1998 bust raises questions about drug raids

Some say stings don't net the big fish

Posted: Wednesday, July 12, 2000

A 1998 drug bust that threw a legal net over 23 Juneau residents is still making waves in the courts.

At least two of those busted face new criminal charges. Meanwhile, some attorneys are questioning the efficiency of drug sweeps, although law enforcement officials continue to be convinced of their worth.

The June 1998 drug bust followed a six-month investigation that included undercover buys of marijuana, cocaine, heroin, hashish and methamphetamine. The investigation, dubbed Capitol Improvement, was the project of the Southeast Alaska Narcotics Enforcement Team.

One of the 23 charged, Craig R. Tiedemann Jr., was back in court last month on a petition to revoke the probation ordered as a result of the bust. Assistant District Attorney David Brower said Tiedemann has five alleged new crimes hanging over him, all violations of conditions of his parole following his release from prison.

Probation officer David Wilson alleged Tiedemann consumed alcohol, used marijuana, possessed weapons and ammunition, and stole property from a local video store in recent months. All violated terms of his release.

Erica M. Elisoff, also sentenced to prison time following the 1998 drug sweep, has also been back in court. She was charged with theft of more than $25,000 from Big KMart between October 1999 and April of this year, violating conditions of probation from the drug sentence. She is present in court records 24 times between November 1989 and April 2000.

Public defender David Seid, who currently represents Tiedemann, said he has witnessed several ``paid snitch drug busts. They got everybody cold, but so what?

``They round up a bunch of low-level, small time people who deal tiny amounts to support their own habits. Those vacancies fill up immediately, but they never seem to catch any big fish,'' said Seid, who has worked in Juneau and Ketchikan for 10 years. ``It seems a big waste of police resources.''

Tiedemann, 25 at the time of the 1998 bust, said he took a plea bargain including prison time ``because I was scared.

``I thought the sentence was harsh because they didn't have a stitch of evidence. They just had some snitch's word,'' Tiedemann said, alleging the informant was a major cocaine dealer.

Whatever the criticisms, Sgt. Ray Culbreth of SEANET endorses periodic drug sweeps.

In its day-to-day operations, SEANET runs undercover agents who corral only one to three potential defendants, Culbreth said.

``When we have a larger operation, with deep cover informants, it tends to send a message to the community that we are out there. It's the splash (that's effective in deterring drug running). The Empire publishes it, and it has a definite impact on drug dealers,'' Culbreth said.

How effective are drug sweeps? ``If you don't (conduct periodic sweeps), you kind of give free rein to that element,'' said Sgt. Kevin Siska of the Juneau Police Department.

``Drug enforcement is awfully difficult (in Juneau) because it's so easy to bring in large quantities of drugs with the number of airplane flights and boats coming in here,'' said attorney Phil Pallenberg, a public defender who represented some defendants in the 1998 bust.

But although Pallenberg is sympathetic to the difficulty of SEANET's assignment, he doesn't believe large-scale drug busts really solve the problem.

``In recent years, they have not had a lot of success apprehending the real players in the drug trade,'' Pallenberg said. ``They have arrested mostly lower level or street level dealers or user-to-user deliveries.''

If society wants to prohibit people from using illegal drugs, there are three avenues open: education, rehabilitation and enforcement, said District Attorney Rick Svobodny. Scant resources are devoted to rehabilitation and education, putting the burden on enforcement, he said.

``There are two ways to conduct enforcement: undercover drug purchases or accidentally stumbling onto something,'' he noted. ``Of those two, an undercover operation is by far the more effective.''

But, Svobodny added, if society and the Legislature really want a war on drugs, ``we need to fight it on all fronts. A drug bust has some effect, but it is only one front.''



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