There was a drug deal going down that night in rural Michigan. It was September 4, 1990, just after sunset in the town of Owosso, population 16,360. There, about 90 miles northwest of Detroit, the Shiawassee River meanders past a hamlet of low-rent, brick apartment buildings. Inside one of them, a dealer with a brown moustache handed a bag of marijuana to Debbie Williams. He told her firmly it was $20 for the quarter ounce, nothing less. “It’s a good thing you don’t want any more,” said Williams, “because that’s all I got.”
She spoke with the slow drawl of a habitual stoner. But she was an undercover police officer, and one of the few women to have crawled, shot, and boxed her way through the male-dominated police academy in Flint. Since graduating college she had dreamed of catching criminals (“Michigan State police required female employees to have four years of college,” Williams told me, “its male applicants, none”). She was 30 before they let her in. Now, the 38-year-old divorcee with a shock of curly blonde hair was her department’s undercover secret weapon, because buying drugs was easy when you didn’t look like a cop.
Waiting in a battered ’78 Chevrolet outside, Williams’s new partner was even more inconspicuous. Lacy “Moon” Brown, 47, had earned his nickname by dropping his pants during undercover operations. “If I moon them, they’ll never think I’m a cop,” he told the Detroit Free Press. Long-haired and overweight, Moon was known for his preference for rare burgers, his two-packs-a-day cigarette habit, and his sketchy past. “If you saw him, you’d never believe he was a cop,” says Lieutenant Gary Parks, a former colleague. “He had food stuck in his beard.”
Moon, says Williams “was more believable as a bad guy than he was as a police officer.” Together, they had been tasked by their superiors to pose as a drug-frazzled couple, to gather evidence on every dealer in the area. That night in Owosso, the blonde and the vagrant drove off into the night, drugs in hand.
“We had a serious drug problem in the county at that time,” recalls former Shiawassee County Sheriff A.J. LaJoye, known as “Big Jim.” The trouble had started in 1986, when General Motors announced it would close seven plants in the area, starting a depression.Thousands of workers were laid off, and families began to flee the area in search of jobs. In 1987, Money magazine had named Flint the worst place to live in America. Now, dealers were at large, peddling cocaine, marijuana, LSD, and prescription pills.
After months of undercover work, Williams and Moon had information on more than 40 suspects, but the department realized it didn’t have the funds or the manpower to round them all up. So it had to come up with clever ideas. “Cops used to offer parolees free tickets to the Detroit Lions, then arrest them,” recalls Peggy Lawrence, a Flint historian. On one occasion, Moon quietly arrested and locked up stolen property dealer, announced his death in the newspaper, and arrested gang members who showed up at his fake funeral. “Sometimes you gotta do things that are simply funny,” Moon later told a television reporter. “People gotta go to jail, but it don’t always have to be sad.” In 1990, the department planned a particularly elaborate operation: Officers would throw a fake wedding, invite all the suspects, and arrest them.
For the rest of the story, see Jeff Maysh, “The Wedding Sting : How a police department tried to save a failing Rust Belt town by luring all the local drug dealers to one party“, The Atlantic, May 12, 2015.
John Robinson, “Michigan History: The 1990 Owosso Wedding Drug Bust“, 99.1 WFMK Blog, April 26, 2019.