DULUTH - The transactions occur in a flash. Under surveillance, investigators who observe repeated hand-to-hand swaps are able to conclude the obvious: These are drug deals.
Simple as they seem, a lot has to happen for a heroin deal to go according to plan in Duluth.
The drugs have to make it across the border from Mexico into the United States, and from there, most likely, to Chicago.
The drugs then need to find a way to Duluth, where the dealers also have to set up shop, so they align with local users who help lead them to a physical base of operations and, finally, a customer base.
The local conduits are paid in money or drugs - sometimes even small shares of the profits, said an authority on the matter, Duluth police Lt. Jeff Kazel, who talked to the News Tribune recently about the local heroin trade.
"Chicago is a source city - a huge source city - for heroin and other opioids," said Kazel, commander of the Lake Superior Drug and Violent Crime Task Force. "The criminal elements in Chicago have all the connections with heroin. The majority of heroin we see up here is from Mexico."
The fact that cartel heroin has moved so effectively into neighborhoods in Duluth is one of the reasons Kazel courted the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration - and it chose the city in July - to train a local officer and embed the then-full-fledged DEA agent into the local task force. No one knows yet what the long-term effect of having an agent and unfettered access to the Chicago office of the DEA - its databases, laboratories and potentially even personnel - will mean for Duluth, but the task force appears to be keeping its average up since the move. It recently announced its first two dealer arrests since the start of the experimental arrangement with the DEA.
"They are helping," Kazel said of federal involvement. "They are very active in many of the investigations we're conducting right now."
In August, the local task force brought in an alleged Chicago dealer nicknamed Fat Boy, aka Donte Lawain Smith, 29, after weeks of controlled drug buys using confidential informants. Smith was arrested, along with three colleagues. According to the criminal complaint filed in State District Court in Duluth, the task force had first received numerous tips about Smith's presence operating out of an East Hillside apartment. Building management confirmed to authorities that Smith had been seen frequenting the building. Smith was someone informants had a "fear of retaliation" from, and they sought assurances that their tips were anonymous, the report said.
Smith was arrested without incident in one of the "various vehicles" he used to traffic heroin in the city, the report said. In addition to finding heroin during their execution of a search warrant, authorities also allegedly found four other kinds of drugs in good amounts, nearly $3,000 in cash, wire transfer receipts indicating that there had been even more cash, and two handguns from the car and residence.
The four men face multiple drug trafficking felonies and are staring at three decades each of hard time if convicted.
St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin said his office is more than up to the challenge of prosecuting out-of-state dealers, and that it's always prepared for a short-term increase in volume that a series of drug arrests can bring. He said he has an office of 32 lawyers - 13 assigned to criminal divisions in Virginia, Hibbing and Duluth.
A prosecutor since 1978, Rubin said that in addition to his review and tracking of all major cases, he will always find time to take up a drug prosecution himself, if necessary.
"I am confident that the new enhanced support from the DEA will help us better continue to go up the ladder and put cases together to hold major dealers more accountable," Rubin said. "Other than prescription medications, all of the drugs that are causing such despair and destruction are coming from out of state."
Two days after taking in "Fat Boy," the task force hauled in what the criminal complaint called "the main drug dealer" for some apartments on East Third Street downtown.
The man, Derrick Lamont Ewing, 43, of Minneapolis, allegedly pulled up to the apartment building in a 2003 Cadillac Escalade and got out of the vehicle before displaying suspicion in the middle of the street. Something was up, he knew, but it was too late. Confronted by investigators, he confessed to having pockets full of drugs. Authorities also found evidence of familiar drug talk on his cellphone.
Ewing faces up to a quarter-century in prison if convicted on a pair of drug trafficking felonies.
The Duluth police officer trained and serving locally as a DEA agent took part in both of the recent apprehensions.
"The DEA Task Force officer works with us on day-to-day operations," Kazel said, "including these cases."
As heroin radiates farther out from its source city, the drug becomes more expensive. When dealers set up shop in Duluth, they do so with a markup on their drugs. Duluthians will pay three and four times as much as a corner buy in Chicago, Kazel said.
"It comes down to economics, and in our region, there is a large pool of addiction," Kazel said. "We're a city that's being taken advantage of. We're a community that's being taken advantage of. Our citizens are victims themselves. Because of their addictions, they have been taken advantage of."
How the task force works
The Lake Superior Drug and Violent Crime Task Force combines the staff and resources of 13 police departments, three sheriff's offices and four federal law enforcement agencies under one central command.
The task force includes police departments in Duluth, Superior, Hibbing, Virginia, Cloquet, Hermantown, Eveleth, Babbitt, Ely, Breitung, Chisholm, Gilbert and East Range (a joint-powers force of Aurora and Hoyt Lakes). The St. Louis, Carlton and Lake county sheriff's offices are members, as are the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; Department of Homeland Security; and U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Lt. Jeff Kazel, the commander of the task force, explained how it works.
"I have a really good example," he said. "We had an investigations review for one of the cases we're running right now, and we go down the list of things - the tasks we still need to get done to prosecute the case. We have many different people at the table - investigators, federal agencies, state agencies - and we go around. We have one task come up, and one agency says, 'I can get this done.' Immediately, another agency says, 'I can get it done quicker.' We're seeing a really good example lately of how the task force model works."