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Year in Review: BRDTF gets funding, makes arrests and adds tip411 in 2009

Members of the Buffalo Ridge Task Force mop up after busting a meth-cooking operation. The group was named the premier drug task force in Minnesota last year. (SUBMITTED PHOTO)

WORTHINGTON -- What started out as a rocky year regarding funding ended as a successful year of arrests for the Buffalo Ridge Drug Task Force (BRDTF).

Task Force Commander Troy Appel has not yet released 2009 numbers, but said he is very pleased with the number of drug-related arrests and investigations in the past year.

"We had a lot of our cases go into federal court this year," he stated, adding that the task force has a great working relationship with state and federal entities such as the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Appel learned recently that the task force funding for 2010 is already in place, with BRDTF receiving $200,000 in Byrne/JAG grant funding.

"I'm told we were given a high priority because we are considered very effective," Appel said.

Funding of the task force was an issue early in the year, when the counties and cities involved were deciding whether to pledge funds per capita.

When the task force realized there was a danger to its funding, Appel and the agents immediately went on the offensive, coming up with a plan to stay alive. Advocates visited with the boards of Murray, Rock, Nobles and Pipestone Counties in 2008, touting the advantage of a $2.50 per capita funding allotment beginning in 2009. Throughout the meetings, one statement was often repeated -- all or nothing. Each county would have to dedicate the funding, or none of them would.

At a December 2008 meeting between the counties and the BRDTF board, according to Nobles County Sheriff Kent Wilkening, officials from each of the counties said the money was designated for the per capita funding. It was after the meeting things seemed to fall apart. Concern over the lack of an agent from Rock County was at the bottom of the rift.

Wilkening said he received a call from Rock County Sheriff Evan Verbrugge on the afternoon of Dec. 4, 2008. Verbrugge had just spoken with Rock County Administrator Kyle Oldre, who was allegedly told by Ruppert that Nobles County would not commit per capita funding unless Rock County put a deputy on the task force.

While Oldre would not confirm that allegation, he did say he and Ruppert had discussed the lack of an agent from Rock County after the meeting.

"He didn't say a word during the meeting, and that infuriated everybody," Oldre said in late December. "What he indicated later was that his county board, and I think him personally, had a concern about Rock County's contribution. I wish he would have said it to everybody if he had an issue."

When asked why he hadn't spoken up at the meeting with his or the board's concern -- and had instead waited until after the meeting to discuss it with Oldre -- Ruppert said he had also discussed the situation and the board's concerns with Oldre in June.

According to an article in the Pipestone County Star regarding a local board meeting on Dec. 11, 2008, Pipestone County Coordinator Sharon Hanson told her board she had spoken with Ruppert, and he had indicated that the Nobles County Board was concerned about Rock County not supplying the same amount of input to the BRDTF.

After that report, Oldre became concerned. When he learned that both Pipestone and Nobles counties had removed money from their sheriff budgets and moved it into general funds, the concern got deeper. Oldre decided to move Rock County's funds, also.

"We did it as a response to Pipestone and Nobles," he explained. "We had no intention of doing that, but after seeing the Pipestone article and realizing what they had done with their financing, we pulled ours, too. The intent is all or none."

Just days before 2009 began, Oldre said the budgets were done, and he still didn't know whether Rock County was in or out.

In Pipestone County, Hanson denied a rumor that Ruppert had called and asked their county not to participate, effectively ending the "all or none" deal.

"He would never do that," she stated. "He doesn't have that much power."

In the end, all of the funds were allotted to the task force.

Nobles County's per capita funding was approved at an amount of $51,445. Murray County committed $22,000. Rock and Pipestone counties each have a per capita amount of approximately $22,000 to $25,000.

Early in 2009, the task force learned it had been named the No. 1 drug task force in the state by Minnesota Gang and Drug Task Force Coordinator Bob Bushman.

"This is a class operation from top to bottom," Bushman told the Daily Globe. "They had to prove themselves, and they did so in a great manner."

In May, the task force had begun using cell phone technology to aid in the fight against crime in southwest Minnesota by subscribing to a service that will allow tipsters to send text messages to an agent anonymously through a Web-based program. Using software called Tip411, agents can receive text messages that are assigned a number -- not a phone number or name, but a random number. The agents can reply to the tipster and engage in a two-way "chat" with someone who wishes to provide important information without revealing their identity.

Of the task force's No. 1 rating, Appel smiled, but had little to say. Bushman, however, had no problem giving the group credit.

"They have done a great job and our report reflects that," he stated. "This small group of guys is responsible for a lot of felony arrests. You take that away and there will be a lot of people out on the streets peddling their wares."

In 2009, task force agents pulled methamphetamine, cocaine and marijuana off the streets, along with the people responsible for dealing and possessing the drugs. They also helped remove children from homes where meth pipes sat on shelves next to baby bottles and the children themselves lived in squalor. Not only did the task force investigate drug-related cases, but it helped with a variety of other types of cases, such as burglaries, robberies, thefts and assaults -- cases that are normally a peripheral part of the illegal drug trade.