'Tackling trafficking': East Providence Police Vice Unit takes down drug dealers in 'Operation Blindside'
Editor's Note: The East Providence Police Department recently gave The Post exclusive access to its months-long drug investigation, "Operation Blindside."
EAST PROVIDENCE — The stage was set. On an otherwise innocuous early fall evening, undercover East Providence Police officers were spread out across a swathe of the city anticipating a significant arrest. "Operation Blindside," cleverly taken from football phraseology, was in full blitz mode.
The target of the investigation, meant to curb increased illegal drug transactions in East Providence, on this night was a Providence dealer, Calvin Mitchell. Mitchell was well known to the EPPD Vice Unit, commanded by Sergeant Diogo Mello. Short in stature, but considered capable of big-time violence, Mitchell had been tailed for most of the day by EPPD and Providence Police officers.
A "buy" (a planned purchase) initiated by a Vice Unit informant involved in the sting had been predetermined. In the often tedious, time-consuming nature of such situations, now it was a matter of wait-and-see for the officers. Would Mitchell show up? Could they bring him in? Would he run? Would he be "carrying" (armed)?
Eventually, after a near five-hour wait, Mitchell did show. He came to the city with another man, driving a nondescript late-model sedan. No one, certainly not the average citizen motoring along the same busy thoroughfares, would be the wiser if he and his mate turned around and sped away back to the shadows of the drug underworld.
The cops, however, knew better. They had set up the arrest. They sensed he was ready to deal. Once the car containing Mitchell entered the location of the transaction, they pounced, several cruisers and unmarked vehicles streaming to the scene, boxing in the suspect's ride. There was nowhere for the alleged dealer to go. He was caught.
Police came up empty in their search for illegal substances, but they did find $1,600 in cash, in the form of 16 $100 bills, and a knife on his person. And due to their previous interactions with Mitchell, they had enough evidence to bring him in regardless.
The task, a bit tense in tone and tenor, was done for this day. The EPPD Vice Unit through "Operation Blindside" had taken another known drug dealer off the streets, interrupted one link in the caustic chain for the time being at the very least.
The sting begins
"Operation Blindside" ("It's football season, so the name seems appropriate," Sgt. Mello quipped.) had its beginnings early this calendar year when the Vice Unit was tipped off to an increase of drug trafficking in the city.
Sgt. Mello along with EPPD Detectives Darren Ellinwood, Mike Masaitis and Bruce Atwell as well as Officer Andrew Dubois, assigned to the case through the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, almost immediately hit the ground running while many of the same investigators were simultaneously working another, even larger scale case with the DEA. Well over 2,000 man-hours, and counting, have been put into "Blindside" over the last half year.
"We received information from a CI (confidential informant) that a lot of people from outside the city were coming to East Providence to sell drugs. And it wasn't just weed. It was cocaine, crack cocaine, heroine and prescription pills. They were pretty much doing whatever they wanted on a regular basis, two or three times a day, all over the city," Sgt. Mello explained.
Sgt. Mello was hard-pressed to come up with a reason for the increased trafficking.
"Who knows what it is? Maybe times have changed. Maybe it's because there aren't many jobs out there and people are desperate to get money. They'll do whatever it takes to make a buck," he said.
Believing his unit could make a dent in the dealings, Sgt. Mello approached EPPD Chief Joseph Tavares and Major Chris Parella to get the go-ahead and the backing for the investigation.
"I met with the administration and informed them of what I learned, and I asked them if they would be willing help me out. They, the chief and the major, were totally supportive. It was going to be a little pricey because we had to make a lot of buys, put in the time to make it work, but they were totally behind it," Sgt. Mello said.
"So we started to make the buys," he continued. "We focused on people coming from outside the city as well as those inside. We focused on the hardcore dealers we knew about. Those people who we knew were selling coke, crack, heroine and pills. The pills have become a huge problem."
"We've been making buys from Riverside to the center of the city to Rumford. We've covered the entire city. It's out there," Sgt. Mello said, bluntly, about the scourge of illegal drugs in East Providence.
The undercover investigation began in late April, and for the last six months the EPPD Vice unit has been going pretty much "non-stop" since, according to Sgt. Mello. The vast majority of the money used for the operation came from federal asset forfeiture funds the police department has garnered from past arrests in like cases.
"It starts small, what I call hand-over-hand drugs deals, and it gets more serious from there," Major Parella said. "When Diogo came to us with this information, I was very upset about it.
"I spent a long time in CPU (Community Policing Unit). We had so much contact with the people in the community. And now to be made aware of this issue, it really bothered me. We had a lot of citizens start to complain, but it was nothing we could bite into. When Diogo told us what was going on. We knew we had to act. We had the resources. We had the commitment. We had to stop it immediately because when you tolerate it, you actually encourage it. Drugs are far more degenerative to our neighborhoods than anything else we encounter."
Sgt. Mello and the EPPD Vice Unit took aim at between 25 to 30 drug dealers either already known or pointed out to them by their CI, a former member of the city drug scene who had developed numerous connectionss over the years and who at times proved to be a temperamental operative.
The strategy, according to Sgt. Mello, was to purchase drugs of some kind two or three times from the same dealer so as to establish a trail of evidence that could withstand prosecution.
Once the case was thought to be made against each individual, the Vice Unit set up stings to bring in the suspects.
"At first we wanted to do one huge take-down, round up everybody at once. But we had to back off that plan because of manpower and other issues that didn't make it possible," Sgt. Mello said.
Instead, the unit set off to arrest the dealers in three phases. It was a bit of a gamble. The officers were betting against information about the stings getting out through word of mouth.
"Doing it this way definitely complicated things, but knock on wood, we've been lucky," Sgt. Mello explained. "Word usually spreads quickly in this world. We tried to fast-track it, put it to bed before word got out."
The efforts of Vice during "Operation Blindside" also had an unintended, though quite positive effect on another recent case in the city.
While investigating drug-related crimes, Vice helped EPPD detectives track down Eric Valdez, one of two siblings involved in a shooting at the Central Avenue Playground last month. Police picked up Valdez and his brother at a Williams Street address, charging both for their involvement in the shooting. Valdez was also charged in the "Blindside" sting with two counts of delivery and two counts of selling drugs in a school zone.
Police were especially enraged about drug deals being done in the vicinity of the city's schools. One dealer, in particular, made a habit of making transactions during the day in plain site of children attending classes.
"We had one individual who lived across the street from Silver Spring School. He'd set up buys all day, mostly between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. with kids right there out playing during recess. He didn't care. Cars would drive right up to his house to buy crack," Sgt. Mello said.
Five different sellers, including Valdez, used the Silver Spring area to conduct business. The person actually residing in the house, according to Sgt. Mello, was the "middle man," brokering sales between dealers, mostly from Providence, and buyers, mostly from within the city. Some 12 to 13 buys were made by informants and undercover officers at the Silver Spring location during the sting.
"What really got me going was selling near the school. I was appalled. It made me sick. Selling drugs while children are playing in the yard. That will not be tolerated here, I can tell you that," Major Parella said, emphatically.
Behind the scenes
The officers used some sophisticated, high tech gear — state-of-the-art listening and viewing devices, etc. — to document their work, including that done near the Silver Spring School.
"There are a lot of different layers. It's complicated, but it's an investment by the department," Major Parella said. "It starts with the administration, and by that I mean the chief, myself, the captains, all the way down the line. It's an investment in the community we serve. We fast-tracked a lot of the equipment purchases just for this case."
Likely more important to the effort than the equipment, each officer involved in "Blindside" was also given specific, defined roles to perform, which Sgt. Mello said helped facilitate the investigation.
"I know it sounds cliche, but we as cops take pride in our community. When the CIs told me about what was happening, it really was a kick in the stomach. I took it personally. I was grateful that we got the support of the administration, from the chief and the major. And the guys were great. They never complained. They put in the time because it bothered them just as much," Sgt. Mello added. "We all worked together as a team, and I think that's what this department does best. When times are tough, we come together and work our way through."
One of the reasons the operation was being brought to a close, and made public, was a recent incident of potential gun violence. Investigators learned through their CI a dealer had been robbed at gunpoint, likely putting all involved on edge and suspicious of anything considered out of the ordinary.
Like some of the deals they witnessed, the police decided to do conduct most of their arrests in broad daylight, creating the illusion of a routine traffic stop to possibly ease any reservations on the part of the suspects.
"This thing has chewed up a lot of manpower. The paperwork involved is ridiculous. We've backed up our evidence several times over. We wanted to make sure we had everything right," Sgt. Mello said. "It's been a lot of work, but the guys have done an outstanding job. It's meant a lot of sacrifices on everyone's part."
Major Parella added, "It took a lot of creativity to pull this off. The union (IBPO Local 569) deserves a lot of credit. They never complained. We had to move people around. Anyone who had any kind of experience, we used. We took people from other divisions and units. Anyone who could help us, did.
"And also, the community interaction is vital. It's very important to show the constituents we're here and we're willing to listen. And when they see that, they become more comfortable and confident that we'll take action. We want the community to know we hear you and we encourage you to contact us. We'll take your calls. We'll act."
The message of "Operation Blindside" was pretty simple: Don't sell drugs in East Providence because the police are watching, watching very closely.
"Back in the day, it was tough to get people to bring drugs into East Providence. Dealers knew it wasn't a smart thing to do. But recently, for whatever reason, they started to come back over," Sgt. Mello said. "It was a free-for-all out there for a while. We had to show we had zero-tolerance for it. That's why we did this. That's the message we're trying to send out."
The question is, has it worked? The police officers believe they've stemmed the tide of drug dealing in the city for the moment, but it will take continued vigilance on their part to make sure it sticks.
"It seems like the word is getting out. I think we've kind of slowed it down to a crawl. Is it going to stop? No," Sgt. Mello added. "But if people come into the city now to sell drugs, they're definitely going to be looking over their shoulder.
"Overall, I think it's been a success. In the end, about 25 or 30 dealers have been taken down. We've sent a message. Hopefully, it slows things down a bit, but we've still got to be aggressive with this. If it continues to happen, we have to continue to do what's best, which is to take them out when we can."
Added Major Parella, "I think it's very important to note the resources we have available to do something like this came from some of the big cases we've worked in the past. Money is not an issue. We have the resources, we have the will. With Diogo leading the Vice Unit we have the capability and the experience to do it.
"And we're lucky to have the support of the community. We benefit from that support. We want the dealers to know East Providence is closed for business. But if you still want to sell drugs here, we have the money and the resources and the commitment to find you. And we will."
– Photos by Richard W. Dionne Jr.