Scott County Sheriff Ronnie Phillips, Winfield Chief of Police Steve Trammell and Oneida Police Department investigator Bill Miller are pictured with two drug agents from the 8th Judicial District Drug Task Force after searching outbuildings on a farm in the Clay Hill area east of Winfield for a suspected drug trafficker on Thursday, July 22, 2017. The drug agents are undercover operatives; their faces are intentionally blurred to protect their identity. (Ben Garrett/IH)

Neighborhood problems.

That’s how Scott County Sheriff Ronnie Phillips described the targets of a county-wide “round-up” Thursday, which targeted 26 people who are either accused of dealing drugs or who were wanted for violating the terms of their probation by possessing drugs.

Armed with arrest warrants that were the result of months of work by Kris Lewallen and other drug agents at the Sheriff’s Department and the 8th Judicial District Drug Task Force, two teams of officers hit the streets as part of Operation Summer Heat on Thursday morning, knocking on doors of their targets’ suspected residences and combing through those neighborhoods in search of their targets.

As the sheriff’s SUV bounced across rural backroads from Winfield on Scott County’s north end to Norma on its east end, he said that the targets are “problems for various neighborhoods” throughout the county.

Roundups like Thursday’s have become somewhat commonplace in recent years. Agents spend months accumulating evidence against suspected dealers by working undercover, utilizing confidential informants or sometimes drug agents of the 8th Judicial Drug Task Force to conduct buys. After the evidence is processed and warrants are obtained from a judge, dozens of suspects are targeted at once.

In many ways, those roundups are shows of force. They’re intended to send a message to people who are trafficking illegal narcotics — never feel secure when you’re making a sale. Because the person you’re handing those pills or that bag of meth over to could be a legitimate buyer . . . or he could be your ticket to jail. The arrest might not come that night or even that month, but the sell will eventually come back to bite you.

But roundups like Thursday’s are also intended to send a message to law-abiding citizens who are fed up with the strange vehicles coming and going at all hours of the day and night in their neighborhood, and with the lawn mowers, power tools, utility trailers and any other items that aren’t locked down disappearing as part of the thefts that investigators say are all too commonly associated with the illicit drug trade.

“I want citizens to know that when they call and report drug activity, they can rest assured that we investigate it immediately,” Phillips said. “We may not do something that day but we will start working on it and when the time comes we will make an arrest.”

Problem Areas

Some areas of Scott County shoulder more than their fair share of the illicit drug trade. For example, the teams of officers participating in Thursday’s roundup spent much of the morning — which began with an early skull session at the Scott County Justice Center in Huntsville to review the warrants and discuss strategy — in the Winfield area. In particular, three different suspects were targeted in the Clay Hill area off Pleasant Grove Road.

While suspects were targeted in each zip code in Scott County, the 37892 zip code — Winfield — saw arrest warrants issued for half a dozen suspects. That was second only to Oneida, by far Scott County’s most populated zip code, where eight suspects were wanted.

Law enforcement officers who spend their days responding to calls and filling out theft reports say that most property crimes have one thing in common: they’re committed by someone with an addiction. So it’s perhaps unsurprising that neighborhoods where the drug trade is more prevalent also have a bigger theft problem.

“The majority of all crimes such as aggravated burglary and theft of property are usually related to a narcotic addiction in some way,” Phillips said. But, he added, “Dealing drugs is not a way to make a living in this county.”

Persistence Pays Off

It was in the Clay Hill Area that officers crossed the first name off their list Thursday morning. Several cruisers — Phillips’ SUV, a car containing Lewallen and Chief Deputy Tommy Silcox, the cruiser of Winfield chief of police Steve Trammell, and an undercover vehicle containing Drug Task Force agents — were headed to a suspected residence to serve a warrant when Lewallen recognized one of the team’s targets in the back of a pickup truck, en route to a nearby hay field.

The suspect, Kasey Stephens, 27, was not one of the suspected drug traffickers on the list, but was wanted for violating the terms of her probation by possessing meth. She was taken into custody without incident.

Unfortunately for law enforcement, the quick arrest was not a sign of how the day would go. As it turned out, the bad weather — rain from Tropical Storm Cindy was moving into the region — did not keep everyone at home on Thursday. Of the 26 names on the list, only a few would be located.

That is the fact of life of such roundups — as was once noted by the late Mike Cross, who served as Scott County Sheriff from 2010 until his death in 2013. While some suspects are truly not home, it doesn’t take long for word to spread. In an age where police band scanners are almost as prevalent as personal computers, it doesn’t take drug traffickers long to realize there’s something unusual afoot with law enforcement. Couple that with the teams of officers being spotted as they travel the roadways throughout the neighborhoods of the community, and word travels quickly.

That, officers felt, is the case with a suspect who resides off Norma Road. “He got a call,” Phillips said as his team searched the home — to no avail — of a man wanted for violating his probation by possessing meth.

But the setbacks are not a deterrent. By the end of the day, the Sheriff’s Department’s cruisers involved in the roundup effort will have logged hundreds of miles, and traveled many of the backroads in virtually every neighborhood in the county, in their search for the men and women wanted on drug charges.

And the roundup doesn’t end when the day is done and officers clock out to go home. There is no expiration date on arrest warrants, and officers know that the suspects on their list will eventually let down their guard and return home.

Repeat Offenders

“It’s a shame,” Gerry “Greasey” Garrett said as law enforcement left a West Oneida residence after making an arrest. “These are the same people we were arresting when I was here.”

Garrett is a former Oneida Police Department officer, where he worked as a corporal alongside Phillips when Phillips was a lieutenant, before he left the department to take on the title of chief deputy at the county department. It’s been several years since the two men patrolled the streets as members of the same team. But on Thursday, which saw Garrett vacationing in Oneida and tagging along with Phillips for the roundup, many of the faces on the wrong end of the equation were the same.

“It’s the same ones over and over,” Phillips said at another point in the day. “They’ll spend months and even years in jail. They’ll swear they’re never gonna do anything again. Then they get out and within a few months they’re right back in again.”

Phillips, whose personable approach swept him to an overwhelming election win in 2014 after he had been appointed by Scott County Commission to fulfill Cross’s unexpired term, said it comes down to personal responsibility.

“At some point, people have to change,” Phillips said when asked what it will take to make a difference. “If they aren’t willing to change, things will never change.

“All of us have been in situations where we feel like people who enter guilty pleas need more time,” the sheriff added. “But a lot of them are serving the sentences that the law prescribes.”

The repeat nature of the offenses becomes more evident as the day progresses. The first stop of the morning takes law enforcement officers to a converted barn on a farm in Winfield. The dilapidated structure has been repurposed as housing. Inside a nearby chicken house, a man is tinkering on an old car as the first raindrops from the tropical storm begin to fall. The man is nonplussed as cops swarm the property. He’s seen it all before and appears to be used to their presence.

The same scene plays out at a residence in the Ditney Trail neighborhood. As patrol cruisers bounce over a muddy and rutted driveway, a small child clings to her mother’s leg as she looks up wide-eyed at the officers who have shown up unannounced. The adults, on the other hand, aren’t so much so.

Later, the team pauses on Norma Road to formulate a plan before approaching a residence. As one cruiser circles the home on a road at the rear of the property to prevent a potential escape, the rest of the team descends on the home from the front. But Phillips knows before his officers are even out of their cars that the suspect isn’t at home. He has been to the residence enough to recognize the car by sight.

“He’s not here,” Phillips said. “His red car is gone.”

Nevertheless, the sheriff said, the work to stamp out drug trafficking will not cease.

“My drug agents’ number one focus is to work narcotics aggressively, and we will continue to do that as long as I am sheriff,” he said.

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Ben Garrett is Independent Herald editor. Contact him at bgarrett@ihoneida.com. Follow him on Twitter, @benwgarrett.