Local News

Crime Suppression Team works to prevent crimes

SEBRING - It was already pitch dark Thursday evening when members of the Crime Suppression Unit of the Highlands County Sheriff's Office stopped at a rural house in the DeSoto City area.

They were looking for a man for whom arrest warrants were issued and who had a history of fleeing. They had received information he was at the location.

A few deputies and a K9 unit were prepared if the suspect were to flee. Ominously, they heard three gunshots nearby.

But as it turned out, the man wasn't there and the gunshots were unrelated to the situation, said Max Vandhuynslager, a deputy with the unit.

On many other occasions, including one earlier in the day, the unit was successful in capturing a suspect.

One of the more notable recent arrests occurred when the unit had one of its members pose as a migrant worker in Avon Park following a series of robberies of Hispanics. Two men were arrested after they attempted to rob the deputy, authorities said.

"They are doing a jam-up job," said Capt. Randy LaBelle. He said the unit is a combination of what used to be separate teams dealing with neighborhood crimes and drug law violations.

LaBelle said the unit members and their supervisors, including Lt. Jim McGann, who also was praised by deputies, do a fine job of carrying out projects and working with others in law enforcement, such as detectives.

During some days, he said, the unit serves warrants, does drug investigations and carries out special projects.

When they don't have anything specifically assigned, they are proactive, looking at ways of preventing crimes. Oftentimes, they'll stop a driver committing a minor traffic violation and find drugs or weapons.

On one particular day, he said, they found four stolen guns in one car and one stolen firearm in another.

"I'd rather have guns than dope any day of the week," Labelle said.

The constants are that what they do "changes from day to day," and that they don't have to respond to routine calls, such as a neighbor complaining about another neighbor's barking dogs.

LaBelle said the proactiveness - not just waiting to respond to calls - is what separates the unit from patrol deputies. But, he said, he encourages the patrol deputies to also be proactive when they have time and detectives to spend more time out in the field as opposed to making telephone calls from their desks.

On Wednesday night besides going to the house, members of the unit went after a car that sped from deputies. Unit members suspected that the people inside may have methamphetamine.

The driver drove into orange groves in DeSoto City, circled around and eluded the unit members.

"We don't catch every bad guy," said Yancy Plair, another member of the unit. However, he predicted that the occupants of the car would eventually be caught.

Earlier in the day, one of the members of the unit recognized a guy on a scooter as having a warrant. When the suspect realized they were after him, he fled and eventually ran into the woods.

But they caught him and found he had methamphetamine.

In a separate incident, they stopped two young men riding bicycles without lights. They searched the men for drugs. When they found nothing, they let the men go on their way. They also stopped a woman with a history of drug law violations when they noticed her vehicle had a light out.

But they found no drugs and allowed her to leave.

"We try to talk to as many people as we can," Vandhynslager said.

Sometimes they do surveillance and help in the search for people who are potential subjects in a crime.

In recent weeks, unit members have made numerous stops for traffic violations and caught people with drugs.

But, he said, some criminals are wising up to the idea that it may not be too smart to violate traffic laws and have drugs in the vehicle.

"It's (catching criminals) through traffic stops isn't as easy as it used to be," he said.


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