From the big guy to the small fry

Erie County Drug Task Force forced to shift focus

The Sandusky Register

Jan. 9, 2005



The Erie County Drug Task Force has lost its focus.

In the summer of 1990, officers from the Huron, Perkins Township and Sandusky police departments and sheriff's deputies raided the home of Tom Esian, a Huron man suspected of moving more than 100 pounds of marijuana and two kilograms of cocaine through the region every month.

One year earlier, directors at the newly formed task force had told officer Randy Glovinsky, on loan from Huron, to build cases against the big players in his area.

For months, Glovinsky watched the house, traced phone calls and financial transactions, dug through trash and enlisted the FBI and Secret Service for document investigations. The final result uncovered 26 ounces of cocaine, 30 pounds of marijuana and more than $140,000 in cash.

"From then on, it kind of set the tone that the task force really wanted to strive toward that kind of police work," said Erie County Prosecutor Kevin Baxter, a co-director of the agency.

While keeping an eye on street-level drug trade, the task force decided then it wanted to focus on taking down mid- and upper-level traffickers.

"That isn't going to happen in its current form," said former task force Commander Curt Muehling, whose last day was Dec. 31.

Because of funding problems and personality conflicts, the task force is short on manpower and resources. Those officers remaining have few chances to go after the upper-level offenders, and administrators are fighting to keep the agency alive.

"If it's lost its focus, the people in charge have some responsibility for that," said Perkins police Chief Tim McClung, a former task force officer. "At the same time, if you're losing funding and you're losing manpower, it could be pretty easy to lose focus."

The task force was formed in 1989 when Muehling, then a Sandusky captain, and Erie County Sheriff's Lt. John O'Nan saw the need for more manpower. After coming across an application for the Byrne Memorial Grant, the two pitched the idea of a drug task force to Baxter and then Sheriff John Magnuson.

The agency started as a division under the sheriff's office, which supplied an officer in addition to O'Nan, who was commander. The Sandusky Police Department expanded its force by one so it could provide an officer, and the Perkins Township, Huron and Vermilion departments each had representatives who participated in weekly intelligence meetings.

In addition to hiring an administrative assistant to track funding, the task force got a full-time prosecutor in 1991.

"It was so necessary because the caseload was growing that big," Baxter said. "I also wanted somebody there who could make sure the search and seizures and investigations were done properly."

In 16 years, the task force opened 1,665 cases resulting in 2,344 indictments, which made up 38.1 percent of all indictments during that period.

"There are a lot of cases they work that wouldn't get done if there were no drug task force," Baxter said.

Three months before the Esian raid, investigators had seized more than 800 pounds of marijuana from a rural Huron County barn linked to a Sandusky dealer, netting him 5 1/2 years in prison. In April 1991, a local investigation that sparked a federal probe in Cincinnati resulted in a $133,753 share of seizures for the task force.

In 1997, claiming liability problems, Magnuson refused to deputize all drug task force officers so they could make arrests anywhere in the county.

To keep the program going, its direction was placed under the prosecutor's office, and the county commissioners offered $35,000 reimbursements to police agencies who kept a full-time officer on the task force.

"It was a relatively new entity being reborn at the time," Erie County Commissioner Tom Ferrell said. "Even a blind person can see the problems drugs cause in our community. If there isn't something out there holding that back in any form, then it is going to run rampant."

With the reimbursements, the task force expanded into two shifts: night officers handling street-level problems, and day officers working against significant traffickers.

At this highest level of funding and manpower, the task force hit its stride.

Muehling -- who took over as commander in August 1997 for Gregg Mehling, who was named commander after O'Nan left in the mid-1990s -- said the high-water mark was the undoing of a Cleveland and Erie County ring bringing in 10-20 kilograms of high-grade cocaine every month.

Starting with a package of cocaine found in the mail in 1995, investigators built a case resulting in roundups in July 2001 and May 2002 that netted 24 arrests.

This investigation showed what an effective drug task force could accomplish when agencies on all levels worked in tandem, Muehling said.

Roger Binette, who was the drug task force's only prosecutor until he became a judge Jan. 2, said a high point for him was in 1998 when the task force shut down and demolished Maxie's Bar on Hancock Street in Sandusky.

Soon after, the task force set up a wire-tap bust that failed when a suspect took the money and couldn't produce drugs, saying the neighborhood was dry since Maxie's was gone.

"When you hear that stuff, you feel like you really make an impact," Binette said.

But the funding dropped and the manpower followed shortly after July 2002, when county commissioners implemented their austerity spending program, taking away the $35,000 reimbursements.

The county commissioners put a half-percent sales tax on the ballot twice in 2002, saying the task force would be at full funding if the issue passed. It was rejected by 70 percent of the voters both times.

"That was pretty much the turning point," Muehling said.

With funding cut, officers left and the level of cooperation dropped off.

Vermilion police took its deputy off in 2003 to send one to Lorain County Drug Task Force.

Glovinsky, now Huron's police chief, pulled his officer in 2003 because he disagreed with Muehling's philosophy.

"I am more of a believer in putting an emphasis on a county-wide task force, not a Sandusky task force," Glovinsky said.

Perkins' officer was reassigned to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency's Toledo office in 2004. The township benefits more from the federal agency's resources than by working with a more narrowly focused task force, McClung said.

Although the number of drug indictments jumped significantly from 2002 to 2003, Muehling said the task force judged its success more on quality than quantity, and the quality wasn't the same with the loss in personnel.

The Sandusky Police Department kept its officer on the task force, per a 1989 decision by the city commissioners. Sandusky Chief Robert Runner believes having an officer there is more effective than having a department drug office.

"The people we deal with don't stop at the city limits or the county limits," he said.

By the end of 2004, the only officers remaining were Muehling and the investigators from the sheriff's office and Sandusky.

"The guys dealing dope are not stupid; they know we are short on manpower," Binette said.

The worst part was when the task force taped conversations between dealers who knew they weren't going to get busted after 4 p.m. because only one shift was left operating, Binette said.

The task force lost another man on Dec. 31, when Muehling was forced to retire so the sheriff's office could fund its position with the grant.

"We have hit a lull," Baxter said. "With operations like this, sometimes you need a refocusing."

That refocusing began with the new year, when direction of the task force fell back under the sheriff's office and Terry Lyons, who succeeded Magnuson in 2001.

Sheriff's Capt. Greg Majoy, who has been with the task force since 1989, was promoted to commander.

"We're showing some good faith effort here, not just saying, 'Let's pack it in,'" Lyons said.

Sandusky citizen's survey results from last year revealed drugs are the top concern among residents, so officials are striving to keep the task force in any form.

"You can't ignore the citizens' complaints," Majoy said.

In addressing public concerns, Muehling said he fears the agency will be forced to focus on the drug problem's street-level symptoms -- crackhouses, drug addicts, minor drug dealers -- instead of going after its higher-level causes.

A task force has to take care of the small stuff, Runner argued, because the community will continue to spiral downward if such problems are left unchecked. Cracking down on the streets makes it uncomfortable for dealers in the community, and any upper-level investigations start with street work.

Organized crime looks for law-enforcement vacuums to deal drugs, and Erie County must make sure one isn't created here, Baxter said.

Since the task force is going back to a law enforcement agency, Baxter expects better cooperation from the police departments.

Baxter is replacing Binette with another full-time prosecutor, and Glovinsky will commit a full-time Huron officer back to the task force per a request.

With Majoy's promotion to commander, no one is left to fill his task force vacancy. Doing so would be a violation of the county's austerity spending program, but Lyons intends to ask for the replacement.

"We will assist them in any way we can," McClung said. "But our connection with the Toledo DEA is reaping considerable benefits that we don't also see here."

Perkins will not have any officers assigned full-time to the 2005 task force, nor will Vermilion as Lorain County offers a reimbursement for officers.

"Just because they don't have an officer there doesn't mean we aren't sharing manpower," Lyons said.

Vern Dunn, resident agent with the Toledo DEA office, said having a Perkins officer full-time serves as a valuable link between the task force and federal resources.

"But we can't take the place of a regional task force, it just can't happen," Dunn said. "I know funding and grant cuts are really hurting some areas, but we also have limited resources."

Short on manpower and funding, Majoy said the 2005 task force has to look for new ways to fight drug dealers. Lyons, Majoy, Baxter and the police chiefs are meeting soon to discuss solutions.

"It is not our ideal situation, but it is leaner and meaner," said Ferrell, who added focusing on street-level problems will create more seizure money.

The problem with relying on forfeitures for funding is it is impossible to consistently predict how much will be seized each year, Majoy said.

Even the original grant funding may be in jeopardy, as Lyons said he hears it may be cut statewide.

The Byrne Memorial Grant will provide $139,517 with another $46,523.57 coming in local matching funds, but because that is jointly received with Ottawa County Drug Task Force, Erie County's share is $136,369.67.

To support its operations, the Lorain County task force relies on a permanent drug levy. Binette said something similar here -- perhaps a sales-tax increase specifically for the task force -- would solve funding woes.

In order to get the support for such a tax, Lyons said it will take everyone -- especially the law enforcement agencies -- working together to show support for the task force.

"Cops are the worst at being critical of each other," Lyons said. "But when the bell rings, they're right out there together."