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Back to Archives | Back to March 2005 Contents 

Drug Trafficking Murderers

By William J. Renton Jr., Special Agent in Charge, Drug Enforcement Administration, Saint Louis, Missouri, and Chief Joseph Mokwa, Saint Louis Metropolitan Police Department, Saint Louis, Missouri

n late 2001 the homicide rate in Saint Louis rose at an alarming rate. Police determined that the rate increase was not result of a surge in the number of crimes of passion or even acts of random violence. Rather, the increase was the result of drug-related violence committed by organized drug traffickers. Approximately 70 percent of all homicides had a definite drug nexus, as the victim, the perpetrator, or both had prior felony drug arrests. Homicides and associated violent crimes were directly linked to a cadre of entrenched violent drug trafficking organizations.

Because of the drug involvement issues, Saint Louis homicide detectives were able to enlist the help of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). In 2002 the Saint Louis DEA office assigned two agents to join forces with Saint Louis Metropolitan Police Department (SLMPD) homicide detectives. The DEA agents monitored all DEA intelligence resources and provided homicide detectives and violent crime specialists with any available information in real-time. This included data from criminal informants, current electronic surveillance information from telephone intercepts, and review of other items of documentary evidence from ongoing investigations. The agents also analyzed and evaluated data obtained from cellular telephones and pagers recovered from violent crime scenes.

The identification and targeting of career offenders, and linking them to local drug trafficking organizations, formed the foundation of the evolving enforcement strategy. Using court-authorized telephone wiretaps on members of these organizations as a primary investigative technique resulted in valuable intelligence on both drug and violent criminal activity and opportunities for viable prosecutions of these career criminals.

Based on the early success of the DEA agents and the homicide detectives, in 2003 the concept of the Violent Traffickers Task Force (VTTF) developed. Because the violent traffickers crossed jurisdictional lines, the Saint Louis County Police Department joined the task force and assigned personnel. All of the targeted violators were convicted criminals possessing and using guns in violations of federal law, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives joined the task force. The VTTF was designated as a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) initiative and received funding from the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Beside the law enforcement agencies involvement, VTTF needed prosecutorial support. VTTF was able to obtain commitments from the U.S. attorney's office and the circuit and state attorney's offices to aggressively prosecute all career criminals.

This collaboration provided the necessary staffing, funding, and operational capability to identify, target, arrest, detain until trial, and aggressively prosecute the career criminals responsible for murder and other violent crimes.

The new VTTF initiated investigations targeting longstanding, well-entrenched criminal drug organizations that sustained themselves through violence to protect their identification and suppress the willingness of law-abiding citizens and witnesses to assist law enforcement agencies. Task force members developed a target list and assigned suspects to VTTF investigators.

One of the founding directives of the VTTF was to systematically identify and target violent career criminal offenders and arrest them. The simple premise that the VTTF operates under is that the removal of a violent career drug criminal from a particular part the metropolitan area, by any judicial avenue available, will result in the reduction of violent crime in that area. This results in the improvement of quality of life for the law-abiding citizens residing in that neighborhood.

Traditionally, court-authorized telephone wiretaps conducted by DEA would only concentrate on drug-related intelligence information and the intelligence was kept within the drug investigation arena. However, the VTTF was designed to provide a systematic approach to disseminate actionable intelligence regarding violent crime to elements of the responsible police agencies. For Saint Louis, the VTTF was the first effort to merge DEA, ATF, Saint Louis City, and Saint Louis County law enforcement and the prosecutors as a means to identify and target violent trafficking organizations effecting communities in the metropolitan area.

In an unprecedented effort to coordinate violent crime intelligence, Saint Louis police and the VTTF instituted a first-of-its-kind citywide lookout on VTTF-targeted offenders. The VTTF enters detailed data on its targets and intelligence information drawn from virtually every law enforcement element in the Saint Louis metropolitan area into local databases that are routinely queried by line police officers during the conduct of their daily responsibilities. A hit notification is transmitted to the line officer and to a VTTF representative when a patrol officer comes into contact with a targeted violent offender. If asked, the VTTF provides additional intelligence information on suspect's residences, vehicles, and associates. In addition, the lookout provides a degree of officer safety when the subject is contacted on routine calls. The lookout has proved invaluable in identifying the whereabouts and organizational ties of targeted offenders.

Of the many successes of this unique task force, none was more crucial to public safety than the role the VTTF played in the largest manhunt in the history of the city. A Saint Louis Metropolitan Police Department patrol officer, while on duty, was brutally shot five times with an AK-47 rifle by a career criminal wanted for homicide. At the time of the shooting, DEA and Saint Louis police were jointly monitoring an active federal wiretap targeting a violent drug trafficking organization. While being sought for this heinous crime, the target was intercepted calling the telephone being tapped, and his cellular telephone number was electronically captured. Over a three-day period, agents and police officers painstakingly tracked the target's phone activity, movement, and location using sophisticated electronic equipment around the clock. He became isolated and his exact location was determined. The target was arrested without incident.

Of the 140 individuals arrested by the VTTF in its first year, 68 percent were identified on the VTTF target list and prosecuted in federal court. Since the task force inception the murder rate in the city of Saint Louis has declined by 38 percent. Although VTTF is not solely responsible for Saint Louis's drastic decline in violent crime, it has greatly contributed to the public safety and is credited as a contributing factor. ■



From The Police Chief, vol. 72, no. 3, March 2005. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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