But on a recent August afternoon, the streets were quiet as Nelson drove her cruiser through the Lexington Park neighborhood. Colony Square is improving, many with ties to the community say, and they attribute much of its turnaround — marked by neighborhood cleanup and the evictions and arrests of problem tenants — to the efforts of local, state and federal law enforcement to fight illegal drugs in the county during the past five years.
Authorities say they have dismantled five major drug rings and put more than 100 defendants behind bars. Many were prosecuted in federal court, where drug sentences are often stiff. Now, they say, having crippled the county’s crack cocaine and marijuana businesses, they are turning to burgeoning prescription drug and heroin abuse.
A ‘ripple effect’
Drug-related crime occupies much of law enforcement’s attention in St. Mary’s. The sheriff’s office said it sees a “ripple effect” because many robberies, burglaries and assaults in the county are related to drug activity.
Decades of law enforcement efforts had little impact on the county’s drug activity, admits Sheriff Timothy Cameron: They occasionally prosecuted street dealers or buyers, but state sentencing guidelines were relatively light and the arrests did little to stop the growth of drug rings in St. Mary’s.
“When you take the salesman off the street, you don’t affect the upper levels of drug rings,” said Cameron, a former narcotics detective who was elected in 2005. “We weren’t seizing large amounts of drugs or significant assets.”
Tired of hearing the same names of alleged drug dealers since he started as a St. Mary’s patrol officer in 1980, Cameron called in backup.
Concerned that the county’s efforts were accomplishing little more than driving street-corner deals underground, Cameron reached out to state and federal law enforcement to coordinate a long-term strategy. He also created a division within the sheriff’s office dedicated to investigating vice and narcotics.
With federal help, authorities say, St. Mary’s officials have penetrated larger organizations with the use of wiretaps, with which the county had little previous experience, among other techniques.
Authorities have put people in jail who were long thought “untouchable” in the county, Cameron said. “We’ve even been able to identify people we didn’t even know were major, major dealers.”
In one recent investigation, 11 suspects allegedly connected to one drug ring were indicted in July. Officials say they expect additional arrests and indictments in connection with the case.
“It’s not the level of organization you would see in D.C. or Baltimore,” said Rod J. Rosenstein, U.S. attorney for the District of Maryland. “But there are established hierarchies and roles in these organizations: folks who import the drugs from out of state, folks who sell drugs at the retail level.”