Task force wages Wallowa County war on drugs
By Steve Tool
Wallowa County Chieftain
Those who have noted the ramped-up number of drug-trade arrests published over the past year can thank the Street Crime Team.
The team is a cooperative unit of Wallowa County Sheriff’s Office and the Enterprise Police Department. Its goal is to eliminate or severely curtail drug traffic and its associated minions, burglary and theft.
It as developed after other efforts had failed.
Several years ago, another county handled Wallowa’s parole and probation, which led to less than satisfying outcomes and considerable repeat criminal behavior. The sheriff’s office once belonged to a drug task force that involved Union, Wallowa and Baker counties, which also proved largely ineffective for Wallowa County.
The sheriff’s office regained control over the parole and probation duties around five years ago and also pulled the plug on the drug task force.
“We thought we could do better,” said Wallowa County Sheriff Steve Rogers.
The sheriff’s office spearheaded the creation of the team in 2015. Team members initially consisted of Chief Deputy Fred Steen as supervisor, deputy Kevin McQuead and Enterprise police officer George Kohlhepp. The team found some early success, but the addition of Enterprise officer Jed Stone late in 2015 helped raise the bar.
Stone had previously worked in undercover narcotics for the Oregon State Police. He had extensive knowledge of writing search warrants and working informants. Stone also trained the others in writing affidavits and learning to implement a controlled buy.
Controlled buys occur when a cooperating witness or an undercover police officer purchases contraband, generally a controlled substance, from a criminal suspect.
“Once that happened, the ball really started rolling,” Stone said. “We became proactive to let the community see us being busy and doing the work we’re paid to do.”
The team achieved results by expanding patrols at a Greenwood Avenue trailer park and other hot spots.
Early in 2016, Stone said there were around 157 cases on the books. He and the other team members worked on all the cases that specifically related to crime, and by linking crimes and suspects, more than 300 cases were on the books by the end of 2016. The team has worked the case load down to around 120 today.
Persistence has been a key.
“We’re not backing down,” Stone said. “What we’re actually starting to see is a trend when things are slowing down. We’re hearing more and more often how drugs are getting hard to get. At the same time, we’re still being proactive and targeting bad areas. Since we started, these places are quieting down because we’ve taken quite a few people out.”
Stone cited the arrest and conviction of Matthew Brent Krogh, recently sent to prison for both excessive DUIs and criminal mischief. Krogh broke into a home and stole painkillers from a man battling cancer.
“From the time we got there until the time we found him, got him into custody and wrapped up on everything, it was just over an hour,” Stone said.
A number of people in jail or the court system are there because of the team’s efforts.
“Since we’ve started this, what we’ve had is a number of people get out of the business of slinging dope,” Stone said. “They may not give it up, but a bunch of them just packed up and left.”
Stone emphasized that the team’s actions are completely lawful and do not violate suspect rights.
“We’ve sat a bunch of them down and told them, ‘Listen. You’re here for a reason. You’re on the radar and you have a choice.’ We’ve been very open with these people about this,” Stone said.
The team tells the suspects that they can stop what they’re doing and start living a decent life or, “we’ll be coming to your house, or where you’re living, maybe knock the door down because we have a search warrant and take you to jail ... or you can just leave the area. You can continue to do what you’re doing, but you won’t do it here.”
Stone said that although the crime team is serious about cleaning up the county, it understands many of the criminals are addicts in need of help. With the aid of the probation department, beds are sought at treatment facilities, and addicts can get away from bad influences and perhaps reform.
“Whether it’s rehabilitation or just getting out of here and getting a change of scenery by shipping them off to family members, we’re working every avenue that’s available to us,” Stone explained.
Stone said that methamphetamine is the most common link between drug use and crime.
“The methamphetamine users are the worst,” he said. “I don’t know what it is about that drug, but the truth could save their lives and keep them out of trouble, and they will still lie to you. I think it messes with that part of the brain.”
Stone credited the cooperation between the two law enforcement agencies and the probation department for the team’s success and sees a bright future for the area.
“We’ve managed to get our agencies on the same page –– something this county probably hasn’t seen in years,” Stone said. “We’re sharing resources because they are so few of us.
“If the county calls, we run to back them up whether it’s in Wallowa or Joseph. If we’re undermanned, they’ll pull cases from the city for us. By sharing our resources and working together, we’re able to get things done because the manpower is there, so it continues to work out well for us,” Stone said.