Curing Our Coast Series Looks At Enforcement As Reporter Goes Undercover With Detectives

OCEAN CITY — Sergeant Shawn Jones of the Ocean City Police Department’s Narcotics Unit calmly adjusts his bullet proof vest as he sits in the passenger seat of an undercover vehicle. He’s carefully watching cars traverse along a backroad of southern Delaware, near Selbyville. He’s looking for junkies, and his eyes are transfixed on one particular road.

“I bet you that dinged up car is going to make the turn,” he says to his colleague, (a young undercover officer who will be referred to as “Detective A” throughout this article upon Jones’ request), who nods in agreement. “Look, there they go.”

The car, a beat up early ‘90’s model jalopy with four passengers in the vehicle, makes the turn onto a dilapidated country road and heads toward what Jones and Detective A describe as one of the busiest open-air drug markets in the region.

Detective A waits a few moments before following the car. He drives swiftly, but with extreme care so as not to look like he’s tailing the car.

“You are going to be underwhelmed when you actually see it,” quips Detective A. “It just looks like a lonely backroad that people forgot to take care of for years, but in reality, it’s like a farmer’s market for heroin.”

Turning down the long road, we pass several low-rent residential streets, which all cul-de-sac into spindly thickets and unkempt brush. The car of four had turned around in the cul-de-sac and was stopped about halfway down in the middle of the small street, chatting with the heroin dealer who was already making change for them after selling them one and possibly many bags of smack. There were two cars, which had apparently already made their purchase, pulling out of the cul-de-sac in front of the car.

“Many times the junkies go in carloads to places like this,” says Detective A. “One they get hooked, their whole job becomes about getting high, all day, every day, so they often get together in groups and essentially carpool to get their drugs.”

Yet, there’s another reason there are often more than one person in the car when trying to score smack at this location, says Jones.

“Sometimes, the dealers will sell them the drugs and then beat them up and rob them, so it’s kind of like power in numbers for the junkies in that sense,” he says.

To keep our cover, we continue down the road in the other direction, making several turns before coming to yet another similar scene of heroin trafficking in a rural setting. All deals are audaciously done out in the open, as if both the dealers and the users could care less who might be watching. The dealers know there is money to be made, the users only care about getting high, and the people who live on those streets either ignore the action or fearfully turn a blind eye and draw their blinds down to what their neighborhood has become.

The car of four from the first location had Delaware plates, rendering Jones and Detective A essentially powerless as to an “arrest scenario.” It’s technically not their jurisdiction for arresting, but the other agencies know they patrol the region often. They say law enforcement agencies are well versed and are in constant contact and collaboration with one another, passing along intelligence and information about users, traffickers and locations of open air markets like these.

“If you take one down, another pops up,” says Jones, who admitted he was interested to see what kind of action would be going on at this location due to a huge heroin bust that had happened in southern Delaware just days earlier.

“It seems like it’s rocking here today,” he says.

“How did you know the car was going to make the turn?,” this reporter asks.

“Damaged cars are often a good sign of people who might be going to buy heroin,” explains Detective A, “because in many cases, they will get the drugs, and then go shoot up somewhere like a nearby fast-food restaurant or gas station bathroom or they’ll just pull off to the side of the road. When they start driving again, they are high as a kite, so they often crash into things.”

According to Jones, dealers know that it’s almost impossible to operate in Ocean City, but in order to be proactive, the team often leaves the island and goes on these types of low-level patrols to find out how the heroin that they do come across in the resort is getting there, and not just who is selling it, but also who is buying it.

“If we see someone with Maryland plates buying heroin from this or any of the open-air drug markets we know about,” he says, “we’ll follow them back across the line and we’ll pull them over if they try and bring it back into town. Will we get all of it? No. When we were dealing with crack and cocaine many years ago, we would have dealers who would come to town and set up in a hotel room for the weekend, but now, because of the aggressive nature of this department, it’s no secret to dealers that you have to steer clear of Ocean City because we will find you.”

Sourcing The Smack In Region

Parents and police officers ask the same first question when catching someone with heroin or any other drug for that matter: where did you get it?

Sourcing heroin’s proliferation in our coastal region is a two-part probe: the first into the cause and effect of the explosion of prescription pill usage a few years ago, and the deviant entrepreneurial shift that dealers took with their drug supply shortly thereafter to addicts who couldn’t get or afford pills anymore after police cracked down on doctors who were over-prescribing opiates for too long of periods.

“When I first started on the force as a detective, the big drugs down here were pot and alcohol, ecstasy and cocaine,” says Jones. “We would actually be surprised if we heard about someone being found with heroin. But, what happened after we started cracking down on doctors and pharmacies with the prescription pills, suddenly that high school athlete who got an injury and was inadvertently addicted to oxycotin was turning to full blown heroin because he couldn’t get his pills anymore to feed the need. Now, a massive chunk of our cases are heroin related today.”

While Jones’ team of undercover officers have played a big role in making sure that drug dealers are staying out of the resort, they know that dealers, especially heroin dealers are setting up on the outskirts of town.

“We can tell where it’s coming from by the packaging,” he explains. “The stuff from Philadelphia is coming down is being sold in Southern Delaware, while the heroin from Baltimore, often called ‘scramble’ is being mostly sold out of Salisbury.”

As the problem grows, so does the demographic (now 17-50 according to Detective A), and the strategies used by the undercover team to find drug dealers and users.

“The thing with heroin is that everyone is a dealer in some capacity,” says Detective A. “But, they are just trying to feed their habit, not make a big profit. Their profits go right back into their habit.”

In addition, battling the presence and proliferation of drugs can differ in Ocean City based on the seasonal nature of the region and the concurrent population swell.

“In the summer, we obviously keep a close eye on the Boardwalk, and it’s hard to really keep tabs on everyone who is coming in and out of town because of the volume so sometimes, we’ll spend entire evenings trying to just purchase drugs on the Boardwalk from dealers, and the next night, we’ll do reversals, and trying to catch people trying to purchase drugs,” he says. “We want them to be fearful that you never really know who you are selling to or buying from. It might just be an undercover officer.”

Undercover In A Small Town

Jones grew up here and was a familiar face in the community before joining the OCPD in the late 90’s.

As a detective, he admits it was often tricky to keep his year-round professional anonymity in such a seasonal and predominantly small resort town.

“There is definitely a shelf life for an active undercover guy in a small town like this,” he says; “you have to testify in court, for instance, which can make it difficult not to get made as an undercover guy, but I do remember I bought a bunch of ecstasy off a guy in 2006, and we arrested him, he went to court and plead down for a first offense. The next summer, I did a reversal and sold the guy a bunch of ecstasy and he didn’t even recognize me. So, to be honest, most of the time, we aren’t dealing with Pablo Escobar.”

Still, much of the information accrued by this secret squad of undercover officers helps the department directly strategize how to stop the drug flow into the town, but more indirectly, it’s aggressive and proactive approach helps bring the overall crime numbers down.

“A lot of the crime we see in the winter time, like burglaries for instance, are often people trying to steal stuff to sell for money to buy drugs, so by us staying ahead of what’s happening in relation to drugs coming into this town, whether tourists are bringing them in or locals are going out of town to buy drugs and bring them back, it really helps us keep crime down year round”, said Jones.

“A Battle We Are Always Fighting”

Back in the undercover vehicle, Detective A circles back around to the original location where we saw our first heroin deal of the day within minutes of getting to the site.

This time, we notice a newer model car with Maryland plates driven by a young white 20-something driver pulling out of the same cul-de-sac that we watched the drug deal go down in. He pulls out of the cul-de-sac and passes a school bus the next street over that idles as children get off the bus to trot happily into their homes, which perhaps unknowingly, are literally less than 100 yards from where heroin is being sold out in the open.

“There’s only one reason to be on that road,” says Detective A. “Let’s follow him and see where he goes.”

As Jones calls in the license plate, it becomes apparent the car likely belongs to the driver’s mother, who lives in Ocean Pines. The driver starts to drive erratically, making numerous turns to cover his tracks but eventually ends on the same linear path he was on before.

Detective A keeps a healthy distance once again. It’s obvious he’s played this cat and mouse game before.

“You never know if they are paranoid that someone is following them, or if they are just looking for a place to stop and shoot up or snort their bag of heroin,” he says. “This is a battle we are always fighting. It never really ends.”

The undercover team says there are a few big takeaways they’ve learned over the recent years as heroin has all but taken over the majority of the drug-related crimes they are seeing in the field.

“A lot of users I talk to say that they aren’t even trying to get high anymore,” says Jones. “They are just trying to get by. They do heroin because they are so addicted that they can’t stop for fear of getting sick from withdrawal.”

The other thing, according to Detective A, is essentially what we are doing right now in the undercover car, slaloming through rural roads heading back towards the Maryland border.
“You have to follow the junkies if you want to find the suppliers and the criminals who are bringing into our region,” he said.

For this secret team of narcotics officers, they are the faceless few on the front lines of a growing epidemic in our region. Their job is to not only keep a community drug free and safe but in a way, they also help addicts to take the first steps toward healing, even if that community will never know their names and if that first step toward healing involves hand cuffs and the flashing lights of an undercover vehicle.

About The Author: Bryan Russo

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Bryan Russo returned to The Dispatch in 2015 to serve as News Editor after working as a staff writer from 2007-2010 covering the Ocean City news beat. In between, Russo worked as the Coastal Reporter for NPR-member station WAMU 88.5FM in Washington DC and WRAU 88.3 FM on the Delmarva Peninsula. He was the host of a weekly multi-award winning public affairs show “Coastal Connection.” During his five years in public radio, Russo’s work won 19 Associated Press Awards and 2 Edward R. Murrow Awards and was heard on various national programs like NPR’s All Things Considered, Morning Edition, APM’s Marketplace and the BBC. Russo also worked for the Associated Press (Philadelphia Bureau) covering the NHL and the NBA and is a critically acclaimed singer/songwriter and composer.