OCEAN CITY — The Ocean City Police Department’s narcotics unit, in collaboration with allied agencies, late last month concluded a two-year drug distribution investigation utilizing an undercover officer posing as a taxi cab driver and owner with the grand jury indictments of 34 local residents on 91 charges.
Last week, the OCPD announced cursory information about Operation Sand Dollar, a two-year undercover operation targeting drug trafficking in the resort area during which an undercover officer posed as a cab driver to infiltrate Ocean City’s shadowy social circles.
On Monday, OCPD Chief Bernadette DiPino, along with Worcester County Sheriff Reggie Mason, State’s Attorney Beau Oglesby and Mayor Rick Meehan laid out more of the details about the operation.
During the two-year operation, the officer turned cab driver made some drug buys and sales out of the taxi, but also established connections that led to further indictments. The operation was borne out of an idea to target known drug trafficking in the downtown area. After brainstorming, the OCPD came up with the idea of posing an undercover officer as the owner and operator of a legitimate cab company.
With the cooperation of the city, including former City Manager Dennis Dare, the cab, called the “Tipsy Taxi,” was completely legitimate including a taxi medallion.
“The undercover officer posing as a cab driver and owner was a good way to infiltrate the social circle,” said DiPino on Monday. “It’s often a primary mode of transportation for those involved in drug trafficking.”
After conducting Operation Sand Dollar for two years, the gathered information was turned over to the State’s Attorney’s Office and on Jan. 25, a Worcester County grand jury indicted 34 suspects on 91 counts of distribution of various controlled dangerous substances (CDS) and 28 charges of conspiracy to distribute CDS. DiPino said on Monday the operation targeted all forms of CDS distribution, but the primary focus was on the distribution of illegal prescription medication.
On Feb. 2, the OCPD narcotics unit, along with the Worcester County Criminal Enforcement Team, began rounding up the indicted suspects. Thus far, 22 have been apprehended and four more were already in custody on unrelated charges. Information on the remainder of the wanted suspects has been forwarded to the Maryland State Apprehension Team. The total amount of preset bonds for those already in custody totaled $4.55 million.
DiPino praised the success of the operation and hopes it sends a message to dealers and users in the resort.
“We hope this sends a clear message to drug dealers and users to keep the activity out of our community,” she said. “You never know who an undercover officer might be. It could be the maid in your hotel, a bartender or even a street performer on the Boardwalk.”
DiPino said those targeted included local residents engaged in drug use and distribution. DiPino said the operation did not include tourists.
“The list includes many locals,” she said. “At no time were tourists targeted.”
For his part, Mason said the operation could be the tip of the iceberg and promised similar operations in the future.
“We will continue to go after drug users and dealers,” said Mason. “You’re going to see a lot more to come.”
Mason said he hoped Operation Sand Dollar sent a clear message to users and dealers in Worcester County.
“This is obvious proof there is an absolute commitment to target users and dealers in Worcester County,” he said. “If you’re a dealer, get a new job. If you’re a user, get a new hobby.”
DiPino said the OCPD worked closely with the city on setting up a legitimate cab company complete with one of the town’s limited number of taxi medallions.
“We had our own cab company and our own medallion with a fleet of one,” she said. “Many of the arrests came from buys. The undercover officer made drug deals, but also gathered information about dealing activity.”
The Tipsy Taxi did operate as a normal cab company and picked up and dropped off fares. However, the money earned was reinvested into the operation, according to DiPino.
“We didn’t make any money on the operation,” she said. “Any money that we did make on transporting normal fares was put back into the operation. We actually used more money than what we took in.”
Obviously, the identity of the undercover officer turned cab driver has not been made public and it is uncertain if he will remain an active member of the department in a different capacity. DiPino praised the officer for his dedication and said the department had received threats on him.
“The officer did an outstanding job and spent a tremendous amount of time and made an enormous sacrifice being undercover for two years,” she said. “A lot of people might be surprised if they knew his identity. We’re going to protect this officer, just as we do all of our officers.”
All in all, the operation led to 34 indictments and 119 total counts including 91 distribution charges and 28 conspiracy to distribute charges. Sixteen of the 34 suspects list Ocean City as their address, while seven others call Worcester County home. Twenty-two suspects have been apprehended, while four were already in custody on unrelated charges. The remaining suspects were still at large as of mid-week.
Among those apprehended already were Ronald Alimo, 51, Ocean City; Jonathan Grubbs, 23, Willards; Troy Middleton, 41, Ocean City; Charlene Chester, 47, Ocean City; James Camper, 49, Trappe; Glynnis Sullivan, 54, Ocean City; Robert Hayes, Sr., 44, Ocean City; Orean Kennedy, 52, Ocean City; Dawn Ramaska, 34, Ocean City; James Hudson, 49, Showell; Robert Ray, Sr., 53, Ocean City; Donald Collins, 53, Ocean City; Mary Baker, 55, Ocean City; Stacy Baker, 38, Ocean City; Guy Erbe, 52, Ocean Pines; Cheryl Merendino, 49, Ocean City; Stanley Layton, Jr., 53, Ocean City; Vernon Spence, 46, Snow Hill; and Robin McCready, 50, Pocomoke.
Those already in custody on unrelated charges included Miranda Florio, 24, Jessup; Lorenzo Sears, 41, Oak Hall, Va.; and Brian Harmon, 39, Westover.
Those indicted but still at large included James Leech, 50, Berlin; John Leo Parker, 57, Bishopville; Darryl Lee Whaley, 55, Berlin; Geraldine Woodland, 49, Ocean City; Christopher Denike, 32, Ocean City; Michael Rose, 54, Ocean City; Paul Francis, 32, Glenwood, Md.; David Allen Brown, 44, Baltimore; Kathy Matthews, 40, Rivera Beach; and Robert Gross, Jr., 43, Kensington, Md.