Fighting a Scourge

Arrests, outreach push back against heroin epidemic

By Matt Troutmann
Traverse City Record-Eagle

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) — A frantic knock alerted Traverse City police Officer Adam Verschaeve to a dire situation, and a growing problem in Grand Traverse County.

Verschaeve sat inside the Sgt. Dennis W. Finch Law Enforcement Center on Aug. 11, 2013, filling out paperwork when he heard a rapping on a glass door. He looked outside and saw a woman — a known heroin user — waving her arms.

That brought Verschaeve, Detective Evan Warsecke and then-Sgt., now-Chief Jeff O’Brien outside to the parking lot. They found another known heroin user — Taylor Marie Swayze — pale and unresponsive in a pickup truck’s driver’s seat, syringe in hand.

“It was obviously an overdose situation,” Verschaeve told the Traverse City Record-Eagle.

The trio of officers performed CPR until emergency medical personnel arrived and gave Swayze a dose of naloxone, a drug used to reverse opiate overdoses. Swayze survived and Verschaeve talked to Swayze’s mother, who told him her daughter bought heroin from a Detroit-area dealer with a distinctive nickname: “Sweety.”

A reference to Sweety is tucked away in a paragraph of a police report Verschaeve filed about Swayze’s overdose.

Such references to Sweety littered police reports for years, prompting a yearlong Traverse Narcotics Team probe. It culminated March 2 with pre-dawn raids in the Detroit area and Grand Traverse County.

The nine warrants prosecutors authorized included one for Swayze, 23, of Traverse City, on accusations she ran drugs for the woman who sold her the heroin that likely caused her 2013 overdose.

Authorities believe Charese Louise Arnold, 34, of Detroit, is Sweety and that she headed a criminal enterprise that piped millions of dollars worth of drugs from downstate to the Traverse City area. Handcuffs clicked around her wrists early March 2 outside a Harper Woods home, one of four locations raided in what authorities called “Operation Sweety.”

Grand Traverse County Prosecutor Bob Cooney said that prosecuting suspected drug dealers generally impacts the flow of illegal narcotics into a community.

“The community that decides there’s no point in it, is going to be the community they flock to,” he said.

TNT investigations not only prompted warrants in the Arnold case, but also the seemingly-unrelated January arrests of two Detroit men — Thomas Holmes, 48, and Larry Gene Davis Jr., 39 — accused of shipping drugs by “runners” into the Traverse City area. Both cases sent local law enforcement officers into Detroit for busts.

Another similarity is that both cases developed from drug investigations into local suspects. TNT Detective Lt. Dan King said a detective assigned last year to investigate Sweety first combed through past cases.

The detective eventually expanded the Sweety investigation to financial records and other types of evidence. Prosecutors then authorized warrants against four Detroit-area suspects — Arnold, Kamon Xavier-Travon Arnold, 22, Avontae Bullock, 24, and Erika Travis, 23 — and five from Grand Traverse County, including Swayze.

Court documents state Swayze worked as a heroin and cocaine “runner” in Arnold’s “criminal enterprise.” She transported Kamon Arnold to Grand Traverse County “so that he could deliver heroin and cocaine” at Charese Arnold’s behest, according to the documents.

Those accusations against Swayze stem in part from a spate of witnesses, many of whom are listed as uncharged co-defendants. One witness claimed Charese Arnold gave him more than 1,000 grams of cocaine and heroin. That’s a key component in the most serious charge in the case — conspiracy to deliver 1,000 grams or more of cocaine or heroin, a potential life offense — levied against Arnold alone.

Arnold’s criminal enterprise began in 2010, according to the documents. Missaukee County Sheriff and TNT Chairman James Bosscher previously said at least 19,000 grams of heroin and more than 10,000 grams of crack cocaine linked to the enterprise flowed into northern Michigan, a street value of $3 million to $4 million.

”Some of the heroin that came from this operation can be linked to (overdoses) that occurred up in northern Michigan,” he said. “Right now, we can’t link any of the deaths to it, but we’ve had numerous deaths and overdoses.”

It has been more than a year since Officer Sam Meachum joined the Traverse City Police Department.

Meachum said he has seen several heroin overdoses during his still-short stint as a police officer. Two occurred as the National Cherry Festival wound down last year, he said.

“It’s definitely increased since I’ve started, and I’ve only been here a year-and-a-half,” Meachum said.

The city police department in 2015 joined a growing number of law enforcement agencies that equip their officers with naloxone. The idea is that police officers often respond to overdoses before ambulances, so a naloxone shot can be life-saving.

Traverse City police Capt. Jim Bussell said city officers successfully used naloxone four times since then. Records state officers responded to nine overdoses overall since 2013 during which they or EMS personnel administered naloxone.

Grand Traverse County sheriff’s Capt. Randy Fewless said his department keeps a running tally of opiate overdoses it investigates. There are 25 such cases since 2013, according to the tally. Three of which include naloxone reversals in February done by the same deputy, Ryan Colley. The list also includes three fatal overdoses since the New Year.

Cooney said local authorities recently saw seven suspected overdoses in a 10-day period. He said the problem spurred him to put together a substance abuse coalition. He has reached out to medical and drug treatment professionals, local organizations and law enforcement officials to come up with ideas on how to stem the local drug problem.

“It’s a community problem, it requires a community-based solution,” Cooney said.

The community-based approach dovetails with a recent shift in the Traverse City Police Department. It has moved to a “community policing” model in which officers are assigned to specific locations and encouraged to build direct contacts with residents.

“They’re our neighbors, our friends,” said city police Officer Jordan Wieber. “Without the community, without that intel, there’s not much we can do. There’s got to be that relationship there.”
Wieber and Meachum also recently volunteered for a four-member “interdiction team” geared toward proactive police work. The team is expected to conduct directed investigations and patrols targeting prostitution, drunken driving, probation absconders and drugs.

Their first action took them downstate as part of Operation Sweety.

Meachum and Wieber, who are both military veterans, helped TNT detectives, state troopers, DEA agents and other officers that raided a Detroit-area home. Their counterparts Sgt. Kevin Dunklow and Officer Ryan Taylor joined the group that searched the Harper Woods home where Arnold left in handcuffs.

Both Dunklow and Taylor said heroin is a larger problem locally than when they were previously assigned to TNT. Taylor said the downstate busts’ scope goes beyond his normal experience.

“In my 12 years of police work, it is definitely not something that happened with our department,” he said. “This is what we look for, train for and want to do.”

Dunklow and Taylor drove Arnold back into Grand Traverse County. She’s being held on a $10 million bond in Antrim County’s jail, separated a county away from the other suspects.

“We’ll hold them accountable for all the damage they’ve done to the community,” Dunklow said.

There’s a phrase Grand Traverse County Prosecutor Bob Cooney often uses when talking about pending criminal cases:

“Of course, these are all just allegations and the defendants are assumed innocent unless or until proven guilty in a court of law.”

Arnold faces 13 criminal counts, of all which are potential life offenses based on her past criminal record. All the defendants in the case face a charge of conducting a criminal enterprise, for which a conviction carries a maximum 20-year prison term.

Cooney said he hopes his community coalition will stem drug use and provide help for addicts. But he said, even with more rehabilitative options for users, that he still sees only one option for people who funnel drugs into Grand Traverse County.

“The only choice I see is aggressive prosecution of drug dealers,” he said.

One accused heroin dealer with downstate ties — Ronald Norfleet, 46 — recently received a 56-year minimum prison term following a Grand Traverse County trial in June. It’s a sentence that at the time Cooney called a “message” to other drug dealers. But Norfleet’s attorney Laurel Kelly Young is appealing that sentence, and called it cruel and unusual punishment.

“My argument was he was given a de facto life offense without parole,” Young said.

Young said Norfleet “absolutely” received a harsher sentence in Grand Traverse County than if he were convicted in Detroit. She said a recent state Supreme Court decision could make it easier for judges to levy such harsh terms.

Those sentences could also send a racially-tinged message, Young said.

“If you’re black and from Detroit, don’t come here,” she said.

Cooney said most suspects arrested in the Arnold case are white. He said he didn’t care about the suspects’ skin color, but rather what they’re accused of doing to the community.

“What I care about is whether they’re dealing drugs in our community,” he said.

The image of Taylor Swayze flickered on a video screen in 86th District Court Judge Thomas J. Phillips’ courtroom on March 3.

Swayze leaned forward, arms crossed, as Phillips arraigned her on felony charges. Phillips told her she’d likely not be released on bond because of a probation violation, but he still set one at $1 million cash or surety.

“We are setting a high bond because of the nature of the crime, and ... because of the allegation it’s gone on for quite a period of time,” he said.