It was a textbook narcotics case.
There were audio recordings incriminating 24 suspected methamphetamine dealers and an informant willing to testify in court. A series of arrests soon brought every suspect into custody.
“Operation Bad Medicine” seemed to be the perfect drug bust. But there were flaws.
Fearing for her safety, the prosecution’s star witness moved out of the area. She returned for court appearances, but the South Coast Interagency Narcotics Team had to pay the costs for travel, room and board.
After several months, 15 suspects had been convicted. One went to trial, while the rest agreed to plea bargains. Sentences ranged from 25 months in jail with two years of post-prison supervision to eight days and 18 months probation.
Most of the remaining cases appeared headed to trial when the SCINT director and prosecutor decided to dismiss them in August. The informant still was willing to testify, but the cost of bringing her back and providing protection was deemed too costly.
“I have no doubt the outcome would have been the same. They are excellent cases,” said SCINT Director Toby Floyd. “Just financially, it became too burdensome.”
Today, only three of the 24 Bad Medicine suspects are in jail. Two are serving their prison terms. The third received an eight-day prison sentence and violated his probation. Twelve have many months of probation remaining, which require random urine tests and drug treatment. But for the other nine, Operation Bad Medicine has done little more than bring them notoriety.
Richard Tovey, the district attorney responsible for prosecuting the cases, said the operation remains a success in his eyes.
“I would have been happier to finish the operation,” he said. “I’m fairly confident we would have convicted the rest. But the sentences we got — to have them on probation does a lot for us.”
Jena Siegrist was the key to Operation Bad Medicine. A local woman, born and raised in Coos County, she was not much different from many of the men and women she helped convict. She has a criminal history, including convictions for first-degree theft and first-degree burglary, dating from 1997. She had dabbled in the world of methamphetamine. But when presented the opportunity to help SCINT officers arrest meth peddlers, she agreed to help.
Siegrist was serving time in Coos County jail for failing to make payments on a previous conviction when SCINT officers approached her in 2005. She signed a contract to serve as an informant.
Siegrist was assigned an alias and purchased crystal meth from suspected lower-level dealers while wearing a wire. In exchange, she was released from jail early and was paid about $30 for each buy she made.
Her value to the SCINT officers greatly increased when she expressed a willingness to testify under oath.
“As operations progressed, she agreed to come forward to testify against them, fully knowing her identity would be revealed,” Floyd said. “Typically, that is not the case with informants.”
After nine months of surveillance, SCINT presented its evidence to a grand jury, which handed down indictments on 24 Bay Area residents on March 21. The following Wednesday, law enforcement officers swept through the Bay Area.
Arrests were made at nine locations in Coos Bay, North Bend, Charleston and the Barview area. By the end of the day, 16 wanted suspects, as well as two women found at one of the targeted locations, had been arrested on meth-related charges. The remaining targets of Operation Bad Medicine all were eventually taken into custody. Some turned themselves in. Others were taken by force.
Floyd said the sweep also led to the removal of several children from houses where drugs were present.
“Not only getting (drug dealers) incarcerated, but getting kids out of drug environments, that’s our mission statement,” he said.
Within three weeks of the initial sweep, all 24 indicted individuals had been contacted, Floyd said, and the scene shifted to Coos County Courthouse.
Tovey spent part of five months working on cases. With the help of Siegrist’s testimony, he got convictions on 15. Every defendant agreed to plea bargain except Cheryl Porter. She went to trial on June 26 and was found guilty on charges of unlawful delivery of meth and unlawful possession of meth. She was sentenced to 30 days in jail and 36 months’ probation.
Siegrist’s testimony was crucial to the conviction. She described going into Porter’s second-floor apartment in downtown Coos Bay, where she purchased a little less than half a gram of crystal meth. Judge Michael J. Gillespie found no reason to doubt her credibility and found Porter guilty on both charges (see sidebar).
Other defendants, or their lawyers, appreciated the strength of Siegrist’s testimony, too, and agreed to plead guilty. They received a variety of sentences based upon their charges and their criminal histories.
The two harshest sentences were handed down to two Coos Bay residents with significant criminal backgrounds. Cindy Coster was convicted on one count of unlawful delivery of meth. With prior assault convictions, she was sentenced to 25 months in jail and 24 months’ post-prison supervision. James Wenzell pleaded guilty to unlawful delivery and unlawful possession of meth, and with a history of theft crimes, he received 11 months in jail and 24 months’ post-prison supervision.
The other 12 defendants who plea-bargained received an average of 35 days in jail and 25 months’ probation.
Many were charged with additional crimes, but Tovey made sure five received two counts of delivery of methamphetamine. Should they be convicted on a third delivery charge, he said, they will face a minimum jail sentence of 19 months.
Before Tovey began prosecuting the Bad Medicine cases, Siegrist decided to move out of the state. She had begun receiving death threats when her identity was revealed.
But her safety came at a price.
The District Attorney’s Office did not have funds to allocate for the prosecution of these cases, so paying for Siegrist’s appearances rested on SCINT. According to Floyd, the annual budget for his department is about $147,000, which pays for salaries, equipment and operating expenses. It was out of this fund that Siegrist’s airplane tickets, meals and motel rooms were paid. Also, SCINT personnel provided protection for Siegrist when she was in the area, keeping them from working on other operations.
Floyd was not director of SCINT during the field operations for Bad Medicine and could not determine how much the operation cost. But he estimated it would have cost about $12,000 to bring Siegrist back to testify at each of the remaining trials, with airplane tickets costing as much as $700 and motel rooms as much as $100 a night during the summer months.
Tovey said the cases were consolidated if defendants were related or arrested in the same place, but most remained separate. Scheduling the cases was up to the presiding judges. They tried to keep the cases together as much as possible, Tovey said, but Siegrist would likely have had to make separate trips to attend each trial.
Although he wanted to see more convictions, Floyd figured spending more money would have limited SCINT’s ability to establish new cases.
“If I’ve depleted those funds, I wouldn’t be able to establish any more new cases,” he said. “It was not an equitable endeavor.”
Neither Floyd nor Tovey could say how much the entire operation cost.
Tovey said there was no method to who had their cases heard and whose were dismissed. It was not because they were weaker cases, he said, it was just a matter of whose hearing was scheduled when. Those who got the later dates just happened to benefit from the lack of SCINT funding.
While eluding conviction, the nine defendants who had their cases dismissed did not escape completely unscathed, Floyd said. The statute of limitation allows the county to prosecute the case within three years from when a felony crime was committed. Although Tovey thought it was unlikely the cases would be revisited, he said it would be easier to get a conviction if the defendants are ever arrested on drug-related charges in the future.
And although their cases were not heard in court, the publicity surrounding Operation Bad Medicine has led many to be judged by the public.
“When we brought them in for booking, (several defendants) were more upset about getting their picture in the paper than getting charged,” said Floyd.
Lori Fall, one of the defendants whose cases were dismissed, Lori Fall, said the publicity tarnished her reputation. As a result, she decided to move out of the area, she wrote in an e-mail.
More to come
Floyd also noted that the operation produced more leads for his agency to investigate.
“It’s an ongoing puzzle we try to assemble,” he said. “Developing investigative leads, continuing to field calls, following up on leads and historical cases, that’s what we do.”
Whether this work will ever rid the area of its drug problem, neither investigator nor prosecutor could say.
“That’s a story within a story,” Floyd said. “If we arrest a drug dealer, the following day, there is someone traveling farther or someone unidentified in the investigation filling that role.”
Floyd said he had no solution to the problem. Neither did Tovey.
“How are we going to do it There isn’t enough money to fund the problem. Meth is horrible,” Tovey said. “There will always be someone else who will slide into position.
“This operation was done to let those low-level dealers know we are still taking them seriously.”