Botched Drug Raid of the Day

Saturday, March 4th, 2006

It’s from 2001. This one reads like a bad ’80s comedy. A couple of older women are needlessly terrorized. A bumbling small town sheriff keeps screwing up on his “get tough on drugs” mission. The raid is allthe talk at the annual oyster festival. Characters ooze with folksy charm. Oh, and a National Guard helicopter conducts a drug raid on a tomato patch. I see John Candy as the sheriff.

The Middlesex County prosecutor has asked Sheriff Guy L. Abbott to explain a drug bust that went awry when armed deputies burst into the wrong home and ordered a 50-year-old woman to the floor.

“We moved out of Richmond to get away from this stuff,” said Estelle Newcomb as she described the Oct. 26 incident that has left her shaken and dismayed.

“I can understand them trying to clean up” the county of drug traffickers, she said, “but, my God, leave innocent people alone!”

The Sheriff’s Department drug unit rebounded from its misstep the next night and raided its intended target, a trailer about 200 yards from Newcomb’s mobile home.

The police made two arrests there and confiscated a half pound of marijuana they valued at $2,800.

But, by last week, the mistake had become the talk of the county, which was no small feat considering many residents were preoccuppied with preparations for the 40,000 people expected at the Urbanna Oyster Festival, which ended yesterday.

“I’ve heard a lot of grumbling about it,” said Fred Crittenden, a long-time member of the Board of Supervisors.

Worse yet for Abbott, it didn’t take a very long memory to recall a similar snafu in July. That time, the local drug task force made headlines when authorities in a helicopter thought they had landed in a Middlesex County marijuana patch only to find tomato plants and one very frightened gardener.

“The National Guard pilot called that, but I’ll take the blame for it,” Abbot said of the summer miscue.

Newcomb said she was sitting at her computer between 9 and 10 p.m. Oct. 26 when her attention was drawn outside by the racket her two dogs were making.

Newcomb’s husband was at his job as a tow truck driver in Richmond and her 80-year-old aunt, who lives with her, had retired to her bedroom for the night.

Newcomb peered out of her front door window in time to glimpse a pack of men with guns racing up her front steps.

The convenience store clerk recognized the lead runner as a county deputy. Newcomb imagined at first that he was coming to warn her that the country was being attacked, she said.

But, before she could swing open the doors for him, the squad kicked through the screen door. In a rush, they charged inside with their guns drawn, she said, and shouted at her to hit the floor and freeze.

“They told me to get down on my hands and knees and told me not to move,” Newcomb recalled last week. “Thank God it didn’t get uglier than it did. The thought goes through my head that if I had made a wrong move they could have shot me.”

Six to eight men conducted the raid, according to Newcomb. They searched part of her home before recognizing her and realizing their mistake, she said.

Sheriff Abbott arrived later and told Newcomb that his office would pay for a new screen door. “But, big deal,” Newcomb said. “It’s not going to replace our peace of mind when we lay down at night to go to sleep.”

Abbott accepted blame for the raid even though he didn’t take part in it. He said an informant who mistakenly drove into Newcomb’s yard misled deputies into storming the wrong trailer.

“We’re working – we’re going to make mistakes,” Abbott said, emphasizing his focus on combating drug dealers in the rural county of 9,900 people. “The percentage of what we are doing that’s good is a lot higher than the mistakes.”

The 45-year-old sheriff gained office two years ago after promising during his election campaign to fight drugs.

The county prosecutor, Commonwealth’s Attorney James Ward, said Abbott has stuck to that pledge. “In the last two years, we’ve had a lot of indictments and convictions based on the work” the sheriff and his investigators have done, Ward said. “We’re getting a lot of dealers off the streets.”

Ward said he asked Abbott for a full report of the raid. Ward said he’d review the report and “recommend changes in procedure if I see they are warranted.”

Source: Lawrence Latane III, “Sheriff told to explain; Deputies hit wrong house in raid, frighten resident,” Richmond Times Dispatch, November 4, 2001.

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