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CEE-VI Drug and Gang Task Force sees an 'explosion' in drug-related crime in west central Minnesota

Fentanyl seizures, which were previously rare in the west central Minnesota area served by the CEE-VI Drug and Gang Task Force, have become more commonplace, but methamphetamine is still "king," task force representatives told the Willmar City Council during a presentation earlier this week.

Examples of fentanyl shown in a CEE-VI Drug and Gang Task Force presentation.
It’s not uncommon for the CEE-VI Drug and Gang Task Force to make a traffic stop and find drug paraphernalia used for ingesting “Dirty 30s,” which are pills made of fentanyl made to resemble Percocet pills.
Contributed / CEE-VI Drug and Gang Task Force
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WILLMAR — CEE-VI Drug and Gang Task Force leaders say they have seen an “explosion” in drug-related crimes in this region.

Kandiyohi County Sheriff's Office Sgt. Ross Ardoff, who serves as commander of the task force, and Bill Hudson, a deputy with the Meeker County Sheriff’s Office who serves as an agent with the task force, gave an overview presentation Monday to the Willmar City Council about what the task force has been encountering the last three years, and also spoke specifically about recent trends.

“As you guys can probably tell, so far this year, our heroin, our fentanyl seizures, have exploded,” Hudson said, noting that previously this region was the least affected by fentanyl in Minnesota.

There has been a huge increase in “Dirty 30s,” which are fake Percocet pills that are actually fentanyl. “That’s what we have been having so many overdoses on, and our overdose deaths,” he said.

The CEE-VI Drug and Gang Task Force serves a population of approximately 100,000 residents in the west central Minnesota counties of Meeker, Kandiyohi, Swift, Chippewa and Yellow Medicine.

One day later on Tuesday, Kandiyohi County Public Health and the Kandiyohi County Sheriff's Office issued a joint statement regarding the "steep increase in the use of illegal substances."

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"Since the beginning of 2022, the Kandiyohi County Sheriff’s Office has reported three possible drug-related overdoses and two deaths," the news release stated.

CEE-VI has seized 1,792 fake Oxycodone pills containing fentanyl, as well as several grams of powdered fentanyl, since January 2022 — most being from and around the Willmar area, according to the news release.

Ardoff told the council on Monday that fentanyl is primarily manufactured in China and shipped to Mexico where it is pressed into pills and smuggled into the U.S.

“The addiction is crazy for these, as opposed to even heroin,” he said, with Hudson adding that users who are arrested and coming down off fentanyl in jail look and sound like they are being tortured.

Regional statistics

The task force serves the counties of counties of Meeker, Kandiyohi, Swift, Chippewa and Yellow Medicine.

Hudson told the Willmar City Council that, on the low end, there will be about 320 arrests per year and about 400 at the top end, noting the vast majority of their investigations are felony-level drug investigations focusing on mid- to high-level drug dealers.

A normal year for methamphetamine seizures was 10 to 15 pounds in the past, but in 2020 it jumped to 57.7 pounds of methamphetamine seized, and it was 45 pounds in 2021, Hudson said.

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“Our trends lately, we have exploded,” Hudson said. “Meth is still king out here ...”

Methamphetamine
A normal year for methamphetamine seizures in the CEE-VI Drug and Gang Task Force region is 10 to 15 pounds, but in 2020 it jumped to 57.7 pounds of meth seized; it was 45 pounds in 2021. In 2020, the task force was chosen for Minnesota task force of the year because of the amount of cases involving methamphetamine it handled.
Submitted / CEE-VI Drug and Gang Task FOrce

Gun seizures were high in 2019, with 113 guns taken off the streets.

“Normally they are not that high. We got into a couple of cases where the individuals had enormous amounts of guns,” Hudson said, noting there are normally around 50 gun seizures per year. There were 25 gun seizures in 2020 and 49 in 2021.

Children are removed from homes in situations of neglect, endangerment or having drugs in their presence. There were 64 children removed from their homes in 2021, 36 in 2020, and 41 in 2019, according to Hudson. Usually, there are 40 to 50 children removed from homes, so last year was a fairly high number, he said.

Kandiyohi County officials say the area is experiencing a steep rise in the use of illegal substances.

It is not uncommon now for the task force to make a traffic stop and find drug paraphernalia used for ingesting “Dirty 30” fentanyl pills, Hudson said, while showing the council a photo of the pills and tools used to ingest it.

“People we know, and would have intel on, would only mess around with maybe marijuana, maybe methamphetamine. Our methamphetamine dealers ... would deal just mainly meth,” Hudson said. “And now they have all graduated into fentanyl in some way, shape or form. Honestly, I can’t tell you why.”

He added, however, that fentanyl pills are easy to smuggle.

“Just to give you an idea about those pills, why someone would even try to sell those, you can buy them in Minneapolis for $5 a pill. Out here they are $20 to $50 a pill. All you have to do is drive it two hours west and you are quadrupling your investment,” Hudson said. “That has been our biggest obstacle this last year, trying to combat that and get ahead of that.”

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In cases in which fatal overdoses occurred due to fentanyl, individuals who supplied the illegal substance have been arrested or charged, according to the joint news release from Kandiyohi County Public Health and the Kandiyohi County Sheriff's Office.

And officers have been able to provide opioid overdose treatment in many cases.

“Officers and deputies from many law enforcement agencies in our service area have responded to numerous opioid overdoses, and have been able to successfully administer Narcan nasal spray in many cases and have saved lives in doing so,” the news release stated.

Activity in Willmar

Willmar is the largest city in the task force's region, and activity in the city is the largest driver of their numbers.

“We have been seeing more and more gang activity, namely here in Willmar,” Hudson said. “When people ask, sorry, but Willmar is our bread and butter when it comes to our stats. It just is. It’s our biggest city, by far, and it just happens to be where most of our gang members can congregate.”

He showed photos of some of the larger methamphetamine and fentanyl drug busts in the last few years, some of which had “loose” cartel connections, he said.

This year has been different. In the past, in order to have major busts like in the last couple of years, the task force had to follow their pipelines to the metro area, he said.

"It has morphed this year. Our larger seizures have been starting in Willmar ... it’s being shipped here,” he added. “Our mid-level dealers, what we consider our high-level dealers here, have really graduated. They have grown exponentially.”

Willmar City Council Member Andrew Plowman asked what communities can do to be more proactive in preventing young people from getting into drugs, noting the community still has D.A.R.E., the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program which students attend in middle school, but it seems like people are getting into drugs at a younger and younger age.

Hudson stated that it “astonishes” him how desensitized young people are in regard to drugs in the community, and Ardoff pointed out a lot of it is children growing up in households where they are witnessing drug use — it is hard to break the cycle.

Mayor Marv Calvin asked how the task force felt the local judicial system is doing in prosecuting crimes and holding criminals accountable.

Hudson said that he has been on the task force for seven years and, when it first started, the local judicial system was “considerably stronger,“ but the state is trending away from being so strong against drug crimes.

“I’ll put it this way, we get frustrated, ” Ardoff said. "We put a lot of work into these cases and we are the ones going to these houses and dealing with the family and the children. ... We take it personally, sometimes making it more than we should, but that’s why we are effective. We care. It is what it is.”

Jennifer Kotila is a reporter for West Central Tribune of Willmar, Minnesota. She focuses on local government, specifically the City of Willmar, and business.

She can be reached via email at: jkotila@wctrib.com or phone at 320-214-4339.
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