If you blinked, you probably missed it.

The Register recently had a chance to ride along with the Ottawa County Drug Task Force to witness how officials facilitate an exchange to catch drug dealers.

What we witnessed: heroin being exchanged for more than $400 at a gas station in Port Clinton.

The transaction happened quickly — probably taking about three seconds — and then it was over. 

Preparations

Half a dozen officers met in Port Clinton hours before the deal.

The agents were in contact with their informant, who was trying to coax the dealer out into the open.

It’s a delicate and time-consuming process.

In the meantime, agents passed around photos, records and other information pertaining to the dealer they were after. The agents discussed their plans in detail.

They usually try to make three buys with a dealer to gather enough evidence before making an arrest. This process makes it easier to convict dealers in court.

From there, we traveled to another location in Port Clinton, where the agents wired their informant and prepared for the deal.

“You’re on drug time, now,” agent Carl Rider said to photographer Jilly Burns and I. “This could take hours, but that’s how it works.”

We patiently waited in a car from across the street.

The deal

An informant and an undercover agent with the task force met the dealer in a gas station parking lot.

The informant exchanged more than $400 in cash for heroin, then spent the next few minutes talking with the dealer and the undercover agent.

The situation had to be believable and look like a normal conversation.

“Dealers don’t actually like to talk about drugs during the exchange,” agent Donald St. Clair said. “They don’t say ‘OK, here’s your drugs.’”

That’s what surprised me: the location; the cars; the exchange; it didn’tlook like a drug deal.

The agent walked away with several grams of heroin and more information for their case against this dealer.

The scene was, of course, surrounded by numerous officers in unmarked cars.

But that didn’t alleviate the fear or tension in each officer.

“You’re either crazy or lying if you say this doesn’t scare you,” agent Joel Barton said. “My heart rate jumps during these deals.”

I was across the street with an agent listening to the deal. Jilly was in another car much closer to the scene.

“The more notes and observations we make, the better the case will be,” St. Clair said. “We like to have someone in every direction in case this goes south.”

Aftermath

What was surprising, and disturbing, was that the deal happened out in the open as dozens of unsuspecting locals filled up their gas tanks. They literally had no idea what was happening right next to them.

But that was the point.

“We try to do this in public places because it’s easier to maintain surveillance and to ensure security for our informant,” St. Clair said.

The agents brought their informant back to a safe location and patted him down, just incase he pocketed any drugs.

They debriefed him and allowed him to leave.

Ottawa County Sheriff Steve Levorchick said heroin isn’t just affecting the junkies — it’s impacting everyone.

“These are our kids, neighbors or the people we go to church with,” Levorchick said. “It could happen to anyone.”

The drug task force has been doing undercover operations and educating locals for more than 20 years.

They deal with cocaine, prescription pills and marijuana. But while those drugs pose a problem, heroin has taken over and become one of the deadliest drugs on the streets.

Part of what makes it deadly is how it’s prepared. There aren’t safety regulations or inspections.

Anything could be added to the drug, including fentanyl, an opioid that looks almost exactly like heroin. It’s more powerful and contributes to many overdose deaths.

That’s why these undercover deals are so important to agents with the drug task force.

“When you’re able to get someone undercover, that’s the ultimate,” St. Clair said. “There’s a lot less room for error or other problems. Bottom line: nothing is guaranteed, but we can prepare, hope for the best and see what happens.”

Reach reporter Patrick Pfanner at pfanner@sanduskyregister.com.