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Date of Issue: September 14, 2006

Meeting due on Cortez drug problem

A community-wide forum with county law enforcement officials is in the works to take up a drug problem that has plagued Cortez for many years.

Manatee County Commissioner Jane von Hahmann, who lives in the historic fishing village, said she will put together such a meeting in Cortez, hopefully sometime in October.

Cortezians have been concerned about the problem for years, she said, but it is difficult for law enforcement officers "because they can't act until they have a case they can take to court." That hasn't been forthcoming.

Dave Bristow, spokesman for Sheriff Charlie Wells, concurred. "We're acutely aware of the problem, in fact we've had detectives working on it for quite awhile. But our hands are tied without evidence to take to court."

Many Cortezians acknowledge the problem, but they decline to talk for the record and they too lack evidence to take to the sheriff. Over the years a vacant house here and there has been taken over by transients and used as a "crack house," sort of an illegal headquarters where drugs are sold and consumed.

Wooded areas attract "druggies" too, including the FISH Preserve at the eastern edge of the village. That resulted in a murder some years ago, and that was the end of that particular drug refuge.

There has been violence in other drug habitats too, and a great deal of noise that neighbors find obnoxious and often threatening.

But although such operations seem to be common knowledge, nothing specific enough to get law officers involved has been developed. Cortezians who object don't want their names known, for fear of retaliation against them or their families. They seldom file formal complaints, Bristow said, and officers can't act without a citizen's complaint or unless an officer witnesses an infraction, which is rare. "Druggies" are as skittish as wild animals, one officer said.

"It seems to go in cycles," said Commissioner von Hahmann. "People who do drugs like this come and go, they're in and out of Cortez, they are here and then they're somewhere else.

"Now it's rearing its ugly head again. There's been almost time for another whole generation to be involved."

The meeting she intends to set up will have at least Sheriff Wells, a judge, and State Attorney Earl Moreland there to tell Cortezians just what can be done and how, she said.

Meanwhile, there is no indication that the problems will go away.