Breaking down the drug chain
Local police use short- and long-term operations
DIXON – It took less than 30 seconds for two suspected drug dealers to sell cocaine to an informant for the Dixon Police Department.
It then took police only a few minutes to put them in handcuffs.
The quick takedown of three suspected drug dealers over a recent 2-day period is known by cops as “buy-busts.”
Though they involve multiple officers, these busts are smaller and aimed at taking one or two dealers quickly off the street.
Typically, police prefer controlled buys, which they say result in more defendants over an extended period of time.
While buy-busts aren’t done often, police still see the value in them.
“A buy-bust is essential when you have somebody who you know you need to get off the street,” Sterling Police Chief Ron Potthoff said.
Web Extra: Click here to watch Sterling Police Chief Ron Potthoff and Dixon Police Lt. Clay Whelan discuss drug operations
Setting up the deal
The bust started started March 12 with the arrest of an informant in Dixon on an offense not related to drugs.
The informant, who was facing jail time, decided to cooperate with police and said they could buy cocaine from a dealer named “E.”
“E” later was identified as Earl A. Jones, 28, of Chicago, who police say is a “higher volume dealer” and was working in Sterling.
Dixon Police had the informant arrange a meeting the next day with Jones at a Dixon gas station.
Officers try to get as much information as possible about a target before the buy, Dixon Police Lt. Clay Whelan said. To determine what to expect, they research the criminal record and the target’s history of violence or running from police.
Officers also will contact police in the area where the dealer is coming from – in this case Sterling – to get more information.
However, the informant only was able to give police Jones’ street name before the buy.
Jones and his driver, Carlos Gutierrez, picked up the informant and went to another location, where the deal took place. The pair sold the informant less than a gram of cocaine, worth about $200, police said.
About 6 to 10 Dixon and Sterling officers stationed themselves in the area to watch the deal go down.
As Jones and Gutierrez, 43, of Sterling, began driving back to Sterling, they were stopped by multiple squad cars and arrested for various drug charges.
Whelan said the department used multiple officers during the arrest “as a show of force.”
“That way, if there is a potential for resistance, there might be less of likelihood of that happening if they look back and see a large volume of officers taking them into custody.”
The following day, the informant made contact with suspected Sterling dealer Jason Witmer. Police said Witmer, 30, already was wanted for stealing two large TVs from the Sterling Walmart in February.
The two met up at a local gas station and Witmer sold the informant more than a gram of cocaine worth about $190, according to police.
After the deals are made, the informant is brought back to the police department, hands over the cocaine, and gives a detailed statement about what happened during the buy, Whelan said.
The informant’s cooperation doesn’t make tany charges disappear, Whelan said.
“We make absolutely no guarantees to them,” he said. “We advise them that their cooperation will be relayed to the state’s attorney’s office. It usually factors in on what type of offer is made to them as far as a sentence.”
Buy-bust vs. controlled buys
Whelan says Dixon police prefer controlled buys, when an informant wears a wire and officers monitor the transaction, to a buy-bust.
Whelan said the department does not do many buy-busts. Instead, the department favors controlled buys, where an informant wears a wire and officers monitor the transaction.
Whelan said the department has done only a half dozen buy-busts over the past year, while its done 20 to 30 controlled buys.
Sterling police reported similar numbers.
In a controlled buy operation, one informant can do multiple buys. Arrests often are made several weeks, or even months, later, which helps protect an informant’s identify, Whelan said.
“Usually, when we’re doing the controlled buys, there’s a large number of potential targets out there,” Whelan said. “I like to get as many potential targets as we can off the streets and ultimately make the streets safer for the entire Sauk Valley area.”
In October 2010, Dixon police arrested 16 suspected dealers after months of investigation into the sale of drugs in the city.
One informant led to those busts, dubbed “Operation Extended Term.”
Good informants who are able to net a high number of dealers usually are “few and far between,” Whelan said.
Informants only can be used once or twice in buy-busts.
Police will use the buy-bust if they think the informant can net only a small number of suspects and “we don’t think it will go any further up the food chain,” Potthoff said.
“On a buy-bust, it’s normally a one-shot deal where we don’t think the person will work with us or where the person who is working with us becomes a risk,” he said.
Whelan said police consider several factors when doing a buy-bust, such as the suspect’s criminal history, the potential to locate the suspect after the deal goes down, and whether the informant has a high probability of relapsing.
“We have to be wary of putting them back into that element where there is a strong potential for them to get back into their addiction,” Whelan said.
Once the informant gives up the name, the clock starts ticking. Police try not to publicize the informant’s arrest immediately because word tends to spread quickly among dealers and users, Whelan said.
Buy-busts do have their advantages, Whelan said.
The serial numbers of the money given to the informants is recorded by police before the deal. That cash usually is recovered from the suspected dealer during the arrest.
In a controlled buy, it’s less likely that the money used in the buy will be recovered, Whelan said.
While both drug operations take dealers off the street, there’s always someone else in line to take over.
“Just the police fighting drugs is never going to work,” Potthoff said. “We’ve become pretty good at arresting people and prosecuting people and sending people to jail. But, as soon as we arrest a drug dealer, someone else is going to move in and take their place because it’s big money.
That’s why community vigilance is vital, Potthoff said.
“It’s at the citizens’ level within the community that we have to keep those type of people out of Whiteside County,” he said.
Cocaine and crack have remained the major drugs of choice in Sterling and Rock Falls. The emergence of crack houses in Sterling has brought in some Chicago-area dealers with gang ties, police have said.
It’s what prompted Whiteside County law enforcement and other groups to form WeCAN, a community driven organization that aims to implement ongoing strategies to combat these problems.
“I think the normal tone is that people in the community rely on the police to do the apprehension and do the education,” Potthoff said. “We’re trying to take it beyond that.”
Potthoff said the group also wants to explore treatment ideas and programs for petty drug offenders and addicts.
Both Sterling and Dixon have neighborhood watch programs.
Whelan said the department tends to get more information on drug activity in the warmer months when “people have their windows open and people start to see more.”
Whelan said Dixon doesn’t typically see crack houses or gang activity after the department stopped up its drug enforcement efforts in the 1990s.
“I don’t think [the drug problem is] getting worse,” Whelan said. “I think we have put a lot of attention into trying to curb the availability of drugs in Dixon. In all my years, I think I’ve seen the availability decline.”
Whelan encourages citizens to call police if they see suspicious activity in their neighborhoods.
“Then we can start the ball in motion as far as surveillance operations ... to eliminate that source,” he said.