- PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
- POZOVERKILL : The remote Pozo Saloon near Santa Margarita stages concerts by famous performers and the third annual 420 Festival was no exception, but around 50 undercover narcotics agents circulated among the crowd of 2,000 fans who attended.
Eight people were arrested at the April 18 concert for sale of a controlled substance; three others were collared for driving under the influence, and another person was arrested for public intoxication: the results of a dragnet by the San Luis Obispo County Narcotics Task Force comprising officers from the San Luis Obispo Sheriff’s Department and the California Highway Patrol, police from San Luis Obispo, Paso Robles, Atascadero, Pismo Beach, and Arroyo Grande; with assistance from the United States Forest Service.
Scant information was forthcoming about the sweep beyond brief details in a press release from the California Department of Justice. It’s not surprising the officers, prosecutors, criminal defendants, and other parties embroiled in the bust aren’t spilling details. Law-enforcement officials don’t want to reveal specifics about such operations. The people who were arrested at the concert are either fighting felony charges or have pleaded guilty to lesser infractions and are paying off court fines, trying to put the event behind them. The venue owners tread a fine line between loyalty to customers and challenging authority.
What was accomplished by the operation, how much did it cost, and why were so many officers involved? Does the NTF consider it a success?
Paso Robles Chief of Police Lisa Solomon, who chairs the task force Board of Governors, an advisory body that includes several other local police chiefs, refused to provide detailed answers because doing so could jeopardize public safety, she said. Eventually, the full-time supervisor of the Narcotics Task Force, Commander Rodney John, agreed to an interview but provided only skeleton details of the crackdown.
How did it go down?
The Pozo Saloon has a storied history of outdoor concerts by famous performers. It’s in a remote, bucolic setting where, according to several eyewitnesses, the April 18 show flowed without incident. Approximately 2,000 people attended.
Rhonda Beanway, who co-owns Pozo Saloon, reluctantly discussed with New Times her knowledge of police activities that preceded and took place during the four-hour event. Beanway made clear she did not want to criticize the efforts of law enforcement, but said she was surprised by the size of the operation.
Beanway explained that she and a few staff members were contacted by two task-force agents prior to the event who said they had been alerted about possible narcotics activity that might take place during the 420 Festival. The agents asked Beanway to assist the task force by providing undercover officers free access into and out of the concert area.
“We are very concerned with security at our events and people are not allowed in and out for obvious reasons,” Beanway said. She said the agents requested wristbands colored differently than those used for general admission so officers could pass through the gates in either direction without compromising their cover.
Though Beanway could not recall the exact number of special wristbands initially requested, Levi Beanway, her son and co-owner of the saloon, told New Times he complied with a request for 12 such wristbands several days before the event and that they were asked for another 30 bands on the day of the concert, which they hesitated over but ultimately agreed to provide.
Both owners concurred with estimates by others that between 50 and 70 officers were present, in plain clothes and uniforms. Officers were inside the saloon, patrolling the parking area, monitoring the roads for motorists suspected of driving under the influence, and manning an impromptu command post at the forest station a few hundred feet down the main road from the concert. Commander John would not disclose the number of officers in the operation other than disputing 50 were involved.
Though the owners and the commander said there was mutual cooperation in advance of the event, John complained the owners stopped cooperating during the show. After an unidentified announcer on stage warned the audience about a large police contingent inside the concert area, John warned the owners they could be arrested for obstruction of justice for blowing his agents’ cover.
“That was the advisal. They were compromising the undercover officers and that is an obstruction, so I advised them,” John said. That was all John would relate about the operation.
For the record
Eight individuals, all of them in their 20s, were arrested at the event on felony charges related to alleged sale of controlled substances. Within three weeks, charges against half of them were reduced to a single count each of misdemeanor possession. One man awaits an August preliminary hearing for felony charges of possession with intent to sell tablets of ecstasy, and another has been granted a continuance until he can confer with his family regarding reduced charges, which still include a felony count for sale of marijuana.
Those who were arrested who granted interviews to New Times gave similar accounts about how they were approached inside and outside the concert grounds by undercover agents. Some of them said they specifically were asked whether they knew “where to score a sack,” a small amount of marijuana. They claim they at first dismissed the inquiries, but decided to share marijuana after the strangers persisted and engaged in chit chat about the concert and marijuana. Once the officers got what they sought, they allegedly insisted on paying for it.
Marcus Wolf, who was arrested, has a physician’s recommendation for medical marijuana and was talking about it with his girlfriend inside the concert when he was approached by a man who overheard the conversation and inquired about “smoke for sale.” Wolf said he repeatedly told the man he did not have any for sale. “I didn’t offer to sell him any. But he was persistent—he kept begging,” Wolf said. “He said he really needed to score a sack for him and his girlfriend.” Wolf finally handed over what he estimated to be roughly two grams, and then his new acquaintance insisted on giving him two crumpled $20 bills to show his gratitude.
“He handed them to me and as soon as we made the trade, he just ran off,” Wolf said. “I guess that was the signal for them to come in.” Wolf said he was immediately handcuffed by several plainclothes officers and led out of the concert.
Though the methods to solicit sales from suspected drug dealers are closely held secrets, an agent gave a detailed account of how he and his female partner carried out that assignment, at a May 25 arraignment hearing in San Luis Obispo Superior Court. San Luis Obispo Police Department Detective Brian Amoroso detailed how he approached Amber Carter, Chris Costley, and another of their friends as they walked to their vehicle after the concert.
According to his testimony, Amoroso and his female partner asked the trio, “Do you guys know where I can score a sack?” Without elaborating, Amoroso said Carter “basically said they had some, but it was at their truck, and their truck was parked a ways down the road.” He alleged Carter suggested the five should walk together for what he estimated was a quarter mile to their truck to get marijuana.
- PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
- DRUG DEALERS? : Christopher Costley and Amber Carter stand before Superior Court Judge Barry LaBarbera moments before Costley’s misdemeanor marijuana possession charge was dismissed. Carter faces a misdemeanor charge of marijuana possession and a felony charge of possessing four Vicodin pills for sale.
During cross examination, Carter’s attorney Matthew Guerrero asked the detective if he remembered making statements about the length of the walk or stating something to the effect, “You better have something when we get there.” Amoroso said he did not recall.
“I think with the burden of proof on the D.A. for probable cause, I’ll hold them to answer—Mr. Costley and Ms. Carter,” Judge Barry LaBarbera told prosecuting attorney Eric Dobroth. “But [the case is] pretty—I mean thin is a good description of it.”
Guerrero would not comment about the pending case except to write in an e-mail to New Times that, given the circumstances surrounding his client’s arrest, and the arrests of other individuals at the saloon, he advised against her pleading to a felony charge.
At the couple’s next hearing on June 14, the “thin” case against Costley was dismissed, leaving his codefendant Carter facing a felony trial for allegedly selling the four Vicodin tablets (for which she had a prescription) and a misdemeanor possession charge for a small amount of marijuana police found during a search of Costley’s truck—which she claims belonged to their companion.
According to Mike Ross, a family friend, if Carter, who has three young children, is convicted on the felony charge she could be disqualified from receiving federal aid to continue school for a nursing degree. “Amber has been working at this for a long time,” Ross said. “She’s trying to get her life together and make a difference for her kids. And now she’s got something like this to deal with. Tell me: What is the benefit to society?”
Clearing the air
Does the head of the Narcotics Task Force consider the April 18 operation a success?
“I think so, yes,” John said. “Several narcotics dealers were taken off the street. And that makes society safe in itself.”
Asked whether the people who were arrested fit the profile of what he considers drug dealers, John replied: “Well, the fact that they dealt to officers would make them dealers, wouldn’t it? We don’t go in and twist arms and make somebody do something they don’t want to do. So, if they sold then they’re dealers.”
Asked about criticism of how the agents made arrests, John said every officer that day was briefed about entrapment laws and he was confident their tactics would be upheld in court. “We don’t coerce anybody into selling to us,” he said. “I’m very pleased with the way the officers conducted themselves out there; very professional, very friendly—compared to some of the things that were going on out there.”
Regarding accusations that the manpower and resources at the saloon were excessive for the results, John said that nobody who does narcotics enforcement would send just a few undercover officers into a concert with 2,000 patrons. “That’s just not wise and very dangerous,” he said.
The commander bristled when asked by New Times whether the NTF was targeting the concert simply because it was a 420 Festival. “Well, ‘420’ stands for marijuana and the concert is based off of the legalization of marijuana. And it’s kind of one of those things there, where if you know where there’s going to be controlled substances, then you know that there’s going to be issues,” he said. “ You can’t bring a number of people like that together and not have issues.”
John’s opinion of the defendants is cut and dry: “If they’re old enough to deal drugs, they’re old enough to know better. If they are willing to take the chance, they can step up and take the punishment that comes along with it.”
As of press time, the total cost of the operation—including officer salaries and expenses for paddy wagons and the Sheriff’s Department’s Mobile Command Center—were not provided by the task force.
Commander John explained the California Department of Justice pays for the task force headquarters, but said the operating budget is paid exclusively by funds contributed from several local police departments. “Most local police departments do not have the resources to have a narcotics unit assigned to their department,” he said. “So what they do is pool their resources.”
Most of the assisting local police departments said none of their officers involved in the operation were collecting overtime on the mission. Sheriff’s Department spokesman Rob Bryn said his department does not pay overtime to any officers because of budget constraints.
Other police departments confirmed they had one or two officers assigned to the bust whose schedules were adjusted to avoid overtime. None of the participating police departments except Arroyo Grande would say exactly how many officers they contributed to the operation. AGPD Commander Chuck Gerhart said two officers were assigned from his department to Pozo that day; one uniformed, one not. And according to Gerhart, the officers received a full day of overtime pay.
Not out of the ordinary
The Pozo Saloon owners worry about how the operation could impact future concerts. “All I can say is that I never thought it would turn into what it did,” Rhonda Beanway said. “And with that, it’s probably best if we don’t comment any further.”
As for the task force, John said the Pozo operation was not atypical and regardless of whether marijuana use is decriminalized by passage of a ballot initiative in November, the task force will continue to seek out anyone dealing drugs. “All I know is it’s still illegal to deal anything in the state of California that is a controlled substance,” John stipulated. “Until that law changes, I’m not going to change the way we do business.”
Whether the operation stemmed from intelligence pointing to a major drug deal going down at the saloon, or if it was simply a case of the county’s Narcotics Task Force flexing its muscle in the face of a gathering held under the “420” banner, no one but the top brass of the task force can say for sure. And they’re not.
Staff Writer Matt Fountain can be reached at [email protected].