Beyond the Street Corner

Illegal Drugs also Plague the County

By Gina Gallucci White | Photography by Turner Photography Studio | Posted on 08.09.13 – Feature, People & Places

Fredmag: Aug13 feature 1

It’s Friday night and Brunswick Police Department Sgt. James Ledwell is investigating a possible drug case. A teenager was walking in a town park late one night when he was struck in the face with a baseball bat. Later, under questioning, the teen admitted he was in the park, not to meet a friend, but to buy drugs.

Ledwell has some people of interest in the case. On this night, he plans on going to each of their homes. “We are just talking,” he says to two of them. “I’m giving you an opportunity to tell your story.” Denials are made and even some obscenities are launched. Ledwell is not sold on their explanations.

“If I could boil down 25 years of police work into a few short words,” he says, it would be this: “Most of the time, people who are [being questioned] by police … aren’t telling the truth.”

When it comes to illegal drug use, too many residents believe that Frederick city is the only place in the county that has problems. This is far from the case. In the past year, Brunswick has had two confirmed deaths directly related to drug use; Thurmont has had one. “We recognize that we have a potential issue, but we had an issue 20 years ago,” says Thurmont Mayor Martin Burns. “We had an issue 10 years ago. We are going to have an issue tomorrow. This is a battle against drugs. Every community has this issue.”

Frederick County is ripe for drug traffic and trade due to its proximately to major East Coast highways such as I-70, I-95 and I-495, which lead to source drug cities including Baltimore, Washington, D.C,. and New York City, says Frederick County Sheriff Chuck Jenkins. “The use of illegal narcotics, drugs, prescription pills [and] marijuana is absolutely off the charts everywhere,” he says. “It’s a national epidemic.”

Problems Officers Face

While the city of Frederick gets the local headlines when drug dealers sell on street corners, the rural part of the county’s illegal activity seems to be behind closed doors. “There really aren’t places where people hang out” to specifically sell drugs, Ledwell says. This, along with other factors, makes law enforcement’s job in the rural part of the county even tougher when trying to curb drug use. People are mostly selling to those they know or at least are acquainted with.

“This is a close-knit area,” says Thurmont Police Chief Greg Eyler. “These suppliers, these users, if they see somebody from the outside coming in, they are not going to talk to them. They know that it’s most likely a cop. … It’s tough for us to get anybody in there.”

This familiarity also makes it difficult to cultivate reliable witnesses. “We get witnesses and what happens is [they] turn out to be not reliable or they change their stories and say they didn’t see anything because of fear of retaliation,” Eyler says.

Residents sometimes witness a drug transaction, yet don’t immediately call the police. “We miss a lot of transactions out there because we are not called right away,” Eyler says. “We have had times when we were called days later.”

One tool in the drug enforcement arsenal is the Frederick County Narcotics Task Force made up of 11 Frederick County Sheriff’s deputies and Maryland State Police troopers.

“We miss a lot of transactions out there because we are not called right away.” —Thurmont Police Chief Greg Eyler

“They help us out,” says Ledwell, who was head of Frederick Police Department’s Drug Enforcement Unit for several years. However, on daily patrols, the smaller agencies have limited manpower. While Ledwell is investigating his Friday night case, he’s one of only two officers on duty. While en route to another interview in the case, Ledwell has to shift plans and help with a large, heated shouting match in which four people end up getting a free ride to the Frederick County Adult Detention Center.

An officer must also have probable cause to justify searching a person or their home and sometimes there just isn’t enough evidence. A person can call police to tell them they think someone is a dealer, but based on that tip alone, an officer cannot search them.

“The Fourth Amendment gives everybody—criminals, non-criminals, everybody—protections against unreasonable searches and seizures,” says  Frederick County Deputy State’s Attorney Nanci Hamm. Once these rights are violated, the evidence collected can’t be used in court.

“You lose the drugs,” Hamm says, “you lose the case.”

Story Behind the Drugs

Speaking at a drug summit organized by the Thurmont Police Department, Chris Legore tells of doing drugs in the sixth grade. He says he went to a party and was asked to try a joint. “The next day I bought my first bag of weed. At 15, it was nothing to drink a 12-pack and a fifth of tequila by myself at night.”

Legore has gone through rehab twice and describes his final two years of drug use as maintaining. He didn’t use the drugs to get high, rather to keep himself numb to reality. “It finally took me waking up in my bed to two officers standing at the end of my bed and three paramedics coming through the door to realize what a piece of dirt I was,” he says.

As he speaks at the drug summit, Legore is celebrating 90 days of sobriety.

“I love life every day,” Legore says. “It’s an honor to wake up in the morning and not have to go scrounge up $20 just to get that fix to be fine. … I don’t see how I made it. If I had put half the energy I put into getting drugs [into earning a living], I’d be set right now. I wish I had a quarter of the money that I spent on drugs.”

There are a variety of reasons why young people get involved in drugs, a familiar cast of characters that include peer pressure, wanting to fit in, escaping a bad home life and using for entertainment and to explore the effects because they’re curious.

“They just fail to see the seriousness of the effects,” Eyler says. “The common misconceptions are that drugs make you look cool. … They think one drug won’t lead to addiction. It does lead to addiction.”

Many teens, flush with an attitude of irrational immortality, also think one time can’t hurt them. “We know that’s not true,” Eyler says. “One hit could hurt you if you take too much of something.”

People have also been overdosing on drugs because different dealers sell varying amounts of drug dosages. “This isn’t a pharmacy,” says Officer Tim Duhan, who spent 12 years on the Frederick Police Department Drug Enforcement Unit and now serves on the Thurmont force. “It’s street drugs. There are no checks and balances.”

“This isn’t a pharmacy. It’s street drugs. There are no checks and balances.” —Thurmont officer Tim Duhan

During his years of service, Duhan has seen how teenagers without jobs can continue to buy drugs.  For example, if they drive to Baltimore to buy $20 worth of heroin they can turn around and sell it in Frederick County, which doesn’t have nearly the same supply of drugs as metropolitan areas, for double the price.

Dave Bailey also tells his story at the Thurmont summit. He says he saw his daughter fall into drugs. At first, he didn’t realize she was using. “You just see a change,” he says. “If you see that change, you’d better be ready.”

His daughter went to rehab four times. “Every time she came in to rehab you felt safe,” Bailey says. “You’d feel like ‘OK. I feel good now. She’s in a safe spot.’” But then the drug use would resume. He finally told her to not contact him any more until she wanted to get help. “I left that little door open,” Bailey says. “They knew they could come back, but they knew if they came back it had to change.”

A long year passed waiting for a phone call and wondering if his daughter would wind up in a ditch. She finally called and has been clean for two years.

“Don’t look at these kids as bad kids, ‘cause they’re not,” Bailey says. “It’s a disease. …You just have to have faith in them. … Show them love but don’t give them no money.”

Steps Taken

Although officers can’t completely stop drug use and trafficking in the area, police agencies are making a difference, including the sheriff’s office with its 10 school resource officers stationed at county high schools and three supervisors.

“School resource officers work closely with students, parents, school staff and even other agencies to identify sources of illegal drugs and proactively prevent them from entering the school,” says Sgt. Jennifer Bailey. “They also work with the health department to make resources available to students and families for drug prevention, teach health and government classes and work with school administrators to schedule K9 scans of school properties.”

“At the end of the day, you are their parent. … You are not their friend. You’re their parent. You are all they have.” —Frederick County Deputy State’s Attorney Nanci Hamm

Police work with allied agencies on cases, conduct search-and-seizure warrants, operate an anonymous tip line, perform surveillance and initiate traffic stops. People who have been arrested for minor offenses but can provide valuable information on large drug dealers are used as confidential informants.

“There is paranoia about Frederick County with informants,” says Hamm, the county prosecutor. “Drug dealers are terrified that we have informants everywhere. We don’t, but I like that they think that.”

State police and the sheriff’s office have K-9 units and recently Thurmont acquired one with its first week of service beginning in June. Elected government officials are also getting involved in addressing the drug problem with several municipalities this year passing ordinances banning “spice,” a chemical formula that mimics marijuana.

Education is also a tool. Police and other agencies will give talks if requested by a group or school. Thurmont’s drug awareness summit held in mid-May at Catoctin High School had 200 people filling the bleachers in the school’s gymnasium. “We tried this a year ago and only about 12 to 15 people showed up so I think this is a great turn out,” Eyler says.

Getting Help

Hamm has been at the State’s Attorney’s Office for 18 years. She handles felony narcotics cases. About eight years ago, she was asked to be involved in a new program called Drug Treatment Court in which inmates are placed in a group to meet weekly with a judge, take random drug tests and participate in a 12-step program among other requirements. “We work very closely with them to get them through that program and hopefully never see them again,” Hamm says.

There can be no prediction on who does well and who doesn’t. “Even if you have a child that is fighting you and may not be ready sometimes, it is just a matter of getting them in and then you can see it,” she says. “We borrow from Oprah a lot and say, ‘We see the a-ha moment with these people,’ where all of the sudden something clicks. They say, ‘Wait a minute. It’s easier. I’m not always looking over my shoulder. I’m not always trying to steal from my parents. I’m not always worried about getting arrested. This is actually easier.’”

While it may be hard for parents to hear, jail can sometimes be the best thing to happen to their child. “Almost every graduate will thank us for arresting them,” Hamm says. “It saved their lives. If nothing else, it’s a time to dry out. It is a time to get help.”

For those who are addicted to drugs but not in legal trouble, there are several avenues. They could seek help through private providers or at the Frederick County Health Department, which offers adult and adolescent services with a fee based on ability to pay, income and insurance.

Get Involved

While entering suspect’s bedrooms over the years, Duhan has seen marijuana signs up on walls, window sills lined with alcohol bottles and drug paraphernalia lying around. “You look at these kids and you say, ‘Doesn’t your mom or dad ever come in this room?’

“‘No,’” he recalls them answering. “‘This is my private place. They stay out of here.’”

Eyler says some parents “believe you shouldn’t make a big deal about [drug use]. They believe kids will experiment with drugs at least once, so the best thing to do is let kids be kids. That’s wrong. You can’t do that. Don’t let them experiment like that. It is going to lead to more, more and more.”

Hamm has heard parents say they were unsure about going through their children’s things such as purses, book bags and rooms. “Do what you have to to make it work,” she says. “At the end of the day, you are their parent. … You are not their friend. You’re their parent. You are all they have.”

Eyler says that as a parent, you have the right to ask your children where they are going and when they are going to be home. “You can even follow them. You can do that. You are not violating any rights. It’s your kid. You follow them. I followed my kids just to make sure they were where they were supposed to be.”

But it’s not just parents that need to be observant. Anyone who notices suspicious activity should alert police.

Thurmont Mayor Burns once saw several teenagers going into a home of a convicted felon in his 40s. The teens only stayed five minutes. Guessing they were not there to discuss sports, television or the weather, he called Eyler and the tip was investigated.

Residents “need to step up,” Burns says. “You need to do something. If you want a change, you need to do something.”