Masters of Manipulation

He is the consummate professional. A well-dressed, well-liked, unassuming business owner of a popular restaurant chain called Los Pollos Hermanos. He supports local law enforcement, gives to charity, serves on the board of a local hospital and drives to work in a 1998 Volvo V70.

Which of the following best describes Gus Fring?
  1. A philanthropic suburban homeowner who probably obeys the speed limit.
  2. A diabolical drug kingpin who issues green lights on the lives of DEA agents.

What horrifies us -- and, yet, what fascinates us -- is that he is both. Gus Fring is the vapid, prudent neighbor who lives next door to us, smiles often and puts us at ease. But he's also a maniacal, impenitent killer who calmly can slice the throat of his own trusted employee.

What's even more harrowing is that people like Gus Fring are real. They appear all around us, in all shapes, sizes and sexes, not just on the set of a fictionalized TV drama about Albuquerque, New Mexico.

In 2008, I prosecuted a Gus Fring who appeared in the form of a well-known and highly respected PTA president and soccer mom. By day, she hosted book drives at elementary schools and mingled with members of local law enforcement. But, by night, she was addicted to methamphetamine and went dumpster diving in the back parking lot of an accountant's trash bins, piecing together the scraps of shredded checks and debiting the college savings accounts of young children. She hijacked the identities of people all across the country, including that of her dead mother, using the latter's to purchase sex toys at a local novelty store.

It happened again in 2011 when another Gus Fring appeared in the form of the "Supreme Commander," a high-ranking Chinese-American general in the United States Army. He recruited over 100 people to join his unit, issued them official military badges and marched them in city parades. His recruiting office had emblazoned in the carpet the official seal of the United States Army. There, he posed for pictures with Congressional leaders and high-ranking members of law enforcement, all of whom believed that the uniform he wore and the office they were standing in were real. They were not.

In both cases, many in the community were initially outraged over the charges we filed. "Gus Fring would never do such a thing! Gus Fring is a good person!"

And therein lies one problem in talking about crime and criminals from a manichean perspective. Crime does not polarize so conveniently into black and white. Rather, it is liminal. It can live and breathe in the spaces between good and bad -- on cusps and thresholds and borders -- which troubles us because, while we can instantly identify crime as a "bad" thing, we want so badly to believe that those who commit it are just as easily recognizable. Which is why when we see a man wearing gloves on a sunny day outside of a bank, our guard goes up, but if the same man were on crutches, we'd be entirely reposed. Yet, the liminality of crime suggests that the first man has a skin condition and the second a shotgun.

The Gus Frings of the world can see this, and they capitalize on our stereotypes of perception. They neutralize the threats that they know we look for. They drive old Volvos. They host an unsuspecting school book sale and smile when you give them your credit card. They don an Army uniform and hang pictures of themselves with famous people as you pay them a check and stand in line to shake their hand. They occupy positions of trust and authority, surrounding themselves with all the indicia of reliability. After committing their crimes, they make themselves overtly visible instead of hiding as we would expect. At every step, they turn our traditional notion of crime on its head, distancing themselves from our suspicions. After all, if they were really the bad guys, would they have been so brazen? Would they have had these many supporters? Wouldn't someone have caught them by now?

The Gus Frings are masterminds not only of executing crimes but of insidiously manipulating our perceptions.

This blog post is part of the Masterminds series produced by The Huffington Post in partnership with NBC's The Blacklist. To see all the other posts in the series, click here.