Howard County police unveiled last night an 18-month undercover drug investigation in Columbia in which they tapped telephones and posed as dealers and users to dismantle a network of 37 alleged traffickers and seized $100,000 worth of drugs, 20 vehicles and four guns.
Operation Clean Sweep focused on drug dealing - mainly sales of crack cocaine - in the Columbia villages of Oakland Mills, Harper's Choice, Wilde Lake and Long Reach, police said.
"Nobody wants drug dealers in their neighborhoods, and I heard that message loud and clear," Howard Police Chief Wayne Livesay said at a community meeting in Oakland Mills, where police reported on the results publicly for the first time.
The investigation began in August 2002 and had two phases. The first phase ended in June with arrests or indictments of 18 people on various felony drug charges, police said.
In an attempt to "prepare for the void" created by those arrests, undercover investigators began a second phase soon after, police said. Most of the 19 suspects in the second phase were arrested earlier in the month after a grand jury returned indictments, while some were arrested yesterday, police said.
Detectives from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Baltimore County Police Department assisted Howard police in the investigation. Many of the suspects lived in Columbia or the surrounding area, and some in Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties, police said.
The Sun was unable to obtain copies of the indictments related to the case as police withheld the names of the suspects until late afternoon.
Those most recently arrested and indicted were identified as: Duane McGregor, 22; Tayvian T. Arrington, 18; Robert L. Burgess, 20; Damien Dickerson-El, 24; Troy B. Myers, 18; Craig J. Nicholson, 23; Jamal R. Wilson, 24; Juanita M. Nias, 36; Brian L. Nicholson, 23; Jennifer C. Hart, 43; Varnez Nicholson, 36; Romero L. Hall, 26; Aubrey N. Nicholson, 43; Antwan D. Holland, 21; and Dominic L. Burgess, 20.
All but two suspects - Holland and Burgess, who reside in Elkridge and Baltimore, respectively - are from Columbia, police said.
Police have not released the names or unsealed the indictments of two suspects they are pursuing, one of whom was described as a leader among the dealers.
Four more indicted suspects were named and are still being sought: Michael R. Roary, 19, of Baltimore; Julius J. Hart, 18, and Cory R. Tomlin, 20, both of Columbia; and Robert J. Manning, 23, of Jessup.
"The majority have ties to the community," said Lt. Keith Lessner, commander of the vice and narcotics division, during a slide show presentation that displayed the names and faces of the people who police have charged or are still seeking.
Lessner said the operation's length was due in part to the need to add undercover officers, and they required time to build trust with the suspects.
He said the officers used a combination of body wires, videotaping and wiretaps to build cases against the suspects. Undercover officers bought drugs during meetings with suspects at restaurants, homes and apartments, and on the street.
Roughly three-quarters of the suspects are incarcerated - either in prison serving a sentence for a conviction related to the operation, or held on bond at the Howard County Detention Center, police said.
"We took our time, we did this right and we hope these individuals get some substantial jail time when they go to court," Lessner said.
Lessner said that no drug buyers were arrested during the investigation because such arrests would have compromised the undercover investigation.
Livesay said the Police Department continues to conduct investigations in the neighborhoods. He also said that a police officer has been assigned as a daily presence to the Oakland Mills Village Center area - one troubled by crime in recent years. A portable office for the police will be set up there sometime in the spring, he said.
"We're still doing work in the neighborhoods," Livesay said.
Livesay praised the Howard County state's attorney's office, which worked closely with the police to prepare the cases.
"I hate drug dealers because they undermine the fabric of our community," State's Attorney Timothy J. McCrone said at the community meeting, where police and politicians outnumbered a handful of residents. "We want this to be a serious exercise with serious penalties."
Police officials plan to hold community meetings on the operation at 7 tonight at Harper's Choice Middle School and at 7 tomorrow night at Long Reach High School.