SALT LAKE CITY — Twists. Balloons. Black. White. Bindles. Spitters.
These are all drug references heard with regularity around the Rio Grande neighborhood of Salt Lake City.
Last week, officers from the Salt Lake Police Department, Unified Police Department and Salt Lake County Sheriff's Office carried out the second phase of Operation Diversion, an ongoing combined effort between city and county leaders aimed at cleaning up the drug and homeless problem in the area mostly between 300 West and 600 West, and between South Temple and 500 South.
Over the course of approximately 10 hours last Monday, 43 people were arrested. Once they were taken to an intake center set up across from the police station, about half of those arrested agreed to go to a treatment center, such as Odyssey House.
During the first phase of the operation on Sept. 29, Sheriff Jim Winder said an estimated two-thirds of the approximately 50 people who were arrested chose treatment over jail. At least 10 of those people walked away from the treatment facility shortly after arriving.
City and county leaders stress that the hard numbers are not what's important, but rather the real change that a handful of people with hardcore drug addictions will receive because of the sting.
"When we started this operation, we thought that the rate of participation at the treatment phase would be as low as 30 percent. We would deem that a success. We believe now it looks to me like our success is nearing 60 percent (to) 70 percent," Winder said. "To get embroiled in the numbers that came here really begins to lose sight of the reality of the situation."
Police have described those being arrested in two general groups: those with a serious addiction problem and "predators," those who are only in the Rio Grande area preying and profiting on people's addictions by providing a seemingly endless supply of drugs.
Of the approximately 90 people who have been arrested to date, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said 10 to 15 are believed to be the predator types who were in the Rio Grande area simply to sell drugs.
Rather than a sweep or an occupation, Salt Lake Police Chief Mike Brown said his officers have "surgically" gone into the area around the homeless shelter to extract certain elements using all police tactics available to them — including undercover officers.
Salt Lake police confirmed that part of the operation last Monday specifically targeted those predator drug dealers.
Using public Salt Lake County Jail reports, the Deseret News was able to identify more than a dozen of the individuals and the circumstances that led them to be booked into jail as part of the operation one week ago to provide a snapshot of the people accused of plaguing the area.
Those arrested during the Oct. 3 operation range in age from 18 to 60 years old, and some were not from the Salt Lake area.
In report after report, officers described nearly identical situations that resulted in people being arrested, including:
• James Alan Williams, 27, of Salt Lake City, "had a structure built out of bicycles and tarps" in Pioneer Park. He was arrested for investigation of drug possession and drug distribution when officers found two backpacks in his shelter that contained "a large amount of Spice and $2,099 in cash," the report states.
• Julio Flores Navarro, 44, of West Valley City, was arrested near 350 W. South Temple for investigation of drug distribution when an undercover officer "working near the shelter asked a male for 'black,'" which is slang for heroin. A federal immigration detainer was also placed on Navarro.
• Izidro Alonzo Games-Soto, 49, was arrested for investigation of two counts of drug distribution. An undercover officer "attempted to purchase one cocaine and one heroin balloon," according to a report. After receiving $30, "Mr. Diaz-Escoto (see next entry) provided one white balloon from his mouth and he got one black balloon from Mr. Games-Soto's mouth."
• Marcos Augusto Diaz-Escoto, 60, was also arrested for investigation of two counts of drug distribution. He already had another warrant for his arrest for two counts of drug distribution and had a federal detainer placed on him. An undercover officer in the area of 200 South and 600 West asked him for "one and one," meaning one balloon of cocaine and one balloon of heroin. Escoto allegedly produced two "spitters," a term police use for drug dealers who keep balloons of drugs in their mouths and then spit them out when someone purchases one. After he was arrested, "he spit out 16 black balloons and 3 white balloons from his mouth," police wrote. Escoto was also allegedly carrying $600 cash in "drug proceeds."
• Jose Martinez Valdez, 31, was arrested for investigation of two counts of drug distribution near 200 South and 600 West after police say he sold cocaine and heroin to an undercover detective.
• Juan Manuel Velasquez, 27, of Salt Lake City, was arrested for investigation of drug distribution after allegedly selling heroin and cocaine near 125 S. 600 West to an undercover officer.
• Panoum Thewat Jangjoul, 18, was arrested at 279 S. Rio Grande for investigation of drug distribution and warrants. Police said they watched someone exchange cash for "white bindles" with Jangjoul. The substances tested positive for cocaine, a report says, and Jangjoul had a "large amount of cash" on him when he was arrested.
• Ryan Kamalani Spiker, 39, of Lehi, was arrested near 230 S. 500 West for investigation of felony drug possession. Officers said they observed him "possibly lighting a crack pipe in a car." When police questioned him, they reported finding three "twists" that tested positive for heroin. In 2015, Spiker was convicted of drug possession and was placed on probation, but he violated his probation, according to court records. He was convicted in another drug possession case that same year, and again in 2013.
• Edmund Joseph White, 31, of Sandy, was arrested for investigation of drug possession, drug distribution, and warrants. He was stopped by police near 50 N. 500 West. He was in the back seat of a car where detectives found crack cocaine in the back passenger pocket near him and on the rear floorboard, a report states.
The Deseret News found at least five others who were arrested under similar circumstances: being observed near 500 West and 300 South, and being caught with heroin or cocaine in their possession. One woman who was arrested while in possession of a syringe and a crack pipe in her jacket had just been arrested during the first phase of Operation Diversion a few days earlier but walked away from Odyssey House, according to a report.
As of Friday, some of those arrested remained in the jail, but others were no longer on the jail's roster.
While the possibility exists that police will end up arresting some of the same people again in the coming weeks, Winder said it is important for the public to look at the bigger picture of what city and county leaders are trying to accomplish.
"You tell me what that's worth in a community. Is this going to solve the problems in the Rio Grande? Of course not. Those are very, very complicated issues. Don't lose sight of the forest here, folks. We're dealing with trees. A forest is made up of healthy trees," he said.
The people arrested are being "plucked out of an environment that I don't think a lot of us can fully fathom," Winder said.
To show how ineffective previous efforts to clean up the area have been, Brown last week talked about a woman whom his officers had been monitoring. Since January, she has been in and out of the emergency room 72 times, he said.
"That is every 2.8 days she's in the emergency room. That's about $1,500 per visit, and that's probably low. That's $108,000 in emergency room visits. That does not take into account the police time, the sheriff's time, (prosecutors') time, everybody's time," Brown said.
"We have to help people. I know through the efforts we're doing right now, we're going to change lives. Yes, it may be one or two at a time. But I promise you we're going to save lives. And we're going to save money."