MARMET working for Marion

Two-and-a-half months removed from the police’s biggest one-day search of the year, the operation has nearly come to an end for law enforcement officials.

But the legal impact of the multiple felony cases is just beginning.

“Operation Revolving Door” kicked off Aug. 27, targeting 46 low- to mid-level drug traffickers within Marion County. By that evening, members of the MARMET Drug Task Force, the Marion Police Department and the Marion County Sheriff’s Office arrested 32 suspects.

Despite the successful finds, 14 suspects were still wanted the next morning. Officers continued searching for those with warrants.

Kevin Jackson was the latest wanted suspect from the operation to be arrested. He was picked up on charges of trafficking in heroin and obstructing official business in addition to his warrant for trafficking. His formal charges still are pending by the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office.

But Jackson’s arrest might have been a lucky break. Maj. Bill Collins with the Marion Police Department said not a lot has happened in the day-to-day operations relating to Operation Revolving Door.

“We’re too busy moving forward with other drug buys,” he said.

Operation Revolving Door was given its name in reference to the “revolving door” of the criminal justice system. Collins said police are dealing with some offenders “as soon as they get out” of jail or prison.

A few of the Operation Revolving Door suspects are among those finding their way back into MARMET’s handcuffs.
Toi Pickens, for example, was arrested during the operation on three counts of trafficking in cocaine. He bonded out of jail and was found by officials in Detroit. Officials believed he was attempting to cross the Canadian border. Pickens is scheduled for trial Dec. 17, but Collins said there still is an active felony warrant for that incident.

Jeff Glass is another example, Collins said. Police picked him up a week ago.

“We saw him selling drugs again on Fairview (Street),” he said. “We caught and chased him down on a bike. He had crack on him.”

To lower the number of criminals returning to the streets, Collins’ solution is higher bonds for the suspects. He said setting a higher price to get out of jail would protect the public and save police a lot of work.

“It’s aggravating to us, but there’s not a lot we can do with that,” he said.

Judge Jim Slagle, who sets bond amounts for many suspects, argues that if there is an issue with safety, then police should make arrests sooner.

“If you take the people that were arrested when they committed the alleged offense, many of them were a few months to six months earlier, meaning they delayed arresting in the person for three, four, five, six months,” he said. “If they need to be in jail for public safety, that needs to be a public safety decision.

“It’s not accurate to say we waited five months to arrest the person and say it’s a public safety issue.”

Collins said the timing of arrests is decided by how police can best use their informants who conduct drug buys. He said the informants are few for the drug task force and can only be used for a limited time.

“That’s the nature of the business that we’re in,” Collins said. “We can’t do one drug buy and arrest the person.”

As for the bonds, Slagle said their purpose is to ensure the suspect’s appearance in court as well as maintain public safety. He said many were very close to recommendations by the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office.

Slagle has given some of the suspects “10 percent” bonds. These type of bonds are posted by depositing 10 percent of the face amount of the total bond issued with the clerk of court. If the accused appears as required, all but 10 percent of the deposit is refunded.

The reduced rate allows money to be collected by the court, taking the burden off county taxpayers, Slagle said.

“That’s typical of what’s done across the state,” he said.

Marion County Prosecutor Brent Yager disagreed.

“He does bonds differently,” he said. “We usually don’t do those.”

Yager said he “didn’t agree with all the bonds” set by Slagle, although the judge “follows our recommendations sometimes.”

The first sentencing hearing for those arrested in Operation Revolving Door will be Monday. Two sentencing hearings will follow on Tuesday, with another two hearings in the following week. Five who already have pleaded guilty await sentencing dates.

Nineteen more suspects are set for trial. Dates of the pending trials will span five months. The last scheduled trial is set for March 11.

“People think you just walk in a courtroom, present your case and you’re done,” Yager said. “For every hour in the courtroom, we do three to five hours of work outside of it.”

Three men, Leon Dixon, Terry Layne and Lance Ross, still are sought following the operation, but they may be beyond MARMET’s reach.

“We have no reason to believe, if we’re not getting tips, that they’re in town,” Collins said. “If they get stopped in another jurisdiction, they’ll find out they have an active felony warrant.”

METRICH Troubles

Disputes between local judges and city officials are not the only two in disagreement in the fight against drugs.

Problems appear to be much larger to the east where the METRICH Enforcement Unit, the largest multi-county investigative group in the state, operates.

Disagreements between the Richland County Sheriff and the Mansfield Police Department may cause a rift in the longstanding enforcement unit. Recently retired Mansfield Police Chief Dino Sgambelleone expressed concerns about Richland County Sheriff Steve Sheldon not communicating or collaborating on drug probes, according to a report by the Mansfield News Journal.

“One of the main concerns is safety,” Sgambellone told the News Journal. “When we have groups of people that are considering enforcement issues in the same jurisdiction and you’re not on the same page, that can result in dangerous situations for law enforcement and the public.

“Secondly, it’s a resource issue. We’re all strapped financially. It’s not wise from a fiscal perspective.”

METRICH veterans said Sheldon purposely ignores the agency because of grudges he harbors with former commanders.

Sheldon is undeterred by the criticism. He termed the local drug problem “way out of hand” and said his office would continue to respond to citizens’ complaints, pointing out the sheriff’s department has jurisdiction over the entire county.

“I literally could assign every one of my officers to work drugs,” Sheldon said. “It’s that big of a problem.”

Former Mansfield police chief Phil Messer suspects the dispute between the agencies stems from hard feelings related to a botched drug investigation involving the sheriff’s office and the Drug Enforcement Agency.

“The relationship began to be stressed when we (METRICH) didn’t agree to the use of an informant and to not support the investigation,” Messer said.

Sheldon said he could have done a better job of communicating with Sgambellone, but he offered praise for the former chief.

“He’s done a tremendous amount for this community and for METRICH, and I wish him well,” Sheldon said.

Sgambellone is considered a protege of Messer. He said following in Messer’s footsteps at METRICH could be part of the problem.

“I tried to make that work and even lost credibility within my own unit,” Sgambellone said. “Honestly, he (Sheldon) is a nice guy, but as a law enforcement executive, you can’t let anything impact safety. You don’t have to like me.”

Originally founded in 1986, the METRICH Enforcement Unit aimed to reduce the availability of illegal drugs in metro-Richland County. The unit’s success drove state officials to encourage expanding its coverage with regional cooperation and greater efficiency. The unit would add nine additional counties over 12 years, with Marion County joining in January 1993.

Funding for the MARMET Drug Task Force stems from Mansfield and the METRICH Enforcement Unit. Collins said he did not think the dispute would affect funding for Marion’s local operations.

“It’s unfortunate that they have that,” he said. “We have a great working relationship here right now.”

Fighting drugs

Possible dangers because of poor communication between the Marion County Sheriff’s Office and Marion Police Department led to the creation of the MARMET Drug Task Force, Sheriff Tim Bailey said.

Before Bailey took the office, the sheriff’s office and the police department each worked their own drug operations. Each agency had an undercover officer working to expose drug dealers and, since the two were not working directly with one another, wound up crossing over on a few cases, Bailey said.

It was at a drug house raid that Bailey said was a “very dangerous situation” that changed how both offices operate.
“During the round-up, we realized the police officer that was undercover and the sheriff deputy that was undercover were both there,” he said. “Everybody was armed.”

Wanting to avoid any other issues, the idea of a drug task force was prodded “to work directly with one another so we don’t put our people in that situation again,” Bailey said. By 1989, the task force was established.

“It’s worked well,” Bailey said. “They’ve been pretty productive.”

Today, the sheriff’s office staffs two full-time members on the MARMET Drug Task Force. This is up from the one member on staff mentioned by Chief Deputy Al Hayden in March.

Bailey said the department cannot add any more to the force, but support from other deputies can be used for a short-term basis in instances such as search warrants and drug raids. The sheriff’s office also handles the financial responsibilities of the task force.

“I think the manpower shortage at the Marion Police Department and the Marion County Sheriff’s Office has suffered over the last few years,” Bailey said. “That has allowed the criminal element to operate freely.”

Collins said the police department staffs four officers on the task force.

“It’s evolved from a two-man operation, which is what it was when I was in it,” Collins said.

Once numbers were beefed up to each department again, Bailey said the task force was catching criminals at an incredibly higher rate.

“It was like shooting fish in a barrel,” he said.

Collins said he has seen the drugs targeted in the task force change over the decades. The drug sought when Collins was an active member on the force was cocaine. It was not long until crack cocaine became the top target by the force. Today, officials are targeting heroin and illegal pills.

“It’s always evolving,” Collins said. “Drugs change.”

Some things stay the same, however. Collins said the source cities remain the same: Chicago and Detroit.

Ultimately, he said it was the same job dealing with the same or similar people.

Originally published in the Marion Star on November 17, 2013

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