Drug Unit Helps To Keep Payson Streets Clean

After months of work, police officers catch wanted fugitive

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Andy Towle/Roundup - atowle@payson.com

The Payson Police Department’s special enforcement unit works to get drug dealers and suppliers off the streets. At the special enforcement office, a box containing drug paraphernalia serves as a reminder of the unit’s goal.

After more than four months of searching, good detective work and a little bit of luck, Payson’s special enforcement unit cracked the case on a wanted fugitive and alleged drug dealer.

Det. Mike Varga had always kept Kevin Benedict, 40, in the back of his mind, consistently checking every white Tahoe he saw on the street, knowing one of them might contain Benedict who frequented the Rim Country from the Valley.

The constant checking paid off when on Oct. 26, Varga spotted a white Tahoe driving suspiciously south of town on Highway 87. He followed the Tahoe, which pulled into a Circle K. Benedict got out of the vehicle and Varga made the arrest after a brief struggle.

But it’s all in a day’s work for this low-profile group of detectives working to keep the streets clean of dangerous drugs and dealers.

Walk into the special enforcement unit’s office at the Payson Police Department and you would think you had walked into a pot-loving college dorm room.

Marijuana images litter computer screens, posters and file cabinets. A stash of bongs and crack pipes are tucked neatly away in a box under the desk.

Varga and Det. Chad DeSchaaf make up a team of special investigators who constantly search the streets for drug traffickers and users.

Their methods include undercover surveillance, paid informants and common citizens calling in tips.

“It is a completely different line of police work,” Varga said. “We are chummy with people you would not be in patrol.”

Current and former drug users often offer tips and sometimes buy drugs from dealers in sting operations.

“It is utilitarian, we use the smaller fish to get to the bigger fish,” Varga said. “We want to get the dealers and suppliers without arresting the users. It would be the opposite in patrol.”

Informants are paid from $200 to $1,000 based on the case. They can also work time off previous charges.

“Before we pay them, they have to prove they are reliable,” DeSchaaf said.

Varga and DeSchaaf are cautious to reveal too much about their sources or methods believing anonymity gives them an edge above the dealers. Both detectives dress in plain clothes, when not working as patrol officers.

DeSchaaf said the bread and butter of the task force is citizens calling in tips.

“Without concerned citizens, we couldn’t perform the job as well as we do now,” DeSchaaf said. “We would have to stumble across stuff.”

Another source of help is reformed addicts.

“There are noble people who have used drugs, but want to help out in the community now,” he said. “They know how drugs really mess you up.”

Both detectives have been on the task force for less than a year, but have made 72 drug arrests, 16 miscellaneous arrests and five burglary arrests so far in 2008.

The recent arrest of Benedict after a four-month investigation was a big bust for the task force.

On a stroke of good luck, Varga arrested Benedict after several months of tracking him.

“We were trying to find where he is, but he is very elusive,” Varga said. “The people around him protect him.”

Benedict is wanted on several forgery and theft charges in Payson and had outstanding warrants in the Valley.

In October of 2007, Benedict allegedly attempted to use forged checks at National Bank. When bank officials called police, Benedict left and sped down Main Street.

Police caught up with Benedict on McLane, where he was speeding toward the rodeo grounds. Benedict jumped the car over berms near the rodeo grounds and headed south on Highway 87.

The vehicle’s tires and rims were damaged in the chase and officers followed the vehicle’s tracks to Oxbow Estates, where the car was abandoned and Benedict fled on foot, disappearing into the desert. For the next eight months, Benedict seemingly had vanished, prompting police to put him at the top of the special enforcement unit’s list.

Several concerned citizens called in tips about where Benedict was staying in town.

“I knew what he was driving, a white Chevy Tahoe,” Varga said. “I can’t tell you how many white Tahoes I checked out before I found him. He was always in the back of my mind.”

When Varga approached Benedict at the Circle K, one of the names he gave was from a stolen check he had tried to cash at National Bank, Varga said.

When officers tried to arrest Benedict, he pushed Officer Lorenzo Ortiz and ran 20 feet before being tackled and arrested.

Benedict was arrested on charges of two failures to appear, driving with a suspended license, false reporting to an officer, resisting arrest, aggravated assault on an officer, possession of drug paraphernalia and possession of narcotic drugs for sale.

Benedict allegedly had five grams of heroin on him.

“He denied who he was even after he was booked and identified by tattoos and fingerprints,” Varga said. “He really is a dangerous guy.”

To contact the task force with tips, call dispatch at (928) 474-5177.

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