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Story:

DANGER is real on the FRONT LINE

The shocking experience of looking
at the South Shore through a detective's eyes

GARY HIGGINS/The Patriot Ledger

Narcotics officers patrolling Braintree see a different world.

Neon headlights slice through the dark night. A sleek blue Lexus glides along dimly lit suburban streets, traveling faster than a car whose driver is simply heading home for the night. This one pushes through Randolph’s sleepy landscape with purpose.

It darts past rows of quiet split-level ranches with curtains drawn, revealing only flickering television light.
There were 296 cocaine seizures on the South Shore last year, according to state figures, along with 123 heroin seizures, 27 seizures of ecstacy and 1,241 marijuana seizures. That’s just a fraction of the drugs bought and sold here.

It hugs curves and speeds by dogs being silently walked in and out of shadows at street’s edge.

Turning into the parking lot behind an apartment complex on Bridle Path Circle, the Lexus stops just beyond the yellow swath of light spilling from the building’s east entrance.

While the car is still running, the driver’s door opens. Todd Hicks, a nearly 6-foot-tall, stocky, 29-year-old Boston resident emerges, talking on a cell phone.

So far, so good for Hicks. The weekly crack delivery is going as usual.

But before Hicks takes another step, his Lexus is boxed in by five unmarked police cars that seem to spring from nowhere.

A brief shout of frustration from Hicks rises above sounds of feet running across pavement and car doors slamming.

He looks left and right frantically, searching for an escape as police close in, but finds himself already trapped, surrounded by a half-dozen undercover officers, parked cars and a set of Dumpsters. There’s nowhere to go but face down on the pavement. A half-dozen sets of eyes are staring at Hicks’ back while handcuffs are tightened around his wrists and flashlight beams dance around his head.

It all takes place quickly, within a matter of minutes, almost like a kidnapping. Before anyone in the nearby apartment building stirs, or peers from behind a curtain, the undercover cars have disappeared into the darkness again.

And Hicks, who arrived a free man with nearly $2,500 tucked in his pocket and a $75,000 car, is now on his way to a cell in the Randolph police station, facing the possibility of a minimum five-year sentence.

He’s a big catch. In Hicks’ left front pants pocket, police found a plastic bagcontaining a yellowish, rock- like substance - one ounce of crack cocaine. Back at the station, police discover the 29-year-old man’s rap sheet includes a long list of convictions, including breaking and entering, rape, indecent assault and battery on a child, and several drug possession offenses.

The arrest is the result of about one month of police investigation and planning, and went down smoother than most do.

But elsewhere on the South Shore on that crisp night, perhaps in dozens of other places, deliveries of cocaine, heroin and marijuana took place as scheduled.

There were 296 cocaine seizures on the South Shore last year, according to state figures, along with 123 heroin seizures, 27 seizures of ecstacy and 1,241 marijuana seizures. That’s just a fraction of the drugs bought and sold here; some police officers say 95 percent of drug trafficking goes through.

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So, while the detectives who took part in the Randolph arrest return to the station, laughing and happy, they know that before long, someone else will fill Hicks’ shoes. They know that arresting a dealer in Randolph most likely means business will shift for the time being to another neighborhood or another town.
“Take people who are using heroin, for example. They are physically dependent on it. They have to have it or they’ll be violently sick. So they’ll do anything to get that narcotic, breaking into your house or mine, your car or mine, to steal stuff and get money to support their habit.”

– Braintree police Detective Jeff Jernegan

There are definitely victories. Neighborhoods can be cleaned up, dealers forced to move on, children plucked from a destructive path and junkies pointed toward treatment.

But there is also reality. As long as there’s a demand, the drugs will keep coming. This is not a war that will be won, officers say.

Each day the battle simply begins again.

Braintree police Detective Jeff Jernegan looks more like a fresh-faced college football player than a drug detective.

He walks with a subtle bounce, has a broad, easy smile, and sprinkles his conversation with the kind of hip hop phrases you hear on radio stations that plays the rap songs of Emimen and Jay Z.

Jernegan is 34, but his attire is more hip kid than cop. Dressed in jeans, Doc Martens and a plaid shirt, he appears ready to head off to an Abercrombie & Fitch photo shoot, not to mingle with informants and drug dealers.

Jernegan grew up in Braintree, married his high school sweetheart and has dog-eared pictures of his children standing up in a crack on the dashboard of his unmarked police car.

When talking about the ins and outs of drug laws, mandatory sentencing or the latest narcotic on the market, a different Jernegan instantly emerges, a serious, focused individual whose tone of voice is all business. He has been a member of Braintree’s drug unit for five years, and talks passionately about why he chose the work.

“People are out there every day trying to make an honest buck and these guys, they get up a noon and just ‘kick it.’ They’re not playing by the rules. Everyone else is trying to do the right thing and they’re not,” Jernegan says.

One this day, Jernegan’s shift begins at about 2 p.m. with a phone call from Randolph Sgt. John Hamelburg.

The 10 or so drug detectives spread through police departments in Quincy, Braintree, Randolph and Weymouth are like one big team, Jernegan explains. They know each other on a first-name basis, help each other with arrests, share information and at shift’s end, often have a drink together.

Today, Hamelburg is calling for assistance with the arrest of a dealer scheduled to make a drop on Bridle Path Circle later that evening. He tells Jernegan that a dealer is expected to make a drop on Bridle Path Circle later that evening.

Jernegan is eager to help. Until then, he’ll do his typical rounds.

On most days, you can find him driving around Braintree, listening to rap music on the radio and “trolling for bad guys.”

Jernegan’s office is his car, a compact, slightly beat-up vehicle good at making a quick U-turn.

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His record-keeping system is a red leather diary he pulls from the back seat. The book is a precisely kept 12-month history of the movements and activities of suspected drug users and dealers. Its white, lined pages are filled with small, neat handwriting in red, blue or black ink. There are detailed lists of addresses under investigation, license plate numbers of cars used by suspicious people and dates search warrants were executed.

Jernegan’s eye scans the streets in a way that could forever change your perception of the community and of your own daily activities.

He pauses to watch people talking on pay phones just in case it’s a call to a drug dealer or a face he might recognize. He comes back for a second look if someone is sitting alone in a car for too long. He becomes curious if every shade in a house is drawn, wondering what’s going on inside.

Activities that appear ordinary may trigger a closer look and possibly the start of an investigation.

And when Jernegan’s cruising around the community, this is what he sees, too:

On Veranda Road, one of Braintree’s quiet, tree-lined street, there’s a two-story home with flower boxes and a flag out front. That’s where he busted a 40-year-old woman, twice.

The first time around, she was charged with heroin possession and possession of hypodermic needles, Jernegan says.

The woman did six months at a Framingham state prison, a stopover in rehab and moved back to Veranda Road, according to Jernegan.

He then arrested her for the second time. Jernegan says she had 50 bags of heroin and was charged with possession with intent to distribute.

Not far away, in a neighborhood sandwiched between Union and Washington streets, is a tiny residential street lined with middle-class homes owned by firefighters, nurses, mechanics and carpenters. Among them is a plain, two-story, white house with a black Lexus in the driveway. Every shade in the home is drawn.

“Going in there, you’d think you entered a palace,” Jernegan says as he rolls slowly by.

Jernegan arrested the home’s 39-year-old male occupant for cocaine possession with intent to distribute. He and fellow detectives found thousands of dollars worth of electronics equipment inside the house, including top-of-the-line Bose sound systems in every room and 32-inch flat screen televisions worth about $4,000 each. But that’s not all.

“We also found a (drug) packaging center - scales, the whole bit,” Jernegan says. About $32,000 in cash was scattered around the house.

Jernegan next passes by a 7-Eleven store, glancing at its parking lot. He’s made about two dozen arrests there. A few minutes later, he slowly meanders through a parking lot adjacent to the South Shore Plaza shared by Pizzaria Uno and Circuit City, explaining that these are the places suburban drug sales often take place.

Jernegan cruises by the Barnes & Noble book store off Granite Street near the Route 128 exit ramp and notices a man sitting alone in his car in the back row of the parking lot.

He takes a second pass a few minutes later. The man is still there.

That’s too long for Jernegan, who turns into the lot, rolling casually by the car, noting the plate number.

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Pulling into a space nearby, Jernegan grabs a two-way radio off the sun visor and calls the registration into the police station.

This parking lot has been a lucky place for Jernegan.

In the spot he’s now parked in, Jernegan recently arrested three 20-year-olds who sold him cocaine.

“People will sit here in cars facing the highway, waiting for their dealer to show up,” Jernegan says. “Typically, if this guy were meeting someone, I would give the deal time to take place, give them time to separate and then I would take this guy off.”

The man in the car today, however, turns out to have no prior narcotics arrests and Jernegan moves on.

For Jernegan and the other detectives working the drug beat in Braintree, the goal is simple: keep neighborhoods clean and maintain the quality of life in the town. They do that by shutting down local drug operations, forcing users out and ending the accompanying transient traffic of buyers and junkies.

“Take people who are using heroin, for example,” he says. “They are physically dependent on it. They have to have it or they’ll be violently sick. So they’ll do anything to get that narcotic, breaking into your house or mine, your car or mine, to steal stuff and get money to support their habit. When these people are gone, when they aren’t in Braintree, the likelihood of that happening diminishes.”

As evening approaches, Jernegan is sitting in a small fluorescent-lit room inside the Randolph Police Department’s drug unit.

Six detectives are there, and Hamelburg, the Randolph sergeant, has just passed out photocopies of the operations plan for the Bridle Path Circle bust and is reviewing them at the front of the room.

As Jernegan looks around, he notices he’s the only one not wearing a bullet proof vest.

When the session breaks up, he asks about this precaution and the sergeant suggests he put one on. Nothing more is said, but as Jernegan heads back to Braintree to pick up his vest, he wonders why they are being used tonight. It’s a safety measure Jernegan rarely finds necessary.

Still, by the time he arrives back in Randolph, he’s wearing a department issued $900 vest that stops a .45-caliber round at close range.

The wait begins at about 8 p.m. Most of the detectives are hunched in parked cars around the building. Hamelburg is waiting for the suspect just inside the building’s foyer. Jernegan is in position a few blocks away from Bridle Path Circle. He will be the first to see the dealer coming and will tip off the others.

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During the long hours of surveillance, there’s little to do. You sit, wait and watch. Always in silence, with the car off. In the winter, you freeze. In the heat of summer, it’s like being trapped in a tin can with wheels.

The ring of a cell phone strapped to the sun visor jars the silence.
It’s Jernegan’s wife.

Her voice fills the quiet car.

The kids went to bed early, tired from a visit to the Cape, she says.

Jernegan talks about waiting for a “bad guy” and the unusual use of a bullet proof vest tonight. Although his words betray some level of concern, Jernegan’s voice is calm and even.

But Jernegan’s wife is worried and presses him to call after the arrest takes place, to let her know he’s safe. The wait resumes.

More time passes.

Ford Probe, Jernegan says, as he stares through his windshield, watching the stream of cars glide silently by.

Toyota Camry, he continues.

A Taurus.

Another Camry.

A Rav 4.

Nearly an hour passes this way.

Suddenly, Jernegan snaps his seat forward from its reclining position, throws the car into drive, punches the accelerator and radios the others while speeding toward Bridle Path Circle.

The Lexus has arrived.

“Here we go,” he says.

Jernegan is the first officer on the scene. Then cars come racing from all directions, pulling within inches of the Lexus. In seconds, guns are drawn and Hicks is on the ground.

Later, as Jernegan heads back to Braintree, he unfolds his cell phone and dials home.

She’s mostly asleep when Jernegan calls. She probably won’t remember the call, he says. But he tells his wife he’s OK anyway and he’ll be home soon.

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NUMBERS


Click here to see chart of profiles of the various drugs being abused

 

9 million

Americans 12 and older using prescription drugs for nonmedical reasons in a year


54,000

Massachusetts residents signing into substance abuse programs last year


617,000

Pounds of cocaine smuggled into the U.S. in a year


132%

Increase in juveniles arrested for drugs nationwide between 1990 and 1999


80%

Percentage of all jail and prison inmates in the U.S. who say they have used drugs