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Drug Trafficking in Wall Doxey State Park Presents Challenges For Law Enforcement

dsc_0413Wall Doxey State Park, dense with trees and deserted after dark, provides the perfect setting for those who don’t want to be seen. Conveniently located off Highway 7, between Oxford and Holly Springs, the park doubles as a transition point for drug organizations moving large quantities of narcotics across North Mississippi. Traffickers looking to deal need only pull in, make the trade and be on their way without any fear of being detected.

Funding cuts made by the Mississippi legislature have resulted in a sharp decrease in the number of narcotics agents available to regularly patrol areas like Wall Doxey. Rural areas that once had specialized officers assigned to monitor their activity, now fall to the already understaffed and underpaid county law enforcement and sheriffs’ departments.

Prime locations between prominent drug hubs such as Wall Doxey and Sardis see a lot of traffic as more and more offenders recognize the lack of police presence.

“If there’s a good organization out there, they’d be crazy not to use these spots,” said Tom Lambert, a narcotics agent for North Mississippi. “They’re picture perfect for doing something like this.”

Lambert has spent the last 12 years strictly dealing with narcotics, the last six in North Mississippi. He has worked closely with federal, state and local law enforcement on countless cases and knows the ins and outs of the drug trade.

According to Lambert, the traffickers who have used state parks to make transactions are, what he called, more sophisticated criminals. These, he said, are less likely to take shortcuts and make the same mistakes that get smaller-scale dealers caught selling on the streets.

“There’s almost a reward to the traffickers who are willing to go the extra mile to be careful,” Lambert said. “The odds of them being detected or arrested is much, much lower.”

Wall Doxey sits about 15 miles south of the routine patrol route for Marshall County officers. With their hands full with drug and gang activity occurring within city limits, officers rarely make it out to the park.

“Marshall County, those poor guys are overworked as it is,” Lambert said. “There are so many other drug transactions occurring in and around Holly Springs that you go for the easier fish in a barrel rather than the one that’s going to inconvenience you more.”

Lambert’s job puts him in a more reactive position when it comes to fighting trafficking. According to him, he gets paid to go after major narcotics organizations, which means he doesn’t usually act until he knows of a large organization and how it operates. By the time this kind of information reaches him, either through informants or surveillance, it usually means the organization is about to be taken down.

Though Lambert has no ongoing investigations connected to the parks, he said that just two years ago, he helped bring down a major methamphetamine organization at Wall Doxey. Still, though Lambert said he would never take his family to the park after dark, he considers it safe during the day.

Lambert admitted to a certain level of cynicism as a result of his job, and while the parks are perfect for this kind of activity, he said drug transactions happen everywhere.

But drugs aren’t simply moving through the parks. According to Steve (Woody) Woodruff, a former Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics agent, drugs are also being manufactured in state parks. Meth labs and marijuana crops pop up somewhat frequently on state property, but much like trafficking, other drug activity is difficult to monitor in these areas.

“You’re seeing drug offenders move to these areas because they know,” Woodruff said. “They’re not dumb. They read the papers. They’re aware of what’s going on in society. Drug kingpins are just like you and I.”

According to Woodruff, this also means traffickers are aware of narcotics agency funding and how the budget cuts directly affect them. Cuts made to counter-drug interdiction affects everything from training to the number of officers they can hire. Because they are only funded from month to month, the agency has no way of knowing if they will have the funding to keep going a year from now.

“Funding has definitely killed narcotics investigation,” Woodruff said.

Even the Natchez Trace Parkway seems to be reverting to its dark history as “the Devil’s Highway.” The Trace runs through multiple drug hubs including Tupelo and Jackson with several miles of rural countryside in between. Add to that the absence of interdiction agents who would target traffickers on the Trace, and you have the makings of the perfect drug highway.

Methamphetamines, cocaine and marijuana coming up from Texas and Mexico travel up along these major highways to be distributed from hubs such as Jackson or Atlanta, according to Woodruff.

“Think of your arm or elbow as Mexico,” Woodruff explained. “The palm of your hand is a hub. Then you get to your fingers, and it starts branching out as the drugs are distributed.”

Brent Mahle, a federal park ranger in Tupelo, works the Natchez Trace on a daily basis. But while he has seen some drug activity, his job generally consists of patrolling his district, catching speeders and traffic violators. According to Mahle, large-scale drug busts are rare in his line of work. He and his colleagues pride themselves on being able to recognize the signs of drug offenders when they come across them. However, Mahle’s department does not have the time, manpower or training required to hunt for major traffickers on a regular basis.

This task typically falls to interdiction agents whose job is to stake out major highways and scan for suspicious vehicles. These agents receive extensive training that allows them to spot and apprehend drug traffickers.

According to Lambert, these agents look for specific yet subtle signs in both the appearance of cars and the mannerisms of the drivers. Signs might include out of state license plates (specifically California or Texas), an abundance of air fresheners to mask the smell, a lone driver without a sense of direction, nervousness, paranoia, shakiness and the list goes on.

Though interdiction agents’ training enables them to identify suspects at a glance, their methods are not fool proof. According to Mahle, traffickers are getting smarter, not only using the parks to make transactions but also using rental cars and drivers that are less likely to raise suspicion.

Mahle said it would be nice to have specialized agents on hand on the parkway for this reason.

“Drug offenders are creatures of habit,” Woodruff said. “They will do the same thing without consequence until acted on by an equal force in the opposite direction. They push and push and push the limits, but our ability to push back is governed by dollars.”

That ability to push back is constrained even after criminals have been taken off the streets. Even the sentences for certain crimes have been shortened in order to reduce the amount spent on incarcerating criminals. Woodruff referred to this as a revolving door system.

According to Woodruff, as soon as offenders make it through the incarceration process, offenders are tossed back onto the streets, often before completing their full sentence.
Woodruff himself has helped put several criminals away on 10 to 20-year sentences but has had to put them back in jail three or four times within that timeframe.

“Funding has totally, completely, 100 percent changed how we prosecute drug felonies,” Woodruff said.

After many years of working with the MBN, Woodruff estimated a budget decrease of approximately 50 percent over the last 20 years and around 20 percent in the last ten years. This has not only affected the number of agents and their ability to patrol certain areas. It has bitten into what Woodruff considers one of the driving forces behind the war on drugs in Mississippi.

“If you asked me to get down on the ground in the woods, I’m going to say no,” Woodruff said. “And I’m not going to say it nicely. I’ll say it with a lot of cussing and profanity.” He laughed and added, “I hate snakes.”

But according to Woodruff, the Counter Drug Force agents, more commonly called snake eaters, do just that. These specialized agents crawl for miles through the woods to blend with their surroundings and lie on the ground for days at a time, living off MREs (meals ready to eat) in order to keep surveillance on suspected criminals.

“They’re not even going to spray Off on themselves,” Woodruff said. “By far I would put those 110 guys up against the entire NY police force as far as knowledge and experience go.”

According to Woodruff, these agents are huge assets to the narcotics bureau, but there is often a wait list to get one.

Cutbacks in funding have limited the number and availability of snake eaters. At one time, Woodruff said there were as many as two for each county. Today, he said, they’re lucky to have one for every two counties.

“If you paint a room with a gallon bucket of paint, they’re not going to give you a five-gallon bucket,” Woodruff said. According to Woodruff, the MBN is fortunate if they have 100 narcotics agents in the state.

Woodruff compared the funding problem to a birthday cake. He said there has to be a cake and icing for it to be a cake. A good cake might have candles or decorations; that’s extra. When money is tight, the decorations have to be sacrificed, and that is what the narcotics unit faces.

The resources used in the fight against drugs have been reallocated to handle traffic accidents, homicides and other major crimes. Now, Woodruff said, the legislature has left them enough funding to say they have a narcotics unit but not enough to be effective.

Though funding continues to be a prevalent issue for the narcotics bureau, agents did recently receive a five percent pay increase. The problem is, the increase benefits higher ranking, higher paid agents more so than agents lower down. Woodruff called the pay raise “top heavy.” This means, for example, that a lieutenant or captain making $95,000 would receive a $4,700
bonus while a lower ranking officer making $30,000 would only get $1,500.

Because of this, agents began to see as much as a $30,000 to $40,000 pay gap between captains and officers. Woodruff himself said he went from making $38,000 a year to making $41,000 while one of his superiors went from $52,000 to approximately $70,000.

Woodruff agreed that salaries needed to be increased but felt the distribution method was backward. According to Woodruff, agents at the bottom make less money for doing the most work leading to a decreased incentive for more proactive action.

The wisest way to have handled a pay raise according to Woodruff would be to give the higher percentage to those on the bottom and smaller to the top. This, he said, would free up extra dollars that could be used to fund higher employment.

Though the state legislature rarely denies the bureau’s request for more manpower, Woodruff said that simply creating more positions does little if there is no funding to pay the salary.

“It’s like having an extra big gas tank but not having the gas go in it,” Woodruff said. “The larger tank would allow me to go further, but it doesn’t do me any good if I don’t have the gas to put in it.”

Shorter sentences, easy drug routes, fewer officers out on patrol…all contributing factors that may have led to an increase in both frequency and amount of drugs being manufactured and transported across the state, according to Woodruff.

In the span of 10 years, Woodruff estimated he must have taken down around 15 meth labs in vehicles traveling between Jackson and Tupelo on the Natchez Trace. Mahle’s partner, Jay Drinkwater, recently made a bust of 60 pounds of meth coming from Mexico at a stop on Highway 78.

The market for methamphetamine has skyrocketed in recent years according to Marshall County narcotics agent, Rick Preciado. This, Preciado said, is due to the ease with which it can be manufactured and sold. Meth labs have evolved from the chemistry labs of old days to what is now referred to as shake-and-bake operations. Meth ingredients can be combined in a plastic bottle in a process that requires little skill or space.

Shake-and-bake operations occur everywhere from church parking lots to the deepest backroads to cars stopped at red lights, according to Woodruff. However, ever since over-the-counter medications containing methamphetamines were taken off the shelves, more and more of the meth seen today comes from cartels in Mexico. Traffickers can double their money by switching their merchandise from cocaine to meth, which gives the user a longer, better high for their money, said Woodruff. The potential for that kind of profit motivates traffickers to be more careful with their wares.

Despite the increasing popularity of methamphetamine, the go-to drug is and has always been marijuana, according to Woodruff. Though some states have begun legalizing the substance, under Mississippi law it is still illegal, and the MBN offers no leniency in pot cases, according to Preciado.

“Drugs are drugs,” Preciado said. “If it’s illegal, it’s illegal.”

In some cases, agencies work with minor offenders to apprehend major offenders. Through the use of informants, Preciado said they are able to offer help to some offenders.

“Possessing drugs is against the law,” Preciado said. “We can help you out with the consequences, but you still have to deal with it.”

One issue Preciado has faced in his career is a sense of apathy towards drug activity from the public. A lot of people are not going to care unless it’s right there on their doorstep, Preciado said.

Other people Preciado has encountered claimed that drugs are a victimless crime. But under the law, Preciado said, it is still a crime.

“Is that hurting me if you have drugs? No,” Preciado said. “But you’re hurting yourself. But you could do something stupid or potentially start selling it. The law says you’re not supposed to possess it, and that’s my job.”

Still, Preciado sometimes feels the pressure of a job that is never done and even questions the impact of his work.

“Working the drug game is almost a losing battle,” Preciado said. “It’s here for good. The only reason I can justify doing what I am doing is I have a family and kids, and I don’t ever want them out there buying or doing this stuff.”

After 16 years working in the sheriff’s department, Preciado said he has seen a lot more than he cared to share. He recalled an incident he was once involved in that turned violent when a man high on drugs fired multiple shots inside his home, at his car and even at himself.

Incidents like these Preciado leaves out of his conversations about work with his wife, saying he preferred she not know about that side of his job.

“All crime revolves around dope,” Preciado said. “Nine times out of 10, I won’t be able to stop it; but, I can try to slow it down.”

IMG_2011 Mary Cloud Taylor is a senior print journalism major at The Meek School of Journalism and New Media and an intern for HottyToddy.com. She can be reached at mctaylo1@go.olemiss.edu.

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