Sean Hodges had a problem.
He was supposed to deliver 3.5 grams of meth to an acquaintance at a Dixie Auto Sales in Lowndes County one night in March. The problem was he only had .1 grams of meth.
He decided to go to the agreed location anyway and explain the situation to the acquaintance. When he arrived, he waited about five minutes. The acquaintance didn’t show.
Then a Silver Explorer came from behind the building to the parking lot where Hodges was waiting. Its brights flared, just as another vehicle drove around from the other side, boxing in the frozen Hodges. Lowndes County Narcotics agents had caught him.
“It was over,” Hodges said.
Luckily for Hodges, .1 grams of methamphetamines is a misdemeanor amount — anything over is a felony. But he is serving time at the Clay County Jail for felony violation of probation. The March arrest wasn’t his first — he’s been arrested several times since he began trading and selling drugs with friends at 16, culminating in a DUI at the Gilmer Inn on New Year’s Eve 2008. That night, law enforcement found marijuana, empty pill boxes and a pipe in his car.
He now thinks narcotics agents had been following him that entire day. As for the arrest in March, he said the aquaintance was an informant for the agents.
Hodges said mostly he felt relief, both after his arrest at the Gilmer Inn and now, five months after his most recent arrest. Drugs have ruined his life, he said, and he has no delusions that he would have evaded narcotics officers forever.
“They’re good at what they do,” he said. “It’s not a matter of if (they catch you), it’s when.”
‘We see the dungeon of society’
Investigations like the one that resulted in Hodges’ arrest are par for the course for Lowndes County Narcotics Capt. Archie Williams, who heads a team of five narcotics agents. They follow suspects, do surveillance, and work with confidential informants (CIs) to catch the people manufacturing, trafficking and selling drugs in the county. The agents spend months gathering evidence, following one street-level drug dealer to possibly a higher-level dealer and on up the chain of manufacturers and traffickers. They’re not looking for users so much as suppliers.
It’s a 24-7 job that can drag the agents out into the field at night, on weekends and during holidays.
It’s also dangerous. Drug dealers are always on the lookout for cops and CIs, Williams said. Two of Williams’ officers were shot at while driving in north Columbus about two years ago. The officers weren’t injured, but the shooters were never found. Williams still doesn’t know if it was a random shooting, or if dealers had recognized them as narcotics agents.
“It’s stressful,” he said. “We’re a very tight-knit group here. A lot of that is simply because we spend more time with each other than with our own families sometimes. There’s no set hours of the job. You’re pretty much tied to a phone, and whenever something’s going on, you gotta go. It’s a very dangerous job.
“We see the dungeon of society,” he added.
But the late nights and dangerous hours get results.
Last month, Williams’ unit partnered with several other law enforcement agencies, including the U.S. Marshal’s Fugitive Task Force and the Starkville Police Department for a round-up of about 40 suspected street-level drug dealers in the area.
On a Monday night in late June, the group met at an undisclosed location outside Lowndes County. Early the next morning, before most people were on their way to work, the agents began making arrests.
Within 36 hours, the group had arrested over 20 suspects. Since then, officers arrested at least five more who had warrants issued for them, including one man who came from Tennessee to turn himself in, Lowndes agent Kevin Forrester said.
The press release LCSO issued after the sting said the arrests wrapped up a “year-long investigation,” but it would have been more accurate to say it wrapped up several investigations, Williams said. His unit had spent the last year or so monitoring and gathering evidence on several different groups of dealers supplying everything from prescription pills to ICE methamphetamines.
The agents spent months investigating groups who specialized in different drugs. The suppliers selling prescription pills were a different clan than the ones selling cocaine. Pills that end up on the black market include pain killers like Lortab and Percocet, as well as other medications like Adderall and Xanax. The illegal drugs include marijuana, cocaine and meth. About a year ago, synthetic cocaine and spice became more prevalent, sending several people in the county to hospitals from drug overdoses and resulting in deaths all over the state. The use of those has since dwindled, Williams said.
‘Ain’t no friends in the drug world’
The way to catch the dealers is to catch the first one and go from there, Williams said.
“If you have one person of interest you’re trying to watch, you’re trying to figure out where that person’s going,” Williams said. “You’re having to pretty much do surveillance and follow them. It may be hours upon hours before you get eyes on that person, and of course when you do, you can’t just turn it off and go home. You’ve got to stick with it.”
The agents sometimes get drugs through buys by CIs and informants, who often have criminal records and have some sway in the drug world. Those drugs go to the Columbus Crime Lab. The units have different ways of testing and identifying drugs in the field, but for the evidence to hold up in court, lab technicians must make official identification. The unit often makes arrests months after obtaining the drugs, Williams said. Sometimes the dealers have left the area by the time the agents are ready to arrest them. That’s when the Marshals Task Force comes in handy because its officers have federal jurisdiction.
Low-level drug dealers can lead to higher-level suppliers — but only if they’re not in jail. Agents also don’t want to make arrests without an airtight case with plenty of evidence.
“You don’t want to take a case to court and have it half done,” Williams said.
And drug dealers know the agents use CIs. Word gets around which dealers get busted, Hodges said. He tried to only deal with people he thought he could trust — but it wasn’t possible, he said.
“These were folks I grew up with and thought were my friends,” he said. “But there ain’t no friends in the drug world.”
Prosecution and plea bargains
Williams doesn’t feel sorry for the dealers they arrest. Some of the dealers sell drugs to pay for their own drug habits, but the reasons don’t matter, he said.
“The law is the law,” he said. “No matter the reason, you’re selling, and it’s still illegal.”
Who he does feel bad for are the dealers’ children. In one of the recent round-ups, he and his agents entered a house to make an arrest only to find children–and more drugs in those children’s reach.
“They don’t have a choice to live there or not,” Williams said. “They’re there regardless because that’s their parents or loved ones.”
Once the agents make the arrests, the cases go to the District Attorney Scott Colom’s office for prosecution. Colom favors focusing on treatment for non-violent offenders and addicts, rather than sending them straight to prison. Depending on the individual cases, he may show less mercy to dealers.
“I trust Capt. Williams when he’s talking to me about these particular individuals,” Colom said. “I’m sure that’s true that they’re doing it for money. … But there are some dealers that are really just selling to feed their habit. For those people, you try to figure out ways to balance the need to uphold the laws … and deter drug dealing and drug use with the … realization that the long-term solution has to be to try to deal with the addiction that causes people to want drugs.”
Once a grand jury indicts the suspects, Colom’s office can begin to offer plea deals.
Prosecutors also have to take into account any assistance that CIs have provided. Most CIs are arrested on drug charges, and helping agents later doesn’t mean they get off scott-free. Prosecutors take everything the CIs did to assist the investigation into account.
“Normally when they become an informant, they have to enter into an agreement with the local law enforcement agency,” said Maurice Johnson, senior investigator at the DA’s Office. “Basically they’ve been charged — most of them are. They are arrested. They go through the same process. No promises or anything like that are made to them on the front end. … A crime has been committed. They still have to pay the price or the penalty for their crime. Do they get consideration? Yes.”
Staying in ‘work mode’
While prosecutors present the cases to judges and juries, it’s back to work for the narcotics agents. When dealers go to jail, more dealers take their place. Agents always have work to do.
“It’s not just a job,” Williams said. “It’s more of a lifestyle.”
He tells new agents when they first start that there will be late nights and interrupted holidays. They’ll need to always have their phones with them. Their spouses will have to be understanding.
“It takes a particular personality and mindset to deal with this and still have a normal life,” Williams said. “When the phone rings, you’ve got to go right back into work mode.”