Park raid nets suspected dealers

Chico’s Downtown Plaza Park was the scene of a mass drug bust Thursday, May 29, as officers from several local agencies executed the “tactical phase” of a three-month undercover sting operation.

Around 2 p.m., about 30 officers under the direction of the Butte Interagency Narcotic Task Force (BINTF) converged on the park to arrest 17 people under indictment by the Butte County Grand Jury for allegedly selling drugs in the park. Police also served search warrants at three other locations around town, resulting in further arrests. All told, police took 18 people into custody, 10 of whom were under indictment. The other eight were swept up in the raid and charged with various infractions, including drug possession, public intoxication and parole violations. Two juveniles were among those arrested.

According to BINTF Task Force Commander Vic Lacey, the bust was the result of more than three months of work, in which an undercover agent made 19 drug buys in the park. Most of the buys were for marijuana or hashish, but crack cocaine and methamphetamine were also purchased, and the agent was apparently offered psychedelic mushrooms, ecstasy and Oxycontin as well.

Once police identified the sellers, surveillance records were presented to the Grand Jury, which authorized the indictments. The Grand Jury was involved, according to police sources, to maintain secrecy while the operation was still underway. At the appointed hour, police swarmed on the park from all sides, taking up a watch on the entire perimeter while other officers filled two vans with arrestees.

“It was like something you’d see out of a movie,” said a park regular who was present during the raid. “They just stormed in out of nowhere.”

Representatives of local media outlets were invited to watch the officers mop up their operation, which at times lent a surreal air to the proceedings. Some of those arrested posed for cameras while they were being handcuffed, as reporters huddled and joked with top cops who had also come to observe the event. The park was never actually closed off to the public, so passersby were able to gawk at the spectacle while park denizens ate tacos and complained about the intrusion. A local attorney who happened to be wandering through the park waxed poetic about the need for public space in a democracy, while Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey jokingly accused him of “trawling for clients.”

Downtown business owners and some residents have long voiced concerns about drugs being sold openly in the park and have called for a crackdown on the activities of the homeless and young people who gather there almost daily. The city is planning to spruce up the plaza, but police downplayed that aspect of the operation, calling the timing of the raid "a coincidence."