The Tri-Agency Safe Trails Task Force has been helping the fight against drugs in Hill County and in the surrounding areas and reservations since 1988.
The force holds investigations in Liberty, Hill, Phillips and Blaine counties, as well as Rocky Boy and Fort Belknap Indian reservations. Right now, the force is just comprised of three officers: a U.S. Border Patrol agent, a Hill County Sheriff’s Office deputy and a Havre Police Department officer.
They are trying to raise the number of men to four with a representative from the Blaine County Sheriff’s Office, but Blaine County is currently understaffed and cannot afford to assign a man to the position, Lt. Aaron Witmer said.
“Strictly, what we do, is investigate narcotics,” Witmer said.
Witmer has been with the Have Police Department for 13 years. He was assigned to the task force from 2008 to 2013. Now, he supervises the force; taking care of the grants to the force and doing the paperwork, he said.
“C.J. Reichelt heads the force now,” Witmer said. “He does the primary, day-to-day operations and supervising.”
Witmer said the way they find out about the drug dealings is an officer or deputy will arrest someone on drug charges and send them the information to put into the database, or they will receive a tip from the public.
“We do control searches, search warrants, or take the information and put it into our database,” Witmer said.
The two biggest drug problems are methamphetamine and prescription pills, according to Witmer, but meth is the biggest problem by far.
“We’re starting to see bigger loads coming through town, headed towards the Bakken area,” Witmer said. “Havre is a transport town.”
He said the largest producers of meth that send their wares to the Havre area and to North Dakota are from Washington. Great Falls and Billings are the greatest Montana producers.
“The majority of our cases are in Havre, Hill County and Rocky Boy,” Witmer said. “We do several cases a year in the other places, but it’s primarily Havre and Hill County.”
Witmer said Liberty County was the area the task force had the most difficulty with, in terms of participation and being able to make any busts there. He said this was due to the tightly knit community in Liberty County.
One of the techniques the force uses to make arrests is a buy-bust.
“We’ll set up a controlled buy by having one of our sources contact the bad guy bringing in the drugs and have him meet us somewhere,” Witmer said. “We show them the cash, they show us the drugs and we bust them.”
Witmer said they have done two or three buy-busts in the last five years. Their most popular technique is using information to obtain search warrants.
“Our ultimate goal is to get federal prosecution,” Witmer said. “I’ve been working on a case for the last two years, and I’ve done something like 50 interviews. It takes a while sometimes.”
Witmer added that the cash that is confiscated from the busts and searches is put into a fund that, by state law, can only be used to fund drug-enforcement-related initiatives and supplies. Witmer said that if the Department of Justice cuts the budget, the force can use the money to sustain itself until it receives funding again. The force is normally funded through grants awarded from the Department of Justice.
The Tri-Agency Task Force spearheaded the recent investigation of Montana State University-Northern recruiter Joseph Simpson’s drug trafficking charges.