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North Star Task Force: Fighting Meth in the Big Bend

March 01, 2022

By David Brand
Law Enforcement Coordinator, Florida Sheriffs Association 

Since the inception of the Office of Sheriff in Florida in 1821, Florida sheriffs have led the way through countless issues, events, and challenges.

When the Florida Sheriffs Association was created in 1893, sheriffs became more than just law enforcement officers and elected county officials. They segued into a family united for a common goal: protecting the citizens and their guests.

One recent challenge has been the unprecedented surge of methamphetamine, fentanyl, along with other unlawful drugs, into Florida. To meet this challenge, sheriffs from the Big Bend area met and developed a collective strategy.

The North Star Task Force

Florida sheriffs have the statutory authority, pursuant to §23.1225, Florida Statutes, to enter into mutual aid agreements to assist each other across jurisdictional lines. Every four years, when the sheriffs begin their elected terms, the Florida Sheriffs Association writes and obtains signatures for mutual aid agreements that provide statutory authority for the sheriffs to deploy deputies outside of their jurisdictions in response to natural disasters and to provide operational assistance.

In early 2019, several Big Bend area sheriffs created the North Star Task Force, Chaired by Wakulla County Sheriff Jared Miller.

The established goals included the collection of intelligence and the joint investigation of methamphetamine and fentanyl development labs, importation, and sales. The North Star Multijurisdictional Drug Task Force is comprised of the following county sheriffs’ offices: Calhoun, Dixie, Gadsden, Gulf, Jefferson, Lafayette, Leon, Liberty, Taylor and Wakulla.

The Problem

Mexican Transnational Criminal Organizations (TCOs) control lucrative smuggling corridors, primarily across the southwest border, and maintain the greatest drug trafficking influence in the United States. The TCOs that have the most direct impact on the central panhandle of North Florida are the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG), the Gulf Cartel, and the Beltran-Leyva Organization (BLO).

Most of the counties in the central panhandle are rural with small populations. Two of the counties have populations of less than 9,000. The Sheriff’s Offices in most of these counties, along with other local law enforcement agencies, have a limited number of personnel and few resources. These drug trafficking organizations, along with local gangs, have thoroughly exploited these vulnerable areas and developed infrastructure with extensive distribution capabilities. These dynamics create a perfect storm for meth trafficking and use.

The Human Cost

Drug addiction creates a cycle of predictable behaviors. Once addicted, users exhaust their own financial resources, borrow from friends and family, steal from family, and finally progress to committing crimes such as burglary and robbery to support their habit. According to the 2020 Florida Medical Examiners Report on Drugs Identified in Deceased Persons, Medical Examiners determined that methamphetamine was an active factor in 1,386 deaths and fentanyl was an active factor in 5,302 deaths.

Action Taken

The North Star Task Force primarily focuses its collective efforts on debriefing documented confidential sources, making controlled buys of illicit drugs, making arrests, debriefing defendants, serving search warrants, and conducting street-level operations. This activity is coordinated by Task Force Commander Sergeant William Hudson, Wakulla County Sheriff’s Office.

In early 2021, pursuant to Objective 2.3.4 of the Florida Sheriffs Association strategic plan, Gulf County Sheriff Mike Harrison asked FDLE Commissioner Rick Swearingen for assistance with funding. The FDLE applied for a U.S. Department of Justice Anti-Methamphetamine Program grant. The DOJ awarded the grant in the amount of $1.5 million to be used over a three-year period beginning October 1, 2021, for equipment, training, and overtime for task force members.

To paraphrase Jason R. Coody, the United States Attorney for the Northern District of Florida, the value of the North Star Task Force involves not only the institutional knowledge that the Task Force members bring to the table but also the knowledge of the local people and environment. This partnership enables the staff of the U.S. Attorney to be involved in the guidance of the investigation, sometimes from the inception, resulting in increased safety for the citizens we proudly serve.

Pastor Robert Sutton,Chaplain Robert Sutton of the Southwood Baptist Church in Tallahassee, began meeting with Wakulla County Sheriff’s Office deputies on Monday mornings for prayer meetings. He had initially become involved after meeting Sheriff Jared Miller and Major Chuck Whaley. Having a background in assisting the Lee County Sheriff’s Office during hurricanes, it was a natural fit resulting in the sheriff asking him to consider becoming the North Star Chaplain. Chaplain Sutton, believing that “Chaplaincy is the ministry of presence,” is present at organizational meetings and responds to call-outs to provide moral support as well as spiritual mentoring. 

A Success Story

A male in his mid-50s was identified in Wakulla County, by a confidential source, for distributing Crystal Meth. The Wakulla County Sheriff’s Office made a series of controlled buys and arrested him. Since the case had far-reaching implications and reached the threshold for federal prosecution, it was transferred to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Florida.

The Future

Sheriff Jared Miller believes that the value of the North Star Task Force lies in its partnership between the sheriffs and their collective effort to protect all citizens across jurisdictional lines. This partnership will continue well into the future.

Participating Sheriffs

Calhoun County Sheriff Glenn Kimbrel

Dixie County Sheriff Darby Butler

Gadsden County Sheriff Morris Young

Gulf County Sheriff Mike Harrison

Jefferson County Sheriff Mac McNeill

Lafayette County Sheriff Brian Lamb

Leon County Sheriff Walt McNeil

Liberty County Sheriff Buddy Money

Taylor County Sheriff Wayne Padgett

Wakulla County Sheriff Jared Miller