“This is the FBI! Throw down your weapon and come out with your hands up!” My heart races as I huddle atop a tall dresser in the pitch-dark bedroom of the squalid townhouse, clutching my Smith & Wesson. “Last chance! Open the door or we’ll kick it in.”
“I’m innocent!” I shout.
Wham! The door nearly flies off its hinges. I listen as the agents search room by room, moving cautiously, methodically, whispering, “slice the pie” and “clear.” A Maglite rolls across the doorway, casting a fan of light over the floorboards, but my dresser is still safe in the shadows. A few inches off the floor, a mirror on a pole pokes around the doorjamb as an agent scans the room low, looking for feet—I knew he’d miss me crouched on top of the dresser. Slowly he enters the room: his gun, his arm, finally his whole body. He seems focused on the walk-in closet across the room. “Eat plastic, G-man!” I shout, shooting him in the back, but before I can leap for cover, two husky agents burst into the room and empty their Glocks into me. Ouch! A couple have shots would have sufficed, guys.
After a quick inventory of my groin, I ponder my performance. Hiding atop the dresser worked, but shooting the agent in the back? Craven. Maybe I should have taken him hostage and negotiated my way out? No biggie. I’ll get another chance in fifteen minutes and one thing’s for sure: it never goes down the same way twice.
Welcome to Hogan’s Alley, Virginia. You won’t find it on any map. This is the home of the FBI Academy’s Practical Applications Unit. It’s a quasi-secret training facility where newly minted agents get one last chance to make fatal errors without incurring fatal consequences. It’s also where I spent my weekends one year, at one of the coolest gigs in the world: hoodlum for hire. When I heard about Hogan’s Alley, a mock city where rookie feds practice realistic arrests on a cadre of role-players, I figured why not? Play urban paintball against the country’s top cops? Sounds too fun to be a real job.
A little research led me to the outfit that recruits role-players for the Bureau and a phone call secured me an interview—an exercise scary in its simplicity. The woman in charge asked me why I wanted to join. “What could be more rewarding than helping teach the good guys something that might save their lives on the street,” I said. It’s fun to shoot things, I thought.
“You start Saturday,” she said, “and I hope you’re not a sissy ‘cause you’re gonna get bruised.” Thus ended the only job interview I’ve ever done buck-naked. Did I mention the interview took place over the phone?
Just like that, I was in. I arrived for my first day, anticipating a charred urban battleground, but instead found… Mayberry. Hogan’s Alley, nestled in the woods on the U.S. Marine Base at Quantico, is a quaint sixteen-acre enclave, complete with a bank, post office, motel, apartments, restaurant and liquor store. Except for the lack of a Starbucks, it looks like a real town. I drove by the Biograph Theater, whose anachronistic marquee heralds Manhattan Melodrama (the movie John Dillinger was leaving when the FBI gave him a case of lead poisoning), and parked at the Dogwood Inn, role-player headquarters, for orientation.
The other role-players—mainly ex-cops, firemen and agents’ wives—were nice enough, but the way they were constantly comparing battle scars and sprains began to unnerve me. An instructor equipped me: a mask to protect my face, a bulletproof vest to protect my torso, and a towel stuffed down my crotch to protect the “long arm of the law.” The gun he gave me was real but fired hollow plastic bullets filled with red paint; when shot, we would dye instead of die.
Next the instructor briefed us on the rules of engagement. We were not supposed to go on a mad-dog killing-spree when the agents collared us. If they used cover and talked us out effectively, we were supposed to give up. But if they gave us a clean shot, we could take it. Before each scenario, we were given a rap sheet on our criminal persona so we could improvise the encounters realistically. (Was I a white-collar criminal with a family and no record? A PCP-crazed killer with two priors and nothing to lose?) And, like S&M aficionados, we even had a code word in case things got too dicey (“Code Red”). It didn’t take long to discover why.
Indeed, being armed and dangerous and mouthing off to a team of highly trained federal agents is not an enviable position. You will get an attitude adjustment. Think about the show Cops and how the perps get manhandled. Now think about undergoing that treatment eight hours a day. By the end of my first shift, my wrists throbbed from the handcuffs; new agents mistake them for tourniquets. Despite our protective gear, I learned that a shot to the hand leaves a welt for a week. Worse still was the gauntlet agents put us through to get us close enough to cuff without abandoning cover. Their favorite stunt was having us walk backwards to them on our knees. Hands in the air. On gravelly roads. Try it.
Then there was the Drug Enforcement Administration. In addition to the one thousand FBI agents who tested their adrenal glands at Hogan’s Alley, we sometimes encountered teams from DEA. And like many a cocaine mule before me, I grew to fear them. FBI agents share a certain all-American wholesomeness lacking in the hard-boiled, edgy DEA recruits. FBI agents look like they’d kill you, then go to confession; DEA agents look like they’d kill you, then go for a meatball sub.
In time, though, as the physical abuse became commonplace, the job settled into a strange blur of crime. My “workdays” revolved around chases, arrests, and interrogations. My “projects” involved around kidnappings, bank robberies, extortion, drug deals and white-collar stings. Hanging out between scenarios, twirling my gun and practicing my quick-draw in the paint-splattered, crackhouse-minimalist building interiors merely added to the surreal environment. The furniture at Hogan’s takes a vicious beating; we use it for cover, barricades and battering rams. Best of all? For car chases they let us use spoils of the Drug War: confiscated dealer rides. There’s nothing like rollin’ down Main Street in a rap-blaring, gold El Dorado, sawed-off shotgun in your lap, eyes peeled for the Feds to make you say, “What the hell am I doing?”
Role-players are supposed to do anything to rattle the agents—a challenge I took to with villainous delight. I began barking campy tough-guy talk (“I’m gonna perforate you like a sheet of stamps!”). I would fake a sneeze when being cuffed to see if a jittery rookie might mistake my lurch for a gun grab and waste me. When surrendering, I neutralized poorly-positioned agents by walking out at angles that put them in a crossfire. I shot agents who used flimsy sheet metal car doors for cover, instead of the solid engine block. I tried every film noir trick I could remember. I stuck sneakers out from behind curtains and made decoys under blankets using pillows.
No question about it: as the weeks went by, I was getting the hang of the criminal life. I started to enjoy being handcuffed—by the female agents at least. Soon I had more practical experience than the recruits I faced. My heart no longer leapt into my throat at the sound of “Freeze! FBI!” I was becoming hardened.
Now generally, pitted against a squad of the Bureau’s finest, the outnumbered role-player has as much chance of winning a scenario as Wile E. Coyote has of catching the Road Runner. But when you play “cops and robbers,” it’s not just the cops who get more proficient. By mid-summer, I began to perfect my craft and occasionally found myself besting the agents. Once I beat a team of ten in a supposedly unwinnable exercise where I had to drive to a location at night and pick up a bag of extortion money under heavy surveillance. Although I can’t reveal my techniques, let’s just say there are times in life when it pays to wear all black, douse the headlights, kill the engine, roll to a stop, exit a car silently from the passenger window and crawl in the shadows to a drop location.
My finest hour, my crème de la crime, came one Saturday afternoon. Three agents picked me up with a gun in my backpack and a can of mace stashed in my boot. After one agent frisked my clean leg I started badgering her: “Let’s see some ID; what’s the charge?” Flustered, she checked the same leg twice, overlooking my mace. Another agent searched my bag and, incredibly, missed the gun. They cuffed me and led me to an interrogation room. Once there, I feigned that the cuffs were too tight. What’s the harm, they figured. They had guns and I had been frisked, so they unshackled me. When two agents stepped outside for a quick powwow I made my move. Staring at the wall behind the third agent I said, “That’s an ironic painting for an interrogation room.” As he glanced back at the empty wall, I grabbed my mace, sprayed him, lunged for my bag, yanked out the gun and shot him. As the other agents ran in, I blew them away too. The oldest trick in the book? Sure. But it was new to them.
That night, driving home after my triumph, I was euphoric, in the grips of the against-all-odds buzz to which lifelong felons become addicted. I began to fantasize about following the career path of the legendary role-player who decided to parlay his experience robbing banks at Hogan’s Alley into a lucrative career as… a bank robber. The line between fantasy and reality was blurring. So, just like that, I quit.
Still, as I walk down the streets of my hometown, I sometimes gaze a bit too long at the underprotected storefronts. Perhaps I stare at the unguarded entrance to the local bank. And maybe, once in a while, I think, hmm…
This essay originally appeared in somewhat different form in P.O.V. magazine.