‘Major’ Drug Ring Busted

One officer slightly injured after 14 cops storm house and arrest four suspects

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Payson deployed half its police officers on Wednesday night to arrest four people and break up a drug ring they’d been watching for a month. Officers seized methamphetamine and cocaine during the raid.

Some 14 officers under the command of Police Chief Don Engler simultaneously entered a house and a garage at 811 W. Cherry at about 7:30 Wednesday night.

Officers had to break down the door of the garage where they discovered Tobias Zertuche, 40. He ignored orders to lie down on the ground, and officers then forced him to the ground. In the process, Officer Lorenzo Ortiz received a bruised knee.

Engler said the suspect appeared to be in an “altered state” when confronted by police.

The suspects in the main house, Jason Sylvester, 37, Melissa Dungan, 20, and Scott Worthem, 47, did not resist arrest. A search later uncovered several weapons in the home, said Engler.

The case represented a big victory ictory for the department’s newly reconstituted Special Enforcement Unit, two narcotics detectives under the supervision of Sgt. Jason Hazelo, which specializes in drug cases, Engler said.

Police first focused on the house when residents called in tips saying that people were constantly going and coming from the house at strange times of the day.

Officers kept the house under surveillance until they felt they had enough information to get a search warrant.

Sylvester and Dungan were arrested on charges of use of dangerous drugs and use of marijuana, Worthem on use of marijuana, and Zertuche for possession of dangerous drugs for sale, possession of dangerous drugs, possession of a narcotic drug, possession of drug paraphernalia, use of dangerous drugs and on a child support warrant. All suspects were booked into the Gila County Jail.

Engler said the case was one of the biggest drug busts in the past two years due to the amount of drugs seized.

The operation amounted to a major tactical strike, which involved juggling shifts to have enough officers on duty to enter two buildings at the same time, watch all the back doors and escape routes and secure the edges of the property to keep suspects in and others out.

Engler said the officers gathered for a briefing at 6:30 p.m., entered the house at about 7:30 p.m. and spent the next two hours searching the house.

He said the house had operated as a selling point for several different types of drugs for months and that several of the people arrested were longtime Payson residents.

However, he said that police serve warrants in suspected drug cases in Payson about once a week.

Engler said drug use remains a serious problem in Payson, even though the busts of meth labs have dropped sharply. For several years, police uncovered four to six meth labs each year in town, but haven’t found an operating meth lab in the past two years. The bust on Wednesday involved the sale of both meth and cocaine, but the suspects were apparently not producing meth at the home.

“We used to have a lot of meth labs, but now the supply is coming from out of state and out of country,” said Engler.

He noted that most of the people who sell drugs in Payson get their supply from connections in the Valley, where networks that stretch south into Mexico supply many of the dealers.

“It’s pretty normal for us to serve a warrant in a drug case, but the amount here was a little higher than normal,” said Engler.

Engler said that the Special Enforcement Unit will likely spend the next month or two working on the case, trying to identify customers, trace the supply routes and get a case ready for trial.

“Lots of people figure that when you make the arrest you’re all done, but that’s only a third to half of the work you put in on a case,” said Engler.

He said that due to budget constraints and the loss of some grant funds, officers on the town’s Special Enforcement Unit had been spread around. The department only recently made some new hires that made it possible to reconstitute the unit.

He said the detectives would try to use Wednesday’s bust to extract a list of customers, although the suspects “have not been notably cooperative.”

“We try to keep pressure on both the users and the sellers. People at the user level are the ones committing your property crimes in the community — so that’s our real reason for keeping after the users,” said Engler.

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