How Football Tickets Were Used To Capture 101 Wanted Criminals

These days, NFL tickets are in high demand. The same was true in 1985 when law enforcement officials used the promise of free tickets to a Washington Commanders game (then the Redskins) to bait wanted individuals to all show up in the same place at the same time by inviting a whopping 3,000 fugitives. As part of the so-called "Operation Flagship," based on those invitations, over 100 people turned up and were arrested. How exactly it all went down could be called the biggest (off-the-field) trick play in football history (via the AP).

Hatched in collaboration with the United States Marshals Service and the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department, the sting in question took place at the Washington Convention Center. The fictitious tickets were purportedly for an upcoming Redskins-Bengals game, and tickets were really hard to get in those days. Meanwhile, the potential to win an all-expenses paid trip to the Super Bowl the next year sweetened the deal, per the U.S. Marshals Service. Commenting on how well the plan worked, a District of Columbia U.S. Marshall at that time, Herbert M. Rutherford III, later said (via AP): "It was like an assembly line ... It was party time, and they fell for it, hook, line, and sinker.″

The invitations said to show up at 9 a.m.

The 3,000 invitations, sent to people who, in total, had some 5,000 outstanding warrants, were mailed to the last known address authorities had on file. The invites told them to show up at the D.C. convention center at 9 a.m., where the winners would be selected. The invitations came from F.I.S.T., a made-up acronym from law enforcement which stood for Flagship International Sports Television, Inc. Little did the invitees know that F.I.S.T. also stands for Fugitive Investigative Strike Team. The invitations instructed them to call a phone line to RSVP, but not everyone who said they were going to attend actually showed up. However, they still were able to capture quite a few.

Around 160 law enforcement officials from as far away as Maryland and the Eastern District of New York were posing as broadcasting professionals. One agent went so far as to dress in a large chicken suit, while others donned different disguises. The purported "master of ceremonies" at the event wore a top hat and tails. Excitedly, the roughly 100 people showed up on time. Many dressed up for the occasion, while others showed their team spirit in Redskins gear. That's when armed law enforcement officials revealed themselves and the arrests happened. One individual said, "This ain't fair, this just ain't fair.″ Another threatened to sue for false advertising, the AP noted.

'Operation Flagship' captured one of D.C.'s 10 most wanted criminals

One person netted in the ruse was accused murderer Charles Watkins, who was on the D.C. 10 most wanted criminals list at that time, the Los Angeles Times reported that year. Other "winners" arrested had jumped bail, escaped jail, or violated their parole, among other offenses, and the fake football ticket giveaway was just one of many similar creative arrest methods concocted to help catch fugitives. Further arrests were made by criminals who phoned in and couldn't make it, but they still wanted their tickets.

Catching fugitives via these non-traditional law enforcement methods reportedly saved law enforcement money when compared to more routine procedures. Everyone who was arrested at the D.C. football sting was taken without incident. According to Stanley E. Morris, the director of the U.S. marshals service at that time, this was a "... a safe, clean and creative way to get these people off the streets ... There's no safer way to make an arrest than away from the home environment."