From the archives of the Anaheim Police Department, the 'White Christmas' of 1989

By Joe Vargas

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At this time of year, I always have fond memories of the White Christmas of 1989.

The late 1980s was a time of big change for American culture and the political climate around the world. Communism collapsed and the Cold War ended. Technology radically changed and personal computers, along with cell phones, became ubiquitous.

It also was a time of big challenges for law enforcement. Organized crime groups from South American countries inundated the United States, intent on feeding America’s appetite for drugs — specifically cocaine and heroin.

The front page of the Dec. 19, 1989 issue of the Anaheim Bulletin featured a story about the seizure of more than 5,000 pounds of cocaine by the Anaheim Police Department’s Major Narcotics Unit. Photo courtesy of Joe Vargas

Across the country, “crack” hit the streets in mass quantities and at bargain prices. Along with the increase in illegal drugs came a huge increase in crime. Almost every city in America saw its homicide rates increase and, in many cases, double overnight.

Anaheim, like most cities, was challenged with keeping up with the drug trafficking networks and had to find some way to curb the flow of drugs into the city. In the late ’80s, the decision was made to form a Major Narcotics Unit. The idea was to focus on the high-volume drug dealers and wholesalers in an attempt to slow down the seemingly endless supply.

After years of doing nickel-and-dime deals in back alleys, the Major Narcotics Unit, under the leadership of Sgt. Steve Rodig, quickly made its reputation as a nationwide leader in narcotics enforcement.

While some older folks might have recollections of Crockett and Tubbs from the television show Miami Vice, I can tell you it wasn’t really like that. It was more along the lines of hundreds of hours of living out of your car following people around the chaotic Southern California highways. The closest it got to the TV show was one or two investigators might have been sporting a mullet.

So, on Dec. 14, 1989, the Major Violators Unit found itself at the Howard Johnson’s in Baldwin Park watching a couple of tractor trailers with Florida license plates. Over the next few days, investigators from the Anaheim Police Department, Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement, San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and U.S. Customs would conduct 24/7 surveillance on the trucks, their drivers, and everyone they came into contact with.

On Dec. 16, a Toyota van drove up to the location and unloaded 21 cardboard boxes into the back of one of the trailers. The two semi-trucks later left in tandem and were followed into the high desert area along the 15 Freeway. They were stopped near Victorville and after a search, each was found to contain 532 kilos of cocaine, for a total of 1,064 kilos.

Following the vehicles that had dropped off the boxes and people the drivers had contacted led investigators to a house in Hacienda Heights. On Dec. 17, a search warrant was served at the house and an additional 570 kilos of cocaine were found.

In all, a total over 5,000 pounds of cocaine was taken off the streets and seven people were arrested. At a news conference on Dec. 18, 1989, at the Anaheim Police Department, the seized cocaine was put on display, under armed guard, for the media. The pile was 25 bricks high and 10 deep. At the time, a kilo was selling for about $18,000 apiece.

“They’re not going to have a white Christmas — we are,” Chief Joseph Molloy said at the news conference.

From October 1989 through December 1991, the Anaheim Police Department’s Major Narcotics Unit would seize 24,000 pounds of cocaine as well as $10 million in currency and drug-related assets. A total of 125 people would be indicted or arrested as a result of the investigations. It was one of the most productive units in the country.

Joe is a retired police captain. You can reach him at jvargas@behindthebadgeoc.com.

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