Jason Olson, Deseret Morning News
Evidence on display includes balloons of cocaine and heroin. Each person arrested was selling an average of 750 balloons a day, a detective said.

SANDY — An investigation into a significant heroin and cocaine distribution ring in the south end of Salt Lake County culminated Tuesday with the arrests of six people.

Police say the group was responsible for distributing a staggering amount of drugs. More disturbingly, their main clients were between the ages of 17 and 21. At least 80 percent of the clients, according to one undercover narcotics investigator, were from Utah County.

The six people who were arrested worked for part of a larger group that investigators believe has about 60 members and is organized in almost a paramilitary way. The group has generals who make sure cocaine and heroin gets into the hands of suppliers, who in turn have "runners" make the actual drug sales. This particular group worked almost exclusively in the south end of the Salt Lake Valley.

Each person arrested was selling an average of 750 small balloons filled with cocaine or heroin each day, according to a West Jordan undercover narcotics detective. The group as a whole was selling an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 balloons per day and raking in $50,000 to $150,000, said the detective.

"They were everywhere, in front of grocery stores, restaurants, in front of schools ... " the detective said.

In a typical scenario, juveniles or young adults from Utah County would get the name of a drug dealer in Salt Lake County and arrange a meeting. The drug buyers would then wait at a public parking lot, such as a grocery store, thus earning the nickname from cops as "waiters." That was one way police were tipped off to what was going on, the undercover officer said. Cops would see a group of young people sitting in their cars in a parking lot and waiting for long periods of time. What raised their suspicions was when they checked their license plates and found so many of the waiters were from Utah County, the detective said.

A runner would then sweep the parking lot and spot the "waiters," each acknowledging the other with a head nod. The waiters would then follow the runners around the corner to a nearby neighborhood, where the drug deal would actually happen.

It's a problem not unique to Sandy or even Salt Lake City.

"I don't think it's a problem exclusive to Pioneer Park," said the sergeant over the Sandy Police Departments' narcotics unit who also works undercover.

Taylorsville police first reported having the exact same problem nearly three years ago. They were finding numerous carloads of young adults sitting in parking lots, waiting to make a drug deal. The heroin problem started to receive media attention about the same time following the heroin overdose deaths of at least four teens.

Police believe there are at least 10 major groups currently working in the Salt Lake Valley selling cocaine and heroin.

While meth was the top drug police were combating in the '90s, the Sandy narcotics officer says coke and heroin have made a strong comeback over the past three years. But what's different this time is how young the people are who are buying it, he said. One reason is the price of heroin has significantly dropped. Buyers can get heroin for $10 or $15 while the same amount of meth would cost $25 or $30.

Another question is why Utah County?

Narcotics investigators believe even though drug dealers get a lot of Utah County business, they haven't set up permanent operations there. One theory from investigators is drug dealers fear they would stick out more in the smaller, tight-knit communities. Another is that they sell so many drugs, they need to be closer to their source to restock. Either way, it didn't seem to affect business and Utah County users were willing to drive to Salt Lake County to get their drugs, according to investigators.

On Monday, police from Sandy, West Jordan, Taylorsville, Midvale, Salt Lake County and the state served search warrants on two houses and an apartment in West Valley City and on several vehicles. They seized more than 1,000 balloons filled with coke and heroin, fake IDs, a rifle and several thousand dollars in cash. Six people were booked into the Salt Lake County Jail for investigation of various drug distribution charges, possession of fake government documents and possession of a firearm by a restricted person.

Those arrests were in addition to numerous arrests of "waiters." After a waiter was arrested, undercover officers were able to work backwards and move up the chain of command to find the source of the drugs. Additional arrests were pending Wednesday.

Investigators say it will be a couple of weeks, when they see whether the price of heroin will shoot up or not, before they will be able to tell how big an impact their operation had.

"We have put an impact on the coke and heroin industry for a short time," one detective said.

E-mail: preavy@desnews.com