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Behind the Badge: MCSO undercover detectives

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Posted at 1:00 PM, May 06, 2017
and last updated 2017-05-25 08:11:36-04

MANATEE COUNTY, Fla -- On April 28, 2017, the Manatee County Sheriff's Office executed a search warrant on a suspected drug dealer in Bradenton.

SWAT team members smash and rip a window frame out of the wall, anxious to find those responsible for the 43 people drugs have already killed this year.

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"It's non-stop. Every day I come into the office and there's an operation going on," says Captain Todd Shear, head of MCSO's Special Investigations Division.

The division handles everything from organized crime to human trafficking. For the last two years, though, drugs have been a top priority.

Shear says some of the most successful siezures begin with an anonymous tip from Crime Stoppers. However, he also has his own eyes and ears out on the streets: the undercover detectives.

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"They're invaluable," says Shear. "We ask them to do some things that not your average cop can do."

We met one of those detectives. A man MCSO spokesperson Dave Bristow says is always comes up before, during, or after a drug bust.

Leaving family on short notice for undisclosed amounts of time, having a gun pressed to your head by a drug dealer; four years undercover means this detective has seen it all. Even to us, his name and other alias' must remain a secret.

"There are people we've done drug deals with that will never forget us, and we try to conceal our identities as best we can," he says.

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For the sake of this story, we'll call him Detective Smith. Smith takes us out on a ride through Bradenton in his undercover patrol car: a minivan. The sheriff's office will lease indiscriminant cars like these so their detectives can get as close as possible to these dealers.

Early on, Detective Smith's undercover work was a daily regimen of making purchases from dealers. Now, he follows up with street-level detectives trying to piece together some of the networks that exist in town.

Most of these buys happen over the phone now, and many people would be surprised by who's really on the other end.

"All shapes and sizes my friend," says Smith. "It doesn't fit a specific mold."

Some are easy to spot, flashing their wealth on their clothes or cars. Others hold regular day jobs, dealing part-time because the profit is undeniable.

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Dealing will always prosper in areas like Manatee County where demand is always high. Addiction has always plagued the area, but lately it's become a game of Russian roulette. A mix of heroin, fentanyl, and now carfentanil created a spike in overdose deaths to 75 in 2016.

That same year, MCSO made 1,017 drug related arrests, confiscating nearly $2 million in narcotics.

"No case is too small," says Sheriff Rick Wells. "We need to put the dealers in jail, and I don't care if they have one gram of heroin, or if we have a kilo coming in. They all need to be held accountable because they're killing people."

It wasn't long ago detectives say most drug deals were happening in the same area, and dealers were operating out of houses or on street corners. Now, cell phones have widened that area so the most public places, often a parking lot, can become the site of multiple drug deals.

All happening in a matter of seconds.

"Think of it like UPS or FedEx," says Smith. "They know what their time schedules are, and they'll have all these people lined up.

"They'll pull in, everybody flocks to their car, and in two minutes or so, everybody's gone."

That paranoia can become frustrating for investigators, as they are often under just as much surveillance as the people they are after.

While SWAT moved in on that April 28 warrant, a helicopter spotted suspects fleeing the property as law enforcement was blocks away.

"All it takes is one phone call saying 'SWAT's on the move,' and they cleared out of here," says Lt. Louis Licata.

Eventually, detectives track down 28-year-old Robert Harrell, and finds two backpacks on the side of the road filled with guns, money and drugs along the same road Harrell fled down.

Harrell's been arrested in the past, found two years earlier with fentanyl in his possession, which brings up another frustration for deputies.

Fentanyl and carfentanil may be what's killing users, but they are still considered "controlled substances" in the eyes of the law, and do not carry nearly the penalty of a "schedule one narcotic" like heroin. A $1,500 bond can often times be enough to get dealers like Harrell back on the street.

"It's like whack-a-mole," says Captain Shear. "You arrest one dealer, and another one pops up."

"There's no deterrent," adds Sheriff Wells, who admits the cycle is frustrating.

For this reason, undercover detective like Smith are MCSO's best chance at taking a dealer off the street for a long time.

"The strongest case we can make against an actual dealer is getting them to sell the drugs to an undercover detective," he says.