Drug-fueled property crimes on the rise
(Editor's note: This is the 11th story in an ongoing series on Drugs in Haywood County.)
While families and children close to addicts are the most obvious victims when drugs grab a hold of someone’s life, anyone can find themselves prey to the drug epidemic that has a grip on modern-day society. Consider, for instance, drug fueled crime.
In Haywood County — especially in the last couple years — drug related crimes have risen sharply.
Law enforcement officials report that many of the property crimes that victimize Haywood County residents are committed in pursuit of a high.
“They don’t have any other kind of income, so what do they have to do to fuel the addiction? They have to steal,” Haywood County Sheriff Greg Christopher said.
These crimes have a wide range — from full-blown robberies to petty larcenies. Some people even go straight to the source to fuel their habits.
“People still report stolen pills all the time,” recently retired Maggie Valley Police Chief Sutton said. “People search medicine cabinets of friends and family.”
Christopher said people who commit property crimes generally target items that are easy to steal and even easier to get rid of quickly.
“Any kind of yard equipment and home equipment which is easy to get their hands on and it’s easy to get rid of,” Christopher said. “Same way with guns and jewelry.”
Waynesville Police Chief Bill Hollingsed said many of the people his department encounters who commit these crimes all started with one legal prescription.
“We’ve got a number of people committing low-level crimes to fuel a drug addiction that started from a legitimate medical need,” he said.
Christopher said the vast majority of people who are booked into the county correctional facility struggle with some form of addiction.
“A study revealed that 85.5 percent of people who come through our back door openly admit through our booking process that they are addicted to either an opiate- based product of some kind or alcohol,” he said. “That speaks volumes to us about what our problems are.”
Canton Police Chief Bryan Whitner agreed that most property crimes are tied to drug abuse.
“If we could 100 percent stop illegal drugs, you’d see every day property crimes drop out the bottom,” he said.
Property crimes aren’t the only offenses that are committed in the name of narcotics. The sale and distribution of these drugs can create headaches for local law enforcement, as well.
Hollingsed said officers are seeing street-level dealers pop up in greater volume, and noted they have diversified their supply.
“We’ve had some where they literally have cocaine in one hand and opiates in the other,” he said.
Local authorities have said that although various substances are sold throughout the county, with the exception of some marijuana, little to no drugs are produced here.
Sutton said that in Maggie Valley, many of the drug-related crimes occur in some of the town’s many motels, and often involve people coming up from Atlanta or Florida to sell narcotics, bouncing from room to room over the course of a week or so.
“They come here to sell dope,” he said. “We can seize your house, I can’t seize a motel room.”
With a steadily growing drug market, the competition to supply that need can lead to gangs and violence. Individuals such as Michael Branning, who was involved in a dramatic shooting on Main Street in Waynesville last year after escaping police custody, have close ties with these gangs, some of which operate out of the Cruso area, said Mark Mease of the Unified Narcotics Investigation Team.
“We have a gang issue in the county that’s starting to develop that we’re working on,” he said. “Aspects of that gang bring some violence.”
But Mease also wanted to let residents law abiding citizens have little to worry about.
“It’s not civilians on the outside,” he said. “A lot of that violence is within the gang. A lot of the drug fueled assaults are within the drug trade.”
Tied up resources
There are some people who — although not hurting anyone — simply tie up police resources.
Clyde Police Chief Terry Troutman shared an anecdote he believes illustrates how one drug user, when gripped by paranoia, can require hours of police work.
One morning earlier this year, a Clyde officer was called out to a barn just outside of town, where the property owners found a man sleeping, his pants hanging up to dry.
“He and his girlfriend got in a fight the night before, he got kicked out of his house, fell asleep under a bridge, got wet and was trying to dry his pants,” Troutman said, noting how potentially dangerous the cold February night could have been for the man. “We’re lucky we didn’t have a dead body in the creek.”
The property owners chose to not press charges, and the whole incident was over — or so Troutman thought. Later that day, the man was spotted again, still without pants or shoes on, and became spooked when police attempted to question him, leading cops on a chase along the banks of the Pigeon River.
Police pursued the man for nearly an hour, with vehicles from Clyde and Canton Police departments, as well as the Sheriff’s Office, in on the chase. Central Haywood High School was even placed on a soft lockdown out of an abundance of precaution.
“We’re tying up resources to deal with people, often when there’s nothing we can do to charge them,” Troutman said. “We had 10 cars tied up on a high dude who just didn’t want to talk to the police. ... I don’t know what he was taking the night before, but he was definitely still high.”
Opinions on how to deal with drug-fueled crimes vary from official to official. While all are in agreement that those who are trafficking or dealing in narcotics need severe consequences, it is not as clear when it comes to property crimes. Whitner believes there needs to be adequate consequences for people’s actions.
“Strong repercussions at court level can be a tremendous help for all of us,” he said.
Hollingsed tends to believe that reform is paramount when it comes to low-level crimes. Christopher agrees with him.
“This is a demonic force, and it wants to destroy people, so it takes a lot to be able to help to get these people back where they need to be,” he said.
Some state officials outside of law enforcement also agree.
“Jail is a far more expensive form of treatment, and it’s also less effective,” Tessie Castillo, Advocacy and Communications Coordinator for the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition said.
The solution to this problem hasn’t yet been pinned down — and it may never be — but there is at least one area of agreement.
“The men and women in our local law enforcement are working extremely hard to try to shut this down,” Christopher said. “But we also know that we’ll never arrest our way out of this problem.”