On a recent weekday afternoon, a rented moving truck rumbled down an Orange County freeway next to the right shoulder.
Passing motorists barely gave the truck a glance, except for one driver in a Cadillac trying to get onto the freeway.
The driver tried to squeeze into the slow lane directly ahead of the truck and behind a blue SUV, but the truck refused to create space.
With the onramp rapidly disappearing, the driver of the truck eventually was forced to let the Cadillac in ahead of him. Before speeding off into faster-moving lanes, the Cadillac driver gave him a one-finger salute.
The man behind the wheel of the truck wasn’t trying to be a jerk. Rather, he was trying to remain, as planned, directly behind the blue SUV at all times. And two other SUVs closely on his tail were trying to do the same.
That’s because the truck and three SUVs were filled with heavily armed Fullerton police officers — undercover detectives from the narcotics and directed enforcement teams whose mission only a few superiors knew about that day.
After all, when you’re transporting $2.7 million worth of seized drugs several miles down Southern California freeways in broad daylight, you want as few people to know about it as possible.
Especially the bad guys.
They call them dope burns.
At least once a year, law enforcement agencies throughout Southern California destroy seized drugs that are taking up space in their property and evidence rooms.
These operations are far from impromptu. They require hours of paperwork, checking and re-checking, and a court order to insure that evidence in criminal cases that still are open is not accidentally destroyed.
And they require, about a month in advance, a reservation at the burn facility.
The Fullerton PD invited Behind the Badge OC along for its dope burn Oct. 1.
Because the officers who participated work undercover, BTBOC is not identifying them by name or in photos. And some details about the day aren’t being divulged — such as the burn location — because of the sensitive nature of the operation.
The cache of drugs destroyed by the FPD Oct. 1 had a street value of more than $2.7 million and represented seizures from more than 100 arrests dating back to 2010, said the lead detective on the case, the driver of the truck who reluctantly let the man in the Cadillac momentarily pull in front of him.
“He has no idea,” the cop said with a smile.
The 30-year-old officer, a 10-year veteran of the FPD, drove while wearing a protective vest and an AR-15 assault rifle next to him in case things went south.
His six colleagues, split into pairs in the three SUVs, similarly were “fully kitted up,” in cop parlance.
The drug haul in the cab of the truck totaled 2.75 pounds of meth, ½ pound of cocaine, 115 pounds of marijuana, ½ pound of heroin and 600 pounds of prescription drugs.
The meth alone was enough to last a typical user 17 years.
The drug burn last Thursday, totaling nearly 720 pounds, represented only about one-quarter of the drugs still sitting in the FPD’s property and evidence room — seized narcotics and pot stored in a locked area within a larger locked area where no one is allowed to enter alone.
For the lead detective on the drug burn — his first — the day represented a small but tangible step in the FPD’s ongoing battle to make a dent in a troubling epidemic.
“Ultimately, by taking drugs off the street, we’re saving people’s lives and preventing family destruction,” said the detective, who saw first hand the devastation of drugs on family members while growing up in Fullerton — an experience that partly inspired him to become a cop.
“It’s a constant battle,” said the detective, sipping on an iced coffee, his dark hair dropping below the collar of his T-shirt.
During a briefing before the drugs were transported to a massive burn facility that is used for all kinds of waste, the lead detective went over the detailed route.
He told his colleagues where the nearest hospitals were in case something bad happened en route.
He told them which three other law enforcements agencies knew about the operation and were ready to assist if needed.
And he made sure there were enough hard hats, goggles and dust masks to go around, as required by the burn facility.
The lead detective had gone on a dry run of the route the day before to make sure there would be no surprises.
On the way to the facility Oct. 1, he constantly watched the truck’s side mirrors, looking for erratic drivers, cars occupied by suspicious-looking suspects, and motorists looking a little too closely at his truck.
“If something doesn’t look right,” the detective said, “it’s not right. You learn to trust your instincts.”
When the team arrived at the burn facility without incident, two teams of cops guarded the truck as the dope was unloaded into an elevator and taken up to the sixth floor of the behemoth facility.
It took three trips to deliver the drugs to a massive cavity of a room thick with the stench of tons of trash.
The cops tossed envelopes and bags full of weed, pills, heroin, meth and cocaine on a large chute angled at 45 degrees that leads to a massive incinerator below.
The flames aren’t visible from the area where the drugs are tossed, but ash wafts up and covers the floors and metal grates that serve as walkways throughout the byzantine facility. It gets especially loud when a massive claw connected to a crane picks up 8,000 pounds of trash and dumps it down the chute.
Far below, flames reaching 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit turn the drugs and assorted waste into ash. Most of this ash is used in the making of asphalt to pave roads.
“We’re driving on freeways made out of cocaine,” one of the cops quipped.
The FPD conducts at least one dope burn a year. By court order, the lead detective must witness all of the dope disappearing down the chute before he and his colleagues can leave. The process of unloading and burning the dope took about an hour.
Then the truck and the three SUVs headed back to Fullerton, the cops inside the vehicles considerably more relaxed than they were on the way over.
“It’s like the saying goes,” said the lead detective. “‘We prepare for the worst and hope for the best.”
On the way back to Fullerton, the detective got a call from a fellow FPD officer about a residence housing possible drug dealers.
And so the vicious cycle continues.
“I don’t think there’s anyone in the world who can’t say, ‘I know someone who is addicted to drugs,’” the detective said. “People say it’s hard to get over drugs. I understand that, but if you really want to change, you will change.”
Ridding Fullerton and surrounding communities of some narcotics and marijuana helps, the detective said.
“We’re taking a lot off the street,” he said. “And even with Prop. 47 making a lot of these cases misdemeanors, that doesn’t stop us from going out there and doing what we should be doing, and doing what’s ethically and morally right: preventing drug use and sales and the trafficking and cultivation of drugs.
“We owe that to society and to our communities.”