Busted! Two nights with the Drug Task Force

Published 8:17 pm Monday, July 12, 2004

By By Arthur McLean
Wednesday night clouds obscured a nearly full moon and drizzling rain began to fall as the men of the 21st Circuit Judicial Drug Task Force started planning their night's rounds.
Gathered at the Task Force office in Brewton, they were ready to go, the talk, loud and tough, they used nicknames, street names to identify the people they would be looking to bag.
"It's starting to rain, and that always puts a damper on the street drug trade," said Keith Hutchins, commander of the task force. "But we'll go and shake 'em down. See what we get."
Loading into unmarked vehicles with a K-9 unit trailing, five of the task force members began a night's sweep planned to start in Brewton and head west across the county, picking up street dealers, users, and maybe, by the night's end, a meth lab.
Driving through the neighborhoods of Brewton and East Brewton the task force vehicle swings in to a stop at a corner the agents say is known for drug dealing. There's a group of young men hanging at the corner. One of them runs. The others are clean.
"Sometimes they send a runner just to distract you," Hutchins said.
Next stop, a housing development.
Pulling in to the entrance, agent Jared Leachman in the K-9 unit slams the Ford Crown Victoria to a stop as an unremarkable VW passes going the other way. Leachman spins the tires on wet pavement as he swings around and catches up to the car.
The driver wasn't wearing a seatbelt. Not usually a violation that would interest the agents, but they recognized the offender as a local thief and drug pusher. They question the man. The questioning is a combination of a little street slang and standard police questioning mixed with a healthy dose of psychology coming from up to three agents at a time, all with the hopes of getting information, information that could lead to an arrest, or maybe a large bust.
"We have to be a little more aggressive than the others, because sometimes they will try things," Hutchinson said. Back at the stopped car, agents are looking through it with flashlights while one is facing the driver, his hand holding a taser.
This time, the suspect has nothing to make an arrest.
A couple of the agents have been working with informants to set up a small sting operation.
As one agent works undercover, at a small house, others wait to make arrests, Leachman and his drug-sniffing dog have to wait out of site in a marked car. They work the scene for several hours, making three arrests.
By the end of the night Thursday, agents made three arrests on drug charges and seized several packets of marijuana and other drugs.
Friday night Atmore received a little visit from the task force.
Atmore Director of Public Safety and task force agent Glenn Carlee headed up the crew Friday night.
Carlee is a veteran policeman who served as the Atmore Police Chief for a dozen years.
"The program has been around for about 14 years now," Carlee said. "We did our first round up in 1989 and arrested 188 suspects. That shocked people around here."
The task force is formed through the help of the Escambia County Sheriff's Office, the Atmore Police Department and the Brewton Police Department. All three agencies have men assigned to the task force. Most of the task force's funding comes from a grant from ADECA, the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs.
The grant pays for equipment, offices and cars and 75 percent of the agents' salaries. As an incentive, participating departments even divide any cash or other items seized by the task force. That money can be used to purchase equipment for the department.
For the night's patrol, everyone loads up in another unmarked vehicle, Carlee at the wheel.
Soon, the group is cruising the neighborhoods and parks of Atmore. They pull up to a group of young men sitting in front of a house, the car is just stopped in the street, they're watching the young men, finally, Carlee says, "one or two of them are looking a little nervous."
Quickly, agents jump out of the vehicle from behind tinted windows and are upon the men, asking them questions, looking around. This time, they find nothing.
On Patterson Street in Atmore sits a former federal housing project, long since taken over by a private company and left to rot. Grass grows knee-high, shingles are warped, windows broken in a dozen units.
"We've been trying to get this place condemned for years," Carlee said. "Over two-thirds of the units here are unlivable."
They jump out and talk to some young men. They find drugs in a car parked nearby and call a tow truck. One man is arrested. While working the project, a truck with a family pulls into the complex and tries to make a quick turn around. Agent Heath Jackson races to the truck.
It's a family from Bay Minette cruising through an Atmore project. After questioning the passengers, Jackson lets them go with a warning, "Don't come back here."
This is the part of the county Leachman is familiar with, and he's in his element. "The key to policing is knowing the people. If you don't know your area and the people in it, you might as well stay home."
The night rolls on, more arrests and drug seizures are made. It's closing in on midnight and time to work a "paper," a search warrant in Flomaton.
It's more than just serving a search warrant, it involves, like many busts, working with unsavory characters, working informants, pressing for information from arrested.
It takes about an hour to set up the search, the agents unsure of what exactly they will find and whether or not their key targets will be at the business on U.S. 31.
There can be a lot of waiting around and ditched plans when dealing with drug users. "It's unbelievable that dopers would be unreliable," Carlee said sarcastically.
About midnight, agents swoop in on the repair shop. Two men, two women and minor children, two boys under the age of 13 are inside.
A search reveals crack, methamphetamines and paraphernalia for smoking it, literally dozens of glass pipes stashed around the shop.
Earlier in the week the task force was involved in a bigger bust. Agents discovered a meth lab near Brewton after serving search warrant. A meth lab is a kind of devil's kitchen used to brew crystal methamphetamines.
Thursday and Friday night the haul the agents were hoping for, but it will do. "It's really disturbing when you see kids put in that situation," Carlee said. "What are they going to carry with them, seeing agents coming in yelling search warrant? But what effect is it having on them being around that drug use?"

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