Major heroin bust a win for police, but some say it won't make a dent

By Whitney Evans, Deseret News

Published: Thu, Aug. 21, 2014, 3:45 p.m. MDT

 Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill and members of the Metro Narcotics Task Force address their recent successes — including the seizure of 31 pounds of heroin destined for the streets of Salt Lake City — at a press conference at the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s Salt Lake City District Office on Thursday, Aug. 21, 2014.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill and members of the Metro Narcotics Task Force address their recent successes — including the seizure of 31 pounds of heroin destined for the streets of Salt Lake City — at a press conference at the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s Salt Lake City District Office on Thursday, Aug. 21, 2014.

(Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — In the course of six months, the Metro Narcotics Task Force confiscated the equivalent of 24 years' worth of heroin destined for Salt Lake's streets.

The task force — comprised of nine local law enforcement agencies and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's Salt Lake office — arrested 21 people and seized 31 pounds of heroin worth $5 million between February and mid-August, drug enforcement officials said Thursday.

As a perspective, the common street dose of heroin is 1/10 of a gram and a single-hit balloon costs between $10 and $20.

An enlarged map at the DEA's Salt Lake office, 348 E. South Temple, shows the locations of crimes in Salt Lake City, West Valley City, West Jordan, South Jordan and Sandy related to the heroin bust. Pictures from the raid show how heroin was hidden in shoe insoles and vehicle cup holders.

In the past, busts in the Salt Lake Valley were on a smaller scale, targeting users and small distributors, said Nicki Hollman, special agent in charge of the DEA's Salt Lake office. It took an average of eight years to confiscate roughly 10 pounds of heroin. Most busts of large distributors in Utah are seized in 5-pound batches. By comparison, the recent busts brought in 31 pounds.

But according to West Valley Police Chief Lee Russo, this is just the beginning.

"To say that this one seizure, this one case, has put a substantial dent in the narcotics trafficking network — absolutely not. We’re celebrating a small success here today, but the problem continues,” he said. “We took one out today. Tomorrow there’s probably going to be two more.”

The task force was created in 1993. Its goal was to identify and disrupt drug trafficking organizations, with a recent focus on disrupting heroin distribution.

"The demand for heroin is a significant public health crisis as prescription addicts seek a cheaper and more available drug in order to satisfy their addictions," Hollmann said.

The most recent raid was part of the task force's efforts to target and arrest distributors who prey on the addicted. In order to eliminate the crisis, the task force — which includes Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, Salt Lake Police Chief Chris Burbank and Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes — is calling for a communitywide holistic approach.

“We're not going to be able to arrest our way out of this. We’re not going to be able to simply prosecute our way out of this," Gill said. "This is something that needs to have a multi-faceted, collaborative partnership between treatment, between interdiction and most importantly, the disruption of those who would profit off the addictions of others and exploit (those) addictions. Those are the real problems and this task force really goes to the heart of that matter.”

This includes educating judges, the community and prosecutors to avoid making what Gill calls the "emotional" decision to put an addict in jail. Rather, they should follow "data-driven and research based" practices of finding treatment for the addicted to reduce the rates of recidivism.

Crimes such as vehicle and burglary thefts are often connected to those who are trying to get money to fund their heroin addiction, Burbank said. His agency recently found that 88 percent of bank robbery suspects are addicted to heroin.

"This is an epidemic that we must do something about," he said. “Until we stem the desire, the demand for product within the United States, within our own city and state, somebody will always fill that need. There is too much money to be made.”

The street value of heroin has gone up, Hollmann said, which means people may begin looking for cheaper alternatives. They can't, however, get the same high that the drug provides, she said.

Burbank admitted that there may be an uptick of crime as people try to get money to buy heroin. "You can't just turn a heroin addiction off," he said.

He thinks that the police presence from the newly formed Metro Support Unit in Salt Lake City will help matters. This heroin epidemic is something he said law enforcement and the community created by cracking down on prescription and opiate abuse. Although the bust is a "significant seizure," more is likely on its way, he said.

“They’re bringing more in right now in order to meet the demand that’s here and we all, we society are the ones who are driving that demand. We need to change that.”

The bust was part of a "sophisticated criminal organization (that is) all interconnected," Hollmann said. "That's why we're using a multi-pronged prosecution to go after them."

Cartel leadership will likely determine whether to resupply in the Salt Lake area because the recent bust showed the drugs may get confiscated, she said.

“Drug trafficking organizations are sophisticated. Never underestimate them. They’re essentially violent and they are in it for profit,” Hollmann said. “Here in Utah … this is a true public health issue and … it is a public safety issue.”

The task force's work is part of what will disrupt narcotic trafficking throughout the state, Reyes said.

“So long as heroin is readily available it will continue to be the drug of choice in our community and to the many prescription drug abusers as the cheaper and more readily available alternative to prescription abuse," he said. "We feel very strongly, we cannot let our guard down. We must continue to be diligent in eradicating and fighting the prevalence of heroin in our communities."

Email: wevans@deseretnews.com

Twitter: whitevs7

1. DN Subscriber
Cottonwood Heights, UT,
Aug. 21, 2014

Good work busting these dealers and getting the drugs off the streets.

It is also true that the demand side of the problem in terms of drug users needs to be aggressively addressed, to reform those who can be saved and lock up and punish those who cannot change their habits.

But, as reported on a local radio station and curiously absent from this story is the fact that this was a "Mexican drug cartel" operation. If that is true, then we really need to demand that our borders be secured and our immigration laws enforced to cut off the supply of drugs and many of the sellers.

It is inexplicable that the Salt Lake top cop refuses to enforce immigration laws, thus giving drug cartels free access to Salt Lake City without fear of being sent home. That sort of "enforcing only the laws I like" approach needs to be stopped now!

While the flow of illegal drugs is reason enough to secure the border, there are at least 11 million other reasons.

If we don't enforce all of our laws, none of them will be respected.

2. BYU Joe
Aug. 21, 2014

Yeah - won't a dent so why try? What a dumb statement.

3. John Charity Spring
Back Home in Davis County, UT,
Aug. 21, 2014

Shame on those who seek to legalize marijuana. The irrefutable fact is that the vast majority of heroin addicts began their descent into addiction by using marijuana--the gateway drug.

This bust is important because it will put drug runners out of business. As a result, fewer addicts will resort to prostitution and other crimes to support their habits.

Let us save society before it is too late. Crush the heroin dealers now.

4. Hamath
Omaha, NE,
Aug. 22, 2014

It reminds me of the starfishes on the beaches story. The child throws starfish after starfish back in the water despite overwhelming number. Someone says "Why are you doing this? You can't possibly make a difference. There are too many of them." They child throws one back in and says "Made a difference to that one." and continues on his or her way.

Made a difference to that starfish didn't it. How many kids are not going to be introduced this year at a party because these guys are in jail? Maybe only 20 or 30. And perhaps only 5 or 6 of those 20-30 never get introduced at all. Even if the vast majority of their time would have been focused on selling to previous addicts, these drug guys are always looking to expand and bring in more customers. Arresting these few makes a difference to those kids they won't get exposed to the stuff.

Made a difference to that kid... and that kid too....and maybe even your kid and your neighbors.

Great job guys!