Calif. budget cuts threaten to ax elite special agent units

November 10, 2011 12:00:00 AM PST
From drug kingpins to serial killers and sexual predators, California's secret crime-fighting special agents go after the worst of the worst.

Some of the elite agents even protected then-Attorney General Jerry Brown after a drug cartel threatened to kill him. So why are these agents now being pulled off our streets?

Special agents in action: Exclusive Eyewitness News video caught a heroin bust as it happened.

Special agents with California's Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement say the three men captured are members of La Familia Michoacana drug cartel.

The men have pleaded not guilty.

"There's 48 pieces, so roughly about $50,000," said one unidentified agent.

"And by the time it gets on the street, it's hundreds of thousands of dollars," said Senior Special Agent in Charge David King.

King leads California's Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement in Riverside.

"And that heroin will never be in our schools and it will never be in our communities," said King.

But cuts to California's state budget are eliminating two elite, statewide law enforcement bureaus: 171 special agents are about to be laid off.

"We go after major narcotic traffickers, international cartels," said an unidentified agent. "Sex offenders, murderers, kidnappers."

Thirty-four task forces are being dismantled.

The layoffs will hit special agents from the bureau that put convicted murder Scott Peterson behind bars.

The bureau has confiscated $17 billion worth of marijuana from California forests in 2010. They go after "dirty doctors" and took down the notorious Vagos Motorcycle Club gang just last month.

"We targeted them, seized almost 300 weapons," said Special Agent Supervisor Tony Valente.

But it's their fight against Mexican drug cartels that worries these agents the most.

"Southern California really is the central distribution point for all major narcotics coming in from Mexico," said Valente.

"I meet with cartel members and negotiate millions of dollars of drug transactions with them," said an unidentified agent, one of the state's top undercover narcotics agents.

On one day, he brought $30,000 in cash for a "buy-bust" for one kilo of heroin.

"It was a hand-to-hand buy, I met in the parking lot with three cartel members," said the agent. "They were nervous, I could tell."

Southern Californian mom Tish Westrup lost her daughter to a heroin overdose in February.

"She was beautiful, she was a cheerleader in high school, she ran track, your typical California blonde, beautiful girl," said Westrup.

Westrup asked these special agents for a ride-along to learn more about the drug trade that fueled her daughter's addiction.

"There's about 10- to 20,000 dosage units in that one kilo of heroin," said an undercover agent.

"So that's potentially 20,000 lives saved," said Westrup. "Almost a kind of justice. They're not the ones who killed her, but they're part of the problem."

So why are these special agents being laid off?

"We're dumbfounded. It makes no sense at all, it doesn't affect the state budget," said Mike Loyd, president of the Association of Special Agents.

California's final budget made $71 million in what's known as "allocated cuts" to the state's Department of Justice.

That means these two bureaus, these particular agents, get the ax.

"This is unprecedented," said Larry Wallace, director of Division of Law Enforcement, state Dept. of Justice. "I believe it's a threat to public safety.

"I believe the attorney general should be able to allocate funding within her own department," said Wallace.

But that's not the way the state legislature and Governor Jerry Brown crafted the cuts.

"They opted to specifically target us. And by the way, no other state enforcement agency was cut," said Loyd.

Some suspect the cuts are political payback by Brown because the agents' two unions did not endorse him in the race for governor.

Eyewitness News caught up with Brown Thursday.

"I don't understand this 'allocated cuts' business," said Brown.

He wouldn't answer questions about possible political payback, but seemed to signal there may be room for compromise.

"Someone will have to show that to me, because within a budget there's always flexibility to move things around," said Brown.

Brown was the state attorney general in 2009 when he announced a take-down of the Sinaloa drug cartel.

"A tremendous body blow to the Sinaloa cartel," Brown said at the time.

"That was my operation, I was the undercover officer that infiltrated the Sinaloan drug cartel, befriended them," said an undercover agent.

Eyewitness News has confirmed the Sinaloa drug cartel put a hit out on Brown soon after that bust.

And it was agents from the now-gutted Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement that then protected Brown around the clock.

For Tish Westrup, the war on drugs is not about politics -- it's personal.

"It can't bring her back, but it's some sort of justice for her, and yesterday was her birthday," said Westrup. "So it's kind of a gift."

FOR MORE INFORMATION:

The Angel Foundation hopes to eradicate drug abuse by exposing young people to the dangers of drug use and peer pressure.

Facebook page for the Association of Special Agents - California Dept. of Justice


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