Comments Off on Undercover danger, Whack-a-Mole: Mobile County Street Enforcement Narcotics Team officer describes constant fight against Methamphetamine

When the Mobile Police Department recently announced the arrest of 35-year-old Nicole Vasquez, following a raid by the Mobile County Street Enforcement Narcotics Team, it dubbed her “the Ice Queen.”

Some of the details were particular to the case – officers reported seizing five ounces of crystal methamphetamine, $620 cash and a variety of “paraphernalia associated with drug distribution.” But the last line of the news release had a familiar ring: “The raid was part of MCSENT’s long-term investigation into the trafficking of crystal methamphetamine from out of state into the Mobile area.”

The “Ice Queen” bust didn’t appear to involve violence or weaponry. But a case from a year earlier had shown the public how dangerous that “long-term investigation” could be: When an armed and armored meth trafficking suspect attempted to flee a bust in the wee hours of April 1, 2016, the situation devolved into a shootout that left one officer critically injured. His identity wasn’t made public – in part, police leaders said, because the revelation might have tipped off other targets.

That big investigation doesn’t follow a clean arc from a launch to a clear conclusion. It’s really more of a sustained effort shaped in part by the changing nature of the threat. Leaders such as Mobile County Sheriff Sam Cochran and Mobile’s executive director of public safety, James Barber, have said that in recent years, home-grown meth labs, with all their attendant danger, have faded away in favor of “pipeline trafficking.” A pure form of meth called Ice, for its crystalline appearance, flows into the Mobile area, and through it, along the I-10 corridor.

The effort to combat such trafficking involves cooperation between agencies at various levels, from the local officers to make street-level busts, to the federal agents who pursue connections across state lines and sometimes out of the country, trying to stop the supply at its source.

In the Mobile area, MCSENT is arguably the tip of the spear when it comes to the fight against meth. Sgt. Larry Toland, who along with Lt. Karl Reed is one of two Mobile Police officers who lead MCSENT, said the unit definitely does work closely with other agencies, such as the Department of Homeland Security, but has its own specific mission.

“We focus our efforts locally here,” he said. “That’s our priority, keeping drugs out of Mobile.”

MCSENT’s letterhead lists a dozen partner agencies: police departments in Bayou La Batre, Chickasaw, Citronelle, Creola, Dauphin Island, Mt. Vernon, Prichard, Saraland and Satsuma, plus the Mobile County district attorney’s office, the Mobile Airport Authority police and the University of South Alabama police. James Barber, Mobile’s executive director of public safety and a former Mobile police chief, said the unit was formed partly to foster cooperation among local agencies fighting drug networks that often cross municipal lines, and partly because such units are eligible for grants and other support through the federal High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA) program (motto: “reducing the threat by addressing the flow”).

According to information provided by the Office of National Drug Control Policy, there are 28 HIDTA zones in the U.S., covering “18.3 percent of all counties in the United States and a little over 65.5 percent of the U.S. population.” The Gulf Coast HIDTA designation spans Mississippi and Alabama’s coastal counties and the western tip of the Florida Panhandle, plus other scattered portions of Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

According to a governmental website for the zone, “The Gulf Coast HIDTA is situated between major drug corridors along the Southwest Border and lucrative distribution markets along the East Coast and in the Midwest … The interstate highway system that traverses the four states, including I-10, I-20 and I-40, are used as their primary corridors,” providing connections to four north-south interstates as well.

If that seems abstract, Toland said the influx of Ice over the last few years has been real. It first began appearing in the southwestern part of the county, he said, in communities such as Grand Bay and Bayou La Batre, and then “it slowly made its way from west to east into the city.”

“It’s highly pure in many cases,” he said, and samples sent off for laboratory analysis often are found to be 100 percent pure or close to it. For users, he said, that purity makes it an attractive option to the “dirty meth” made in local labs from over-the-counter cold medicines and toxic reactants.

“They’re still out there, but we’re not seeing them nearly as much,” Toland said of the local labs.

Toland said that to some extent, MCSENT was able to meet the threat as it emerged, rather than trying to clean up an entrenched distribution network. “It’s something we’ve been able to stay on top of,” he said.

When the unit makes a big bust, he said, “”We can immediately notice an increase in price.”

But that doesn’t mean the status quo is easy.

“It takes a dedicated police officer,” Toland said. “We come in early, we stay late.” “you’ve got to keep business hours and drug dealer hours at the same time.”

“Our investigations span the full spectrum from street work to analysis of data that’s available from federal partners,” he said. “”We’re always looking for whatever threat is out there … I can’t compliment my guys enough. They’re dedicated guys who do a dangerous job.”

The April 2016 bust showed just how dangerous it could be. MCSENT officers had made some arrests on May 30 and had continued their sweep with more on the evening of May 31. After midnight, in the early morning hours of April 1, they planned to capture 32-year-old Ryan Burkhardt in the Grand Bay area.

Burkhardt attempted to flee on a motorcycle, wrecked, and was tackled by officers in a field near a gas station. But as he struggled with officers on the ground, he began firing, hitting one twice: once in the thigh, once in the abdomen under his bulletproof vest.

“The officer who got shot was one of mine,” Toland said. “I was right there with him.”

Toland said that as Burkhardt came back up off the ground and opened fire on the other officers rushing in, “it took several seconds to take him down,” a span of time that seemed like an eternity. “It all happens before you’re able to fear.”

After the fact Barber, then police chief, said it was fortunate no one had been killed. It turned out that Burkhardt was carrying multiple handguns and wearing a bulletproof vest of his own. That absorbed several shots and his motorcycle helmet deflected a couple more, Barber said. “This was a very sophisticated criminal who had much the same armor and weaponry as our police units,” Barber said.

Burkhardt was wounded and was initially in critical condition, but recovered to face charges. In April, he entered a guilty plea to charges of attempted murder and possession with intent to distribute crystal meth. Police reported that he committed suicide in Metro Jail on July 14, 2017.

Toland said that Burkhardt’s rise and fall both reflect the pressure MCSENT puts on the local meth scene. Because the unit has been successful and shutting down distributors, he said, that creates a vacuum that an aggressive newcomer such as Burkhardt can exploit, at least in the short term.

“Burkhardt was a major player who had come on the scene fairly recently,” Toland said. “In six months he went from basically nothing to one of the most significant players” in local meth distribution.

When such a newcomer begins to make a splash, Toland said, MCSENT quickly becomes aware of it. Investigative work begins, building toward an eventual confrontation – which, hopefully, won’t be as violent as the one in the Burkhardt case.

“One of the particular dangers of crystal meth, they become extremely paranoid,” Toland said. “A lot of times we’re interrupting these people right when they’re the most scared and most paranoid” because they know they’re vulnerable during a deal.

In some cases, Toland said, officers know a suspect has said he’d rather die than go back to jail. “You know that about them, and now you’re in an undercover car following right behind them” a few minutes from a confrontation, he said.

With dirty meth, Toland said, “if a meth lab blows up, that’s pretty much the end of the story.” With the ice coming in from the west, “it’s a continuous process of moving up to the next level.”

MCSENT stays at a local level, he said, though it does work closely with similar units in Mississippi.

“Ultimately … you have to kind of step above the rivalry,” Toland said. “Some days the headline is going to be made in Mississippi … We remember what they do for us, they remember what we do for them.”

Toland praised the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Alabama for “outstanding” cooperation. “The feds have been really strong on prosecuting crystal meth,” he said. “We’ve been able to kind of stick a wedge in that revolving door.”

A few years back, a clampdown on bulk purchases of over-the-counter cold medicine helped shut down the local labs, prompting the shift to pipeline trafficking. Maybe the future holds another major shift. . “Is there anything that’s going to change the core dynamic? I don’t know,” Toland said. “From our perspective, I don’t know what that would be.”

So MCSENT continues its ongoing effort, and continues to look for other threats. Spice came and went, Toland said. Like other local authorities, he said abuse of prescription opiates and heroin hasn’t flared in southwest Alabama the way it has in other regions, but law enforcement agencies are keeping a wary eye out for warning signs.

“Our plans are to treat it just like crystal meth. As soon as we see it, we’ll get on it,” he said. “As soon as that mole sticks his head out of the hole, we’re going to whack him.”

 

 

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