AP NEWS
Related topics

It’s tough being 32 going on 19.

June 26, 1997

QUINCY, Mass. (AP) _ It’s tough being 32 going on 19.

You have to learn a new style of dress _ baggy is best. New music _ bands like Pearl Jam and Marilyn Manson. New slang _ ``killer″ is more ``phat″ than ``cool.″

``Jim,″ a 32-year-old deputy sheriff for Norfolk County, spent seven months posing as a 19-year-old Quincy High School senior.

Though out of high school for nearly 15 years, Jim became just another local teen-age punk. He tooled around in his beat-up car with the music pumping at full volume. He cut class. And he bought dope.

By the time spring finals rolled around, Jim had supplied the cops with enough evidence to arrest 17 classmates on various drug charges, mostly marijuana-related.

``Operation Graduation″ was the second undercover school assignment for Jim, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition that his real name not be used. It won’t be his last, his supervisors said.

How did Jim prepare for class?

First, he scoped out teen-agers to see what they were wearing and how they walked. He quizzed young relatives of friends to learn what music they liked and what expressions they used.

Then it was time to shop. He bought baseball caps, baggy pants, big flannel shirts and oversized sweat shirts that dwarfed his 5-foot-5-inch frame.

It was a bit like being in Hollywood, with one enormous difference.

``If you’re an actor in a movie and people don’t believe you, you get a bad review. If they don’t believe you here, you get jammed up pretty quick,″ he said.

Sure, he’s a youthful-looking guy. But his receding sandy hairline and the fine lines on his face needed some explaining.

So he shared a dirty secret with a chatty cheerleader: A steroid addiction thinned his hair and wrinkled his face.

``Please,″ he begged, ``don’t tell anyone.″

Within 48 hours, his ``secret″ was everywhere, Jim said.

Only Quincy’s police drug unit, mayor, school superintendent and a school security official knew his true identity.

To his peers and teachers, Jim was just a troubled transfer student living with his uncle. An older drug detective from the Quincy Police Department posed as the relative when Jim enrolled in school in October.

Jim’s parents were dead, the story went, and the uncle was trying to shape him up for a military career. An answering machine at the police department recorded messages for Jim and his ``uncle.″

He took the same classes as other students: math, English, typing and a work study that allowed him to skip gym. He got mostly B’s and C’s.

He slipped spelling and grammatical errors into English exams and made his handwriting sloppier. After acing his first math quizzes, he began inserting mistakes to diminish suspicion.

At first, he was having a tough time meeting the druggie crowd. So he started showing up late for homeroom and cutting English class to get detention. That’s where he would meet the drug users.

``All they could do was talk about it,″ he said. ``Their lives revolved around drugs.″

Soon, he became one of them, hanging out in the hallways and at a local pizza place.

Many of the high school’s 1,200 students later said they felt betrayed.

``That guy sucks,″ said sophomore Pat Kerfien. ``You shouldn’t do that to your friends. He acted like he was friends.″

Jim said the students were deceiving themselves. He never joined them in trips to the mall, the movies, the beach or anything social.

This was the fifth undercover operation in Quincy. A sting five years ago yielded 34 mostly drug-related arrests, police said.

High school stings are rare nationally because few communities are willing to devote the time and money, and the stings can backfire. The only charges filed in two small-town stings in Wyoming in 1992 were against the informant _ for taking indecent liberties with a minor.

In the last 18 months alone, undercover school stings have been tried with varying success in communities including Los Angeles; San Francisco; St. Petersburg, Fla., Logansport, Ind.; and Molalla, Ore.

Morton Feldman, executive vice president of the National Association of Chiefs of Police, said the time and trouble of stings can be well worth it.

``If this school is infected, how many other schools are infected and how do you gather this information without this investment?″ Feldman said.

Although some Quincy teachers were upset they did not know about the operation, other educators thought the secrecy was necessary.

And several students said the alleged drug users deserved what they got.

``The guy looked like he was 37 years old and everybody knew,″ said sophomore Brent Dennis. ``But I guess there were some people who were stupid enough to believe it.″

AP RADIO
Update hourly