10 AMAZING UNDERCOVER STORIES
Have you ever wished you were somebody else? We all have, whether it’s a fantasy of being a man of mystery and derring-do or just not stuck at our crappy job for another day. But a few brave souls take this outside the world of imagination and into reality, taking on a second identity and going undercover in seriously weird places. In this feature, we’ll share ten stories of men and women who adopted double identities and infiltrated all kinds of groups.
John Howard Griffin
Being a black man in the late 1950s was a tough ticket, especially in the American South. Although the tides of civil rights were turning, African-Americans still faced discrimination. White writer John Howard Griffin had a doctor prescribe him large doses of the vitiligo treatment methoxsalen and spent 18 hours a day under a UV lamp that brought out the melanin in his skin, turning him a dark brown. He then shaved his head and, as a black man, traveled from New Orleans to Atlanta. His experiences on the road put the racial situation in stark focus, as he was threatened, insulted and discriminated against. When he finished his journey, he fled to a monastery to clear humanity’s evil from his mind.
If I was a cop (and I’m not, so feel free to do crimes in front of me), going undercover would be the pinnacle of my career. Hundreds of movies have been made about good men forced to be bad to blend in with the scum of the earth, but reality is usually different. That is, unless you’re William Queen. In 1998, the ATF agent embedded himself with the notorious Mongols motorcycle gang for two years, growing a huge beard and working his way up to vice president of the San Fernando Valley chapter. All the while, he was gathering information leading up to a 2000 raid that would put 53 gang members in prison. He got the Medal of Honor for what was called the most effective and impactful biker gang infiltration of all time.
It’s easy to forget that the role of journalism is to advocate for and protect the people with little to no power, but the trailblazing work of German journalist Gunter Wallraff is there to remind us. To research his 1985 book “Lowest Of The Low,” Wallraff spent two years disguised as a Turkish migrant worker, drifting from place to place taking whatever job was offered. He quickly realized that the laws that protected German citizens didn’t apply to foreigners, as one boss ordered him and his cohorts into a burning building to dismantle it while the fire still raged. While working for a pharmaceutical company, he was pressured into letting them test experimental drugs on his body. Wallraff’s book was a vital key in bringing the plight of migrant workers to national attention.
Richard J. Codey
Going into a situation under a false identity is rough even for regular people, but the balls it takes for a state senator to do it? That’s exactly what happened in New Jersey in 1987 when Richard Codey took it on himself to investigate the Marlboro Psychiatric Hospital. Codey managed to get a job there while using the borrowed I.D. of a convicted felon and was assigned duty in Cottage 16, where some of the most damaged patients were kept. He spent two weeks documenting the conditions there. Patients were left outside to freeze to death, malnourished and molested, and when Codey left he had the director fired and instituted massive reforms.
It’s a little ironic that civil rights hero Walter White had his last name, as his undercover exploits were based on the fact that he didn’t look black. The light-skinned White, born in Georgia, identified as African-American and spent his life tenaciously working to make the world better for people of all races. After he joined the NAACP in 1918, White began going undercover in the deep South to investigate lynchings. Ingratiating himself with groups of racists who would gladly kill him if they knew his ethnicity, White was able to obtain confessions and other evidence in dozens of cases and pushed the federal government to crack down on racially motivated crime.
The phrase “famous undercover cop” seems to be an oxymoron that could get you killed, but Joseph Pistonefits the bill. You might know him better by his Mafia name…Donnie Brasco. Pistone was an FBI agent charged with getting into the notorious Bonnano crime family in the late 1970s. Because of his Sicilian ancestry and New Jersey upbringing, Pistone was the bureau’s choice for the job, and all records of him were wiped from their systems to make sure his cover wouldn’t be blown. He spent a staggering six years inside the world of organized crime, and was on his way to being “made” when the FBI ordered the operation ended. The information he gathered helped put away over 100 mafiosi, who retaliated by putting a $500,000 bounty on his head.
In the 1800s, women weren’t typically given work as journalists, and if they were it was covering the society scene and the fashion world. Nellie Bly wasn’t having any of that crap, and when she moved to New York to make her fortune an editor at the World gave her the assignment of a lifetime. Tasked to investigate reports of cruelty and neglect in the city’s mental hospitals, Bly feigned insanity so convincingly that she was admitted to the madhouse on Blackwell’s Island. While there, she discovered a nightmare of brutal orderlies, terrified patients and absolute chaos. She stayed in for 10 days, painstakingly recording everything she saw, until the World sent a lawyer to force her release. The resulting reportage would shame the state into increasing funding for mental health care.
When Robert Killian signed on with the Orange County Sheriff’s Office intelligence division, he thought he’d be helping to monitor area gangs and gather information. That turned out to be true, but in a more intense way than he ever imagined. In 2003, he was given the assignment to infiltrate the notorious Outlaws motorcycle gang. While doing so, he was introduced to a man named August Kreis, the head of an Aryan Nations splinter group. That led to Killian being sworn in as a full member of the group, and he spent the next six years in deep with them. One of the most shocking moments came when he was introduced to another neo-Nazi who was also a cop — but this one was an actual racist, not working undercover.
Unlike many of the others on this list, Antonio Salas is not a real name. That’s because if the truth about this investigative journalist’s identity were ever revealed, the lives of his family and friends wouldn’t be worth a nickel. Salas is notorious for the six years he spent infiltrating an Islamic terrorist group — he handwrote a copy of the Quran and even had himself circumcised in a bathhouse just in case one of his new allies saw him naked. One of the most interesting side effects of the journalist’s mission was that he converted to Islam for real and continued to pursue the religion even after he left cover, because he thought it was truly profound and beautiful.
In some ways, infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan seems sort of easy — you can’t really tell what someone looks like under those robes. That said, pulling it off as a black man is incredibly ballsy. Ron Stallworth is a police sergeant from Colorado Springs who called the Klan’s phone line in 1979, hoping to use the call to collect intel on the group. Instead, they offered him a membership. He signed on and over the next year became a trusted Klansman, speaking on the phone to higher-ranking members up to Grand Wizard David Duke. When he had to make public appearances outside of the hood, he sent a white detective in his place. Eventually, he became so popular that they voted him head of the local chapter! In 2006, Stallworth went public with his story in a pretty awesome memoir, “Black Klansman.”