'Operation Heat Seeker' led to charges against 10 people. Seven firearms have been seized.
Law enforcement officers raided homes in Flagler County Sept. 28., arresting five felons, leveling charges against an additional five and seizing seven illegal firearms.
"The aim in Operation Heat Seeker was violent felons within the community that were dealing guns and drugs," Sheriff Rick Staly said in a news conference Sept. 29. "I have said from day one when I took office that where there are drugs, there are guns. We have seen that in our drug-related drive by shootings."
The operation began in May and culminated with the Sept. 28 raid on three homes. The investigation involved the Flagler County Sheriff's Office; Bunnell Police Department; Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; the Seventh Circuit State Attorney's Office and the U.S. Attorney's Office.
The guns seized included an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, a shotgun, and various revolvers and semi-automatic handguns. It is illegal for felons to own guns, and many of the ones seized had been stolen.
Deputies also seized MDMA pills, marijuana and slightly over 2 ounces of crack cocaine, Staly said, all of it confiscated or purchased by undercover agents from men with violent criminal histories.
"We recognized this being a problem in the county," Staly said. "We've had a number of drive-by shootings. They're all drug-related. Most of the time we've arrested, ultimately, our victim — the alleged victim — and it was always a drug ripoff. And we knew that we had felons that had possession of guns. So we wanted to work together in partnership and make federal cases where they cold be made in their partnership and send them off to federal prison hopefully, and get rid of them permanently, or at least for a very long time.
The 10 individuals who were charged have criminal histories with charges dating back 35 years, and 342 combined charges and 92 convictions — for everything from burglary or resisting arrest to homicide.
Law enforcement officers are still seeking four: Johnnie S. Thomas Jr. (on charges of sale of cocaine, and being a felon in possession of a firearm), Serome Bell (felon in possession of a firearm), Jason Y. Dixon (sale of cocaine, felon in possession of a firearm), and one still-unnamed suspect who is being charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm but who has not yet been indicted. Staly urged anyone who knows where they are to send a tip to Crime Stoppers at 1-888-277-8477; Crime Stoppers tipsters may be eligible for awards of up to $1,000.
Some of the individuals charged are facing federal charges rather than state charges. Federal charges tend to give suspects fewer chances for bond, stiffer penalties, and no opportunities for early release from prison.
"I'd like to thank all our agencies that partnered with us to work on this operation to combat violence in our community, and get poison peddlers and their illegal guns out of our community and in jail," Staly said.
"I have a message to the dirtbags in our community: Do not underestimate the resolve of our partners and of Flagler County Sheriff's Office to arrest you," he said. "If we did not get you this time, you'd better sleep with one eye open, because you will be next. Get out of Flagler County."
Seventh Judicial Circuit State Attorney R.J. Larizza praised the operation and noted that undercover operations involving guns and drugs are particularly dangerous for law enforcement officers.
"Going back to my days as a probation officer, I knew that drugs and guns are a lethal combination," Larizza said. "In fact, we prosecute several homicides a year that involve drug deals gone bad. It's not a secret that folks that peddle drugs, a lot of them carry guns. And it's also not a secret that folks that deal in drugs become targets of other folks, either in home invasions, or carjackings, or rip-offs to try and take the drugs and money from them. Just the drug activity itself breeds a lethality that is troublesome, and certainly is counterproductive and dangerous for our community. ... We're trying to target folks that we believe will not change, folks that we believe will continue to engage in the activity of drugs and weapons within your communities, and we believe those folks are a threat to your community that we need to try and eradicate if at all possible."