Cirque du Soleil on Wheels

Good old Gumshoe spent many tedious hours on “stakeouts” that are in actuality in police parlance termed  “covert surveillance’s” that can be either moving or fixed.

“Fixed” surveillance’s were just occupying a house or apartment (or sometimes a van or utility truck or even an RV) and just record the comings and going’s of targeted suspects and their vehicles. No real challenge, just practiced and determined vigilance accompanied by keeping accurate written record logs and taking good photographs.

Note:  But of course staying hydrated and having strong bladder control or a handy (and securely capped) pee bottle was a necessity.

The moving (tailing) surveillance was always challenging especially when I was assigned to a county regional narcotics suppression team.

Mission:  Follow the money or the dope and seize the money and the dope and arrest the suspects.

Easier said than done – nothing like the “make-believe” on the silver screen on yours high-resolution TVs – where the cops are depicted as “hitched” to the rear bumpers of the crooks car, blending in through rush hour traffic in the Los Angeles basin as well as through other surrounding counties was an adventure into the almost impossible. Keeping an open “Thomas Brothers” map book in my lap while I navigated through “parts unknown” taught me how to quickly multitask and stay focused.

Note:  GPS systems were not yet available and while I am on the tech topic, neither were iPhones.

Day or night, in rain or shine our merry surveillance caravan would go and go and go.  We sometimes ended up out of state on many occasions.  All points of the compass was our wheel of fortune to be sure.

The rule of thumb was to always have extra clothes along with ample toiletries in your trunk.  A good stock of water and power bars were a must!  Gas up when possible and relieve yourself when practical. Twenty-four hours on the road before the targeted mopes would stop was not an uncommon duty day. My overtime was off the charts by the way. My ex-wife’s alimony reaped the benefits!

The dynamics were simple for us undercover “Narc’s”.   Don’t be “burned” (made by the targeted suspects). The “point guy or gal” was termed the  “eyeball“ who had to maintain their visual on the suspect vehicle while simultaneously be in continuous radio contact with the surveillance units during the covert tail of the crook-mobile.

The palms of my hands would sometimes sweat as I did the one-handed death grip on the steering wheel while my free handheld radio mike on my lap when I was the eyeball. My radio voice would be calm and collective as I called out the cross streets, assorted landmarks in addition to “stale” or “fresh” traffic signal lights and other points of reference for my surveillance compadres. I felt in a strange way like the tour guide on the “Jungle Boat” ride in Adventure Land at the  “D-land”.

None of us narcs ever wanted to be the “eyeball” who lost the target or be overly aggressive in our driving actions that resulted in being burned by the bad guys. It was simply a matter of professional pride and of not letting the team down don’t cha know! The “eyeball” would be situated far enough away to be able to simply have a partial glimpse of the mope’s vehicle.  Normally 15 to 20 some cars back.  Field glasses helped if you had a compact set. The “eyeball” would routinely be replaced with other units so that the suspect/s would not see the same car or person.

Most of these “dopers-in-transit” were always paranoid about being followed by the police or by rival drug gangs looking for a “rip-off” if either the drugs or cash they transported. Did I mention that they were always well-armed?

The other surveillance units would be scattered a good distance in front of the mope;  a good distance behind the mope or paralleling the mope on adjoining side streets.  Definitely a moving “Cirque de Solis” on wheels at high speeds through all municipalities large and small – rural to rustic and from big city to bigger metropolis.

The targeted vehicle would arbitrarily stop on the freeway or double-back, U-turn and perform other fascinating confounding counter-surveillance maneuvers, we narcs had to be on our collective toes in order to stay in the game.  Yeeha!  “Counter” the counter-surveillance maneuvers – check and checkmate!  Playing for keeps – game on me bucko!

We won more of these strategic mobile surveillances than we ever lost I am happy to report.

I routinely found myself driving through alleys,  up or down the wrong way on the one-way streets and gingerly blowing red lights to the sounds blaring horns from angry motorists. Sidewalks sometimes were welcomed venues of egress for me and my narco-mobile that came in handy occasionally. The pedestrians were not particularly amused, I may sheepishly add.

Sometimes the local constabulary would stop one of us and be momentarily flashed a badge and then left standing there holding our business card as we sped away. They were not always particularly amused I must say also. NASCAR had nothing on us highly mobile and motivated narcs since those NASCAR drivers were always on a closed raceway and they all traveled in the same direction.  Us narc’s navigated through modern-day traffic chaos and havoc of road construction.

Of course, if an air unit was available, they took the “eyeball” which took a lot of pressure off of the street eyeball who could back off to a lesser degree. The “eye in the sky” nevertheless, still caused the somewhat manic driving maneuvers from us “ground” troops who had to instantly take over when the whirlybird had fuel restrictions or when it was prohibited from cruising into restricted air spaces around airports.

The dopers knew this fact.  It was not always amusing to me as I would subconsciously count to myself of how many times I had to circle the roadways around and through LAX, John Wayne, Ontario or Long Beach Airports on these designated holiday celebrations.

I still hate airports!

Note:  The drug cartel couriers of either cash or product (drugs) made their schedule travel times and routes specifically on holidays and weekends.  Routes would normally go through airports and other major transit centers to make ground as well as air surveillance detection difficult.  I still remember driving through the Port of Long Beach one night and circumnavigating the mazes of countless hundreds of shipping containers.

Note:  I did have the chance to see the Queen Mary from a distance though.

A good surveillance team had a minimum of ten to a dozen detectives driving “nondescript” and homogeneous cars and trucks and vans. White was a very good vehicle color since that color was quite common and ubiquitous.  Just like look around the next time you are in traffic.  You can win an easy bet within a short distance.

I was truly “blessed” in that I was not involved in any traffic collisions or even near misses of neither cars nor creatures during these auto thrill circuses. My hand-to-eye coordination along with my road picture anticipation in a very fluid environment built my muscle-memory driving as well as my steering reflexes. No wonder I grew prematurely grey and entertained high blood pressure.

Note: When I was a Federal Narc DEA guy) we had the luxury of electronic trackers that were surreptitiously (with a warrant) secreted on the targeted drug courier vehicle.  The “Feds” always had the best toys and gadgets.  Us locals, not so much.

Those yesterday byways are still vivid in my mind’s eye. Nowadays, I love to just ”eyeball” the speed limit and I religiously obey all of the traffic laws.  Sometimes though, I am tempted to drive unassumingly along a sidewalk.  I guess old habits are hard to break?

Even the performers from Cirque du Soleil ultimately retire and occasionally do a back-flip I suppose.

Well, there you have my dear readers on a slice of life in the “fast lane” of a once very mobile narc.  Always remember to love the ones who love you and to love the ones you don’t.


Danny Pitocco
Danny Pitocco
RETIRED (as a Detective with the Snohomish County Sherriff’s Department, Washington State), Danny has over forty years of law enforcement experience across city, county, state and federal levels of government, including service as a Special Agent for the DEA, US Department of Justice. He’s a decorated law enforcement veteran, and recipient of the "Detective of the Year" award for Snohomish County, Danny is a certified composite artist and has testified as an expert witness in the field of narcotics and modus operandi of particular crimes in state and federal courts in California, and has given testimony before federal grand juries. Danny served four years of active duty in the US Marine Corps and loves Jesus as his personal savior.

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  1. Hard to imagine NOT having the use of GPS/IPhones – especially in your line of work back then. A tough job very well done for sure. (Got a chuckle out of the “the ex-wife reaping the benefits of your off-the-charts amount of overtime”…glad you find humor through all the rough times. Keep on keeping on. 😊 A really good read… thank you.

    • Yes indeed Larry, the truth always beats fiction. Thanks for your comment and watch your back if you are in a sidewalk!

    • Thanks Linnie! That’s the reason that you always drive – the motorists and pedestrians appreciate you.