The Columbian, Vancouver, Washington, Sunday, June 2, 1996, pp. A1 & A8-A9

The Task Force

Detectives rely on ample bag of tricks in war on drugs

This is the first of a two-part series on the operations
of the Clark-Skamania Drug Task Force.

By John Branton
Columbian staff writer

A detective from Clark County was doing surveillance outside American Agriculture, a shop in Southeast Portland.

The store sells high-tech indoor growing equipment.

The detective was an undercover officer with the Clark-Skamania Drug Task Force. As he watched, a maroon Chevrolet Blazer with a Washington license drove away. Its driver had purchased a high-intensity light bulb at the store.

Unnoticed, the officer followed the Blazer north on Interstate 205, and watched the driver unload his purchase at a Vancouver duplex.

Checking with Clark Public Utilities later, the detective learned the occupant of the duplex was using far more electricity than an adjoining tenant.

Next, two detectives went to the duplex and, standing outside, smelled green marijuana and damp soil.

Detectives then asked for and received a search warrant signed by a District Court judge.

In August, task-force detectives raided the duplex and seized growing equipment and more than 200 marijuana plants.

Duane Burton Vaughn, 31, later pleaded guilty to growing marijuana at the duplex. He was sentenced to 45 days of confinement.

The raid was standard operation for the Clark-Skamania Drug Task Force.

"Some people (informants) do it out of a sense of community. Others do it for
revenge. Some do it for profit."

Sgt. Rex Gunderson, Vancouver Police Department

Its six detectives walk tall across the Southwest Washington landscape as they target local drug dealers in an epidemic of methamphetamine and high-tech marijuana production.

With busts such as April's raids on a seven-home, $2.45 million marijuana-growing operation, the task force commands a high profile in newspapers and on television.

[A graphic reads: "In the Shadows - The Clark-Skamania Drug Task Force"]

[A graph labeled "Clark-Skamania Drug Task Force '95 How often did they find illegal drugs?" shows police "Found illegal drugs" in 44 of 49 home searches. "No illegal drugs [were] reported" in four searches. Somehow the results were "Uncertain" in one home search. Source: Clark County District Court]

[photo caption:]

Busted: Detectives from the Clark-Skamania Drug Task Force gather up high-quality marijuana at one of six Vancouver homes raided in a major bust last April. Below, bags of methamphetamine from recent arrests and marijuana plants.

Task Force
please see A8

Task Force

Despite secretive operations,
results make big news

From Page A1

In nearly 50 raids in Clark County last year, the task force arrested 102 people, mostly for growing marijuana or dealing meth. They reported seizing an estimated $5.18 million worth of illegal drugs and about $148,000 worth of property.

This year, with the anticipated seizure of seven homes in the April marijuana busts, the asset seizures - used for operating expenses - could leap into the $1 million range.

Yet to the public, the handpicked lawmen of the drug task force are only shadows. The most secretive agency in the two-county area, the task force jealously protects its detectives' identities, the secret location of its office in Clark County and, until recently, even the number of detectives who work there.

How do these shadow officers operate and what are they accomplishing?

A Columbian review of the task force included interviews with detectives and a study of 83 search-warrant affidavits on file at Clark County District Court. The affidavits describe the evidence police have gathered before requesting a search warrant. Later, the results of each raid are attached to the file.

The documents show:

  • The task force, with 15 employees including supervisors and clerical staff, is generating the lion's share of the search warrants in Clark County - about 50 last year. By contrast, the Vancouver Police Department executed 10 search warrants, and the Clark County Sheriff's Office nine.

  • Of the warrants generated by all police agencies in Clark County in 1995, most involved searches for marijuana (38) and methamphetamine (37). Only six were for heroin; five were for cocaine. Some warrants target more than one drug.

  • The task force has a good - not perfect - record of finding illegal drugs in raids. According to The Columbian's review, out of 49 drug search warrants last year, illegal drugs were found at least 44 times.

    "If you want
    on drugs,
    you go to
    people who
    either use or
    have been
    involved in
    the drug

    Task Force Detective

    When no drugs are found, which happened at least four times last year, "It doesn't mean they're innocent," said task-force Sgt. Rex Gunderson, 40, a Vancouver police officer. "It just means we didn't find any."

    Sometimes drug users manage to dispose of illegal drugs during a raid, perhaps by flushing them down the toilet. The tactic is effective only for tiny amounts.

    "We've had people who tried to flush (marijuana) grows before," Gunderson said. "It doesn't work real well."

    On the other hand, sometimes the targets of a raid are innocent. That happened in July in a raid of a Vancouver home.

    Undercover detectives received a tip the occupants were growing marijuana, then went to the home on a ruse. Two experienced detectives swore in an affidavit they smelled green growing marijuana as they stood outside. A judge gave them a warrant, and they kicked in the family's door.

    They found nothing.

    The county replaced the family's door.

    On three other occasions last year, the task force came up empty-handed.

    In a routine traffic stop June 17, Vancouver police found meth in a car. The driver claimed he was a "recreational user" who'd just bought the drugs from another man who lived in the Rosemere neighborhood. Detectives obtained a search warrant to raid the alleged dealer's home. They reported finding nothing. No charges were filed in the case.

    However, detectives weren't too far afield. The suspected dealer pleaded guilty to possessing meth in another incident.

    Also last June, detectives raided an apartment in Vancouver and reported finding no illegal drugs. They did find pagers, weighing scales and packaging material.

    In September, task-force detectives searched a UPS package addressed to a Vancouver man. Police in Ontario, Calif., near Los Angeles, had notified local officers that a similar package might contain illegal drugs. Task-force detectives later learned that the package they had intercepted was not the one that police in California were referring to. However, because the drug-sniffing dog Mattie "alerted" to the package, they searched it anyway and found no illegal drugs.

    Clark County is being sued as a result of a 1990 raid that went bad, said Chief Deputy Prosecutor Curt Wyrick.

    In that raid, a detective based his search-warrant affidavit on a tip from an informant. The tipster, according to court records, turned out to be the mentally incompetent son of a disgruntled neighbor.

    Detectives smashed in the door and found nothing.

    "There was no indication that a grow had ever been in that residence," a detective said. "There was no smell, no holes in the ceiling where lights could have been hung, no paraphernalia, no nothing."

    The home's occupant sued, claiming the raid traumatized her.

    [photo caption:]

    Cash crop: Lt. Dale Conn of the Clark-Skamania Drug Task Force slides past growing marijuana plants seized last April. About 1,140 plants were found, nurtured by high-intensity indoor lighting and hydroponic systems that piped water and liquid nutrients to each plant.

    Tips from informants

    What does it take to get a search warrant in Clark County?

    A review of affidavits shows that, in many cases, a tip by a single informant provides the bulk of the information needed. Detectives do verify background details whenever possible.

    And if the informant is a known drug user with a criminal record, so much the better in the upside-down world of the drug agents.

    "If you want information on

    TASK FORCE/please see A9

    Task Force

    Informants range from
    reliable to sneaky

    From Page A8

    drugs, you go to people who either use or have been been involved in the drug subculture," a detective said.

    An informant's reliability is demonstrated by telling detectives things that turn out to be true, and by having the informant perform a "controlled buy." In that technique, officers search the informant to make sure he or she has no illegal drugs or money. They then give the informant some money, take him or her to a drug house and watch. If the informant is successful in buying drugs, it shows he or she can operate in the drug subculture.

    The list of informants' motives described in search-warrant affidavits is long and varied. A common thread: many informants are facing a criminal charge. They want to help police for a favorable recommendation with prosecutors.

    On the other hand, one informant was outraged because he believed someone was selling drugs to children. Another was angry because she thought her husband had molested their child.

    "Some people do it out of a sense of community," Gunderson said. "Others do it for revenge. Some do it for profit."

    "There is such a thing as a professional informant," an officer said. "They'll go from one jurisdiction to another working cases and testifying in cases from time to time."

    Detectives declined to say how much they can pay informants.

    Officers are not required to name their informants in search-warrant affidavits, and often do not in order to protect them.

    Local undercover officers deal with informants and make undercover drug buys themselves. But detectives avoid the sort of "deep cover" operations in which they would live with drug users.

    "As far as setting up housekeeping, no, we don't do it to that extent," Gunderson said.

    "We don't go that deep. I wouldn't be married if I did," an undercover officer said.

    Besides buying drugs from dealers, the detectives in rare cases even sell drugs to dealers, then bust them for possession.

    "If you can't do a classic approach, you've got to come up with a creative way to break in," Gunderson said.

    'Reverse sting'

    As police recorded a telephone conversation with court permission last September, detectives set up a "reverse sting." An informant telephoned a Yacolt couple and arranged to bring them a pound of marijuana the next day. Officers then searched the man and gave him a pound of marijuana. He delivered it to the suspects at a home in Yacolt as detectives watched from afar.

    Detectives then quickly obtained a search warrant by telephoning a judge. In the raid, to no one's surprise, officers found marijuana.

    The bust held up in court.

    Three months later, John Lloyde Graham, 40, pleaded guilty to possession of marijuana with intent to deliver. He was sentenced to 22 months in prison. Melanie Layne Campos, also 40, pleaded guilty to conspiring to possess marijuana with intent to deliver. She was sentenced to 52 days in jail.

    'Confidential, reliable'

    In April 1995, a "confidential and reliable" informant with a criminal history that included assault and arson offered to help the task force bust a heroin dealer. The alleged dealer lived at some apartments in Hazel Dell. The informant was working for monetary compensation, the affidavit says.

    The informant introduced an undercover officer to the dealer as a potential customer. The dealer then sold heroin to the undercover officer a couple of times. That paved the way for a search warrant. In the raid, police found a brown chunk of heroin weighing 26 grams.

    The dealer, Eustolio Alcazar-Gallardo, 52, pleaded guilty to delivering and possessing heroin. He was sentenced to 53 months in prison.

    Sometimes the informant is an upstanding citizen. In May 1995, a landlord for rented property near Woodland, contacted the task force. He said he'd gone to the property to mow the lawn. Looking for the tenants, he knocked on the unlocked door, which came open. No one was home, but the landlord saw a bright light under a door and found a marijuana operation with high-intensity lights.

    A records check revealed the landlord had never been arrested. His motive was civic responsibility, the affidavit said. In the raid, officers found a good-sized marijuana operation.

    David J. Treptow, 27, pleaded guilty to growing and possessing marijuana with intent to deliver. He was ordered to serve 45 days in jail. His wife, Christina Leanne Treptow, 30, was charged with growing and possessing marijuana with intent to deliver. She entered a diversion program. If she complies with court conditions, charges might be dropped.

    Less than clever

    An informant last year tried to outfox the detectives. Last June, Joe Buccino was facing arrest in Vancouver for allegedly possessing methamphetamine and alleged simple assault. Not wanting to go to jail, he offered to help the task force bust a meth dealer.

    Setting up a controlled buy, officers searched Buccino for drugs and gave him $60. Officers recorded the serial numbers of the bills.

    As detectives watched from outside, Buccino went to a Vancouver home and came out with a bag of methamphetamine.

    Seeing that the amount of meth Buccino offered them was not worth $60, the detectives ordered him to strip for a search. In his sock they found a chunk of meth. One of the task force's $20 bills was hidden in his crotch.

    Sometimes detectives get lucky.

    Last June, a detective performed a "knock and talk," a procedure used when there is little real evidence. The officer went to a home in Brush Prairie and told a woman he had an anonymous tip someone was growing marijuana there.

    The detective asked for permission to search the home. The woman legally could have refused, but she readily agreed. Inside, the detective found a locked door, behind which there was a humming sound. The detective also smelled green marijuana.

    The woman said her male roommate had the only key. The detective then obtained a search warrant. In the search, police found marijuana.

    The woman who allowed the search was not charged. Her roommate, Christopher A. Stone, 37, pleaded guilty to growing and possessing marijuana. He was sentenced to 20 days in jail and 30 days of community service.

    [A graph accompanying this story is headed "Police in Clark County '95 - What drugs were they looking for?" It pictorializes the information in the second bulleted paragraph above to show 38 warrants were served for marijuana, 37 for methamphetamine, six for heroin and five for cocaine. Source: Clark County District Court]

    [Another graph accompanying this story is headed "Clark County search warrants (by agency) '95 - Who's doing the searches?" The graph shows the drug task force received 49 search warrants, the Vancouver police obtained 10, the Clark County sheriff's office received nine, the Washougal police managed five warrants, the Camas police received four warrants and the Ridgefield and La Center police departments obtained one search warrant each. Source: Clark County District Court]



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