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Holladay Journal

Drug bust restores peace to Holladay neighborhood after years of unease

Jun 02, 2023 11:30AM ● By Zak Sonntag

Armed with a ballistic shield, breaching ram and non-lethal 40mm direct impact weapon system, a team of UPD officers on Feb. 2 announced their presence on the doorstep of 4825 S. Brooks Way, a townhome on a quiet cul-de-sac a block east of the popular Creekside Park in Holladay.

“Unified Police search warrant come to the door,” said the officers, who were accompanied by burly armored SWAT vehicle known as a Bear Cat, according to an affidavit obtained by the City Journals through a government records request.

It was an uncommon sight in the relatively low-crime municipality, but even more surprising is what the officers found: a clandestine crack-cocaine lab.

Officers discovered drug precursors and cutting agents, “white powder over several makeshift shelves and desks…and in the microwave and work-station,” along with solutions stored in baby food bottles that field tested positive for cocaine, according to descriptions in the affidavit.

“Only a few times in my career have I come across a cocaine clandestine lab,” said Holladay Precinct Chief Justin Hoyal, who served the knock and announce warrant. “To find a clandestine lab that’s cutting cocaine and [making crack rocks] is just not common. So this was a very unique situation.”

According to Hoyal and others, crack labs declined dramatically in 1990s, as underground drug markets shifted toward labs for the production of methamphetamine. Hoyal has no reason to believe crack is trending on the street, but nonetheless found the Feb. 2 incident cause for concern.

Though jarred by the dramatic search, Brooks Way residents were unsurprised by the findings.

“We have known about all of that for a long time. Everyone was aware of what was going on. For years people were coming in and getting drugs,” said Hal Timmons, board member of the Brooks Way HOA, who explained that community members were commonly accosted by visitors he described as dazed and impaired when arriving and departing from the neighborhood.

In addition to serving as drug lab, the home was also being used for sex work, where one tenant operated as an escort and was “often making upwards of $2,000 a day from her clients,” according to testimony from the home’s occupants who spoke with police after being informed of their Miranda rights, the report states.

Even as the bust came as a relief to residents, households on Brooks Way say the removal was painfully slow in coming, and at times they felt powerless as they watched the character of their neighborhood degrade in real time. 

“My kids wouldn’t even play outside until they were gone. They were terrified,” said a woman named Sammy, one Brooks Way parent who was regularly told by UPD officers that high foot traffic and suspicious activity could not justify a search warrant.

Challenges obtaining a warrant

Hoyal of the Holladay Precinct explained rigorous due process procedures are required in search warrants and that the process is a critical component in the overall hope of securing prosecution.

“Sometimes the process goes a little quicker, but this one took a while to gather enough evidence to establish and articulate probable cause showing we believed drug trafficking going on in the house,” he said.

Another reason for the investigation’s relative slowness relates to the level of precinct resources available.

The warrant effort was headed by UPD Officer Mario Widdowson, who investigated Brooks Way in addition to his existing duties as a patrol officer, using available time to survey the street, clock short term traffic, and obtain evidence from traffic stops as part of the evidence gathering process.

‘It changed everyone’s love for the neighborhood’

Meanwhile, households on Brooks Way grew anxious as the neighborhood fabric degraded.

“It changed everyone’s love for the neighborhood. There was enormous amounts of traffic. Sometimes 50 cars a day. People who were obviously high and didn’t care about kids on the street. They even got irritated that the kids didn’t yield to them,” said a resident named Tatiana, whose lived on the street for a decade, and believes porch piracy and tampering with parked cars increased as a result of the tenants.  

“Even when we had to take our dog out late at night it was not pleasant because you never knew who would be in the parking lot waiting.”

Eventually a caucus of families on Brooks Way began seeking other solutions. First they asked the property manager to initiate an eviction request. However, Mike Treo of Treo Properties explained that neither the HOA nor the property management had strong legal standing to pursue eviction, which might have been a costly and unsuccessful battle. 

“We decided not to go that route right at the start,” Treo said.

Instead Treo and the HOA attempted to persuade the homeowner to take eviction action against his tenants—albeit to no avail. 

“The homeowner had a stronger relationship with his renter than with us, so he believed her over us,” Treo said.

Brooks Way residents were aghast by the homeowner’s position.

“We told him shocking things, but he was absolutely reluctant to do anything about it. He used legal language to tell us off,” Tatiana said.

The charges

Over a year after residents had flagged the house for law enforcement, Widdowson procured a warrant. Three weeks following the search, the tenants were evicted. On March 15, Lisa Bangerter was charged with drug possession with the intent to distribute.

Residents helped document the comings and goings by taking photos and writing down license plate numbers to share with investigators. For them the eventual search warrant and later eviction is a testament to law enforcement as much as their own persistence and collaborative efforts.

“Many people were working together, and it took so much effort. Writing down license plates. Sending pictures,” explained Tatiana, who also expressed worry that other families may lack the time, resources, or nerve to pursue solutions to troublesome situations. “What do other people do, in smaller communities? They might not have the resources if it happens to their neighborhood.”λ