Agent: Parking lot drug deals becoming more common

CONWAY, SC (WMBF) The parking lot of your favorite grocery store or mall is becoming a more common place for drug dealers to do business on the Grand Strand, but some say it's no place for an arrest.

Some are questioning the arrest of four people by the 15th Circuit Drug Enforcement Unit near a busy Food Lion parking lot along Highway 701 in Conway on Monday afternoon.

Charles Andrew Hickman, Shonquilla Symoria Ward, Eliajah Samuel and Malik Bethea now face charges of trafficking cocaine after agents say they seized four to five ounces of a "cocaine-like" substance from the group.

"We've never had anyone show a weapon," Janet Balzotti, who owns a liquor store near the arrest location, said. "I've never seen it - even in the parking lot."

"The fact that it happened in broad daylight around families and children - it's really scary," shopper Carolyn Tanner said.

But Dean Bishop with the 15th Circuit DEU says these types of drug deals and busts in parking lots happen more often than you think.

"A lot of times certain dealers we're targeting will not deal with you at their house or place of business," he explained. "They'll only meet you at this location - like a Food Lion parking lot, a WalMart parking lot or the mall."

Dean says agents with his unit constantly train to handle a variety of different scenarios when drug busts go down in a public place. From scenarios to weapons training, it's their goal to take drugs off the streets without putting you in harm's way.

"We watch people. We watch parking lots closely. We receive intel of situations that may be occurring," he said. "We train with other units such as the Myrtle Beach Police Department's SWAT team [and] the Horry County Police Department just so that we're all on the same page."

Prior to each operation -- no matter if its at an apartment, during a traffic stop or near a public place -- Bishop says his agents will meet to discuss their tactics and any safety concerns.

Bishop says if agents deem an operation too dangerous, they'll cancel it.

In 2011, the 15th Circuit DEU made 357 arrests for drug-related charges and executed 79 search warrants across their region.

The department's efforts took more than $1.6 million worth of cocaine off the streets, in addition to $1.7 million in marijuana and $1.2 million worth of marijuana plants.

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