At 6:30 a.m. on August 2, 2015, Birmingham-based drug kingpin Patrick Hall and his “lieutenant” Lovodas Blake ran straight from their life of crime into the waiting arms of the North Alabama Safe Streets Task Force.
The task force, an FBI-organized joint venture with other law enforcement targeting crime in the northern part of the state, had kept Hall and Blake under surveillance for two years before the arrest. On that particular morning, the task force watched them make a drug deal, and knew them well enough to call them by name — as they fled in Blake’s car. An FBI agent “was able to look at them as they ran and identify them,” said the special agent in charge of Hall’s case, an undercover agent who wishes to remain anonymous. “He pointed at them individually and said, ‘That’s Pat and that’s Blake.’”
Agents in seven unmarked cars gave chase, as the pair abandoned their vehicle and tried to run. But agents captured not only the drug dealers, but nine kilograms of cocaine and roughly $20,000 from the back of Blake’s car.
In the intervening months, Hall and 24 of his collaborators have been indicted on 72 federal counts, on charges including drug trafficking and money laundering. Collectively they face up to 96 years in prison.
The investigation against Hall, which some in the media dubbed “The Northside Weezy case,” was just one of the many cases pursued by the North Alabama Safe Streets Task Force. The force, which covers 31 of Alabama’s northern counties, deals with violent crimes ranging from gang and drug activities to kidnapping. The force also collaborates with officers from various law enforcement agencies ranging from the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department to the Coast Guard.
The task force played an instrumental role in Hall’s case, said Angel Castillo, the supervisory special agent in the group, who says his unit’s main goal is to “connect the dots.”
“We couldn’t have done it without the task force bodies,” Castillo said. “Every full-time task force member was involved.”
Many of the cases pursued by the task force, including Hall’s case, can be described as a “trickle down system,” where more significant cases result from investigating a smaller, low-radar case. Hall came to the FBI’s attention after agents heard of Jesstifur Hurst, a local rapper for Trap Team Entertainment, boasting about his role in Hall’s drug ring.
Sources came to authorities with various rap videos by Hurst and his colleagues and revealed that the houses pictured in the videos were storage houses used for their drug trafficking deals. While Hall was not in the music business, he was declared a significant party in the ring based on past surveillance. “He was observed in 2012 on surveillance and based on that surveillance we determined that he was a significant figure in the drug trafficking,” said a task force officer on Hall’s case.
Further investigation into the drug ring became possible due to several cooperative sources, some members of the community, others in law enforcement. “It’s like a puzzle,” the agent continued. “You have sources that provide info and sources that can be proactive.”
The agent continued that proactive sources, which serve as active intelligence gatherers in the field, are easier because what they report can be corroborated either through further surveillance or other sources. Similar similar responses from various sources, who often do not know each other, allow the task force to continue the investigation and find bigger targets like Hall.
There are several techniques used to collect information. According to the special agent in charge of Hall’s case, “the case drives the investigative technique.”
In Hall’s case, phone taps and video surveillance were key factors in trying to capture the dealers. “We monitored 16 to 17 hours-a-day worth of phone conversations,” said one of the task force officers working Hall’s investigation. “We had four task force bodies a day just on phones.”
The special agent in charge said that placing a phone tap is not as easy as it appears in the movies and that makes the intel from the recordings that much more valuable. “It’s like a search warrant on steroids,” he explained.
“Phone taps have to go through several OKs before they can be applied and every ten days we have to report back with what we’ve acquired to determine whether the info received is worth the time,” he said. “You have to emphasize that this is the last resort…that this is the only way to get the info we need.”
Through phone taps, authorities learned Hall’s organization was moving “150 some-odd” kilograms of cocaine and roughly a kilogram of heroin per month, which helped to later convict Hall and his men.
Because of the substantial amount of evidence accumulated against him, Hall cooperated with the task force. “The best thing they can do is cooperate,” said the special agent on the case. “And sometimes you need to put people in the situation where they realize they have no choice but to cooperate.”
During a case, the task force receives funding from the federal Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force, to bring in more manpower, Castillo says, adding that the additional personnel also bring in a large amount of street knowledge. “We try to use all of the tools that we can,” he said. “Funding sources, all tools…we try to train all task force officers in all aspects [of investigation techniques] as well.”
The task force officer on Hall’s case said that a sense of togetherness and strong communication between units make the group effective. “I can have as many as five cases going at the same time,” the officer said. “And knowing that these people are working the case with me is a huge help. We all come together. Everyone becomes familiar due to surveillance and information.”
The goal of the North Alabama Safe Streets task force goes beyond drug crime. “[The task force] is very versatile and works a huge variety of crime,” said the special agent on Hall’s case. “Even if it’s not a federal crime, if it’s just a violent community crime or something, we can step in… happy to help.”