It took a year of diligent work, including many hours of surveillance, for Pasco Sheriff's Det. Chris Starnes and his investigators to identify the members of a cocaine smuggling ring with stash houses in Dade City and Ocala.
When Starnes and other detectives and federal agents saw a tractor trailer leave the Dade City stash house last August, they alerted the Florida Highway Patrol — which pulled over the rig and discovered more than $2.2 million hidden in the fuel tank. A search of the stash house the next day unearthed 52 kilograms of cocaine with a street value of $1.5 million. It was the largest cocaine bust in Pasco County history.
For his leadership in unraveling the drug ring, Starnes was honored Friday as the Pasco County Sheriff's Office 2010 Detective of the Year.
The bust also involved agents from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and U.S. Customs, as well as detectives from the Marion County, who seized $172,000 and five kilograms of cocaine worth $145,000 from the two stash houses in Ocala.
Five men were arrested and convicted on various charges including conspiracy to traffic cocaine, possession of firearm in the furtherance of drug trafficking and possession of cocaine.
Starnes was one of six employees honored Friday evening at the Pasco County Sheriff's Office Employees of the Year banquet at the Palace Grand in Spring Hill. The other honorees are:
• Civilian of the Year: Shelly Dye-Gardner, who runs background checks on potential hires and implemented an online pre-application to streamline the hiring process.
• Detention Field Training Officer of the Year: Deputy Nicole Campbell, who was praised for her attention to detail, positive attitude and excellent documentation skills used in training new deputies.
• Law Enforcement Field Training Officer of the Year: Sgt. Tait Sanborn, who reorganized and standardized the orientation process for all new hires.
• Law Enforcement Deputy of the Year: Det. Dale Bruce, who works closely with patrol units, other agencies and even suspects' families to locate people wanted on warrants and take them into custody.
• Detention Deputy of the Year: Sgt. Steve Wood, who was the project liaison for the 768-bed addition to the Pasco County jail. He also oversees the inmate labor programs that raise food to feed the inmates, raise ornamental plants to be sold for profit, and clean and maintain office buildings and landscape areas, all saving hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars.