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OLATHE, Kan. — Law enforcement agencies in Johnson County are banding together to fight the unprecedented rise in violent crime.

Drugs are often at the root of violent crime. In Johnson County, what’s disturbing is who’s committing these crimes and why.

“Look, I can’t tolerate this. We can’t,” Sheriff Calvin Hayden said.

When Hayden became the Johnson County sheriff in 2017, his deputies were dealing with a lot of auto thefts at the far end of the county. That would be the first sign drug activity was picking up.

“They are your average suburban kid that you see at Oak Park Mall or anywhere else if you are out shopping,” he said. “You are not looking at hard core gangsters here. You are looking at normal Johnson County metro area kids.”

At first Hayden and others thought the violent crime involving drugs was the result of large scale imported drugs like heroin or meth, but the shocking reality is: “They are killing each other over marijuana,” he said.

“Law enforcement and our office have really noticed a change, and that being 15- to about 20-year-olds being involved in drug rips,” said Steve Howe, Johnson County district attorney. “Basically ripping off your local drug dealer by use of a weapon that leads to people getting shot or killed.”

On March 29, 17-year-old Olathe East senior Rowan Padgett was shot and killed during a possible drug rip involving Xanex, according to court documents.

Eighteen-year-old Matthew Bibee Jr. allegedly shot Padgett and has since been charged with murder. Seventeen-year-old Roland Kobelo and 16-year-old Jordan Denny were also involved in the drug deal gone bad. Both have been charged with first-degree murder.

Although Howe wouldn’t comment on the Padgett case, he said his office has seen a 20% increase in drug cases filed in the last year.

“We are going to make every effort to wave you from the juvenile status, and whether you are the driver or the person who set up the drug or the one who actually pulled the trigger, you are equally guilty in the eyes of the law and that means a life sentence,” Howe said. “This isn’t a game, and the individuals, these teenagers need to understand that the community takes this very seriously, and we are going to hold them accountable.”

“No where is immune,” said Erik Smith with the Drug Enforcement Administration. “There are people who become dependent on controlled substances and have need to satisfy that addiction, and any place there is a consumer, an addict or user, somebody will supply that drug for that.”

The DEA special agent in charge said feeding the demand for drugs in Johnson County goes well beyond teenage drug dealers.

Smith said Mexican cartels really are living here in Johnson County.

“Historically, a decade ago, two decades ago, a lot of cartels would limit themselves to the inner city,” he said. “But as they become more established and they become more wealthy, it’s quite common to see them branching out into suburban areas including Johnson County.”

The qualities that draw other people to Johnson County are also enticing to the cartel. Safe neighborhoods with nice homes, good schools — and they can fly under the radar, unnoticed.

They could very well be your neighbor, Smith said.

“All of our vast conspiracy networks have a street-level component. They all have a local impact,” Smith said. “So it is our desire to ultimately make a local impact. So the investigations and the resources that they bring to bear at that mid-level (are) very important to what we do at the DEA.”

The DEA tracks down drug traffickers who are operating in large quantities on a big scale to prosecute them on the federal level.

Local police agencies normally deal with the street level pushers who are prosecuted by the county.

There has been a gap in making the connection in the mid-level drug game between the small fish and the big sharks — until now.

“It’s where you put pressure,” Hayden said. “They are going to go where there’s opportunity, and I want to make sure that Johnson County isn’t the place to come. So we are going to change the mindset from hunters to the hunted.”

In cooperation with the DEA, the district attorney’s office and surrounding counties, Hayden has put together a task force to fill the gap in the middle.

A group of eight dedicated officers have been tasked with identifying the players in the drug game and developing intel to link the street level dealers with the top level traffickers — and take them down.

“We are not necessarily going to completely eradicate the substance problem,” Smith said. “But to the extent that we can prevent one more overdose, or we can prevent one more violent criminal encounter with somebody with a gun or high on drugs, that’s the motivation.”

Top law enforcement brass agree that they can’t just arrest their way out of this. Success will come from a multi-pronged approach including enforcement, education and treatment.

What happens downstream with schools, mental heath and drug treatment is as crucial if not more important than simply putting people in jail.