When by-the-book rookie Pamela Robinson is partnered with maverick undercover cop Kevin Barnum, neither is sure of the other. But as the duo work a hair-raising undercover operation against a Hells Angels drug network, they find that they have more in common than a love of justice. In Part 1, Sophia Di Martino follows Kevin and Pamela as they adapt to life as 'husband and wife' drug dealers in Ontario, Canada, learning to work together under the constant threat of discovery - or worse.
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True Spies, Episode 153: Project Scorpius, Part 1 - The Armpiece 

+++Disclaimer: This episode contains strong references to violence and drug use from the outset. 

NARRATOR: This is True Spies, the podcast that takes you deep inside the greatest secret missions of all time. Week by week, you’ll hear the true stories behind the operations that have shaped the world we live in. You’ll meet the people who live life undercover. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position? I’m Sophia Di Martino, and this is True Spies, from SPYSCAPE Studios.

KEVIN BARNUM: I was dealing with a guy. We had a kilo deal of cocaine set up. And when they found out how close I got to the Hells Angels through that deal, he ended up beaten to death with a ball-peen hammer and thrown in the St Lawrence river in a sleeping bag. 

NARRATOR: This is True Spies, Project Scorpius, Part 1 - The Armpiece. Canada, the late 1990s. The Hell’s Angels have been at war with rival biker gangs for several years. Scores have been murdered on both sides, as well as several civilians, as the Angels looked to monopolize the drug trade based out of Montreal.

PAMELA ROBINSON: Everybody referred to them as the ‘Guys from Montreal’. And that meant the Hells Angels. 

NARRATOR: For the Canadian police though, infiltrating the Angels was nearly impossible. The fully-fledged, or ‘patched’, members were far removed from street level, using intermediaries to channel the merchandise to local dealers.

PAMELA ROBINSON: Like any business model, you have lots of workers and then you have a bigger group of middle managers. But then once you start getting up into the C-suite, there are a lot fewer people and it becomes a lot more challenging. 

KEVIN BARNUM: I've only ever bought a ‘hand-to-hand’ from a full patch on one occasion, and they'd just patched over from Satan’s Choice to Hells Angels. and I was able to buy an ounce of cocaine.

NARRATOR: Often the only way in was by sending officers undercover - officers like Kevin and Pamela.

PAMELA ROBINSON: Every day is different when you're a police officer in uniform. But drug enforcement takes it to the next level because you know you’re going to be dealing with people who are high, who have lots of different things happening around them. That violence is a part of their job description. So every single day, sometimes minute to minute, can be very different and you become addicted to that. 

NARRATOR: This is the story of Project Scorpius, a Canadian undercover operation across the province of Ontario that got closer to the Hells Angels than almost any other.

PAMELA ROBINSON: It's like winning the undercover cop lottery, right? 

NARRATOR: It’s a 101 guide to the danger that comes with life undercover.

KEVIN BARNUM: We went in to buy an eight-ball of cocaine, 3.5 grams. I went up to the door and knocked and within seconds I was punched in the face. I broke my nose. My partner, I could see him bleeding and the blood coming down his face and the hair being pulled out. It was a fight for our life. That's how fast things can go wrong. 

NARRATOR: Told by the two officers who were at the center of the operation.

PAMELA ROBINSON: The adrenaline rush is addictive because you don't know what's going to happen. 

NARRATOR: For as long as she can remember, Pamela Robinson has been around drugs.

PAMELA ROBINSON: I grew up in circumstances that made it very easy to relate to drug dealers and domestic violence, seeing drugs firsthand. My mom was 17 when she had me. A few years later, our father leaves, unable to cope and parent, and my mom was on her own with help from my grandmother. So we moved around a lot. We were always one step ahead of the landlord, so to speak. I joke around sometimes that things could have gone one or two ways. 

NARRATOR: She chose the second way and, as she grew older, Pamela felt the call to be a cop.

PAMELA ROBINSON: My mother remarried for the third time, and her husband's brother was a police officer. And he would tell all of these really interesting stories when we'd see him on holiday time. And I thought that sounds really cool.

NARRATOR: After a childhood of living by her wits, Pamela knew that she was perfect for the job.

PAMELA ROBINSON: From an early age I would watch for things that were either going to be okay or things that were going to go sideways very, very quickly by seeing how people's gestures, their responses, what the surroundings were like. All of those types of things came into play and I think gave me an advantage.

NARRATOR: After graduating college, she made it in. But, initially, working drugs was far from Pamela’s mind.

PAMELA ROBINSON: When I started policing and working on the road, I didn't really think about that. I had stayed away from that. That was not something that I ever wanted to have as part of my life. I was interested in the bigger crimes of homicide and that sort of thing. 

NARRATOR: Despite being far from the high-octane world of undercover work, eventually Pamela came to a stark conclusion.

PAMELA ROBINSON: If you take a look at domestic violence, you can usually see some sort of substance abuse. You take a look at homelessness and people who have been abused. You see thefts, break-and-enters, violent attacks, assaults, and murder. When you take a look and you investigate the background of that and you dig in you will normally come up with some sort of precursor of drugs, either prescribed or illegal, usually illegal. That is at the base of that. 

NARRATOR: So, Pamela’s next move seemed obvious - the Drug Enforcement Section, or DES.

PAMELA ROBINSON: Of course, the thought of working undercover, living away from home, and having a different name, was really exciting at that point in my life.

NARRATOR: But getting in wasn’t easy.

PAMELA ROBINSON: Five years as a police officer was the absolute minimum requirement.

NARRATOR: Pamela only had three years but she found a chink in the system. There were almost no women working drugs, a fact that she turned in her favor.

PAMELA ROBINSON: It definitely was an advantage for me being female.

NARRATOR: More than an advantage, it was absolutely necessary to the role she was prescribed. She was a so-called ‘armpiece’ in undercover operations.

PAMELA ROBINSON: ‘Armpiece’ is simply a derogatory term that was used to describe female officers who would be on the arm, so to speak, of the lead officer, the male officer. And I did a lot of that work. I'd be two weeks here, three weeks there, a month over here, back and forth all over the place. And. having a different name and a different identity, which was very attractive to me. How exciting is that, to be able to recreate yourself whenever you want?

NARRATOR: By the time Pamela had gotten into undercover work in the late ‘90s, Kevin was already a seasoned pro. Ex-military, he followed his older brother into the Ontario Provincial Police after being demobbed. And he knew that, however exciting it was, narcotics work was also the most dangerous job on the force.

KEVIN BARNUM: My brother was already ahead of me as an undercover police officer in the Drug Enforcement Section. He was doing an eight-ounce crack deal in the front of a vehicle where he was the driver. And my brother was inspecting the drugs and goes, “This is crap. I don't want it. Get out of the car.” And the guy pulled a gun out and put it to his temple. They take the dope. I believe it's for $13,000, that deal, They take his money, his keys, and his cell phone, and get out of the car. And as the guy's getting out of the car, he pulls the trigger of the gun, and the round misfires. Then everything went crazy. The tactical team ended up coming in. So those are the things that are real.

NARRATOR: Given the greater risks they faced, including that of sexual violence, female undercover officers were rare. Working in the drug unit was one thing. Going undercover was something else entirely.

KEVIN BARNUM: Our unit was approximately 90 people and I think we had two females in a unit of 90 people. 

NARRATOR: Pamela soon discovered that she was often overlooked for the longer-term, deep-cover work she coveted simply for being a woman.

PAMELA ROBINSON: Being female you get five demerit points, the same as a history of violence for the accused. I was offended. I couldn't believe it.

NARRATOR: But after a few years working drugs, she took a more nuanced view.

PAMELA ROBINSON: In fairness to policing the drug underworld, they haven't caught up to the ‘MeToo’ movement. The glass ceiling is pretty bulletproof there. Women are not viewed oftentimes as much more than property or disposable in lots of different ways. And clearly, as a woman being in those scenarios with people who had a propensity for violence, the risk that existed to me would be different than for men in lots of ways.

NARRATOR: Still, Pamela was undeterred.

PAMELA ROBINSON: I was completely up for it. To prove that I could do more than just in and out, that I could prove that I was as good an undercover officer as anyone.

NARRATOR: Eventually, the deindustrialization of small-town Canada gave her that chance. As the year 2,000 approached, there were several long-term undercover operations set up in the decaying areas dotting the province of Ontario.

PAMELA ROBINSON: There was a lot of unemployment. There had been once a thriving industrial area and it was slowly dying. 

NARRATOR: And there was an operation that centered on one town in particular.

PAMELA ROBINSON: It was a town that at one time had been really amazing. And the recession of the ‘80s, I don't think had been kind to this town. What had once been some really amazing stores and architecture had turned into dollar stores and seedy bars. And it just seemed a depressing little place.

NARRATOR: I would tell you the name of the town, but that’s still classified.

PAMELA ROBINSON: They had a drug problem. There was violence, there were property crimes. Kids were getting hooked on drugs. Any time there's going to be an undercover project, there has to be a request from the community, either the police chief or detachment commanders. And there's been issues within the community that would warrant having that kind of money and time put into doing an undercover project. It is very expensive.

NARRATOR: It could have been one of the scores of neglected little towns that had been left to wither. But this one stood out.

PAMELA ROBINSON: There was a major highway that connected the whole province, running almost right through. So it was a great location for drug dealers to drop off because Quebec was just to the east and then you've got Toronto just to the west. So it was an ideal location. 

NARRATOR: And Operation Scorpius was born. When Kevin heard about Operation Scorpius, he immediately volunteered. It was scheduled as 10-month undercover. As one of the most experienced officers in the area, Kevin was accepted immediately. Here’s the plan - Kevin and his partner would move to the town and set up shop, while also posing as casual drug users and wannabe dealers. 

KEVIN BARNUM: You want to start at a street level, which is buying from the lower-end dealers, and that's grams to probably ounces. Mid-level for that type of town would be ounces to probably half pounds of drugs like cocaine. And then from there, it would go higher up for those top two targets.

NARRATOR: But then Kevin learns something else about the op. His partner is a woman. And, to be honest, Kevin’s not loving the idea.

KEVIN BARNUM: I really thought I was going to have to be a babysitter. What's she going to do in a bar fight? 

NARRATOR: Then he finds out exactly who his partner is, an officer relatively new to undercover work - Pamela Robinson - and that only makes things worse.

KEVIN BARNUM: I was like, “Oh, man, I can't. have the ‘guy fun’ along the way. She's well-educated. She already has her master's degree, she’s working on a law degree.” I heard stories of how intelligent she was. She was this ‘goody two shoes’. And I'm going, “Man, I kind of like it loose and free where I can kind of be me.”

NARRATOR: Pamela had heard a few stories about Kevin too.

PAMELA ROBINSON: He had experience, was one of the most experienced undercover officers in the unit, and had this reputation of like, he did an amazing job. But there was just something about him. He had this really long hair. Like, you should have a fan in front of him so his hair would be blowing in slow motion all the time. And his nickname was GQ in the unit, after the magazine, because he never dressed as - what we joke is - the ‘Narc starter kit’ with the T-shirts and the jeans and the boots and all that. He was always dressed in high fashion. So here I'm going to be working with this guy that I think is prettier than I am.

NARRATOR: But that wasn’t all.

PAMELA ROBINSON: I am told by my boss, “Hey, you're going to have to pretend to be this married couple.” And I'm thinking, “Oh this isn't really what I had in mind for this first long-term project assignment - that I'm going to be a wife.” 

NARRATOR: It’s all beginning to sound like an early noughties rom-com.

KEVIN BARNUM: So I'm working with this highly intelligent, good-looking, 5’ 7”, 120-pound blonde. I'm going, “There are advantages, but now we're going to move in together.”

NARRATOR: Their first scheduled meeting to discuss the operation was at a drug unit social - a golf tournament. Upon arriving, Pamela spots Kevin, the undercover officer known as one of the best in the business, instantly.

PAMELA ROBINSON: It was the very first time I'd ever laid eyes on this guy who was going to be my husband in less than a month.

NARRATOR: But what she sees shocks her. An unassuming, calm, and collected operator Kevin is not.

PAMELA ROBINSON: We get partnered up. We drive around, and Kev’s like “I don't even like golf. Do you like golf?” And I'm like, “I've never golfed.” He's like, “Okay, well, let's just have some fun then.” He starts hitting balls at other players, jumping in to get balls out of one of those golf ponds. Almost tipped the golf cart over racing. I don't think we even played golf that day. It was insanity. And I thought, “Okay, this is the guy I'm going to live with for the next 10 or 11 months? He's crazy.”

NARRATOR: After their ‘round’ of golf, Pamela heads back to the clubhouse. There she spots a man coming toward her, a man who looks a lot like Kevin. As he approaches, she realizes it is Kevin’s brother. And he knew more about going undercover than most. Remember Kevin mentioning him having a gun misfire while pointed at his temple?

KEVIN BARNUM: The round on it had actually been hit. The primer struck, but it didn't fire.

PAMELA ROBINSON: He was now a supervisor of a unit and had a really great reputation, had done some super high-end deals and he comes up to me and said, “Oh, I hear you're going to be working with my brother?” And I’m like, “Yeah.” And he said, “Don't believe everything you hear.” And then he just walked away. And then I thought that seemed almost ominous.

NARRATOR: Kevin remembers that day slightly differently.

KEVIN BARNUM: Riding the golf cart the first day we met was yeah, it was a lot of fun, but it was also a chance to get to know each other and think about covers. And we’d thrown a few ideas around. 

NARRATOR: The list of targets was long - 40 or so names of known dealers from street level up. That inevitably meant going across all parts of town, which in turn meant they needed a good explanation if spotted in unusual, out-of-the-way places.

KEVIN BARNUM: We decided to create a business called Scorpius Messengers. And our theme, we had vehicles for deliveries, but we also did Bicycle Messenger service with the Timbuk2 bags - and biked around town and were seen. And we'd go to the drug stores and fast food, and we'd do deliveries. So it was a delivery service we set up and Scorpius Messengers’ theme was: Anything, anywhere, any time.

NARRATOR: And there was a specific reason they called it Scorpius Messengers.

KEVIN BARNUM: Project Scorpius was named by the lead investigator and it was based on Greek mythology. If you recall, Scorpius was sent to kill Orion, the hunter as punishment because Orion, bragged that he wanted to hunt and kill every wild animal on the planet.

NARRATOR: By August 2000, the op was signed off - Project Scorpius was live.

KEVIN BARNUM: They lay out the buy money, the intelligence, the SMEAC, which is the Situation, the Mission, Execution, Administration, Command, and Control. That was all on there in that project plan. And that's at that point where we really had to start diving into that target list of those 40 targets, getting to know the players, getting to know where they were, where they go, how we'd have that coincidental meeting, and how we'd get to know them and build that relationship.

NARRATOR: But among the list of 40 targets, there are none flagged as Hells Angels. While the biker war for drug lines had been raging across Canada for years, it wasn’t clear who the gear in this particular town was coming from.

KEVIN BARNUM: They didn't even come into play on that list.

NARRATOR: After some final briefings, Kevin and Pamela head to the apartment that will be their ‘marital’ home for the next 10 months. They’re now officially undercover.

PAMELA ROBINSON: You are starting out as a complete unknown. You don't know anyone in that town. They don't know you. 

NARRATOR: And their safety net is smaller than you might think.

PAMELA ROBINSON: Nobody knows that the undercovers are in the town. 

NARRATOR: Even the local police force. You never know who knows who, or who's talking at a bar. So it's very, very secretive.

NARRATOR: Arriving at their apartment, Kevin and Pamela get to work building the image of their married life.

KEVIN BARNUM: We went the whole nine yards. You have to in order to make this look like we're a married couple. And the way we played that is that I had a daughter from a previous relationship and we had her pictures. One of the officers I work with at my home unit, he'd give me pictures of his daughter, and we put up her young pictures - seven years old - around the apartment.

NARRATOR: But not long after arriving in the town, Kevin’s unusual undercover style comes out again.

PAMELA ROBINSON: We're driving down one of the streets in front of all these shops in this town that we're working in.

NARRATOR: Kevin turns to Pamela and says, “We need to draw attention to ourselves.”

PAMELA ROBINSON: And I'm like, “I thought shouldn't we be trying to blend in?”

NARRATOR: “Here’s what we’ll do. I’ll play the Beach Boys on full volume. And you stand on the top of the car and pretend to surf down Main Street.”

PAMELA ROBINSON: So am I like, “Okay. He's the one with the experience. Sounds good.” I do it. And then he's laughing. He's like, “I didn't actually think you'd do it. I was just screwing around with you there.”

NARRATOR: But soon, Pamela saw that Kevin’s unorthodox way of operating was, in fact, a genius bit of tradecraft.

PAMELA ROBINSON: You do draw attention because they're not expecting you to do that. People have to see us. Then they'll see us out at the bars. They’ll know who we are. 

NARRATOR: It was a ruse Kevin had mastered over many years. On one op, he wore no shoes - for eight months. In northern Canada.

KEVIN BARNUM: I used to get in trouble sometimes walking around the bars because of broken glass, sometimes you got to sidestep something.

PAMELA ROBINSON: Well it’s not just broken glass in some of those bars that we were in that I wouldn't want to step on. 

KEVIN BARNUM: It was a party starter, you might say. You never have to go up and start talking to people. They come up and want to talk to you because of something weird going on.

NARRATOR: Settling into the town, Kevin and Pamela get the Scorpius Messenger courier service up and running. They lease a store, hand out business cards, and start taking on several big clients - pharmacies, and fast food outlets. But they also take on other clients.

KEVIN BARNUM: We made it very, very well known we were open to delivering anything. And it was a really good one when we were dealing with the drug dealers because they could call us at any time if they had something special they wanted to deliver. 

NARRATOR: Within a few weeks, they’ve made contact with several of their targets both through the business and through Kevin’s outright audacity.

PAMELA ROBINSON: We'd walk into a bar and he would hit somebody on the back and make a joke about them or say something that I thought, “Oh like this guy is not going to be happy with that.” And then two seconds later, the guy’s laughing. They’re best friends. He just has this way that he'd walk into a place and most people just loved him. They loved being around him.

NARRATOR: And while they were soon delivering drugs for several of their target dealers, actually buying any themselves was not yet on the agenda.

PAMELA ROBINSON: One of the things is, you don't buy dope right away. You get to know people and you get [to be] part of their circle so that you build that connection with them.

KEVIN BARNUM: There's no rush whatsoever to buy any type of drug. In fact, turn drugs down from them. And then start working on street-level targets first.

NARRATOR: But soon they’ve built a connection with one of their top-level targets. A man by the name of Rob.

KEVIN BARNUM: He was supposed to be running a lot of things in the town.

PAMELA ROBINSON: And he worked at a gym. 

NARRATOR: The cover goes deeper. Kevin and Pamela get a membership and start working out there four times a week. Often they would say no more than a few words to Rob. Instead, they want to subconsciously gain his trust.

PAMELA ROBINSON: We would talk about that business and delivering and parties as well. Being at a party. And Kevin was supposed to make sure that we had enough and we didn't. So we'd have a pretend little disagreement in the gym that Rob would overhear. 

NARRATOR: After a few weeks of this, Rob starts to offer them drugs outright.

PAMELA ROBINSON: We say no. And then it's interesting how people work if you turn them down or there's some sort of scarcity in mind. They want to do it even more. So now he's talking to us even more and wants to come over. 

NARRATOR: Eventually, the three of them go out drinking.

PAMELA ROBINSON: We were at a strip club that night, out again being seen. That's where everybody goes. And Rob, the liquor stores had all closed. And Rob had this connection that he would just buy his beer-to-go from the bartender. And the bartender that was working that night wouldn't sell him anything. So Rob was really ticked off. And Kevin said, “Well, we have some back at our place.”

NARRATOR: So, the three of them head back to Pamela and Kevin’s apartment, along with Rob’s henchman.

PAMELA ROBINSON: We get talking and then something must have clicked in Rob's mind. He's like, “Oh, I got something for you. Check this out.”

NARRATOR: Across the table Rob lays out two lines of cocaine, telling both of them to sniff one each.

PAMELA ROBINSON: It was a test because that's right there on our kitchen slash dining room table with lots of light. 

NARRATOR: Kevin politely declines.

PAMELA ROBINSON: “Oh, we're going to save that for later.” Or, “Oh, we're going to party a little bit later. Right now we have to do these things.”

NARRATOR: “No,” Rob says. “You’re doing it right now.” Knowing that the op could end there and then, Kevin sees he has no choice. Taking out a note, he bends down and snorts the first line.

PAMELA ROBINSON: And then he's like, “Okay, it's her turn now.”

NARRATOR: Pamela’s mind is spinning, trying to remember her training. She knows it’s technically illegal for officers to take drugs of any kind.

PAMELA ROBINSON: Undercovers learn lots of simulation techniques how drugs are used, but how to be able to get around those types of things in different kinds of situations.

NARRATOR: But Pamela too sees she has no choice.

PAMELA ROBINSON: When you have longer hair, you can cover up a lot of things. But Rob got right down almost in my face just to make sure. I could almost feel his breath on my face, he was so close to me. 

NARRATOR: She snorts the second line. With the mission at stake, both she and Kevin have broken a cardinal rule of undercover work. Then Rob stands up and pauses, before saying.

PAMELA ROBINSON: “All right, guys, all right.” You know, slap on the back, grabs a beer, “Drop by, look forward to seeing you again. All’s happy, all’s great.” And he left. 

NARRATOR: The next day, Kevin sends his cocaine-laced note for analysis.

KEVIN BARNUM: And that came back at, like, it was close to 90% or something, which is right off the block when it comes to cocaine.

NARRATOR: Right off the block - the purest coke you could ever hope to find. Immediately they realize there may be more to this town than anyone in the operation had imagined.

PAMELA ROBINSON: Things come back mostly, well under 50 percent.

NARRATOR: And sure enough, within a few days, Rob starts to tell Kevin and Pamela about his boss - Billy - adding that...

KEVIN BARNUM: Wolf Carol from the Hells Angels. It was his brother-in-law. 

NARRATOR: Let’s pause for a moment and break this down. Rob, the drug dealer from the gym, has a boss called Billy. And Billy has a brother-in-law called David ‘Wolf’ Carroll - one of the leaders of the Hells Angels’ key Montreal chapter. Bingo.

KEVIN BARNUM: We weren't sure where the drugs were coming from. So then we clicked that this was a main line in from Montreal and the Hells Angels. 

NARRATOR: And Wolf Carroll wasn’t just one of the leaders of the Angels. He was wanted for over 10 counts of murder, having personally organized a massacre of rival bikers some years before.

KEVIN BARNUM: That we didn't even know was on the radar.

NARRATOR: Brought into the inner circle, Rob has a proposition for them. Billy’s going to the Montreal border on a deal. Do they want in? Next time on True Spies: Project Scorpius, undercover couple Pamela and Kevin are grappling with both the Hells Angels and their own team.

PAMELA ROBINSON: Hell's Angels coming from Montreal are going to meet us in the parking lot of this other strip club. It's like winning the undercover cop lottery, to be a part of this. We're thrilled. We're excited. We go back. We do the briefing. And then we get told, “No, no, that's not going to happen.”

NARRATOR: And the stakes continue to rise.

PAMELA ROBINSON: All of a sudden Animal grabs and pulls out this large filet kind of knife and holds it up to him.

KEVIN BARNUM: He's got him shoved into the wall with one fist and a knife to his throat.

NARRATOR: That’s next time on True Spies.

Guest Bio

Former Canadian police officers Pamela Robinson and Kevin Barnum worked undercover in the Ontario Provincial Police's Drug Enforcement Section (DES) in the 1990s.

Pamela's expertise included major case management, complicated wire-tap investigations, and undercover operations. While working as a full-time undercover drug officer, Pamela attended law school. She later worked at the Barrie Crown Attorney’s office and Federal Crown where she specialized in prosecuting drug dealers.

Kevin's expertise in interpreting body language began while working as an undercover DES officer. He now works with his former undercover partner and wife, Pamela, offering keynote speeches, seminars, and workshops on deception detection and body language.

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