Almost a year of work by an undercover police officer came to an end last week with 11 arrests for drug deals police say took place in Columbia Pike bars and restaurants.
The 10-month investigation into cocaine distribution at Pike restaurants and bars began in January, and culminated last week in indictments for 19 men on 44 charges of possession with intent to distribute a controlled substance.
Detectives from the vice/narcotics division also executed two search warrants, seizing two vehicles and about $10,000 worth of cocaine.
Work on the case isn’t finished yet, as eight of the men under indictment were at large as of press time. But police believe the toughest and most dangerous part of the investigation is over.
Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Tony Hudgins is in charge of prosecuting the cases. He declined to comment on specifics but said a conviction for possession with intent to distribute, the charge in all 19 of the indictments, can bring a sentence of five to 40 years in prison and up to a $500,000 fine for each count.
The arrests came at a time when efforts to revitalize the Pike are in full swing. It remains to be seen how news of drug-related arrests could affect those efforts.
“I don’t know that any publicity is necessarily bad publicity,” said Tim Lynch, executive director of the Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization. “I think it’s good that they’re catching people and they’re doing their job. They’re paying attention to Columbia Pike.”
AN UNDERCOVER NARCOTICS detective spent months gaining trust and acceptance among South Arlington drug dealers and eventually made over 50 purchases of powdered and crack cocaine.
It’s a long and difficult process, said Matt Martin, a police department spokesman. Undercover officers must fit into cultural and socioeconomic groups. “If it’s a blue-collar bar, you’re not going to send someone in with a three-piece suit and expect them to buy,” said Martin.
Undercover narcotics investigations don’t provide white-collar security. “It’s a pretty dangerous situation we put him in,” said a detective familiar with the investigation.
Drug activity along the Pike was so common that the undercover officer was able to purchase cocaine consistently every night of the week, said the detective, a 25-year veteran of the force.
Some of the indicted subjects were employees at restaurants and bars along the Pike. While there is no evidence suggesting bar owners were directly involved, the prevalence of drug activity is putting added scrutiny on those businesses.
“Once the word gets out that we were in these bars, the owners will have to start tightening up their ship,” said the detective. “It would have to be willful blindness, in my estimation, not to know this was going on.”
Officials from Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control are talking with local police to determine whether liquor licenses should be revoked.
COCAINE AND MARIJUANA are the two most common drugs sold in the county, police say. Ecstacy is less common but does exist. Methamphetamines are slowly creeping into the market as well.
The recent investigation targeted what police see as a new trend in drug dealing in the county. “Formerly you had pockets of open-air [drug] markets both in North and South Arlington, and you no longer have that,” said the narcotics detective.
Due in part to police pressure, drug dealers began shifting their operations to small clubs, bars and restaurants within the last decade. While it’s generally considered a community benefit to have drug dealers off the streets, it does have its drawbacks. “It’s much more difficult to learn about it when it’s not being done in the open,” said Martin.