Anatomy of a drug bust (with video)

Task force strives to make dent in illegal drug trade that permeates every corner of Clark County

By Emily Gillespie, Columbian breaking news reporter



About the CLARK-VANCOUVER Regional Drug Task Force

The Clark-Skamania Narcotics Task Force was formed in 1988 by an intergovernmental agreement. In 2012, budget cuts forced Skamania County to pull its detective. The task force refocused its efforts to Clark County and was renamed.

The 12-member task force has one commander, one sergeant, three detectives, two financial investigators, one legal secretary and one support specialist paid by the Clark County Sheriff’s Office. One detective from Washington State Patrol and a sergeant and a detective from the Vancouver Police Department are also part of the team. Their combined law enforcement experience is 206 years.

Drugs seized during the task force’s 224 drug investigations in 2012:

Heroin: 9 lb. 11 oz.

Cocaine: 38 lb. 1 oz.

Methamphetamine: 95 lb. 8 oz.

Marijuana: 2,152 lb. 3 oz.

Prescription drugs: 362 pills.

— Emily Gillespie

Even to someone watching closely, the vehicle idling in the driveway of a home in a quiet Salmon Creek neighborhood wouldn't have seemed odd.

But the undercover officer inside -- a detective with the Clark-Vancouver Regional Drug Task Force -- was vigilantly watching the neighborhood's lone entrance.

Spotting the Yamaha motorcycle whip into view, the officer keyed his police radio: "Our boy's coming right now! He's coming right now!"

What happened next took only seconds.

Seven cars sped down the street, screeching to a halt surrounding a gray two-story house. Leaving their car doors open, officers rushed into place. Their outstretched arms gripped their weapons, pointed at the motorcyclist, who was now in the garage.

"Police! Put your hands up!"

Richard Springs Black hadn't yet dismounted his bike. His expression revealing shock, he showed the cops the palms of his hands. He was still wearing his helmet and sunglasses when officers tightened the metal handcuffs around his wrists.

Mark Mancy, who has lived next door to Black for a year, watched the scene unfold from the edge of his driveway.

"Wow … I'm just surprised," he said, after learning that his neighbor has been accused of dealing drugs such as morphine and Oxycontin less than 100 feet away from his front door. "I hope it's an isolated incident."

But it is far from an isolated case -- drug detectives say every neighborhood in Clark County is potentially a drug neighborhood.

'Drug neighborhoods'

Staring at his neighbor's neatly trimmed lawn and the blue Toyota Prius parked in the driveway, Mancy said it is far from the type of place that your mom told you to stay away from.

"You would think the house would be run down, a lot of traffic," he said. The open garage shows shelves full of what looks like camping equipment, a basketball and a wall lined with tools. Black's home is just a half-mile from Chinook Elementary School, one of Clark County's most affluent.

But Cmdr. Mike Cooke, who has led the drug task force for the past three years, said the drug scene in the county is so widespread that there is no one type of "drug neighborhood."

"We serve search warrants in urban areas, in the suburbs of Orchards, out in the rural areas of Battle Ground," Cooke said. "We've (served warrants) on everything from trailers that I would describe as Third World-like and we've done houses that I would consider to be mini-estates."

While society stereotypes retail drug dealers as low-income, Cooke pointed to one case earlier this year in which an 18-year-old Skyview High School student was accused of dealing marijuana and ecstasy. Police say evidence of the crime was recovered inside his 2006 Mercedes-Benz C230 and his parents' 3,238-square-foot ranch house.

Just as houses where drug deals go down are hard to distinguish from those of a trusted neighbor, drug dealers can just as easily slide under the radar.

Because they conduct their criminal activity like a business, Cooke said, dealers often aren't addicts. Some aren't even drug users.

"I don't think (Black) is a user," said an undercover officer. "My suspicion is his wife had no idea."

Fighting drugs at the source

"Tracy" brought Black's alleged drug dealing to the attention of law enforcement.

A confidential informant for the drug task force since 2002, Tracy spent nine months working through acquaintances before being introduced to Black.

The Columbian interviewed the confidential reliable informant after agreeing not to publish Tracy's real name or gender, because Tracy continues to work with the police.

"I go out and search out people dealing meth, coke, heroin, prescription drugs," Tracy said.

Police files list the reason for Tracy's cooperation as being "in the interest of justice." Some informants get in trouble with the law and are offered a deal: "flip" for police in exchange for time off of a sentence. Others, including Tracy, are paid for their information. Tracy makes between $300 and $400 per case.

Tracy said the effect of drugs is hard for many people to see. Dealers, Tracy said, "are just killing people. And for what? To get a dollar."

Cooke is noticing a disturbing trend: young people are becoming addicted to prescription drugs and transition to a cheaper version of the high -- heroin.

So far in 2013, the task force has seized 1,283 prescription pills while executing 17 search warrants. That number is nearly four times the 362 pills they seized with 51 search warrants in 2012.

"This appears to be a dramatic increase in the number of pills we've seized," Cooke said. "We'll see what the rest of the year brings and if this trend continues."

To minimize the amount of drugs on the street, the task force focuses on the sources. To catch high-level dealers responsible for a larger bulk of the illegal market, detectives rely on confidential informants such as Tracy.

"The controlled buys that we do, where we purchase drugs directly or indirectly from a dealer, are pretty much our bread and butter," Cooke said. "That's how we take a case of drug trafficking from the street into court, present it to a prosecutor and hopefully get a conviction in the case."

Undercover operation

Nearly a year's worth of work by both Tracy and drug detectives boiled down to three hours on the morning of July 24.

Eight men all wearing plain muted-colored clothing, plus two uniformed sheriff's deputies, gathered in a circle in the Salmon Creek Fred Meyer parking lot.

They debriefed: Tracy will call Black and place a large order for morphine. The hope is that Black will leave to get the drugs from his supplier, and the group will conduct surveillance on him and his 1999 red Dodge Durango. They want to identify his supplier -- a dirty doctor, a corrupt pharmacist, someone with a prescription, or someone ordering the pills online. The uniformed officers will stop Black on his way home, and arrest him on the street, where he can't hide or access a cache of weapons.

Either way, an undercover officer said, by the end of the day Black would be behind bars. Tracy had been involved in other controlled buys, giving police probable cause for an arrest. They have a search warrant for his home, too.

It wasn't long before the plan changed. Doing an initial drive past Black's residence, Cooke spotted Black leaving on a black motorcycle. They hadn't seen him ride it before and surveillance wasn't set up yet.

"I believe our guy just left on a black motorcycle, black shirt," he said rapidly over the radio after Black drove past.

The undercover officers scrambled to try to find him, chirping out their streets and directions over the radio.

After about 45 minutes of an unsuccessful search, they met at Chinook Elementary School to discuss Plan B -- stake out his home and wait until he returns.

"He's either tripping to get the dope or he already has it," one of the officers said. "(Getting) the source is out unless he cooperates."

"Things really rarely go according to the way we hope it's going to go," Cooke said later. "Really we're at the mercy of the trafficker and what arrangements he's made to source his drug from his supplier."

Pills, cash seized

After the bust, the adrenaline dissipating, an officer reads Black his Miranda rights. Black, 51, quickly asks for a lawyer.

The request is close to a death sentence for any hope of finding his supplier. After Black invoked his right to remain silent and have an attorney, police can no longer negotiate with him.

Ideally, suspects will turn into confidential informants and spill information about their suppliers in exchange for a shortened sentence. Although he could decide to take the deal later in the court process, one undercover officer said it's unlikely.

Again, experience makes Cooke sanguine.

"If we don't get the source of supply today, there's always another day … I'm sure we'll get a bite at the apple at some point," Cooke said.

With Black in custody, officers served their search warrant at his house. In the back of a closet, in a drawer on the bottom shelf, detectives found what they identified as morphine pills evenly divided into small clear bags, along with $6,777 in cash. A leather fanny pack fastened to the handlebars of his motorcycle was filled with even more drugs. In total, police seized $8,500 worth of drugs -- 607 pills and 13 fentanyl patches, used to manage chronic pain. Police say Black is a midlevel dealer.

They take the drugs into evidence and are gone within an hour and a half, the neighborhood in their rearview mirrors as calm as they had found it.

A continued effort

About 9 a.m. the next day, Black filed through a basement room of the Clark County Courthouse. The chains clanking around his hands keep him connected to a handful of other inmates.

When court staff announce that it's his turn, Black saunters toward a wooden table a few feet away from Judge Robert Lewis.

Lewis looked over the paperwork, deciding out loud that there is probable cause for Black to be charged with three counts of delivery of a controlled substance, which are felonies. Lewis released Black on his own recognizance. He and his retained attorney, Andrew Lawhon, are due back in court Sept. 10.

When reached by phone on Tuesday, Black declined to answer questions about his arrest.

Despite the short jail stay, Cooke is not discouraged.

"We hope through the court process that (Black) decides that he no longer wants to traffic illegal substances," Cooke said. "Whether he spends a day in jail or a year in jail, if he were to no longer traffic illegal substances in Clark County, we would consider that a success."

And, Cooke said, they've removed 607 pills from being illegally sold on the streets, which could translate to one less addiction.

"People talk about the war on drugs, but in reality it's not a war, because that implies there's a winner and a loser," he said. "Law enforcement is never going to completely win. We'll never eliminate all the drugs. We're just trying to minimize the effect on the community so that people can go to work every day."

See a video of the Behind the scenes bust with drug task force on the Columbian's YouTube channel here.

Emily Gillespie: 360-735-4522;;