Flint Journal / Landov

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

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.

The sting would become a police legend. Former high-ranking DEA agent Michael Levine, who teaches investigative narcotics procedures around the world, says, “[The detectives] got it on video ... I use that video in training undercover agents today.” Over the years, other agents have pulled off similar stings—like the one in 2009 where two FBI agents, posing as mobsters, staged a wedding onboard a yacht and trapped an Asian counterfeiting gang, scoring over $100 million in cash. Or the one in March 2015 where Houston police created a fake modeling studio in an operation designed to trap 40 johns. Or the one in 2013 where Belgian police caught a Somali pirate by hiring him as a consultant for a fake movie.

The Michigan wedding in 1990 was the original, and some say the greatest. By luring all the criminals to one place and arresting them simultaneously, the officers hoped to make a real impact, transforming the crime-ridden area and making it a place where people would want to live again.

In February of this year, Debbie Williams, now 62, welcomed me into her pretty, snow-covered home in Linden, near Flint. Over coffee, she told me her part in the “wedding sting” operation began when she joined a group of undercover agents from various local jurisdictions, to catch local dealers. Because it was impossible to take notes during an undercover drug buy and too risky to wear a wire, Williams and Moon presented their evidence to a “handler,” she said. In her living room, Williams flicked through a yellowing copy of the Flint Journal and paused at the headline: “Here Comes Bride—for Narc Sting.” The wedding was just the icing on the cake, she told me: The undercover operation spanned five months.

After every buy during the operation, Moon’s car would pull into a deserted trailer park on the outskirts of town, where Williams checked their mirrors for a tail. In the darkness lurked a Chevrolet S-10 pickup, where their handler laid in wait. He was Sergeant Maurice “Vic” Wasylyshyn. “First thing I remember was the beer belly, a silhouette that I was walking up to,” Williams recalled, of their first meeting. “He was so cute ... Nice beard. Deep, sexy voice!”

Inside the pickup, Wasylyshyn pressed play on his tape recorder as Williams recounted her covert drugs purchases and described the dealers who had supplied her. “White male, early 30s,” she would say, “Evidence is one quarter ounce green leafy substance, suspected marijuana contained in a clear plastic baggy.” Wasylyshyn had explained to Williams and Moon that to make an arrest, they needed to show “continuing investigation.” Unless a defendant made three buys at least, a defense attorney could claim he had been an innocent man, entrapped by cops. So the detectives had to become regular customers—and a genuine part of the underworld.

Lacy “Moon” Brown (bottom left, with gun) poses with bags of drugs after a bust (Lapeer Area View / Courtesy the County Press)

When I met Wasylyshyn at the Plank on the Lake bar near Flint, earlier this year, he arrived with the aid of a walking stick, due to a leg injury. Back in the 1980s, he himself was an undercover legend and a master of disguise. In his police uniform he was a clean-cut ex-Marine, but at night he prowled the streets as his alter ego, “Animal.” An aggressive biker, Animal was known to have a taste for fast women, hard liquor, and even harder drugs. Yet undercover cops are forbidden from taking drugs; a positive test can render an officer’s testimony void and cause him to be convicted of a crime. So Wasylyshyn snorted cocaine through a plastic “tooter” that swung from his neck. Hidden inside the tube was a cigarette filter that trapped the evidence and stopped it from whizzing up his nostril.

Once, a dealer had forced a gun into his mouth and made him prove he wasn’t a cop by smoking a joint. “Did I take it? Yeah I did, until my eyes crossed. I was driving home thinking it had hardly affected me, when the chief pulled me over,” he laughed. “I was driving at 10 miles an hour.” By 1990, he was running covert operations from behind the one-way windows of his pick-up truck.

During our interview, after sinking three beers in quick succession, a little “Animal” emerged: Wasylyshyn told me outrageous tales of his misadventures in vice and narcotics. Like the time he drank two pitchers of beer to blend in with heavy-drinking dealers before taking part in a shooting practice. He chuckled: “I shot a 42 out of 50.”

Wasylyshyn recalled with some pride that Moon and Williams made 163 individual buys from over 87 dealers, as they nestled their way into suspects’ social lives. According to Levine, the undercover police expert, this number was “extraordinary.” He said his own record was 57 buys in one operation, and that he “came very close to being killed.”

Moon and Williams’s secret was that, under Wasylyshyn’s tutelage, they went so deep undercover that they developed complicated criminal personas. Williams became “Debbie Leno,” the daughter of an East Coast gangster known as “Fast Eddie.” Moon played her boyfriend “Danny,” a large-scale drug dealer. Together, the two of them bought any drugs they could get their hands on and doubled their efforts to be believable. “I had to tell [Moon], ‘You have to remember to pretend you’re in love with me,’” Williams said. “[I would] get up close to him, tease him ... He was kinda embarrassed by it all.”

By mid-September, the detectives knew that Flint itself would soon go undercover: A sheet of ice would top the lakes and snow would blanket the roads, making video recording and surveillance more challenging. Williams and Moon had created a Who’s Who of the county’s dealers, but they knew if they made one arrest, word would get around. Dealers would go underground, flush their stashes, or leave town.

In the pick-up truck with Wasylyshyn, Moon chain-smoked Winstons and discussed a plan. “[He] was the type of guy who ... could sell a cow to a vegetarian,” Wasylyshyn recalled.

And Moon’s retirement was looming. As Wasylyshyn remembers it, Moon told him, “I’d kind of like to go out with a bang. Do you got any ideas?”

Wasylyshyn said that’s when Moon came up with the wedding idea.

Moon said, “Yeah, that'd be cool. I can write a book about it.”

“I don't give a shit,” said Wasylyshyn. “Let me run it by the prosecutor.”

Williams told me it was late at night when the telephone rang in her house, where she was sleeping alone.

“Debbie,” asked Moon. “Will you marry me?”

Moon was, in fact, already married. He’d met his wife, Beth, while he was posing as a mobster called Gregory Wilson. “He busted her brother for making bombs,” recalls Lt. Parks. Beth had stayed with him even after he locked up her brother and father. But in 1991, she told the Detroit Free Press Magazine that she hated Moon’s job for its low pay and high-risks. “There were times we couldn’t afford to eat, and I felt bitter,” she said. “All I ever wanted was a roof over our head.”

Moon’s path into law enforcement had been unorthodox. He had started drinking at the age of 6, swigging a raisin-based home-brew, and in 1962, he’d been kicked out of the Marines for violent conduct. A messy decade had followed, punctuated by bloody brawls and jail sentences for illegal possession of moonshine, breaking and entering, and firearms charges. According to the 1991 Free Press profile, his life changed forever in January 1972, as he lay on the floor of a California jail cell, waiting to be sentenced for assault with a deadly weapon. As he described it, his body was shaking from alcohol withdrawal as he prayed for the first time: “Get me outta here, Jesus, and I’ll change, really.” His charge was improbably reduced from a felony, and Moon walked free.

He kept his promise. He left California for Michigan, and in the pre-Internet age, he was able to keep his out-of-state criminal past a secret as he signed up to study law enforcement at Flint’s Mott Community College. Lieutenant Gary Parks, who has led the Lapeer County Detective Division since 1974, told me, “[Moon] drank a lot when he was younger, got himself in trouble, and then he just wanted to get out of that life. He started helping the police and it was more exciting. He didn’t know how to stop.”

Moon caught the eye of a vice detective who recruited him to help shut down after-hours drinking dens. He used his street smarts to solve various small crimes, like the theft of gasoline from school buses. Then he progressed to catching rapists and murderers. Soon he had enough credibility that they sent him to the police academy.

Chain-smoking Moon gasped and panted around the athletics track trying to pass the fitness test and crammed all night for exams. Somehow, he was sworn in at Lapeer County in 1977, where his antics earned him a unique reputation. Parks enjoys telling the story of how Moon arrested a murder suspect on a local fairground ride called the Zipper. Moon marched him into the police station and announced, “I busted the prick in the Zipper!”

As a full-time detective in Lapeer County, Moon earned $18,500 a year. But by 1990, his cover there had been blown. Unsuitable for uniformed work or a desk job, he’d become a freelancer, doing jobs for other departments in the area. He earned just $500 for his four months’ work on the Flint operation, less than $1.82 an hour. Moon wanted to set his family up for the future, starting with a down payment on a home in North Carolina.

The sting, it seems, was inspired by a lack of resources all around. The federal government had been funding special intelligence units like Moon and Wasylyshyn’s since the late 1970s, but had gradually reduced its support by 25 percent each year until the units had to fend for themselves. Parks said the area’s small-town police departments had always been poor: “They wouldn’t have had the budget.” And dealing with local governments was tricky in those tight-knit communities. “You don’t want to go to the board of directors or the village and say, ‘I need some money for a sting’... It could be some of their relatives you’re stinging!”

In the end, Wasylyshyn was able to get approval and funding from the Shiawassee County sheriff. LaJoye had been an undercover detective himself, using the street name “Bear.” Now “Big Jim” was a powerful figure in local law enforcement. “The Sheriff told me he wanted nothing to do with it,” Wasylyshyn said. But Lajoye recalled the conversation differently: “I said, as long as it’s legal ... it’s fine by me. I had a little concern with [Moon], I dealt with him a lot. That was my concern, to make sure it’s done right. Stay in the rules ... You had to make sure the ‘t’s were crossed with [Moon] ... I want to make damn sure that we don’t ... end up with mud on our face.”

In the weeks leading up to the wedding, cops put aside crime reports and fingerprints to work on seating plans and floral arrangements. The operations room began to sound like a wedding planner’s office as grizzled lawmen interrogated caterers. To save cash, the top two tiers of the wedding cake would be frosting-covered cardboard. As an inside joke, the officers decided to have it decorated in police-blue ribbons and sugared bees (for a “sting”). Cash for props would come from recycled bottles confiscated from teenagers, while cop-friendly businesses would provide the alcohol. A friend of the department donated the invitations for free.

As the department made preparations for the wedding, it finalized the plan for the operation itself: Father-of-the-bride Fast Eddie Leno would arrive in town for his daughter’s wedding, bringing 200 pounds of marijuana. Moon would lure the town’s biggest dealers to make a major purchase just before the ceremony. This is known as a “reverse buy.” “We flash the dope, they give us the money,” explained Wasylyshyn. Once the drugs were loaded into the suspect’s car, cops would jump out and arrest the dealers, impound their vehicles, take their money—and get the drugs back. Next, the ceremony would begin. After the nuptials, they’d catch every other dealer with an outstanding warrant.

“It got to be stressful as we got close to the wedding,” says Williams. “I started feeling that stress like you would feel for a real wedding.” During briefings, they discussed whether the bride should wear her hair up or down. How much would they spend on food? And how would they squeeze Moon into a tuxedo? At night, Williams and Moon made their rounds as usual, buying drugs from their dealers. But the couple also announced their happy news and hand-delivered wedding invitations.

Wasylyshyn called on undercover detective Phil “Shooter” McCarty, from nearby Port Huron, to play Moon’s drug connection. Mustachioed Shooter had enjoyed an undercover career spanning decades; he’d recently posed as a hit man to foil a plot to kill a sheriff. “I’ve had the cancer and a stroke ... I lost a lot of weight in my face,” Shooter told me, when we met in a coffee house near Lapeer. “I almost croaked ... They medevac’d me to the hospital. There’s some things I don’t remember.” But as we sat drinking coffee, he began to recall exactly how it went down.

On September 19, he and Moon hit the road: “My role was to be the big time dope dealer.... We took some drugs up from the border, from Texas, put it in a van, got a hold of the local drug dealers ... We showed them a van full of dope,” he said.

As Shooter showed the weed to the buyers, he explained, “That load was sold already. We have another [load] coming up... Get your money together and we’ll sell in large quantities.” Shooter told me how he indicated that he was legit. “You could go to the drugstore, buy empty gelatin capsules, fill them with Coffee Mate, and… you say, ‘I’m gonna do a couple screamers.’ Sometimes, they’d ask for one and they’d start acting like they’re getting high!”

Debbie Williams on her fake “wedding day,” with Vic Wasylyshyn standing behind her (Flint Journal / Landov)

The next day, September 20, Fast Eddie Leno drove through town in a huge motorhome, complete with fake Florida license plates. Former police chief Ed Boyce reveled in his role as the gangster, a hardened drugs boss eager to give his daughter the best wedding ever. By now, Williams knew Moon would keep her safe during the operation. She described how lesser undercover detectives would turn their chair backwards and almost interrogate dealers, looking just like cops. But Moon had a knack for staying in character no matter what was happening around him. Williams said it sometimes took extra vigilance to avoid lapsing into cop talk—for instance, saying “nineteen hundred” instead of “seven o’clock.”

But just a few hours before the wedding, there was one problem: Williams still hadn’t found a dress and the department couldn’t afford a new one. Though Williams said it felt surreal, Moon’s wife, Beth, agreed to help. At a Salvation Army thrift store, Beth watched Williams model a full-length ivory dress with lace cutouts. A second-hand bargain at $17, Williams noticed that it came with a lace garter, perfect for stashing her snub-nosed Smith and Wesson.

On the morning of September 21, Moon woke up to find a note written by his son in purple crayon: “Be careful Daddy.”

At Moore’s Family Circle Hall in nearby Corunna, officers decorated the hall with blue and white ribbons. Chosen for its affordable food and its discreet location at the end of a dirt track, Moore’s was the perfect place to hold the reverse buys without the whole town finding out. Frustratingly to Wasylyshyn, however, the local media showed up to cover the dramatic moment. “I’ve got all these news hawks coming in... I was going crazy,” Wasylyshyn moaned. “Unbeknownst to me, [Moon] had invited them.”

At 2.55 p.m., the first car full of drug dealers arrived. Wasylyshyn pointed his video camera out of the hall’s window and pressed record. It was just three hours before the nuptials, and time was tight before the guests arrived. The suspects parked next to Moon’s car, and Wasylyshyn zoomed in on Moon and Shooter as they opened their trunk. The dealer passed Shooter a shoebox filled with over $87,000 in cash. The cops helped the dealers load the bales of weed into their car. Then Shooter pulled his service weapon. That was the sign.

“Go! Go! Go! Go!” yelled a gang of uniformed officers, appearing from nowhere.

“Put your hands on there!” they shouted.

One car after another drove into the trap, in 20-minute intervals. Moon and Shooter pulled off three busts, confiscating over $100,000 in cash. But inside one of the arrested suspect’s cars, police found a young boy. Wasylyshyn called on Williams who carried the boy to a police car and told him everything would be okay. “He was part of this so-called victimless crime,” Williams told me.

They arrested the last buyer at 4.50 p.m., just an hour before the ceremony. “If [suspects] saw uniformed officers out there arresting people, man, they’d be gone in a minute,” said Wasylyshyn. So the arrested men were bundled into vans and kept away from telephones to stop them from tipping off their associates.

Uniformed cops jumped into their hiding places as wedding-guest suspects started to arrive around 5:30 p.m. “They were all clearly carrying guns,” recalled photojournalist Tom Cheek, who posed as a wedding photographer. Moon warned him to be ready to shoot a major police operation. “The place started to fill up with thugs and I could see the weapons under their sports jackets — then they started to get drunk on all the free liquor. That was when I thought maybe this wasn’t such a clever idea after all.” Moon displayed bricks of marijuana inside the hall, to raffle off for $100 per ticket.

An undercover officer poses as a member of the wedding band. (Courtesy of Vic Wasylyshyn)

“I was a damn nervous wreck. I didn’t want anything to get burned,” says Wasylyshyn. They’d agreed that the band would play a certain song to signal the start of the operation. But they needed to wait for all the guests to arrive to make maximum arrests, and of course, lots of people were late.

At six o’clock, the wedding march began to play. And there came the bride. Arm-in-arm with her proud father, Fast Eddie Leno (with a Walther pistol hidden in his cummerbund), Williams slowly walked the aisle. Illuminated by flashbulbs, Williams arrived at her place next to Moon, who stood grinning at the altar. Next to him, his wife stood by as a bridesmaid, blank-eyed, ready to watch her husband marry another woman. In the audience, the area’s drug dealers were still holding their cups, getting good and drunk.

“We are gathered here together for a joyous occasion. Two people agreeing to share their lives, hopes and dreams,” the minister announced. He was retired Flint Police Sergeant Mike Parrish in disguise. Underneath his robes, Parrish, too, was packing a loaded weapon.

“I give you this ring in token and pledge of my ever abiding love for you,” said Moon, slipping the ring on Williams’s finger. They both turned back to the minister, who announced: “By virtue of the State of Michigan, I now pronounce you husband and wife.” The crowd let out a cheer, but as she kissed Moon, Williams eyeballed the partygoers. Only half of the wanted guest list had arrived. Williams told Moon they’d have to wait a little longer.

The festivities began. “The bad guys were very impressed. It became the coolest party in the county that night,” says Dan Shriner, a local reporter who attended the wedding. The band announced itself as a weed-loving four piece whose name, SPOC, stood for “Somebody Protect Our Crops.” In fact, it was “COPS” spelled backwards, and it was led by Don Brock, a Davison City police officer. The department had found him after making a request over police radio for any officers who could play instruments; three other officers had come forward to play guitars and drums. (“The band were absolutely horrible,” recalled Lajoye.)

The dealers in the crowd downed pitchers of beer and cheered as SPOC dived into its first song. “It was getting real hinky in there,” recalled Cheek, the photographer. “Another group of gangsters showed up and they were all tucking into the free drink.” Moon and Williams posed for photos. Her hand shook as she held the knife, making sure not to cut the fake part of the cake. There were fake speeches and toasts, and from his hiding position, Wasylyshyn ticked off suspects from the guest list as more cars arrived. The criminals were now watching the marijuana raffle prize with greedy eyes.

By 9:00 p.m. the party was in full swing, but behind the scenes was pure tension: Sweaty hands gripped weapons. Synchronized watches were checked. The band knew it was time to give the signal and began to play the song: “I Fought The Law (and the Law Won).”

Williams reached into her garter and felt for her revolver. Shooter jumped onto the stage, and grabbed the mic.

“Let’s have some fun,” he shouted. “Everybody here that’s a cop, stand up!”

A dozen undercover officers rose to their feet as uniformed detectives burst through the door.

“Okay!” Shooter yelled. “All the rest of you motherfuckers put your hands on the table, because you’re under arrest! This is a bust!”

On the amateur video taken by one undercover guest, you can see a suspect laughing during his arrest, believing it was some kind of joke. “We’re not kidding, we have a warrant for your arrest,” Shooter told one incredulous guest as Moon slapped the warrant against his chest. Williams arrested the nearest suspect, while Moon whipped out his handcuffs and arrested another.

Outside, a steady stream of suspects was marched past the window of the motorhome, where Wasylyshyn was keeping watch, and bundled into police vans. A dozen were arrested at the scene, and in the following 24 hours, raid crews kicked in the doors of the suspects who rudely hadn’t shown up.

Suspects were taken to the Shiawassee County Jail and scheduled for arraignment on multiple felony charges, including delivery of cocaine, crack, LSD, marijuana, and prescription drugs. Later, some would empty their pockets and find matchbook souvenirs they’d picked up that read: “Thank you for sharing our joy.” The end take for the cops included several motor vehicles, vanloads of suspects, and, crucially, over $100,000 in cash from the reverse buys. “These monies, taken under the drug forfeiture law, will go towards the continuing effort to combat drug trafficking in this county,” said Shiawassee County Prosecuting Attorney, Ward. L. Clarkson, talking to the Argus-Press on September 28, 1990. “The funds are going to be a real boost for our investigators.”

Meanwhile, the event became a media sensation. A Flint Journal article reported, “It was a genuine shotgun wedding!” and an Orlando Sentinel headline announced, “Here Comes the Bride, There Go the Crooks!”. The sheriff gave interviews to international press. He was reelected in 1992, without opposition. “There was no one else on the ballot ... the only way to run!” he told me. And yet, there was still the small matter of the convictions.

Poor record-keeping during the cash-strapped ’90s, and a tornado that hit Flint on the week of the sentencing made it impossible to confirm exactly who was convicted or not. “We were not on computer back in 1990,” a court clerk told me.

Several of the suspects were found guilty. “One of the guys ended up with seven years,” LaJoye said. “There were a lot of sentences, four or five repeat offenders wound up going to prison ... There was a very high conviction rate on all of them.” The father of one defendant, Larry Ordiway, said his son had been arrested in the days following the wedding: “They worked him over pretty good. Yes, he was involved in that whole ball of wax. He was convicted, and spent a year in jail. I’m not in contact with him anymore.” His son and other defendants were unreachable, or did not reply to enquiries.

But Dan Shriner, a journalist, told me the sting “overwhelmed” the local court system: “In Michigan you have to have a preliminary examination in district court within 15 days of arraignment, and they were swamped with these 30 or 40 cases. I heard they were pleading them out, offering them sweet deals.” Wasylyshyn told the Flint Journal at the time, “at least half of the 30 or so persons arrested at or after the mock marriage had pleaded guilty or negotiated reduced charges in exchange for guilty pleas.” Some suspects posted bail and disappeared.

According to the Flint Journal, a number of defendants filed claims of entrapment. Judge Gerald D. Lostracco dismissed all of those claims, apart from one: The court heard that one undercover detective in the operation had faked a headache to coerce a suspect into selling prescription painkillers. That was where the boundary lay: Feigning a headache meant luring a person into committing a crime, not simply catching him in the act. The rest of the charade was all well within the boundaries of the law. As a 1992 Supreme Court case would state, “Government agents may not ... implant in an innocent person’s mind the disposition to commit a criminal act,” but they can use “artifice, stratagem, pretense, or deceit.”

This kind of trickery doesn’t always pay off. In 2012, for example, undercover agents opened a fake gun store in Milwaukee in an effort to break up criminal operations. They didn’t manage to snare any major dealers; instead, the scheme ended in after 10 months with a robbery and a leaked document containing names and numbers of federal agents.  The fact that the Flint wedding sting succeeded as well as it did shows how meticulously the officers planned the operation, down to the last blue ribbon on the wedding cake.

Yet for all the drama and creativity involved, the operation ultimately didn’t do much to improve the grim outlook of the city and its surrounding areas. Scanning through microfilm from the Flint Journal archives, the years following the sting were punctuated by violent crimes and gang murders, and the population dropped below 100,000 for the first time since the 1920s.

“This [period] was just the beginning of the depression,” the Flint historian Peggy Lawrence told me. She said the wedding sting was emblematic of Southeastern Michigan during that era. “What comes to mind is... you have to be inventive and do more with less.” Lt. Gary Parks added, “What it did was send a message to criminals that you can’t trust anybody, and that’s the only way you can beat this game.”

In the years after the sting, General Motors continued to move its operations to Mexico, closing and bulldozing its plants. Since then, the drug trade has grown with the unemployment rate, and law enforcement officers continue to stage busts and raids. But FBI statistics show that Flint has the most violent crimes per capita, even as the city's police force is shrinking. The city regularly tops lists of most dangerous cities in America. “It’s like rags to riches, and back to rags—that’s Flint,” said Lawrence.

But while the 1990 operation didn’t make a long-term impact on crime, it was a life-altering event for the officers who took part in it.

Detective Phil “Shooter” McCarty, shown here (center) with a van full of marijuana, played the role of Moon’s drug connection at the fake wedding. (Courtesy of Phil McCarty)

After the arrests were made that night at Moore’s, the SPOC guitarist dived into another song as Moon’s colleagues toasted his remarkable career. Detectives from numerous agencies strutted onto the dance floor as Shooter grabbed hold of the microphone again and announced: “Any time you put a doper in jail is a good day … Let’s party!” He joked that the suspects would enjoy free bed and breakfast at “Big Jim’s Bed and Breakfast,” otherwise known as the local jail.

“Then we really started drinking!” said Wasylyshyn, who finally joined the party. “You don’t give cops free food and free beer and expect them to walk away when it’s still there.”

As Williams and Wasylyshyn danced into the early hours, Moon walked out of the party and never returned. With a reported $5,000 bonus from the wedding sting, Moon moved back to North Carolina with Beth, where they hunted for a pretty home among eight acres of pine trees. “Buying a house is like a dope deal,” he told a newspaper reporter. “You fan the money, and greed takes over.” When Moon died in 2006 at age 63, his obituary in the Lapeer Area View announced, “The Moon shines no more” and noted that lawmakers were paying tribute to a “once-in-a-lifetime legend.”

The Flint wedding sting also inspired two of the officers to plan another wedding a year later—but this one was real. When I visited Wasylyshyn and Williams in February, cats clambered over their laps as they discussed their forthcoming silver wedding anniversary. “When people ask how we met, they can’t believe it,” said Williams, who is now Mrs. Wasylyshyn. The officer once nicknamed “Animal” appears to be a soft-spoken and polite husband. He told me about his first moment alone with Williams during the fake wedding party: “All the cops were inside getting drunk, I was in the motorhome ... and she walked in,” he recalled, after making sure his wife was out of earshot. “And man, I realized, I couldn’t let her go.”