We all know that when it comes to writing mysteries, it’s all about the details. And sometimes, there is simply no substitution for research that's done by asking a professional. Today, thriller author Andrew Peterson shares a look into the hearts and minds of ATF agents — and talks about what it was like to be attacked by one of their dogs (don’t worry, he volunteered for it!) during the 2011 RT Booklovers Convention. Then, find out how you can get your questions answered by — and an up close look at — these fearless agents.
Most of us sleep well at night because those who serve and protect us, often don’t. If I knew I was going to raid a fortified house in a gang-infested neighborhood, I might have a hard time dozing off the night before. I’d probably be lying there thinking this could be it, tomorrow could be my last day—I hope I’ve tied up all my loose ends. Welcome to the ATF's world. The most dangerous jobs aren't exclusively overseas in Afghanistan fighting Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Many of them are right here, within our own boarders. Try to imagine being undercover inside a violent motorcycle gang, or infiltrating an firearms trafficking ring, or raiding a warehouse full of drugs and guns. The life of an ATF special agent is one of near constant stress. So why do it? Is it the excitement of working on the razor's edge between life and death? I think it's both of these things and something more—a deep-rooted respect of America and everything it stands for.
Of all the federal law enforcement agencies, the ATF is the probably the least understood. So what is the ATF and what’s its role in America? Simply stated, the ATF is a federal law enforcement agency responsible for the prevention and investigation of federal crimes involving the illegal use, manufacture, trafficking, and possession of alcohol, tobacco, firearms and explosives. It also regulates–through licensing–the sale, storage, and transportation of firearms, ammunition, and explosives. Although I wasn’t sure how it would be received, I thought it would be interesting to host the ATF at the RT Booklovers Convention so conference attendees could ask questions and interact with real federal agents. With Carol Stacy’s help, over a two month period I made contact with the Los Angles Field Division’s public information officer and we planned the event.
On the day of the panel, all of the special agents had arrived by 2PM except the tactical K-9 team. I knew some of the hotel’s guests were curious as to why an entire squad of ATF agents and an explosives detection canine team had descended on the hotel, but no one bolted for the doors. The explosives dog handler was more than happy to showoff “Marianne” to anyone who approached. Marianne quite literally works for food. She’s an outstanding special agent who has an actual badge attached to her collar!
When I looked in the conference room, we had a pretty good crowd, including New York Times bestselling author Heather Graham and the founder and CEO of RT, Kathryn Falk. And sitting in the front row were my friends, Stephen J. Schwartz and Joshua Corin, two of the thriller genre’s rising stars. The pressure was on!
By this time, the tactical K-9 team had arrived. I was informed their time was limited, so I needed to get the attack dog demo going. I introduced my guests, read their bios, and felt that pang of unease grab me again. There was no turning back now, how would that look? Although Steve Schwartz had offered to take my place and wear the sleeve for the attack dog demo, but it was my responsibility. I would’ve felt terrible if Steve ended up going to hospital instead of me. On second thought…I would’ve been okay with it. Just kidding, Steve.
Out in the hall, I received a quick briefing and met “Titus,” a huge German Shepard who, despite his beautiful form, looked all business. Once I picked up the sleeve, the dog immediately focused on me and wouldn’t look away. I remember thinking, oh man, what the hell am I about to do here?
The tactical dog’s handler pre-instructed me to struggle and cry-out as though Titus was really hurting me, or he might re-bite me somewhere other than the protective sleeve. I looked down at my other (unprotected) forearm and envisioned torn flesh, open arteries, and snapped bones. Titus was more than capable of doing all that, and more. Everything boiled down to trust. Trust in the special agent, trust in Titus, and trust in their training. Once Titus was turned loose, there were only two probable outcomes. One, the dog bites the protective sleeve and I put on the act of my life. Or two, Titus bites me somewhere else and I go to the hospital.
It was time. I reentered the conference room and tried to relax. I got a nod from the dog’s handler and donned the sleeve again. Titus immediately refocused on me. I began a phony tirade and started acting in a threatening manner. I did a little trash talking for effect. The handler told me in a forceful voice to stay back and not come any closer. I ignored him and kept advancing. Apparently I got too close and he whispered for me to back away. Titus would be much more effective with a running start. I complied and moved back about ten yards.
He released the dog.
I clenched my teeth.
The animal covered the distance in less than two seconds. The moment of truth arrived in a snarling, seventy-five pound mass of solid muscle, sharp teeth, and unwavering determination. As it turned out, I didn't have to act like I was terrified, because I was terrified. In the back of my mind, I knew it wasn’t real and it didn’t hurt, but seemed real! For ten seconds I fought back physically and vocally. I spun, twisted, and yelled in a futile effort to dislodge the dog from the sleeve, but nothing short of lethal action would’ve worked. I heard the special agent yell something, and Titus let go and returned to his handler’s side where he re-secured the restraint harness.
The room fell silent.
The public information officer said something lighthearted about checking my pants and everyone let out a collective laugh, including me. So far so good, but it wasn’t over yet. We still had the running take-down to do.
The next phase involved me sprinting across the room with Titus attacking me from behind. Keep in mind, I wasn’t wearing a full protective suit, all I had between me and Titus was the sleeve. I tried not to think about it. In hindsight, it probably hadn’t been wise to Google “attack dog photos” the night prior to the demo. A slide show started in my head.
I received another nod and took off running.
Through the corner of my eye, I saw the audience stand for a better look. I can tell you from first-hand experience, it’s far worse being attacked from behind. Although I couldn’t see Titus coming, I heard his low growl as he launched. And yes, I was quite relieved when Titus bit the sleeve. Again, I fought back and pretended to be in pain. The handler let the attack go on longer this time, I think I “resisted arrest” for a good fifteen seconds or so. After Titus had been re-secured, The PIO handed me the mike. I was out of breath and could barely talk. I hadn’t realized how much energy I’d expended fighting the attack.
So what’s it like being attacked by a dog? It’s a combination of anxiety and awe. It was well outside of my comfort zone. Most all of us think of dogs as beloved family pets, curled up at our feet in front of the fireplace. We like to picture dogs as protectors, not attackers. Perhaps that’s the reason dogs are so effective during raids and takedowns.
For a change of pace, we brought the explosive detection canine team to the front of the room. Marianne and her handler did a bomb sniffing demo before fielding all kinds of questions from the audience. Marianne’s demo was quite tame compared to Titus’s, but her skills are equally valuable, perhaps more so. Four metal cans were mounted on rotating boards, similar to a small carnival game. The cans were then spun to change their positions. Marianne’s handler walked her around the cans until she “hit” on the can containing the odor. Her trained response was to immediately sit down. Someone from the audience asked why Marianne was trained to sit down after hitting on a scent. The answer made perfect sense; If Marianne detects a bomb, it’s best if she doesn’t disturb it.
Marianne has been imprinted to over 25,000 different odors and can detect traces of explosives or accelerants long after they’ve been removed from a room. After a raid, she once detected the odor of ammunition in a nightstand drawer several days after the boxes had been removed. Marianne’s temperament is completely different. She loves to be touched and enjoys meeting new people. Titus is all business when working, but when he goes home with his handler, he transforms into the family dog.
Before concluding the presentation, the ATF’s firearms instructor coordinator spent a few minutes describing each of the firearms present. After the workshop concluded, people came forward to the tables, handled the firearms, and asked lots of questions. Many photos were taken, but as I warned at the beginning of the presentation, everyone to be absolutely certain they don’t take any photos of the special agents without their permission. Some of them may be called upon to do undercover work and they don’t want their photos circulating through the internet.
Bottom line? Our domestic law enforcement officers work in a dangerous and fast-paced environment, and we owe them the same level of gratitude and respect as our military troops serving overseas.
So please join me in Chicago for another presentation with the ATF. You’ll get a chance to handle all kinds of firearms, see K-9 demos, ask questions and interact with actual federal agents to add realism and credibility to your stories. I hope to see you there!
- Andrew Peterson
Have more questions? You can tweet the author @APetersonNovels to get his thoughts and ready more about ATF canines here. Or you can take part in this year’s ATF workshop on Thursday, April 12th from 2:45 to 3:45 during the 2012 RT Booklovers Convention in Chicago. To learn more about the workshop, click here. For a complete list of all the programs and information about how to register to attend this year’s convention click here.