Cumberland Times-News

Local News

February 17, 2013

City man’s ‘interesting’ undercover police work

One of Fort Hill’s first black graduates, Peck, took on Mafia as a covert agent

CUMBERLAND — In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan wrote a letter to William Peck, congratulating him on his “interesting career” as a police officer in the District of Columbia.

Beside Reagan’s letter in Peck’s living room on Cumberland’s West Side is another letter, a missive of thanks from the parents of John Hinckley.

“People will look at those two letters and say ‘That’s nice,’ not making the connection between them, the fact that one is from the president and the other from the parents of the man who shot him,” Peck said.

As an officer with the Metropolitan Police Department, Peck was assigned to protect Hinckley’s parents when they traveled from Colorado to Washington after their son shot Reagan in 1981.

“They had received a number of death threats,” Peck said.

Although Reagan called Peck’s police career interesting, he probably didn’t know the half of it. Actually, most people didn’t even know Peck, and that was intentional.

In 1956, Peck was one of the first black students to graduate from Fort Hill High School following court-ordered scholastic integration. After two years in the Army as a communications specialist, he followed his dream to become a police detective and was hired by the D.C. force.

Because he was unknown to criminals on the streets of the nation’s capital, he was immediately assigned to undercover work.

“They told me never to show up at the precinct. My paycheck was brought to me for more than a year. After my first undercover job was done and I showed up to get a paycheck, everybody came out to see who this guy was who they’d been paying for all that time.”

Peck was tossed immediately into an investigation of the numbers game, an illegal version of gambling similar to what is now legal via state lotteries.

“We had discovered that a branch store of a big-name company was a numbers location. The company officials cooperated with the department and I was instructed to apply for a job there in the automotive department and, of course, I was hired.”

Peck’s job was to be watchful, noting names and other details about those playing and running the illegal gambling. Eventually there were 15 search warrants and 50 arrests.

Peck figured he would then become a uniformed officer.

“But they told me I had a knack for undercover work.”

Things were about to get serious.

First came a stint undercover cleaning up the 800 block of 14th Street where prostitution, drugs and gambling were rampant.

Then came Operation High Roller. Peck was instructed to act as an organized crime operative. He became Billy P. and even the bad guys, the real bad guys, would learn to tread lightly around him.

At 6’1’’, 210 pounds, Peck was not the most intimidating physical specimen.

“It’s about the way you act,” Peck said.

At one training school, Peck was taught that the top-line criminals are not like the ones on television shows. The real-deal mobsters don’t smile and are deadly serious, with the emphasis on deadly, he was told.

“I would get in front of a mirror and practice an unflinching, cold stare,” Peck said. “Even after undercover was done for me, (wife) Roxanne would say our friends were scared of me. I guess I couldn’t come out of character.”

Peck’s role was to be with the Mafia, and his task was to buy stolen goods, lots of stolen goods in large quantities, taking notes and names for future arrests. That went on for 16 months.

“We weren’t dealing with people who stole five TVs. We were dealing with people who stole 50 to 100 TVs at a time,” Peck said.

Negotiations for the purchase of stolen goods lasted up to two weeks with individual amounts reaching as high as $30,000, and included firearms, furs, yard equipment, appliances, jewelry and artwork.

Because Coors beer was not sold in the East in those days, it was a valuable product.

“Somebody stole a Coors tractor-trailer full of beer out West and drove it back here for us to buy,” Peck said. On the way, one of the crooks died and they just stuffed him in the back with the beer. He was still there when Peck opened the door.

Peck and the other undercover officers rented a room at the Shoreham Americans Hotel. Hidden cameras were installed.

“We were supposed to be big spenders. We bought a drink and left a $20 tip. We flashed rolls of money. We let people know we were looking to buy. We drove new Lincolns with New Jersey license plates. Our guns were not police-issued. We made people scared of us. We had to, because showing that kind of money can make you a target for robbery or worse.”

Peck said it was set up that when he would be negotiating with a criminal to buy stolen goods, another undercover officer would walk in with some pictures.

“You know that problem we were having in Pennsylvania?” the officer would ask Peck. “We don’t have that problem any more,” at which point the officer would toss some photos of dead and dismembered people onto Peck’s desk, making sure the other person saw them.

“We would tell people that if they crossed us or sold us fake goods that we would kill them and their families.”

Peck said the way officers avoided using narcotics at frequent drug parties was by saying that the Mafia Don, their boss in New York, had lost a daughter to an overdose and told his employees that if they used drugs he would kill them.

“But we had to learn to drink without getting drunk,” Peck said, adding that just one time he went past the safe level. “I drank too much and couldn’t remember in which garage I had parked my car.”

Because Peck was turning down women being offered to him by criminals, he believes they were beginning to think he was either a “cop or a homosexual.”

“We fixed that,” Peck said. “We got an undercover police woman to accompany me and she spread the word that if any other women messed with me she would deal with them (in a not-so-nice way).”

Peck said that a nephew from Cumberland visited him and one night, and while alone in the apartment, answered a knock on the door.

“There were four masked men with guns looking for me, saying they wanted to kill me. He said I wasn’t there and they left. So did my nephew. Just packed his bags and went back to Cumberland. Later those guys were arrested and the officers told me they were likely trying to intimidate me or may have shot me to wound me and send a message.”

Peck said undercover officers learned to never take the same route to their residences.

“I was in so many undercover roles that if I saw somebody in a public place I’d have to roll through my mind to remember which character I was when I knew him.”

Peck said it was by the grace of God that he did not get into a fight or a shooting during his clandestine criminal investigations.

“One thing we learned in training is that if you are in your living room and need a gun it doesn’t do any good if that gun is in the bedroom. I had a gun in every room of the apartment. One time Roxanne offered to clean the apartment for me and she said every place she went she was finding a gun.”

Peck said Operation High Roller was a success, recovering more than $4 million in stolen goods, arresting more than 70 people and convicting more than 90 percent of them. Arrests also took place in distant cities such as Richmond, Va., Rochester, N.Y., and Fayetteville, N.C.

“It was psychologically stressful as well,” Peck said. “I was on guard constantly. I felt like I was pushing my luck to have worked so many cases and not gotten hurt.”

Later, in his visible police roles, Peck said his biggest, kid-like thrill was riding in many presidental motorcades. “From Kennedy on.”

Peck was also detailed to the U.S. State Department to work diplomatic security, protecting heads of state and ambassadors. He pulls out a medallion given him by Ferdinand Marcos, president of the Philippines. Peck retired in 1986.

Among the synonyms listed by Thesaurus.com for the word “interesting” are absorbing, arresting, captivating, compelling, intriguing, provocative and riveting. President Reagan was correct.

Contact Michael A. Sawyers at msawyers@times-news.com.

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