Brave Hearts: Deep Undercover

NYPD Det. Sam Panchal and his son, Jaan
NYPD Det. Sam Panchal and his son, Jaan

Ed. Note: Today we bring you Part II of NYPD Detective Sam Panchal’s incredible story of service, excerpted from the pages of the best-selling book Brave Hearts: Extraordinary Stories of Pride, Pain and Courage, by American Police Beat publisher Cynthia Brown. Missed Part I? Click here.

At first the NYPD thought the only victims of the scam were the innocent people who were watching their insurance premiums go through the roof. The insurance companies were paying on the bogus claims, taking these massive losses and passing them right on to the consumer. That injustice alone was enough to fire Jimmy and Sam up for the mission. But when Sam was told by the boss to find people on the street and offer them twenty five dollars for each X-ray and then tell them they had to do it five times a day, they realized there was another group of victims—people whose lives were threatened.

On paper, Sammy didn’t look like he was ready for such a complicated, dangerous assignment. He was young and had only been on the job a short time. The last two years he worked in a radio car in the South Bronx. But like most people who meet Sam Panchal, Detective Jimmy Feasel was impressed. When he learned Sam speaks three Indian dialects—Hindi, Punjabi and Urdu—it was even better.

“His grandfather was one hundred years old and spoke Hindi to him every day,” Feasel said. “He had this big, outgoing personality. You could just tell he had guts. I thought right away he might be able do the job.”

There are thirty-five different dialects in India alone. Bangladesh and Pakistan have their own languages. “Sammy can tell Sikhs from Hindus just from what they’re wearing on their wrist,” Feasel said. “As he sat there explaining to me what certain feathers meant in the turbans and a bunch of other obscure details about clothing and customs, I knew he was the guy.”

But understanding a different culture is one thing and being ready emotionally for work of this intensity and risk is another. Jim admits he was worried about sending this young cop on such a dangerous assignment. But the insurance companies were demanding something be done and Sammy was their only hope.

Once Sam was approved for the assignment, the NYPD began to construct his new identity. Every law enforcement agency goes to great lengths to protect their undercover officers and the NYPD does more than most. Within weeks, Officer Sam Panchal of the New York City Police Department, ceased to exist. His name disappeared from the vast bureaucracy and for almost a year he picked up his paycheck in cash, always at a different location.

Sam had a new identity, but the job was in the same neighborhood where he lived with his family. That made everything much riskier. Ten years after he went undercover, Sam is married with two young children. “If I had the kids then,” he says, “I would have had to seriously think it over.”

For a year, his life was totally transformed and not for the better. He was forced to retreat into a shell which was not easy for such an outgoing, gregarious twenty three year old who loved nothing better than to go out with his friends, have a few drinks and smoke a cigar.

“For almost a year I had no life,” Sam remembered. “I couldn’t hang out with my friends or take my grandfather or parents shopping. After a while—probably because you’re lonely—you start getting friendly with the same people you are working hard to lock up. I knew they were really bad guys, but when contact is that close bonds develop.”

New Year's Eve, 1997. Left to right: Det. Jose Manjarres, Sam's first partner when he got assigned to the NYPD's TARU Unit; Sgt. Louis Vozza, Sam's supervisor for several years; and Sam.
New Year’s Eve, 1997. Left to right: Det. Jose Manjarres, Sam’s first partner when he got assigned to the NYPD’s TARU Unit; Sgt. Louis Vozza, Sam’s supervisor for several years; and Sam.

Cops who go undercover say the hardest part of the job is the isolation that often leads to becoming friends with the enemy. Sam said Jimmy met with him almost every day and worked hard to keep his head on straight. “When I’d go weak and say, “Are you sure we should be chasing them, they seem okay to me?’ Jimmy would go crazy and tell me one more time all the bad things they had done.”

The department was worried too. Jim Feasel, was constantly summoned to meetings with the chief of detectives, a high ranking commander who oversees the NYPD’s massive five-thousand person Detective Bureau. “Everyone knew we were sending this kid into the belly of the beast,” Feasel said. “It was a nerve-racking year.”

At first the scam seemed simple—filing insurance claims on behalf of people who didn’t exist for accidents that never happened. Thousands of claims were filed for visits to doctors who didn’t exist, travel expenses for trips that weren’t taken, massages that were never given and prescriptions that were never filled. A limousine company was the front.

Once he got his new identity, Sam went to the limo company and applied for a job. The scene was tense. Sam told them he was Pakistani but they weren’t buying it. “I think they thought I was Hispanic. They seemed very suspicious. But I spoke their language and I talked real fast. I could tell they were wondering about my heavy New York accent so I told them I had come to this country when I was young. I kept saying, ‘I’m here to make money.’”

As they went back and forth at some point Sam sensed he had to take more control of the interaction. “I told them to take it or leave it,” he said. That approach seemed to work. Sam got hired.

At first the NYPD thought the only victims were the innocent people who were watching their insurance premiums go through the roof. The insurance companies were paying on the bogus claims, taking these massive losses and passing them right on to the consumer. That injustice alone was enough to fire Jimmy and Sam up for the mission. But when Sam was told by the boss to find people on the street and offer them twenty five dollars for each X-ray and then tell them they had to do it five times a day, they realized there was another group of victims—people whose lives were threatened.

Sam said it was only when he was deep into it that he realized they were preying on illegal immigrants. “These people were desperate for money. I’m sure a lot of them were just trying to feed their families and twenty-five dollars for getting an X-ray must have looked pretty good. There was one guy who got seven in one day. He went home with one hundred and seventy-five dollars in cash and a lethal dose of radiation. It was bad. We had to stop it.”

Right up until the morning they were arrested, the bad guys never knew Sam was a cop. He finally convinced them he was Pakistani, not an easy feat when you’re Hindu. He had to keep reminding himself not to wear his OM, a cross-like symbol of Hindu affiliation.

It didn’t take Sam long to start rising up through the ranks of the criminal enterprise. He started out as a street level guy—a runner looking for people to be X-rayed. By the end of the investigation he was hanging out with the man who ran the whole operation.

His job description got more diverse. He no longer spent all his time hustling people off the street to get X-rays. He was setting up phony marriages and getting bogus green cards. “At least once a week someone would ask me if I knew an American girl who would agree to marry one of their friends. The price you had to pay for a fake marriage to an American was ten thousand bucks,” Sam said.

The organization was running five clinics in Queens. They processed people all day long. The phony medical clinics assigned phony names to the X-rays. Then they were sent to phony law firms who then filed claims with the insurance companies. It wasn’t long before the cops knew this was going to be way bigger than a simple auto insurance scam.

What really angered both men was the X-rays. Jim Feasel said when they learned people were getting zapped five and six times a day, they wanted to call in homicide. “I still get angry about what they were doing to those people,” Jim said. “There is no way a body could take all that radiation. I remember Sammy even tried to get the guys to use animals instead of people. They told him to forget it. The bone structure was not the same and the X-rays would look fake.”

Over the eight months that Sam was undercover, Jimmy watched over him like a big brother. One day the boss of the New York operation rented a lavish yacht for a birthday party for his five-year-old daughter. He insisted that Sam go. Sam was willing, but Jimmy was opposed and the department agreed. Sam would be out on the water, all by himself and that was too dangerous. Together they came up with a plausible excuse why Sam was unable to go on the boat.

Sam knew the investigation was spreading and law enforcement agencies in other parts of the country were getting involved. What he didn’t know was the FBI had put so much pressure on the Virginia wing of the operation, some of their top people were sent up to New York to avoid getting arrested.

Now there were people Sam didn’t know asking who he was and where he was from. “They patted me down, but I came right back at them. I asked who they were and what they were doing.” The approach seemed to work. After a few weeks, the Virginia contingent left him alone.

“From day one Jimmy always told me if I felt uncomfortable I could get out,” Sam said. ‘This case is nothing,’ he’d say. ‘It’s your life that’s important.’ He kept telling me there are no second chances in this line of work. I felt the whole time the investigation was handled the right way.”

When things got really intense, Feasel was a master at calming Sam down. He knew his job was to try and keep the young cop relaxed and focused.

“There were some times I would come out and I’d be off the wall,” Sam said. “Jimmy would always be calm. ‘What’s up?’ he’d say. ‘Relax. Calm down. Let’s go talk.’ Sometimes we’d sit in his car for an hour just shooting the breeze while my heart beat got back to normal.”

The thrill of knowing they are getting close to taking a bad guy off the street or saving an innocent person from harm always makes a cop’s heart race. When Jim and Sam realized they were about to blow the lid of a medical insurance fraud scheme that involved hundreds of millions of dollars and criminals from coast to coast, the adrenaline was definitely raging.

“Along with processing the phony accident claims, these people were selling alien registration cards, green cards, passports, guns, and drugs,” Sam said. “It just snowballed. By the time we were through, the investigation had widened to eleven states with hundreds of suspects.”

When it became apparent that the crime ring extended across the country, the FBI, state and local agencies, Immigration and the ATF worked together to coordinate the arrests.

“When most people think of Indians, they think of engineers or computer scientists, not organized crime figures,” Sam continued. “No one ever expected such serious crimes to be taking place in the Indian community.”

As officials made plans to arrest the suspects, Sam went into hiding. “It was an emotional roller coaster from beginning to end,” he said. “Two days before the arrests went down I hadn’t slept in a week. The whole thing got to be an obsession. I was calling Jimmy in the middle of the night. But he always took my call and he was always patient and generous with his time.”

Sam accumulated an overwhelming amount of evidence. “We had pictures, we had videos, we had tapes of phone conversations—over a hundred in all,” he said.

The evidence was so overwhelming that when the arrests went down and the suspects found out that Sam Panchal was a New York City cop, every person arrested pled guilty. The case was a prosecutor’s dream.

When the year-long operation was over, a one hundred million dollar scam involving much more than auto insurance fraud had been uncovered. Over one hundred people were arrested by federal and local officers in an eleven state, pre-dawn sweep.

“It only took eight months,” Jim Feasel said. “Sammy got them on audio, he got them on video and he had a first-hand account.”

Sam says his relationship with Jim Feasel made a big difference in his career. “A lot of cops don’t want to be bothered,” he said. “They have the attitude, ‘Great, now I have to watch my partner and the bad guy.’ But Jimmy was never like that. He showed me the ropes. He taught me how to talk to people, how to relate to people. Without those skills you can never do good detective work.”

Coming up next: Sam gets jammed up with big time gangsters

For more inspiring stories and profiles of some of NYPD’s finest, pick up a copy of Brave Hearts: Extraordinary Stories of Price, Pain and Courage, available at Barnes and Noble, Amazon, and at www.braveheartsbook.com.

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