Witness Behind the Windshield

We didn't miss the opportunity to ride along with the Counter Narcotics Team.

Most people can find an old episode of Cops on their television and witness from a cameraman's perspective the job of a law enforcement officer.  We took it a step further. We got a first hand experience of what it was like to ride with the Counter Narcotics Team (CNT). Publisher, Michael Brooks and documentary photographer Thomas Carlson rode along with the special forces of Savannah Georgia's drug enforcement team, CNT and captured some stunning moments of a successful drug bust.

Sitting in the front seat of a narcotics agent’s car, I watched as a prostitute came down the stairs to the motel parking lot we were in and leaned inside the minivan parked a few feet from us. It was easy to tell there was some bargaining going on, and then the deal was made – right in front of us. The prostitute got in and we watched as they drove off, but the agent never broke stride from the story he was telling us about his younger days on the job.

“Um, did you guys just see all that?” I asked, interrupting him mid-sentence.

“Yep, but can’t do anything about it,” he said. “We are not here for that.”

Several hours earlier, Sgt. Gene Harley, Chatham-Savannah Counter Narcotics Team spokesman, had called me at home and asked if I wanted to come along on a drug bust. I had informed him a few weeks before that I wanted our magazine to cover the heroin epidemic that was spreading through our youth. When I was young, we knew people who were smoking and snorting drugs, but heroin was not part of the scene; back then it was a major taboo. But these days, young kids are getting hooked, and too many families are being destroyed. 

I told him that if he had anything we could tag along on, I would appreciate it. He said he would, and he kept his word, giving documentary photographer Thomas Carlson and I many chances to see these agents in action and marvel at both the scope of the problem, and their dedication to solving it.

Thomas, by the way, was a godsend to this project. He endured days and nights of me dragging him around to ride along with the Pooler Police Department, sitting through 6- to 8-hour drug busts. Having Thomas along certainly made the time go by. By day, he handles marketing for one of the nation’s top assault rifle manufacturers, so his cool factor is way up there. Plus, he had stories to tell of his days back in Los Angeles, where his ride-alongs were a bit different than ours.

This particular ride-along had begun at a fast food restaurant parking lot, where the three of us – the agent (who has asked not to be identified), Thomas and I – sat for more than five hours, listening to the agent’s war stories while waiting for our target to drive up with a pound of meth. It’s a drug that’s been robbing people’s souls for years, and a pound was enough to destroy more than a few. There was some occasional banter over the radios, but not much. You could tell that the agent was used to such long hours of surveillance, and he managed to keep us entertained.

Harley, who was running point on this bust, communicated over the radio from time to time, updating the agents on the whereabouts of the target. After five hours of waiting, Harley’s voice came over the speakers, and it sounded different, excited.

“You couldn’t make this up if you tried!” he said. “Our target has rear-ended a semi truck on I-16 and is sitting by the side of the road. He stashed the dope in the woods, so I am calling the responding officers to make sure they know what’s going on.”  

“Crap, is this the end?” I asked. “Now what?” There was talk of busting him on the scene, but it was decided that they would go pick him up, posing as the buyer, and bring him back to a local motel. Thank God, I thought. We are still a go. I almost felt bad for the guy; he just crashed into the rear end of a semi, and now he’s about to be busted with enough dope to put him in prison for at least 15 years. 

That’s how we found ourselves rerouted to that motel parking lot where the prostitute had just made her deal and driven off in the minivan. We’d just finished off a good laugh about it when another car came screaming up to the entrance with its horn blaring non-stop. The driver and passenger were both women.

“What now?” the agent wondered aloud. Seconds later, a Suburban came screeching up behind the small car, with two guys in the front seats. They looked over at our car and stared straight at the agent and me. I wasn’t sure if they caught a glimpse of Thomas in the back, but they quickly bolted into reverse and sped for the highway. The two girls remained in their car, and all their horn-honking drew a motel employee outside to see what was going on – apparently a bit of road rage, if not something worse. Either way, they were safe for now.

This is one busy little motel, I thought. And that was 10 minutes before one of the biggest meth busts in this county went down. 

Before long, Harley’s voice came back over the radio. “We are en route. ETA is 5 minutes.” The agent’s eyelids lifted a bit.

“Ok, this is what you guys came for, get ready, ’cause it will be fast.” You could hear the excitement in his voice. And he was right:  Four minutes and 50 seconds later, they drove in and before we could get over to the other side of the parking lot, we heard a loud Bang! (They use concussion grenades to create an element of surprise and it definitely achieved that) and 25 agents came down on the target. There was a lot of yelling and screaming – it looked and sounded like something you’ve seen on crime shows a hundred times. The agents were decked out in full assault gear; the mere sight of them would be enough to make anyone second-guess any move of aggression. Their identities were well hidden under masks, and they were all toting assault rifles. In mere moments, they had the target on the sidewalk, and we moved in for closer photos.

He was all of about 115 pounds and looked more like a librarian than a drug dealer. He was explaining how he was just along for a ride and if they could just give him a ride back to his car, he would appreciate it. He had no idea that the entire scene was a well-orchestrated bust and he would not be going home tonight or, in fact, for the next 15 years. His drug dealing days were over. Unfortunately, he was not a kingpin or even a rung in the ladder; he was merely a mule, a driver getting paid $500 to deliver the dope – and for that he would be receiving 15 years behind bars. That amounts to about 9¢ per day.

Nope, crime does not pay. 

As the scene cleared, it became obvious that the agents were all high on the euphoria “of getting one more off the streets.” There was a clear camaraderie among them, with many easy grins exchanged and an overall sense of relief from the exhausting seven-hour episode. 

One of Thomas’s photos captured a couple of guests peering out the window of the motel. I wondered whether it was a particularly busy night there, or just another day? According to the agents, it happens more than it should. But thank God we have a great team that works nonstop to try to keep our streets clean. They are a tight team with a lot to lose and very little, it would seem, to gain.  

On the way out, our agent drove by an onlooker in the parking lot sitting on the back of his truck. “Show’s over, but come back for our 9:30,” he deadpanned. “Each show is different.”

We all laughed, but we knew inside that it was no joke. 

To read more about local law enforcement and the war on drugs, check out the June/July issue of South magazine. Pickup a copy in your neck of the woods or subscribe and enjoy a true magazine experience.