War on Drugs keeps local forces hopping
by Amanda Ryker
Dec 27, 2011 | 4545 views | 0 0 comments | 13 13 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Bartow-Cartersville Drug Task Force agents Sgt. Mark Roberts, left, and deputy Scott Blackman lead a suspect out of the woods in October. The man was captured during a manhunt spanning 5,500 acres after he allegedly fired on a Georgia State Patrol trooper. DTF agents often assist agencies outside their normal operations. SKIP BUTLER/The Daily Tribune News, file
Bartow-Cartersville Drug Task Force agents Sgt. Mark Roberts, left, and deputy Scott Blackman lead a suspect out of the woods in October. The man was captured during a manhunt spanning 5,500 acres after he allegedly fired on a Georgia State Patrol trooper. DTF agents often assist agencies outside their normal operations. SKIP BUTLER/The Daily Tribune News, file
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Mark Mayton
Mark Mayton
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"One banana, two banana, three banana, four."

"The Banana Splits Adventure Hour" theme song may ring a bell for many, and while the song itself may be insignificant, the notes ring out in the early morning as members of the Bartow-Cartersville Drug Task Force suit up before starting their day with a warrant service.

"There is no 'normal' or 'typical' day," Assistant Commander Lt. Leslie Cheek said as DTF Commander Capt. Mark Mayton searches for a protective vest for me to wear during a ridealong with the force.

As the team breaks into different vehicles to form a convoy to the arrest location, Mayton radios to his team and the plan of action is reviewed again. Keeping the positive energy flowing to motivate the team, one agent switches gears and transmits bits of "Sweet Caroline" and "The Ride of the Valkyries."

Once at their destination, the team splits into smaller pairs and groups to guard exits to the home and shouts of "Task Force" ring out as they knock on the door. Finding no one home, the team reassembles at the office and confers on how the rest of the day will be spent.

"[The War Room] is where we do our planning at when we're conducting operations," Mayton said. "That's where we come together to make sure that we've covered all our bases. ... That all starts in there, and when we're doing a briefing, it's not one-sided because everyone has an opportunity to voice their opinions."

At this point, the force discusses their next move in an investigation they had begun several weeks before involving a Bartow resident who connects users to methamphetamine dealers beyond the county's borders. While meth can sometimes be found in the county, other drugs such as heroin and cocaine may not be as easily accessible.

"It's bigger than just here," Mayton said. "We're always looking to take the next step. We're looking past the street-level dealer. The drugs don't originate in Bartow County -- they're brought in from somewhere."

To find the source, the DTF often may turn to the resident dealers and users they catch and find a way to bargain with them, making those offenders informants and allowing them to work with the force to find larger dealers in hopes of eventually discovering how illegal drugs are entering the area and being distributed to citizens.

"We remove the temptation for [the informants]," Mayton said.

Informants are held to a higher standard as they must remain clean of all drugs in order to participate. Safeguards are put in place by the DTF for legal and safe transactions.

While I was able to witness the steps of a probable cause buy -- a drug purchase using the informant as a buyer -- details regarding the process are withheld to protect the integrity of future and ongoing investigations. Much like a drug bust in the Target parking lot earlier this month, information from the DTF is often limited.

"We can't be public on how we do business because it would handicap us in the future," Mayton said. "As time goes on, eventually, the criminals get educated on how we do business, and we're constantly having to adjust to meet those compromised operations.

"It's bigger than just here and we have to protect [ourselves and our citizens]."

'Behind the curtain'

Certain drugs can be purchased in Bartow through the PC buys, but the force often travels to find a true source. I rode with the DTF as part of an undercover operation near Atlanta as an agent and a street-level dealer, who had not yet been arrested in connection with the sale, purchased illegal drugs. While sitting in the car, it was not easy to determine exactly who was the prime suspect.

Although agents from the Atlanta division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms were on site along with DTF personnel, Mayton instructed me to stick close to him and act like a normal visitor to the area as we walked into the location and discreetly followed the undercover agent, carefully searching for the seller.

"A lot goes on behind the curtain," Mayton said.

Formed in 2008, the task force is part of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Safe Streets Task Force and receives a portion of its operating expenses through FBI funding. For the year thus far, the DTF has made nearly 500 arrests on various drug-related charges. However, the force does more than focus solely on drugs. When other agencies require assistance, they step in to help. DTF agents were involved in an October manhunt for three suspects wanted for shooting at a Georgia State Patrol trooper and other passing motorists along Interstate 75 and state highways in the area.

When working on drug cases, though, Mayton said they do not focus on random people without a solid reason.

"We don't go outside this area and say, 'Hey, we like that guy because he's a good dealer,'" Mayton said. "We don't just arbitrarily pick a crime organization and say we're going to target that one. The people we're targeting have direct nexuses back to this county and we try to stop the flow before it gets here.

"We can do all of the street-level dealers in the world here -- and I don't want to lose sight of that because we do have operations where we target these street-level resident users and dealers here -- but by the same token, we have another finder in the operation that we try to target the people that's supplying those people because the [dealers] are replaceable. They're a dime a dozen. We can do it every day, all day, and make no headway in the war that we're fighting.

"If we reach outside the area and stop the flow, then we've disrupted it. Our end goal is disruption and dismantlement of these organizations that are affecting our area."

Though the local people who these drugs are affecting are a strong concern, he said, the suppliers are the ones where blame should be placed and who serve as connection to the increase in crime in the area.

"We're looking for the traffickers," Mayton said. "Those are the ultimate sources. Those are the people that create the problems here. The problem is ... street-level users and dealers, but who creates these problems? It's the people who supply them. If we could find the source of supply we wouldn't have a problem here and how it affects other crimes, too. Those people are out breaking in people's houses, stealing lawn mowers, breaking in cars to come up with the money to fund this trafficker."

Making it work

Mayton oversees agents from the Bartow County Sheriff's Office and Cartersville Police Department, but although their skills and experience are formidable, the war against drugs rages on with more suppliers, users and dealers than agents can catch.

"There's so much of it that it's difficult with the manpower issue," Mayton said. "We pick what we believe to be the largest and biggest problem, and that's the ones we target."

Agents are assigned to individual cases, some of which play to their specific line of expertise.

"There is a case agent assigned to a case," Mayton said. "We work it together, but there's one person that's ultimately responsible. On the larger cases, we'll have a couple of agents, but typically, it's one agent. And with the [smaller] manpower, we help each other.

"Each agent excels in different disciplines and we try to put the best person for the right fit. We work hard to make sure we assign the right agent to the right case so they excel at it. They usually get one shot at it to get it right."

Though the challenges are many, the arrest numbers exceed those of other agencies.

"The number of people that's here with the arrest ratio is phenomenal," Mayton said. "If we had more people and the economy was better, it'd be twice the punch."

While smaller numbers make it difficult to accept and pursue every case presented to the force, the group easily maneuvers through the county they protect unnoticed by the citizens.

"That's always the complaint," Mayton said. "The public doesn't get to see and they can't. We're the ones sitting next to you when you're at lunch and you never know we're there.

"These guys don't get the praise they deserve. They work so hard."

Feeling the effects

In the last arrest I witnessed the DTF make, the family of the offender was emotionally torn, causing me to think about the effects drugs have on those who do not partake.

In that operation, the DTF had purchased marijuana through an informant, and upon arrival at the dealer's home, they found several large bags of marijuana in the house and the suspect's vehicle. The young man's mother and a neighbor were on scene at the time and allegedly were not aware of the illegal sales being committed from the home.

According to the law, if drugs are hidden in a central location in the home, anyone who resides in that house is guilty of possession. Though claiming not to have known about the marijuana, the mother was arrested and charged with possession of marijuana with the intent to distribute along with her son.

The neighbor claimed the only reason they were being investigated was due to their race. Cheek assured him that was not the case, but the man continued his outburst, shouting "God knows the truth" and saying to a passerby he was being arrested for "being a black man." The man refused to remain calm and was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct.

It did not end there. The agents and I remained at the residence as the mother, crying as she held a small child she was babysitting, was allowed a phone call to the child's father to retrieve the toddler or face law enforcement calling social services to have the child removed from the environment. Distraught, she was placed in handcuffs and transported to the jail after the child was returned to his father. With tear-stained cheeks, she faced the same fate as her son.

"We're human," Mayton said. "Don't think we don't take what we see home with us -- the tragedy in the house, the stuff behind the curtain and kids taken by social services, people displaced from their homes. We're not cold-hearted. We think about things like that. We see families being broken up."

Seeing results

"One banana, two banana, three banana, four. Four bananas make a bunch and so do many more."

The force has more than "four bananas," creating a "bunch" of agents who form a team that works to improve the county they serve and protect from illegal activity. Though the scenes are not necessarily easy to witness and cannot be fully described to insure the protection of the DTF, the task force completes their job in an effort to prevent further crime.

"We are not a reactive group," Mayton said. "We're proactive. We are constantly seeking out the things here. Our biggest heartburn is there's not enough of us to go around. That's our biggest hurdle. It's hard for us to do the things we need to do with the amount of people we have, but we still get phenomenal results."