First Posted: 3/19/2009
For more than two years, a local detective led a double life that not even most of his fellow officers with the Mount Airy Police Department knew about.
On the surface, Tim Hodges was working as a narcotics detective with the city police force, but unknown to many, also was serving as a special drug task force officer with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF).
What began as a relationship with a local informant would balloon into a major investigation focusing on both drugs and guns, spanning not only Surry County but Carroll and Patrick counties and other areas of Southwest Virginia. It has been linked all the way to drug cartels in Mexico.
As one lead generated another, ensnaring dealer after dealer and what is described as pounds and pounds of meth, charges were issued against numerous individuals in the two-state area. Right now, weve indicted 30, and weve got between 15 and 20 to go, Hodges said during an interview this week, when details of the undercover operation finally could be released.
To date, the investigation thats still ongoing has led to the seizure of around $5 million worth of methamphetamine, marijuana and powder cocaine combined not to mention hundreds of weapons.
At one trailer I hit, there was 172 guns, Hodges, who transferred from narcotics to Mount Airys regular detective unit last fall, said of one of the numerous searches that resulted along the way. Among the vast array of weapons seized in the overall operation was a belt buckle skillfully crafted to conceal a Derringer.
The whole thing was spearheaded by Detective Hodges and an ATF officer out of Virginia, said Lt. J.A. Freeman, who heads the city detective division.
Freeman added that Hodges involvement is a testament to the rigors of undercover drug investigations that require long hours away from ones family and constantly being placed in dangerous situations with well-armed suspects.
Tim worked hard hours and hours and hours, Freeman said.
Thousands and thousands of phone calls, Hodges added.
Meth Case Expands
The investigation began in May 2006. While working in the narcotics division, Hodges developed a local informant who advised him that he could buy large quantities of methamphetamine both in Surry County and in Virginia. Meth is a highly addictive stimulant considered to be at the root of one of the fastest-growing drug problems in America.
Realizing that the probe was crossing state lines as criminal activities in communities bordering other states tend to do, and therefore out of his jurisdiction, Hodges began working with an ATF officer in Virginia. We decided to open up a multi-jurisdictional federal investigation with guns and methamphetamine, the local detective said.
This involved Hodges being sworn in as a special drug task force officer with the federal agency to aid his work in the neighboring state. With the investigation reaching massive proportions, the federal involvement has proved invaluable, Hodges said.
Federal authorities were able to devote more money, manpower and other resources to the probe than could the local department, and prosecutions could be built against suspected dealers easier due to more-lenient federal laws. And once they got to court, the defendants generally drew harsher sentences than those meted out by state judges.
Freeman explained that Hodges worked behind the scenes to establish cases against individuals, who sometimes would cooperate with authorities in providing evidence against others higher up in the chain to aid their own situations.
Secrecy was necessary, to prevent the investigation from being compromised as well as protect agents and informants whose lives were in jeopardy. Even as arrests were made, they were not released to the public in hopes that those involved would supply information about others and allow a greater infiltration by law enforcement.
Even some of those who have been imprisoned were incarcerated under John Doe names so nobody knew where they were at, Hodges said.
Freeman said that when such a process is under way, citizens might have the impression that no progress is being made in the drug war. I want people to know that just because they dont see it in the paper, it doesnt mean there is nothing going on, the head of detectives said. They dont see everything thats going on.
Even now, Freeman said, three or four investigations are under way that nobody knows about.
As Hodges and the federal agents efforts progressed, large amounts of meth, marijuana, guns and even thousands of dollars worth of a drug known as pink ice were confiscated along the way.
Pink ice is a form of crystal methamphetamine that resembles rock candy which is flavored or scented like strawberries or other sweet tastes, which Hodges said is done to make the drug appealing to kids. Indeed, it sometimes is referred to as childrens meth.
So far, the interstate investigation has led to the seizure of 50 to 60 pounds of meth lumped in plastic bags, worth about $2.4 million, and 150 to 200 pounds of marijuana, among other substances.
Hodges agreed that in addition to the sacrifices participation in the investigation caused with his family and the toll on his physical health from working long hours, he sometimes felt his life was in danger.
The worst of those occasions would be when he sat in a vehicle, after having engineered a drug transaction, waiting for a SWAT team to move in and make an arrest at an appointed time. Thats when you get scared, Hodges said, explaining that he never knew how those being busted were going to react, possibly engaging in a gun battle.
Since the undercover probe mostly involved Hispanic and white persons, Hodges said there also often were some tense moments caused by the language barrier during negotiations for the drugs.
Illegal substances seized locally not only were linked to Mexican sources, but also trafficking networks stretching from Atlanta, Hodges said.
Hodges and Freeman were able to release details of the probe this week due to the fact cases have made their way through federal courts and individuals involved are now safely behind bars.
An initial 11 defendants indicted in Virginia pleaded guilty to trafficking 48 pounds of meth apiece. At least 15 of the 30 people indicted so far have entered guilty pleas and received prison sentences of between 10 and 35 years.
Michael Dale Blackburn, 35, one of those charged, was bringing as much as 6 pounds of methamphetamine per week into the Carroll County area at one point, according to John L. Brownlee, a U.S. attorney in Roanoke, Va.
Blackburn and another man, Robert Paul Durrell, 31, bought meth from Ernesto Garcia Martinez, 35, of Mount Airy, which would in turn be sold to mid-level distributors in Carroll and Wythe counties. In addition to those areas and the Ararat section of Patrick County, the investigation reached the city of Galax.
Martinez also was selling methamphetamine in Mount Airy, according to evidence uncovered in the probe that also involved assistance from the Surry County Sheriffs Office as well as sheriffs departments in Carroll, Patrick and other Virginia counties.
Over a two-year period, Blackburn was responsible for buying and reselling nearly 50 pounds of the drug, at least 32 of which came directly from Martinez.
Martinez, Blackburn and Durrell all pleaded guilty to drug-conspiracy charges in federal court, with Blackburn also admitting guilt in possessing five firearms after being convicted of a felony.
In addition to those individuals, others from the Virginia-North Carolina region who have been tried on similar offenses include Robin Suzanne Criner, 29, and William Alden Grubb, 36.
Additional sentences were meted out to Virgilio Antunez, Leobardo Palacias, Dana Badgett, Sonja Anderson, Bobby Hill and Tony Tobler. Hill and Anderson are from Virginia and Tobler is from Surry, but complete addresses and ages were unavailable for the defendants as a whole.
Hodges said that he could not have invested so much time and energy to the operation without the support of others in the department, such as Freeman and Police Chief Roger McCreary.
Hodges admitted this week that even with all the hard work he and the ATF agent in Virginia put into bringing those people to justice and getting millions of dollars of harmful substances off the street, it has made little difference in the Big Drug Picture.
It is estimated that local, state and federal authorities collectively actually stop less than 10 percent of the narcotics trade.
It honest-to-God makes you wonder why you come in to work and put yourself in that much danger every day, Hodges said.
Both he and Freeman agreed that the failure of the United States to protect its borders and control those coming through has complicated an already tough job in carrying on the war against drugs which often seems futile.
Its like dipping water out of the ocean, Freeman said.
Contact Tom Joyce at [email protected] or at 719-1924.