At the front line of local war on drugs, Columbia Enforcement Narcotics Team confronts sobering budget realities

by: SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: KATIE WILSON - Police believe this St. Helens home, the site of a CENT drug raid in May that yielded commercial amounts of heroin, was also subject to arson months before in a drug deal gone bad.Columbia County’s illicit drug scene, much like the drug scene in many communities over the last seven years, has changed. Where once existed a few suppliers — known both to users and police — is now an ever-changing landscape of small-scale users who serve double-duty as distributors.

On one hand, that kind of change could prove to be a benefit to those on the front lines of drug enforcement in Columbia County.

“Things have changed. Now we feel that all users are tentatively drug dealers. Everybody is a drug dealer,” says Sgt. Phillip Edwards. And with a greater supply of user-dealers, he says, so too is there a greater supply of informants.

“The key to this is informants,” he says.

Edwards leads the two-man Columbia Enforcement Narcotics Team out of the St. Helens Police Department, a position he says continues to inspire him despite budgetary challenges for which the solution, much like the illicit drug distribution landscape, is not always easy to pin down.

In July, a grant funding CENT’s second personnel position will end, leaving Edwards as the sole staff person principally dedicated to breaking up the supply lines for illegal drugs into and throughout Columbia County’s 657 square miles of terrain and 50,000 population.

It’s a blow for a number of reasons, not the least being that veteran Columbia County Sheriff’s Office Det. Leonard Olsen holds the doomed second position.

With only one person on the team, it’s a far cry from peak staffing at CENT’s start in 1989 that included detectives and officers from all law enforcement jurisdictions in the county. In 1991, CENT became headquartered at the St. Helens Police Department, where it has remained, and St. Helens is the only jurisdiction currently funding a CENT position in Edwards. A board that includes police chiefs from all of the cities and the sheriff oversees CENT.

The staffing reductions present a daunting situation. Even as CENT is being scaled back to a one-man team, the noise from the presence of hard drugs, most notably heroin and methamphetamine, is hitting a crescendo.

Columbia County District Attorney Stephen Atchison says he has taken at least one heroin case per week to the grand jury for prosecution consideration over the last month.

“Very rarely do I miss a week without one,” he says.

Among the local police community, also, the clamor is not going unnoticed.

A meeting of Columbia County police agencies is scheduled June 13 with a full focus on CENT and its future.

Of the law enforcement officers interviewed, it is clear CENT — especially through Edwards’ more than 20-year tenure as the supervising officer — harbors more intelligence about the Columbia County drug trade than any other police agency.

“The wealth of knowledge about the drug trade and the information they have shared with beat officers and deputies is something that would be a shame to lose,” said Columbia County Sheriff Jeff Dickerson.

It’s a sentiment echoed by Atchison and others; though most drug cases appearing in Columbia County Circuit Court originate as the result of ancillary discoveries — such as when a person who is pulled over for speeding is also found to be carrying drugs — when local drug activity picks up, CENT has been a go-to agency to get the ball rolling on building a case.

In many instances, the trail to the top of the drug supply chain has steered the team out of the county. Last year, for example, CENT was instrumental in taking information gleaned from a local informant and pursuing a heroin case to Gresham, resulting in the arrest of traffickers Maribel Sebastian-Evangelista and Amadeo Lupercio-Quazada, both linked to a Mexican drug cartel. At the time, Edwards points out, Gresham police were unaware they had a high-level drug operation in their own back yard, though it was the same operation that was supplying the bulk of Columbia County users with heroin.

And that has been CENT’s modus operandi: leverage low-level users by cutting deals to inform on mid- and higher-level dealers.

“You just have to remember that the drug industry is built as a pyramid,” Edwards says. At the bottom are the users — each a potential informant who can provide information about the next level up on the pyramid. Still, the long-term effects are fleeting.

In the Evangelista and Quazada case, both said they had no knowledge of the next person up the chain and received drugs for distribution by calling a number, placing an order and picking up the heroin at a pre-determined destination, Edwards says. The fear of Mexican drug cartel retaliation, including violence against family members still living in Mexico, is so severe that cooperation in such cases is limited. And without taking out the drug kingpin, the drug trade soon picks back up.

“When we take off somebody who is a main supplier, we hurt them for days, weeks — probably that’s the limit,” Edwards says.

Though budgetary realities have cut CENT’s staffing to a minimum, Edwards is not convinced it has been rendered ineffectual. He says the network of informants — including active communities and neighbors — keeps the information supply line moving. And, when the facts warrant a raid, there is little concern the cooperating police agencies throughout Columbia County would withhold resources to effectuate it.

But the time involved to build cases and manage the many tendrils spreading out from even a modest drug community as exists in Columbia County is likely too much for a one-man team.

“Maybe, maybe not,” Atchison says. “It’s not theoretically impossible for a one-man team to be effective, it’s just more difficult.”

Possible, yes, Atchison says, though how long one man could keep pace with a motivated drug community is hard to know. “I don’t know the scenarios where it would be easy,” he says.

Returning back to the former model, however, is unlikely any easier in light of decimated budgets.

“We do need some kind of team in this county to deal with drugs, and we need to figure out how we can do that,” said Scappoose Police Chief Doug Greisen.

Greisen said the ideal team would have at least five members, which in the current budget universe is likely wishful thinking.

“This is a hot topic, you know? How do we try to keep CENT alive? We can’t do it with just one body in there,” Greisen said. “But with everyone’s funding issues, it’s kind of hard.”

Hard enough, Edwards says, that he keeps a notebook and pen at his bedside to jot down late-night inspirations for how to move the team forward in the face of increasingly difficult odds.

“I think about this throughout the night. Where am I going and how am I going to get there,” he says. And though he has a plan in place — with the assistance of other police agencies — nobody thinks it’s going to be easy.

“It is a sign of the times, I’m afraid — and I don’t expect it is going to get easier in the future to fund such a team,” Dickerson says.

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