'Operation Half-Serious' no laughing matter

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

STAR STAFF
khughes@starhq.com

   Enterprising drug dealers who set up operations in the First Judicial District apparently took local law enforcement officials only half-serious when they previously warned they would actively pursue anyone selling narcotics.
   "Now who's smiling?" Johnson City Police Chief Ron Street asked Monday afternoon following a press conference to announce that 15 individuals had been arrested as a result of federal drug indictments in Greeneville.
   Of the 15, six were from Johnson City, one from Erwin, seven from Burlington, N.C., and one from Roxboro, N.C. Each were charged with conspiring to commit federal crimes, including conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine. The arrests were the result of an ongoing, multi-agency investigation by federal, state and local drug task forces.
   "This operation is named 'Operation Half-Serious,' " Chief Street said. "If you've been at any of these press releases we've done in the past, we've always spoke that we will be back, we will continue these operations, we will aggressively pursue anyone that's selling narcotics in the First Judicial District.
   "It's quite obvious from having to stand here again today, that some of these people out there that have been arrested only took us half-serious. But I had the pleasure this morning of seeing some of those faces in Jonesborough Jail and I think they are beginning to understand now that we are serious."
   According to Chief Street, a group centered primarily in the area of Burlington came to Johnson City and set up a drug-selling enterprise.
   "We were also receiving information that in North Carolina they were being charged and the charges were being dismissed if they left the state. We feel like that's one of the reasons they've been ending up in Johnson City. Of course, we're not sending them anywhere, other than hopefully to some federal prison."
   Street said the drug enterprise was based on the old adage of supply and demand. "I think they're into a town where they're in competition for the drug market. There's no doubt that the price here is higher than it is in some of the larger cities, so they sell less and make more. But again, I think today, when some of the people that I saw at the county jail start computing what they've sold, with the length of time that they've lost out of their lives, I think they're going to understand that they've made a very stupid business deal," he said.
   Washington County Sheriff Fred Phillips said crack cocaine users often become addicted after using the drug once or twice. "It's not unusual for profiteers to come into an area and even give the drug away to the individuals and start and create a market -- and it is a very, very lucrative market. Big bucks are made by very young people.
   "I can recall a few years back, a young man that was netting $40,000 a month. He's now doing 20-some years in the federal penitentiary," Phillips said. "And that's the message we're trying to send to the young people: Yes, he's an idol in the community. He's got gold hanging all over him. But where's he at today? Where's he going to be for the next 22 years?"
   District Attorney General Joe Crumley said that while some district attorneys are hesitant about taking cases federal, he is not. "Any time I've got a major dealer, I'm always going to call the U.S. Attorney's Office. Penalties are much stricter in the federal system. These guys are killing our children so they need to be put away and they need to be put away for a long time."
   Chief Street said he is not real pleased with punishment handed down in local courts compared to the federal system. "I think we need to get tough on this; I think we need to put these people away.
   "Some of them, if you start looking at their records, they are repetitious. They have been through this system many, many times and I think all of the courts and judges are going to have to get pretty strict on these and stop slapping them on the hand and do something to put them away," he said.
   Sheriff Phillips said the multi-agency cooperation in Operation Half-Serious has been ongoing since last July. "I know we hear of problems in the community daily and there are those that think they're not being addressed; but rest assured that law enforcement -- local, state and federal and all of the prosecutors, are working daily to see that a stop is put to this."
   Simultaneously, as the press conference was held in Johnson City, Burlington police were continuing a sweep of their area, and those arrested were being arraigned before U.S. Magistrate Judge Dennis Inman in U.S. District Court.
   "They will be back in the Washington County Jail sometime this afternoon and their bonds will be such that those people will be with us for several months," Sheriff Phillips said. "They won't be out selling dope tomorrow, you can rest assured of that."
   Chief Street said he often hears complaints from community residents about drug activity in their neighborhoods. "Of course, I'm sitting there trying to field their complaints and listen to them, but yet we can't be open with them about what undercover-type activities we have going, because any information of that nature could jeopardize the undercover officers' lives that are out there ... When we infiltrate these organizations we have to be very secretive about it and sometimes, unfortunately, we can't let the public know what we're doing."
   Those arrested Monday face 10 years to life imprisonment and fines up to $4 million under the federal statute. "That should show the severity of the offenses that they have committed," Chief Street said, reiterating the same warning he and fellow officers have made previously:
   "We will be continuing to aggressively enforce the laws, especially the narcotics laws in this region, and these people that think they are going to come into this area and set up a drug market and operate it freely, are making a serious mistake. We don't intend to go away, we just now seem to be getting good at what we're doing."