By MARY RAINWATER
The Anderson County Sheriff's Office, along with the Texas Department of Public Safety, the Palestine Police Department and the Anderson County District Attorney's Office announced the end of the 20-month long drug trafficking investigation today — culminating with the arrest of about 13 individuals this morning in Palestine.
During a press conference held Tuesday at the ACSO, Sheriff Greg Taylor reported that the effort began in May of 2012, when his office began working drug information on some individuals in the county.
“We made several traffic stops, started to build up intel and quickly discovered that it was bigger than we could do alone,” Taylor said. “So we enlisted the help of the Department of Public Safety and the ATF.
“There was some gun running and some narcotics being dealt that we needed some assistance with,” the sheriff added. “We also were dealing with some Mexican nationals, and so we knew we needed a little bit of help.”
This need prompted a collaborative effort between local, state and federal agencies, whose undercover agents and investigators were able to purchase narcotics and firearms from the individuals indicted.
“We believe that this group is responsible for a major amount of narcotic trafficking as well as gun trafficking here in our county and in the surrounding area,” the sheriff said.
Sealed indictments against 22 key members in the alleged drug trafficking organization were obtained by the office of District Attorney Doug Lowe on Jan. 2 from an Anderson County Grand Jury.
At approximately 6 a.m. Tuesday, the above mentioned agencies, along with DPS SWAT, SRT-1 and Texas Highway Patrol Troopers served warrants at locations within the city limits of Palestine — on South Street, on Hayes Street and “in other areas of the city,” Taylor reported.
“Some of these people were already in jail,” Taylor said Tuesday. “We have made about 13 arrests today, some that were just as we call casualties — they were with the persons we were looking for that had outstanding warrants.”
Investigators seized a pistol, methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia during the warrant search.
An individual suspect, 21-year-old Juan Jesus Morales Gante (AKA Chuy), was charged with possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine, conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine and possession of a firearm while illegally in the United States.
Facing federal charges of conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine/possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine and possession of a firearm are: Marcela Morales Aguilar, 38; Carrie Elizabeth Clark, 32; Michael Lance Collins, 35; Daniel Galacia, 29; and Hilario Escamila Gonzalez Sr., 41.
Charged with engaging in organized criminal activity are Timothy Mark Bowling, 51; Travis Brotherton, 57; Holly Rene Miller, 38; Bridget Anita Ferguson, 33; Larry Lynn Mills, 65; Gary Wayne Parker Jr., 49; Amber Nicole Priehs, 23; Linda Kay Marr Smith, 53; Randall Keith Speed, 30; Jerry Wayne Turner, 47; Gilberto Estrada Vinaja, 28; and Jon Dee Brown, 39.
Engaging in organized criminal activity is a first degree felony, punishable by a maximum sentence of 99 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.
Four individuals have not been located — Raul Hernandez Gomez, 39; Bruce James Hogue, 49; Brittney Estridge Hawthorne, 25; and Jennifer Nacole Finley, 29.
Anyone with information on their whereabouts is asked to contact Anderson County Crime Stoppers at 903-729-8477.
Representatives at the press conference were all pleased with the unified effort that took place between the agencies to make an impact on the drug problem in Palestine and in Anderson County.
“Today's operation is really a shining example of what happens when law enforcement agencies work together,” DPS Trooper Jean Dark said. “I want to personally commend the DPS CID agents, the ATF, Anderson County Sheriff's Office, Anderson County District Attorney's Office, the Palestine Police Department, the Texas Joint CounterDrug Task Force and the U.S. Attorney's Office, who have really leveraged their institutional knowledge, their resources, to successfully dismantle this local drug trafficking organization.
“To have this sort of extraordinary outcome takes a tremendous amount of patience, intelligence sharing and cooperation,” she said. “Residents of East Texas benefit when law enforcement officers collaborate and more specifically, in this operation, the residents of the city of Palestine.”
Palestine Police Chief Robert Herbert agreed with Dark, adding that this would not be the last time residents would see an effort like this one.
“It's a delight that we were all able to come together in an effort to combat drugs in our community,” he said. “I know the residents of Palestine are very happy, and the Anderson County citizens as well.
“I know you will see more of this in the near future,” he added. “Just keep in mind citizens of Anderson County that we are here to combat drugs in your community.”
Anderson County District Attorney Doug Lowe considered the operation a step in the right direction — and one that would be long-term sustained effort.
“You know, so much of our crime in East Texas is related to drugs — burglaries, thefts, robberies, crimes against children,” Lowe said. “In the long haul, to make a better place in East Texas is going to take efforts just like this.
“I compliment the sheriff, the DPS, the police department and all the other agencies that worked together on this because it took some doing,” he said. “I think we will make a difference with long term operations and collaborative efforts. We can't do it by ourselves.”
All entities agreed that the operation would have a positive impact on the community — deterring drug trafficking and related crimes that plague county and city residents.
Taylor, though, reminded residents that it will take time.
“I do believe it will have an impact,” Taylor said. “And as Lowe spoke of the fire ants — you can get rid of fire ants, but they will move around and/or eventually come back. Yeah, it will have an impact, but they will be back.”
“Any time arrests of these types are made, it obviously affects the area in a positive way,” Trooper Dark added.