EPHRATA – Drawn out in stark, dry lines, Grant County stretches north from Grand Coulee Dam to towns so obscure they force even longtime Washington residents to consult a map. Its 2,791 square miles are an island of cheatgrass, tumbleweeds and sagebrush punctuated with the occasional oasis and stretches of irrigated farm ground.
It’s also spilling over with drugs.
In the past few weeks, Grant County sheriff’s detectives and Moses Lake police have both set all-time seizure records for heroin. They’ve confiscated pounds of methamphetamine, dozens of guns and another 20 tons of marijuana located in illegal grows throughout the jurisdiction.
“It’s been a zoo around here,” Moses Lake Police Chief Kevin Fuhr said. “In about three weeks, we’ve confiscated about 50 pounds of meth and heroin. It’s worth well over $1 million. In little Moses Lake, that’s just unheard of.”
Grant County Sheriff Tom Jones said that years ago, he supervised the county’s drug task force, called the Interagency Narcotics Enforcement Team. At that time, detectives rarely encountered black tar heroin.
“Just in the last five years we started seeing heroin,” Jones said. “Now we are seeing it everywhere.”
None of the meth from the seizures appears to have been made locally, and sheriff’s deputies haven’t found a meth lab since 2011. Asked if the drugs are coming from Mexican drug cartels, both Jones and Chief Deputy Ryan Rectenwald answered in the affirmative.
“One hundred percent of the meth and heroin is coming from our southern border,” Rectenwald said.
Jones blamed the boom of heroin, a drug once viewed as a junkie’s rock bottom, to the surging rate of addiction to opioid medication.
“People first get hooked on pills. But heroin is a cheaper high,” Jones said. “It’s easier to obtain than going to a doctor. And it’s a stronger high than opioid pills.”
Neither Jones nor Rectenwald believe all the drugs seized in the last few weeks were intended for Grant County users, however.
“We do have a problem with meth and heroin here,” Rectenwald said. “But in my heart, I believe a lot is getting sent to the East Coast. The farther east they go, the more they can charge.”
Guys, guns and chem suits
The run of drug seizures started in August, with a call to the sheriff’s office from a neighbor near Warden. The caller saw people patrolling a field carrying long guns and wearing what appeared to be chemical suits, Rectenwald said.
Detectives obtained a search warrant and launched what would become a pattern of dozens of busts throughout the county.
“We had several family members put up in what appeared to look like a legal medical marijuana grow,” he said. “However, all were growing up to 100 plants. They are only allowed 15.”
Each of the persons had paperwork that appeared to be copied from the same source.
“As we started developing cases,” Rectenwald said, “we kept seeing the same kind of styles of grows. They’ve moved from clandestine operations to just right-in-your face operations in the guise of medical marijuana grows.”
Jones said growers used to hire armed guards to watch over grow operations hidden in the mountains. Then in 2009, they concentrated their operations around thorny Russian olive trees. The next year they changed to growing in orchards, then vineyards and then corn fields.
“Now they are moving to organized grows in plain sight,” he said.
All told, the raids from 27 search warrants netted 41,000 pounds of marijuana and 24 arrests. Deputies confiscated 56 guns, numerous rounds of ammunition, $55,000 in cash and numerous vehicles.
But the county’s drug-fighting efforts were just warming up.
Mountain of meth
On Oct. 5, a Moses Lake police officer saw a BMW driving late at night with tinted windows and no license plates.
After the officer pulled the driver over, he noticed the driver had red eyes and the officer could see white powder inside the car. “He thought he had a possible DUI,” Fuhr said.
The driver, Jose Miranda, refused to comply with the officer’s instructions and was taken into custody for obstruction, Fuhr said. A search of Miranda’s pockets found heroin inside of a condom, which prompted his arrest for possession of narcotics.
The officer obtained a search warrant for the car and found about 8 pounds of drugs inside. The white powder turned out to be nothing, Fuhr said.
But a subsequent search of Miranda’s home and storage unit found more drugs. Those discoveries also led to the arrest of Maria Chaves Diaz, 27, described as Miranda’s girlfriend, Fuhr said.
By the end of the searches, detectives had pulled out about 27 pounds of meth, 7 pounds of heroin, 40 pounds of marijuana, nine guns and a military-grade bullet-proof vest.
Jones estimated the drugs’ street value at about $1.2 million. “It’s the largest drug seizure in the history of” the area drug task force, he said.
Rectenwald said local drug use “keeps (law enforcement) in business” because the users commit car and home burglaries and steal cars to barter for dope.
“It has a huge impact on our community,” Rectenwald said. “In this island we live in, it’s huge.”
Just days later, on Oct. 18, two Moses Lake officers participated in a raid in Soap Lake as part of the Pacific Northwest Violent Offender Task Force.
They assisted U.S. marshals in arresting Adan M. Mercado, 39, of Soap Lake; April E. Nunez, 28; Alberto N. Nunez; and Sergio Mendoza, 22, all of Quincy.
All four had previously been indicted on drug and weapons charges stemming from an investigation by the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, Tobacco and Explosives.
A search of Mercado’s Soap Lake home found just over a pound of heroin and just under a pound of meth, three guns and $5,800 in cash, Fuhr said.
Moses Lake strikes again
In a completely unrelated operation, a Moses Lake patrol officer learned from a confidential informant about dealers looking to sell drugs on Monday.
“That was a patrol shift that got the information and they ran with it,” Fuhr said.
Officers went undercover and were able to record the buy on video. As a result, the officers arrested 50-year-old Leo Dabalos and 34-year-old Andre Balderas.
Searches of their property located 11 pounds of heroin, six guns and some steroids.
“That’s the most heroin we’ve ever pulled out … that’s the most we’ve ever had,” Fuhr said.
None of the suspects in any of the record-seizure cases have revealed their sources.
“We have not found out where the distributors are. We hope as we go up the chain to find out where this is coming from,” Fuhr said. “But we are catching someone’s attention.”
Likewise, Jones and Rectenwald said they’ve been around too long to think that a few successful raids in a month means they’ve solved the drug problem in the sprawling county, bisected by an interstate and located halfway between Seattle and Spokane.
“I’d be naive to raise our hands and say, ‘Hoorah, we’ve taken care of the problem,’ ” Rectenwald said. “We are probably just scratching the surface.”
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.