I don’t want to sound like a scaredy cat, but when everyone around me — big guys from U.S. Marshals, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement Tri-County Narcotics Task Force, Jacksonville Police, Flagler County Sheriff’s Office — was strapping on bulletproof vests and stuffing every pocket with tasers and pistols, I have to admit I felt like I had made a mistake. I had no one to blame but myself for accepting the offer to ride along during the largest drug bust in the county since last November. We were in the P-Section serving one of almost two-dozen warrants Thursday, Sept. 16, to break up the Script Club, a loosely organized group of traffickers, sellers and users of Oxycodone.
“Watch out,” said Sgt. Chris Sepe.
I ducked and spun around.
“No, I just need to close the door,” he said.
He pulled down the hatch to his SUV.
OK. We walked along the sleepy, Palm Coast street. Sunlight glinted in the pine needles high overhead, and the sun hadn’t heated up the air yet. It could have been any morning, anywhere in suburbia, except for the guns and the battering-ram canister being toted by one of the U.S. Marshals.
Sepe, who has been with the Sheriff’s Office for 17 years, said I should wait at the end of the driveway rather than approach the door. No problem, I thought. Between this plastic mailbox and my four-inch writing pad for a shield, I’m sure I’ll be safe.
The law enforcement officers spread out, surrounding the home. They had a tip from a neighbor saying the suspect, Sherri Le, was home and must be hiding out inside. I had my doubts, because an old copy of a certain free community newspaper lay yellowing in the driveway. Surely even drug dealers wouldn’t let a perfectly good copy of The Palm Coast Observer go to waste, I thought.
Then, the knocking started. They knocked on the windows and on the doors. Then they pounded: Thud, thud, thud echoed through the street. A little old lady on the corner stood and watched, and I smile awkwardly in her direction.
“U.S. Marshals! We have a warrant for your arrest! We’re about to breach the door! You have three seconds!”
Nothing. A half-dozen crows flew back and forth through the trees a few blocks away. Creepy, right?
Then, the pounding really began, as the officers rammed the door repeatedly until the deadbolt gave way. Sepe motioned for me to stay put while the rest entered the house. Yessir. I’ll just be keeping an eye on this mailbox and warding off any brave elderly folks.
In they went, but still nothing. A minute or two later, the same routine was repeated, with the knocking, the pounding and the shouted warnings: “We’re about to breach the door! You have three seconds!” This time, they rammed in a bedroom door.
Handcuffed, a young woman in jeans and pink T-shirt was led out a few minutes later, a cigarette dangling from her lips. As I snapped a few pictures, she muttered to an officer: “Glad to see you invited everybody.”
According to Sepe, when they entered Le’s bedroom, she was sitting in a relaxed pose on her bed, a cigarette in one hand and a phone in the other. Sepe said based on her body language, she seemed to be asking, “What’s up, boys?” Apparently, the pain killers she has allegedly been dealing have a mellowing effect and aren’t likely to incite violence.
As she was led to the car, Le said she hadn’t answered the door because she didn’t know who was knocking. Hmm. To me, the shouts and the battering ram would have given it away, but I have little experience running (or chilling out) from the law. As she was getting in the car, Le complained no one had read her rights.
I asked Sepe about that while we were driving back to the Emergency Operations Center, where a mobile command center had been set up for processing the 15 suspects who were booked in jail that day.
“We only have to say we’re here executing a lawful warrant,” he said, “We don’t have to read Miranda until we’re questioning her.”
“Well, that’s not how they do it in the movies,” I said.
“And in ‘CSI,’ they get DNA back in 24 hours,” Sepe said, referring to the crime-solving show. “That’s why TV is killing us.”
Sepe was right: This drug bust was nothing like the busts in prime time. First of all, on TV they always kick in the door — no battering rams. Second, the suspects’ faces are always digitally smeared. Third, there usually isn’t a reporter hiding behind the mailbox, furiously composing his will. Next time, I’ll bring my own vest.
Note: This was first published Sept. 23 in The Palm Coast Observer.