TIFTON — Tift County authorities believe they have broken up the biggest cocaine ring in the county and seized the largest amount of cash in the county’s history.
Almost $1 million in cash was recovered by the Tift County Sheriff’s Office during an investigation which led to the arrest of three men Tuesday on drug charges. The three men, Anthony Sean Walker, 33, of Omega; Leonard Earnest Royster, 47, of Tifton; and Michael Sherrod Kinsey, 23, of Norman Park, were each charged with conspiracy to traffic in cocaine.
When asked if the three suspects were “drug kingpins,” Tift County Sheriff Gary Vowell said they were “nothing short of that.”
“The investigation focused on a large-scale cocaine distribution ring centered here in Tifton and Tift County,” Vowell said Thursday. “During the course of the investigation, agents seized four kilograms of cocaine, over $949,000 in U.S. currency, 11 automobiles, two all-terrain vehicles, several firearms and a large assortment of electronic equipment. All of this property was either used during the distribution of illegal narcotics or was purchased with the proceeds of such transactions.”
Vowell said the cash totaling over $949,000 was the largest cash seizure in the history of the sheriff’s office.
“That was a pretty pile of cash, let me tell you,” he said.
Of the cash, he said $828,000 was seized at one time from an unnamed courier on his way to purchase 50 kilograms of cocaine. The sheriff said authorities in other states are working to arrest the sources of the cocaine and that he would inform the public if further arrests are made in the case.
Vowell said that although the arrests will not completely eradicate the cocaine trade in Tift County, “It’ll slow it down considerably.”
“The movement of cocaine by the kilo in Tift County has been dealt a severe blow,” he said.
He said that there will always be some dealers supplying cocaine as long as there is a demand for it, but he believed the biggest cocaine ring in Tift County was demolished.
“I think we’ve knocked out probably the top guy in Tift County,” he said. “These guys were distributing a lot of cocaine in Tifton, the surrounding counties and even out of state.”
The sheriff said that all available intelligence pointed to the suspects being the top cocaine distributors in the county and there are no other dealers of their caliber in the county.
“(Cocaine’s) going to be hard to find,” he said. “I don’t know. They don’t supply all the cocaine in this area. It’s like grocery stores, they were just the biggest.”
He said arrests that high in the drug distribution business are rare because they are difficult to catch.
“These guys are hard to come by,” he said. “They didn’t get where they are by being stupid.”
But he said the arrests show that “You play with fire long enough, you will get burned.” Vowell said that the arrests and seizures were one of the best things he has been part of in 10 years as sheriff.
He said investigators were looking for a larger drug seizure but that did not happen. Four kilograms of cocaine, about $80,000 worth, were confiscated along with an undisclosed amount of marijuana.
Two of the suspects were arrested at separate locations in Tift County by Tift County sheriff’s deputies while a third was arrested with the assistance of the Colquitt County Sheriff’s Office in Colquitt County. Two of the suspects were arrested at their residences while a third was caught in a vehicle.
Walker and Royster were arrested without incident. Authorities said Kinsey was involved in a short foot chase before he was captured.
All three suspects are being housed at the Tift County Jail. According to Georgia law, anyone convicted of conspiracy to commit a drug offense is liable for the full penalty of the actual drug offense. Trafficking in cocaine over 400 grams carries a maximum prison term of 25 years and a $1 million fine.
The arrests and seizures were due in large part to the efforts and undercover work of the Mid-South Narcotics Task Force, a cooperative effort of the sheriff’s offices in Tift, Turner and Crisp counties. The Tifton Judicial Circuit District Attorney’s Office, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, the Drug Enforcement Agency, the Internal Revenue Service and the Georgia State Patrol also participated in the investigation.
Vowell said cooperative agencies such as the Mid-South Narcotics Task Force are integral to the war on illegal drugs.
“By combining resources and manpower, you’re certainly more successful, I believe,” he said.
He said that although the arrests cleared the streets of a large amount of illegal drugs, his office will not be taking a break and will continue to pursue the smaller dealers.
“We’ll continue to put the pressure on and use tactics that have worked,” he said.
The vehicles seized included two Chevrolet Impalas, a Ford Ranger, a Ford Crown Victoria, a Cadillac Escalade, a Cadillac Deville, a Chevy Lumina, a Dodge SLT pickup, a Dodge Magnum and a Suzuki motorcycle. Many of the vehicles were customized with expensive features such as televisions, video cameras and sliding Lambroghini-style doors. Vowell said the Crown Victoria was the “king of police cars” and the dealers tried to “pimp the police” by customizing the car.
Machines used to count money were among the electronic devices confiscated.
The seizures were found during the service of six search warrants Tuesday in Tift and Colquitt counties. The Colquitt County Sheriff’s Office assisted with the search warrants in their county.
The cash seized will follow federal guidelines for drug-related seizures. Vowell said the DEA will get about 20 percent, the GBI will get a small portion and other agencies involved will receive a portion.
“Our agency will get the largest piece of the pie,” he said.
He said the money would be used to fund drug interdiction and drug education and would also help to fund officer training and overtime pay.
To contact city editor Dusty Vassey, call 382-4321.