December 5, 2009
An undercover police officer who built cases against 31 defendants over the course of seven months said submersion into the drug culture was “an eye-opener.”
The officer, who went by the alias “Erin,” said the diversity of the suspects in the case, which included men and women ages 17 to 51 of various ethnicities, goes to show “drugs can affect everybody, anywhere.”
More than 40 officers from the Sedalia Police Department and Missouri Highway Patrol conducted an arrest warrant sweep Thursday as a result of the undercover operation. Officers served warrants to 27 suspects as of Friday, and continued to look for the remaining six defendants.
Erin, whose real name has not been released, will continue to work with the Sedalia Police Department in the patrol division. The undercover operation was her first assignment upon being hired out of the police academy.
Playing the part
Erin, who in real life prefers a night at home over going out, says she had to play a role as someone who enjoyed hanging out at bars, socializing, being outgoing and asking a lot of questions. Even the way she dressed changed. Erin is typically more conservative, but undercover she had to put on makeup and wear different clothes.
“I was playing a role, very much so,” she said.
Her work consisted of a lot of late nights, networking and buying drugs. Then she would meet with Sgt. Phil Stewart in a storage shed to do paperwork and catalogue evidence.
Erin felt a little uncomfortable at first when officers began serving arrest warrants and she was revealed to suspects as an undercover officer.
“Overall, the responses were that they knew they had committed a crime and there were consequences,” she said.
The police department thought an undercover operation could be a solution to problems with street-level drug activities, which were visible to the public but difficult for police to catch. But the police department was at its maximum capacity of 44 officers and undercover operations are fairly expensive. Chief John DeGonia requested permission for the operation from City Administrator Keith Riesberg. At the time, the mayor’s office was vacant with the death of Mayor Bob Wasson.
“He was fully supportive,” DeGonia said.
DeGonia went in search of an undercover officer and found the best candidate in Erin, whom he met at the police academy. She was highly recommended by her instructors — in fact, they considered offering her a position as part of the academy staff.
“She was mature and methodical, and that’s exactly what you want,” DeGonia said.
Erin received several other offers, including with a department that would have paid an annual salary that was $10,000 more than what Sedalia offered.
“We were extremely lucky to get her,” DeGonia said. “She was a very marketable individual and I’m proud she chose here.”
The opportunity to work undercover and the Sedalia community is what attracted Erin to the department.
“I saw an opportunity to make an impact immediately in the community,” she said. “I can make an impact and see criminals and justice served at the end.”
Erin took a couple days to think about the offer.
“My first thought was, ‘Am I going to be able to do it?’ ‘Will I have the skills to be successful?’ ” she said. “I decided I could.”
Keeping it quiet
Very few people knew about the undercover operation in order to protect Erin’s safety. A few city employees who handled the payroll paperwork, Cmdr. John Rice helped keep the reports she submitted secret and the three members of the department’s STING unit.
“That’s still a lot of people to know,” DeGonia said.
Police also met with Pettis County Prosecuting Attorney Jeff Mittlehauser before the investigation started in order to find out what evidence was needed to make the project successful. He instructed officers against going into the operation with any preconceived notions about targeting particular suspects. So, STING detectives didn’t tell Erin any names or descriptions of suspected drug dealers in the area.
“We didn’t want to bias her,” DeGonia said.
Erin received training in undercover techniques, which allowed her to buy drugs without doing them or drinking excessively. DeGonia turned Erin over to Sgt. Phil Stewart, a detective in the STING unit. Stewart was instrumental in the success of the operation, Erin said.
“He knew the criminal side and I had the undercover training,” she said. “We put the two techniques together and I think it worked great.”
Throughout the investigation, Erin had to cut her hair once, change the way she dressed and trade cover cars to avoid suspicion. She was buying a variety of drugs from marijuana and cocaine to methamphetamine and morphine. Erin worked several different social circles and wanted to avoid suspicion of a dealer of one drug to find out she was buying other drugs from dealers.
“I didn’t want the circles intermingle,” she said.
Erin submitted to random drug screenings in order to preserve the integrity of the case. She also met with Stewart before and after every shift for a debriefing. She never felt scared or feared blowing her cover.
“They thought I was one of them,” she said. “They either thought I was flipping it or using it.”
Police decided to end the investigation while things were still going well.
Erin had exceeded a goal of 25 defendants by six, and because of the cost of the investigation and several other factors, the chief decided it was time to end the operation.
The entire project — including drug-buying money, cell phone, rental car, Erin’s salary and officer overtime throughout the seven-month investigation — had an estimated cost of $45,000. Erin thinks the investigation was effective in cracking down on street-level drug dealers and believes the community will see a difference. However, she also knows that drugs will continue to be a problem in the community.
“The more the community gets active and involved in giving us intelligence” the better, she said. “But it’s not going to ever stop. You just have to actively protect yourself against it.”