Drug Deal Gone Bad: How a Baltimore Police Officer Earned the Meritorious Service Medal

August 21, 2020Joshua Skovlund
Illustration by Lenny Miller/Coffee or Die Magazine.

Illustration by Lenny Miller/Coffee or Die Magazine.

Officer Dan Horgan heard a noise behind him. It was the metallic clink of a bullet being racked into the chamber of a semi-automatic pistol — a sound he recognized from his training in both the military and law enforcement. Time froze. He had to move quickly.

Horgan was working in the violent crime impact division of the Baltimore Police Department that day in May 2008. He had been out patrolling when he came across a mid-20s male who had just ran a red light. Horgan pulled the man over, whom he called Henry Smith. Smith pulled into a nearby gas station.

After running through typical traffic stop procedures, Horgan had probable cause for a search. He found Henry to be in possession of half of an eight ball of cocaine. Smith didn’t want to go to jail, so he agreed to flip on his supplier. The VCID squad gained a confidential informant.

Illustration by Lenny Miller/Coffee or Die Magazine.

Horgan and his seven-man squad jumped at the opportunity to get the supplier, so they immediately went to work formulating a plan. The supplier was located in Baltimore’s western district, but Horgan’s squad primarily operated in the eastern district, so the plan had multiple contingencies in place. They received their sergeant’s blessing and made their move.

The VCID squad started at a strip club in the eastern district with their new CI. This positioning established a few valuable factors that wouldn’t tip off the supplier. If the supplier was tracking the phone, their location wouldn’t be alarming. The background noise of the strip club would also confirm where Smith was if the supplier called him. All of this created a web to lure in the supplier and keep him from becoming suspicious.

They instructed Smith to make the call. Setting up fake drug deals to catch a dealer and/or supplier is full of unknowns, especially with the perpetrator doing the talking. 

“You don’t know who they’re talking to on the other end of a phone,” Horgan warned. 

Smith’s phone battery started to die, which resulted in a frustrating game of phone tag. And then they made a verbal deal: $600 worth of heroin pills. Ten dollars a pill was the going price back then, and Horgan had instituted a sizable order.

Illustration by Lenny Miller/Coffee or Die Magazine.

They decided to move forward with a contingency location and have the deal go down farther west in the eastern district, in a Rite Aid parking lot. This move would draw the dealer into the VCID squad’s backyard. 

“We were going to meet on our home turf, someplace that we knew,” Horgan said.

The plan was for Horgan to be inside the store while the informant waited in the car. Once the dealer got in the vehicle, Horgan and his team would swoop in to make the arrest. 

Drug deals are a dangerous game, even more so when being staged by law enforcement for an arrest. The cemetery across the road from the Rite Aid was an ominous reminder of what could happen if things went south.

The supplier wanted to bump up the meeting time, and Horgan was okay with that because of the contingency plans they had in place. Horgan’s undercover officer colleagues were parked at a distance in an unmarked car, but still had eyes on his location. The snare was set, but there was an unexpected hiccup with the new timetable. 

“At that point, now you’re just playing on your training, […] and the training is just being normal.”

Horgan had just turned off his radio and slid it under his driver’s seat when the man they thought was the supplier hopped into the back. The informant was in the front passenger seat, and he immediately became tense. 

“At that point, now you’re just playing on your training, […] and the training is just being normal,” Horgan said. “I’m a guy who’s trying to get $600 worth of heroin. Let’s do this.”

The man in the back asked if they were going to do this, and Horgan replied with something along the lines of, “Yeah, it’s what we’re here for, right?” 

“Kick it out,” said the man in the backseat — the phrase Baltimore criminals use when they are robbing someone. And that’s when Horgan heard the familiar racking sound. When he turned to look, there was a silver pistol pointed directly at his head. 

Horgan’s heart and mind were racing, processing information at breakneck speed: “[If he shoots and] he misses, hitting the windshield, maybe it grazes my ear or my upper shoulder, right? Those are all livable wounds.” 

Illustration by Lenny Miller/Coffee or Die Magazine.

And then his muscle memory kicked in. Horgan immediately rolled out of the car, hitting the ground with so much force that he bruised two ribs. All his partners could see was a mad dash to get out of the car.

The robber hadn’t brought any heroin, and the VCID squad hadn’t brought any buy money for the deal. Smith was terrified, and now he was left in the car with a surprised robber holding a loaded pistol. Horgan didn’t announce police right away due to the circumstances, but the robber was about to find out. 

As soon as Horgan hit the ground, he drew his Glock 27 from his small-of-the-back holster and moved toward the rear of the vehicle. The other officers exited their vehicle with guns drawn, rapidly approaching his position to assist. The robber got out of the car, pistol still in hand but down at his side.

Horgan yelled “GUN!” to his partners as they were approaching, and all three of them had their service pistols trained on the robber. Once the suspect realized what was happening — the officers were yelling “Police!” and “Put the gun down!” — he dropped the pistol and laid on the ground. 

Illustration by Lenny Miller/Coffee or Die Magazine.

The crisis was averted as the squad took control of the criminal and arrested him. Horgan recovered the suspect’s pistol: a silver semi-automatic .380 with one round in the chamber, the hammer cocked, and one round in the magazine. The squad loaded the suspect into the back of a marked squad car, and he was carted off for booking.  

Unbeknownst to Horgan and his team, the supplier never intended to show up for the deal and had sent one of his men to rob the informant of the $600, which was later confirmed from the man’s signed confession, which was released during the court proceedings. 

The suspect had two prior felonies, one of which was a violent felony, and he landed a seven-year sentence for his crimes that day. When interviewed by the detectives at the precinct, the robber wrote a one-page confession. The last sentence in particular spoke to Horgan: “Thank the detective for not killing me.”

Horgan said that while he had the robber in his sights, he considered other factors like the busy four-lane roadway behind the suspect and a bus stop. While he’s confident in his shooting abilities, he thought about how an errant round could hit a car or “the school bus full of nuns.” Horgan’s quick thinking and immediate action that day not only prevented any personal harm but also spared the life of the robber, something the man was clearly aware of while writing his confession.

Horgan was awarded the law enforcement Meritorious Service Medal for his actions that day.

Joshua Skovlund
Joshua Skovlund

Joshua Skovlund is a former staff writer for Coffee or Die. He covered the 75th anniversary of D-Day in France, multinational military exercises in Germany, and civil unrest during the 2020 riots in Minneapolis. Born and raised in small-town South Dakota, he grew up playing football and soccer before serving as a forward observer in the US Army. After leaving the service, he worked as a personal trainer while earning his paramedic license. After five years as in paramedicine, he transitioned to a career in multimedia journalism. Joshua is married with two children.

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