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Washington County Sheriff's Department
by Rick O'Kelley
Undercover Narcotics Officer - I am not sure what stirred my memories of working undercover.  Maybe it was my near death from my brain aneurysm.  Maybe it is just I am getting old and like some, I felt it was time for my family to know.  I am not sure but becoming an undercover narcotics officer February 16 1976 wasn't my idea.  It wasn't even on my radar as I was seeking a nice quite law enforcement job to provide for my wife and I will I attended the University of Arkansas on my GI Bill benefits.  I applied first at Springdale then at the Fayetteville Police Departments but both were civil service and they only tested once a year and I would have to wait for the next test and I needed a job now.  The Chief of Police at Springdale suggested that I apply at the Washington Co Sheriff's Department as the new Sheriff, Herb Marshall might have an opening then I could take the test at Springdale when it came up and with my experience as a deputy if I still wanted to work for Springdale, he would be favorable.  I had selected Springdale Police Department solely because their pay was higher than any other department and I find it ironic that 37 years later that the current Chief of Police is an "O'Kelley".  That very day, I stopped at the Washington Co Sheriff's Dept and put in my application.  I didn't get to meet the Sheriff but I did meet his trusted secretary and we visited for about 15 minutes while I completed my application.

I hadn't found a place to live in Fayetteville, I was staying in Alma and I was driving to Fayetteville almost daily in my job search.  Since I felt I must first gain employment, the search for a place to stay was secondary.  The day after my application, the Sheriff's secretary called me telling me the Sheriff would like to meet with me.  We set an appointment for that afternoon and I drove from Alma to the Washington Co Sheriff's Dept that day.  Herb was a young man in his early forties, very likeable, a former Green Beret and an Army Veteran who had done two tours in Vietnam.  He was in his first term as Sheriff and he was knowledgeable and very impressive in his plans for the third largest Sheriff's Department in Arkansas.  The Sheriff told me that Sgt Stone had died, they have buried him that morning and his death left a vacancy in the department but he had several very good candidates to pick from but I was the only one who he thought might be able to accomplish the task he had in mind.  He wanted to hire me as an undercover narcotics officer. 

I told the Sheriff in complete honesty that I had no knowledge of illegal drugs, they were not part of my high school or Air Force life, I had never even seen a marijuana cigarette, that everything I knew was from what I had read but if he was willing to give me the chance, I would do my best to fulfill his expectations.  Sheriff Marshall told me he believed that I would be perfect for the job.  I was to learn more than 30 years later that it was my Air Force experience, my rank and awards and the fact that I impressed his secretary, Becky who he put great store in that caused him to believe that I could do the job.  I accepted the job and Sheriff Marshall introduced me to Lt J D Snow and his secretary, Susie Wilson.  He introduced me to Prosecutor Maylon Gibson, Judge Maupin Cummins, and Judge Wells, Chief of Fayetteville Police Glenn Riggins, and the head of detectives, Bob Jones.  He also introduced me to Arkansas State Police undercover officer Dale Best, he wanted us to know each other just in case we came face to face in a drug house somewhere.  These were the only people who would know who I was in case something happened to the Sheriff.  Not even his trusted secretary, Becky was told about my employment.  Allow me to say that Herb Marshall was an excellent Sheriff, his main interest was always doing the best job he could do for the citizens who put him in office and he care about the well being of his deputies. 

I returned to my father-in-law's home in Alma and told my wife of my new job.  She had no objections and I warned her that no one could know, not our best friends, not my family or hers because if it became known that my life might be put at risk.  She agreed and this wasn't easy because I had to live the life of an unemployed bum who had got out of the service and turned to drug dealing.  I let my hair grow long and grew a red beard.  We increased our search for a place to live settling on the Freeman Apartments on Gregg Street, a new two story condo apartment.  I liked the apartment because it has a back door for escape, had a high two story window for returning fire if needed, and the front door set inside a hallway so the entire apartment was protected from drive by shootings.  I had only been working a few days and I was already thinking like a cop.

After settling in, I set out to learn the ropes of my new job.  To help, Herb introduced me to Jerry Ray Watkins an informant that had been arrested on drug charges.  Jerry died in 2010 which is why I can identify him now   Jerry came from a good family, had a nice girlfriend, my wife and I had dinner with his mother and father at their home but Jerry was a real doper.  He looked the part, didn't bath regular, and like to hang out at all the drug dens, just the kind of guy to help be get my food in the door.  He introduced me as his cousin who just got out of the Air Force but I didn't know him and or trust him so I told him that if we got into a shooting situation and I believed he had burned me, that he would be the first one that I would shoot so he better not cross me and better do all he could to protect me.  I think I made my point, I played the role of a really bad guy and since no one knew me, they had no way of knowing it was all pretty much an act.  Jerry didn't know me, I was from Washington County so I could play the bad guy even with him and get away with it.  That might be why Jerry's mother invited us to dinner, she might have been concerned about the undercover who her son was working with.

One of our first places to visit was the "Quarter Horse" Bar in Tontitown.  It was a local den for all kind of crime.  There was a backroom where two local 15 year old girls would prostitute themselves to fat old truck drivers.  The truck drivers would pay the bar tenders in cash and he would pay the very nice looking girls in beer.  Stolen property and drugs routinely came through the bar as well as a lot of fights, gun shots, and knifings.   The bar had a pool table and I use to play a bit of pool so on my first visit I wore my old fatigue jacket, after it was in February.  I had little experience carrying a concealed weapon but as I played pool I began to notice everyone seems to be giving me a very wide path.  The informant I was with came over to me and told me I needed to relocate my Browning High Power because each time I would lean over to shot, my coat would come up and my pistol was exposed.  He had told the bartender that I was freshly out of the military, fucked up in the head and not to be messed with and the bartender had apparently been spreading the word because everyone was giving me a wide path.

While that was an interesting experience, I really didn't want people to know I was armed.  I wanted that to come as a surprise after all, they might just shoot first knowing I was armed and they would get only one chance where if they didn't know I was armed, I believed it gave me an edge so I bought a paddle holster and started carrying my Browning on my side fixed to the hoslter on my belt.  Now let me say that at that time I weight maybe 140 lbs and carrying a steel pistol like the Browning all day was work.  I loved that gun, I had bought it from my aunt Glad who got it from her deceased husband but it was just too heavy and large for undercover work so I went to C&S Pawn in Springdale, one of the few places where one could buy a quality gun and I bought a 5 shot S&W Airweight .38 Cal revolver.  I believe it was a model 37 as it had the square butt and not the round butt that most S&W Chiefs have.  With spring and summer coming on, I bought an ankle holster to carry the gun under my pants leg which in those days were bell bottom jeans the perfect companion to concealing my ankle holster. 

I began to make drug buys but it became clear to me that my informant was steering me away from some dealers so I hooked up with an old high school buddy of mine who was attending the University of Arkansas and he took me to the Foos One in Springdale.  This was a place where mostly young high school kids went.  They had a lot of games including pool tables and while at first I thought this wasn't going to be productive, on my very first trip I made a marijuana buy from a 15 year old girl who fell in love with my two seated Fiat X19 and she offered me oral sex in the car if I would take her for a ride.  Of everything I encountered working undercover this was the one that caused me the most trouble.  Many undercover officers become corrupted, living a lie is a corrupting experience and I did this without any training, I had only my Air Force Core Values to guide me but I also was deeply in love with my wife, I had no desire to stray but Donna, 15 year old, was a very pretty girl.  It would have been easy to give in but I struggled trying to figure out a way to turn her down without making her mad and without damaging my ability to play the roll of a bad guy so I could do my job and I had to weight anything I said to Donna with the knowledge that my high school friend knew both Renee' and I.  He was a former Marine who had a string of trouble girlfriends in his past and he had been trying to get Donna to have sex with him and here she was offering herself to me just for a ride in my Fiat.  There was something about this car that was a "chick" magnet but I stood my ground and told Donna that I had an injury from my military days that left me less a man.  That turned out to be a mistake because she began to press me more each time I saw her as she tell me she had the cure.  I stood my ground and later was very glad that I did.

I turned in daily reports about my activities and when I had made a buy I turned in the drugs with a report.  The plan was all of these would be held until the Sheriff decided it was time for me to come out from undercover and he would obtain warrants and we would serve a few search warrants on the largest operations.  I would meet Susie Wilson in places like supermarkets and drop them in her purse as we walked past each other, after all the Sheriff wanted to keep me as far from the office and from any contact with law enforcement as possible.  It was after dropping off one of my buys from Donna that my phone rang and the Sheriff asked me to come in for a meeting.  This had never happened before but I came in through a back way into the office and into a provide room that was sometimes used by CID for meetings with informants.  Both the Sheriff and Lt J. D. Snow who was the Chief Investigator waited for me and they held my report from the buy I made the night before in their hands.  Donna had introduced me to her 14 year old girlfriend named Laquita and Laquita's much older boyfriend Butch had driven us to Lake Elmdale where Laquita gave Donna the bags of marijuana that I bought.  Donna told me after the buy that Butch was the person selling the drugs but he knew that minors never got in much trouble so he would only allow Laquita to sell his drugs and since Donna was the person who introduced us, Laquita would only sell to her and she could sell to me.  It was all done in an effort to prevent an adult felony arrest of Butch and it worked.  Unknown to me, Butch was one of the largest dealers of all varieties of drugs in Northwest Arkansas and all attempts to bust him has failed so when I dropped my buy with the report and the vehicle license number that belonged to Butch in Susie's purse the next morning, it promoted the meeting, first to make me aware that I was dealing with a very dangerous person and second to make me aware of the importance of obtained some evidence that might lead to his arrest.  There were people who had disappeared that Butch was believed to have had something to do with their disappearance, he was considered a very dangerous man and until now I thought that buying drugs from kids had been safe.  I had stumbled into a hornets nest and there wasn't really any way out, this was the job I had taken on and I had given the Sheriff my word that I would do the best that I knew how and I was committed.   I added to my arsenal a second gun to carry in my front pocket, a Bauer .22 Cal semi auto.  It was the smallest gun I could find that wouldn't leave a footprint on my jeans.  For the first time the enormity of my job began to sink in and I had no one I could share my concerns with.  I knew Renee' had no experiences to draw from that might aid me,  I knew of no one who had been in my position, I had no police training, I had only what I read in Frank Serpico's book to guide me.

The next night I returned to the Foos One and continued as I wondered if my high school buddy knew just how dangerous these people were.  He was pretty much just trying to find young stupid girls interested in having sex with him.  He didn't use drugs, never even drank that I can recall, he was only looking for sex and liked me driving him around in the Fiat and mostly footing the bill.  I received a modest expense account.  I made buys on other kids who bought their drugs from other dealers, most of the dealers following the same plan as Butch, they sold only to kids in their effort to avoid arrest.  For some of them this didn't work because I would increase the amount I wanted to buy and some dealers were not comfortable fronting that much to the kids and maybe it was because they sold several times to me through these kids and never got busted but a few became brave and started selling directly to me.

Living in a university city there were students that were dealing in drugs.  There was an apartment that the state police undercover officers had tried to get into several times always being denied at the door.  Lt Snow asked me to try so I did surveillance for a few nights and noticed that sometimes several cars would drive up at one time and as many as eight people would be permitted into the apartment which seemed to have a party almost every night.  I waited until Friday night, parked close to the apartment and waited and I didn't have to wait long, two cars pulled up, seven people got out and started for the apartment so I slipped out and got in line and when the door opened and they were allowed in, I followed them in.  There were plenty of drugs and beer.  I slipped out, called the Sheriff, and based upon my observation a search warrant was obtained resulting in several arrested and confiscation of drugs. The irony is almost ten year later when I was Chief Investigator Fayetteville Police Dept asked me if I could figure out a way to bust another apartment in this same apartment building.  I was well known, been on TV many times so it was out of question for me to try this so I asked two female deputies to buy short shorts and halter tops.  We had a very difficult time hiding the body mics but I sent them to knock on the door of the suspect apartment using a story that a friend had been to a party there and they needed some drugs for a party and didn't know who else to ask.  While we videoed and listened a young man came to the door, and while the female deputies were maybe five years his elder, he was fixed on their assets bulging from their skimpy clothing.  He told them he was out but if they would wait, his friend next door had some and we videoed him going next door, he came out with the drugs in his hand and the deal was done right on the sidewalk then he asked if he could come to the party.  With that we took him down, arrested his friend next door, got search warrants for both places and confiscated more drugs. 

There was a college student that was arrested for making drugs and he was turned into an informant and I was sent to live with him for two weeks.  I made a few cases, it was through him that I bought mushrooms but the student who sold them to me overdosed a few weeks later.  For two weeks I slept in his apartment with my gun under my pillow.   This was a very difficult assignment as I was on my own and he knew I was a undercover officer so this could have become very dangerous.  Renee' was living alone during this time and I worried for her sake after all my high school friend knew her, knew where we lived, and he was associating with some very dangerous people.  Renee' and I would sometimes meet for lunch during that time most so she could know I was okay and I could know she was okay.  I tried to keep her a long way from my work but there came a time when my original informant's mother who was a contributor of the Sheriff's campaign wanted to met me, she wanted to know the guy who her son was working with so she asked her son to invite Renee' and I to her home for dinner.  My informant invited his girlfriend who was a preacher's daughter, a nice girl who was attending college.  After dinner we four went to the mall theater and saw a movie, "Sherlock Homes Smarter Brother" and not long after we four went to the country fair where we bumped into a guy who had some marijuana he needed to sell so we four drove to his home, Renee' and Jackie, my informant's girlfriend set in the car while we went in and bought the drugs.  I wasn't happy about this but it came upon me so sudden that I couldn't find a way to drop Renee' off without it endangering her.  In the end it worked out okay but there was still considerable risk which was always in my mind, not just for myself but also for Renee'.

I made many cases and come fall it was time for me to come out from undercover.  I wasn't able to get Butch but my last case was a "hail Mary" case on a guy named Terry.  No one expected me to make the case but I was asked to try, I drove out into the country to a house where Terry lived, dropped a bunch of names, held the one hundred dollar bills in my hand as he told me he wouldn't sell to me but then as I was about to leave he just couldn't take his eyes off the money so he sold to me.  The day we went to arrest Terry he recognized the Sheriff's car when it turned into his drive and he busted out the back before he could be captured and was on the run for five years.  He received seven years.

Once I was out, I went to the Police Academy and it was just a few months later I was in patrol and my experience as a undercover aided me greatly.  As a day shift patrol officer I served arrest warrants and civil papers but I was always on the lookout for drugs and a few days after my first anniversary as a Sheriff's Deputy, in Feb 1977 I went to a home in rural Arkansas and served a civil paper on some law suite on the son of one of the wealthy Chicken companies when I spotted setting on his kitchen counter a mason jar with Marijuana sticking out the top.  I arrested him, the Sheriff brought out a search warrant and several pounds were found.  My continued success resulted in me being transferred to plain clothes and CID where I remained most all the rest of my career.  Time and time again when drugs were involved, I was sought out by all the local departments for my expertise and know how in getting the job done.  Eventually Butch was arrested and prosecuted.  It was dangerous, it was exciting, and I would do it all over again if given the opportunity.  I was lucky, I was never in a shoot out, there was a lot of risk but I somehow always managed to avoid gunfire but my undercover work did costs me my high school friend.  The day I came out from undercover I went to warn him as I was concerned that he might experience some blowback and that was the last time we have spoke. 

Night Patrol Sergeant DWI - Sheriff Bud Dennis was in my opinion a good man, a good Sheriff mostly because he took care of the politics and placed people in key positions to take care of the Law Enforcement.  Sometimes Sheriff Dennis failed to do what he should do and it fell upon those he placed in these key positions to see that "right" was done.  It was one of these times when I made a choice that likely determined my future in Law Enforcement.  Several of the night patrol deputies came to me out of frustration.  The Night Shift Patrol Sergeant who supervised them was a drinker of beer and on more than one occasion when off duty he had driven his marked patrol unit with his small son to a ball game at the Winslow ball park where he would set in plain clothes opening drinking beer.  In Arkansas this was illegal and Winslow was a dry township so it was especially illegal to drink in public at this public ball park.  The frustration came because several citizens had complained to Sheriff Dennis who told them he would look into it but never took any action so these citizens were going directly to the deputies that they knew personally putting the deputies in a bad position.  How could they justify arresting others for drinking in public or driving drunk when their night supervisor was doing it and in a very public way.   I had a reputation for fairness and was well respected for my integrity, the deputies came to me because they knew I would follow the law, do what was right, and stand up to the Sheriff or anyone else, that I would put my job and reputation on the line to do what was right.  These deputies were not wrong.  I was the Chief Investigator, a Lieutenant and I gave these instructions that the next time this off duty sergeant was found drinking in public that no matter the time, day or night, I was to be called.  It wasn't long, maybe a few days passed and late in the evening the dispatcher called me, the night sergeant had just left the game, he was observed drinking by witness, many of them pillars of the community and he was reported to be intoxicated driving his marked unit with his young son in the vehicle.  I left my home and drove to a place that would intersect with the deputy as he drove in his marked unit and I drove behind him making and obervation.  He was driving in my opinion in the manner of an intoxicated person.  By this time two of the deputies who had came to me had pulled in behind me so I instructed them by police radio to pass me and pull in behind the police unit of the intoxicated night sergeant and make a traffic stop just as they would with any other drunk driver.  The night sergeant stopped and exited his vehicle, I approached him and told him that I was investigating a complaint that he had been drinking in public and was driving intoxicated.  He foolishly admitted to me that he had been drinking beer telling me he was doing nothing wrong.  I required him to submit to the same roadside test that any other suspected intoxicated person was subjected to and after failing the test, I placed him under arrest for DWI.  At first he thought he wanted to resist but when he saw that three deputies were prepared to place him in handcuffs in the back seat of a police unit, he decided that he would submit.  He was transported to the Sheriff's Department where he failed a breath test, he was booked, I confiscated his police id, badge, and gun and informed him he was dismissed from the department for conduct unbecoming a law enforcement officer.  I knew that if I didn't fire him that Sheriff Dennis would like not do it, he would simple give the sergeant days off without pay and I felt what the sergeant did warranted dismissal so I fired him then I called Sheriff Dennis and informed him.  Sheriff Dennis choose not to oppose me.

Several months went by.  The night sergeant had gone to court and plead guilty and paid a fine.  His law enforcement career was over or at least it was with any departments of high standards.  Kenneth McKee a retired Arkansas State Police Officer who I had been told was once fired from the State Police for driving drunk but was later reinstated at a great reduction in rank was a West Fork Police Commissioner and he came to my office one day telling me that the night shift sergeant had applied at West Fork for a patrol officers position and McKee wanted to hire him but McKee was concerned about what I might say about it.  I told McKee that at the time I arrested the nightshift Sergeant that he was driving intoxicated in his marked police unit with his young son in the vehicle, that the man didn't just risked his own life and the life of others on the highway that night but he also risked his own son and any person who displayed such poor judgment in my opinion was unfit for police duty but I could do nothing to oppose the City of West Fork if they choose to hire the former deputy but if asked by the press I would not conceal the fact that he and I had a conversation about this matter.   The city of West Force didn't hire our former deputy. 

The Secret of my Success - While I had a lot of success, I didn't do it alone.  I learned my investigative skills from the best.  Sheriff Herb Marshall was the best criminal investigator I ever had the pleasure working for; Sheriff Marshall after taking office January 1975 created the Washington County Criminal Investigation Division, it was one of his greatest achievements and legacy.   When I was assigned to CID in March 1977 every policy and procedure had been established by Sheriff Marshall so by the time I became Chief Investigator CID was a well oiled machine.  I had learned from Sheriff Marshall that knowing how to get the best from those who worked for me ws the key to running such a division and I was lucky that Sheriff Bud Dennis allowed me to hand pick the best and the brightest deputies to become investigators.  While they were all top notch, highly accomplished, and dedicated law enforcement officers, two deputies stood out, Lieutenant Denny Halfacre and Sergeant Charlene Smith.  If one was my right hand the other was my left hand.  I could depend on these two investigators absolutely, I never had to wonder if they would complete the task, the only wonder was how long it might taken them.  They were loyal to a fault, we had a bond like no other and I never doubted that in a fire fight we had each others back, they would take a fatal bullet for me just as I would take a bullet for them and that creates a bond that last a lifetime a bond that is never broken.  By the time Sheriff Kenneth McKee took office we had the highest homicide clearance rate possible, 100% of all the homicides we investigated during the bloody decade of the 1980s had been cleared by arrest and all but one had been cleared by conviction.  That suspect died of cancer.   Sgt Smith and I conducted our last homicide investigation together in the fall of 1990 when a 15 year old girl and her 18 year old boyfriend killed the girl's mother with a shotgun blast.  They folded the women in half, stuffed her into a burn barrel and set her on fire then fled to California before the body was discovered.  The trial date wasn't until after the new Sheriff Kenneth McKee took office and I wasn't surprised that the case was pleaded out with the girl getting probation and her boyfriend receiving a light sentence for a cold blooded murder.  Their defense attorney was a close personal friend of Sheriff Kenneth McKee, their attorney worked on McKee's campaign so I can't see how this could have been anything other than more of the "good ole boy" stuff that demeans our justice system.  My Criminal Investigation Division had an excellent record and reputation but none of this was good enough for newly elected Sheriff Kenneth McKee.  As a political favor McKee abolished the Washington County Sheriff's Department Criminal Investigation Division and used uniformed deputies and the Arkansas State Police to investigate his homicides and his failure can be seen in his ten year 50% clearance rate.  Numbers don't lie but what can one expect from someone stuck in the past as was Sheriff Kenneth McKee and I think he deserves to remembered as he really was, one of the "good ole boys" and not much else.  One of the first acts that McKee's opponent Steve Whitmill did when he took office after defeating McKee was to re-establish the Washington County Sheriff's Department CID as a Detective Division. 

Rick O'Kelley, Captain Retired  1976 - 1991
Chief Investigator 1981 - 1991
Washington County Sheriff's Department
Fayetteville, Arkansas