By TRACIE CONE
EXETER, Calif. — On his second trip through high school, former C-student Alex Salinas got a lot of A’s.
He was 22, however, and an undercover narcotics officer going by the name Johnny Ramirez. When his first semester progress report showed a 3.25 average, the baby-faced police rookie made a mental note: Stop turning in homework assignments.
Eight months later, the ruse was up, and Exeter, a bucolic citrus-growing community in California’s Central Valley, was turned on its ear after a school-day police sweep ended with a dozen Exeter High students in custody on drug charges.
Some people wondered how the deception by Salinas could have gone on for so long in the small town of just 10,000 people. Others lamented that the problems of the big city had come to the quaint community of antique shops and historic murals set amid a stunning backdrop of the snow-capped Sierra Nevada.
“It’s amazing we were able to keep a secret in this little town for that long,” said Police Chief Cliff Bush, who had been searching for years for just the right officer to pull off the undercover ploy. “People in little towns tend to know everything about everybody.”
Leading the campus sweep this month was the tall, lanky Salinas, dressed in the crisp black uniform and combat boots of the Exeter Police Department instead of the T-shirts and sneakers he had worn as Johnny Ramirez.
Still, there was no mistaking the boyish face and the wide smile gleaming with braces.
“A lot of jaws dropped when they saw me,” Salinas said. “They knew me as that kid at school that they hung around with, and then the next thing they’re in handcuffs and I’m in a uniform.”
The sting got more attention from the media than a drug bust of 12 students normally would because of something the chief now laments: It happened the same week as the debut of the Hollywood comedy “21 Jump Street,” which features – you got it – undercover cops fighting crime at a high school.
Chief Bush insisted it was not a case of life imitating art.
“A day or two later I became aware of the movie,” Bush said. “The last thing I would do is check movie premieres. This just happened to coincide with the movie’s release.”
There had been no major complaints about drug dealing at the 1,000-student school that sits within sight of the police station, but Bush said he had been thinking for years about doing an undercover sting to send a message.
One day last summer, he ran into Salinas, who was weeks away from graduating from the police academy. Salinas had ridden along with Bush years earlier when the chief was still a patrolman.
Bush eventually approached Salinas with the plan. With it came a full-time job on the city’s 17-member Police Department – an offer Salinas wouldn’t refuse.
As Johnny Ramirez, Salinas attended Monarch football games and pep rallies. He purposely landed himself in detention so he could meet people outside of the four classes he attended before reporting each afternoon to the county drug task force headquarters for briefings and homework assignments. He made a Facebook page and forged friendships, which made the deception hard for him to bear.
“There were a few students I got to know who are good kids, and I did feel kind of bad for being their friend and then being something different,” he said.
Only the principal, vice principal and Johnny’s guidance counselor knew about the operation, school Superintendent Renee Whitson said.
“Even I didn’t know the name he’d go by,” she said.
Still, a moment of panic erupted on the first day of school last fall when a teacher pointed to the new kid and joked, “We’ve got a new narc on campus. They tell me he’s wearing a green shirt.” Johnny Ramirez’s shirt was green.
Eventually students sold the new kid marijuana and cocaine, the prescription painkiller hydrocodone and the muscle relaxant Soma.
“There was certainly no celebration on the day of conclusion. It was a very sad day,” Whitson said. “These are our students. We hope this is the necessary wakeup call to make this positive for their lives.”
As the school year winds down, the arrested students are in the midst of review board hearings. Only three are older than 18, and one student’s parents were also arrested for investigation of methamphetamine possession.
In the end, large quantities of drugs were not confiscated and none of the arrests involved trafficking significant quantities, though many purchases were for amounts that exceeded “personal use,” Salinas said.
Was it worth keeping an officer off Exeter’s streets and on a school campus for eight months?
Yes, Chief Bush said. But he is almost embarrassed that the undercover operation has garnered so much publicity, mostly because of his own bad timing regarding the release of “21 Jump Street.”
“This is what I was trying to avoid, that we busted the local Scarface at the high school,” Bush said, making reference to another Hollywood movie, this one about a drug kingpin. “Turns out they were just tiny amounts, but if you’ve got just one kid dealing drugs at school, that’s too many.”
The chief hopes the arrests have a lasting impact on all students, though he does realize he might have created a problem of another kind in Exeter.
“I’d hate to be the new kid at school next year,” he said. “They won’t make very many friends.”