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Investigators look beyond the traffic stop

There is more than meets the eye in many situations, and investigators with the Washington County Sheriff’s Office are experts at pinpointing the pieces that don’t fit.
Such was the case last week when Interdiction Investigators Gary Daugherty and William Rhodes decided to follow a man leaving the location they were monitoring in unmarked cars. “It was a targetive opportunity that came up during another investigation,” Daugherty explained.
The officers were undetected by the driver until Rhodes pulled him over for traveling 37 miles an hour in a 25 mph zone.
Upon approaching the car, both noticed a strong smell of marijuana. “It knocked you down,” Rhodes said.
“He said he had smoked a joint earlier, but this was fresh stuff,” Daugherty agreed.
Rhodes said his K-9 officer could have been used to establish probable cause, but the driver, William Branum of Johnson City, consented to having his car searched.
While Branum had admitted to having the drug in his vehicle during questioning, investigators found more than one pound of marijuana split between one open plastic bag worth approximately $700 and one sealed, vacuum-packed plastic bag valued at $1,100; a large number of foil packets; rolling papers; a grinder; scales; and almost $10,000 in cash.
“Each piece makes a different part of the case,” Daugherty said. “The high volume, baggies and scales indicate resale, not just personal use.”
Branum was arrested Oct. 29 for possession of schedule VI controlled substance for resale and drug paraphernalia, and held overnight in the Washington County Detention Center on an $11,000 bond.
Daugherty and Rhodes have returned to their original investigation, but the incident is just one example of the bigger-picture mindset they are trained to employ on a daily basis.
“We teach the interdiction officers to look beyond the traffic stop,” said Capt. Shawn Judy, commander of the Criminal Investigation Division.
That training and experience are what led the investigators to follow Branum in the first place, according to Daugherty. “We noticed things we thought were a little odd.”
Those details also can lead to a formal drug investigation, one of which resulted in the arrest of five individuals at the end of last month on charges related to the manufacture, distribution and use of methamphetamine.
Earlier in the year, the WCSO helped bust two methamphetamine manufacturing conspiracies that sent 58 people to federal prison. The total prosecuted included 34 “smurfs,” defined as those who go out and find the needed ingredients. The remaining 24 were the “cooks” who ran the manufacturing side.
Spotting the individuals who could be involved in a methamphetamine operation goes back to looking beyond the traffic ticket, Judy says.
“You may see a busted battery,” he said. “There’s no reason to have that in your car, so this may be a smurf.”
Judy said the CID receives 95 percent of its information from the public, in the range of tips to more incriminating details. “Someone will call about a neighbor who has cars coming in and out at all hours of the night,” he gave as an example.
If probable cause or reasonable suspicion is determined, officers are authorized to approach the house for a “knock and talk” with those inside and a request for consent to search the premises.
“And you don’t have five guys behind you in bulletproof vests,” Judy said of a common misconception. “It’s usually just me and another guy.”
While Judy said consent can be revoked at any time, it’s surprising how many times officers are allowed entry into what is obviously an illegal operation under way.
“At that point, we have to put it all together,” he said. “Who are the smurfs, who are the cooks and who are they supplying?”
Answers often can be found by identifying the link between multiple investigations. “Sometimes we saturate areas where the problems are,” Judy said. “A rash of burglaries in the same area with drug use can indicate that’s what they’re using to support their habit.”
Neighbors can offer observations, but family members also are a valuable resource. “Family often enable the users,” Judy said, referring to allowances made with the hopes the person will turn around. “They get to a point where they have to stop.”
Additional sources include informants, the 1st Judicial Drug Task Force; the Drug Enforcement Administration; and the sheriff’s offices and police departments in surrounding counties.
While a cooperative effort goes a long way in making arrests, Judy said that won’t stop the problem.
“You have to start with the users,” he said. “When we’re interviewing them, we ask, ‘why are you doing this?’” Investigators also want to know who supplied the drugs.
“You have to find a way to get them to talk to you,” he said, noting the difficulty of this pursuit is often the reason the investigation continues.
According to Judy, the ultimate goal is to minimize the use. “The cooks are harming the environment with runoff and harming innocent family members,” he said, adding the users are the ones who suffer most.
“You can be addicted to meth after one time,” he said, which is usually followed by a downward spiral. “They hit rock bottom and don’t stop until they’re dead or in jail.”
Members of the public can call 911 or submit confidential information on the WCSO website under Divisions/Criminal Investigation Division/Send Crime Tip.