Akeley forum confronts drug epidemic
More than 60 residents answered an invitation to hear Akeley Police Chief Jimmy Hansen and other law enforcement officers discuss how they are addressing the epidemic of drugs and drug crime in Hubbard County.
They gathered Saturday evening in the Akeley Regional Community Center for two hours of information, many questions, and even some answers.
"It isn't just an Akeley issue," Hansen said. "It isn't just a Hubbard County issue."
Hansen quoted chilling statistics: Last year in Mexico there were more than 29,000 homicides — many of them related to drugs. Opioid overdoses kill approximately 90 people per day. Methamphetamine killed 6,000 people in the U.S. in 2015.
Akeley hasn't been spared. On the contrary, Hansen said, it lies on a major north-south drug thoroughfare: State Highway 64.
He cited local arrests and convictions to back this up, giving credit to state and county peace officers for the busts.
Crime comes packaged with the drugs. As Hansen put it, people caught up in the drug epidemic are "either stealing or dealing" to feed their habit.
He said this issue "has touched every corner of Akeley," as recently as the last two weeks with the meth-related death of a 27-year-old local woman.
Meth is being especially targeted by law enforcement, Hansen said, "because of the heartaches and the hurts and messes it causes in our communities."
Quoting from a recent issue of "Time" magazine, Hansen compared the drug epidemic to a terrorist attack or a mass shooting. "Who's showing up to stop it? You guys," he said.
Hansen turned the microphone over to his drug interdiction colleagues to share "what we're doing to make things uncomfortable and downright unfriendly to our drug dealers."
Attack and attack
Bill Schlag, an drug task force investigator with the sheriff's office, said his team has been concentrating on Akeley lately.
"We've beefed up our traffic enforcement," he said. "It's amazing what we've found — sawed-off shotguns, long rifles, thousands of dollars in cash. We learned in a hurry what Highway 64 was all about."
In addition to meth, Schlag noted heroin has been making a comeback, as the government cracked down on prescription pill abuse in response to the opioid epidemic. Officers are also seeing more fentanyl, which Schlag called "probably the most dangerous drug in the area right now," and which is often mixed into heroin and methamphetamine.
"It's killing people," said Schlag. "People are overdosing all over the place. It doesn't take a whole lot to make that happen."
Schlag appealed to audience members to contact law enforcement if they know about a problem. "If we don't know there's a problem, we can't help you," he said.
Colter Dieckmann, team leader of the county's 12- or 13-member drug task force, recognized Hubbard County Sheriff Cory Aukes for doubling the county's commitment to drug interdiction.
"I wear three different hats," said Dieckmann. "I'm a Hubbard County investigator, a Paul Bunyan Task Force agent and a Headwaters Safe Trails Task Force agent as well. Drugs don't have boundaries, so it's a collaborative effort."
His team also works with the FBI office in Bemidji, he added.
"We're able to attack and attack," Dieckmann said. "We buy drugs and we do search warrants, with the primary focus of getting rid of dealers. Addiction is an issue, but our main focus is to curb the distribution of narcotics."
Explaining why he assigned two officers to full-time drug interdiction, Aukes said, "It's too important of an issue to not hit this as hard as we can."
He admitted it sometimes looks to concerned residents like nothing is happening when they phone in a concern about suspicious activity. Aukes urged them to have patience and trust while officers work on a drug case. The investigation sometimes takes a long time.
"That doesn't mean we're not doing anything about it," he said. "But don't be afraid to call again with additional information."
Sheriff's Deputy Josh Oswald, who works primarily in the Nevis area, said his style of police work is a little different from his colleagues.
"Most of my day consists of two or three hours going around the city, having coffee," he said, getting a laugh from the audience. "I get to know the locals. They become more comfortable with me, and I get to know a lot about the area."
Oswald says Nevis gets some overflow off the State 64 drug pipeline, via State Highway 34. Thanks to his rapport with the public, he has been able to pass along tips to the drug task force that led to convictions.
Trooper Garrett Klein, one of two trained Drug Recognition Experts patrolling the area, said the Minnesota State Patrol's focus is mainly on keeping the highways safe, but that extends naturally to looking for impaired drivers.
As to why Akeley has such a major epidemic, Klein said dealers driving drugs from the Twin Cities to the Bemidji-Cass Lake area often prefer taking Highway 64 instead of Highway 371.
"Every single town on 371 has stop lights," he said. "Every single town has their own police officers. There are troopers," including a K-9 officer and a trooper in Motley well-known for making drug busts. "It's highly enforced out there. They take 64 because there are no towns, there are no stoplights. They can pretty much cruise unscathed until they have to stop here in Akeley. That's where they fill up on gas."
Hansen reminded Akeley residents of recent "saturation" events, when squad cars from multiple agencies are seen patrolling the area.
"We plan that every couple months," he said. "We target a highway where we know the drugs will be."
Hansen responded to a misconception that these saturations are an example of police fishing for speeders or impaired drivers.
"No," he said. "It's called drug interdiction. It's working well."
Following the peace officers' presentation, moderator Frank Lamb, Sr. led a vigorous question-and-answer that lasted more than an hour.
Schlag described the connection between people looking to buy or sell drugs as a ladder, with each rung in the supply line — from wholesale to retail — connected to someone on the next rung up or down.
"It's not very difficult to find the next step up," Schlag said. "People who utilize methamphetamine or heroin know who else uses it, and they know where they can get it."
Asked whether he pursues the "little guys," Schlag said, "Absolutely. I'm after anybody who sells methamphetamine. I don't care if you sell $10. I don't care if you sell $1 of methamphetamine. You're going to jail. What we try to do is disrupt the rung on the ladder."
He noted some investigations go on for up to two years, "not because we're targeting just one person, but we keep moving up that ladder. Our final goal is to get the marlin on the truck." In other words, to catch the big fish.
Asked how members of the community can help law enforcement, Hansen said, "If you see something, say something."
Then, pointing to where his fellow officers were seated, he hinted, "If you have a prayer list, pray for this table right here."
Surviving the epidemic
The crowd heard the passionate testimony of Dennis Peltier, a former methamphetamine user who admitted having trafficked in drugs, but said he has turned his life around.
Encouraged by Hansen to tell his story, Peltier said what needs to happen is to break down the network of dealers and users.
"I was a little fish," he said. "But it doesn't matter if you're a little fish or a big fish. If you don't have a job and you're looking for your next fix, you're going to sell it to get your next fix. Everybody is going to be a dealer at some point."
Thanks to the drug network, Peltier said, "I had my fingers in every county in the area. It was a horrible group I was hanging out with."
At his peak, he said he could bring "pounds" of meth from the Twin Cities and dispose of it in Akeley within 90 minutes, making $10,000 to $20,000 in one trip.
"I knew so many people who knew so many other people who know so many other people that all I needed was to know one person from this area, and I could drop a half-pound to him and it would be gone in an hour or two," said Peltier. "All the druggies hang out with the druggies."
The cost of his actions, said Peltier, was losing his family and missing out on 15 years of his daughter's life. Standing six feet, two inches high, he weighed 135 pounds when he went to jail. His teeth were permanently damaged by "meth mouth." Eventually, a former girlfriend helped him turn his life around.
Though he admitted he deserved to go to prison for what he did, Peltier said he thinks there should be a better way to get victims of the drug epidemic out of that situation besides sending them to prison. He also called the current approach to drug rehab "a joke."
Peltier said he is working with some business connections to develop a new approach to treatment facilities.
Aukes said he would have considered Peltier an adversary when he was at his drug-dealing peak, but "right now, I give him all the credit in the world, and I want to shake his hand. That's a good case right there. Meth is probably one of the hardest things to kick. You don't see it too often, but when you do, I think it's great."
Aukes admitted many treatment programs are not successful in the long term.
Asked what might have helped him, Peltier suggested changing the network people are in to remove them from the influence of other drug users; showing them a better life is possible than what they are doing; and possibly some kind of mentoring or life coaching.
Kristin Fake with the Akeley Chamber of Commerce spoke up about the issue of people being too intimidated by law enforcement to report suspicious activity. Fake announced that the Chamber is working with Hansen to create an anonymous tip line and will offer a $1,000 reward.
Aukes announced the sheriff's office now has a tip line that accepts text messages, in case the caller is in a situation where they do not feel safe being overheard speaking to police. The texting number is 255-4879.