Drug agents, prosecutors battle to keep drug dealers behind bars

MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WBTW) – In 2016, the 15th Circuit Solicitor’s Office prosecuted 3,000 drug-related cases. Putting those cases together takes months, sometimes even years, to investigate.

News13’s Taylor Herlong went on an undercover drug bust with the 15th Circuit Drug Unit to see the amount of manpower those investigations require and find out what’s being done to keep dealers behind bars.

On a Thursday afternoon in a grocery store parking lot off Highway 501, a drug deal is going down, but this one is caught on camera.

“It looks like the deal is probably done,” says the undercover officer monitoring the deal from across the parking lot.

It’s a buy the drug agents have been working to set up for weeks.

“A lot of times, we’ll come out and set up a situation like this, and we’re not able to complete the operation, so we have to shut down and plan for another day,” explains the agent.

A confidential informant meets with a known drug dealer and uses tracked money to buy drugs.

“The ultimate goal for us is to try to find out where they’re laying their head,” the agent says. “Generally, that determines where they’re storing their proceeds and the additional drugs that they may be holding on to for their enterprise.”

After the drug deal is complete, the officers work to track the documented cash back to the dealer’s home. The agents get a search warrant for the property and work to build the case against the dealer.

“Alright, they’re pulling out now, heading towards the exit,” the agent radios to other undercover officers in the deal. “Jake, let me know when you got eyes on him.”

The drug agent explains that they have to set up the deal, follow the cash, and work to build evidence to get the dealers behind bars.

“The goal is to present a prosecutable case to the solicitor’s office,” the agent says. “So, it takes a little bit of time to build up to that point.”

After hours of surveillance, a videotaped buy, and a search warrant with every piece of evidence a judge would need, the fate of the dealer rests in the court. The challenge is, factors outside of the investigation can allow the offenders back to the streets, dealing drugs again.

“With jail overcrowding, the court system finds it difficult to put people in jail that potentially could rehabilitate without spending years and years in jail, but you know, there’s a cost to that too,” reports the agent.

Solicitor Jimmy Richardson says prosecutors are pushing to get more time for drug traffickers than ever before.

“I can’t envision having much tougher laws against trafficking than what we’ve got,” states Richardson.

Richardson says last year 17 men pleaded guilty in Horry County for selling drugs and were sentenced to a combined 162 years in prison.

“You can’t turn on the TV without seeing another defendant, another defendant getting 12, 13, 14, 15 years, and that’s happening weekly,” confirms Richardson.

Sentences vary on the amount of drugs found on the dealer. The majority of maximum sentences are 25-30 years, but Richardson says a judge rarely rules for the max. While the drug agents see the same faces making deals on the streets, Richardson says it’s not from a lack of punishment.

“These people that are saying ‘oh, it’s a slap on the wrist,’ if you’ve got 15 years,  whatever 85 percent of that is 13 or twelve and a half {years], that is what you’ve got to serve before you even come up on a list to make parole,” argues Richardson. “So, those are stiff, stiff sentences.”

Still, even after serving their time, these dealers often end up handcuffed and hauled back to jail, according to the undercover drug agents.

“If there’s no accountability for your crimes, then people tend to want to go back into that lifestyle because it’s quick money,” says the agent.

With only three prosecutors, the sheer volume of drug cases is a problem.

“We will get probably somewhere just short of 3,000 cases per year just from drugs and the vast majority,” states Richardson. “I mean, 90 percent of that is either pills or heroin now.”

One of the larger problems facing the drug agents is that the current drug of choice – pills and heroin – knows no race, gender, neighborhood, or social class.

“It’s everywhere, and a lot of people want to close their eyes and think it’s not, but it is,” the agent says. “I think you’d be hard pressed to find a family in this area or in any area that doesn’t have a relative or a friend who has children or relatives that are affected by the drug epidemic.”

Richardson says the 15th Circuit Solicitor’s Office currently had three prosecutors and is attempting to add a fourth over the next few months to assist in moving the drug cases forward.