PROVO — A group of sixth-graders and an eighth-grade student all have been suspended and one arrested in connection with a drug distribution operation that police say has gang ties.
It's a case that has even law enforcers shaking their heads at what they're calling "organized crime on an elementary level."
"Eleven-year-olds, they can barely tie their own shoes, let alone introduce drugs into their lives and expect them to function on a normal level," said Provo Police Lt. Mathew Siufanua.
"We've always had gangs in Provo. What probably sticks out a little bit more than this is the organization this kid had — and getting the other kids involved — and the age of these kids involved," Siufanua said.
Provo police believe a 14-year-old boy from Centennial Middle School arranged to buy marijuana from a person or people and then paid eight sixth-graders — all about 11 years old — to go pick up the drugs.
"Then they would bring the drugs back to him. As payment, he would give some of the drugs to them or get high with them," Siufanua said. "(The eighth-grader) was afraid of getting caught. He thought that their crime would be less than his."
Detectives believe the operation had been going on since October.
The drug exchanges occurred during school or right after school. The sixth-graders would typically purchase $5 to $20 of marijuana at a time, or about half of a sandwich bag full, the lieutenant said. The drug dealer's house was believed to be near the elementary school.
Siufanua described a typical scenario: "The eighth-grader hands the sixth-grader money and he says, 'Hey, go to this address, and go get me some dope.' The sixth-grader then goes to the house, buys the dope, brings it back to the eighth-grader and gives the eighth-grader dope. The payment was, 'Hey, let's go get high.' "
The priority for detectives Monday was finding the person, or people, selling the drugs.
"As part of our ongoing investigation, we want to know who sold drugs to the sixth-grader, and we want to arrest him," Siufanua said.
After he received his marijuana, the 14-year-old would either keep it for his own personal use or sell it to other juveniles in the city, Siufanua said.
Several tips to police led to the drug operation being busted last week. The 14-year-old was arrested for investigation of drug distribution and 152 counts of child endangerment, all class A misdemeanors — one count for each of the times he allegedly met with the eight accomplices.
The teen was ordered to appear at a later time in juvenile court. The endangerment counts were from exposing the younger boys to marijuana and for sending them to drug houses, Siufanua said.
All of the boys, he said, were members of the same gang and have been suspended from school.
"We see this as a very isolated incident," said Greg Hudnall, associate superintendent of the Provo School District. "We have 6,500 elementary students. As far as we are aware, this is the first time — and the only time — that we've been involved with the elementary (for drug distribution problems). And the distribution is actually one individual.
"So we do not see this as an overwhelming, large concern, though of course it's a concern when you have one student. But we have not been made aware by the police department or anyone else that it affected other schools."