Macon County Sheriff’s Office concluded “Operation Thunderstruck” on Sept. 9 with 26 arrests for drug-related offenses while three suspects are still at large.
Cherokee’s Tribal Council was all business this month as members plowed through a list of 15 names proposed for banishment. There wasn’t much discussion, but there was uniformity of intent as councilmembers raised their hands, 15 times in a row, for 15 unanimous votes to forbid those named from ever stepping foot on tribal lands again.
A longtime Sylva business owner was arrested on federal charges after agents from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms surrounded his Main Street store Friday morning.
Three months after lies on a search warrant and a fabricated drug dog alert prompted a federal judge to throw out a Cherokee drug trafficking case, it appears that the officers involved are still at their jobs, with no change in status or salary. The case involved officers and detectives from Swain, Jackson and Graham counties, as well as from the Cherokee Indian Police Department.
A big one got away in Cherokee earlier this year when the case against a drug dealer was thrown out by a federal judge who found Cherokee police officers had lied in a search warrant.
To Jean Parris, the drug bust in Haywood County last month wasn’t just a matter of locking up suspected drug dealers.
It was about saving lives.
An undercover investigation in Haywood County targeting alleged drug dealers culminated in a sweeping roundup last month, netting 31 suspects with 114 charges in all.
Law enforcement agencies in Western North Carolina are cracking down on drug use in the region.
In what promises to become an increasingly expensive proposition, county taxpayers must now pick up the tab for cleaning up illegal methamphetamine labs.
The federal government notified states in February that it would no longer pay for such clean ups, which involve dangerous, potentially explosive, chemicals and toxic residue. The state covered the cost for a while, but after spending about $165,000 to clean up some 50 labs in North Carolina in the past six months, the state has spent all it wants to and will now place the burden on counties.
More than 230 meth labs were discovered and destroyed in North Carolina last year; Jackson County destroys between one and nine of the illegal labs a year.
Jackson County this week got stuck with its first meth-lab bill.
In this case, the bill was estimated to come to just $1,500, but that’s because the meth lab deputies busted was a particularly primitive operation. Some cleanups downstate of “superlabs” have cost as much as $20,000, according to news reports.
The lab operators were using a makeshift method recently developed called “shake-and-bake,” said Lt. Shannon Queen of the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office, in which the ingredients are mixed in soda bottles. This can pose great potential dangers, because the shaken chemicals are highly volatile.
During a discussion at a Jackson County meeting this week, Commissioner Doug Cody worried aloud about the possibility of a “huge cleanup” in the future, and the potential cost to a county unprepared for such a financial blow. Queen said that law enforcement and prosecutors routinely seek restitution, but “as the saying goes, you really can’t get blood from a turnip.”
In other words, getting money out of convicted drug dealers could prove an uphill battle for local governments.
Queen said deputies received an anonymous tip late last week that resulted in the bust. Following the lead, they set up surveillance at the bottom of Greens Creek Road on July 29, and discovered Keisha Leigh Maki, 25, of Granite Falls, and Billy Ray Davis, 54 of Waynesville, according to a news release from the sheriff’s department.
The couple was hunkered in the weeded area near where Greens Creek goes into a culvert and crosses under U.S. 441. Queen told commissioners this week that the two were using creek water as part of their meth-cooking cooling process.
Whenever local officers breakup a meth lab, a hazardous-materials mitigation team must come and remove the chemicals involved, and everyone involved — officers and suspects — go through decontamination.
Maki and Davis were both charged with manufacturing methamphetamine, trafficking, possessing precursors for methamphetamine, conspiring to manufacture methamphetamine and possession of drug paraphernalia. Both were being held early this week under $100,000 bonds. Their first court date on the charges was scheduled for Aug. 16.
After hours of scouring the ground for renegade marijuana plants from the air last Thursday, the pilot of a Highway Patrol helicopter was ready to call it day. But as he crested the Balsams, in the homestretch of his flight back to Asheville, he looked down and hit the jackpot: 664 pot plants clustered in more than two-dozen small plots.
“This pilot is pretty alert. He was just looking out and saw what he knew as marijuana,” said Detective Mark Mease, a narcotics investigator with the Haywood County Sheriff’s Office. “When you know what you are looking for it kind of stands out.”
The cultivator of all that pot had done his best to disguise it, though. The plots were a scant 6 feet across, tucked in to an overgrown pasture awash in all manners of briars and brush.
But once on the ground, it wasn’t hard to figure out who was responsible, Mease said. Narrow but distinct paths led from plot to plot, and eventually back to a nearby trailer on the property.
“It is kind of hard to hide when the trails lead back to your house,” Mease said.
Daniel Keith Messer, 51, was home at the time. He answered the door when Mease knocked, and in short order had confessed. Messer has been charged for now with manufacturing marijuana, but more charges are likely.
Officers worked well into the night chopping down the pot and hauling it off. The pilot, meanwhile, flew back to Asheville to refuel then returned to run air support, both for security and to lend a spotlight as officers dragged armloads of the tall pot stalks down the mountain.
It was a big bust, one of the biggest Haywood has seen in years. Mease said there isn’t as much pot grown today as there used to be. Pot cultivation in the mountains has been tapering off since the 1980s.
“It is a lot of labor. If you have it planted out somewhere on a mountain you have to hike in, and they aren’t willing to do that for the reward,” Mease said.
Plus, searches from the air like this one and the ensuing busts have become an annual ritual this time of year. More pot is being grown indoors in hydroponic operations these days.
Mease doubts this was Messer’s first foray into growing marijuana, not with that many plants under his wing. It’s a lot to maintain.
Had Messer gotten to harvest all that pot, he could have made half a million dollars on the wholesale market, Mease estimates. All that for some seeds, potting soil, a little fertilizer and sweat equity.
“It is a huge profit. There is nothing else you can grow that makes money like that. Of course, there is nothing else you can grow that gets you arrested either,” Mease said.