Federal, state and local authorities have saturated Pine Bluff and Jefferson County over the past few days, making multiple gun and drug-related arrests.
On Friday, at least seven men were arrested as members of the FBI’s gang task force fanned out primarily on the west side of the city. In addition to FBI agents, the task force included special agents of the Arkansas State Police, Arkansas Community Corrections probation and parole officers and others.
Then, on Monday, 15 defendants were taken into custody after a Drug Enforcement Agency operation – dubbed Mad Hatter -- took place as part of a federal drug investigation in several Arkansas cities, including Pine Bluff.
It was not known if the two arrest sweeps were related.
Operation Mad Hatter has resulted in the identification of several drug traffickers and the seizure of large quantities of cocaine, ecstasy, methamphetamine, and heroin, a news release from the office of Cody Hiland, United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas.
Friday’s operation included federal, local state and officials from the Tri-County Drug Task Force.
Just after 8 p.m. Friday, task force agents were driving by the Day’s Inn and Suites at 406 N. Blake St. when they saw a man partially out of a truck on the parking lot. Agents stopped to check the welfare of the man, later identified as Justin Newton, 33.
While attempting to locate Newton’s identification while waiting for an ambulance, agents located several bags of crystal-like substance in Newton’s left front pocket. He became combative at that point and had to be tased before he could be handcuffed. Agents also located a green vegetable-like substance with a sweet smell on Newton’s person.
It was learned that Newton was staying in a room at the motel right in front of where he was found, and a woman in the room said Newton had been smoking methamphetamine and K-2. She also showed the agents two syringes that were in the room. Vice and Narcotics Lt. Jason Howard reported that the suspected drugs will be sent to the Arkansas State Crime Laboratory for analysis.
On Monday, Jefferson County District Judge Kim Bridgforth set a $75,000 bond for Newton after ruling prosecutors have probable cause to charge him with possession of a controlled substance with purpose to deliver and possession of drug paraphernalia.
Arkansas Community Corrections has also placed a hold on him.
At about that same time, FBI task force agents conducted a traffic stop at Miramar and Bay streets on a tan Chevrolet that almost hit the side of their police unit. When they approached the car, they detected the odor of suspected marijuana and asked the driver, later identified as Ahman Scott, 34, to step out.
During a search of the vehicle, they saw a clear bag containing suspected marijuana and a clear tube with multiple multi-color and multi-shaped pills that Edwards said was Ecstasy. The suspected marijuana and Ecstasy will be sent to the Arkansas State Crime Laboratory for analysis. On Monday, Judge Bridgforth set a $20,000 bond for Scott on probable cause of possession of a controlled substance.
At 8:40 p.m. Friday, Tri-County Drug Task Force agents Joseph O’Neal, Cody Musslewhite and Sgt. Fred Green conducted a traffic stop on a vehicle at 6th Avenue and Juniper Street after seeing the driver of the vehicle fail to use a turn signal when changing lanes and driving at more than 60 miles-per-hour.
Calvin L. Edwards, 26, who has previously been convicted of a felony, was a passenger in the car driven by a woman. Due to a strong odor of suspected marijuana, Edwards and the woman were asked to stop out for a search; during that search, a nine-millimeter handgun was found in the glove compartment. Edwards said the gun was his, and on Monday, Judge Bridgforth set a $25,000 bond after ruling prosecutors have probable cause to charge him with being a felon in possession of a firearm.
At 9 p.m. Friday, Pine Bluff Police Detectives Roger Gray and Keith Banks were traveling east on Miramar Drive when they saw an ambulance with lights and siren traveling north on Bay Street approaching Miramar. At that time, a Chevrolet Malibu entered the intersection, causing the ambulance to stop.
Gray and Banks conducted a traffic stop in front of 2600 S. Bay St, and the driver, later identified as Keith Kelly, 38, got out of the vehicle and started to approach the house. He was told to stop, and the detectives explained the reason for the stop. When they approached the car, they detected an odor of suspected marijuana and reported seeing a small soft-side case containing a glass jar with suspected marijuana in it.
The top of the case was on top of the jar but not completely covering it. The jar contained four clear bags of suspected marijuana, which weighed a total of 167 grams. Also in the bag was a Crown Royal bag that contained $890 in cash. Kelly had $230 in cash in his pocket.
Vice and Narcotics Detective Aaron Robertson reported that the suspected drugs will be sent to the Arkansas State Crime laboratory for analysis. Judge Bridgforth set a $25,000 bond for Kelly Monday after ruling prosecutors have probable cause to charge him with possession of a controlled substance with purpose to deliver.
Finally, at about 10 p.m. Friday, FBI task force agents who were in the Shady Grove area saw a male standing in the middle of a driveway at 2701 Howard Drive with what appeared to be a bulky heavy object in his left front pocket.
There have been two recent homicides in the same area. The man, later identified as Daniel Benton, 30, was seen grabbing at the object several times before running into the house when task force agents got out of their car. As they approached the house, the man ran into a darkened room.
After several commands, he came out of the room holding cell phone. During a search of the room, a loaded nine-millimeter handgun was found behind a couch.
Meanwhile, other agents detained a total of six people, including Arkeno Chidester, 25, and Michael Rogers, 28. Two weapons were found in the room where Chidester and Rogers had been, and Rogers had $5,835 in his pocket at the time he was detained.
There was a strong odor of marijuana in the house, and after receiving a consent to search from the owner of the house, the agents located a cigarello package behind a fake decorative tree. The package contained a green vegetable material that field-tested positive for marijuana.
In a bedroom, a pill bottle containing two plastic bags with pills in them was found. One of the bags contained 34 Xanax pills and the other contained 5.8 grams of crushed multi-colored pills that were determined to be Ecstasy. The suspected drugs will be sent to the Arkansas State Crime Laboratory.
On Monday, Judge Bridgforth set a $50,000 bond for Benton on probable cause of being a felon in possession of a firearm. A $100,000 bond was set for Rogers on probable cause of two counts of possession of a controlled substance with purpose to deliver, and a $10,000 cash-only bond for Chidester on probable cause of two counts of possession of a controlled substance with purpose to deliver.
According to the jail intake log, the Department of Community Corrections has placed holds on Benton and Rogers.
Back to Monday’s operation, Mad Hatter was run by the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force and is an ongoing DEA Domestic Cartel Initiative investigation, the news release from Highland’s office said. The arrests follow the unsealing of an indictment of 19 individuals who were charged by a federal grand jury on Aug. 7.
Of those, 15 are now in custody, and law enforcement has made contact with the remaining four defendants. Their names have not yet been released by authorities.
In February 2019, DEA made the first arrests related to Operation Mad Hatter, and Monday’s arrests stem from activity uncovered during the ongoing investigation, the news release said. Ten defendants had been arrested throughout the investigation, and the remaining five were arrested Monday, completing this phase of the operation.
During the course of Operation Mad Hatter, investigators have seized 17 kilograms of methamphetamine, 4 kilograms of cocaine, 249 grams of crack cocaine, over 1 kilogram of heroin, over 200 diverted prescription pills, over $107,000 in assets, and numerous firearms.
“The charges in Operation Mad Hatter are an example of the continued pressure we will apply to drug trafficking organizations,” stated Cody Hiland, United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas. “Protecting our citizens from the violence that surrounds drug trafficking is a top priority for our office, and we appreciate the efforts of our law enforcement partners who were instrumental in carrying out this investigation.”
“These indictments and arrests should serve as a warning and send a clear message — we will relentlessly pursue these violent criminals and drug traffickers plaguing our communities and bring them to justice,” DEA Assistant Special Agent in Charge Justin King said.
“These individuals were responsible for infesting our communities with more than drugs—they threatened our citizens with guns and violence. The DEA stands here today with our federal, state, and local law enforcement partners, confident that we have dismantled this violent drug trafficking organization and have made the streets in these communities safer.”
“The U.S. Postal Inspection Service works tirelessly to stop drug trafficking organizations from using the U.S. Mail to transport drugs into our communities,” said U.S. Postal Inspector Mona Hernandez. “Dismantling this organization helps us protect our employees and our customers from the violence related to drug trafficking and is just one example of the great work we can accomplish when we combine forces with our federal, state, and local partners.”
Operation Mad Hatter is a joint investigation between the DEA Little Rock District Office, United States Postal Inspection Service, Pine Bluff Police Department, Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department, Arkansas State Police, Arkansas Community Corrections, Pulaski County Sheriff’s Department, Benton Police Department, Little Rock Police Department, and the Arkansas National Guard Counterdrug Program.