Crime: Inside the San Diego State University Drug Bust

Bathed in the SoCal breeze, a frat-house party at San Diego State University could offer more than a whiff of indulgence. At some of these bashes, young visitors came to hang out, share small talk about college life, dish about professors. Along the way, they might drop a little slang about weed and coke. They were hip. They got cozy enough to collect some cell-phone numbers. Turns out, some of these visitors weren't students. They were undercover drug agents.

Early last Tuesday morning, officers with the Drug Enforcement Administration paid a visit to the Theta Chi fraternity. They came with a search warrant—and a battering ram they used to crash through the door. It was the culmination of a five-month sting that netted 4 pounds of cocaine, 350 Ecstasy pills, 50 pounds of marijuana, 30 vials of hash oil, $60,000 in cash and two guns, one of them taped to a bed frame. It ranked among the biggest college drug busts in U.S. history, with police making 128 arrests, including 95 San Diego State students.

The raid, which included crackdowns on several fraternities, came a year to the day after the overdose death of Jenny Poliakoff, a 19-year-old student at San Diego State. It was the tragedy that triggered the undercover drug operation. The college student had gone to a party and a sorority dance the night before; she died of poisoning from cocaine and alcohol. In February, during the course of the investigation (called Operation Sudden Fall), a student from nearby Mesa College died of a drug-and-alcohol overdose after attending a San Diego State frat party. In still another case, a student at a San Diego State fraternity reportedly lapsed into a drug induced mania and was shot with a Taser gun by friends in an effort to subdue him. He was taken to a hospital and survived the overdose.

The highly organized, widespread drug dealing at a university with a solid academic reputation astonished seasoned prosecutors and narcotics officers, says Damon Mosler, chief of the narcotics division of the San Diego County District Attorney's Office. "There was high-level dealing going on, and that is shown by the fact that students were dying," Mosler tells NEWSWEEK. "These guys had to be taken down." At the Theta Chi house, agents discovered a rough draft of a handwritten business plan for selling drugs. "It talks about what percentage they would mark up the drugs," says Mosler. The authorities say Kenneth Ciaccio is the suspected leader of the Theta Chi cell; Mosler says it was the biggest of several on campus. Investigators claim the student sent a mass text message to "faithful customers" promoting a coming "sale" on cocaine. (Ciaccio pleaded not guilty to drug charges last week. "I do not believe he's the main guy," his lawyer told the Associated Press.)

Operation Sudden Fall reached from the town of La Mesa, east of the university, all the way to the beaches. Undercover work was conducted at fraternity houses, in student housing and in front of dormitories. Some authorities say the behavior of some suspected drug dealers revealed an odd mix of arrogance and naiveté. Ralph Partridge, the special agent in charge of the DEA in San Diego, says that one suspect, a criminal-justice major, inquired after being charged "whether or not his arrest and incarceration would have an effect on him becoming a federal law-enforcement officer." Also arrested on drug charges was Michael Montoya, a Phi Kappa Psi fraternity member, who worked as a community-service officer on campus and would have earned a master's degree in homeland security next month.

Stephen Weber, the president of the 36,000-student university, was kept out of the loop during much of the investigation, says Mosler. "Everyone in law enforcement felt that if the administrators knew about it, they would have put the kibosh on the whole thing," the prosecutor says. Mosler says college officials typically dread the PR nightmare that comes with news about drugs or other crime on campus. Weber tells NEWSWEEK he was made aware last May that "a general investigation regarding drugs on campus" was going on, and that he was told on April 21 that arrests were imminent. "I knew what I needed to know," says Weber.

The raid provoked some protest among students who saw it as overly aggressive. Last Wednesday, a mock graduation was staged, with 75 empty chairs to signify those who were kicked out of school for the charges. (Only 75 students had been reported arrested then.) Randy Hencken, a San Diego State graduate student and president of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, which calls for a more lenient policy toward drug use on campus, argues that "arresting 100 people is not going to stop drug use, abuse or overdoses." He urges the university to adopt a "Good Samaritan" policy that would allow students in an overdose situation to call for help without fear of repercussions. "When someone dies of overdose, that moment of hesitation caused by fear of being arrested can be enough to lose someone's life," he says. "I'm not defending what some of these kids were doing, but the truth is, it's easier for an underage student to get cocaine at 3 a.m. than it is to buy alcohol at 11 p.m. We're fooling ourselves if we think that arresting a bunch of kids will stop it."

Authorities say much of the information leading to the arrests of the alleged drug dealers came from people arrested for possession of narcotics. "We were happy to have these minnows as bait to find the bigger fish," says Mosler. He says most of those arrested for small amounts of drugs were fined or sent to counseling; the suspected dealers, on the other hand, could face hard time.

The undercover officers in the sting, who looked young enough to be students, dressed and talked in a way that would make them blend into any crowd around campus, authorities say. They started going to fraternity parties, made some connections and then started appearing at other events near campus. Mosler says the officers were stunned to learn how openly drug dealers were operating. "The undercover officers would call the dealers and say, 'I'm looking to score, can you hook me up?' " the prosecutor says, "and the dealers wouldn't question it; they'd just say yes." Mosler says he believes that the dealers, many of them students, were operating under the false assumption that they would never get caught within the insular world of a college campus.

To be certain, American college students scarcely expect that fraternity parties will be infiltrated by undercover drug officers. Just the same, no one expects a 19-year-old college student with a promising future, like Jenny Poliakoff, to go off to a sorority dance one night and wind up losing her life.