Waupaca focus of major investigation
By Robert Cloud
Before the end of the month, Waupaca County will file charges against more than 20 suspected heroin, methamphetamine and narcotics dealers.
The charges are the result of months of investigation, primarily in the Waupaca area.
Since 2015, two Waupaca County deputies have been assigned to focus full time on drug enforcement.
“These investigations are involved and time consuming,” Waupaca County Sheriff Brad Hardel said.
Hardel said investigations often begin with a phone call from a neighbor reporting suspicious activity.
“A call alerts us to start looking at that residence,” Hardel said.
If a home receives visitors at all hours, day and night, and they stay only a few minutes, that may be a sign of drug trafficking.
“Sometimes, it’s minor stuff, but I would still encourage people to call,” Hardel said. “We’d rather look into something and find that it’s nothing, than not look and something big is happening.”
After identifying drug traffickers, investigators must then arrange to make purchases in order to provide evidence in court.
Sometimes drug purchases are made by undercover officers from other counties, but many of the buys are made by confidential informants working with the investigators.
Different dealers have different motives for selling heroin.
“Some sell exclusively to get the money. Some sell to support their habit. Some steal to support their habit,” Hardel said.
He noted several of the heroin dealers who are being arrested this month also have pending burglary and theft cases.
The county’s rise in property crimes is connected to the drug trade, Hardel said.
Charges are seldom filed immediately after an initial drug purchase is made.
“We’re trying to find the bigger players,” Hardel said. “As we’re making these buys, we’re trying to find those people who are bringing in the big shipments.”
Most of the heroin in Waupaca County is coming through Milwaukee.
In addition to identifying the dealers, investigators also want to identify those who are bringing the heroin into the area.
The goal is to execute a search warrant at a home shortly after the heroin arrives and before it has been distributed to users. This information can take months to develop.
Officers may believe there is heroin in a suspect’s vehicle as it returns from Milwaukee, but they cannot make a traffic stop without cause.
The suspect’s vehicle must be speeding, have a broken taillight, an expired license plate or some other observable violation before it can be pulled over.
The heroin epidemic is widespread, but for a rural area such as Waupaca County, it places a heavy burden on the resources of local law enforcement.
Hardel said it takes a lot of time to gather enough information to execute a successful search warrant.
He noted the investigators must file reports, do the paperwork necessary for a search warrant and work with prosecutors and other agencies in each individual case.
“They’re getting cases almost daily and they’re still trying to work on the cases they already have,” Hardel said.
While investigations have focused primarily on the Waupaca area, the county plans to expand its drug enforcement into the Clintonville and New London areas soon.
Waupaca County has made policy changes in response to the dangers posed by heroin.
For example, all patrol deputies now carry Narcan, as do many municipal police. There are also supplies of Narcan on every floor of the county jail.
The county spent more than $4,000 for its initial supply of Narcan.
Waupaca County has documented 54 overdoses to date in 2017. That figure does not include the overdoses in cities with their own police departments.
In the city of Waupaca, Police Chief Brian Hoelzel reported during an Oct. 2 meeting of the council’s Committee of the Whole that overdoses have risen sharply this year.
From 2014 through 2016, there were a total of 14 documented overdoses, he said.
As of Oct. 3 of this year, there were 23 documented overdoses in Waupaca, Hoelzel said.
The Narcan county deputies carry is primarily for their own use because some of the heroin is now being laced with fetanyl, a synthetic opioid that is up to 40 times more powerful than heroin.
Hardel said Waupaca County had one death resulting from a heroin overdose. That heroin had been laced with fetanyl.
Some of the heroin purchased by confidential informants has tested positive for the presence of fetanyl.
Even exposure to a tiny amount of airborne fetanyl can be deadly.
“If you get it on your skin, you can OD,” Hardel said.
Another policy the county has changed is that at least two deputies must be present during a vehicle search in case an officer is exposed to fetanyl.
Hardel noted law enforcement does not have eyes on every house in every neighborhood all the time.
“We really need the public’s help in trying to curtail the heroin problem in Waupaca county,” he said.