County considers leaving Ozark Drug Enforcement Team
Prosecutor drops 5 cases after evidence destroyed before being analyzed
The Barry County Commission pays $4,000 annually to the Ozark Drug Enforcement Team (ODET) to help address, control, and prosecute drug-related crimes, but a lack of assistance from the task force has caused Barry County Sheriff Mick Epperly, who says he is not getting results in exchange for those county funds, to consider pulling out.
"We're looking into the situation with the task force and will see which route we need to go," Epperly said. "We've got to have some results over here. They promised me they were going to work here, and I've given them that chance."
Last week, Epperly met with the task force to discuss his concerns.
"If they can step up to the plate, then that's good," he said. "They said they understood. We're going to see what's happening before making any decisions."
Epperly said his goal is to take drugs off the street.
"We'll never be able to get them all off the streets, but we've got to work on getting it under control," he said. "It can be done where we're taking meth labs and drug dealers out of the county, and we can do it again [like we have before]."
Last year, funding cuts led to a reorganization of Southwest Missouri Drug Task Force, resulting in several smaller counties and investigators merging together from Jasper, Barton, McDonald and Barry counties to form ODET. The goal was to combine the resources of several law enforcement agencies to provide more effective coverage, and at the same time, provide more opportunities for grant funding from the state, which law enforcement agencies were banking on to help receive additional staffing at some point in the future.
"The Southwest Missouri Drug Task Force had to join another task force because the Department of Public Safety has cut out all the smaller ones and put them together," Epperly said. "So, we had to go with Jasper, which was our closest one. Since we went over that way, it seems they're doing a super job in the west, but I've got to get them going in the east."
In exchange for county funds, ODET is tasked with providing narcotics assistance, including follow-up activities on drug-related crime suspicions.
"We give them tips, and they do follow-ups, search warrants and anything that's narcotics-related," Epperly said. "A high percentage of prisoners in our jail are connected to drug-related crimes. It may be stealing or something else, but much of it goes back to drug relations."
Epperly said he spoke to the county commission and Barry County Prosecutor Amy Boxx about his concerns, and they were willing to support him in leaving the force and coming up with other options, if that's what's needed.
"Amy and also the commission supported me if we would decide to move out because of the lack of results we're now not getting," Epperly said. "We want good cases built, and cases that are prosecuted, and there's some Amy hasn't been able to prosecute because of the lack of getting paperwork in right."
Boxx said the paperwork issue led to five cases being dropped.
"The issue was that a member of the Task Force did not submit evidence to the State Crime Lab for analysis, which is necessary in order to prove the presence of methamphetamine," she said. "Instead, that individual chose to destroy the evidence so it cannot be submitted now. Without that evidence, my office was required to dismiss five felony cases. It was very disappointing and, frankly, should never have happened.
"Regardless of whether the task force is in place or not, the prosecution of drug cases will always be a challenge, if for no other reason than the number of cases. Unfortunately, drugs currently are Barry County's biggest criminal problem. We simply don't have the manpower to stop the distribution of drugs in our county."
But leaving the organization, especially in the middle of the budget and election year, poses challenges, Epperly said.
"It's something we'd have to look at," he said. "Or, the next sheriff will have to look at it, but it's hard to do in middle of a budget year. We're maybe looking at [hiring] one or two narcotics officers that's going to work these drug cases. And that might be as effective as what we're getting now [with ODET]. They had agreed to come over here and work."
Epperly said the task force relayed it had been working on a case that required a lot of their time, but he feels it is focusing on crimes elsewhere, and is concerned that pattern may continue.
"Who's to say it may not happen again?" Epperly said. "[In any case], I've got to have some results here, and we're not getting it like we want."
Boxx said exploring options is the best move for the county.
"There are other task force groups that I think we need to explore and determine what our alternatives are at this point," she said. "We need a group that will make Barry County a priority."
"When we had the [previous] arrangements with McDonald and Barry counties, we were giving the task force $10,000 per year, but when that arrangement was canceled, our assessed cost changed to $4,000 per year," said Cherry Warren, Barry County presiding commissioner. "We feel strongly that anything that will help stop drug trafficking in this county, we would be for. I guess the question is, are we getting the help that we need from the drug task force to curtail drug activities in Barry County?
"After visiting with the sheriff and the prosecutor, we have some questions. They're not happy. I think the commission will support what the prosecutor and sheriff recommends. It's nice to say, well, you're saving $6,000, but the big question is, if we're paying $4,000, are we getting the quality work we need? They tell me 80 to 90 percent of courts are drug-related, so something needs to be done."
Chad Allison, officer-in-charge with ODET, said the force has been working on a large-scale, multi-county wire-tap that could lead to the arrest of prominent drug dealers, who are believed to be getting meth from Mexican cartels.
"This has been an ongoing investigation," Allison said. "When we're on a wire case, we want to get everybody that falls into that, so we can get federal prosecution on that. So it's worth spending a little more time. And just because the people we arrest may not live in Cassville, we know for a fact that dope is being supplied to people there [through these dealers].
Allison agreed cases like these were time-consuming, but the force is looking to indict 11 criminals as a result.
"These be would be pound-level dealers, moving pounds of methamphetamine from the Mexican cartel," he said. "The prime drug of choice is meth across the board, and so anytime we can work a multiple-pound case, we're going to feel the off-shoots of it across all four counties. So that has had some of our focus, however we have had three or four open investigations right now that are actually in Cassville. We've done several warrants in the Cassville area."
Allison has seven narcotics officers assigned to the four counties included in the force.
"I try to run it as a business and spread it as thin as I can, but it's a challenge to cover all that area," he said. "Anytime a tip comes in from Barry County, we're only as good as our information. That's how we work our cases. Every tip that comes in goes through the detective assigned to that area, and he decides if we have an informant to make a buy."
Three of the detectives are assigned to Jasper County, because of its larger cities and drug history, Allison said.
"The advantage to being attached to the task force is now you've got seven guys attached to the case," he said. "We call that a force-multiplier, taking one guy and making him seven. We have to look at each situation to see where we're going to get the most bang for our buck. The more rural you get, the more people know each other, so you have to be more careful who you send out."
Allison said the force was recognized this year for a case in which it indicted 16 people, and it received an award from High Intensity Drug Trafficking Authorities.
"We've got that award two times in the past three years," he said. "In the 1990s, Jasper County was the number one county for meth lab production. There were times we would work 40 labs a month, and that was just Jasper County. Now, my numbers are 4-6 labs a month. And they're bad for all of us because all those chemicals get thrown in our rivers, ditches, and they're cooking it right next to people.
"So we're trying making the biggest impact overall. I may not serve a search warrant in Cassville. It may be in Jasper or Newton county, but I know I'll have the most impact.