The Covington-Newton County Special Investigations Unit dealt area drug dealers a significant blow as they rounded up at least 39 people with a total of 55 counts in connection with selling cocaine as part of a wide-ranging, four-month investigation involving secret videotaping and undercover work.
SIU head Lt. Philip Bradford said in the last two weeks, SIU agents have been arresting drug dealers who were secretly videotaped making sales of crack cocaine in at least two separate instances to undercover agents, with more arrests coming.
"We took some substantially good violators off the street," said Bradford. "I can literally count over 10 people that have approached me talking about how hard we have hit these communities and that it's 'dry' because we've taken so many sellers off the street."
The unit targeted neighborhoods in the county and in Covington where there was reportedly known drug activity, including Salem Terrance, Plum Orchard, the Spring Hill community, the Settlement outside of Newborn, Heritage Park, Jamestown, Green Acres, Nelson Heights and West Street.
In addition to the arrests in the last two weeks, the SIU also took out a search warrant of a house on Avery Street in Covington that netted five people in February and arrested three more people during a search warrant at a house on Washington Street in mid-April.
Some of the dealers caught with a substantial amount of crack or cocaine, many who had previous narcotics convictions, include Cedric Bernard Cook, 26, Sederick O'Neil Bolden, 27, Arco Lakeytoe Hurst, 27, Samuel Edward Tuggle, 44, and Vanessa M. Grier, 35.
As SIU initially began to plan for the operation last year, their goal was to make at least two videotaped undercover buys off each seller, said Bradford.
"We really wanted to make these cases stick," he said, explaining that if the defendant found a way to beat one count on a technicality, the District Attorney's office at least had one more count and wouldn't be likely to make the same mistake twice. "The probability of beating these cases is going to be very slim for the violators," he said.
The video equipment was crucial to building a solid case, according to Bradford, who explained that without such evidence, there was room for doubt because it was ultimately his word against the defendant's in court.
"The criminal element better beware because this is a new day in case making for law enforcement," he said. "Where they were once untouchable, they are no longer untouchable."
SIU purchased over $15,000 of equipment last year, which was also used in the flea market raid on Salem Road in December 2007.
"I am extremely proud of our SIU guys out there working hard and working diligently to bring these things to a safe and successful conclusion," said Covington Police Department Chief Stacey Cotton.
With the disbanding of the East Metro Drug Task Force last year, an inter-county agency that operated for 17 years, some Newton County residents worried that the problem of narcotics would receive less attention.
Bradford said this operation helped show that the six-person SIU has successfully taken on the role of fighting drugs and other crime in the county, even taking on more cases than did EMDET at this time last year.
"I'm proud," he said. "SIU has broken records and gone above and beyond in our seven months of existence.
Newton County Sheriff Joe Nichols said that being able to focus on Newton County, as opposed to being an inter-county agency, has been an asset for the SIU.
"Actually, it's been more streamlined," said Nichols. "All the folks assigned to SIU are experienced officers who are doing the job with enthusiasm and want to be doing what they're doing." He added that the inter-county and inter-agency relationships formed during EMDET were still there.
Cotton said EMDET had run its course and had formed at a time when each of the member counties didn't have a big enough drug problem to warrant its own drug task force.
"It's like planting the seed so you can do it on your own," said Cotton. "Because of EMDET, we now have an agency like SIU, serving all the citizens of Newton County."
Bradford, who had previously worked with the Drug Enforcement Agency, said he knew there were still a lot of drugs in the county and metro area that the drug problem would continue, but that SIU would continue to fight it.
"I'm not fooled that the people we arrested has cleaned up Newton County, but I know we've hurt them," said Bradford. "We have put a big dent in them."