LITTLE ROCK, Ark. - Five eastern Arkansas police officers pleaded not guilty Thursday to accusations they accepted bribes and looked the other way while drug traffickers shipped marijuana, cocaine and other illegal drugs through Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee.
The law officers were among more than 60 people arrested so far in "Operation Delta Blues," a four-year probe that has given new credibility to longstanding complaints about crime and corruption in the Mississippi Delta. Investigators continued to hunt for the last of 70 people indicted, while the police chief in Helena-West Helena, where many of the arrests occurred, said he was continuing his own investigation.
Six people were arrested on Thursday and three remained at large, the FBI said.
At an arraignment Thursday, the five officers stood before U.S. Magistrate Judge Joe Volpe in prison scrubs, handcuffs and leg chains. Dozens of family members sat in the audience. Several people wept.
Volpe read the officers their rights and gave each of them a court-appointed attorney. All five were held pending a bond hearing Friday or early next week. They are tentatively scheduled for trial Nov. 14 and Nov. 15, but those dates are likely to be pushed back.
Helena-West Helena police officers Herman Eaton, Robert "Bam Bam" Rogers and Marlene Kalb are accused of taking $500 bribes from someone posing as a drug trafficker. Robert Wahls, a police officer in nearby Marvell, is accused of taking a similar bribe. They face attempted racketeering and other charges.
Phillips County sheriff's deputy Winston Dean Jackson, now a police officer in Helena-West Helena, is accused of taking money to ignore criminal activity. He allegedly was caught on a federal wiretap describing the payments as part of the "good old boy system" and is charged with using a phone to further drug trafficking and conspiring with intent to distribute drugs.
The findings of Operation Delta Blues are outlined in seven federal indictments that describe Helena-West Helena as the center of a drug-trafficking operation that shipped cocaine, marijuana and crack to parts of at least three states.
Two men, Sedrick Trice and Leon Edwards, are accused of directing a ring that stored and prepared drugs in businesses across the city, including a repair shop near a middle school. They allegedly used dozens of people, including a former state inmate on work-release, to distribute drugs and supplied other dealers as well. Both men pleaded not guilty to several felony charges.
A wiretap allegedly caught Trice telling another dealer about the price of one cocaine sale $9,000 for about 8.5 ounces, according to one indictment.
The indictment says law enforcement officials "assisted and protected" Trice and Edwards' ring by escorting shipments of drugs throughout Helena-West Helena. Jackson, the Phillips County sheriff's deputy, allegedly was caught on tape talking to another deputy about payments from defense attorneys
Another alleged ringleader, Demetrius Colbert, is accused of supplying cocaine and crack to Trice and other dealers. He, too, pleaded not guilty.
When Colbert said in court Thursday that he couldn't afford to hire his own attorney, prosecutor Julie Peters told Volpe that authorities had found $423,000 in cash inside an Oldsmobile Cutlass belonging to him. Peters said Colbert also had a Cadillac and other luxury cars.
Volpe assigned an attorney to Colbert but told him he would be liable for attorneys' fees if authorities found later he could afford one.
Residents in Helena-West Helena had long complained that police were overlooking crime. Police Chief Uless Wallace said that since he became chief last month, he had heard from people who said they could no longer trust the police.
Hundreds of officers from the FBI, Arkansas State Police and other agencies helped make Tuesday's arrests. An FBI special agent was shot during one arrest, but was not seriously injured and later released from the hospital.
Wallace said the police department's morale has improved in recent weeks and that he hoped the operation would build some public confidence.
He also said he had launched his own investigation without knowing about Operation Delta Blues and focused on seven officers. Two of them were Rogers and Kalb. The Helena-West Helena force has about 35 officers.
The chief said he would continue to watch the five remaining officers, who have not been told.
"Once something turns up, then I'm going to move on that individual and we're going to drive on with the next phase," he said.