Buying drugs gets dealers off Eagle County streets |

Buying drugs gets dealers off Eagle County streets

Steve Lynn
Vail, CO Colorado

EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado ” Drug detectives think constantly about the danger they face every day they work in Eagle County.

After all, drug dealers have carried knives and guns at undercover drug buys, a narcotics detective said. Unlike a normal officer, detectives don’t use body armor, nor do they have a belt lined with weapons for self-defense.

“You always have to have a mentality that there’s danger,” said the detective, who insisted that neither the detective’s name nor gender be printed for safety reasons. “If you let your guard down, that’s when you get hurt.”

The detective is one of two drug detectives at the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office who work with informants to arrest drug dealers throughout Eagle County.

The Eagle County Sheriff’s Office has had varying kinds of drug enforcement teams since 1988 and has averaged about 50 drug arrests each year. Now the Sheriff’s Office has its own drug task force, formed in November 2007, and the agency so far has made more than a dozen arrests, mostly on charges of cocaine dealing.

People who use drugs tend to commit crimes, so arresting dealers decreases that use and the attendant crime, said Lt. Mike McWilliam of the Sheriff’s Office.

“We look for all illegal drugs, but the most serious problem we have right now is cocaine,” McWilliam said.

Being a drug detective is risky. The detective interviewed has never been hurt on the job, but has been threatened when drug dealers finally realize the detective did undercover work to build a case against them.

The job causes a great deal of stress because detectives have “dual identities,” said John Nicoletti, a Denver-based psychologist who works with police throughout Colorado. Undercover investigators lead their regular lives at home but constantly play a different character on the job, Nicoletti said.

“It takes a lot of resiliency to be able to switch identities,” he said. “It takes intense energy on their part when they’re in that character” of a drug-user.

The job also requires takes a high degree of motivation, he said.

The detective agreed, saying that drug enforcement is “very, very important.” The detective is especially concerned about methamphetamine, which investigators said was common west of Eagle County where workers in the thriving oil and gas industry use it to work longer.

“It’s only a matter of time before it hits our valley,” the detective said.

The worst part of the job is when drug dealers get plea deals or when a judge gives them short sentences, the detective said.

“Sometimes I don’t feel the justice system is hard enough on them,” the detective said.

Regular police work involves getting reports about crimes and responding to them. A drug investigator’s challenge is to go out and find drug dealers to bust.

“The best satisfaction is getting these drug dealers in jail,” the detective said.

Due to stress, drug detectives normally only do the work a couple of years and then move on to other kinds of investigations, McWilliam said.

U.S. Congress has designated Eagle County a “High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area” because a large amount of drugs are transported along Interstate 70.

Cocaine comes from Colombia, Bolivia and Peru, and Mexican and Honduran drug traffickers bring it from the Mexican border into the United States in vehicles, McWilliam said.

A lot of drugs are taken from Mexico to Denver and then are shipped to other cities, he said.

Those drug traffickers sell to smaller drug dealers in Eagle County, he said.

The Sheriff’s Office gets funding to buy a few ounces of drugs each year, spending anywhere from $50 to $800 dollars at a time to buy drugs from dealers. People often are arrested for selling a few grams of cocaine, a small amount.

But selling any amount of cocaine is a felony, and buying larger amounts from a dealer doesn’t mean that dealer will go to prison any longer, McWilliam said.

“If we were getting harder sentences and sending people away for 20 years, then yeah, I would be more likely to ask for more funding and see if I couldn’t buy larger quantities,” McWilliam said.

The Sheriff’s Office doesn’t have the staff to bust big-time dealers by itself, so the federal Drug Enforcement Agency helps.

Informants talk to people to find out who is selling drugs in Eagle County. Most are criminal defendants arrested on felony drug charges, and they work with the Sheriff’s Office to investigate drug dealers to get their charges reduced to a misdemeanor or dismissed by prosecutors.

Other informants are paid and others, the least common category, are “good Samaritans” who neither work for pay nor to get criminal charges reduced, McWilliam said.

Informants like the adrenaline rush and excitement of undercover drug buys, said McWilliam, who declined to let any be interviewed.

Informants may buy drugs from a dealer by themselves or with an undercover detective, McWilliam said.

Neither the detectives nor the informants do not do drugs during investigations, McWilliam said.

Informants have been beat up in prison or jail and sometimes the Sheriff’s Office gives them money to leave town. “The worst part is often peer pressure of being called a ‘narc’ or ‘snitch,'” McWilliam said.

Drug informants lead secretive lives. They don’t tell anyone ” except sometimes their attorneys ” about their work, McWilliam said. Some informants’ girlfriends or wives have accused them of being unfaithful, he said.

“Drug informants are normal people who do normal things,” he said. “They can be white, black, Hispanic, Asian, wealthy or poor, male or female, young or old.”

Staff Writer Steve Lynn can be reached at 748-2931 or

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