Managing Editor



Staff Writer

NORTHFIELD -- The fallout from Wednesday's Operation Drug Free, the largest drug raid in Rice County's history, continued through week's end, according to authorities.

Northfield Police Chief Gary Smith said Friday that some of the suspects wanted in connection to possible drug crimes and who weren't caught in raids on Wednesday turned themselves in to authorities Friday, which added to the large number of people arrested.

Action at the Rice County Courthouse Wednesday and Thursday was heavy. About 30 people of the 50 or so who were arrested in Wednesday's sting, face drug-related charges, racketeering, or both, according to Rice County Attorney Paul Beaumaster, who added that with more than 20 arrest warrants related to the drug raid still outstanding, there could be many more charges filed.

The drug raids were conducted early Wednesday morning at 11 locations in Faribault and three in Northfield, including a home at 102 Viking Terrace, an apartment at 403 Union St., and another apartment at 1500 Jefferson Road.

More than 200 local, state and federal law enforcement officials from more than 20 agencies participated in the raids. By late Wednesday, the authorities had arrested dozens of people and seized drugs and weapons.

Authorities called the sting, Operation Drug Free. It was the culmination of a year-long investigation by members of the South Central Drug Investigation Unit, concentrating on the sale of cocaine and methamphetamine in Faribault and Northfield.

"We arrested a good number of people on weapons charges, and drug charges and gang-related activity," Smith said Friday.

Smith added that he's heard many positive comments from Northfield residents since the raids took place. One woman, who lived near one of the locations in Northfield that was raided, told him that her life since the authorities made the arrests was the best it's been in 10 years. She said the level of drug- and gang-related crime in her neighborhood had significantly decreased.

Smith said that also in the aftermath of the operation, rumors have been developing that the many authorities involved were conducting a large immigration hunt for illegal immigrants in the area.

Victor Contreras of Centro Campesino, an Owatonna-based Hispanic advocacy group, is questioning the procedures the dozens of law enforcement officers used during their raids and questioning why the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency was involved in the raids.

He said because of how the officers conducted themselves and because ICE was involved in the operation, members of the local Hispanic community now may be afraid to report criminal activity because they don't want to get themselves in trouble.

Smith said Friday that the rumors of an illegal immigration hunt were false. He said the raids were only about nabbing people suspected of drug crimes.

Rice County Sheriff Richard Cook said this week that nine people were detained on immigration charges Wednesday, but only people who were in one of the locations that were raided were asked about their citizenship status; no innocent bystanders were questioned.

The sheriff also said that local law enforcement officials would welcome an opportunity to meet with Hispanic members of the community to help explain why the drug sting was important.

"I would be open to that. I think that we need members of the communities where these events took place involved," he said. "People who didn't get arrested are (living there) trying to lead a crime-free life."

Rice County District Judge William Johnson was busy holding arraignment hearings for the suspects involved on Wednesday and Thursday.

With the drug charges being felony-level crimes, the Rice County Attorney's Office is in charge of prosecuting the alleged cocaine and methamphetamine traffickers, even though arrests were made in Northfield and Faribault.

Most of the criminal complaints filed by that office this week detailed recorded drug buys set up by members of the South Central Drug Investigation Unit during the last year. Since many of the defendants allegedly sold drugs multiple times to undercover informants working for the SCDIU, they are now facing multiple drug charges, depending on the amount of cocaine or methamphetamine police say they sold.

Before setting each person's bail, Johnson considered the suspect's past criminal history, along with other factors such as employment and ties to the community. People who had been previously convicted of felony-level crimes or who face possible prison time if convicted on the current charges against them typically received larger bail amounts.

The large number of arrests also has impacted the Rice County Jail this week.

Suspects arrested in the sting started arriving at the jail almost immediately after the raids Wednesday, so the jail and jail annex have been operating at maximum capacity. Although Judge Johnson did release some of the suspects after their initial court appearance, some suspects were transferred to the Meeker and Goodhue county jails, according to Rice County Jail Administrator Jodi Bushey.

Smith said the drug investigation that led to Operation Drug Free started last year when people reported the violence and drug activity taking place around their homes to the Northfield Police Department.

He said the investigation concentrated on people selling illegal drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamine, and grew larger, eventually involving multiple jurisdictions in the county.

"This investigation started because people who lived around these locations came to us and described to us what they were seeing," Smith said Wednesday after the raids. "It is definitely a quality of life issue for them."

-- Devlyn Brooks can be reached at 645-1116 or Matt Coulsey can be reached at 333-3128 or