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'Shadow in the City' Subject Speaks


This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Going to work at his old job, Joey O'Shay would dress up or down, whichever was right, but always with a gun and an ice pick on him somewhere. He was usually driving something in fast style with pimp undertones, Stevie Ray Vaughn booming inside--Joey shopping for night fuel in powder form.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. STEVIE RAY VAUGHN (Musician): (Singing) Once was a sweet thing, baby...

CHADWICK: Joey O'Shay was the working name for a former narcotics cop who spent 23 years undercover and is now the subject of a new book, "A Shadow in the City," by Charles Bowden. We spoke with him yesterday. Today, an interview with Joey O'Shay on the condition that we not reveal his real name or where he works.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. VAUGHN: (Singing) Go back, baby...

CHADWICK: Joey and a partner began their first big operation more than 20 years ago, getting to know some drug-dealing bikers.

"Mr. JOEY O'SHAY" (Former Narcotics Cop): Did business with bikers, Aryan Brotherhood, methamphetamine dealers, but never portrayed myself as a biker because I'm not. It's hard to portray yourself as a biker if you don't know anything about bikes. But I sure asked them about them. And I was curious about them. We got along with those kind of people.

Unidentified Man: What did you portray yourself as?

Mr. O'SHAY: Speed dealers that had the capacity to cook methamphetamine, knew how to cook it because we'd learned from crooks.

CHADWICK: How long was that investigation?

Mr. O'SHAY: About two straight years.

CHADWICK: Two years?

Mr. O'SHAY: Deep cover. Yeah. We bought from, oh, a lot of people. We solved a lot of other crimes and learned an awful lot about people.

CHADWICK: And during that entire time, you spent most of your time hanging out with the biker people and...

Mr. O'SHAY: Yeah, we did. And solved a lot of other crimes. And we did it quietly. There was no scandals or anything involved. There was no, you know, seeking glory or anything, just something that happened and it worked. And we did it.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: Haven't you been in a lot of...

Mr. O'SHAY: Close calls?

CHADWICK: Close calls...

Mr. O'SHAY: Yeah...

CHADWICK: But not even close-call situations--things that could be close calls. That is, there's a tremendous amount of uncertainty, isn't there, in many of these circumstances when...

Mr. O'SHAY: Well, absolutely. I mean, I've had bullets whiz by my face. One time I realized that a guy had a gun pointed at my stomach the entire time. You're always on edge, always, basically looking for an opening or an escape route. It's ridiculous, but that's how you end up. You can't let up.

CHADWICK: How do you walk into a situation like that? How do you keep your cool?

Mr. O'SHAY: I don't know. You just--you build up a enough confidence that you feel like you can feel it coming even though you might not be able to. And you got to be willing to make your move quick. If you're unwilling to do that or if you question or haven't done it, then you don't need to do that job.

CHADWICK: When you say `make your move quick'...

Mr. O'SHAY: I mean protect yourself at all costs. In other words, you're willing to hurt somebody else so that you survive. You have to.

CHADWICK: Did you really carry an ice pick?

Mr. O'SHAY: Of course.

CHADWICK: Why an ice pick?

Mr. O'SHAY: Because if I'm rolling around on the floor with somebody, you can get to it. Even though instruments like that are not condoned, who's going to tell me, when I have a split second to live or die, what I'm going to use to protect my life.

CHADWICK: When you say they're not condoned, you mean they're not condoned by the department?

Mr. O'SHAY: Of course. No--you don't--you're not issued ice picks. But it's something that I knew I could get to.

CHADWICK: Where would you carry it?

Mr. O'SHAY: Depended on the situation. Close, where you can reach down and get it. I mean, let's be realistic. If you're outnumbered or something, your friends are going to get in there and they're going to take care of business, but you're dead. And that's what I chose to use. I don't need it where I'm at now, but--unless I'm going to chip some ice for a drink.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: `A lot of drug people come from hard backgrounds,' Joey said. `I do, too,' he said. `That's the real truth behind my ability to work undercover,' he said. `Other agents have to fake an undercover identity. I just use a part of me that's completely real.'

Mr. O'SHAY: You've got to be able to be like them. You must assess it and realize if I really was in this business, what would I do? I've had every type of trafficker in discussion, big traffickers, tell me, `When you step away from the deal, you never make a mistake. That's generally a good move. It's a respected move.' And many times the best thing to do is tell them, `We need to be careful; we need to be patient. I don't think now is a good time to do this.'

CHADWICK: Why have you agreed to do this interview? You're trying to protect your identity. There are people who would like to kill you, probably a lot of them.

Mr. O'SHAY: I'll tell you this, if they wanted to, they could. You can protect yourself at all times and might get lucky. But if they send a professional hitter to get you, you're dead.

CHADWICK: If they know who you are.

Mr. O'SHAY: If--well, they do know who I am. They came to my house before. Don't kid yourself. I've had them show up at my door.


Mr. O'SHAY: Yes. I had one major Cuban trafficker--got out of prison after doing many, many years. And I had done a favor to him years ago by not arresting a family member who, in truth, was not really culpable for the drugs. And he got out. He said he wanted to thank me. And I said, `Well, I'll'--you know, I knew he loved coffee. I like coffee. `And so let's go and meet, have some decent coffee.' He goes, `Well, hell, let me just come by your house.' And I go, `Do you know where I live?' And he goes, `Everybody knows where you live, man.' He goes, `That's part of the business.' I said, `Well.' I said, `You really do?' And he goes--he started laughing. He goes, `Of course.' And he goes, `There's degrees of respect and rules in this business, and that's the only thing that protects you.' He goes, `Everybody knows where you live.' I can change things the best I can, but essentially several of them know where I live and know who I am. And that's that.

CHADWICK: Joe O'Shay, former undercover narcotics investigator. Tomorrow, Joey's 23 years of undercover work produce radical results, not in the drug war but in him.

Mr. O'SHAY: I believe at the end the fact that I was a predator to these people and deceived them for so many years, I just at the end had no juice left in me, no belief. And I'm not unproud of what I did, but I'm not proud. It's just something that happened.

CHADWICK: The story of the undercover drug warrior continues tomorrow on DAY TO DAY.

This is Alex Chadwick. And there's more just ahead. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alex Chadwick
For more than 30 years, Alex Chadwick has been bringing the world to NPR listeners as an NPR News producer, program host and currently senior correspondent. He's reported from every continent except Antarctica.