Like most Alaskans, I was thunderstruck by news earlier this year that the FBI had secretly videotaped the Veco hospitality suite at the Baranof Hotel in Juneau as a part of their 3-year undercover investigation into political corruption in Alaska.
Ever since then, I’ve wondered: How was a federal agency 5000 miles away able to get a hidden camera installed in Suite 604 of the Baranof Hotel without someone local tipping off the most connected and powerful men in Alaska politics? Who knew about the planted camera and installed it? How did they keep it a secret? And how did it go undetected for many months under the nose of these men as they exchanged conversation that would ultimately shatter their lives?
This week, I had other business in Juneau and was dying to find out.
As luck would have it, I stayed in Room 607 of the Baranof, just three doors from the scene of the crime. I asked the sixth floor housekeeper if he knew about the camera. “No,” he said. I asked the General Manager the same. The first he heard about it was when the FBI approached him with a warrant to pick up their equipment after the sting was over.
“Surely,” I asked him, “you had to know. You’re the general manager of the hotel. How could someone get in here without you or a night manager knowing?” He surmised maybe a phone repairman entered the room under the guise of general maintenance and planted the bug.
So many people have requested Suite 604 since the story broke, he told me, that the room is now basically off limits. He won’t rent it unless the hotel is full—and only then to customers he knows. He’s thinking of changing the number on the door to put this behind him. I feel badly for the predicament this puts him and the hotel in. (Their customer service is absolutely tops, and they really respect their guests’ privacy, so the idea that their hotel was used to gather evidence that may ultimately incarcerate their guests probably does not thrill them.)
Despite all this, I was able to get into Suite 604 with a small cameraphone. I first reviewed the FBI surveillance tapes on the Daily News website. The camera frame shows the arm of a chair in the left foreground and a picture hanging right-center frame on the opposite wall. The picture still hangs on the wall and the furniture is all still in the same place. Based on the camera angle and height relative to the chair, I was able to narrow down the camera location to only a couple of possibilities: the table next to the chair, the lamp on the table, or the wall right next to the chair.
The table seems unlikely. It would be either on the surface of the table or the front of the table. The surface makes no sense, not only because we don’t see it in the frame but also because it runs too high a risk something could be placed on top of it. The front of the table is positioned too far forward of the armchair to match the FBI viewing angle.
The wall just below the drapes is a distinct possibility. But we don’t see the lamp in the frame, and this placement runs the risk the lamp could be moved in such a way as to obscure the view of the room. Plus, I inspected the surface of the wallpaper, and there’s no hole or blemish of any type in the area where the camera would have to have been placed.
This leads us to the lamp base. It lines up with the picture and right arm of the sofa in such a way as to be plausible. The lamp base has three other advantages: 1) It has power, 2) You could store a device inside it, and 3) The switch on this particular lamp is located on the front of the base, so the lamp is unlikely to be turned in such a way as to rotate the camera out of view.
However, the lamp base is ceramic and shows no signs of having been bored through in even the slightest way. Did they place a pinhead-sized wireless camera so small it couldn’t be seen on the surface of the lamp and transmit the audio and video to a nearby receiver? If so, would the receiver have been located in Suite 604 or an adjacent room? Is that the equipment the FBI came to pick up with their warrant? Or, maybe the FBI brought a matching table or lamp into the room with an already implanted camera?
It doesn’t seem possible that you could install a setup like this without first testing it. My understanding is that Veco held the Suite for the entire legislative session. So I wonder if the FBI rented Suite 604 prior to the session with the express purpose of installing the equipment. If so, how did they specifically know they could get Suite 604? Wouldn’t it be interesting to get a list of who stayed in Suite 604 just prior to Veco?
After spending fifteen minutes looking for any trace of where the camera might have been, I was baffled—and impressed. It renewed my respect for our federal law enforcement agencies that they could descend upon a hotel room in Juneau, Alaska, pull of a sting of this magnitude, and disappear without leaving a trace of how they did it. I’m also thankful: The feds did for Alaska what we could not do for ourselves.
I have to say, being in Suite 604 felt almost like visiting a shooting scene. Before I left, I took a good look around and tried to grasp that the course of Alaska’s history was changed in this very room.