Typically, police record the serial numbers of money their informants use to buy street drugs and use that information to build cases against drug dealers such as the
30 people arrested on drug charges in the Twin Ports since Tuesday.
What made "Operation Crackdown" unique is that some of the alleged drug dealers didn't want money that could be identified as payment for illegal drugs. They just wanted something of value even groceries and food stamps.
A confidential police informant purchased a cartload of beef, bread, eggs and other groceries and traded it to a dealer for crack cocaine. That led investigators to find that drug dealers were trading "food stamps" or EBT/SNAP cards for drugs. The task force used the benefit cards to buy drugs and build cases against seven suspects for wrongfully obtaining public assistance as well as drug crimes.
Operation Crackdown which was unveiled Friday by the Lake Superior Drug and Violent Crime Task Force and the Duluth Police Department started in May as a straight drug investigation and became more notable than some other drug busts in the Twin Ports when investigators learned of the apparent public assistance fraud.
"It started when one of the suspects was out on bail on another drug charge and didn't want to take money for drugs," said Lt. Steve Stracek, commander of the Lake Superior Drug and Violent Crime Task Force. "He was so worried about getting caught with 'buy money' on him that it got to the point that he was taking groceries. Anything that you can take in as property is easier to explain as a proceed of drug sales than cash. That is kind of what cracked the case open. We learned that other crack dealers were taking EBT cards."
Stracek said the drug dealer would typically sell $100 worth of crack cocaine for $200 in benefits on the EBT card. Or the dealer would go with the card owner to the grocery store and get $200 worth of groceries.
The operation resulted in arrests across the Twin Ports and in the Twin Cities.
Authorities said many of the suspects in the investigation have significant criminal histories, including offenses related to drug trafficking, weapon violations, assaults and other violent crimes.
Among those arrested was Ronald Paris Riles, 35, also known as "P." Stracek said Riles' record includes a homicide conviction that he believed was in Illinois. The Duluth police Tactical Response Team arrested Riles on a search warrant executed in the 100 block of West Fifth Street about 5 p.m. Wednesday.
Investigators believe Riles flushed crack cocaine down the toilet, but heroin was recovered at the residence as well as two handguns, one of which was loaded. The guns were concealed above ceiling tiles.
Riles faces charges of first- and second-degree sale of controlled substances in a school zone and additional charges related to drug and firearms violations.
Many of the suspects are transients. Stracek said 18 of them don't have permanent residences here. They stay with people they know and sell drugs out of apartments and other residences. He said some of the suspects come from Chicago, Detroit and the Twin Cities.
More than two ounces of crack cocaine were seized from a residence in the 200 block of East Second Street, where three people were arrested.
Stracek said there was no organized leader of the drug sales.
"This really was a scattering of different drug dealers," he said. "There were cells or pods of groups or family members or three or four guys working together."
Investigators continue to search for at least 10 other suspects.
Other agencies involved in the investigation include the Minnesota State Patrol; Superior Police Department; St. Louis County Sheriff's Office; Boundary Waters Drug Task Force; Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; U.S. Department of Agriculture; U.S. Marshals Service; U.S. Forest Service; Cloquet Police Department; Carlton County Sheriff's Office; Fond du Lac Police Department; Lake County Sheriff's Office; St. Louis County Attorney's Office and the St. Paul Police Department.
Those arrested so far, and the charges they face, include: