On a frigid Wednesday last January, Benny Jones expected to collect two freshly delivered kilograms of cocaine when he stepped out of the cold and into a south Columbus apartment.
What the Phenix City man encountered, however, was a sting operation involving his own driver, Horace Cromwell, who agreed to facilitate the setup after he was pulled over with the drugs en route from Houston. A camera hidden by the feds in Cromwell’s apartment captured footage of the drug deal, according to court documents, and agents waiting in a back room rushed out to make an arrest once the cocaine exchanged hands.
Cromwell and Jones pleaded guilty to drug charges this summer in U.S. District Court and are facing five to 40 years behind bars. Investigators said the bust prevented a major shipment of cocaine from making its way to street corners and dark alleys around the Chattahoochee Valley.
The January sting, orchestrated by federal Drug Enforcement Administration agents and the Metro Narcotics Task Force, highlighted the importance of teamwork among law enforcement agencies as they seek to stem the flow of cocaine into the region. Unlike methamphetamine -- an increasingly prevalent drug that can be manufactured locally -- cocaine travels hundreds of miles before it reaches its destination and is distributed for street sale.
Many participants in the drug trade are as transient as the narcotics they smuggle, so enforcement hinges upon tight communication and collaboration on both sides of the Chattahoochee River, authorities say.
“We’ve got somewhat of a unique area where we live here because the two cities are so intertwined, and it’s two different states,” Russell County Sheriff Heath Taylor said. “The drug trade doesn’t recognize state lines or county lines. They just go wherever the doggone money is and wherever they can sell.”
This year’s National Drug Threat Assessment, compiled by the National Drug Intelligence Center of the U.S. Department of Justice, shows cocaine is still widely available throughout the country though at diminished levels. The feds attribute the decrease to inter-cartel fighting and “counter-drug activity” that has disrupted cocaine trafficking from South America.
Federal agencies also seized 30 percent less cocaine in the fiscal years 2009 and 2010 compared to 2006, the assessment found, a trend reflected in some local jurisdictions.
“Most of what we come across lately has been methamphetamine and marijuana,” said Sgt. Chad Mann of the Troup County Sheriff’s Office.
But interviews with local law enforcement officials suggest cocaine and crack remain a fixture here despite significant arrests and the emergence of other popular drugs like methamphetamine.
“There is still lots of coke use in the area with crack and powder cocaine,” Taylor said.
Capt. Gil Slouchick, special operations unit commander with the Columbus Police Department, said police haven’t seen any decrease of cocaine in recent years.
“Not at our level we haven’t,” said Slouchick, who’s tasked with combating street- and mid-level drug dealers. “Any way you can bring anything else into Columbus, Georgia, is how the drugs are coming in here.”
Columbus police recently came across a YouTube video filmed at a local housing project that demonstrated the cooking of cocaine into crack.
“Cocaine is cooked here in Columbus, Georgia. We know that,” Slouchick said. “We’ve done search warrants on houses and places where we’ve arrested individuals with crack cocaine where they had been cooking there at the house.”
Phenix City police, meanwhile, say they’ve seen a leveling off in the cocaine supply over the past three years.
“With meth being able to be produced locally and the ingredients being available locally, that is by far going to be our No. 1 problem,” said Police Chief Ray Smith.
But Smith also attributed the stagnation to some major cocaine arrests. For instance, the department has made six crack cocaine distribution arrests so far this year -- three times the total in 2009 -- as well as some sizeable trafficking busts.
“If you make a good lick on a street-level distributor, of course that disrupts the supply chain for a couple of months until somebody else comes in and takes his place,” Smith said. “Certainly, you want to explain to people, ‘Here’s the danger you can get into.’ But at the end of the day, as long as there’s a market for it, you’re always going to have somebody who’s willing to take the risk to distribute it -- that’s human nature.”
Like many local agencies, Phenix City police fight the cocaine trade on two separate fronts. A joint effort with the Russell County Sheriff’s Office known as the PAIN unit -- Partners Against Illegal Narcotics -- focuses on the street level.
Those agencies rely on the Metro Narcotics Task Force out of Columbus to take on the upper-level, bulk shipments, such as the one seized in January at Cromwell’s apartment off St. Marys Road. The Louisiana State Police -- who stopped Cromwell and a Columbus woman east of Lake Charles for improper lane usage -- also were to thank for that bust, authorities said.
“If we did not have the cooperation between all of the agencies in this area, you would be looking at spending hundreds of thousands of dollars with everybody looking for the same guy,” Taylor said. “You cut that down, and you’ve got one responsible drug unit, which is Metro.”
Police in Auburn, Ala., combat the drug trade with active patrols and a narcotics unit of about five specially trained officers. The department was reminded of the prevalence of cocaine just last week after a routine traffic stop.
Charles J. Edwards, 45, allegedly tried to flee the scene on foot but was quickly arrested, police said. Officers searched his car and allegedly found more than a pound of cocaine, a find Police Chief Tommy Dawson said is one of the largest in the city’s history.
“We were very pleased to remove that amount of cocaine from the street,” Dawson said in a phone interview.
“Normally, when you arrest one, somebody takes their place,” he added. “But it’s going to set them back. Losing that amount could put them out of business.”