The robbery would be simple, the five men were told: The crew would burst into a Baltimore hotel room and grab $400,000 worth of cocaine stashed there by an out-of-town supplier. They should bring guns, just in case.
But as the men headed to the hotel, Baltimore police working with the Drug Enforcement Agency swooped in to arrest them.
The entire story — the coke, the supplier and the hotel room — had been made up by law enforcement. The suspects in the supposed December robbery were charged with conspiracy to distribute drugs, robbery and gun violations.
Federal authorities are using increasingly sophisticated "reverse stings," in which informants and undercover agents set up would-be robberies. It's a high-wire strategy that has netted at least 17 convictions in Maryland in two years. Authorities say it has helped rid the streets of criminals who are driving the violent drug trade who would otherwise be difficult to catch.
But defense attorneys say the government is luring petty criminals into imaginary crimes with promises of big payoffs. As more cases come to court, prosecutors are being forced to defend the government's distinction between aggressive policing and entrapment.
"Five young men each face over a decade of mandatory prison time for something which did not, and simply could not, ever take place," attorney Michael D. Montemarano wrote in court filings in the hotel robbery case.
Montemarano wrote that his client, Sean Thornton, 21, never would have considered such a robbery on his own. Prosecutors describe Thornton as an "armed drug trafficker."
Thornton and two co-defendants are due in court next week.
The DEA and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives have been using reverse stings since the 1990s, with increasing sophistication over time. The DEA has run eight such operations in Maryland since 2007.
The question of whether a defendant would have committed a crime without law enforcement intervention is crucial in weighing entrapment claims, legal analysts say.
Some lawyers say investigators have broad authority to include specific details in stories — the amount of drugs or the necessity of bringing guns — that can help secure longer sentences. Law enforcement officials say they must be realistic in their descriptions to make sure they're attracting serious, savvy offenders.
The DEA says the original targets of the Baltimore operation — Thornton; Antonio Davis, 33; and Rodney Proctor, 21 — are members of the Black Guerrilla Family gang. The gang has been linked to murders around Baltimore and has been at the heart of a drug-smuggling scandal at the Baltimore City Detention Center.
Assistant U.S. Attorney James Wallner wrote in court filings in the hotel robbery case that law enforcement merely opened a door to people who "were predisposed to commit the robbery."
"The Government did not induce the defendants to commit the robbery, but simply offered them an opportunity to commit a crime that they willingly accepted," he wrote.
U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein said his office is confident in the legality of such operations, which he said catch "people who are driving the murder rate in the city."
"Colloquially, people will use the word entrapment when all they mean is sting," Rosenstein said. "Just providing the opportunity is not entrapment."
Defense attorneys acknowledge that they're fighting an uphill battle against the tactic. Defendants have successfully argued illegal entrapment in scattered cases around the country, but many more cases end in convictions. No case in Maryland has been thrown out for entrapment.
The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, considering a reverse sting in Virginia, ruled recently that conspiracy convictions remain valid even if the object of the crime does not actually exist.
Sting operations, which target offenders before the commission of a crime, have existed for years in the form of prostitution busts and drug buys. A police officer might pose as a prostitute and arrest a would-be john soliciting sex.
But R. Michael Cassidy, a professor at the Boston College Law School, said authorities have grown "more creative as time goes on."
In the years since the Sept. 11 terror attacks, the FBI has used similar snares to catch suspected terrorists.
A 2010 FBI operation in Catonsville led to the arrest of Antonio Martinez, who authorities said agreed to blow up a military recruiting center using a car bomb supplied by undercover agents.
Retired Alabama Judge Joseph A. Colquitt, who has studied entrapment standards, said law enforcement officials must carefully balance public safety and civil rights.
"Aggressive operations by police protect the public and prevent crime," Colquitt said. "Sometimes, though, the entrapment doctrine fails to protect otherwise innocent actors from being drawn into criminal activity."