By Lynette Norris
Greene Publishing, Inc.
Red velvet ribbons and Mylar heart balloons at the front entrance and on the tables inside were quite a contrast to uniformed Sheriff Ben Stewart and two of his Drug Task Force Task investigators, suited up in Kevlar body armor and seated at the front table.
“We do get accused of looking like ninjas or whatever,” Investigator David Harper would later joke during the presentation, explaining that the drug dealers they go after “are not nice people” and that the drug task force members have to be prepared for unpleasant confrontations.
Sheriff Stewart, who last visited the club in November, was back again this month to talk about the ways the drug interdiction team has benefited Madison County. It was not only by intercepting large amounts of illicit drugs and keeping them off the streets, but also by bringing in large amounts of seized drug money.
Prior to 2009, he said, the County’s entire drug interdiction effort was the responsibility of one man, and it was not even a full-time responsibility.
The man simply had to do what he could, when he could, in between other law enforcement duties.
“Then, about three years ago, David and Doug (Haskell) and I put our heads together, and the biggest thing to come out of it was the Drug Task Force.”
In the beginning, it was difficult, with no money for vehicles, tasers, guns and other equipment, but with what the Task Force was able to do, bringing in large cash seizures, they were able to overcome that, and fully equip their team at no expense to the county.
Additionally, all four of the Drug Task Force members have been deputized as U.S. Marshals and can call on the Marshal’s office when needed, for extra manpower the county doesn’t have to pay for.
Harper then took the floor and began with a slideshow of some of the impressive hauls the Task Force has brought in, including stacks of cash that could fill laundry baskets. Most of the time, he said, the Task Force does the investigation and “makes the case,” then turns it over to the federal agents who make the arrest. The Task Force receives a percentage of any cash seized.
Safer streets and safer children aren’t the only benefits, said Harper. When floods hit the county two years ago, the men of the sheriff’s department were “sitting ducks” without any four-wheel-drives or boats to use in rescues. “Now, we’re much more prepared, thanks to the dopers.” Furthermore, he added, the Task Force is allowed to donate up to fifteen percent of seized money to drug rehab charities.
After the presentation concluded, Wanda Dickinson, grandmother of David Harper and long-retired 30-year veteran of the sheriff’s office, recounted a story of a drug bust from many years ago, when the sheriff’s office was a two-man operation, with her as office financial advisor/office manager. The man they arrested had over $600,000 in cash, “more money than I’d ever seen in my life!” She was even more astonished later that same evening, to see that same man already bonded out of jail and having dinner at Ken’s Barbeque.
This month, the Club also begins highlighting one small business each meeting. This month, it was the Busy Bee on the corner of Madison and Duval Streets. Elizabeth Waring and Michelle Mandziara had just returned from a buying trip in Atlanta, saying that their business, a gift/novelty shop that includes handmade and unusual items, tries to focus on items made in the USA. With each buying trip, they phase out one foreign-made item and replace it with one made in the USA. The Busy Bee also that also sells food items, including their signature Bee Bits, as well as beverages.
Next month, the Club will have a home tour/fashion show/silent auction/fundraiser in lieu of its regular meeting, and Club President Jackie Johnson reminded everyone who had items to donate for the silent auction to please have them turned in by March 3. See any Club member for tickets to the event, now on sale for $25.