Wednesday, December 13, 2023, began just like any other workday for Bryan Montiea Wilson, a 33-year-old resident of West Columbia, South Carolina, who had never been in trouble with the law.

At 6 a.m., Wilson began his shift at Harsco Rails on West Technology Drive, where he worked as a material processor for the railroad equipment manufacturer. A couple hours later, Wilson’s supervisor found him on the facility floor and told him to report to the main office. Inside were two men and a woman, all wearing civilian clothes. They told Wilson they were ATF agents and that they had a warrant for his arrest. They never showed him a badge.

Wilson was handcuffed and searched. He did not resist and complied fully with their demands. He told the agents he was diabetic, so they allowed his supervisor to retrieve a Pop-Tart, fruit juice and blood-sugar monitor from his locker. Wilson was walked out of Harsco in handcuffs. All of his coworkers witnessed his arrest. In the parking lot, Wilson saw two more agents searching his car.

On the way to the federal courthouse, the agents allowed Wilson to call his brother, who notified his parents of his arrest. At the courthouse, Wilson was booked, fingerprinted and photographed. He was searched a second time; all of his personal property was seized, and he was locked in a holding cell by himself.

Eventually, a Federal Public Defender was allowed in and showed Wilson a copy of an indictment, which charged him with five counts of possession with intent to distribute a controlled substance and three counts of possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking offense.

Wilson faced up to 115 years in a federal penitentiary and more than $17 million in fines. The indictment also sought to forfeit unspecified personal property and money. Wilson had never been arrested in his life. He repeatedly told his lawyer he was innocent and that there had to be some sort of mistake.

Wilson was ushered into a courtroom and arraigned before a U.S. Magistrate Judge, who read the charges off of the indictment. An agent falsely testified that the ATF had Wilson under surveillance for the past 13 months. The agent listed several dates when Wilson allegedly sold drugs to undercover ATF agents. He claimed they had Wilson on tape committing the crimes, and that other codefendants had been arrested as well.

Wilson pleaded not guilty. The judge was willing to schedule a bond, but prosecutors wanted Wilson held for several days instead. After the hearing, Wilson continued to tell his lawyer that there had been a mistake. His family, who were present during the arraignment, said the same thing.

False reports

According to court documents, from November 2022 to March 2023 West Columbia Police Officers Calvin Brown and David Thompson – who were assigned to an ATF task force and supposedly working under ATF supervision – “conducted a series of gun and drug purchases from (among others) someone they identified as Mr. Wilson.”

According to the officers’ reports, the person that the officers bought guns and drugs from and surveilled was listed as “WILSON, BRYAN MONTIEA” or “BRYAN WILSON.” Their reports even listed Wilson’s actual home address. They described him as a black male, 33 years old, five feet, 10-inches tall, with black hair and brown eyes – a description that matches Wilson and a host of other West Columbia residents.

Their reports document numerous undercover purchases of crack cocaine, methamphetamine and numerous firearms from someone they falsely believed was Wilson.

On March 15, 2023, the officers wrote “A CONTROLLED PURCHASE FOR 2 FIREARMS FOR THE PRICE OF $1,900 AND 29 GRAMS OF METHAMPHETAMINE FOR THE PRICE OF $280 FROM THE SUSPECT IDENTIFIED AS BRYAN WILSON WAS CONDUCTED THROUGH THE USE OF CONFIDENTILA (sic) INFORMANTS AND UNDERCOVER OFFICERS.”

On December 5, 2023 – eight days before Wilson’s arrest – a federal grand jury issued an eight-count indictment, alleging Wilson committed the following federal crimes:

  • Count One: Possessing and distributing crack cocaine on November 10, 2022, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1) and (b)(1)(C).
  • Count Two: Possessing and distributing five grams or more of methamphetamine (i.e., “meth”) and crack cocaine on November 18, 2022, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1), (b)(1)(B) and (b)(1)(C).
  • Count Three: Possessing and distributing crack cocaine on December 8, 2022, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1) and (b)(1)(C).
  • Count Four: Using and carrying a firearm during a drug trafficking crime on December 8, 2022, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1)(A)(i).
  • Count Five: Possessing and distributing five grams or more of meth and crack cocaine on January 17, 2023, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1), (b)(1)(B) and (b)(1)(C).
  • Count Six: Using and carrying a firearm during a drug trafficking crime on January 17, 2023, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1)(A)(i).
  • Count Seven: Possessing and distributing five grams or more of meth on March 13, 2023, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1) and (b)(1)(B).
  • Count Eight: Using and carrying a firearm during a drug trafficking crime on March 13, 2023, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1)(A)(i).

There was just one problem: Bryan Montiea Wilson never sold guns or drugs to ATF agents, their informants or anyone else.

ATF got the wrong man.

Release

Wilson’s Federal Public Defender is the real hero in this case. After the arraignment, he persuaded prosecutors to keep Wilson at the courthouse long enough for him to investigate Wilson’s claims of innocence.

No documentation exists about the process or how this happened, but eventually the ATF somehow realized they got the wrong man. Prosecutors quickly moved to dismiss the case, but they offered no written explanation as to why they wanted the charges dropped.

“Further review of the case reveals that the interests of justice would best be served by a dismissal of the pending charges as opposed to further prosecution. Based on the foregoing, the Government respectfully requests that the Court dismiss the pending charges against defendant Bryan Montiea Wilson,” the prosecution’s motion to dismiss states.

Assistant U.S. Attorney E. Elizabeth Major, the prosecutor who signed the motion to dismiss, did not return calls seeking comment for this story.

Wilson was released from federal custody around 4:20 p.m., and he walked out of the courthouse a free but damaged man. All of the charges were dismissed with prejudice at the prosecutors’ request.

No one told him how the ATF had made such a horrible mistake.

Civil suit(s)

Earlier this month, Wilson filed a federal civil-rights lawsuit against the two West Columbia Police Officer who falsely alleged he sold them guns and drugs while they were working as task force officers for the ATF.

His lawsuit, which seeks an unspecified amount of actual, consequential and punitive damages, alleges the officers committed a false arrest, in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights, and that their misconduct led to wrongful indictment/malicious prosecution, which violated his Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment rights.

“Defendants initiated a criminal proceeding against Plaintiff without probable cause – i.e., without a reasonable belief that Plaintiff, in fact, committed federal drug trafficking and gun crimes,” the lawsuit claims. “As a direct and proximate result of Defendants’ conduct, Plaintiff was indicted, arrested, searched, detained, and humiliated and is entitled to recover damages, present and prospective, including for lost wages, mental anguish, distress, shock, loss of reputation, the violation of his Fifth Amendment rights, and other expenses.”

Wilson’s suit details the harm his false arrest has caused.

He needed to take several days off work. Nowadays, he rarely leaves his house. He suffers migraines and his coworkers spread rumors about his arrest and his release. One falsely claims he flipped on a codefendant, which is the kind of rumor that can get him killed. Others claim he was arrested for rape and even murder.

According to his lawsuit, Wilson worries his teenage daughter may learn what the ATF did to him. His mother, this suit claims, “now calls her son while he is at work to check on his wellbeing.

“Mr. Wilson is a father, brother, and son, and a law-abiding citizen who works for an honest living,” the lawsuit states. “He has never trafficked drugs. He is a lawful gun owner. He has no criminal record.”

A second civil rights lawsuit against the ATF is extremely likely.

Veronica Hill, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of South Carolina said she cannot comment about the case because Wilson has filed an administrative claim against the government – a prelude to a civil suit.

“When you want to file a (civil) complaint against a federal agency, you have to file an administrative claim first,” she said. “If it is not resolved within six months, or not resolved to the satisfaction of the claimant, a lawsuit can then be filed.”

Corey Ray, spokesperson for ATF’s Charlotte Field Division, which oversaw the investigation, did not return calls seeking comment for this story.

Guns on the table

Neither prosecutors nor the ATF allowed Wilson’s false arrest to dampen their enthusiasm for what they described in a press release as an “advanced, intelligence-based, multi-faceted law enforcement operation.”

“In June of 2022, in response to rising violent crime in the West Columbia area, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) in Columbia launched an advanced, intelligence-based, multi-faceted law enforcement operation. The purpose of the operation was to target criminal entities and groups in the area, specifically those engaged in the illegal use, sale, and possession of firearms and narcotics. ATF established a controlled buy location, and ATF undercover agents and confidential informants began conducting controlled purchases of firearms and narcotics from criminal targets in the area, while local agencies conducted crime suppression operations,” the release states.

According to the press release, 210 firearms were seized and 20 people were arrested, including “members of the Bloods, Crips, and Gangster Disciple street gangs.”

Neither Wilson nor his false arrest were mentioned in the press release.

Takeaways

Were it not for the heads-up play of a Federal Public Defender, Wilson would likely still be in jail alongside 20 alleged gang members. It is not known if ATF agents were ever able to track down the suspect whom they mistook for Wilson, who actually sold them drugs and guns.

We will never know all of the allegations that the ATF made against Wilson or the details. Their federal complaint was quickly sealed and is no longer available to the public. However, the allegations Wilson’s attorney included in his civil suit are eerily similar to the allegations ATF made about Bryan Malinowski, the 53-year-old Arkansas airport executive whom ATF agents shot and killed in his home March 19.

The ATF also claimed they had made several undercover firearm purchases from Malinowski. They said they surveilled Malinowski for months, too. Malinowski will never be able to refute these allegations or file a civil suit.

Civil rights violations by the ATF have skyrocketed since the Biden-Harris administration weaponized the agency as part of its war on law-abiding gun owners. One can only wonder whether federal judges will take judicial notice of these injustices and start asking a few more questions before they sign off on any future request from the ATF, to ensure the agents don’t shoot another innocent homeowner or make another false arrest.

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