In December 1985, the U.S. Marshals Service pulled off a sting operation that is befitting of a Ben Affleck or Jon Hamm crime caper, but would almost be deemed too unbelievable if created by Hollywood scriptwriters rather than law enforcement.
By sending out 3,000 letters to the addresses of wanted criminals telling them they had won free Washington Redskins tickets from a new all-sports television channel, officers successfully arrested hundreds of fugitives in one fell swoop and without a single shot being fired.
The ruse became legendary among law enforcement circles but is a mystery to most sports fans, which will all change Tuesday night when ESPN’s “30 for 30” series airs short film “Strike Team” by director Willie Ebersol and executive producers Charlie Ebersol and Fairouz El-Baz.
“It was so unique to that time and could not happen today,” Willie Ebersol told TheWrap ahead of the documentary’s premiere. “We now have social media, there would be a public backlash and the positive outcome would not be appreciated,” he predicted.
“I don’t think the police would take the risk of bringing a hundred criminals into one location today, either. It is so ’80s as there was such an obsession with cable and it was such a wild time for network TV.” Plus, there was plenty of buzz around the Redskins — Joe Heisman was the star QB and they had won the Super Bowl a few years earlier — so tickets were a hot commodity, even for professional crooks.
While reminiscent of Hollywood blockbusters like “Ocean’s 11” or “The Town,” the sting operation actually inspired a plotline in Al Pacino’s 1989 thriller “Sea of Love,” Ebersol said.
The son of legendary TV executive Dick Ebersol (“Saturday Night Live,” NBC’s Olympics and NFL coverage), Willie actually first learned about the mass entrapment, which happened a year before he was born, from a news article about the 30th anniversary.
“I couldn’t believe this had happened, it sounded too be good to be true,” he told TheWrap. “I then read every article I could find on it and we interviewed the subjects.”
The key to the film’s creation came when co-producer El-Baz discovered that CBS had a crew embedded in the actual seize and had 72 tapes of beta film of it in storage in New Jersey, when previously only a few minutes of local news coverage had ever aired.
“Our film is told almost entirely through never-before-seen footage,” Ebersol said of the treasure trove of video evidence. “We were able to get the original documents from the case to tell the story in a way that hadn’t been possible before.”
Despite dealing with dangerous felons including murderers, rapists, thieves and a prison escapee, the investigation was a “mix of fun and serious police work,” Ebersol said, while of course, ensuring no one was hurt. “There was also a lot of in jokes, such as the name of the pseudonym in the invitation letter, or having ‘cheerleaders’ give out hugs while really giving pat-downs.”
Along with those arrested who turned up at the Washington Convention Center believing they were going to the Redskins-Bengals game, around 500 other cases and dead ends were also closed, saving many man-hours in the pre-digital era.
Surprisingly, there wasn’t much public backlash following the operation, although some of the criminals weren’t too happy about being fooled. “Several people still wanted to go to the game,” Ebersol marveled, “and one guy wanted to sue for false advertising.”
“Strike Team” premieres on ESPN Tuesday at 9:30 p.m. ET, immediately following another Washington Redskins-themed “30 for 30” film, “Year of the Scab,” directed by John Dorsey.
“Year of the Scab,” which has screened at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York as well as the closing night at AFI Docs in D.C., follows the men who served as replacements for the Redskins in 1987 when NFL players went on strike to gain bargaining power in their struggle with the team owners.