Drugs taking their toll on the community

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

STAR STAFF

   Several Carter Countians were arrested Thursday by agents of the First Judicial District Drug Task Force on a variety of drug charges, involving everything from crack cocaine to heroin to Ecstasy to marijuana.
   In late January, DTF arrested nine persons in three days during "buy-busts" for crack cocaine. While serving a warrant on the ninth person, DTF found him to be in possession of OxyContin. Most of the nine were from Johnson City.
   On Feb. 25, two Johnson County residents were arrested by members of the Johnson County Sheriff's Department, DTF agents, and U.S. Forest Service officers after they turned up a marijuana "grow house" in Trade, Tenn. Agents seized pounds of marijuana, 105 well-manicured plants, another 80 to 90 harvested plants, $14,000 in cash, passport photos, drug paraphernalia and equipment.
   On Feb. 28, three Lynn Valley residents were arrested after DTF agents and Carter County Sheriff's Department's SWAT team executed a search warrant at the residence. Five ounces of powder cocaine, about $3,000 in cash, several weapons, and ammunition were found. Two other Elizabethton residents who arrived on the scene, then left in a hurry after seeing officers, were arrested after a brief pursuit. A black duffle bag containing three open syringes and a spoon with white powder residue was found inside the vehicle.
   Also in February, two Richlands, Va., men were arrested and charged with the January burglaries of Union Prescription Shop, 402 Bemberg Road, during which a quantity of hydrocodone, a Schedule III controlled substance, was taken. Later in the month, a Kingsport man was apprehended in an Abingdon, Va., hotel room and charged with the robbery of Hampton Pharmacy. According to Sheriff John Henson, the man had demanded pharmacy workers give him all of their OxyContin.
   In early March, Carter County Investigator Audrey Covington charged an Elizabethton woman with second-degree murder and three others with being accessories after the fact following a year-long investigation into the death of a 23-year-old city man. The man collapsed after being injected with oxycodone.
   According to District Attorney General Joe Crumley, each county in the First Judicial District seems to have its own distinct problem area. "Washington County is cocaine and crack cocaine; Unicoi is marijuana; Johnson, heroin and methamphetamine. If I had to say, 'What's the No. 1 drug in Carter County?,' I would say different types of sedatives, depressants, and tranquilizers.
   "OxyContin is hard to get but it's a major problem and there's a lot of morphine, a lot of Loritab, Valium -- that's not to say there's not heroin, cocaine and marijuana because there certainly is."
   Crumley has prosecuted numerous drug cases since 1989. "I guess it's an endless cycle, really; you just see the 'drug of choice' changing from time to time. Back then it was crack cocaine. Crack is still an important drug for a lot of abuse in this district, but now we're seeing a lot more in the way of Ecstasy, methamphetamine, and heroin."
   DTF now is placing more emphasis on larger, rather than small-time dealers, however, Crumley said, the smaller dealers can't be ignored "because sometimes they're just blatant in doing it out in the open."
   Much of the First District's crime is related to drugs, from homicides to burglaries, according to Crumley. "A lot of our thefts and burglaries are related to people stealing to be able to sell CDs or whatever, just to get more drugs."
   One noticeable change, he said, is an apparent influx of organizations from outside the area which target local communities to make money. "Whether it's New York or North Carolina, they see street prices are pretty much higher here than up North or in North Carolina, so they can make more money."
   Improvements with the drug task force have made prosecution of drug cases more efficient. "They have the best equipment they've ever had," Crumley said. "Whereas two years ago, the tapes were almost inaudible, they now have some of the best taping equipment money can buy."
   DTF also has become very picky about who they use as confidential informants. However, one problem associated with conducting buy-busts of prescription drugs is the cost.
   "If you're buying morphine or OxyContin, it's not uncommon to pay $50 or more a pill, and the judges will look at you sometimes like, 'Why is there a four pill case here?' But you've paid the equivalent for four tablets of morphine or four OxyContin as, say, eight to 10 rocks of crack cocaine. That does make it difficult because you've got to be able to justify the amount of money that you put into a transaction. What we've tried to do is increase quantities within reasonable limits," Crumley said. "I'm real proud of the job the task force has been doing."
   Crumley said DTF, to its credit, has broken up several methamphetamine labs in Johnson County. But the problem doesn't end after making a bust.
   "What's difficult with meth labs, and people don't really understand, is the expense of cleaning up the labs. It's an extreme environmental problem and there are only a very few people qualified in the state to supervise the destruction of a meth lab."
   Agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration and Tennessee Bureau of Investigation generally assist, however, Crumley said, "We're trying to get some other agencies to get the training in the near future so they can help with that as well."
   Taxpayers ultimately foot the bill for a meth lab cleanup, according to Crumley. However, he said, "One thing we're trying to do, we haven't done it yet, is we're going to try to see if we can tax that as restitution and make the defendant pay for it."
   The First District recently added a drug prosecutor through a federal grant from Housing and Urban Development. Focus has been on increased community policing in the areas of Clark Manor and Tyler Apartment complexes in Johnson City. Crumley believes a drug prosecutor would be of great benefit to Carter County. "If we have the opportunity to apply for the grant again, I think we should try to include that," he said.
   Drug overdoses in the city and county often keep Carter County Rescue Squad personnel busy. "You can pretty much count on so many drug-related calls per year," said David Nichols, deputy EMS director.
   "There's only so much we can do for an overdose patient. Our main objective is to keep their heart beating and keep them breathing until we can get them to the hospital and see what it is and what to do about it."
   Elizabethton Chief of Police Roger Deal said he believes drugs are directly related to criminal activity in the area. "We see it all the time: forged prescriptions, forged checks, fraudulent checks, credit card fraud -- it all leads back to drugs."
   Combating criminal activity is difficult without funding, however, and right now, city agencies, including the police department, are under a budget freeze.
   "I don't have anybody with DTF because I don't have the manpower. Where am I going to take them from? It's kind of like robbing Peter to pay Paul," Deal said.
   The city is under contract to provide an officer to DEA, from which it receives asset forfeitures by way of cash seized or vehicles and property seized and sold. However, sometimes those forfeitures don't come through for two or three years, Deal said.
   Last year, the Elizabethton officer assigned to DTF was promoted and placed on patrol. With only five officers per shift, pulling one off and sending him to DTF creates a safety risk.
   "What do you do? Take away from patrol? I've got five people on a shift and if I pull one off, that leaves four; and when officers are off for training, sickness or vacations, that just gets down to a dangerous level and I can't let that happen. Somebody would get hurt," Deal said. "The answer has got to be more money, and it's got to come from somewhere."