you had to get into these people’s lives somehow. How did you get into their lives to be able to do some real investigative work as opposed to just picking up somebody on the street?
Mark: Wiretaps would be that answer. Omaha Police were very proactive. Early on when wiretaps first became a reality, very proactive on gambling wiretaps. Then we moved into drug wiretaps. A wiretap is one of the ultimate invasions of privacy that you can put on somebody. You’re listening to their phone calls.
Those are very difficult orders to get signed by a judge. You have to show that you’ve exhausted all other investigative tactics and that in order to move up a ladder like I talked about earlier you have to listen to the phone calls. People are very prone to talk over phones. To answer your question, the wiretap was the most sophisticated investigative tactic that we used.
On several occasions we broke into people’s houses and put implants in houses, obviously by virtue of a court order signed by a judge. That really is probably even more of an invasion of privacy than a wiretap, putting microphones around somebody’s house to hear what they’re talking about in regards to the drug conspiracy.
We didn’t just limit ourselves to street-level dealers, downtown prostitutes, small-time bookies. Not bragging at all, but the Omaha Police Department was and is very progressive on how they approach their large-scale drug investigations as evidenced by the number of federal indictments. For years the Nebraska District led the country in federal indictments for drugs. There’s a reason for that because of the large-scale investigations that we did.
Tom: Of course Omaha has two interstates running through it, north and south and east and west, which works well for drug dealers, right? That’s why Omaha might be a place where there would be a lot of drug-dealing going on.
Mark: Yeah, plus the meat-packing plants drew in a lot of undocumented aliens from Mexico. A very small minority of those people were involved then in setting up drug operations that just took over the city. I write about the Hell’s Angels controlled the methamphetamine trade here in Omaha in the late ’60s or early ’70s, ruled by intimidation. They were the kingpins in methamphetamine dealing.
Once Mexican drug dealers came in, even the Hell’s Angels couldn’t compete. They tried, but they just got outnumbered and outmanned. They finally gave in and said, “We’ll do our thing. You guys do your thing.” Probably the mid ’90s is when that happened.
Before we knew it we had multi-pounds of methamphetamine coming into the city on a regular basis rather than just maybe a pound at a time, 30, 40, 50-pound shipments of methamphetamine being brought into Omaha, which we had never seen before.
Tom: Did anything ever shock you?
Mark: No. I consider myself a very jaded person doing what I did for as many years as I did, so I would say nothing that I did surprised me. What affected me most was dealing with kids, and it still does. I write about chapters in the book about a little girl. I write a chapter. We busted the door down. A SWAT team rushes in. This little six-year-old girl is just petrified and scared to death.
She runs up to me and grabs me by my right leg and looks up at me and says, “Please don’t let anybody hurt me.” How do you forget something like that? I write about the piece-of-crap parents who place priority on drug-dealing over their own kids. If anything bothered me more than one particular thing on this job, it was dealing with kids.
I will tell you. We did our job. We took the kids out of the home, put them in foster care. I forgot about it, moved onto the next case because if I dwelled on that, it would just eat me up alive.
Tom: How do you or other cops deal with that stress?
Mark: Well, obviously in different ways. I would say that in my case I had a very supportive family, and I just trained myself early to separate myself from those situations. I write about how I’d come home at night and check on my own kids to make sure they were safe and sound, nice and warm in bed, lock the doors, set the alarm. I do have an alarm on my house.
The divorce rate’s high among cops. There’s some alcoholism at times involving cops. Some cops cope better than others because on a daily basis nobody puts a gun to our head or forces us to be a cop. We are different than other people, and we’re held to a higher standard than other people on how we conduct our job.
Everywhere we go, especially nowadays, people are videotaping cops with their cell phones, so people are enthralled with cops. People criticize cops. People want to be cops or whatever. Cops are held to a different standard. Nobody holds a gun to our head to be cops, but it’s a tough, tough job. It really is difficult.
Tom: Do you drink? Do [laughs] you…
Mark: Some do.
Tom: …in dealing with that? Because I would imagine it would be pretty tough.
Mark: Some drink. God forbid, there’s been some domestic violence issues involving cops. The bad thing about it is when a cop gets arrested or a cop gets in trouble, you hear about it. It’s in the paper. It’s on the news. Again, we’re held to a higher standard.
I laugh at the police critics sitting around Omaha for years who say cops should be treated no different than anybody else. They’re no better than anybody else except for when they get arrested. Then the cops are the ones on the front page of the paper.
Tom: The same would be true of clergy. The same would be true of radio personalities, TV personalities. Anybody with a position of authority, a position of importance, would make the front page, right?
Mark: Yeah, and cops are lumped into that category without a doubt, but there are a lot of professions that aren’t. That’s for sure. A lot of guys can get away with a domestic violence arrest, and it’s not on the front page of the paper.
Tom: If a school teacher wound up busting with a hooker or dealing drugs, it would be probably a lot different than if it was just some insurance salesman.
Mark: I don’t know. If a teacher got busted soliciting a prostitute, I’m not so sure that would make the paper. Now, if a teacher gets busted selling drugs, and that’s happened before, sure they’re going to be in the paper. You bet.
Tom: What about now just as a cop and again, a lot of it’s based on watching TV shows, but do the ends justify the means? In other words, were there cops out there that you worked with that maybe might have been trying to do something that might not be all that ethical they had to do to get this guy?
Mark: Oh, yeah. We had cops get in trouble over the years. Oh, yeah. Without a doubt we had cops cross the line either on prostitution investigations or maybe some drug investigations. I recall a couple situations.
Speaking for myself, and I commanded a crew for 16 years, I always asked myself at the back of mind, “Is it worth me going to prison over entrapping this guy or setting this guy up by planting evidence?” The answer was always no.
Why would I hang myself out or my officers out to potential criminal liability, civil liability, public humiliation just to put some piece-of-crap drug-dealer in prison who we didn’t have quite enough evidence on unless, “God, if we planted that ounce in his car, this guy’s going to go away for five years or whatever”?
It never crossed my mind to do. It never crossed my mind. We always followed the rules, and there are strict rules that cops have to follow. If we didn’t follow those rules in court, the judge would suppress the evidence. The case would get thrown out of court.
Tom: The impression of a lot of people though is, if a cop does something like that, something a little bit unethical to try to make a bust, that the other cops won’t say anything about it.
Mark: Well, I think we’ve had several internal police investigations I can think of over the past two or three years that have been well-publicized where cops have come forward and talked about alleged improprieties by other officers. I talk about an officer-involved shooting that I was involved in in the book where we shot and killed a suspect in 2002 down at 28th and Monroe during a drug deal.
He opened fire at one of my officers. Myself and another officer returned fire and shot and killed the suspect. I write about the internal investigation, being interviewed, being issued my Miranda warnings. I can tell you without a doubt that if there’s any misconception about cops helping other cops out during an investigation like that, I know firsthand that’s not the case.
People that were friends of mine wouldn’t talk to me. Investigators that I didn’t know real well read me my Miranda warnings. I tried to pry some information out of them during the interview. “Did I hit the suspect with my rounds? Did you find the methamphetamine he had?” They wouldn’t answer the questions.
I know there’s this brothers-in-blue mentality out there among the public a lot, but I’m telling you. When a cop gets in trouble or there’s a possibility the cop’s in trouble, in my case shooting and killing a suspect, those walls close in. I was treated like a suspect. Now I’m not mad at that. That’s the way the system is, but I was given no favors whatsoever during that investigation.
Tom: If you had a kid who wanted to be a cop, especially an undercover cop, would you support them or try to talk them out of it?
Mark: Oh, I’d support them. Now both of my kids have moved on. One’s a lawyer and one’s a pharmacist, so they’re about as far away from law enforcement as they can get. I would have supported it. I loved being a cop. It was a great adrenaline ride for me for 26 years. When I retired to come to the Humane Society, I had withdrawal symptoms for about a year of probably being moody at night.
I worked nights for 26 years. My wife was home alone. All of a sudden I’m home at night with her. It was a change of life for me. I miss the adrenaline rush. I thrived on it, and I would do it all over again if I could.
Tom: Talking about the adrenaline rush, interesting because one of the podcasts that I have on here is with a former gang member. He talks about it wasn’t the money. It wasn’t the bling. It was the adrenaline rush of going up against the authorities, going up and trying to get away with something.
That was what really drove him on, and that was what really got him in so much trouble over the years. He just couldn’t get enough of that adrenaline buzz in committing his crimes.
Mark: That happens on both ends of the law. I know suspects like that who have told me that, that they love the game. I talk about some of the dealers took it too personal, and we had death threats against officers, personal death threats to me from suspects. On one occasion I found out about one, and myself and another officer went out and found the guy and had a little talk with him at his house.
Knocked on his door and I said, “You know, I understand you’re threatening my life and another officer’s.” I go, “You’ve got to realize we’re playing a game here. You’re the bad guy. I’m the good guy. My job is to arrest you. Your job is to stay away from me, but this death threat stuff’s bullshit” I told him.
Mark: “It’s not going to happen.” I said, “If you come at me, I’ll come at you even harder.” I said, “Let’s just play the game and see who wins. You understand what I’m saying?” I talk about how he just shriveled up and he said, “Yes.” The death threats disappeared from the street after that.
Tom: Interesting. Did he see it as a game then?
Mark: I think I finally convinced him that, and I doubt he’s going to carry out the death threats. We didn’t allow that kind of stuff on the street because if people were making death threats on us and it looked like we backed down, our authority was diminished out there. It’s amazing the number of drug dealers who knew who I was for years. We talked about people knowing the officers.
We’d bust a door down, and they’d go, “I knew it was a matter of time, Langan, before you got me.” I didn’t know who these people were, but I was doing it for so many years that people almost expected my crew to bust the door down and get them. These are the people now that come up to me in restaurants, bars, whatever, and they say, “Are you Mark Langan?”
I always get a little nervous when people ask me that question, and I assume a defensive position and everything. I’ll go, “Yeah.” These are the people that say, “You busted me 10 years ago. I’m doing great.” Never had anybody try to hit me, assault me, threaten me, or anything like that.
They’re all very friendly, but I will tell you the secret to our career success was long-term informants who actually liked working for us, maintaining long-term informants, and treating people the right way. My dad was in federal law enforcement, and he always said, “Treat people the way you want to be treated, and you’ll be fine.” That was great advice.
We treated these people that we arrested pretty good unless they were jerks to us. If they were asses to us, we’re going to be an ass to them. If they weren’t asses to us, they actually enjoyed being around us sometimes. We’re joking and laughing. I’m not making this up. These are people that would later come back to us and give us information on their drug dealer because they liked being around us.
Tom: If a guy was giving you information on one of their drug deals, but you suspected them as dealing drugs, too, would you look the other way because you were getting the information?
Mark: No, nobody got immunity for selling drugs because they gave us information. Now I don’t think of myself as a naive person. Obviously, the reason we’re getting great information on who is selling drugs is more likely the person giving us the information was also selling drugs.
But I would tell them ahead of time if I can prove a case on you, you’ll go to prison, just so you know. So if I can catch you doing it I’m going to arrest you even though you’re giving me information. But you know obviously the reason we got such great information over the years is we were getting it from drug dealers. That’s the way the game’s played.
Tom: Last question, what is the biggest misconception that the average public has about guys like you?
Mark: That we’re hard-asses, that we have no feelings. I get that a lot from people, people at the humane society that I work with, who, initially when I first started, they were all like “God, I never know how to read you. You’re kind of serious, kind of a hard-ass.”
I really do believe that’s the biggest misconception of people like me, people that are in enforcement positions as cops. We’re human beings just like everybody else. We have families, we love our families. We have fears. We have emotions.
The thing with cops is, we don’t show it near as much as other people, but they’re there. I think when people see a cop driving on the street with their mirrored sunglasses on, they look at that guy or girl as a robot without feelings.
But cops are regular people, just like everybody else. They just do a very unique job.
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Tom: I want to thank Mark Langan for joining me and having an interesting conversation about what it’s like to be undercover. We see it all on TV and in the movies and everything, but he actually live it.
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