BLOUNTVILLE - In the first investigation of its kind here, a relatively new law aided law enforcement in obtaining enough evidence to arrest 20 people on Thursday in what may be the area's largest marijuana distribution ring.
In a matter of two years, more than 700 pounds of marijuana made its way to the streets of Sullivan County, but District Attorney General Greeley Wells said the state's wiretapping law was the key tool in breaking up the operation.
"It's not easy to get a wiretap," Wells said.
"Before you can get a court order, an affidavit has to be filed to show probable cause to believe there is more than 700 pounds of marijuana involved. It has to show the investigating agencies have tried all other logical and reasonable investigative techniques without success and in order to substantiate the allegations the wiretap is necessary," he said.
Over a three-month period last year, investigators listened to calls on three different phones - all of which James Swafford Jr. used but that were subscribed to by other people, according to court documents - which Wells said aided in the probe.
Even before gathering evidence based on the phone calls, Wells said that investigators had already determined the probe involved more than 700 pounds of marijuana.
"There is a different threshold for the different types of drugs involved," in order to obtain permission to wiretap, Wells said.
"For marijuana it requires a threshold for probable cause that the sale or delivery involved more than 700 pounds."
In various reports filed by TBI investigators, hundreds of phone calls were documented, including several between Swafford and Chris Smith, the former Kingsport police officer who quit the force in September to work for the Lime Light night club as security director.
Smith is also charged in the marijuana conspiracy case. In one phone call, agents reported that Smith warned Swafford that the police were following him and he should be careful.
Also throughout the court records, agents indicate that Swafford made numerous trips to Georgia, allegedly to pick up drugs and transport them back to Sullivan County.