Gaining ground against drug offenders
Editor's note: Reporter T.J. Pyette wrote a series of articles on the Tri-Agency Task Force before she left the Havre Daily News to become a Hill County sheriff's deputy. This is the first of three parts.
It was a Friday evening last spring and Tri-Agency Task Force team leader Jerry Nystrom had just left the office for the weekend.
At home, Nystrom exchanged work clothes for running gear in preparation for a workout to culminate his work week.
Just as he finished tying the laces on his tennis shoes, Nystrom's cell phone began to ring.
It was a U. S. Border Patrol agent, with a lead for Nystrom that might involve the distribution of illegal drugs: The Border Patrol had just detained an illegal alien who was riding the train as it passed through Havre. The man had nearly $50,000 in cash sewn in the lining of his clothes, money the border agent suspected came from the sale of drugs.
Nystrom, who still had an exhilarating rush of running-induced adrenalin tantalizingly close at hand, told the agent it didn't sound like there was anything the task force could do. He hung up the phone and continued to prepare for his run.
A few minutes later, one of Nystrom's fellow task force agents was on the other end of the phone. In an excited tone, he retold the story of the man on the train wearing clothing lined with large bills.
Nystrom sighed and repeated: "It doesn't sound like there's anything we can do."
But he sensed disappointment in the agent's voice, and it triggered something in his conscience.
"I called him back and said, 'Let's get down there,'" Nystrom said.
"Thank goodness we did."
The lead from the Border Patrol led the task force and other agencies to identify and subsequently obtain the indictment of members of a suspected drug ring spanning from Indiana to Washington and California. The man on the train was running drug money from Indiana to Washington, Nystrom said.
The call served as a reminder to Nystrom not to be too quick to dismiss any type of information, no matter how insignificant it may seem.
Just so he won't forget, the background on his computer screen is a picture of the confiscated cash from that evening.
"That's my constant reminder," he said. "Don't let anything go, because no matter how small it seems, it could lead to something very big."
Quietly, methodically and patiently, the Tri-Agency Task Force has spun a web over six counties in north-central Montana since its creation in 1987.
TATF has diligently developed a broad network of agencies working together to curtail the importation, exportation, use and sale of cocaine, marijuana, methamphetamine and any controlled substance within its jurisdiction.
The city of Havre and Hill County are two of the three agencies referenced in the name of the task force. A group of other law enforcement departments form the third agency, including the sheriff's offices in Phillips, Chouteau, Liberty, Judith Basin and Blaine counties, Chinook Police Department, and the Fort Belknap and Rocky Boy tribal police.
Each member agency is required to contribute financially to the TATF. Money seized in drug-related arrests is used to reimburse member agencies, but, Nystrom said, the reimbursements have never exceeded the members' monetary contributions to the task force.
"Nobody's making any money on seized cash and property, but (seizures) do help out," he said.
The task force works closely with nonmember agencies like the FBI, the Border Patrol, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Two of the agents hold BIA certification, which allows them to act as BIA officers when necessary.
The task force shares information with agencies like the state Department of Public Health and Human Services and Probation and Parole.
Probation and parole officer Jerry Smith said he uses TATF as a tool to help with presentence investigations and that TATF helps keep track of clients with its intelligence system and wide range of informants.
"The task force is an agency that we are able to rely on as an asset in the supervision of persons serving probationary sentences, or on parole for drug related offenses," Smith said.
"The task force is always ready to lend a helping hand when it is time to help on a search or in the apprehension of a probationer or a parolee," Smith added.
TATF is funded through by a federal grant that is administered by the Montana Board of Crime Control. The task force must reapply for funding each year. The members agencies must make a 25 percent match. Plus the task force gets a small amount of money from forfeitures and fines.
"Every year we are on pins and needles waiting to see if we are going to get the money," said Nystrom.
He added that the war against terrorism and the war with Iraq could cause changes in funding streams and siphon funds from programs like TATF in the future.
"There are any number of circumstances surrounding our funding that are out of our control," said Nystrom. "Last year the feds withheld 10 to 20 percent of our funding because the state of Montana was not in compliance with something completely unrelated to drug enforcement, but that's the way the game is played."
The grant process is competitive, said Nystrom, with seven other regional drug task forces and a state task force, which assists all 56 Montana counties with drug enforcement, all competing for the same funds.
Nystrom said all the task forces ultimately work together, trading intelligence and communicating regularly. They also get together annually for training.
The state task force is available to assist the local task forces and cover counties that have no active task force of their own, but Nystrom says the TATF is also expected to cover counties not officially in its jurisdiction, like Toole, Glacier and Fergus counties.
"We've been to Toole County. We cleaned up a meth lab there," Nystrom said.
"If you count the counties directly under our jurisdiction, we are ridiculously undermanned," he said. "Then, if you add the other counties that we cover when necessary, it becomes quite a feat to address every issue that comes down the pipe."
Nystrom and two other agents comprise the team that continually exceeds its annual goals and objectives regarding drug enforcement.
In the first quarter of the fiscal year, the TATF had 26 arrests, which is over half of its annual goal. Likewise, the TATF identified 76 new suspects in the first quarter, with only nine more needed to meet its annual goal.
"Every year our stats go up," Nystrom said, "even though the funding, at best, remains static."