By Brandi Makuski
Three local law enforcement officers have received what’s been called a “prestigious” award for their work in an exhaustive narcotics investigation spanning more than a year and taking place in multiple counties — and one that took $16,500 worth of heroin off local streets.
Plover Detective Brian Noel, Stevens Point Detective Mike Schultz and Portage County Sheriff’s Investigator Tony Gischia won the “Investigation of the Year” award for their work on Operation: Who’s the Boss before an audience of their peers at the 2016 Wisconsin Narcotics Officers’ Conference, held in Green Bay on Aug. 18.
“During the conference a prestigious award is given [for] officers and cases that stand out over the course of the year,” Ault said. “This was one of them.”
To protect the nature of their investigative positions, the officers’ faces and CV’s can’t be published, but local law enforcement authorities have given approval for their names to be released publicly.
Noel, Schultz and Gischia worked with state and federal law enforcement agencies to make a case against those trafficking drugs from the Milwaukee/Chicago area and into Central Wisconsin.
The investigation took “several months and countless hours of investigation,” Ault said.
Operation: Who’s the Boss
The case originated in Portage Co. in May of 2014, when, according to Noel, the three officers began to notice overlapping information between small-level heroin investigations throughout the county.
“We did further investigation…to where we realized there was a single source, at the time, for multiple dealers operating in different user groups,” Noel said by phone. “Then we realized there was a connection. We worked it, collaborated and it turned into a larger investigation.”
Over the next 15 months, Noel, Schultz and Gischia — all members of the Central Wisconsin Drug Task Force — collaborated with an investigator from the Wisconsin Dept. of Justice, as well a prosecutor from the office of U.S. Attorney John W. Vaudreuil, to conduct 36 undercover drug purchases, known as “controlled buys” garnering approximately 33 grams of heroin valued at about $16,500.
Operation: Who’s the Boss was “massive”, according to Ault, involving 166 known subjects, to include identifying 32 drug dealers and six known, nonlethal drug overdoses. During the investigation, detectives were able to retroactively track seven-and-a-half kilograms of heroin delivered to Portage, Wood and Waupaca counties between May, 2014 and Aug., 2015.
“It was determined [later] that amount of heroin was brought into Central Wisconsin for distribution by the individuals within the conspiracy,” Noel said. “And that was determined through historical interview statements with the dealers, and corroborated by the customers and the mass of people we spoke with who were also charged.”
Noel said suspected dealers were able to provide information on the amount of drugs they couriered into the area, along with approximate dates they brought it to Central Wisconsin. Only then, he said, did investigators realize how big the conspiracy was.
So far, 11 people have been charged in federal court, and nine people in state court, for various roles in the conspiracy to distribute heroin. As for the other 12 of the 32 known drug dealers, Noel said those cases aren’t yet strong enough to bring before a judge — but they’re working on it.
“We can’t bring charges against someone just because someone else says, ‘Hey, I [bought drugs] from this person’,” Noel said. “We may know people are dealers, but we don’t have the evidence or the probable cause to support a solid charge.”
Other cases in the conspiracy ring are still pending in various state and federal courts; neither Noel nor Ault could identify a timeline for the conclusion of all the cases involved.
Putting the pieces together
State and federal agencies have been announcing sentences handed down for those convicted in connection with the conspiracy for some time. On Aug. 31, Charles Hall, a 31-year-old resident of Waupaca, was sentenced to 13 years in prison for his role in the conspiracy. Hall’s sentence is the most recent announcement from the U.S. Attorney’s Office — the eighth of 11 charged in federal court.
Noel referred to Hall as, “one of the top-tier guys” involved in the drug ring, saying his name became known to the team as they “moved through the chain” of dealers and known associates.
Organizing 166 known subjects in any investigation is difficult, Ault said. One important investigative tool which helped the group track names, dates and associations was a “hierarchy chart” created by a criminal analyst assigned by the state to work closely with Noel, Schultz and Gischia.
The chart, Ault said, is not unlike the format of a family tree.
“These drugs went through several tiers before they reached an actual user,” Ault said. “Putting a dent in the thing, tracking it to a source — that’s what made this case so complex.”
The carefully-documented controlled buys, Noel said, consisted of small “user amount” purchases. With each buy, he said, more names were added to that chart
“I say ‘subjects’, and not ‘suspects’, but these were all subjects who were linked in some way to the conspiracy — maybe they were a driver on a delivery trip and didn’t even realize it,” Ault said.
Putting a speed bump in the pipeline
Noel said the drugs themselves may be produced in another country, but the distribution point for much of the local product is located just south of the Wisconsin/Illinois border.
“Chicago is one of the major source cities for the Midwest,” Noel said. “These guys ran out of heroin in Milwaukee…they couldn’t keep up with the demand that they had, so they had to go to Chicago and find a bigger source.”
Many of the individual cases were charged as part of a federal conspiracy, Noel said, because the higher-level dealers were tough to build a case against.
“A lot of these top dealers were insulating themselves so well to the point where they’re not even in the same city as the deal, yet they’re responsible for it,” he said. “That’s the reason we had to do this as a federal conspiracy case.”
Conspiracy may be the route to take for such future investigations, as well. Noel and other local law enforcement officers say they’ve made a “significant impact” on the local heroin trade, but they’ve by no means stopped it.
“Is it complete eradicated? Absolutely not,” Noel said. “But this group [of defendants] had a significant stronghold on the heroin in this area…since the arrests and the indictments, the amount of heroin cases we see has dropped significantly. And we know that by talking with heroin addicts we see on the streets, by talking with their family members.”
“We needed this,” Ault said. “We have to do everything we possibly can, because there’s no greater threat to any community than heroin, meth…that level of drug. Wisconsin is clearly well-known, along with many states, to be affected by heroin, by meth. By the efforts of five individuals, this made a pretty big difference. [But] there’s a lot more drugs out there.”
Ault’s sentiments were echoed by other local law enforcement this week, as news of Hall’s federal sentence made its way through area law enforcement departments. Stevens Point Assistant Police Chief Tom Zenner said his department has one full-time narcotics investigator, but could “definitely” use at least one more.
“We have one dedicated narcotics officer, although we do have another officer who assists and takes lead on several investigations,” Zenner said. “In a perfect world, absolutely we could use another drug officer, but right now that would mean taking an officer off patrol, and that’s not something we want to do.”
When asked if the department would request funding from the city for an additional sworn officer so it could increase its narcotics division, Zenner said, “that would depend on expanding our department.”
The Portage Co. Sheriff’s Office also has one full-time narcotics detective, though according to Sheriff Mike Lukas, there are five additional detectives available to assist on “major investigations”.
“I talk to people [who complain] and they say, ‘It’s just marijuana’,” Lukas said. “I say, ‘This isn’t the marijuana; this is the meth, the heroin, the prescription pills, the things that this community feels are hard drugs. I could use five more drug officers; we’d be kept extremely busy.”
Defendants convicted in federal court
- Charles D. Hall, 31 of Waupaca, sentenced to 156 months (13 years) in federal prison for distributing heroin, sentenced Aug. 31, 2016.
- Cody Thompson, 24 of New Hope, sentenced to 30 months for distributing heroin on Jan. 21, 2016
- Megan Pray Genett, 21 of Belmont, sentenced to 24 months for distributing heroin on Feb. 2, 2016
- Marguerite “Beth” Tompkins, 24 of Stevens Point, sentenced to 60 months for conspiring to distribute heroin on March 8, 2016
- Kristy Dietel, 35 of Stevens Point, sentenced to 36 months for conspiring to distribute heroin on March 22, 2016
- Tiffany A. Bell, 25 of Plover, sentenced to 138 months (11-and-a-half years) in federal prison for conspiring to distribute heroin on April 15, 2016
- Gregory D. Richardson, 26 of Plover, sentenced to 120 months for conspiring to distribute heroin on April 22, 2016
- Hannah J. Hovick, 24 of Marshfield, sentenced to 30 months for distributing heroin on April 30, 2016
- A related Jan. 27, 2016 indictment charges three other men — Hurley C. Jackson, 33; Terrance D. Jackson, 29; and DeWight S. Williams, 37, all of Milwaukee — with conspiring to distribute more than 1,000 grams of heroin, as well as distributing heroin/possessing heroin with the intent to distribute. Their trial on this indictment is scheduled for January 23, 2017.