The driver with the dreadlocks to his shoulders backs into the parking space at Marina Jack’s and powers down the window. He’s looking to buy 200 oxycodone pills from an undercover agent posing as a dealer. The agent, a man with graying hair and a shirt slung over his shoulder, leans in to talk.
As members of the Sarasota (Florida) Police Department’s narcotics unit film the exchange from a nearby car, they see too many red flags. The driver backed in. He’s on the phone. He’s flashing a wad of cash with a twenty on top and ones underneath. The deal’s worth $1,600, so the buyer intends to steal the drugs. He wants to count the pills and tells the undercover agent to get in the car. The officer refuses.
Before anyone can react, the passenger reaches across the driver and points a handgun at the agent’s head. The driver bolts. Officers stop him before he can leave the lot.
“We did get him,” the sergeant in charge of the unit tells members of the SPD Citizen’s Academy. “We had controlled phone calls of their intent to do the deal. That’s an attempted armed robbery, and it trumps the drug charge. It was a loaded .45 handgun.”
Detectives were seeing an uptick in the abuse of prescription medication like Percocet and OxyContin until local law enforcement, led by the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office, began a crackdown in 2009. Since then, the target has shifted.
“As far as upper-level crime, what we mostly see is cocaine,” a detective in the SPD unit says. “We’re starting to see a lot more heroin because oxycodone has become more expensive. People are lacing heroin with fentanyl [a synthetic opioid analgesic that is 80 times more potent than morphine] to increase potency. They’re dying with the needle in their arm.”
But the big drug today is spice.
The Associated Press is reporting a huge nationwide spike in hospitalizations caused by synthetic marijuana. The number of cases rocketed from 359 in January to more than 1,500 in April, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers. Synthetic marijuana usually is non-marijuana plant material sprayed with cannabinoids and marketed under brand names like Spice, K2 and Scooby Snax.
After two people died at New College of Florida in early May, the Sarasota Police Department said its initial investigation showed that “both deaths appeared to be drug related.”
“This stuff is really bad,” the sergeant says. “Users don’t know what they’re smoking. People put potpourri in cement mixers and spray it with chemicals they get from China. It’s sprayed with a Level 1 narcotic like XLR-11 [an ingredient in synthetic cannabis]. That’s why these people are going crazy when they smoke it. These chemicals, they’re a lethal cocktail.”
Working the street
The SPD narcotics unit consists of five officers and a technician in charge of the recording equipment. The unit does undercover drug buys, executes searches and conducts long-term investigations to nab importers and dealers.
Detectives get their cases from a variety of sources—neighbor complaints, patrol division reports, Crime Stoppers of Sarasota and other hotline programs. They follow prostitutes to drug houses. They do surveillance to verify information. They drive unmarked cars through dealer turf and set up street buys with cameras covering every inch of the car’s interior.
One of the most effective tools is the confidential informant. “A lot of times we’ll arrest somebody who says he’s tired of this life,” the sergeant says. “Once we determine that they’re fairly mentally capable, we’ll pay that person to do a controlled drug buy for us.” He pauses and in those few seconds you can watch the wheels turn as he mulls the unanswered questions from the audience, about the Faustian bargain, about ethics rather than souls, so he adds, “We say we’re making a deal with the devil,” and leaves it at that.
Detectives can take only so much product out of circulation with street-level deals. So they work with federal authorities in the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to arrest leaders and escalate charges.
In 2014 the unit wrapped up a two-year investigation called SRQ Cartel II that resulted in the arrest of 10 people alleged to be mid-level suppliers. Police confiscated 12 kilograms of cocaine, five cars, seven guns and $115,000. A prior sweep resulted in the arrest of a Sarasota man allegedly tied to a Mexican drug cartel.
“Our goal is to climb the ladder,” the sergeant says.
Publicly, both he and the detective—I’m not naming or photographing them to protect their ability to conduct undercover work—they call their job “stressful, dangerous and fun.” Privately, while proud of their work to remove the cause of other crimes such as burglary and assault, they have times of doubt.
Such as the day when an informant who promised to go straight climbed into their car for another deal. “The detective pulled his hat down over his face,” the sergeant says. “The informant didn’t even recognize him.”
He shakes his head at the memory. “You put them away and more take their place. Sometimes you feel like a gerbil on a wheel.”
Next: on patrol with the SPD.
Jeff Widmer is the author of The Spirit of Swiftwater and other works.