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Avalon Puts Muscle in Its Fight Against Drugs : Crime: A new sheriff's lieutenant, greater expertise among deputies and a fax machine have resulted in a surge in drug arrests on Catalina Island.

March 11, 1990|ADRIANNE GOODMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The timing was fortuitous. Last spring, just as Avalon city officials began negotiating a new contract with the Sheriff's Department for law enforcement on Santa Catalina Island, the Avalon Awareness Council was turning its attention to a related issue.

The council, a nonprofit citizens group, had collected signatures from nearly 600 of the island's 2,500 residents, asking for a community effort to address drug and alcohol abuse. The document was handed over to the City Council.

"The petition asked simply that the city recognize there was a problem," said council President Jeanne Hill. "That the different agencies--the sheriff, schools, churches and concerned citizens--band together to see if we can rid ourselves of this scourge."

"We know there are drugs in the community and they're being sold to youngsters as well as adults," said Wayne Griffin, executive director of the Catalina Chamber of Commerce. "There just--in the last couple of years--didn't seem to be any active pursuit of that on the part of law enforcement. That's changed 180 degrees."

Residents and law enforcement officials attribute that change to a new sheriff's lieutenant, who they say follows through on drug investigations, more expertise in narcotics enforcement on the part of deputies, and the use of a fax machine to get warrants to the island quickly. The result, they said, is an increase in drug-related arrests, from three in the last three months of 1988 to 17 in the same period last year.

The city's involvement with the increased drug enforcement efforts began early in 1989, when the City Council declined to approve a resolution authorizing a new contract with the Sheriff's Department, and instead asked City Manager Chuck Prince to talk to the department about increased services, including more narcotics enforcement, Prince said.

When the City Council approved a new five-year contract with the Sheriff's Department last May, narcotics enforcement was listed as the No. 1 priority.

And last July, the island got a new sheriff's lieutenant, Thomas Gahry, a 25-year veteran of the department, who cracked down on drug trafficking.

Cmdr. Larry Dykhouse, a region commander whose territory includes Santa Catalina Island, said there had been no complaints about Gahry's predecessor but that "the management of the Sheriff's Department felt it was time for a change, and at the same time the City Council started to prioritize some of their areas of law enforcement. What happened as a result of this is everybody took a look at their role--the courts, citizens, law enforcement, even the council--and it became a cooperative effort."

Mayor Hugh T. (Bud) Smith said city officials had been told by the preceding station commander that it was difficult to get a search warrant because Avalon is so small that suspected drug dealers could get wind of an impending search before the warrant arrived from the mainland.

But the use of the fax machine has "by and large been the answer to the problem," Smith said.

When a search warrant is needed quickly, a request is faxed to Catalina Justice Court Judge Peter J. Mirich, who spends one day a week on the bench in Catalina, and the remainder of the week on the mainland as a San Pedro Municipal Court judge.

Mirich said fax machines were installed at the Avalon sheriff's station, the courthouse--and in a spare bedroom in his San Pedro home.

"So I could respond to warrants in Avalon without having to run down to the judge's chambers in San Pedro," Mirich said. "It answered a critical need here on Catalina Island."

In recent months, he said, he has noticed a difference in the number of drug cases in his Catalina courtroom.

When he began serving in Catalina in early 1989, he said, "a drug case was a rarity, and yet it was brought to my attention by many islanders that there was a substantial problem with respect to drugs, substantial enough so they wanted to see it tackled head-on."

Now, Mirich said: "I am issuing search warrants, not on an alarming basis, but on a regular basis. I'm seeing the fruits of law enforcement here in the courts."

Although the number of drug arrests is not huge, it is still substantial for a town the size of Avalon, he said. "Given the population here, especially in these non-tourist months (October to December), that's significant."

About half of the 17 arrests in the last three months of 1989 were for possession, Gahry said. In one case, island deputies were tipped off that a visitor in a local hotel was trying to sell cocaine, he said. Armed with a search warrant, they found an ounce of cocaine and made the arrest.

Deputies also received word in another case, which led to the arrest of two visitors as soon as they stepped off a tourist boat with an ounce of cocaine in their suitcase, Gahry said. The visitors allegedly were planning to package and sell the cocaine with the help of two friends on the island. All four people were arrested, he said.

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