ST. LOUIS • Dozens of federal agents from around the country set up shop in the St. Louis area over the last four months, working undercover from a fake tattoo parlor storefront, arranging drug and illegal gun transactions and dangling armed robbery opportunities in front of convicted felons.

It’s a model the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has replicated around the country. The St. Louis version netted more than 200 arrests, charges against 159 defendants, and the seizure of 267 guns and several pounds of drugs, officials announced Thursday.

But not without controversy. Similar operations have been criticized elsewhere, and this one has already triggered complaints from local defense attorneys.

The effort targeted “the worst of the worst offenders,” primarily in St. Louis and East St. Louis, said Steve Wigginton, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Illinois, by bringing in “the best of the best from across the nation.”

Officials said that 80 undercover agents and other personnel with the ATF were brought in beginning in April and partnered with local police and other agencies over the course of several months.

U.S. Attorney Richard Callahan called it the most “seamless” and “professional” operation he’s ever seen.

More than 50 separate operations undertaken as part of the “surge” have resulted in federal charges against 99 defendants in U.S. District Court in St. Louis and 47 in federal court in East St. Louis, as well as 11 cases in St. Louis Circuit Court and one each in Madison and St. Clair counties.

At a news conference Thursday, officials displayed photos of some of the 267 guns seized, including pistols, shotguns and rifles, along with bulletproof vests. Authorities said that some of the guns had been traced to other crimes but would not comment on the nature of those crimes. Authorities also bought or seized more than seven pounds of marijuana, three pounds of cocaine, a pound and a half of heroin and 25 ounces of meth.

Of those charged, 78 percent were already convicted felons, officials said, who had amassed more than 500 previous convictions between them.

St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay used the news conference to fault a “revolving door” that he says puts criminals “right back on the street.”

Those arrested in the sting had collectively been arrested 2,300 times before, Slay said, “yet they were in our neighborhoods, armed and dangerous.”

He praised the federal charges, saying they would carry “real consequences.”

“It will reduce gun violence,” Slay said. “It will make us safer.”

St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson echoed that, and said that he and Slay both supported creating an “armed offender docket” in St. Louis Circuit Court to focus on violent crimes, an initiative that has so far failed.

Callahan also used the opportunity to go after Missouri legislators, criticizing the “Second Amendment Preservation Act,” which sought to nullify federal gun laws and would have criminalized the enforcement of those laws. Callahan said that House Bill 436, which Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed July 5, would have led to the arrest of the law enforcement officers and supervisors filling the room.

ATF bosses said that the investigations were ongoing and officials were seeking ways of making the gains from the operation sustainable.

DETAILS SCARCE

Officials at the news conference revealed no details about how the criminals were targeted during the operations, the bulk of which were conducted in St. Louis.

But court records and interviews show that agents used three main strategies: a sting involving a fake drug stash house, a St. Louis storefront used to buy guns, and street-level drug purchases and arrests.

The storefront is run by ATF agents who claim to be operating some business but who are also interested in buying guns and drugs on the side. In St. Louis, the fake business was a tattoo parlor. Authorities wouldn’t say where it was located.

The stash house stings involve an undercover agent pretending to be a disgruntled drug courier. He, or a confidential informer, then recruits others willing to rob a stash house claimed to be packed with drugs, and guarded by armed members of a fictional drug ring. The prospective robbers are repeatedly asked if they are prepared to go through with the plan and if they are capable of arming themselves to pull it off. Agents and police swoop in when the robbers meet up before the planned robbery.

Callahan said that of the cases being prosecuted in federal court in St. Louis, roughly 40 defendants were arrested as part of what he referred to as the home invasion-type stings, 25 from the storefront and 30-some more defendants were charged out of street-level drug purchases or “street encounters” that led to search warrants.

And he said one of those street-level purchases illustrates the dangers that agents routinely faced.

While not referring to the case by name, Callahan mentioned a mid-April incident in which two of the defendants arrested as part of the surge were accused of repeatedly trying to shoot an undercover agent. The agent had previously sold a gun and bought crack in the lead-up to what was another gun purchase.

TECHNIQUES CONTROVERSIAL

The ATF has swooped into other cities for similar operations eight previous times, and their techniques have at times been controversial.

A fake ATF store in Milwaukee was cleared out by robbers, and thieves broke into an agent’s SUV and stole two handguns and a fully automatic assault rifle, a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel investigation earlier this year showed. Neighbors also complained that the store attracted drug dealers and felons to their neighborhood, and critics said that the undercover agents were offering such high prices for guns that some were bought from local retailers and immediately resold to the agents.

In St. Louis, defense lawyers have already complained about the drug house stings — both that nonviolent drug dealers were lured into the robbery plans with promises of huge payouts and that they were then charged with crimes based on a fictional crime and fictional amounts of drugs.

USA Today reported late last month that ATF agents using the technique have arrested more than 1,000 people across the country and the operations have resulted in the deaths of at least seven suspects. Some prosecutors have balked at their use, the newspaper reported, and a few federal judges have also criticized their use.

In an opinion noted by the newspaper, Judge Richard Posner of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago called the stings a “disreputable tactic” that law enforcement uses to “jack up” sentences by increasing the amount of drugs they’re accused of planning to steal.

Robert Patrick covers federal courts and federal law enforcement for the Post-Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter: @rxpatrick.

Robert Patrick is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.