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Crime task force snagged on funding

Matt Zalaznick

To combat this, local investigators want to revive an inter-agency county crime squad with officers from the valley’s police departments who would work together on drug stings throughout the valley.

But not all of the politicians who are being asked to fund the Crime Task Force are convinced that the squad is worth the cost or the drug problem is severe enough.

“Drugs are everywhere. You can go anywhere and get them,” said Eagle County Sheriff A.J. Johnson, who pitched the idea for the squad to a skeptical Avon Town Council this week. “I think (the task force) will be a real benefit to Avon and the citizens of Vail and Eagle County.”



Special crime squads have had a bit of a bumpy ride in the Vail Valley. A High County Drug Task Force patrolled Eagle County for 10 years, until its funding was cancelled in 1999. Last year, the Sheriff’s Office, the District Attorney’s Office for Eagle County and the Vail and Avon police departments tried to revive the drug task force. But their funding request was turned down by state officials who said police in other parts of Colorado had more severe drug problems.

The new squad would focus on the valley’s drug problem, but also deal with crimes that have spread across the valley such as burglary and car break-ins, Johnson said.



Annual crime statistics, however, show local crime cases have been at about the same level for the past few years.

The squad recently received a one-year law enforcement grant for just under $250,000, which includes $183,000 in federal funding but requires each of the three participating agencies – the county, Vail and Avon – to add a little more than $20,000 of its own money.

“I’m not sure of the magnitude of the problem we’re trying to solve,” Councilman Pete Buckley said to Johnson Tuesday.



Johnson did not have recent arrest totals but said there have been six drug-related deaths in Eagle County in the past 18 months and that the drug problem in the valley’s middle schools is worsening.

The council, which is also grappling with a town budget crisis, told Johnson Tuesday that they would decide on this funding in a few weeks. The council in the past had encouraged Johnson to go after the grant. But that was before a $400,000 sinkhole opened under the town’s treasury.

“I’m generally in favor of this because I do believe there’s a drug problem,” Councilwoman Debbie Buckley said. “But I’m very concerned about our budget.”

The crime team would be supervised by Eagle County Sheriff’s Detective Sgt. Mike McWilliam and comprise a sheriff’s deputy and an officer each from the Avon and Vail police departments.

The smaller Eagle and Minturn police departments, along with federal agencies like the FBI and Drug Enforcement Agency, would also participate in specific operations.

“The best way to put pressure on some of these folks who are doing burglaries, car break-ins or dealing drugs is pressuring in all areas of county rather than in just one town,” Avon Police Chief Jeff Layman said.

Surveys of middle school students in the county show that drug use is up among younger teen-agers, Layman told council members.

“When you look at the student surveys and the number of kids using marijuana, cocaine and even a little heroin, that’s a big concern,” Layman said. “We don’t have a high school in Avon, but I can tell you the people who sell these drugs don’t respect political subdivisions.”

The influx of seasonal workers every winter brings with it a flood of ecstasy, mushrooms and marijuana, while heavy cocaine traffic follows the ongoing arrival of illegal aliens, Johnson said.

“You can walk out of here and buy dope,” Johnson told Avon council members. “I urge you to take part in this program.”

Vail has already set aside money for the task force, Police Chief Dwight Henninger said.

“I don’t think crime’s rampant, but I think the criminals don’t know boundaries,” Henninger said. “It makes sense to work in cooperation to solve problems in the whole county, not just in our little area.”

Arson, illegal fireworks and campfires could be another target of the squad, especially with the extreme wildfire danger from the worsening statewide drought, Henninger said.

“For our area, there’s also the huge number of thefts of people toys – skis, packs and bicycles, depending on the season,” Henninger said. “I don’t know if there are organized rings or just individuals taking advantage of situations.

“But I wouldn’t be surprised if there are people in organized manner stealing those types of things,” he said.

Avon Town Manager Bill Efting told Johnson that he had a “hunch” the crime squad would hit the streets with or without a check from Avon.

“Timing is everything, A.J.,” Efting told the sheriff. “The numbers aren’t working for us and we don’t know if our sales tax revenues are going to turn around for us.”

But Johnson warned Avon’s council members that the crime squad wouldn’t work if all the agencies didn’t play a role.

“If you just put one person out, you might as well not put anybody out,” Johnson said. “It takes a minimum of two to three officers to be successful.”

Matt Zalaznick covers public safety, Eagle County Courts and Avon/ Beaver Creek. He can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 606, or via e-mail at mzalaznick@vaildaily.com.


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