Federal Agent Bradford Devlin has worn a Nazi-themed tattoo — which shows a “German Eagle SS Lightning Bolt” — since the early 2000s, when he says he got it while working undercover with “The Order of Blood,” an outlaw white-supremacist biker gang in Ohio.
Though his supervisors have said they are “appalled,” Devlin hasn’t had the tattoo removed. He’s now a senior supervisor in the Seattle Field Division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco Firearms and Explosives. Devlin says there is a cadre of other former undercover ATF agents with similar Nazi tattoos, that it was a “war trophy” from his undercover days, and he won’t remove his until they remove theirs.
That tattoo, along with a series of emails sent from Devlin’s ATF account mocking black people and then-President Barack Obama, are at the heart of a federal lawsuit filed by Cheryl Bishop, an African-American ATF supervisor and former bomb-dog handler. She claims the agency scuttled her prestigious appointment to work at its Washington, D.C., headquarters after she complained in 2016 about alleged abuse by Devlin, who was her supervisor in Seattle from 2009 to 2011 and who she claims has disparaged her work since.
Bishop’s lawsuit, filed in 2018, gained traction Sept. 12 when U.S. District Judge Thomas Zilly denied a government motion to dismiss her claims. Zilly swept aside hundreds of pages of briefs and exhibits filed by government lawyers seeking summary judgment in the case, issuing an unusually brief one-page, single-sentence order stating that “Genuine disputes of material fact preclude summary judgment.” He also refused to postpone the case, ordering attorneys to be prepared for a seven-day trial beginning Oct. 28.
The government on Thursday sought another delay, stating that the two sides are in settlement talks.
Bishop is a senior supervisory agent and former bomb-dog handler who has also worked gang investigations, gun crimes and as a member of the agency’s Special Response Team — ATF’s version of SWAT. In her lawsuit, she says the agency abruptly decided she could no longer be a canine handler if she took a one-year assignment and promotion to work in the ATF’s Science and Technology division, after previously telling her she could do both. The about-face came just weeks after she had filed a complaint alleging racial harassment by Devlin.
The government says in court filings a decision was made that Bishop could not do both jobs at the same time.
Bishop has since retired her bomb dog, “Allegra,” and has been promoted as supervisor of the Seattle division’s Crime Gun Intelligence Center.
After the agency learned in 2016 that Devlin still had the Nazi tattoo and had sent the emails, the ATF withdrew his pending promotion to the agency’s Internal Affairs division. As a result, Devlin has claimed in a letter to ATF that he is being discriminated against “based upon my race” as a white male because he expressed his opinion about Bishop’s qualifications. Devlin currently works as ATF’s resident agent in charge in Eugene, Ore.
Devlin did not respond to multiple messages seeking comment.
The large tattoo on Devlin’s left shoulder depicts an eagle and shield bearing twin lightning bolts — a stylized “SS,” which he acknowledged in a deposition references the brutal “Schutzstaffel,” Hitler’s notorious secret police responsible for murdering millions of Jews and ethnic minorities during World War II. Devlin said in the deposition he got the tattoo while working undercover with an Aryan biker group in Ohio in the early 2000s. He said he was one of three agents who infiltrated the group, and getting the tattoo was part of the gang’s initiation.
Bishop learned of the tattoo in 2009, when she was assigned to a group Devlin supervised. She said she complained to another supervisor at the time after a confrontation with Devlin, but nothing was done, although Devlin was transferred to Oregon not long afterward. Bishop claims that she saw Devlin show off the tattoo in public, including at a retirement party for an agent in 2011 where she says he rolled up his sleeve and showed other colleagues “while eyeing (Bishop) with a grin.”
Bishop filed a formal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) complaint in May 2016 after Devlin purportedly bad-mouthed her to federal prosecutors and other law enforcement officials in Oregon after she had been assigned to temporarily replace him.
The Seattle Field Division of ATF oversees offices in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Alaska, Hawaii and Guam.
The lawsuit alleges Devlin, with prosecutors and other law enforcement officials present, questioned Bishop’s experience as a street agent and said she would be a “train wreck” if assigned to the Eugene office. Bishop claims it was the latest in a series of conflicts between the two, including an incident in 2009 when Bishop says she confronted Devlin after he sent racially offensive emails using ATF email to several agents in the Gang Group, including Bishop. “As the only woman of color in our group, these emails publically (sic) humiliated me,” she wrote in a sworn declaration.
One email, included with the lawsuit filings, shows an African-American woman talking through a telephone handset to a black man behind a glass partition in prison, with a Santa Claus and reindeer superimposed. It states, “Merry Christmas from the Johnsons.”
When Bishop confronted Devlin about these and other purportedly offensive emails, she claims he told her to “get the hell out of my office,” and came around the desk with his fists balled. In other instances, she claims Devlin had disparaged her as being “bossy,” “worthless,” “contemptuous,” and a “not-aggressive worker” — all comments the lawsuit alleges “stereotype black women.”
In another instance, after Devlin yelled at her about the use of her agency vehicle, Bishop says “she found a banana placed on the hood of her car in her new parking spot next to Devlin’s spot — a racist symbol of viewing Black people as monkeys,” the lawsuit alleges.
Bishop joined the ATF in 1989, but left in 2003 for six years to act as the personal bodyguard for Amazon.com president Jeff Bezos. She returned in 2009, when she was assigned to a gun-crimes task force headed by Devlin, according to court documents. Bishop’s employment records filed with the court, as well as testimony from her other supervisors, indicate that she’s received top marks for her work at the agency.
Her former boss, retired Seattle ATF special agent in charge Doug Dawson, said in an interview last week that Bishop was “a fantastic employee.” As for Devlin, Dawson said he was “shocked” when he learned in 2016 that Devlin wore a Nazi tattoo. “I had no idea,” he said. “I was horrified.”
However, Bishop claims in court pleadings that Dawson told her “Devlin has always been a separatist racially.” She also claims Dawson’s number two in the Seattle office, then-Assistant Special Agent in Charge Celinez Nunez, told her that Dawson told her Devlin “does not like black people.” Dawson, in sworn depositions, says he did not make those statements.
It was Nunez who first received Bishop’s complaint, and according to court documents, confirmed with Devlin that he still had the tattoo. Nunez decided the only discipline Devlin would receive was an emailed warning after the agency’s internal affairs division sent Bishop’s complaint back to Seattle to be handled locally, according to court documents. Nunez has been promoted twice since then, and is now the assistant director of ATF’s Office of Professional Responsibility and Security Operations in Washington, D.C.
Court documents and depositions of ATF officials state the agency had offered to have Devin’s tattoo removed at ATF expense and Devlin has declined. Devlin, under questioning by Bishop’s attorney in a sworn deposition, acknowledged that the tattoo is a symbol of “hate and genocide.”
“For years, I asked ATF to put a stop to the harassment,” Bishop said in a written response to a request for comment on the lawsuit. “But the Agency ignored me. Although I kept doing my job, enduring the pain was tearing me apart, so when enough became enough I stood up to the abuse. ATF’s only response was to punish me. This was my #metoo, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.”
In an emailed statement from ATF headquarters in Washington, D.C., April Langwell, the chief of the agency’s public affairs division, said the bureau “takes allegations of misconduct seriously, whether on duty or off duty.
“Any form of racism undermines our core values and will not be tolerated,” Langwell said. “We credit much of our success in fighting violent crime to the diversity of our workforce.”