Black Mountain K-9 vehicle sends message to drug dealers
The simple version of how the Black Mountain Police Department acquired the latest addition to its fleet can be found in white block letters on the tailgate of the Ford F-150 King Ranch truck.
“This vehicle proudly paid for by your local drug dealers,” it reads.
The origin story of the new K-9 vehicle, however, offers a mere glimpse into the department’s ongoing fight against illegal drugs within town limits.
Drug arrests in Black Mountain have been up significantly in recent years, according to police chief Shawn Freeman.
"Last budget year we withdrew from the Buncombe County Anti-Crime Task Force (BCAT) and used that $30,000 or so we were giving to them, trimmed some of the overtime in our budget, and funded a narcotics position here in our department," he said. "It's paid huge dividends because of the amount of narcotics we've seized since then."
That narcotics detective, who the chief asked not to identify due to the clandestine nature of the position, works in conjunction with the Western North Carolina Department of Homeland Security office.
"Since we created that position, at no additional charge to taxpayers, we've taken a street value of around $800,000 worth of drugs off the streets here in Black Mountain," Freeman said. "In Federal cases alone we've seized over $150,000 in cash during that time too."
Drug arrests in 2017, the year Freeman joined the department, were up 25 percent over 2016.
"We conducted the first ever undercover (drug) buy in town that year," he said. "We really started to focus on narcotics."
Through the addition of a dedicated narcotics detective and the partnership with Homeland Security, drug arrests increased 62.5 percent in 2018.
"So in the past two years we've seen an 87.5 percent increase in narcotics arrests," Freeman said.
Much of the local drug activity, according to the department's narcotics detective, is directly related to the town's location.
"We focus a lot of our efforts on (methamphetamine)," the detective said. "Back in 2004 - 2005 is when the meth epidemic really hit N.C. The epicenter of that epidemic was McDowell County."
The I-40 corridor between McDowell County and Asheville, what the detective refers to as a "secondary source city" for meth, places Black Mountain directly in the middle.
In the earlier days, according to the detective, the drug was often manufactured in homes or other structures, but that changed due to the dangers associated with making it.
"The majority of meth that we find around here now, 85-90 percent, comes from other countries," the narcotics detective said. "Homeland Security focuses on anything outside of our border that comes into the country or anything that's made here and shipped out."
Investigations initiated in Black Mountain can lead to taking meth off the streets in cities across the country.
"The resources provided to us through Homeland Security help me not only save lives here in Black Mountain, but also in Asheville, Greenville, Charlotte, you name it," the detective said.
While many view Black Mountain as a "sleepy little town," Freeman said, that reputation can be inviting for those who traffic illegal narcotics.
"We're taking straight fentanyl off the streets right here in town," he said. "That right there translates to lives saved."
While even small amounts of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid between 50 - 100 times more potent than morphine, are capable of killing a person, it's not the most dangerous drug to have been seized locally. Investigations initiated by Black Mountain police have also led to the seizure of carfentanil, which is 100 times stronger than fentanyl.
"There was a big story going around a little while back about something called 'grey death,' which is carfentanil mixed with heroin," the detective said. "A traffic stop initiated right here in town turned up 15.5 grams which was making its way to Black Mountain from Asheville."
The work by the town's narcotics detective requires anonymity, but the faces of the department's efforts to sniff out drug activity belong to officer Logan Newhouse and his K-9, Cayman. The duo began patrolling together last October and since then they've made roughly 20 busts.
Newhouse, a native of the Swannanoa Valley, takes pride in the department's commitment to taking drugs off the streets.
"I've got family in the local schools and I don't want to get that call one day that my family member has overdosed or broken into a place to feed a habit," he said. "My number one goal is to keep the children of this town safe."
Cayman, a Belgian Malinois trained in drug detection and the apprehending subjects, spends the vast majority of his time sniffing out narcotics, Newhouse said.
"Typically Cayman and I are called to the scene when an officer pulls a car over and there is a faint smell of marijuana or another illegal substance," he said. "I run the dog around the outside and if he alerts, that's probable cause to search the vehicle."
Cayman, according to Newhouse, is another tool used by the department to take illegal drugs off the street. The role the K-9 and his handler play in the fight against narcotics in Black Mountain made the vehicle they patrol in the perfect place to display a message to those who may seek to peddle the substances in town, the chief said.
"I wanted to send a clear message to drug dealers, whether they're local or passing through town," Freeman said of the message on the back of the vehicle. "If we catch you selling drugs in our town we will take your stuff and use it to help take more drugs off our streets."
Through the partnership with Homeland Security, an increased number of Black Mountain drug cases are being prosecuted in the Federal court system, he continued.
"We've seen eight people convicted in Federal cases since we partnered with Homeland Security," Freeman said. "Those charges stem from trafficking Schedule I and II controlled substances to possession of firearms in the furtherance of a narcotics crime and everything in between. Those convictions have totaled a minimum of 241 years in prison between the eight of them."
The department's work to take illegal drugs out of the community will continue, the chief said.
"We've made a major impact already," Freeman said. "We've seen a decrease in overdoses during this time so we're literally saving lives. We just want everyone, from drug dealers to our citizens, to know that we're working hard to make the town safer."