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After a raft of drug activity, a neighborhood fights back
Several Islanders recently banded together to rid their quiet neighborhood east of Vashon town of what they called an out-of-control drug house. Those involved describe a month-long effort involving both residents and law enforcement that resulted in the eviction of the suspected dealers.
King County Sheriff’s Dep. Joel Anderson, who was involved in the effort, lauded the neighbors and called the incident a success. But it’s also indicative of a larger problem on the Island, said Anderson, who believes drug use is the catalyst behind nearly all crime on the Island.
Anderson, who has worked full time on Vashon for four years, said 80 to 90 percent of the people he arrests are either under the influence of drugs at the time or stealing so they can purchase drugs. “Most of our crimes are in some way, shape or form related to someone being on drugs,” Anderson said.
Many other Islanders, meanwhile, have their own stories to tell about drug houses in their neighborhoods, though some haven’t achieved the success of this neighborhood east of town. That’s partly due to limits police officers face: While Vashon deputies do all they can to put drug users and dealers behind bars, Anderson said, privacy laws often prevent them from making big drug busts. And people who are sent to jail, he said, almost always return to the Island and continue their habits.
“It’s a vicious system that continues to play itself out,” he said.
Even so, he said, he’s pleased by what happened in July, when residents on a dead-end road east of town became suspicious of new renters and took action. Neighbors noticed the near-constant traffic at the small cabin — visitors who often stayed just a few minutes. Around the same time, theft in the area increased, heightening their concerns.
Once it was clear to them that drugs were being sold at the home, residents said they contacted police and began to write down license plate numbers, photograph people outside the home and pressure the landlord to evict the occupants. Some even stopped their cars outside the home when driving by and stared at the cabin, hoping the tenants would grow uncomfortable under their watchful eye.
The issue came to a head when a home close to the suspected drug house was broken into in the middle of the night. The man who lives there says he scared off the intruder — who appeared to be under the influence of drugs — but was terrified nonetheless.
“It was kind of like that nightmare you have that someone is in your house,” said the resident, who asked not to be named. “Only it’s not a nightmare.”
Around the same time, deputies stationed themselves near the home throughout the day, observing traffic and running license plate numbers. Police didn’t have enough evidence to obtain a search warrant for the home, Anderson said, but over the course of one week in July, they made three drug-related arrests.
On July 6, deputies arrested a 36-year-old man they believed to be living at the home on a warrant from Union County, Ore., for conspiracy to manufacture and deliver marijuana, according to a sheriff’s report. On July 11, they arrested a man leaving the home who was driving with a suspended license. They also found a crack pipe in his vehicle, according to the report. The next day they arrested a 42-year-old man on a Seattle warrant on drug charges.
“Once we found out about the house, we hit it hard,” Anderson said.
Neighbors close to the situation say they were pleased with the police response and felt sales were interrupted, but they were still uneasy with the amount of activity at the house. The man whose home was broken into said he saw around 30 different people at the cabin over the course of several weeks. He believes many of them grew up on Vashon and are known by deputies to be drug users. He said several people he questioned admitted to buying both methamphetamine- and heroin at the house, though it wasn’t clear whether drugs were being made.
“Everybody feels this is a terrible thing,” he said. “There was a strong response from the whole neighborhood.”
One woman who lives near the home and asked not to be named contacted police after her fence was torn down by one of the suspected drug users. She said she was shocked at the number of people who seemed to be crammed into the small cabin and said they often spilled out onto the lawn. Angered by the situation and worried for her family, the woman said she and others confronted some of the people outside the home.
“We were in their face everyday, maybe putting our life on the line a little bit, but we definitely wanted them to know they’re not welcome here,” she said.
Neighbors say they came to realize the landlord, a Vashon resident, was key to ending the problem. After repeated phone calls, personal contacts and encouragement from the police, the landlord finally evicted the renters. A “no trespassing” sign was posted on the cabin door for a time, neighbors say, assuring the residents didn’t return.
Those who pressured the landlord say they’re pleased he finally acted, but they also believe the suspected drug dealers are likely living somewhere else on Vashon or looking for another home to rent. One woman posted a warning on the popular listserv VashonALL, encouraging owners of rentals to check references before new people move in.
“I don’t want anyone else to go through what we have experienced,” she said in the message.
The east-side residents have also found that their experience was not an uncommon one. The man whose home was broken into said that after telling his story to others, many have said they’ve also had problems with drug houses.
“Since word got around, people are stopping me and saying, ‘Here’s what we’re dealing with.’ It’s more than a couple of people. There’s quite a bit going on,” he said.
Indeed, a man who lives on Westside Highway and asked not to be named said his neighborhood responded similarly to a suspected drug house a couple of years ago. They also became suspicious of the home because of heavy traffic there, and when theft increased in the area, they began to call police and write down license plate numbers. They even held a neighborhood meeting.
“You could tell when they got a new shipment or something — there would be a steady stream of cars,” the man said. “It made me a little nervous for my wife, and when I had children I didn’t want these characters cruising around down there.”
The man said he suspects drugs may still be sold at the home, but the activity there seemed to die down after the place got so much attention.
“I think in part what happened is they started to catch on that all the neighbors were unhappy,” he said.
Others, however, haven’t been so successful at quieting suspected drug houses. Some who live near the Vashon airport say one home down a gravel driveway has been problematic for years. A woman who lives close to the home says she has developed a contentious relationship with the residents, whom she calls “bottom of the barrel” drug users, because she frequently reports their activities to police. The woman, who asked not to be named, said she has seen countless suspected drug users come and go at the house; she believes drugs are being made there as well. She described the residents as crude and confrontational and said they are frequently arrested, usually for theft.
“They get them and arrest them, and they are out in days,” she said.
People who appear to be under the influence have wandered onto her property, defecated in her driveway and are believed to have kicked a neighbor’s dog to death.
“I’ve had them on my back porch at 9 at night in the winter,” she said.
She said she has become so afraid of the residents that she purchased a gun, learned how to use it and will keep it nearby if she spends time on the farthest corners of her property.
“I do my yard work with a shotgun over my wheelbarrow,” she said.
Another woman who lives in the area believes someone who attempted to break into her home during the night, waking her teenage daughter, is connected to the same suspected drug house. She said she also recently called police after seeing someone who appeared to be under the influence staggering down a main road.
“We have noticed more wasted people walking around our street,” she said. “It’s definitely changed my attitude in terms of this being a safe, bucolic place to live. ... We knew there was stuff going on on the Island, but it’s different having it right in your neighborhood.”
The woman who lives closer to the airport says she understands that the hands of the police are tied, since it’s difficult to obtain a search warrant. Despite her fears, she said, she’ll continue to call the sheriff’s department whenever there are problems — something she believes other neighbors have shied away from.
“Most of the neighbors here ignore it,” she said. “They don’t want to rock the boat. They like to keep to themselves.”
One deputy told the woman that if it weren’t for her repeated calls, the suspected drug dealers would probably be “sitting pretty all the time,” she said. “Honestly, ignoring it is the worst thing,” she said.
Anderson, who spoke with concern about the Island’s drug problem, said he and other deputies encourage Islanders to report suspected drug dealers, even if there is no hard evidence, and to write down license plate numbers, something he called “gold” for police.
Anderson said he wishes he had more deputies on the Island to investigate tips and make traffic stops, but said that’s unlikely with the current budget situation. He noted that parts of the county with higher crime rates have seen staff cuts, and a proposal to reduce the number of deputies assigned to Vashon is being considered.
“We’re going to do the most we can with the resources we have,” he said.