Ross plaza shootout spurs scrutiny over undercover drug buys in public places
Michael Botta orchestrated more undercover drug buys than he can count over more than two decades as a federal narcotics officer.
The retired Drug Enforcement Administration agent, who also had stints with the FBI and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said that the unpredictable nature of sting operations requires careful planning and experienced officers trained to de-escalate potentially violent encounters.
He and fellow DEA agents also had a critical guiding principle when arranging drug deal setups: Avoid doing them in crowded, public locations whenever possible.
“You always steer away from big public places,” said Botta, now chairman of Point Park University’s criminal justice department. “It’s just not worth it. You’ve got to protect the public first. Anything could happen. … A bullet could ricochet and strike somebody. You err on the side of caution.
“The case does not come before civilian protection, ever.”
Shootout at North Hills shopping plaza spurs scrutiny
The shootout that wounded an undercover officer last week at a bustling North Hills shopping center has prompted concerns and scrutiny over the practice of conducting controlled drug buys in public places.
Shoppers browsed the sales racks at Big Lots, patrons munched on sandwiches at Subway and children played on the jungle gym behind TenderCare Learning Center at the plaza in Ross shortly after 1 p.m. Tuesday when several gunshots fired in the parking lot a few hundred feet away.
None of the workers or customers knew that minutes earlier, undercover agents had been attempting a so-called “buy-bust operation” in the parking lot of the McKnight Northland plaza while the always steady traffic flowed past on McKnight Road/Route 19.
When something went awry and multiple shots rang out, day care workers rushed the kids inside and went on lockdown. Employees in storefronts bolted their doors.
At least a few Big Lots employees and shoppers ran to the back of the store and hid in the warehouse, moving a refrigerator in front of a door to barricade themselves inside. Others said they didn’t realize anything had happened until they came outside to see that police and medics swarming two bullet-riddled cars in the parking lot.
A body covered with a white sheet lay next to those cars for several hours. Authorities blocked off a large section of the parking area as investigators took photos, marked evidence and interviewed witnesses.
The gunfire that rattled the plaza — which also includes a dance studio, fitness center, school uniform store, tutoring center and medical and dentist offices — was exchanged between the drug suspect and one or more officers, officials said.
An undercover agent with the state Attorney General’s Office was shot twice by the suspect, prompting agents to return fire, officials said. Medics rushed the officer to Allegheny General Hospital Pittsburgh to be treated for non-life-threatening injuries.
The suspect, 31-year-old Omari Ali Thompson, died in the parking lot of gunshot wounds to his neck and torso, the Allegheny County Medical Examiner’s Office said.
Roberta Benko, who frequents the McKnight Northland plaza, left the Big Lots store Friday afternoon and reflected that had she been there at the same time there days prior, “I’d have been in the back of that store hiding somewhere.”
The 62-year-old McKees Rocks woman said she doesn’t want to second-guess police, but she questioned why the undercover drug buy had to happen “in the middle of the afternoon, where there’s people, there’s kids, the day care’s right there.” She said she’s glad the officer is recovering and that no one else got hurt, but she hopes officials think carefully before “they try something like this again.”
“It happened in Kennedy, too,” said Benko, referring to the May 7 incident involving an undercover drug buy at the Kenmawr Plaza near a Beer 4 Less store. That sting resulted in police shooting a suspect twice in the arm after he rammed an unmarked police vehicle with his car, injuring two officers.
“Maybe there’s a lot of factors” at play that led to Tuesday’s undercover drug buy at the Ross plaza, said Botta, the former DEA agent. Botta has no knowledge of the incident or ensuing investigation other than what officials have said publicly.
“But I would’ve attempted not to go into a crowded place in the middle of the afternoon,” Botta told the Tribune-Review. “You may assess the target and say he or she isn’t violent, but you just never know.”
Court records show that Thompson has a criminal record dating to 2007 in Allegheny County that includes convictions related to drugs, firearms and assault charges, including assault by a prisoner. He was on probation related to a 2016 drug and gun possession conviction when he was killed.
Letting drug dealers ‘dictate’ meetups
When pressed about why Tuesday’s drug buy happened at a busy shopping center, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro said that undercover agents are involved in “dangerous work” and investigators “don’t get to dictate the terms of every location where we meet.”
“In this case, understand, this individual decided to discharge his weapon into an agent of the Office of Attorney General,” Shapiro said outside Allegheny General Hospital shortly after visiting with the wounded officer’s family. “(The suspect) made the decision to make this a dangerous moment. He made that decision to take another person’s life.”
Today, one of our OAG officers was shot twice in Western PA during an operation by our Bureau of Narcotics Investigations.
Thankfully, he is in stable condition w/ no life-threatening injuries.
I'll be heading to Allegheny Co. to visit w/ him & his family.
— AG Josh Shapiro (@PAAttorneyGen) July 23, 2019
The Attorney General’s Office deferred questions to Allegheny County Police, the lead investigating agency into the Ross plaza shooting.
County detectives briefed Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala on the investigation on Thursday, Zappala spokesman Manko said.
“The shooting involved in the Attorney General’s drug detail resulted in serious consequences: the death of one man and the potential death of a police officer,” Manko said. “The Allegheny County Police are investigating the facts and circumstances that led to this particular conclusion.”
Police have not provided official updates on the case since Tuesday night.
Tony Weisser, 38, whose sister-in-law works at Big Lots and heard the shooting, is fearful for her safety.
Weisser, a recovering heroin addict who has been clean for nine years, said he knows more about undercover buys than the average person because he was nabbed in one. An undercover officer busted him years ago after he attempted to buy opiates at a McDonald’s parking lot around 2 p.m.
“I know they do it for a specific reason. Most dealers want to met in areas like this for buys because they think that they’re safer,” Weisser said. “Do I question it? Yeah, I do. But I mean, I can’t be mad at them for trying to get drugs off the streets.”
Botta said that while dealers will often try to force a meetup at a less-than-desirable location, law enforcement officers must take charge of the operation and call off a meetup off if they suspect it could go awry or put any bystanders in potential danger.
“There’s been countless times when I was the head of an operation and it was a risky type of undercover buy and the bad guy wants to have it in public and I wouldn’t do it,” Botta said. “Not because I was afraid of him, but because I don’t want to put civilians at risk.”
Though calling off a deal could delay a case, Botta said that in his experience, dealers almost “always come back” and try to arrange another meetup.
Preparing for an undercover buy
Botta preferred doing controlled drug buys at places such as cemeteries and empty parking lots.
“If you want to do it at the mall, you do it at 11 o’clock at night,” he said. “You analyze the risk, how many people work there, what could go wrong.”
The stings typically involved a dozen or more officers, with some assigned to surveillance and others positioned nearby to provide backup if necessary. Botta said he would often notify local hospitals to be on standby in case something went wrong.
“It is tough, but there are places you can pick; you can hide agents and officers safely in case there is trouble and they can move in quickly and quash it,” Botta said.
An approach that could help thwart violent confrontations is to run the undercover buy without a bust and arrest and charge the suspect later.
“If they don’t get busted right away, you gain their confidence,” Botta said.
Last year, 29-year-old Stacey Fitzgerald “Ace” O’Neal of New Kensington is accused of completing at least three cocaine deals with undercover officers and an informant at the suspect’s home and nearby alleyways through April 2018, but he wasn’t charged and taken into custody at Westmoreland County Prison until late August.
Springdale and Cheswick police nabbed accused dealer, Shawnti “Savage” Shifflett, 23, of New Kensington after Shifflett allegedly sold 20 packets of heroin to an undercover officer and an informant inside a hotel room at a Days Inn in January 2018 — but Shifflett was not arrested and charged until April of this year.
Undercover drug buys often involve cooperation among several local and state or federal agents as part of joint task forces.
Despite the volatility and risks of undercover buys, Botta said that roughly “99% of them are safe” and don’t result in physical harm.
“There is no such thing as routine undercover operations, and nothing is 100% safe, but you try to plan for the worst and hope for the best type a thing,” Botta said. “You’ve got to know your atmosphere and you’ve got to know your opponent, and even with the best planning, you just don’t know. It’s a risky business.”
Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Natasha at 412-380-8514, [email protected] or via Twitter .