Virginia Counterdrug Program supports law enforcement in disrupting drug distribution

Soldiers from the Chesterfield-based Detachment 1, Company A, 2nd Battalion, 151st Aviation Regiment depart for the border between the United States and Mexico Jan. 26, 2015, aboard a UH-72 Lakota helicopter, from the Chesterfield County Airport. The three Soldiers will provide aerial detection and monitoring support to U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection and additional Virginia Guard Soldiers will rotate through the mission until the end of April in support of law enforcement interdiction operations against illicit trafficking in people, drugs, weapons and money, as well as the violence associated with those illicit activities. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Terra C. Gatti, Virginia Guard Public Affairs)

Virginia National Guard Soldiers assigned to the Virginia Counterdrug Task Force fly UH-72 Lakota helicopters to provide aerial reconnaissance to support Homeland Security Investigations and the Virginia State Police Taskforce in an effort to detect and disrupt a major cocaine suspect involved in illegal cocaine distribution/trafficking. (File photo by Sgt. 1st Class Terra C. Gatti, Virginia National Guard Public Affairs)

RICHMOND, Va. — You can run but you can’t hide, an old adage that proved true to form for an illicit drug trafficking suspect in Virginia during the summer of 2016.

The Virginia Counterdrug Task Force provided aerial reconnaissance from the UH-72A Lakota helicopter with a Mission Equipment Package to support Homeland Security Investigations and the Virginia State Police Taskforce in an effort to detect and disrupt a major cocaine suspect involved in illegal cocaine distribution/trafficking.

“The confidence the law enforcement agencies had in Virginia Counterdrug aviation capabilities was evident when VACD Aviation flew the aerial support and coordinated communications during the final take-down,” said Lt. Col. William Taylor, Virginia Counterdrug Coordinator.

The VACDTF provided overhead cover, reconnaissance and command and control for the ground reconnaissance teams. The objective: support law enforcement agencies in their effort to develop the case and enable the case agent to acquire the information needed to write and submit for a search/arrest warrant.

“The technology used by the highly trained aircrew proved invaluable in leading to the successful outcome of this and many similar cases across Virginia,” said Chief Warrant Officer 4 Ronald Menoher, Counterdrug Aviation Operations. “In these win-win scenarios, while providing support to law enforcement, Counterdrug crews also gain domestic operational experience and familiarity with many of the same agencies they’ll work with during State military emergency relief missions.”

As the aircraft soared above, the suspect trekked amid a highly congested area of Virginia operations making his way to different “stash” houses. Unbeknownst to him, aboard the UH-72A Lakota, the aircrew could observe his every step. As he trudged about from one stash house to another, he unwittingly revealed each of their locations to law enforcement.

In the past, this suspect had been able to evade ground reconnaissance teams, but on this day law enforcement was watching. He could run, but he could not hide.

Five “stash houses” were identified as various storage and distribution facilities in Virginia. The case agent was able to take the information garnered during this support mission and acquire the search/arrest warrant.

With the warrant issued, VACDTF held on standby at an airport near the targeted area.

Tick Tock. The LEAs wait for a call—a call projected to launch the follow on arrest operation. Tick Tock.

Buzz buzz. The phone fractures the silence. The mission is a go.

Now, it is up to the aircrew to coordinate with multiple ground teams staged at various locations. Communication with accurate details is early and often. Situational awareness among the LEAs must be maintained.

The LEA ground teams move out. While following commands and directions from the aircrew, the ground teams (from a safe distance) are able to identify and track the primary suspects’ arrival to the “stash house.” Upon entering the “stash house” to complete his cocaine transaction, HSI and VSPTF members get the call to execute the arrest.

The LEA aboard the UH72A Lakota monitors the situation for escaping suspects and video/audio records the event for evidence.

By the end of the transaction, one major suspect had been arrested, multiple vehicles, five kilos of cocaine, and $65,000 in currency had been seized, and the LEAs had discovered several leads to investigate for future potential arrests.

“It was flawless execution by all assets,” Menoher said.

As it turns out, the primary suspect was previously involved in an attempted capital murder investigation in another state.

The operation spanned several days with different aircrews swapping in and out to maintain continuous operations.

“The entire operation simply would not have happened without the reconnaissance and overhead cover provided by the Virginia Counterdrug Task Force aircraft,” an HSI case agent said.

This particular reconnaissance and overhead cover mission would not have taken place had the Virginia National Guard Counterdrug Criminal Analyst assigned to HSI not shared the National Guard Counterdrug aviation capabilities with the case manager.

After the case manager learned about Counterdrug aviation, a capabilities brief took place and the mission was on. The aviation support grew to mutual coordination between air and ground assets and a battle hand-over between U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the National Guard air assets.

As the investigation continues, the primary suspect will no longer be able to run or be able to hide because he is now “hidden” in plain sight—federal custody.

Article written by Air Force Master Sgt. Betty J. Squatrito-Martin, National Guard Bureau Counterdrug