Deputy: Local drug crimes increasingly controlled by cartel
By Emma Daniel
For the Enquirer
Meth is one of the most common illegal drugs found in Morgan County, and a “vast majority” of the meth seized comes from international crime syndicates, said Morgan County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Joey Coburn.
“Meth is probably Morgan County’s biggest issue,” he said. “And 98% of what you seize is cartel meth.”
He said the “big three” drugs present in the area are meth, cocaine and heroin (which often is laced with fentanyl).
Coburn was one of several representatives of the Morgan County Sheriff’s Office who spoke at last week’s Sheriff’s Citizens Academy. The one-day session was designed to give residents a behind-the-scenes look at the Sheriff’s Office and its activities.
Coburn said it is now cheaper for users to purchase drugs from out of the country rather than to manufacture them at home, and those who purchase those drugs — even marijuana — could be financing other crimes.
He said profits from the sale of illicit drugs can support trafficking guns and stronger drugs, and even human trafficking.
He said the presence of fentanyl in other drugs is an increasing concern.
“Nowadays you see people that smoke even just marijuana, and they’ll be down (with an overdose),” Coburn said.
He said the Sheriff’s Office now responds to 30% more overdoses than it did in 2019.
“There is no winning the war on drugs,” Coburn said.
He said his division, the drug enforcement unit, uses surveillance and informants to locate local drug dealers.
“We know every drug dealer in the area, but there’s certain things we can do and certain things we can’t, because we need evidence,” he said. “Putting someone in jail with a half a gram of meth is not the answer. What we can do is allow them to cooperate (as informants) while they go to rehab.”
The academy was free to the public and hosted speakers from multiple units in the Sheriff’s Office, such as patrol, narcotics, criminal investigations, court transports, corrections and finance.
Justin Jackson, 33, owner of Art and Soul tattoo shop in Hartselle, attended the Dec. 5 event. He said he gives many Sheriff’s Office employees tattoos and considers them to be friends.
“It’s almost mind-numbing how much stuff goes into this, and what an uphill battle they fight every day,” he said.
The academy included a tour of the Morgan County Jail — the only jail in Morgan County — which has an average daily headcount of 600 inmates.
Warden Aaron Dawson said he wants inmates to spend their time in custody learning and improving themselves by participating in some of the 25 classes offered at the jail.
“We’re not just a detention facility where we babysit,” he said. “We want to accomplish something while they’re here. Their daily routine is very regimented, and they fall into that structure.”
Dawson said many patrol deputies start in corrections, and patrol is typically where most Sheriff’s Office operations begin.
“Patrol is the most visible aspect of what we do,” said Mike Swafford, the Morgan County sheriff’s public information officer.
He said five to seven deputies patrol the county at all times.
Compared to the past, patrol deputies’ crazy encounters have gotten “crazier, and there’s more of it,” Swafford said. “But protect and serve doesn’t mean we’re capable of taking care of everything.”
He said many calls are not necessarily about crime — they receive calls about cows in the road and mental health situations.
The Sheriff’s Office had an average response time of 13 minutes in fiscal 2022 for non-urgent calls and five minutes for urgent calls.
He said the Sheriff’s Office occasionally gets complaints from residents who see patrol cars sitting in parking lots, with deputies seemingly idle. But when most deputies on patrol are handling calls, he said, one deputy needs to be in a central place to offer any necessary backup to the others.
“It can look like an officer is doing nothing, when they could be on standby for the next thing,” Swafford said.
He said violence at public events nationally has made deputies’ jobs more stressful. He mentioned parades in particular. National incidents involving people shooting at or driving vehicles into people at festivals require law enforcement agencies to be more proactive at events.
“They’re not the fun, hug everybody, wave at Santa thing they used to be,” Swafford said. “Now we have to block roads with a vehicle. We sadly have to make plans and adjust.”
Lt. Garry Landers said the Sheriff’s Office currently has no unsolved missing persons cases or homicides.
“There are a lot more bad days than good days in investigation,” he said.
The Criminal Investigation Division investigates felonies, missing people, death scenes, suicides, overdoses, sex crimes and other serious crimes.
“The good days are when you can catch a bad guy or find a missing person,” Landers said.
He said he has been personally affected by the crimes he has investigated that were committed against children.
“That’s the hardest part, dealing with juveniles and sexual crimes. It’s a lot on your mind,” he said. “People talk about stresses of the job, and you carry that with you all the time.”
Investigator Caleb Brooks said it’s sometimes difficult to handle the terrible things he sees.
“You try to leave work it at work. I don’t want to go home and tell my wife or my 6-year-old boy what I had to do,” he said. “There are a lot of things that happen at work that you don’t want to take home or bring up again.”
He said crimes against juveniles also affect him the most.
“Anything that involves a child, that’s a whole different animal. It’s one thing to break into my house and steal my stuff, but hurting a child is a whole different ball game.”