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Graham County Attorney Scott Bennett

According to the Arizona Supreme Court, 30 people were prosecuted in Graham County last fiscal year for selling drugs. Sounds like a relatively low number, right?

The county’s top prosecutor and local law enforcement officials say you shouldn’t be deceived. Per capita, Graham County has just as much of a drug problem as Maricopa and Pima counties, they said.

Those 30 people are just those who have been convicted of sales-related charges. Many more remain free and still others entered plea agreements and are among the 157 convicted on other drug charges after entering plea agreements.

“I would like to think our sales population is very, very small, but I think the reality is those who sell are perhaps more sophisticated than the users. They’re harder to catch. I’m hoping (those numbers) are an accurate depiction, but I’m fearful there are more sellers,” Graham County Attorney Scott Bennett said.

The battle

Over the last several years, law enforcement detectives from all over the Gila Valley have joined forces to fight the war on drugs. The Southeastern Arizona Violent Crimes and Drug Task Force is comprised of 12 members from the Arizona Department of Public Safety, Graham County Sheriff’s Office and the Pima, Thatcher and Safford police departments.

Three DPS officers, two of whom work undercover, are assigned to the task force full-time, while the other detectives pitch in when necessary, whether it’s conducting surveillance, interviews or search warrants. They investigate crimes in Graham and parts of Cochise County and sometimes in Greenlee County as well.

“We don’t make it down to Greenlee County as often as we should,” said Arizona Department of Public Safety Sgt. Cody Mulleneaux. “Part of the reason is distance, but it’s also accessibility to investigative means, other resources, known players.”

It’s hard to predict what the detectives will be doing from one day to the next or one week to the next, but they always give preference to those individuals and cases that will have the most positive impact on the community when solved, GCSO Sgt. Mark Smith said.

The task force meets weekly to share intelligence and some of their cases are sparked from that information; other times they are driven by intel from patrol officers.

“There could be times we’re sitting in a meeting and everybody brings up the same name two or three times in a row, then we decide, ‘Maybe we need to pay a little more attention to that house, those people, whatever,’” Smith said.

Mike, an undercover officer with the task force, said he remembers a Safford detective discussing an ongoing burglary case during a weekly meeting and a short time later arresting a low-level drug dealer. During the subsequent interview, Mike realized the two might be connected. He watched surveillance videos taken during the burglaries and identified his person as the SPD suspect.

The man ended up confessing to 20 burglaries.

“We were able to get a large amount of property back that had not been sold or destroyed, to include personal identifications, credit cards, tools and other types of property,” Mike said. “We were able to get those back to victims and we were able to identify between five and 10 victims who didn’t even know they were victims.”

The task force could spend hours telling similar stories, Smith said.

Other times, the task force will be working on a specific target and then patrol officers will make a traffic stop or talk to someone that prompts them to put the other case on the back burner, Mike said.

“If we’re attempting to focus on some house, 30 other things might come up in the next four or five days that could draw our attention away,” Mike said.

Matter of perspective

Stash houses, cartels, drug rips. There are no shortages of TV shows devoted to the drug world and while the Gila Valley hasn’t seen anywhere near the violence depicted in some of them, there are some serious local players who make a living off fentanyl, heroin and methamphetamine, the men said.

John, another undercover officer on the task force, estimated that 5 to 10% of their time is spent investigating loads of drugs coming through the valley and the rest of the time on individuals or small groups.

Sometimes the loads are coming up from Mexico, other times they are coming through from Phoenix and Tucson, where they’ve been divided up for trips to the East Coast, central U.S. and northern U.S., Mike said.

“If we catch a load coming through, we follow it all the way through. We figure out where it came from, where it was going to,” Mulleneaux said. “Usually, they’re bypassing I-10 where all of the K9s are because they figure it’s a safer path.”

Sometimes, the task force hits a wall and has to move onto something else; other times they find information that would lead them out of the valley, Smith said.

The DPS detectives will sometimes follow those threads, but many times they relay the information to other law enforcement agencies, including federal authorities, Mike said.

Again, 90% of the time the task force is investigating individuals or small groups of people. Most of them are considered “mid-level” players in the drug world.

“These are the people who have the connects. The family connects, the friend connects, the prison connections to people in Tucson and Phoenix where they can go get their drugs and bring it in or they can have their person go and pick it up,” Mike said.

And unlike what you might see in the movies, the distance between the mid-level players and the cartels isn’t very long, the task force members agreed.

“If you think about the cartel, they want to be secure in the way they run their product, too. I want the people that I trust to be in places that I want to be. So it only makes sense for them to put people everywhere that I trust,” Mike said. “I’m not just going to go randomly to Safford and randomly deal with some dude that I don’t know and build a connection with him. I’m going to go to my nephew and say, ‘Hey, you’re moving to Safford.’”

If there aren’t familial ties among the cartels and mid-level dealers, there are often prison ties, Smith said.

“The prison gangs run a lot of the stuff on the street also. They get in the prisons and they do work for them on the inside and when they get out, they say, ‘Dude, you’re in charge of Graham County or you’re in charge Safford. Anybody who wants to move a quantity they have to go through you,’” Smith said. “That word gets out pretty quick.”

The task force runs into other scenarios, though.

There are plenty of times where they arrest small groups of people who have chipped in money to drive to Tucson or Phoenix and bring back enough product for themselves and a few friends.

They’ll go up to Tucson, pay $3 per fentanyl pill and then come down here and sell them for $10-$12 a pill, Mulleneaux said.

“We pool our money so we can buy more drugs at cheaper prices. Push it here and we can party more, we can buy more drugs, buy our car, pay our rent, get more food,” Mulleneaux said.

Then, there are the low-level users and dealers.

“In my terms, low-level is the person who sells enough illicit contraband or drugs to support their habit and maybe makes a tiny bit extra on the side,” Smith said.

While mid-level players might be busted with anywhere from a few ounces up to a full pound of drugs, the low-level guys usually only have grams on them.

While the number of dealers and addicts are comparable per capita-wise, the amount of drugs seized in Graham County is relatively small.

A bust considered mid-level in Phoenix would be the “mother lode,” here, Mulleneaux said.

“If we get pounds of drugs that would be an extremely large bust for us,” Mike said.

As far as money, “$5,000-$10,000 would be a decent amount of money we’d get to see in one arrest, one search warrant, one investigation,” Mike said.

The task force doesn’t typically send out a news release about their successes, however.

“We want to stay under the radar because we don’t want them to know who we are, what we’re doing and how we’re doing it,” Mike said.

“But I promise you, we are a very, very active task force,” Mulleneaux said.

Misconceptions

Bennett, the Graham County Attorney, is proud of the task force members.

“I can’t lie. Everyone wants more resources, but pound for pound, without a doubt, we have as good as law enforcement, as good as investigators, as skilled as investigators as they do anywhere else,” Bennett said. “I’m afraid people might have the perception, ‘Oh, well they’re just working in Safford, they couldn’t make it in Phoenix,’ but that is absolutely not the case. We have the benefit of having officers who could easily go elsewhere and make much more money, but they like it here. I would take their skills and expertise over anyone that I’ve ever worked with anywhere else.”

Bennett, who has prosecuted cases in Maricopa and Pinal counties, continued, ”If you gave us a million extra dollars, I’m not sure we’re going to get an extra $1 million worth of prosecutions and arrests, we might get an extra $100,000. The guys we have are freaking amazing.”

Although Graham County is still small enough where cases and defendants are judged individually when it comes to resolutions, Bennett said he and his fellow prosecutors have little patience for drug dealers.

“One of the policies that I instituted when I took office is that if you are accused of selling fentanyl, you’re going to prison. That drug in particular is so dangerous I have just taken a hardline stance,” Bennett said. “If you don’t want to go to prison then you need to beat us at trial. Our plea offers for selling fentanyl include a stipulation to the Department of Corrections.”

Bennett and the task force members bemoaned the fact so many people are ignorant about the drug world and just how easy it is to enter it.

“I think a lot of people think drugs are a scourge on society that only exist in inner cities like Chicago and New York and Los Angeles,” Bennett said. “I don’t know that people are cognizant of the fact that kids bring pills to the high schools and the junior highs. While I wish this weren’t the case, the juvenile court is filled with kids from every background.”

And if they’re bringing pills to school, they could easily jump to other drugs, Bennett said.

“There’s also the mentality of, ‘I don’t want to talk to my kids about this because I don’t want to put ideas in their head. I don’t want to tell them they can go find it,’ but the kids know that and I think upfront, frank discussions and standards set by the family is the way to go,” Bennett said.

Smith and Bennett said they’ve seen good kids from many faiths and from attentive families take wrong turns.

“We have candid conversations in my house and my opinions of the dangers are very well known to them, and the mentality I have as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is, ‘My kids are in Sunday school, they’re not going to do that,’ but I prosecute a whole lot of Mormon kids that their parents thought the same thing,” Bennett said.

“Drug addiction can happen to anybody,” Smith agreed. “It can happen to the Freeport executive, it can happen to the guy who works at Walmart. It could be the guy who goes to Mass every Wednesday night and Sunday.”

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