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Drug probe leads to arrests in Montezuma County

Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office, Cortez Police and DEA coordinate efforts

Five police vehicles drive up fast and stop suddenly at a commune-style residence in Montezuma County south of Cortez.

A dozen officers with the Southwest Drug Task Force spill from the vehicles and spread out, some with guns drawn as they clear sheds, trailers and campers.

The suspect with an arrest warrant for alleged drug distribution is not home, so they huddle and prepare for the next location. They have five more stops to make by 1 p.m.

The group of mostly young officers is one of three teams deployed Wednesday to serve arrest warrants on suspected drug dealers in Montezuma County. The task force is a cooperative effort of the Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office, Cortez Police Department and Drug Enforcement Agency.

“This is the culmination of a year-and-a-half investigation. Evidence was gathered and arrest warrants were obtained for each suspect,” Nowlin said.

The suspects arrested for alleged drug-related charges were Ronald Wolfe, Jesus Flores, Darren Lingenfelter, Austin Depenbroch, Michael Yelinek, Taren Bayles, Roy Neskahi and Erica Lopez. All were booked into the Montezuma County Detention Center.

“The drug task force does not necessarily target users; we go after dealers and distributors who poison our community with hard drugs,” said one officer who would not reveal his name because he works undercover.

A Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office deputy runs with DEA agents toward a house on Oak Street to arrest a suspect Wednesday morning in Cortez.

On Oak Street, neighbors peer out their windows as the police entourage pulls up on a residence facing the site of the new south side neighborhood park where the old high school was located.

Officers wearing flak jackets and helmets scale fences to secure all sides of the building as excited dogs scurry around.

Within seconds, two people are seen with hands up being led out of the house.

Wolfe happens to drive up during the raid and is promptly arrested and handcuffed. Another resident is found to have an arrest warrant out of El Paso County and is taken into custody. A roommate, who is not in trouble, shakes his head and watches while calming down the dogs.

“Everyone complied, it went smoothly,” said a plainclothes officer. “These are considered high-risk arrests because in the drug world, there are often weapons around. But not this time.”

At a neighborhood in Mancos off U.S. Highway 160, a similar scenario plays out. A hard knock on the door and shouts of “Police!” prompts Bayles to come out. He is read his rights and handcuffed, then given access to a phone to inform a friend of his situation.

Nowlin said he consented to a search of a trailer, and a pile of alleged counterfeit $100 bills are confiscated.

Additional charges are likely, Nowlin said.

Meticulous planning goes into the coordinated arrest sweeps, the sheriff said, and the task force undergoes regular training.

Each property is surveilled beforehand, and individual strategies are drawn up and practiced.

During a briefing, officers drink fluids and scarf down some doughnuts, garnering a few laughs and ribbing.

“We have a good rapport with the different agencies because we have a common goal of fighting the drug trade to protect the community,” Nowlin said. “We have a young, talented crew who are motivated, compassionate and professional.”

One veteran task force officer said that in his seven years, he has seen the quantities of drugs confiscated go up.

“It used to be grams; now it is ounces and pounds, and there are new more powerful and addictive ones,” he said.

“It is a good feeling to make these arrests. We’re proud to do what we can to help stop this activity,” he added. “It also helps prevent drug-related crimes like burglary and assault.”

Investigators said the case began in part from tips and complaints from neighbors and others worried about the drug trade.

jmimiaga @the-journal.com

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