By Gordon Anderson
Over two nonconsecutive days in January, I joined the Lee County Sheriff’s Office drug unit for ride alongs to get an up close, unfiltered look at the work they do. I’ve participated over the years in lots of ride alongs, but always when there was a long-planned operation in motion. This time, we left the office with nothing specific in mind to see where the day took us. In the process, I got a good look at the average day in the life of a narcotics agent.
I’ve left out names and identifying information of all the people the deputies observed, investigated, interacted with, or even charged on those days so as not to unfairly prejudice the public against them. One of the things I learned from this experience is that oftentimes something that looks wrong or out of place is in fact absolutely normal. And in the cases of the people who ended up charged with any violation, they remain innocent until proven guilty in court.
My first day with the drug unit is a Friday, and so the day starts with the team’s weekly breakfast at Jim’s Restaurant on Tramway Road. Five officers are present – Lt. William Sturkie, the unit’s second in command, and agents Chris Thompson, Josh Bryant, Mel Haines, and Joe Medlin. Joining them is a patrol deputy, Jordan Simons, who volunteers his time with the team when he has the opportunity in order to gain experience if and when a spot becomes available.
While there’s a good amount of discussion about where the day might take us – locations from which the team has received complaints, tips to run down from informants, et cetera – it’s also probably the last point in the work day where the team can afford to let its guard down a little bit and indulge in some lighter moments. There’s plenty of laughter, joking with the wait staff, and even a couple of citizens who stop by the table to thank the team for what they do and tell them to stay safe.
From there, it’s to the office for a little bit of paperwork and housekeeping – the team’s members meet briefly with Capt. Bryan Allen, the unit’s leader, before piling into their individual vehicles, gassing up, and heading out.
“You want a bulletproof vest?” Sturkie asks me as we’re about to do so.
“Do I need one?” I naively reply after a long pause caused by a question I hadn’t considered, simultaneously remembering that I’d a few minutes prior signed a waiver absolving the department of any responsibility in the event that I’m injured.
“You’re probably going to want one if they start shooting,” he says.
“Okay,” I come back with sheepishly.
I put on the vest and we head out.
The team has received some information about some suspicious activity at an area business, and so we take a ride by. As we do, a group of people standing outside sort of slowly disperses, and Sturkie and the other agents radio back and forth, pointing out folks they recognize from prior interactions and noting that despite there being a small crowd outside, there doesn’t appear to be much actual business going on.
This is the kind of thing I never notice. And while this part of the story ends without any major event – long story short, we surveil the location from a couple blocks away for about half an hour, and while Sturkie and Thompson (in separate vehicles) see some details that further their suspicions, there’s nothing actionable on this one today – one thing I keep coming back to is how much these guys pick up on that’s hiding in plain sight. It’s pretty amazing what happens all around us every day that many of us are oblivious to.
At one point, the team is riding up U.S. 1 toward Deep River when Sturkie gets a call that detectives have served a warrant on a suspect for non drug charges and found him in possession of what appears to be heroin.
This is a common and important role for the drug unit – detectives are typically busy working the details of their cases, and the narcotics agents being available to handle that part of the process makes things run smoother for everyone involved.
In this case, Detectives Bill Marcum and Neil Knight have the suspect in custody outside a mobile home park off Lower Moncure Road, and they’ve already confiscated a wallet containing small amounts of what’s alleged to be heroin. Agent Haines is already at the scene when we arrive, and as the detectives inspect a truck bed containing what they believe to be stolen goods, Sturkie joins Haines in testing the substance to confirm that it’s what it appears to be.
Something interesting happens at this point. When the contents of the small bag are mixed with another set of chemicals, the soup fails to change color. It’s fake, something the suspect tells the officers on hand that he was planning to pass off as the real thing to someone else. Another smaller package, admits the suspect, is heroin. It’s too fine to be tested outdoors in the windy January conditions, so Sturkie takes it as evidence for later testing.
A few minutes later, the suspect – sitting in the passenger seat of Detective Knight’s truck – asks for Sturkie by name.
“I’m thinking I can work with you,” he says, telling Sturkie he can offer the names of people selling drugs, perhaps in exchange for some leniency on the charges.
The two go back and forth, Sturkie telling the suspect that he’s always interested in information, but hinting that drug agents typically know – or have a good idea, at least – of who’s “in the game,” so to speak. Instead, Sturkie says the suspect is more likely to help himself with the detectives, who need to know the location of other stolen merchandise. If the suspect wants to talk with drug agents when he’s processed on the drug charges, that opportunity will be made available to him.
“You can tell me the sun’s going to come up tomorrow morning, but I already know that,” Sturkie tells me before we leave for another location.
As we’re riding, Sturkie gets a call from an informant, someone who claims to have been given a bag of cocaine by a drug dealer at their place of employment. We go to meet them so he can collect the drugs and take down any information.
“So technically, isn’t this person admitting to possession of cocaine right now?” I ask rhetorically.
Sturkie says of course, but explains that – the fact that it would be ridiculous to arrest this person at this time and for this reason aside – officers have fairly broad discretion in their dealings with the public.
“This is a person who doesn’t like this stuff, and they want to see us do something about it,” he explains.
After collecting the small bag of (alleged, it should be noted) drugs and placing it in an evidence bag, we’re off again.
We’re coming up a main road between west Sanford and downtown when a vehicle pulls out ahead of us with out of state tags. It’s a vehicle the agents had already noticed once this morning, as the tags came back fictitious. But since the vehicle was on private property the first time it was noticed there was little to be done at that point.
Not now. Sturkie notices the vehicle turn off into a neighborhood near Sanford’s historic district, but instead of following directly, he goes up a block before turning left, hoping to meet the driver head on.
This is exactly what happens. We see the car coming toward us, and the look on the occupants’ faces is one of recognition. Still, Sturkie’s at a disadvantage, having to stop and turn around while the other driver has a chance to wind around a cluster of streets trying to throw the law off his tail.
It doesn’t work. Through a combination of communications with his colleagues, that attention to detail I mentioned before, and some aggressive-but-smart driving, Sturkie manages to catch up to the vehicle, activating his lights and stopping it at the entrance to Kiwanis Park on Wicker Street.
This is the first incident on my ride along that feels tense. Sturkie at this point is by himself, although backup is on the way. The driver and the passenger are moving erratically before he’s even out of the car, and as he approaches, the driver tries to get out before Sturkie stops him.
Things calm down from there, but they stay weird. Practically the whole team arrives, including Capt. Allen, as the driver says he doesn’t have a license and the passenger has only an out of state prison identification card. Out of the car, they both wait patiently – albeit erratically – as the agents separate and speak with them. The driver admits to having needles in his car (which isn’t a crime) but there’s no evidence of drugs and no probable cause to conduct a search. All Sturkie can do is offer a citation for driving without a license.
As he does, he reminds the driver that he’s eligible to have his license reinstated and tells him how to get that done. “If you’re going to be driving around, you need a license,” Sturkie tells him.
It’s unclear whether it’s that helpful and non judgmental attitude or something else entirely, but the driver then offers to help Sturkie locate another person he says is selling the deadly heroin additive fentanyl. They make plans to talk more and we leave. I never learn whether that information leads to anything.
It’s not all drugs, of course. At one point, the team is headed in tandem to a neighborhood in Deep River when a 911 call comes across the radio. A man is apparently refusing to leave a house after being ordered to do so by a woman.
Each of them activates blue lights and sirens and turn around – all without any communication.
“They all heard that,” Sturkie tells me as we pick up speed. “On something like this, that has the potential to turn into a domestic situation, you go to that first.”
As we fly back toward the 911 call, which is off Main Street, I tell myself Sturkie knows what he’s doing, even as my not-exactly-used-to-this-type-of-thing body involuntarily braces itself in the passenger seat. We’re the first to arrive, but not by much.
At the scene, there’s some yelling, but not much more. A man has been told by his aunt to leave a house that belongs to his father. The father, however, doesn’t want the son gone. It’s a personal dispute the team is able to pretty quickly diffuse, but not without a wrinkle that shows some of the aggravators law enforcement deals with on the regular.
A man comes out of a house across the street, loudly insisting the other man has a right to be in the home. This man has no involvement in the situation, but approaches anyway, essentially inserting himself into a situation that’s been largely de-escalated. Luckily, he’s convinced to go home without further incident, and we take off again.
Bryant and Simons have stopped a vehicle without tags at a church on Carbonton Road, and as Sturkie and I arrive, the two agents are talking with the car’s occupants. The backseat piled high with all manner of blankets and clothes evidences what they reveal shortly – they’re living out of the car and only driving out of absolute necessity.
“They’re not real nervous, and they’re confident in their story, so I don’t think we’re going to find anything,” Simons tells me.
Even so, Medlin gets Dex – the department’s drug sniffing dog – out of his vehicle to see if he detects anything. He doesn’t.
The driver is cited for the vehicle not having tags, and we move on.
At another point, Bryant makes a stop on Spring Lane after running a tag number and discovering a young woman driving without a license. There’s what looks an awful lot like a bullet hole in her windshield, as well as a faded North Carolina Narcotics Officer Enforcement Association sticker on the back.
Dex comes out again, but he’s not picking anything up. The woman says she has to drive because she needs to go to the store for gas and cigarettes.
“No, that’s a choice,” Sturkie tells her.
She’s cited, she puts the car in neutral and moves if off the road before being told to call someone with a valid license to come and get her. We leave.
As we’re coming up Douglas Drive, Sturkie sees a newer model car sort of lurking around the dead end of a hotel parking lot on North Horner Boulevard. It looks weird to him, so he slows down long enough to run the tag, and turns around to see what he can see. By the time we pass back by – just a few seconds later – the car seems to be long gone.
That’s when Sturkie sees it taking the on ramp to U.S. 1 South, and moves to catch up. As we follow the vehicle, Sturkie notices a broken windshield, which is enough to make a stop. He finally does so on Buffalo Church Road, about three miles away from where he first spotted the vehicle.
As Thompson arrives behind us, Sturkie tells the driver he stopped him because of the broken windshield, and then asks what he was doing at the hotel – a location that the drug agents frequently visit.
“Well,” the driver tells him. “I was going to get a room there in a couple nights, and I just wanted to check the place out.”
“Where do you stay?” Sturkie asks, as the man motions to a nearby apartment complex. “If you live right here, why would you want to get a hotel room right down the road?”
“Well,” the man offers. “I just wanted to get a hotel room there.”
The man is told to get his windshield fixed, and we’re off again.
The final interaction I witness with the drug unit on my ride alongs is triggered when we pull through the parking lot of the Prince Downtown Motel on Carthage Street. As we pull behind the building along the property’s edge, Sturkie notices a young woman sitting in a truck that’s backed into a parking space. It’s hard to tell what she’s doing, but she’s moving around quite a bit.
Whatever’s going on, it’s enough to catch Sturkie’s attention.
Before long, another young woman comes out of one of the hotel’s units, gets into the passenger seat, and the truck takes off. Intrigued, Sturkie radios to Bryant, who picks the truck up coming out of the parking lot.
A few blocks away, the truck stops to let the second girl out. The tag comes back to a teenager who lives in a vastly different part of town, and Sturkie decides to approach the vehicle and ask the girls what they were doing at a hotel that’s been labeled by residents, neighbors and law enforcement alike as a dangerous place.
The girls are nervous, and their stories don’t exactly match up – something about visiting a friend to get shampoo – but there’s no apparent crime to investigate, so there’s not much to be done other than let the girls know what kind of place they were in.
“I just want you to make good decisions,” he tells the driver. “I know what kind of place that is, because I deal with what goes on there. So I just want you to make good decisions.”
There are probably a dozen more interactions like this I could describe for this story, including a handful I just didn’t have room to include. I didn’t see the drug unit catch any big fish in my two days with them, and there were more than a few times when things seemed like they could have bubbled into something big and turned out to be nothing at all.
But I was hoping as much to witness some of the mundanity as I was much as I was hoping to witness any “action.” We see the headlines when the big busts are made, but the work I was witness to is often where those headlines originate.
These guys do tough work, and were still able – in the 16 or so hours I spent with them – to treat everyone with whom I saw them come into contact with dignity and respect, even if they knew they might not always get it back. In a world where law enforcement has been so deeply politicized, the opportunity to get an unfiltered look at the work the profession does on a daily basis is one I’m glad I took.