The people Bill Johnson was serving didn’t know it, but he was already a step ahead of them.
The Kinston Department of Public Safety director spent part of last year responding to the concerns of citizens who urged him to partner with other law enforcement agencies to combat an unprecedented crime wave in the city.
The murder of U.S. Marshal Warren “Sneak” Lewis on June 9 — as he attempted to serve a warrant for another killing — was one of Kinston’s 10 homicides of 2011. The fact that Lewis was assisting served as evidence that Johnson was already acting.
The fact that Lewis was assisting served as evidence that Johnson was already acting.
Johnson’s department had established a partnership with the U.S. Marshal Service. Shortly after the murder of Lewis, Johnson realized that similar relationships with other agencies could help remove violent offenders from the streets.
That seed grew quietly last fall into what was dubbed “Operation Counter Punch,” a coalition between the KDPS, the U.S. Marshals, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the Alcohol Law Enforcement, Lenoir County Sheriff’s Office, the SBI, the FBI, the District Attorney and the U.S. Attorneys’ Office.
The operation culminated last month with the arrest of 15 offenders on federal drug and weapons charges after the raids of several houses throughout the city, including one on East Caswell Street.
The suspects — mostly repeat offenders and six of them in alleged decision-making positions within gangs — were processed, shipped to Greenville and appeared before a federal judge immediately, eliminating the likelihood of bail or parole.
“They were taken out of the community, and that has a tremendous impact,” Johnson said, adding that the initial raids were just a start. We’ve identified other suspects that we will be arresting and charging, so we’re going after more people.
“This is not finished.”
A job well done
Kinston Mayor B.J. Murphy applauded Johnson’s efforts.
“From an elected position, as a matter of policy we have, to the best of the resources that we have available, made sure that our public safety department has received all it can to help fight this type of crime,” Murphy said. “We’ve certainly got to tip our hat to Director Johnson and his staff for continuing to be proactive with this matter.”
Bryan Konig, a deputy U.S. Marshal working out of Raleigh, was among the law enforcement officers present at the July 11 raids. While Konig wouldn’t discuss the U.S. Marshals’ role in the operation, he happily expressed his approval of the synergy displayed between various agencies.
“I can’t discuss it enough,” Konig said. “The interagency cooperation is how we all stay in business. The teamwork of the Marshal service, ATF, ALE, SBI, the Kinston PD, Lenoir County Sheriff’s Office — everybody that was involved out there — it was instrumental in combating the crime problem that Kinston has and the crime problem that everybody has.”
The model implemented in Operation Counter Punch had only been used in four cities nationwide, Johnson said. Kinston, like other cities, did occasional “roundups” that merely served to put criminals away for brief periods.
“We want to put a stop to that,” Johnson, who was promoted to director in June 2010, said. “When we ran the operation, we brought the whole judicial system to the city of Kinston.”
Factoring in the types and quantities of drugs involved — from marijuana to crack to pure cocaine — and prior drug and weapons charges, authorities are able to charge suspects under the federal umbrella.
The operation has removed 92 guns from the streets of Kinston, along with drugs with an estimated street value of $765,000 and more than $100,000 in cash, Johnson said.
No single area of town is being targeted.
“You go where the problems are,” Johnson said. “And when the problem moves, you follow it.”
Citizen tips are vital
A key piece to the operation, Johnson and Murphy said, has been the cooperation of citizens, who can call or email tips anonymously. Both officials expressed their gratitude to those who have helped authorities.
“There’s no question that the single biggest influence in deterring crime is the proactive nature of our own citizens,” Murphy said.
And it was many of those citizens who were pleading with Johnson last fall as he initiated the operation in secret.
“Of course, I couldn’t tell them that’s what we were doing,” he said.
Honoring a hero
For Konig, the operation hits close to home. He was friends with Lewis, an investigator with the Nash County Sheriff’s Office and a member of the U.S. Marshals’ Eastern North Carolina Violent Fugitive Task Force.
Lewis was shot and killed as he and other task force members entered a house at 602 W. Lenoir Ave. to serve a warrant in the murder of Thomas Hinton, a House of Wang restaurant employee.
Four suspects await trial for the homicides.
Lewis, a nine-year veteran of the Sheriff’s Office who had spent three years on the task force, is survived by a wife and two daughters.
Operation Counter Punch is known to law enforcement officers as Project 61, in honor of Lewis’s badge number.
“His murder was the catalyst for this operation,” Konig said. “He was a very important part of what we did, and he still is a very important part of what we do every day.
“He was a close friend, and it’s a very personal issue.”
David Hall can be reached at 252-559-1086 or at David.Hall@Kinston.com.