Multi-jurisdictional team pools their efforts, resources to fight the drug scourge throughout central Oregon
For the past 15 years, illegal drug users, suppliers and manufacturers have been watched by the tri-county agency of the Central Oregon Drug Enforcement Team (CODE).
Undersheriff Jim Hensley was one of the original four CODE team members when it was formed in 1992.
"When it all started, I can remember that first day when we heard that the four of us were going to run with it," Hensley said. "That was the day, we were standing around doing a search warrant for a major meth lab and it was a huge boost for the day."
At that time, the CODE team consisted of one detective from the Prineville and Redmond Police Departments and the Crook and Deschutes County Sheriff's Offices.
"Drug dealers and people involved in criminal activity, they know no boundaries," Hensley said. "We were dealing with people here who were going to Redmond (to buy and sell drugs). So the concept was they're going over there and obtaining this stuff, so we should all be working together. Someone else's community is supplying our dealers and vice versa, so let's go in there as a joint effort and do it."
Currently, the CODE team incorporates detectives from Crook County, City of Prineville, Deschutes County, City of Bend, City of Redmond, Jefferson County, City of Madras, Oregon State Police (OSP), Oregon National Guard and Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents.
"We really concentrate on trying to build big cases," said Phil, a CODE team member. "We want to take the people down that are supplying."
Phil, along with his colleague, Kyle, are the existing CODE team members for Prineville and Crook County.
"It's a multi-jurisdictional team," Phil said. "They work over here and we work over there. It's a tri-county agency, so we work in the whole central Oregon area."
The team frequently utilizes its joint efforts to aggressively get drugs off the street.
"We have to rely on each other to help each other on our investigations," Kyle said. "We all work different cases, but then when you have enough to put it together, our whole team comes over and we all do it together. We all do the search warrant on the house. So like in Bend, we may have no idea what they're investigating, but they may call us in two hours and say `let's go do a search warrant on a house', so we'll go help them execute the search warrant."
The process of calculating when to strike is a significant part of the drug house takedown.
"It's a probable cause search warrant, looking for evidence of a crime," Phil said. "It's an ongoing investigation, where we're trying to gather as much evidence as we can."
"Our judge might think probable cause is a little less or more than say a judge in Deschutes County, so it kind of depends on the judges," Kyle said. "We'll work cases here where it'll take us three months, or a whole lot of stuff might come up and we might be able to work a case in a week or two. It all depends on what's happening."
"We want to have as strong a case a possible," Phil added.
"We're going off probable cause, but in the long term, we have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt," Kyle said. "Anything more that we can get to prove beyond a reasonable doubt is what we're going to do. Probable cause is just to get us in the door."
The process of getting enough validated information to lead to a probable cause warrant comes mainly from community tipsters.
"When we have people calling in and pointing us to which houses to look at, it helps us out tremendously," Phil said.
"The general public's education and awareness is what helps us do our job," Kyle said. "What people don't realize is they may think something is going on at their neighbor's house or down the street, but they're thinking `I don't know anything, so I'm not going to call anybody'. But, if I've got 10 different people calling in on the same house, something is going on there."
"Getting information from people watching things coming and going helps us out a lot," Phil said.
The detectives work in many undercover situations, which is why it is imperative that their identifications remain confidential. Without giving away any secrets, the pair said they will covertly do anything, in any kind of weather to get the information they need to identify possible meth houses.
"Most of our work is done on surveillance, so it's nice for us to not be recognized so we can look like a normal person and blend in," Phil said. "We can watch people coming and going. We can have patrol officers stop cars and we can identify different people from license plates. We sat and watched one for days on end, and we were able to identify targets, just by hiding in bushes and trees."
Even with the lengths the team goes to, they know that drugs will always be an issue.
"It's all about supply and demand," Phil said.
"It's just like crime going away, it'll never go away, we can do as best we can," Kyle said. `The pseudophedrine laws obviously cut down tremendously on the labs, but as far as meth itself going away, it's not going to happen. We just work as hard and as fast as we can to take as much as we can."
"Since the pseudophedrine laws changed, it has changed the scope of things," Phil said. "They were literally going from lab to lab because you could buy everything at the grocery store. Because of the new laws, it has made it near impossible, not impossible, but very tough to get access to the large quantities of all chemicals needed (to manufacture meth). Now the majority of the methamphetamine comes from super labs in California and Mexico."
Phil referenced a super lab in Oregon that was dismantled last year near Salem.
"I think that super lab was capable of producing 90 pounds of meth (at one time), which is insane," Phil said. "Last year, in all of CODE we seized over 21 and a half pounds, so that tells you how much a super lab can produce."
By manufacturing the methamphetamine in other states and countries, transporting the narcotic becomes a necessary way to circulate it to the greater underground drug culture.
"CODE took off two load vehicles in the last two months, vehicles that were designed specifically to carry large amounts of meth," Kyle said. "One was taken off in Springfield and the other was taken off in Bend. They were both fixed up to carry large amounts in hidden compartments without being detected. How many are getting through? That's what we have no idea about, that's the scary thing."
Containing methamphetamine may seem like a daunting task, but the CODE team is up for the challenge.
"We'll just build as many cases as we can," Kyle said. "It comes down to proving beyond a reasonable doubt. We want to get the conviction. It would be pointless to be arresting all these people and then have the charges dismissed later, it's like our work was useless."
"We need to put them in jail, that's the ultimate," Phil said. "If we can't put them in jail, they'll just go right back to doing it. We want to build strong cases to keep them in jail, to shut the operation down."