Cocaine, heroin more visible in Union
A 33-year-old Monroe man became the 59th person busted in Union County since Aug. 1 on either felony cocaine or heroin charges.
Union County sheriff’s deputies arrested Keith Linell Ivey on Tuesday, Oct. 24, on 11 counts of trafficking in cocaine.
“This arrest was in response to several citizen complaints of drug activity, which prompted our detectives to conduct this extended operation leading to yesterday’s arrest,” Sheriff’s Capt. Cody Luke said. “We would like to thank the public for placing their trust in us and providing tips concerning this and other drug activity.”
Of the arrests made since Aug. 1, 19 cases involved selling smaller amounts of the drugs, 12 cases involved trafficking in larger volumes and one case involved manufacturing the drugs. In the same period last year, Union County recorded a total of 26 felony cases related to cocaine or heroin.
Union County Weekly compared the two periods because in August 2010, federal officials announced a new drug-interdiction initiative designating Union, Gaston and Mecklenburg counties as a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area.
As part of the initiative, federal authorities create a task force to coordinate intergovernmental and interagency enforcement activities and share intelligence between federal, state and local agencies. In Union, the sheriff’s office and the Monroe Police Department have assigned a full-time officer to the task force.
“The heroin problem has increased dramatically over the past five years,” a task force official, who asked not to be named, said. “We attribute most of the large increase to the abuse of prescription drugs. That’s the reason there’s been such an up tick in the heroin trafficking. Once people, particularly young people, get hooked on prescription pain killers, it becomes expensive to buy pills to support the habit.”
Opiate-based pain relievers, including prescription drugs Demerol, OxyContin, Davon and Vicodin, are some of the most trafficked pills, according to the Department of Justice’s 2010 National Drug Threat Assessment. They are considered a gateway drug into heroin abuse.
Opiate pills cost more per milligram than a user would spend for black tar heroin from a local dealer, task force officials said.
“We have seen black tar heroin but not to the extent they have in Mecklenburg,” Luke said. “But we see basically users not dealers.”
Officers make the distinction between users and dealers by the amount, the type of drug and how it is packaged, Luke explained.
“As law enforcement officers, we have the discretion to charge, and we have various books to consult, like Robert Farb’s (Arrest, Search, and Investigation in North Carolina) crime books and the general statutes,” he said. “It’s like going to school. We have to research the different elements of each crime, determine the charges and then bring it before the magistrate, who will assess whether we have sufficient probable cause for the charges.”
The heroin-trafficking problem comes mainly from those looking to use Union as a quick route to Mecklenburg County, Luke said.
“Trafficking is more of a regional issue,” rather than specific to Union County, he added. “We have major road corridors – I-485, Hwy. 74 and Hwy. 601 – which makes us a prime trafficking area to transport drugs to and from the regional center.”
Earlier this month, one such incident occurred in Indian Trail. When officers stopped Karl Rolf Helms on a routine traffic violation, a drug-sniffing police dog discovered a cache of opiate pills, packaged in easily dispensed bottles, in his vehicle, sheriff’s officials later reported. Now, Helms faces charges of opium and heroin trafficking.
The Union-Gaston-Mecklenburg area is one of 28 designated zones across the country. Each year, the task force assigned to each area assesses the drug-trafficking threat, develops a strategy and then requests federal and state funding to help carry that strategy out.
Examining the organizations
Sheena Gatehouse, a former Mecklenburg prosecutor, returned from private practice in January to lead Mecklenburg County’s Drug Prosecution Team for newly elected District Attorney Andrew Murphy. During her first stint with the district attorney’s office3 between 1998 and 2003, she rarely prosecuted heroin cases, Gatehouse said. Most cases involved cocaine, crack, ecstasy and marijuana.
“During the last seven years when I practiced as a defense attorney, I had only one heroin case,” Gatehouse said, “and that was during the last year.”
Now back in the district attorney’s office, she’s seen heroin cases multiply, everything from simple possession to trafficking, she said.
Trafficking organizations manage their work like a Fortune 500 company, she added, with product quality control checks, marketing plans and distribution. The target market for these groups is 16- to 26-year-old Caucasians.
“Compared to my previous tour as a prosecutor, (heroin) is dominating what we’re seeing now,” Gatehouse said.