Ohio National Guard helps authorities behind scenes with drug enforcement, prevention
By HOLLY ZACHARIAH | The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio | Published: September 10, 2018
COLUMBUS, Ohio (Tribune News Service) — Staff Sgt. Alicia Stayonovich helps catch drug dealers.
It isn't the guys on the street corner selling dope that she targets through her job with the Ohio Air National Guard, but the ones smuggling or distributing perhaps millions of dollars worth of drugs at a time.
Still, not so long ago, she sometimes had to quietly slip from the room when the training videos showed victims of heroin overdoses. Because no matter who was depicted in the images flashing on the big screen, she saw only the face of her late brother. For Stayonovich, her role in the Ohio National Guard's Counterdrug Task Force is personal.
Travis Sparrow was 39 years old when he died of an overdose in 2015. His sister still thinks about him every day.
"His death definitely makes me a lot more passionate about what I do," said Stayonovich, a 33-year-old criminal analyst who has been a guard member for almost seven years. "It makes me feel good when I find out the team of guys I support seize money or dope, because that means they are getting those people off the street who play a part in ruining lives."
Her role on the task force involves tracing the flow of money to help build drug-trafficking cases for the federal office of Homeland Security Investigations in Cincinnati. That's just one of 49 federal, state and local agencies that have Ohio National Guard members assigned to them full time to help combat Ohio's drug problem — its opioid issue in particular.
"The Counterdrug Task Force is the guard's best-kept secret," said Lt. Col. Michael Flaherty, who coordinates the program, which is funded by the federal National Guard Bureau. "It used to be a small unit for us, and the supportive agencies weren't making the demand to the National Guard because they didn't know the value the we can bring because they hadn't experienced it."
But that's changing.
Authorized by a federal law in 1986 that allowed states' National Guard units to assist in countering drug threats, Ohio has lent out its forces for at least the past 18 years. In 2010, the federal government spent almost $1.4 million to support 23 Ohio National Guard task-force personnel in that role. Today, that annual funding has mushroomed to $5 million, and the Counterdrug Task Force is almost 70 guard members strong. Each serves a three- to five-year assignment with a local drug task force or agency.
They use their military skills — mostly analysis, such as processing cellphone records and tracking movements and patterns through surveillance footage — to help the other agencies build cases for prosecution. The soldiers and airmen also play a key role in prevention, coordinating with local mental-health boards and addiction-services groups to develop strategies and plan community events.
In the past couple of years, the demand for assistance has far exceeded the military personnel available, Flaherty said.
Among those in central Ohio who benefit from the alliance is the Fairfield, Hocking, Athens Major Crimes Unit based in Lancaster. Its commander, Dennis Lowe, said having a criminal analyst dedicated to his 18-member task force (basically at no cost, as he is responsible only for providing space, a computer and software) makes a real difference.
"The analyst works behind the scenes, doing the critical computer work that would otherwise tie up our guys and keep them off the streets," Lowe said.
Stayonovich said that in addition to the satisfaction she gets from knowing that her work plays a role in taking drugs off the streets, she also hopes that sharing her family's experience means that she sparks some empathy for the lives of drug users who are lost each day.
"Travis was very, very smart and loving and giving and so talented. But it was a vicious cycle he couldn't break," she said of her brother. "I know we are not going to see the end of addiction, but we have to try to keep the drugs at bay. I see every day how we're making a difference."
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