Three arrests resulted from two drug raids carried out Friday morning, spearheaded by Walker County Sheriff Nick Smith as a way to publicly kick off a new Walker County Drug Task Force whose details are still being worked out.
"Today, we are taking Walker County back," Smith said in a Facebook video taken at the scene of the second raid while a suspect was on the ground.
Smith noted that planning for the raids had been underway for about a week, and more than two dozen law enforcement officers dressed in tactical gear assembled late Friday morning for a briefing, noting the possibility of gunfire that could occur. Just before noon, law enforcement then went east to a residential area at Sardis Cemetery Road. Officers quickly rushed in and swarmed into one manufactured home, while various dogs barked.
Michael Conner, 37, was led out without incident, handcuffed, and then he sat on the edge of a front porch area. A woman, Alexandra Faith Whitehead, also was led out in handcuffs and sat on the same area.
A juvenile, identified by Smith as Conner's son, was led away crying by authorities. "He was taken to family who lived across the street," Smith said. A helicopter flew overhead.
Conner was heard asking why the officers had forced their way in. Someone was heard saying they were tired of him "selling dope."
Smith said the Sheriff's Office has been receiving complaints about Conner selling drugs. "I got complaints on him when I was the chief of Cordova, but it was just outside the Cordova jurisdiction, right off River Road in the Sardis Cemetery community," he said.
Smith said he worked the area. "I personally myself made some arrests out in that area and obtained some information that I think was beneficial. I contacted our narcotics investigator, which was Sgt. Ralph Williams Jr.," he said.
Williams followed up on the information, making two distribution buys from Conner, which involved selling methamphetamines, Smith said.
"Today the work came to a head after a week-long investigation. We were able to do a search warrant at his residence and recover drug paraphernalia, drugs, pills, guns and a blasting cap (a sensitive explosive device used to detonate less sensitive explosives like TNT). He will face two counts of distribution of a controlled substance, which is meth," he said.
Officials that afternoon said Deputy State Fire Marshal Phillip Freeman is also having Conner charged with felony possession of a destructive device, dealing with illegal ownership of the blasting cap.
During both buys, Smith said Conner was carrying a pistol on his side. At least one, if not both, of the handguns was also recovered in the raid.
Also arrested was Alexandra Faith Whitehead, 24, who was arrested on an outstanding warrant with Jasper Police Department. It was not clear to authorities what her relationship, if any, was to Conner.
Within the hour of that raid, officers then raided a manufactured home behind Mike's Store in Sipsey, Smith said.
"Our municipal departments blocked off all outlets of the area there, in proximity to the target house, in case he was able to slip away before we got there. The address was 401 West Fourth Ave. in Sipsey," he said.
Once Smith arrived, the suspect was handcuffed and lying face down on the ground outside the manufactured home, while officers were going through items. He was told repeatedly to keep his nose to the ground, although he would occasionally look up, without saying much except to ask if his mother was alright and to answer questions. He eventually was allowed to sit on the ground, still handcuffed.
His mother was not charged and she eventually went to a nearby house, while officers continued to search the residence.
Marvin Dewayne ("Skillet") Patton, who turns 41 on March 31, was arrested and charged with two counts of selling heroin, he said. Smith said like in the other case, he made a stop and got information that he turned over to Williams, who got the sales. Using a search warrant Friday at the Sipsey residence, officers recovered 7 grams of methamphetamine, 18.7 grams of crack cocaine, 6 grams of heroin, 5.6 grams of cocaine and $460 in cash.
Smith said the raids involved the Walker County Sheriff's Office and all the municipal police departments in the county except Parrish, which was not able to come as expected due to an incident which came up, and Sumiton. The Sheriff's Office's K-9 unit was present, as was the State Fire Marshal and the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office's helicopter, with one local law enforcement officer riding in the helicopter.
No injuries occurred during the raids, he said.
Smith looks for departments to cooperate
Smith said, "I want this to be a template moving forward at least over the next four years for Walker County citizens to get used to. I think it is something we used to lack is consistency. I want to say all our agencies working together ... as one cohesive group moving forward. I think we are the strongest together going toward a common goal versus being torn apart and territorial."
He said this is a beginning step toward a new drug task force for the county.
"I've assigned five people from our department who work narcotics. Prior to that, for the last several years, they've only had two people working narcotics. I'm trying to bring a small town approach to the Sheriff's Department and kind of get people to pull double duty," he said.
He noted when he was the police chief in Cordova and Parrish, he was the chief, took complaints and still did undercover operations, making buys.
"What I've done with the other three, I've assigned somebody to first shift, second shift and third shift. There is one designated person for each one of those shifts who is working narcotics," he said. "That way we have 24/7 coverage as far as someone in this county working drugs around the clock. It's something we haven't had for a long time."
He noted that he campaigned on the fact drug dealers don't just sell from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., but around the clock, into the night, every day.
Smith noted he met with all the police chiefs in the county on Thursday, except for Sumiton, which sent a representative. He laid out at the meeting his plans for a multi-jurisdictional task force, which will involve assigning someone from each department to work alongside the Sheriff's Office.
"That's how we send a message to our drug community in Walker County, is by working together," he said. "Criminals don't have jurisdiction lines," and law enforcement should reach across those lines as a result. "If Parrish has a problem today, it's Cordova's problem the next day if they run them out of Parrish."
By cooperating, law enforcement can "put a face with a name" in case that person comes to their town eventually, as arrests will lead to the suspect slowing down or moving onto another community.
"If they do move to another community, the leaders of that community will be aware of who they are," he said.
Smith said he has obtained "95 percent" support from the police chiefs in the county. "Jasper, Cordova, Carbon Hill, Dora, Oakman and Parrish all seem to be supportive of the idea," he said. While Sumiton sent a representative to the meeting, "they have yet to go on any kind of operation with us."
Friday's raid was actually the second one, as a multi-jurisdictional raid was carried out two or three weeks ago, when everyone was invited. Smith has indicated Friday's event was more of a public rollout for the task force.
District Attorney Bill Adair has been "supportive," although he and Adair have not had any "long-term talks." He said he has not talked with local judges on the idea.
In the initial benefits, if all the jurisdictions go to one of the local towns and make a drug seizure, then "we would all split the proceeds," he said. If it happened in the county outside a municipality, it would all go to the Sheriff's Office.
"But when we form this task force, then Carbon Hill would get a percentage of it as well, because they would have someone assigned to our task force," he said. "As I explained to our chiefs, that is the primary goal on the short term. I think in the long term, once I get this fiscal year out of the way, I can allocate some discretionary funds to help offset maybe some overtime and things that could be accumulated from those departments."
He said he can't do that now as he is still dealing with old bills still coming in from the last administration.
Grants are also available, noting he and Walker County Commission Chairman Jerry Bishop went to Montgomery to talk to officials about available grants that might help "put more bodies on the road to help combat our drug problem."
He also noted that large scale drug round ups might be done from time to time, but he noted in his campaign he had been against large drug round ups arranged by holding warrants for months at a time and then making arrests.
"It didn't do anything but signify arresting bodies," he said. "Today, we were able to get trafficking weight heroin, which is killing people, off the streets because we were able to not sit on those for as long. We were able to get search warrants to go inside the houses to find drugs and money."
Conner and Patton were mid-level or street-level dealers, not high-level, drug dealers, he said. "They are the guys who are selling it for the high-end guys," he said, saying the department "still has to move up from here." However, he said law enforcement has to start somewhere.
Officials noted that day that Sipsey has been requesting help with its drug problem, and that this should help. Smith also noted the new Sipsey substation is near completion, and he drove there for a brief inspection on the progress work after the raids.
A number of cases have already been made in Sipsey by deputies since the Sheriff's Office recently took over patrolling there. "The other night, Deputy Dill got an active warm pot meth lab off of Sispey Road. We've made some distribution cases in the Sipsey area since I've been in office. We've really cracked down in that Sipsey area," he said.
Adair said Saturday afternoon he was pleased all the law enforcement agencies are working together and felt they would make headway with the area's major drug pushers.
"We need a drug task force," he said, noting that it will be important based on past history to have good, careful management. "In the past, that has been a real issue for (the) drug task force."
As for funding from Montgomery, he said that could be a challenge, noting the opioid situation in north Alabama is at a crisis level. Getting cooperation among agencies and the needed funding does help address the problem, he said.
Adair said he also plans to get with Smith and other area law enforcement about a plan for a major crime unit, noting he has worked on this for a couple of years.
"We believe it is time to get this started," he said, noting it would be separate from the drug unit. "This would be when a major crime that happens, such as a murder or a major robbery. It would be our best investigators from our departments, even if it is a small area that doesn't have enough law enforcement. We would be able to go in and help them, and bring our best people in." He said he would need help to raise funds for equipment and overtime.