Operation Hell Swamp: Feds entered Brunswick to combat drug trade among Bloods gang

A pine tree savannah at Brunswick County’s carnivorous plant-filled Green Swamp Preserve/Courtesy Skip Pudney)

BRUNSWICK COUNTY–– Federal law enforcement agents and prosecutors took a keen interest in the Brunswick County drug trade, and its gang ties, five years ago. 

Joining with the Brunswick County Sheriff’s Office and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), the United States Attorney’s Office worked a task force as part of a larger Department of Justice program that aims to disrupt and dismantle criminal organization threats to the United States. In the Eastern District of N.C. the focus was on Bloods gang affiliates who allegedly trafficked in drugs and guns.

Operation Hell Swamp, the joint investigation, has yielded 26 convictions since the first indictments in 2017, including 29 years of prison time for Nicholas Shamar Griffin, the self-described top-ranking Bloods member in Brunswick County.

Throughout the investigation, ATF agents and sheriff’s deputies made use of confidential informants and undercover operations. Even Griffin, 41, cooperated with the government for a time, according to court records. 

Many of those arrested in Operation Hell Swamp faced charges relating to the possession or distribution of dozens, sometimes hundreds, of grams of cocaine or crack. Others trafficked in heroin and cannabis, and nine individuals received firearms charges. 

Nicholas Shamar Griffin 

Griffin walked out of prison in 2015. He benefitted from a reduced sentence for a series of crimes committed many years ago — despite the government’s opposition — due to retroactive changes in drug sentencing laws. He was to begin a period of federal supervised release. During that prior sentence, he attempted “to start his own set within the Bloods,” a four-member group called “Mayhem,” according to court records.

Griffin would later tell investigators he was kicked out of the gang for committing that transgression, but also that he was the “highest-ranking Blood member in Brunswick County.” He was also caught with a cell phone while in prison. (“And as Your Honor knows,” a Assistant U.S. Attorney would later say during Griffin’s July 2020 sentencing hearing, “Bloods memberships and cell phones in prisons are one of the most dangerous combinations that we’ve seen in this district.”)

By 2017, Griffin was known to authorities as a high-profile drug trafficker in Brunswick County, dealing in high quantities of crack cocaine. Men interviewed by law enforcement told stories of Griffin possessing hundreds of grams of crack at a single time and selling portions to lower dealers twice a day. 

Griffin was driving through Pine Crest — an area of Brunswick County that an Assistant U.S. Attorney called “high-crime” — on July 31, 2018. He rode with his cousin Hester and another man. The vehicle made “several brief stops consistent with drug activity,” leading sheriff’s deputies to pull the car over in Calabash. 

Griffin nervously looked up at the deputy with glassy eyes, according to court records. The man in the backseat, Michael Daniels, had a warrant out for his arrest. 

While deputies detained Daniels, Griffin’s cousin Hester dropped a bag containing two ounces of cocaine (56 grams) behind the rear tire. Deputies found it. 

Griffin told investigators the cocaine belonged to him and Hester was his “fall guy.” Despite the discovery of the cocaine, Griffin thereafter remained a player in the Brunswick County drug scene.

The Assistant U.S. Attorney would later say in a court hearing that Griffin “was informed agents were investigating him, he was given an opportunity to cooperate. And, in fact, he did say he would cooperate.” 

Court records indicate Griffin stayed at large in Brunswick County, cooperating with the government around the time of the July 2018 incident while still under federal supervised release. He would later tell investigators “he had received 10 ounces of cocaine over the prior few weeks from a supplier.” 

Then two months later in September, he allegedly shot a man. 

The Brunswick County Sheriff’s Office responded to a shooting in Longwood, N.C. on Sept. 28, 2018. There they found Reginald Davis, who was being transported to the hospital after sustaining a gunshot wound in his back, apparently from bird shot.

Davis told investigators that while hanging out with friends that night, he had made a derogatory comment about street gangs that Griffin found offensive. 

“Today’s gangs aren’t shit,” Davis said in Griffin’s presence, according to court records. “They’re just a bunch of pussies.” 

Griffin then approached Davis in anger, he recalled. Davis walked away to avoid a confrontation, then heard a gunshot. As Davis took cover behind a vehicle, he realized he had been shot.

Griffin fled to South Carolina. He was arrested in November 2018 after being found driving under a suspended license in North Myrtle Beach. In a post-arrest interview with law enforcement, Griffin said it was not him who shot Davis in the back, according to court records. Griffin told investigators he was at the September party in question and did argue with Davis, but when he took aim and pulled the trigger, the gun failed to fire. Somebody else shot Davis, Griffin told investigators.

“At the time of the incident, the interview, Nicholas Griffin was cooperating with the government,” according to court records. 

Following Griffin’s November 2018 arrest, he pled guilty to conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute a quantity of cocaine and 280 grams or more of cocaine base. He was not charged for shooting Davis. (Davis was not inclined to testify on the incident, according to court records.)

Griffin was sentenced to 350 months imprisonment. During the July 2020 sentencing hearing, Griffin denied being a Bloods heavyweight. He told United States District Judge James Dever that despite investigators disbelief to his assertions the gang let him walk out, that was the case.

“But for them to say that for three years I participated in criminal conduct and I was a big gang banger — I’m from Brunswick County,” Griffin said in court. “There’s really no, like, gang activity in that county, and I did not shoot Reginald Davis.”

Covia Dzell Smith 

Covia Dzell Smith, 48, another target of Operation Hell Swamp, was arrested following an undercover assignment in which an agent posed as an employee of a repossession company — wearing a Dickies-style shirt and grease-covered jeans in a character built to buy drugs from Smith. 

“We were going to try to use cooperating sources as well as undercover agents to conduct controlled purchases,” Sgt. Joseph Cherry would later say during Smith’s trial, adding that ATF played a significant role. 

Markeith Minor, a confidential informant in Operation Hell Swamp, began informing for ATF one month after he was convicted of a drug-related felony in Jan. 2017, according to trial transcripts. He was paid around $12,000 for his services in several cases.

During the summer of 2017, Minor facilitated meetings between Smith — who authorities call a “violent, high-level member of the Bloods street gang” — and the investigators.

The undercover agents showed interest in purchasing a motorcycle from Smith. Over the course of three June meetings, the investigators were first gifted a small amount of cannabis, then later purchased an “eight ball” (3.5 grams) of cocaine from one of Smith’s contacts. Then they purchased more.

“I was playing the role of an employee of a repossession company who drove a tow truck and did things like buy and sell cars, flip them,” said ATF task force officer Robert Simpson at Smith’s trial.

During trial, Simpson told defense attorney Geoffrey Hosford cocaine was more expensive than heroin in 2017 southeastern N.C., depending on who it was purchased from.

Smith was arrested nine months later in March 2018. A different cooperating informant for the sheriff’s office, Cortland Rogers, shared a jail cell with Smith for a day. Rogers later contacted the sheriff’s office to say Smith had made threats against Sgt. Cherry of the sheriff’s office while conversing in the cell. 

Smith was convicted at trial of distribution of cocaine and cannabis, and sentenced to 300 months imprisonment. 

The sentences for Griffin and Smith were the heftiest of all 26 Operation Hell Swamp convictions. Three defendants still await sentencing. 

Assistant U.S. Attorney Scott Lemmon prosecuted the cases. “Valuable assistance was also provided by the District Attorney’s office for Brunswick, Columbus, and Bladen counties,” according to a Department of Justice press release that details more information on Operation Hell Swamp. 

Local and federal officials held a press conference last week to announce the 26 total convictions after a five-year federal law enforcement presence in the county designed to tackle criminal trade networks.

“The investigation showed that targets of this operation were moving kilograms of cocaine from the Texas area to the eastern district of North Carolina,” said acting U.S. Attorney G. Norman Acker. “It also showed that key portions of the drug trafficking was being done by members of the Bloods street gang.”

Brunswick County District Attorney Jon David praised the inter-agency collaboration, and said when going after drug cases, his office focuses on the suppliers, “who are peddling poison for profit.”

“I am so proud of the Brunswick County Sheriff’s Office working closely with the U.S. Attorney’s Office to really put a dent in the gang issue here in Brunswick County,” David said. “I don’t pretend that it doesn’t exist. But I will tell you as someone that has worked in Miami and in Wilmington over the course of my 25-year career, that it has been profoundly suppressed in Brunswick County.”

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