If the van was a hassle, paperwork was a trial of faith. Each interaction with a suspect required a report from the UCs, which became part of a larger report placing the deal in the broader context of the sting. Phone calls, recorded conversations, and taped transactions had to be meticulously logged, as did every item the team purchased or swapped. Much of this recordkeeping fell to Trudeau and Vega, who spent manic hours finessing Excel spreadsheets.
The UCs got leads from across the county, which meant lots of driving and waiting around for deals that only sometimes materialized. Motorcycle thieves were never punctual, and they didn’t keep normal business hours. Watson and Clifford had to take calls in the middle of the night, snapping into character while half asleep. Since the Investigative Services Unit couldn’t spare the manpower, team members had to work a regular caseload on top of everything else. Each morning the investigators guzzled pots of coffee, and it was only a matter of time before mistakes began to happen.
Trudeau stood inside the Fish Bowl, a sweaty briefing room with floor-to-ceiling windows that trapped the autumn sun, doubling its heat. He walked slowly through the day’s plan. It was the height of the investigation, and the officers had the routine down pat, but Trudeau still seemed incapable of a quick summary. They’d be doing another deal with another new suspect that afternoon, he said. They’d have another “takedown word” in case something went wrong, and a safety hand signal. Their wires were prone to going on the fritz, like much of their equipment. In case that failsafe failed, Trudeau had mapped out an escape route for his UCs. He wanted them to pay attention to various signs that might indicate an ambush on the part of the seller—darting eyes, nervous twitches. Watson and Clifford had memorized the spiel, and squished breath-close with a supervisor in the Fish Bowl, they just wanted to get on with the job. “Perimeter team,” Trudeau insisted, “you need to be in location, staged, and ready, with vests and gear in position.”
The day didn’t get off to a good start. Trudeau and Vega were sweltering in their surveillance vehicle. A hundred yards away, in the sun-baked parking lot of a Tujunga Vons, the wired undercover officers sat in the Astro. They’d been talking to the suspect on the phone, sending texts, jumping in and out of the van, cursing. The seller got cold feet. Why couldn’t they come to his house instead? he wanted to know. No way, Trudeau thought. A private residence was an uncontrolled environment. Too risky.
As afternoon edged toward dusk, Watson became impatient. He thought they should drive to the suspect’s house. Trudeau compromised. It would be crazy to go to the guy’s house, but if they moved the deal closer to the suspect, maybe he would agree to meet them. The surveillance truck pulled away from the Vons ahead of the UCs and drove a mile and a half down the road, setting up outside a busy McDonald’s. Trudeau and Vega listened, waiting for the concealed wires the UCs were wearing to come into range. Anticipation hung in the french fry-scented air.
A few hundred yards away, the battered Astro pulled up to the suspect’s house. Disobeying orders, Watson veered from the plan. As the suspect came out to greet them, Watson stormed out of the van and began cussing him out for making him wait. Clifford, who wasn’t comfortable going rogue, emerged slowly from the van and was soon waylaid by a neighbor who didn’t want people walking across his lawn. Inspecting the bike they were supposed to purchase, Watson began to argue with the suspect about price. In the end the UCs didn’t have enough money to make the buy. As Watson and the suspect continued haggling, a car cruised down the street. Inside was the head of that afternoon’s perimeter security team. In the frantic moments after the UCs went off the grid, officers had fanned out to look for them. Trudeau was sitting inside the surveillance truck, spitting mad. He struggled to understand how his careful plan had been shot to hell.
The ruined deal strained everyone’s nerves, and another blow was waiting. In the course of buying dozens of motorcycles, the UCs had done their fair share of heavy lifting. Most sport bikes weigh less than 400 pounds, light enough for two people lifting one wheel at a time to load and unload. Following a successful buy, Watson and Clifford would take their stable of stolen bikes to a CHP-affiliated tow yard. One afternoon as they were unloading, a bike slipped. Watson strained to keep it from crashing out of the van. His next sensation wasn’t pain exactly; it felt as if hot liquid had been poured down his back. After limping through a few more days of work, he went to see a doctor and discovered he had a herniated disc and a torn tendon in his elbow. The recovery would keep him off the job for months.
Watson had been a source of goodwill and bawdy cheer, and he was a counterbalance to Trudeau. The loss hit Clifford the hardest. Watson was his buddy, his professional better half, and now he was on his own. With his partner’s help, he had become more animated and confident during deals. He would have to supply the undercover charisma himself, along with the procedural know-how to get suspects to admit to crimes.
By mid-2013, the operation had grown onerous. The team could have gone on building new cases indefinitely, but the personal toll was too great. Down a man, the three remaining investigators were exhausted. Trudeau and Vega began preparing reports for the District Attorney’s office. Since the investigation had started more than two years ago, they had lost contact with most of their early sellers. To make their busts, they first had to reestablish contact.
Clifford called Biscuit, who, improbably, seemed to have risen far and fast. He’d moved out of his uncle’s business and into a shop of his own. From the sound of it, he’d become a major motorcycle parts supplier for L.A. County. The investigators recalled the clueless kid who’d copped to selling them stolen merchandise at their first meeting. They decided to do one more deal to update their case on him. Clifford had been going undercover alone after Watson’s injury, but for the meeting with Biscuit he decided to pull in a young investigator named Jason Gonzalez. The kid had never worked undercover before, and Clifford wanted to show him the ropes, as Watson had done for him.
Biscuit’s new shop was in Huntington Park. When the UCs arrived at a nearby Burger King, Biscuit rolled up in a Nissan pickup truck and led them back to his place, the entrance of which was in an alley. Clifford and Gonzalez had concocted a cover that was sure to appeal to Biscuit. The two of them had met at a party in Vegas, hit it off, and now were on their way to do some harder partying in San Diego.
“Oh man, you’re going to love the Gaslamp,” Biscuit said.
His shop was impressive, a clean, open space full of professional-grade tools, a long way from the dingy corner at his uncle’s landscaping business. Biscuit took them to a loft space upstairs. A disco ball hung from the ceiling, and a giant bong leaned against a wall. Biscuit asked if they wanted beers, but then he remembered he had only one left, and the offer was awkwardly rescinded. He had taken a trip to Europe, a sign of his growing stature, and he was eager to tell Gonzalez all about his female conquests. In the background Clifford wandered around taking photos of the shop.
As they were driving away with a Yamaha R6 motor, the investigators noticed a black Suzuki pulling up. Trudeau, watching from the surveillance truck, called Clifford’s cell and asked if they could go back inside to ID the driver. It was never too late to snare a new suspect, and Trudeau took enormous pride in the unit’s increasing stack of case files. The UCs returned, saying they had changed their mind about the second engine. With Biscuit vouching for them, the Suzuki rider spoke openly about his criminal dealings. The suspect list had grown by one.
The arrests were carried out strategically over a six-month period by the CHP’s warrant services team. Dressed head to toe in tactical gear, Operation Wheel Spin investigators spread out to see the culmination of their more than two-and-a-half years of hard work. Fittingly, Trudeau oversaw Biscuit’s takedown. As the warrant team moved in on Biscuit’s shop, they found his Nissan pickup parked at the entrance to the alleyway. They would need to break down the shop door if Biscuit didn’t comply, and so they needed clear access to the alley. A tow truck backed up and pulled the Nissan out of the way. A member of the warrant team did a knock-and-notice. “Search warrant! Police! Open the door!” An officer with a battering ram stood at the ready, but after a few moments Biscuit appeared in the doorway. The police grabbed him, and members of the team rushed in to clear the shop. Biscuit was handcuffed and passed back to Trudeau. Biscuit had never seen the man who was escorting him before—just another cop in an alley full of commando-looking dudes—but Trudeau had been watching Biscuit through the windshield of a surveillance truck for years. Back at the Investigative Services Unit, a roomful of Trudeau’s immediate superiors and top CHP brass received a play-by-play of the action with real-time photos and text updates. A cheer went up when they saw an image of Trudeau arresting Biscuit.
Operation Wheel Spin yielded 51 arrests. In all, the team recovered 110 stolen vehicles with a market value of $848,140. Defense attorneys are quick to home in on minor reporting errors in complex investigations such as Wheel Spin, and they pull hard on those loose threads. But the pairing of Trudeau and Vega, armed with their dossier of carefully organized spreadsheets, left little chance of that happening. As of this writing, only one suspect’s case has gone as far as a preliminary trial, while the other suspects have pleaded guilty or no contest in exchange for reduced sentences.
Biscuit, whose record before Wheel Spin was negligible, pleaded guilty to 18 felonies and is serving five years’ probation. For all the investigators’ anxiety, sleepless nights, and physical pain, the lack of prison time for the biggest players has been dispiriting. Still they’re hopeful that the true success of Wheel Spin will be evident when the 2014 motorcycle theft statistics come out. There were 1,589 motorcycles stolen countywide in 2013, and early indications are that the numbers this year will be notably lower. There’s no question that L.A.’s law-abiding riders will have the CHP to thank.
Despite the success of Operation Wheel Spin, Trudeau declared to anyone who would listen that he would never lead another undercover investigation again. He fronts a heavy metal band and would focus on the upcoming release of an EP. “He’s just going to need a little time to cool off,” Clifford predicted. He was right. In January Trudeau transferred to a new unit. When asked if he’d consider another sting, Trudeau replied with a knowing chuckle, “Never say never.”
Greg Nichols is a journalist based in Los Angeles. His first book, Striking Gridiron: A Town’s Pride and a Team’s Shot at Glory During the Biggest Strike in American
History, was published last year. He rides a motorcycle.
This feature originally appears in the March 2015 issue of Los Angeles magazine.