An A-level unit deep within the Milwaukee Police Department is training a high-tech eye on the city, fighting crime and stopping violence before it even occurs.
On an unseasonably cool but sunny Sunday last August, Capt. Jason Smith packed his family into the car for what was shaping up to be an ideal day at the Wisconsin State Fair. As head of the Milwaukee Police Department Intelligence Fusion Center, days fully free of professional obligations are rare, even precious. When Smith is away from the Center – a little-known hub of data and 21st-century policing that’s quietly evolved into a multijurisdictional dream team – his cell phone can go off at any moment. So no one in the family thought twice when it buzzed with a new message. The look on his face, however, alerted his three kids that plans were about to change.
After 22 years as a cop, with many of those spent as a homicide detective, it takes more than everyday street crime to break the reflective cool that dominates Smith’s disposition. But this, the message revealed, would be anything but a run-of-the-mill Sunday. “Oak Creek has a mass shooting,” said the email from Fusion’s watch desk, “multiple victims, possibly two shooters, area of Howell and Rawson, more as it becomes available.” Like a pinch at the onset of a pleasant dream, Smith was reminded of the world of threats in which he operates. And soon, his head was shifting into a keener, more efficient frame of mind – crisis mode.
Less than three miles away, panicked calls were flooding into the Oak Creek Police Department, and operators were struggling to make sense of differing accounts of a shooter and shooting, many told in broken English.
No other entity in the region was as well-equipped to make sense of – or respond to – this kind of chaos as the Fusion Center. Milwaukee officers and federal agents working in the office that morning fed updates to Smith, who had left his kids at home and was now doing triple digits on the freeway, headed for Oak Creek, juggling no fewer than three cell phones. He couldn’t help but feel like another shoe was about to drop, and he needed his best on the scene immediately. One by one, the pockets of negotiators, bomb techs, homicide detectives and analysts hummed with the familiar vibration of personal life interrupted. Whatever was happening, it was big.
Out of these goals, a new kind of intelligence apparatus arose: the fusion center. Devised as a mixture of regional and local law enforcement officials, who would take the lead, and federal agents and analysts in support roles, the fusion center idea quickly became a crucial aspect of national anti-terrorism policy. Local and state officials welcomed the concept and the potential funding that came with it, and scores began popping up around the country. Some were amorphous, loosely defined and lacking in clear objectives. The local partners often had broad leeway to structure the centers as they saw fit.
In 2006, the seed of what would become Milwaukee’s Fusion Center opened in the police department’s Central Investigation Bureau. Dubbed the Southeastern Wisconsin Threat Analysis Center (STAC), the unit’s mission was to monitor the region for threats of terrorism. But while the STAC hunted for signs of al-Qaida in Cudahy, it ignored street crime and had little interaction with the agency serving as its host.
When Chief Ed Flynn took charge of MPD in 2008, he recognized the STAC, having led the development of a similar intelligence center in Massachusetts. “When I came here, we had essentially what I had left behind,” he says, “a small set of highly secure rooms with a small group of people with great computers, who talk to nobody in the police department.”
He wanted something different for Milwaukee.
He’d been studying British law enforcement’s penetration of the Irish Republican Army and Israeli police dealings with the Palestine Liberation Organization. He’d come to believe that “taking down terror networks requires understanding that terrorists support themselves through crimes.” His vision for MPD was to create an intelligence division focused on understanding patterns of criminality and sharing those with the STAC. The two halves would function as one. And thus, in 2008, the Milwaukee Police Department Intelligence Fusion Center was born.
Technically, the Fusion Center’s halves remain two separate entities. But as they’ve learned to support one another, the line has blurred. Today, when someone in law enforcement speaks of MPD’s Fusion Center, it’s understood to include the STAC as well.
Since its inception, the Center has grown from the half-dozen analysts that originally ran the STAC to a cadre of about 55 full-time employees: cops, federal agents, prosecutors, emergency response personnel and analysts of varying stripes. More than a dozen federal, local and regional entities partner with the Center, and many maintain personnel there who are overseen by Capt. Smith.
With its cubicles, fluorescent lighting and bland tile floors, the Fusion Center might look like a telemarketing operation if not for the guns on its staffers’ hips. On the north wall, eight flat-screen monitors display news channels, the locations of recent gunfire, intelligence on current events and, occasionally, a good ballgame. On the east side of the long rectangular room are Smith’s office and an adjacent conference room where he spends most of his time. And on the west wall, there’s a secure door few people have ever seen beyond. It leads to the STAC and is completely soundproof, housing the “secret squirrels” (as Flynn calls them) who work on homeland security issues. In the event of a national catastrophe, the STAC has the ability to link up with more than 70 other fusion centers in the U.S. to coordinate a response.
All of the country’s fusion centers look and function differently. This is partly due to a lack of direction from the Department of Homeland Security and the need for centers to reflect the communities they serve, Smith says.
Although many fusion centers focus entirely on homeland security, Flynn has put Milwaukee’s at the very heart of his department’s crime-fighting efforts. Almost everything MPD does is informed by Fusion’s intelligence.
Also separating Milwaukee’s Fusion Center from many others is its capacity for action. Smith has pulled together a diverse team of vast experience and expertise, and when things start heading south, as they did Aug. 5, Fusion can respond in force.
“Now they’ve shot the police,” Smith remembers saying. “This is a game-changer.”
First on the scene was Lt. Brian Murphy, who cut his siren at about 10:30 a.m. and drove purposefully over the low rise in the temple’s long driveway. Knowing he faced at least one shooter, Murphy tried to pull his AR-15 semiautomatic assault rifle from its rack inside the squad car, but the release lock malfunctioned. He stepped out onto the pavement with only his sidearm for protection.
A few feet away, two men were lying motionless on the surface of the parking lot, one on top of the other. Murphy knew immediately that they were dead. Then, out of the corner of his eye, he saw something. A white man in a white T-shirt was running across the parking lot, about 30 yards away.
He was carrying a gun.
Murphy drew his pistol and fired. The man in the white T-shirt fired simultaneously, and as Murphy’s bullet missed, the shooter’s tore through the side of the lieutenant’s neck, blowing out his vocal cords. The Oak Creek officer ducked behind a car, but the gunman flanked him from behind and continued firing. With vacancy in his eyes, the man mechanically reloaded the pistol and fired again into Murphy’s hand, legs, back, upper arm and head. The policeman was hit 15 times in all.
The next officer to arrive on the scene was greeted by a bullet to his windshield. This officer, after retreating to a safe distance, grabbed his assault rifle and returned fire, striking the suspect in the abdomen. The man fell over, then pointed his gun at his own head and fired one last time.
For Smith, figuring out what the hell was happening was priority No. 1. The most recent report he’d received at the command post said that as many as 20 people had been shot by as many as four attackers. Worried that roving shooters might target police stationed at the command post, Smith worked quickly with Oak Creek police and the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Department to deploy a perimeter of officers armed with fully automatic M-4 assault rifles.
At the height of the response, some 480 police and personnel from 61 agencies and organizations were working in and around the Sikh temple. About 130 of those fell under Smith’s direct command, but there was a sense that “Capt. Smith was quarterbacking the whole thing,” says Fusion Detective Jim Campbell.
Smith learned that a number of temple members had escaped the building and needed to be interviewed, so he assigned a group of detectives to meet with them. Some of the escapees were still receiving text messages and phone calls from members hiding inside the temple, so Smith also assigned officers to monitor the communications.
The messages, including several from two preteens hiding in a closet, were sometimes misleading. Some of the witnesses claimed a shooter was still moving through the temple when, in fact, the only one there had ever been was dead in the parking lot.
Milwaukee’s mass shooting came just a couple weeks after another at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo. That one left 12 people dead and 58 injured. The orange-haired killer, James Holmes, had rigged booby traps to trigger when cops broke into his apartment, and Smith worried the Sikh temple shooter might have left behind a similar surprise for police in Wisconsin.
As a precaution, one of Smith’s most experienced bomb techs, Brett Huston, rolled out a robot to nose around vehicles parked outside the temple. A pickup truck stood out right away – its windows were down, and keys were still hanging from its ignition. A temple leader who’d escaped said the vehicle didn’t belong to anyone he knew.
Using the robot and records held by the state Department of Transportation, the officers quickly learned that the pickup belonged to a man listed as living at an address in Cudahy. DOT records also included a photograph, but Smith couldn’t compare it to the dead shooter, as he was face-down in the parking lot. Once again guarding against the possibility of a bomb, Huston used the robot to roll the body so that it was face-up. Despite the self-inflicted wound to the head, a positive match was made. This man’s name was Wade Michael Page.
Smith assigned several Fusion members to the task of gathering as much intel on the shooter as possible. The question on everyone’s mind: Was the assault committed by one disturbed individual, or was this a terrorist attack by a group that could strike again?
Campbell pounded out a search warrant for Page’s Cudahy apartment and showed it to Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, who had arrived at the scene. Needing a judge’s signature, Campbell raced to Whitefish Bay to meet with David Borowski, a Circuit Court judge who could review the document for probable cause. Soon, teams were canvassing Page’s neighborhood and interviewing residents about Page’s disposition and how he’d been acting in recent weeks. Campbell and a squad from the FBI entered Page’s apartment, finding it empty. They took its appearance as a sign Page hadn’t planned on returning from his mission.
Meanwhile, Smith’s people at the Sikh temple and back at the Fusion Center were busy exploring the small universe of information related to Page and the shooting. By chance, the STAC, which helped in the investigation, was running a larger staff than usual that day to monitor a number of late-summer events, including the Wisconsin State Fair and the Milwaukee Air and Water Show.
With pieces of the puzzle pouring into the command post and onto Fusion’s “virtual command center” software, a profile of Page emerged. He was ex-military, the subject of a general discharge. He had minimal contact with police in the past, though he was a white supremacist linked to hate groups such as the National Alliance, Hammerskin and an organization called Volksfront. He had recently broken up with his girlfriend. On the day of the shooting, he wore black combat boots with red laces, a white supremacist symbol denoting a willingness to shed blood for race.
Even with the temple cleared by tactical teams, Smith wasn’t sure the threat was over. Maybe another shooter had slipped through the police perimeter or this was a “coordinated attack” that included other shooters who somehow messed up, he says, “or got spooked before they went to the Brookfield location,” the site of the area’s other Sikh temple.
The sheer number of casings and bullet holes in and around the temple suggested more than one shooter, and witnesses told Fusion detectives that they saw more than one car pull up in front of the temple – with multiple shooters exiting each vehicle.
As midnight approached, additional links to Page were solidifying. Recent purchases of a firearm and massive amounts of ammunition preceded the attack, detectives learned. Other leads were dead ends. A report of someone conducting surveillance on the temple before the attack turned out to be a maintenance man.
No stone was left unturned, and more than 50 witnesses sequestered by officers in a hall at the bowling alley were interviewed and interviewed again.
The FBI ultimately took control of the investigation, but Fusion’s immediate response would become widely lauded by a national security establishment eager for a fusion center success story. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano’s office featured the Center in an edition of her newsletter, hailing the STAC for its “swift agility in response to the attack.” And the Major City Chief’s Association invited Smith to present an account of the operation at a conference in September.
He obliged and received copious back-slapping from fellow police executives, adulation that’s continued: The Center’s efforts that day are still being promoted on the Department of Homeland Security website, at the top of a list of “Fusion Center Success Stories.”
The DHS wants to demonstrate return on its taxpayer-funded investment in fusion centers, and major successes attributed to the nearly 80 scattered around the country don’t arise very often. A scathing report released last fall by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations paints the centers as incompetent, redundant and “rarely timely” as a source of intelligence.
Despite the department’s insistence that fusion centers are critical to the nation’s anti-terrorism strategy, the Senate investigation could “identify no reporting which uncovered a terrorist threat, nor could it identify a contribution such fusion center reporting made to disrupt an active terrorist plot.”
Investigators also couldn’t put a precise figure on how much DHS has invested in the program. Its own estimates put the figure between $289 million and $1.4 billion, spent between 2003 and 2011.
The Oak Creek shooting and its aftermath suggest that relationships fostered between agencies within fusion center partnerships can make all the difference “when things go south.” Milwaukee’s experience also suggests, however, that they can be used as a potent spearhead against street crime.
“I can’t keep up with them and have to turn my phone off sometimes,” says Assistant District Attorney Laura Crivello, who has a desk at the Fusion Center.
But motivation isn’t enough to succeed there. The unit requires hard experience, a unique skill set, an agile mind and even more flexible people skills.
Blaszak, 42, has been a cop for some 20 years and spent two years on active duty in the Air Force after the Sept. 11 attacks, serving in various locations around the Middle East. Shortly after returning to police duty in 2003, he was assigned to the homicide unit and quickly became one of the most effective scene investigators the department has ever known, making a name for himself by gaining confessions in a number of high-profile cases. His effectiveness comes from a meticulous attention to detail. Where most people find tedium, Blaszak finds answers. He once developed a fingerprint by perfectly reconstructing a bag used to suffocate a child.
Blaszak joined the Fusion Center in early 2011 and has since carved a niche for himself by learning the ins and outs of a new gunshot detection technology called ShotSpotter. Experimenting with Milwaukee’s newly acquired system, he’s become one of the country’s leading experts in the technology.
Mark Harms, 44, a 15-year veteran of the department, formerly worked in its old Intelligence Division, where he honed a knack for developing human intelligence and uncovering connections between suspects, criminals, victims, whoever. Perhaps no other officer is as tied into the workings of Milwaukee’s North Side criminal element. His understanding of gangs, robbery crews and the criminal history of “high-contact families” – those the police come to know well – is hard to beat. At Fusion, an operation that leans heavily on advanced technology and analytical techniques, Harms is a reminder that sometimes the best tool for the job is a cop with an ear to the ground.
Whereas Blaszak is the guy who leads intel briefings and charms residents while their houses are being turned upside-down during search warrants, Harms is the partner who disappears into the background, re-emerging with critical information that everyone else has missed.
On paper, they’re an odd pairing, but the strengths of each are complementary. Operating with limited oversight from Smith and other Fusion bosses, they produce results in droves.
In 2011 – with help from other Fusion personnel – the team of Blaszak and Harms busted a segment of a sophisticated international smuggling operation. The racket, run by an organized crime syndicate based in the Republic of Georgia and Russia, had contracted with a Milwaukee man to steal Apple products. He’d then deliver them to an associate of the organization who would periodically drive in from New York. At the meeting, the associate would collect the electronics, pay the Milwaukee booster, and from there, the Apple products would be smuggled out of the country for sale in former Soviet republics.
But the Brew City robber got pinched in Illinois, and an executive with Apple security helped to deliver the robber to Fusion. In a scene out of a Scorsese movie, agents escorted the man back to Milwaukee to meet with officers at a church on North Avenue. It was eerily empty when the cops arrived.
Harms and Detective Thomas Obregon found the thief deep in prayer in one of the pews and approached him cautiously. Using the hushed, reverent tones demanded of the setting, they said they were willing to make a deal with him in exchange for his cooperation. Otherwise, he would face prison time.
The man began sobbing and promptly fell to pieces. Rolling on the floor, he started yelling, “They’re going to kill me!”
The two cops, half-expecting a film crew to jump out and announce a prank, tried to calm him down, and gradually, they realized they’d hit something big. The thief began to spill his guts about a world of vodka, track suits and private jets where money was made hand-over-fist and you knew better than to betray the organization.
Willing to work as an informant, the thief told the cops his contact was coming into town in a few days, and Fusion prepared for a sting. The meeting with a New York mobster was to go down in the parking lot across from the Pfister Hotel, a location surveillance teams surrounded from a variety of vantage points.
Take-down cars waited out of sight, ready to swoop in and handcuff the mobster at a moment’s notice – and they did, as soon as the stolen Apple wares had been traded for cash.
Officers took into custody a man named Spartak Sulava as well as a suspected accomplice, Tornike Purtseladze, who was caught acting as a lookout. Purtseladze claimed he was only a driver and “knew nothing,” but photos recovered from his phone showed him sitting in a chair buried in stacks of cash.
He was carrying $22,000 on the day of the sting, and within hours of the bust, Harms received a call from the Republic of Georgia. In broken English, the caller tried to bribe Harms for Sulava’s release. The Fusion officer declined.
A few blocks to the south, the ATF had set up a fake storefront in the Riverwest neighborhood. Its aim was to trick criminals into selling illegal guns and drugs to undercover agents. Mismanaged from the beginning, the store was ultimately robbed of about $35,000, and the operation failed to make any major arrests. After 10 months, leadership at the ATF pulled the plug, and agents left behind a landlord who complained to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that the agency had stiffed him for $15,000 in damages and unpaid bills.
When the M-4 and other guns were stolen, agents tried to handle tracking down the thieves in-house. The agency had recently endured a national scandal after allowing illegally purchased guns to flow to Mexican drug cartels in an operation codenamed “Fast and Furious,” and a second scandal would damage ATF tremendously.
“This is the last thing we need after that shit on the border,” said a worried agent (who asked not to be named) on the night of the theft.
Sooner or later, the guns would be used in a crime, and if one of them were used in a homicide – especially the M-4, which can’t be purchased legally – ATF would take the blame.
After a few hours of unfruitful investigations, agents knew it was time to call for help. They dialed their Fusion partners.
When Harms and Blaszak learned the guns had disappeared near 17th and Center streets, they immediately suspected a group called the Grimey Boys, whose M.O. includes automobile break-ins. Blaszak had recently completed a 30-page threat assessment of the Grimey Boys based on interviews he and Harms conducted with people linked to the group.
The partners had informants on speed dial and were soon hearing reports of hot guns changing hands and locations quickly. By 8 p.m., the Fusion cops were less than three hours behind the M-4, knocking on doors to houses that had recently harbored it.
By midnight, they had the identity of the juvenile holding the rifle. A team of trusted officers knocked on the door of a home where an informant said the juvenile was staying. The target’s aunt, a middle-aged woman, said the boy wasn’t inside, but Harms wanted to see for himself.
He talked his way in and found that the woman was telling the truth. The boy, who knew the cops were after him, fled the house less than an hour before. By 2 a.m., informants were telling Harms and Blaszak the gun had been sold, and all they had this time was a street name.
It was time to give up the hunt for the night. Strangely, it never resumed. ATF stopped asking for help with the investigation, and so Fusion stopped offering it. “It wasn’t a priority for us anymore,” Capt. Smith says.
The ATF later launched an internal review of the failed operation, which mirrored stings carried out in other cities. As of January, only one of the guns – a pistol – had been recovered.
When Fusion identifies a trend in crime, it begins developing a “target package” of individuals likely to be responsible. The Center creates “handling instructions” that show up on police computers when an officer makes contact with them. Sometimes, Fusion names a parole violation or warrant that can be used to arrest targets, so they can be questioned about other crimes they’re suspected of. Other times, Fusion simply asks for officers to contact them for instructions.
Draeger had been watching Nash closely since he resurrected a violent group called “Count ’Dem Stacks” (CDS) in the fall of 2012. By targeting its leadership, Milwaukee police dismantled CDS in early 2012, after the gang committed several random acts of violence (“flash mobs” in news media parlance) at the State Fair, Summerfest and during a July 3 fireworks show.
An expert at using computers and communications to develop intel, Draeger and other Fusion staffers employ high-tech and legal (for now) methods of monitoring CDS and similar groups. Since then, Fusion officers have consistently interrupted the group’s plans for flash mobs and other nefarious acts with what must seem to them like clairvoyance.
Like some other juvenile crime groups, CDS started as a dance crew but graduated to robbery, assault and auto theft. Left unchecked, it’s “just a matter of time before they start dropping bodies all over the city,” Draeger says.
Stopping that means letting the group know that whoever rises to leadership is going to end up on the Fusion Center’s radar, as Nash did.
Draeger suspected Nash of calling the shots during an auto-theft joyride that included an armed robbery and a brutal assault. After lifting the car, Nash and several female members of CDS cruised the South Side until they passed a young woman walking down the street. The troop of CDS members beat her with a crow bar, according to Draeger, and robbed her of her shoes, purse and cell phone.
Draeger wanted them for the crime.
Along with Harms and Blaszak, Draeger entered the Bradley Center on the night of Oct. 4 and made his way to the security office. Once inside, the three briefed the facility’s head of security on the operation and asked him to show his security guards a photo of Nash.
Draeger had a recent CDS group picture that showed the men flashing gang signs in front of a house. He placed the photo in front of him as he steered the facility’s security cameras around the arena, looking for a match. He found a group seated in the stands that contained individuals resembling members from the CDS picture, but the camera’s resolution was limited, and the three Fusion cops walked down to the stands to take a look for themselves.
As they approached the group, a security representative called to say that another group had arrived at the arena, and it might contain the target. Nash’s most prominent identifying feature is a star tattoo located under his chin, and the cops couldn’t see the necks of the late arrivals as they passed by in their heavy winter coats. But with only three officers versus as many as 20 CDS members, they didn’t want to start asking questions in a head-on confrontation.
Without warning, chaos erupted. It turned out that another juvenile gang (later identified as a CDS offshoot called the Jupiter Boys) was seated just a few rows in front of the CDS members, and as more of the former’s members arrived, they seized the upper hand and pounced. The two groups proceeded to pound each other – terrifying families with kids sitting nearby – until security and the Fusion officers broke up the brawl.
In the confusion, gang members scattered and ran for the exits, and as they fled, Draeger caught a glimpse of someone he thought might be Nash. The detective grabbed his arm and pulled him to the side.
He asked his name. The man gave a fake one, but the blue star on his neck left no doubt. Fusion had its man.
Juvenile offenders are perhaps the biggest challenge facing the Milwaukee Police Department, especially on the North Side. A perfect storm of bad parenting, a dysfunctional juvenile justice system and a criminal power vacuum brought on, at least in part, by Fusion’s success in defeating adult criminals has left many young ones to operate unchecked.
When convicted of crimes, probation is often the punishment imposed, and juveniles routinely ignore its restrictions. They stay out late and continue to affiliate with gang members despite requirements that they do otherwise.
Officers say these violations are difficult to enforce, making it hard for the system to associate bad behavior with immediate consequences.
Like many CDS members, a female leader who goes by the name “Braceface” is serving probation for a theft conviction, but she rarely follows the terms of her probation, according to police.
Fusion grapples with a number of juvenile robbery crews. Detectives arrest their members and watch them cycle through the juvenile court system, only to land on the street again and back in the Fusion Center’s sights.
Nash, now older than 18, no longer falls under the juvenile procedures and will face the adult criminal system on charges of robbery and auto theft. And he can count on documentation compiled by Fusion showing the judge every contact he’s had with police since he was 9 years old, all to illustrate a pattern of habitual criminal behavior.
*The print version of the article mistakenly said Eric Draeger was a detective. He is a police officer.
Capt. Jason Smith, at 44 years old, is Flynn’s man for making this a reality. As comfortable standing before the brass during the department’s weekly CompStat meeting as he is talking to a group of legal secretaries at a luncheon, he’s quick-witted and personable.
After 22 years in the department, he knows how to play the game. Using analysis of intelligence, he comes up with plans that the police districts can implement to combat emerging crime trends, but because politics prevail and district captains ultimately control their own deployments, he has to sell his ideas and convince others to use them without appearing to take over.
One of Smith’s most effective initiatives is called the “21.” Using threat assessments, a survey of likely perpetrators, target packages and even a little predictive analysis, the Fusion Center helps a district carry out a 21-day focused deployment targeting a specific issue, such as auto theft.
Being predictive – anticipating and stopping a crime before it happens – is the ultimate expression of Fusion’s efforts. Shutting down CDS’ plans at summer festivals in 2012 may have seemed predictive to the kids in the gang, but it was really just a response to intelligence. Flynn hopes that Fusion will eventually be able to predict motivated crimes using nothing but data. The Center’s computer systems may one day be able to alert its investigators to who might get shot, and by whom.
A type of surveillance technology, ShotSpotter, is moving them toward this goal at a surprisingly rapid pace. On the North Side, the system’s acoustic sensors form a four-square-mile perimeter around the most violent neighborhoods in the city, and every time a gun is fired, the sensors use the sound to triangulate its location within feet.
A human analyst in California then verifies that the “pop” was indeed gunfire and not a firecracker or car backfire, and so – within seconds – Milwaukee police have had the spot pinpointed, confirmed and ready for a response.
Fusion compiles confirmed gunshots for analysis. In one of his studies, Blaszak discovered that citizens in the ShotSpotter coverage area were only calling the police 14 percent of the time when shots were fired. In other words, gunshots were being vastly underreported in the city, pre-ShotSpotter.
These days, police respond to nearly all the shots, including the 86 percent they otherwise would have missed.
Blaszak has pushed the limits of ShotSpotter’s capabilities in other ways. In the fall, between Nov. 18 and Nov. 27, he discovered the system had registered 86 shots in the area of 29th and Locust streets, a rain of fire that he later learned was caused primarily by a feud over drug territory.
With Harms’ help, Blaszak profiled people associated with the houses and found some had warrants or were in violation of parole or probation. Police followed up with arrests, and between Nov. 29 and early February, ShotSpotter picked up not one gunshot in the area.
Blaszak has also exploited the system in a way it was never intended to be used. Because its sensors are essentially microphones, it sometimes records evidence that isn’t gunfire. The sounds could be the voices of victims or shooters shouting something that could uncover a clue for investigators.
Blaszak has successfully obtained a court order for such an audio clip from the ShotSpotter Co. He admits he’s treading into a territory where prevailing notions of civil liberties are sketchy at best, but he says he’s done everything he can to operate within the law.
Applegate had recently been partnered with FBI agent Robert Botsch to investigate South Side gang activity. Their latest catch was Glen Swift, leader of the gang La Familia. They suspected he’d carried out a shooting in September that injured but didn’t kill Robert “Puppet” Lopez, leader of rival gang Los Primos.
Swift was already a convicted felon, and knowing he was in deep, he offered to provide information on La Familia. “That FBI badge is a powerful tool,” Applegate says. “Just having FBI Rob in the room had this guy thinking he was going to get indicted. That scares these guys shitless, and they start talking.”
Applegate and Botsch refused a deal but convinced Swift to start talking anyway. He revealed that his gang was nursing plans to finish off Puppet and murder three Milwaukee police officers in a coordinated attack.
Gang members had already been following police officer Tim Keller and learning his daily routines. Keller, a young District 2 cop, had been all over La Familia, and they wanted him gone. The second target, officer Jolene Lopez, happened to be Puppet’s cousin, and the third, Raymond Brock, was another District 2 officer who had the gang’s number.
Keller had recently executed a search warrant at a La Familia house, where Lopez was brought in to conduct a body search that angered a female resident, Maricela Gullicksen. This woman later claimed Lopez was texting Puppet during the search. Convinced the cop was using both legal and illegal means to fight them, La Familia planned an assassination operation and tacked on two other officers who’d previously targeted the gang, Keller and Brock.
The plan was to find Puppet on the street and place a fake distress call to police, which members thought would lure Lopez to the scene. A guy named Joe Frazier (aka Gorilla Joe), armed with a hunting rifle, would fire on the two from a distance. Gorilla Joe would shoot Keller in a similar fashion while the officer was playing basketball or mowing his lawn.
Within hours of Smith giving the nod, Milwaukee police and their FBI and ATF partners had a dozen La Familia gang members in custody. There wasn’t enough evidence, however, to tie seven of the 12 to the assassination conspiracy. Detectives and agents worked around the clock to connect them with other cases to keep them behind bars, but investigators faced a deadline: Once probable cause has been
established, police only have 72 hours to charge suspects, or they must be released.
Fusion Detectives Applegate, Obregon and Michael Caballero, as well as ATF agent John Adamson and FBI agent Botsch, pressed the La Familia members hard, pulling them from their cells every few hours for questioning and escorting them right back.
The Fusion personnel barely slept, and progress was glacial. But as the deadline approached, the gangsters started slipping. “Again, just having FBI Rob in the room was huge,” Applegate says. “Sitting there in his FBI shirt, he would remind them that if they lied to him, they would get an extra five years.”
Details the officers could leverage for further information trickled in, and a stream began to form. “It took to the 71st hour, but we got our confessions,” Applegate says.
Finally, Fusion’s Laura Crivello (the assistant district attorney) raced to draft charges against the gang members. With little time to spare, the threat was on lockdown.
On Sept. 16, Crivello filed formal charges against five of the men and one of the women who were interrogated. Facing allegations of conspiracy to commit first-degree intentional homicide, each could spend up to 60 years in prison.
“Having the FBI, the ATF, the District 2 anti-gang unit and the district attorney’s office involved with Fusion,” Applegate says, “this is the reason this all came together.”
One by one, Fusion Center personnel received the call to respond. Smith tasked his cell phone tracking team with locating shooter Radcliffe Haughton’s phone, which was still inside the spa. Later, police would announce Haughton had shot himself after killing three women, including his estranged wife, and injuring four.
The Fusion captain instructed a bomb team to examine suspicious materials at the scene, and detectives interviewed witnesses while establishing the same type of command center as in Oak Creek.
“I hate to say it,” Smith says today, “but we’re getting really good at this.” For the citizens of southeastern Wisconsin, that’s a realization that’s both reassuring and disturbing.
“In a way, Fusion is like a military special-ops team,” Blaszak says. “You have several high-functioning individuals, masters at different things, who work seamlessly together. We quietly arrive at a scene, quietly determine how best we can help, then quietly leave.”