Operation Rio Grande disrupts drug dealers, but it hasn’t put them out of business

Drugs can still be found in downtown Salt Lake City, but dealers are acting more cautiously as watchful eyes abound.

(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) People in Pioneer Park in Salt Lake City Tuesday, October 17, 2017.

Operation Rio Grande had achieved its first goal within minutes, chasing much of Salt Lake City’s drug activity from the streets where it had long been so infamously entrenched.

A sergeant newly assigned to Salt Lake City’s undercover narcotics team apologized to a reporter last week that the height of excitement during an hourlong ridealong was watching a man fiddle with his fly, behind which she thought he might have been hiding contraband.

“How do you think I feel when they’re like, ‘Go out and make some arrests,’ and I’m saying, ‘Sorry, LT,’” laughed the sergeant, who asked not to be named because of the potential for reprisal from targets of her undercover work.

Along 500 West between 200 and 400 South, rampant lawbreaking once invited comparisons to “Hamsterdam” from HBO’s “The Wire.” Now, the sidewalks are clean, the medians are fenced off and a mobile command center is a permanent fixture west of the old Rio Grande Depot.

To the east, a half-block stretch of Rio Grande Street is being repurposed into a state-owned “safe zone” — soon to be off-limits to anyone who doesn’t possess a homeless services ID card.

It’s all part of an estimated $67 million effort to restore order in the gentrifying downtown neighborhood after more than two decades’ worth of smaller crackdowns and sweeps have failed to do so.

But few of the 1,600-plus bookings into the Salt Lake County jail appear to have involved the predatory drug dealers branded by state officials as the “worst of the worst.” Some dealers have responded to the increased pressure by becoming more cautious, more mobile and using more middle men. Police, in turn, have had to adapt.

“It’s interesting to try to do order maintenance and undercover work,” the narcotics sergeant said. “The two don’t usually coincide.”

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Law enforcement officers from several agencies increase their presence in the Rio Grand homeless area in Salt Lake City Monday August 14, 2017.

‘Cat and mouse’

A red truck leaves North Temple’s Gateway Inn and turns right on 800 West, circling the block and parking at a 900 West dollar store.

By the time State Bureau of Investigations (SBI) Agent Josh Workman catches up, the driver has left the vehicle and a man sits alone in the passenger seat.

There’s no evidence that they’re engaging in illegal activity. It seems like unusual activity, though: They would have made better time walking this distance.

Workman wonders if they were rejected in their bid to drive up and buy drugs, and whether the driver is now making a second attempt on foot. He makes a mental note of the truck.

Minutes later, as Workman pursues a jaywalker whom he recognizes as a prior target, he sees the pickup returning to the motel lot. Again, he doesn’t confront them; he files it away.

Maybe sometime he will follow the truck and watch the occupants pull over to use, or at least commit a traffic violation, and then he’ll gain leverage that could result in actionable information.

Surveillance can be a kind of memory game: It means nothing that two people exchange words as they pass each other on the street, but if they meet up again a minute later? If they appear to exchange something?

Between the state and city police, up to 15 people might be gathering this sort of information at a given time, hoping to find a thread that eventually leads them to a stash.

The Department of Public Safety (which includes SBI) has served nine warrants based on information obtained through Operation Rio Grande, though eight remain sealed for investigative reasons. The unsealed warrant, served in Ogden, resulted in two arrests, two firearms, $53,000 in cash and a half-pound of heroin.

Workman says Friday that they have served several search warrants at the Gateway Inn alone, and have made 10 arrests in this North Temple “hotspot” in the past 24 hours.

They will soon add two more to that total when Workman’s teammates pull over a sedan in a grocery store parking lot and first find an open tall boy of beer, then cocaine, pipes and a digital scale.

An Adult Probation & Parole agent tells the car’s passenger, who has recently gotten off probation, that she chose the wrong place for this kind of behavior.

“You’ve heard of Operation Rio Grande? That’s what you’re in the middle of,” he says. “Any information you can give us on who’s got the dope, who’s running what — this is the best time to help out.”

Major Brian Redd, director of SBI, said the 1,600-plus arrests made during the operation have resulted in valuable intelligence, but that the dealers also “adapt very quickly to our tactics and techniques.”

“It’s a little bit of a game of cat and mouse,” he said.

Workman agrees that their methods have become more intricate. Buyers are now greeted by go-betweens. Dealers also frequently move their stash from room to room, complicating the process of obtaining a warrant, which can take hours.

When someone in the streetside crowd spots recognizes the unmarked SBI vehicles, they’ll point and yell “one-time,” meaning, “cop.”

And so drugs continue to be bought and sold in Salt Lake City, and in plain view of experienced police officers, at that.

“But it’s harder,” Workman says.

Tough customers

The trick to buying drugs, says a slight man at the northwest corner of Pioneer Park, is to look “for people like me.”

Identifying as “Drifter,” he stands with his legs spread wide apart and his hands stretching a light blanket over his thin shoulders, his eyes alert and searching.

He tells a half-dozen friends walking by that today is his 39th birthday, adding as they pass that they are good people, and that this message has been lost in the headlines about drugs, money and street closures.

The events that led to Operation Rio Grande were seared deeply into his memory, Drifter says.

He was 5 feet away last February when police shot 17-year-old Somali refugee Abdullahi Mohamed — known to Drifter as “Lil’ King” — for assaulting a man with a metal broom handle.

He was also friends with Patrick Harmon, killed by police Aug. 13. He says he saw the Aug. 4 shooting of an undocumented Latino man by another undocumented Latino man at the corner of 500 West and 200 South, and grieved the July 4 death of 27-year-old Kendra Griffiths when a driver jumped the curb at 200 South.

Drifter says he was arrested during the resulting crackdown, caught smoking spice with more than a dozen outstanding warrants, and counts himself lucky to have gotten clean in jail.

He will forever feel guilty, he says, that he was an hour late arriving at the bedside of his dying mother because he was out chasing black-tar heroin.

Still, he scoffs when asked if the stepped-up enforcement is preventing anybody from finding their fix.

“It just makes it harder for us to get our s---,” he said. “It’s always going to be here. Do we hide a lot better now? You have to. You just adapt to it.”

Nearby, a woman quiets her small dog as a man packs up their belongings. She wishes police would come down even harder on predatory dealers, she says, instead of rousting her and her husband for sleeping outside.

As she speaks, three younger men get in the face of an older man, shouting. One appears to yank at the older man’s tote bag, before turning and bounding off with his associates.

The older man hobbles toward a playground trailing blood, clutching his busted nose and fumbling through his possessions for something to stem the flow.

The younger men are spice dealers, he says through heavy breaths. One had demanded $10 and punched him when he didn’t comply.

Operation Rio Grande was a great idea, he says before stumbling across traffic to the Fourth Street Clinic, but “they just need to get rid of those guys right there.”

Closed for relocation

For proponents of the operation, it’s a point of pride that the Rio Grande area’s service providers haven’t reported any lasting dip in usage of the shelter, dining hall or day center.

To them, that indicates that many of the people who previously lined the sidewalks of Rio Grande St. and 500 West were only ever there for the drugs — or “the party,” as Salt Lake City police Detective Greg Wilking terms it.

Redd, the SBI director, said that during the first couple weeks of the operation, cars would park near the shelter or at Pioneer Park,and their drivers would walk over to the open-air drug market and wait to be offered “black,” for heroin, or “white,” for crack cocaine.

“We don’t see that anymore,” he said. “You have to now know somebody or have a phone number.”

Utah Transit Authority police Chief Fred Ross, who as a Salt Lake City deputy chief once toured the area with House speaker and eventual Operation Rio Grande architect Greg Hughes, said dealers will continue to feel out new spots to host an open-air market.

“It’s kind of like if you’re running a food truck,” he said. “Where do all the food trucks go? Where the people are.”

The stretch of North Temple between 700 and 1000 West has been known for years for no-tell motels and prostitution, and is a short walk or light-rail ride from the shelter area.

Anecdotes about increased drug activity, or influxes of transients, have been shared as far north as Ogden and as far south as St. George.

Wilking said reports of suspicious activity can be valuable intelligence, but he urged patience. Callers sometimes believe a police response “should be instantaneous,” he says, “and when it isn’t, [assume] that it’s not happening.”

Information related to Operation Rio Grande can be shared with Salt Lake City police at 801-799-3686 and UTA police at 801-287-3937.

Ross said a UTA rider in Millcreek recently reported being approached by a dealer and rudely shoulder-bumped after declining the sales pitch. UTA police apprehended the dealer and found more than 100 balloons of drugs “and a sizable amount of cash.”

To those who say that the dealers will eventually return to the Rio Grande neighborhood — as they did when previous crackdowns ran their course — Redd said he wants to emphasize that this is a two-year operation, timed to coincide with the expected closure of the 210 S. Rio Grande St. shelter in mid-2019.

“This is different this time,” he said. “We have the resources. We have the backing. We’re not leaving.”

As Wilking drove past 500 West and 200 South on Thursday night, an altogether new element had moved in to exploit the area’s vast, hungry customer base.

A vendor was setting up his taco cart.