By Bryan Hay

After graduating from Lafayette with a degree in economics and business, Lou Valoze ’90 took a traditional job at a bank, working dispassionately in a sterile, windowless cubicle.

tattoo art of a blue bird flying downward with stars behind itBut his career trajectory took an abrupt turn after he met a charismatic undercover Drug Enforcement Administration agent. “I talked with him for about an hour and was sold,” says Valoze, who ended up joining the Department of Justice and serving as an undercover Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms agent for 25 years.

Now an instructor for law enforcement officers, he describes his experiences as an undercover agent in his recently released a book, Storefront Sting: An ATF Agent’s Life Undercover (Exposit Books), which details how he set up fictitious businesses to reduce violent crime, among them a tattoo parlor, a military clothing surplus store, and even a head shop called Smokin Sal’s II in Statesboro, Ga.

tattoo art of a roseWorking in secrecy, often without the top levels of the Justice Department knowing about it, Valoze would pose as the manager and immersed himself in the community, winning the trust of gang members, armed drug dealers, and other violent criminals. The successful schemes took thousands of weapons out of circulation and millions of dollars of illegal drugs off the streets. Netflix has a pending deal to purchase the rights to his book for a series based on it. 

Valoze, whose stories have been reported by CNN and Discovery, agreed to share some of them for the Lafayette community during a recent conversation.

What inspired you to make the transition from banking to federal law enforcement?

I was one of those guys who graduated and did not have a clue about any direction in my life. I really didn’t know what I wanted to get into and took a job at a bank because it felt like the thing to do with an economics and business degree. I was working in a room with no windows, reading computer printouts and filing them. I knew that wasn’t what I wanted my future to be. 

I received a call one day from a fellow Pard, a guy I had played varsity football with, and he was at his brother’s place in the Bronx and asked me come and visit. So, I drove down there, and his brother pulled up. He was driving a Corvette and he had long hair, super cool. Remember, these were the Miami Vice days. I noticed he had a Beretta 92FS in his waistband. He was a DEA agent and had been working undercover in Panama. After I talked to him for about an hour, I knew what I wanted to do.

That’s how it all began, then I started taking the tests. As luck would have it, I had an advantage being a Lafayette grad, which had me in test-taking mode. Usually, you don’t get hired fresh out of college. You typically need three years of investigative experience, but I scored really high on the tests and was able to get hired as a special agent with the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

What led you into the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms?

I wasn’t looking for it. It kind of found me, and I fell into it. I was working undercover and switched over to ATF because that’s the agency where the heavy hitting undercover work was going on. It took me seven years in my career to get over to ATF. I was doing everything that was offered or available to me: murder for hire, outlaw biker, outlaw biker gang, infiltrations in street gangs, gun buys off the street, and drug buys.

How’d you get the idea of setting up fake store fronts to attract criminals?

I got a call one day from an agent in Augusta, Ga., who said the local police department he worked with there had an informant who was in some trouble. He was a tattoo artist, and he didn’t want to go back to prison and had offered to work. They came up with the idea of doing this storefront in Augusta. It was going to be a tattoo shop called Color Tyme Tattoo. But they needed an undercover agent to manage it. I never said no and agreed to take the assignment, not knowing what a storefront operation was all about. 

I was the manager of the tattoo shop. The informant was the tattoo artist. He had given these guys tattoos in prison. He knew the streets, he knew everything. It was an easy startup because people were coming to see him. And fast forward one year later, and we had purchased 430 crime guns off the streets of Augusta from all these different gangs, and these were multi defendant criminal conspiracies. 

The ATF had never seen results like this; the success was phenomenal. And that’s when I started thinking, man, you know I’ve done a mafia infiltration in Chicago, working for a year to get one guy, and here we just got over 100 defendants in the same time and all these crime guns off the streets. These are the guns that are put in people’s faces during carjackings, burglaries, and armed robberies.

You’ve spoken about how it became difficult to identify the good guys from the bad guys. Can you elaborate on that?

If you boil it down, undercover work is basically befriending and then betraying. You are asking people to trust you, spending a lot of time with them, only to betray them in the end. That’s essentially what undercover work is. Everything you tell them is a lie. Basically, your whole persona is a lie. 

It becomes a difficult thing after a while, the whole betrayal thing, because as you spend more time with these people, you realize that you’re forming bonds and getting to know these people. They’re doing bad things, but they’re not all bad. 

I’m thinking about a guy in Chicago. There was no crime that he wasn’t into; he was a bad guy. But you know, he was a family man, he was a good father. I spent time with his 11-year-old son. There’s a human side to this. If you don’t recognize it, you shouldn’t be working undercover.

Have you ever reconnected with the felons you helped prosecute?

Most of them are still in prison. Remember, this is some serious betrayal. I’m the last face in court that they see before they go in. They probably wouldn’t want to see me again. None of them would want to hang out with me. 

That guy from Chicago, I had to show him my badge to get him to believe that I was an undercover agent. I told him, listen, I’m doing my job. It’s not personal. And he looked at me and he said, you were in my circle, with my family, and you’re going tell me that this isn’t personal? Man, I didn’t have a reply to that.

Was there ever a time when, with your life in danger all the time, you thought that maybe the banking job would have been a better career choice?

I think you’re referring to what we call moments of clarity. Working undercover, you’re not worried that they’re going to find out that you’re a federal agent. If these biker gangs or cartels or whatever the criminal organization is, get wind of that, they’re going put as much distance between themselves and you as possible. They don’t want to bring heat and the weight of the federal government on themselves, so that was never a concern. 

The biggest concern is that you’re so believable. One day they might decide just to kill you and take all your money because they do that all the time with people they deal with. You might have done eight or 10 deals with these guys, and say you’re going to buy a couple of kilos or whatever it is, and they know you’re coming to the deal with $60,000. There’s no honor among thieves. And this might be the time they say, Hey, you know what, let’s just kill him and take his money this time. They’re ruthless. I was in countless situations where that almost happened. So, yeah, those situations bring about those moments of clarity

What qualities do you feel are required for undercover work? Is this a career you’d recommend?

It’s not a career for someone who wants to have a family and wants to be there for their spouse and their kids, to be there for the recitals and the baseball games and all that. There is definitely not a mold for undercover agents. It’s all about the game you have. It’s not about the look. These are smart people that we’re working on. There’s a reason why they’re successful in their field and they’re still alive. They’re smart, and they will sniff you out. If you go in there just with some big look and act like a tough guy, that is not what it’s about. It’s a game. It’s psychological warfare, undercover work. 

When I look at the men and women I worked with and that I was so impressed with, it’s the ones with the best ability to connect with people. That’s what it’s all about. 

When you see that man or woman in the room who everyone wants to be around, and everyone’s listening to, that’s someone who would be a good undercover agent. You need to make an instant connection. That’s what makes a good undercover agent. It’s not about being tough or having some crazy look because most of the real bad guys look normal.

What gave you the greatest satisfaction in your 25 years as an agent?

Shortly after I retired, I was out on the boat with my wife and kids and we went to a restaurant on Tybee Island in Georgia. There was a young waitress, 21-22 years old, who kept staring at me and I had no idea who she was. She came up to our table at the end of the meal and thanked me for saving her mother’s life.

She was a child who I met about maybe eight or nine years before. As part of an undercover operation, her mother’s husband, a doctor, had hired me to kill his wife. There came a point during the undercover portion of the case where we had to call her and her daughter because we were worried about their safety.

Obviously, this was a very tough meeting for them to hear those words. This was an unusual circumstance because, as an undercover agent, I would go in, do my thing and then I’d be gone. By the time the takedowns would happen, I’d be on to the next case. 

But to hear someone say how I had affected them and their life, that was the greatest reward of my career.

Any words of encouragement for pursuing a career in law enforcement?

It would be very cool to me if more people, more students, young people going through Lafayette, would consider a career in federal law enforcement. To be honest with you, you don’t have to do the undercover thing. A very small percentage do that. There’s an alphabet of agencies out there, ATF, DEA, FBI, Secret Service. 

And I would love to see more people at Lafayette consider this as a career. It’s fairly well-paying and you will have opportunities. I have been able to do things that no one else would ever be able to do. It’s a crazy thing, but I’ve partied with kings and I’ve slept next to Dumpsters. There are so many other things you can get into as a federal agent. I’d love to see more people at Lafayette consider federal law enforcement as a career because not only do you serve your country, but the opportunities and things that you experience and see are like no other.

Listen, if you can get into Lafayette and make it through, yeah, you do you have the qualities to become a federal agent.

How did Lafayette and Lafayette football prepare you for your law enforcement career?

I was an offensive lineman, definitely not the glory position. But I absolutely loved Lafayette, playing football and making those bonds and learning teamwork. My biggest regret was not taking advantage of everything Lafayette offered, but what a great experience. 

The biggest takeaway was how Lafayette really taught me how to take a test and how to be prepared. When I was first trying to get in to the Justice Department, that test-taking ability that I got from Lafayette was huge.

When you think about an undercover agent, you think all this glamorous stuff. But the reality is 80% of it is report writing, behind-the-scenes stuff, which Lafayette had totally prepared me for.

I don’t care how great you are as an agent, if you don’t have the ability to transfer your information onto paper, you’re no good to federal prosecutors. They want to see everything wrapped up tightly. If you’re sloppy in your report writing, the evidence isn’t supported. Lafayette totally prepared me for all of that.