Small Town, Big Drug Bust

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I was told by my sergeant when I was a rookie that, “The wheels of justice grind slowly, but they grind fine.” He explained that I didn’t need to catch all the bad guys my first week and that some would get away, but there was always tomorrow.

We had received information regarding three suspects who were wanted. The main suspect, a short male, was wanted in three different states in the southwest on charges ranging from attempted murder to drug trafficking. He had drawn enough attention to himself that the warrant was from the FBI. He was supposed to be coming to our sleepy northern town to set up a smuggling operation bringing large quantities of marijuana from Mexico into Canada. He also claimed to have ties to a deadly drug cartel that had recently kidnapped and killed a DEA agent.

The other two suspects were a pair of brothers. They were described as tall and skinny. The information described the vehicle they would be driving as an American-made pickup that was jacked up with a lot of chrome accessories. The trio was supposed to be in possession of $30,000 to finance the setting up of the smuggling operation and at least one gun. All three were to be considered armed and dangerous.

Being along the Canadian border we were always on the look out for smugglers but nothing of this scale. The information had been received several weeks prior and despite our best efforts they hadn’t been spotted.

I was off-duty and was headed to the Post Office that morning to pick up my mail from my Post Office Box. I parked my car and as I walked into the building I saw a small white sedan car. Inside the car were two tall skinny men who appeared to match the description of the wanted brothers. I continued into the Post Office building and as I got my mail I noticed a short man who was mailing a package.

After he left I went over to the counter and asked the postman to see the return address on the package but there wasn’t one. I went outside and the three men were now all in the car. As I passed by the car I knew it had to be them. This was before cell phones so calling for backup wasn’t an option at that moment. I was armed so I could have pulled my gun and tried to hold them till back up arrived but three against one isn’t my idea of good odds. I didn’t want to take a change of spooking them by following them so I wrote down the license plate.

A license plate check indicated that the vehicle wasn’t registered to any of the suspects. The listed owner was contacted and they indicated that they had recently sold the car to one of the suspects. The new vehicle information was added to the BOLO (be on the look out).

It had been them and I had let them go. I wondered what would have happened if I had tried to take them by myself. I wondered what my fellow officers were thinking and saying about me letting them go. I wondered if I had made a wise decision or was it just the easy way out because I was scared.

A week later I was driving toward the county seat located 20 miles away at about 0330. As I drove I came up behind another car traveling in the same direction. You guessed it, the white car. Three heads were visible, two tall and one short. This time was different; I had my squad, my shotgun, pistol, body armor and radio. I notified dispatch of the situation and requested back-up for a felony stop. Dispatch informed me that the closest and only deputy available for back-up was 40 miles away…The white car signaled for a left-hand turn into a trailer court. I was alone and 10 miles outside my jurisdiction. Back-up was a long way off and three against one wasn’t my idea of good odds. I wondered what would happen if I tried to take them down by myself. I wondered what my fellow officers would think and say if I let them go. They turned.  I didn’t follow them because I didn’t want to spook them. I continued to drive wondering if I had made a wise decision or if this was just the easy way out because I was scared.

Another week passed. The three of us, a deputy and a fellow officer, were sitting in a parking lot talking about a pursuit that my partner had the night before. It was Saturday morning and the opening of fishing season. As we sat talking I saw a large jacked up pickup truck with lots of chrome driving by. I said, “That’s it! That’s the truck we’ve been looking for.” We pulled our squads in behind the pickup, ran the license and notified dispatch we would be doing a felony stop. The driver was alone. This time the odds would be three to one in my favor.

We followed the vehicle into a parking lot of an apartment building and initiated a felony stop. The driver raised his hands when ordered to. We could see a paper bag in his right hand. We yelled for him to drop it, instead he leaned over towards the passenger side door. We screamed at him to sit up and when he came back up his hands were empty. He was cuffed, searched and put into the back of the squad car. He refused to answer any questions regarding the whereabouts of his brother or partner.

A small crowd has gathered outside the building. I walked over to them and talked to the manager of the apartment building who told me that the suspects had just moved in the day before. I asked him what apartment they were in and he indicated a third floor apartment. He said that he had just been up to the apartment a little while ago and that the other two suspects had been there.

I grabbed the shotgun and headed up the far staircase, my partner went up the closest one. I had told the manager to start evacuating the first two floors. We moved up to the third floor not knowing if the other two suspects had spotted us and would be waiting. We covered the hallway from opposite corners and waited. Our request for back-up would go unanswered. We had all the on-duty officers on scene and all the off-duty officers were out fishing.

When the manager had cleared the bottom floors he came to me with the passkey. As quietly as possible we got the residences out of their apartments. The manager had been instructed to move them across the street to a laundromat out of view of the suspect’s apartment.

We obviously didn’t have a good perimeter set up so I was worried what would happen if one of the suspects might have been outside the building. A short time later I heard the entry door open and foot steps coming up the staircase. A mother and her two kids were greeted by the sight of me holding a shotgun, holding my finger to my lips indicating she needed to be quiet. I motioned for her to turn around and go. She did. At first, her steps were slow and methodical. As she neared the exit she apparently burst into a run and from the noise took a tumble down the last few steps.

We had taken up our positions at the end of the hall when the suspect’s apartment door opened. From the conversation it appeared that the two were wondering where their partner could be. The second brother came out closing the door behind him and walked down the hall towards my partner. When he reached the corner he was greeted by a .357 pointed in the face. He was handcuffed and taken outside.

Alone now I waited and watched, wondering how much longer it would be before my partner returned. The apartment door opened and I ducked back. When I looked again the main suspect was walking away from me towards the unguarded end of the hallway. If my partner returned he might run into the suspect. I couldn’t radio him because I had the only portable.

Hoping that he was the only occupant left in the apartment I leaned out around the corner and yelled, “Police, you’re under arrest. Don’t move!” Startled at the sound of my voice he spun towards me. He started to walk back towards the open door of the apartment. I took the safety off the shotgun and yelled my intention to shoot him if he took another step. He stopped. My partner outside heard me yelling and I could hear his approach as he ran up the staircase. The suspect was taken into custody safely.

When we questioned them and they told us they had no idea the police were onto them. That morning the first brother had left to get parts to hook up their television set. When he didn’t return the second brother went looking for him. When he didn’t return the last suspect went looking for them. They had no clue we were on to them.

We found a large stash of marijuana in the apartment. The main suspect would roll over on his business partners and the information received would result in the arrest of another dozen people and around a million dollars of drugs and property in three states being seized by the FBI.

The wheels of justice grind slowly but they grind fine. At a Calibre Press seminar I had been taught that in a tactical situation ask yourself two questions. “Can I win?” If the answer is, “Yes” then go ahead. If the answer is “No”, ask yourself, “Is this worth dying for?” If the answer is “No” then back off and wait for a better day.

The gun and money were in the white car. By the time we located the car they were both gone.

— DW, MN

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