Wiretapping Central to Drug Bust

By Bill Dries

CONTRABAND: Shown is evidence seized in Operation Blue Star. The four-month undercover investigation targeted “rampant” drug dealing in the Cleaborn and Foote Homes public housing projects. -- PHOTO BY BILL DRIES

A local undercover drug operation has used court-ordered wiretaps successfully for the first time to bring state drug charges.

The wiretaps on cell phones used in Operation Blue Star were sought by District Attorney General Bill Gibbons and approved by Criminal Court Judge Mark Ward.

The undercover drug operation targeted drug trafficking in the city’s last two major public housing projects – Cleaborn and Foote Homes.

Police brass described the level of drug dealing as “rampant” in the two developments on Lauderdale Street between Vance Avenue and Mississippi Boulevard.

The operation is featured in a story in the current edition of The Memphis News, the weekly sister publication of The Daily News (www.thememphisnews.com).

Of the 31 people indicted on drug and conspiracy charges this month, police allege two – Parrish Shells and Eric Webb – were leaders of the conspiracy. Both are described in the criminal charges as high-ranking members of the Gangster Disciples. The street gang allegedly controlled drug sales in the area south of FedExForum. More than half of those indicted are reputed members of the gang.

State-sanctioned eavesdropping

Prosecutors revealed the use of wiretaps after initial court appearances Tuesday for defendants in the case.

“The police department was having a lot of difficulty getting on the inside of the operation. … After looking at it, we thought this was the best way to really get into the inside of the operation and see if we had a case.”
– Bill Gibbons
District Attorney

“The police department was having a lot of difficulty getting on the inside of the operation through its normal undercover approach,” Gibbons told The Daily News. “After looking at it, we thought this was the best way to really get into the inside of the operation and see if we had a case.”

Gibbons said wiretaps had been granted by Criminal Court judges in the past, but none had ever been successful in producing proof that led to indictments.

A wiretap is different than a confidential informant or undercover officer recording phone calls they make. A wiretap is electronic eavesdropping on phone conversations in which neither end of the conversation knows a third party is listening.

Tennessee law restricts wiretaps to investigations involving homicides or drug-related crimes.

“The (Tennessee) General Assembly felt that wiretaps should only be used in extraordinary cases and that it’s important for the judge who approved the wiretap to be able to supervise the implementation of it,” Gibbons said.

When necessity calls

The court order granting the ability to eavesdrop on cell phone calls came with lots of paperwork and progress reports to Ward during the undercover investigation that began in October.

“That’s an understatement,” Gibbons said. “The paperwork in this is rather extensive.”

Federal court guidelines for wiretaps are broader. For instance, federal investigators were able to get a wiretap on former state Sen. John Ford’s telephone during the Tennessee Waltz corruption sting.

The wiretap was justified by alleged threats Ford made to government informant Tim Willis. It included phone conversations between Ford and his brother, former U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Sr., in which they talked about other federal charges John Ford faced involving TennCare contracts.

The recording was used in John Ford’s later Nashville federal court trial on TennCare fraud charges. He was convicted at both trials. But he was acquitted of the intimidation charges that were part of the Memphis case.