The Yuba-Sutter narcotics and gang task force, NET-5, has a new commander at the helm, but he’s no stranger to the area.
Michael Johnson is a longtime Yuba-Sutter resident with 15 years of experience at the Department of Justice.
He took over at the end of May after the abrupt departure of Ron Nelson, who had held the position since January 2017.
NET-5, or Narcotics Enforcement Task Force, is comprised of several staff members from a variety of local law enforcement agencies who work undercover, on their own cases, assist with other local agencies and work with federal agencies, depending on the crime.
Johnson began his law enforcement career at the Marysville Police Department in the 1980s, starting as an officer and leaving as a sergeant 17 years later. He then spent the next 15 years at the Department of Justice. He’s been part of NET-5 several times during his career, once while at Marysville Police Department, and again while at the DOJ.
While working at the DOJ gave Johnson a wide range of experience with larger-scale cases, he said his time in Marysville paved his path for an unexpected, lifelong career in law enforcement.
“It more motivated me than prepared me,” Johnson said in his office Thursday. “Coming back here is like full-circle to me.”
While NET-5 is certainly known for its large-scale drug busts, Johnson said the task force deals with a diverse range of crimes including drugs and gangs to weapons and human trafficking. While methamphetamine labs were a problem in Yuba-Sutter some 10 years ago, since 2012 they’ve essentially been eradicated, according to Appeal-Democrat archives. That was thanks to laws limiting the sale of pseudoephedrine, a key ingredient in the drug, which were effective in drastically reducing the number of labs throughout the state. Meth in Yuba-Sutter is primarily sourced now through trafficking from mega-labs in Mexico.
Now, the law enforcement agencies including NET-5 are seeing the effects of marijuana legalization, which has brought large-scale, illegal grows in the Yuba County foothills, and butane honey oil labs elsewhere. Just last summer, Yuba County Sheriff’s deputies and NET-5 agents (along with several state agencies) seized over 6,000 plants in the foothills and focused on a number of environmental and water violations (including diverting water from a stream, animal trapping, sediments issues, and improperly storing petroleum). Similar issues have been seen at more recent illegal marijuana grows.
“The big push by the state and feds 10 years ago was marijuana produced on public lands,” Johnson said. “We’re still seeing that in Yuba County.”
Agents are also seeing an increased use in opiates, which has become a crisis across the country.
“It’s concerning, especially when it gets into the hands of young people,” Johnson said.
Since its inception in 1981, NET-5 has worked to meet expectations despite a shrinking budget and staffing. Its staffing was cut following a Department of Justice investigation in 2016 that came after the 2015 arrest of Christopher Heath – a former Yuba County Sheriff’s deputy assigned to NET-5.
Heath was indicted in federal court for conspiracy to manufacture and distribute marijuana and conspiracy to launder drug proceeds. He is currently incarcerated in a federal prison in Arkansas with a tentative release date of 2026.
The case left a mark on the agency, which, since then, has been working to repair its reputation and get back to work. Johnson said interpersonal communication within the small agency is a priority for him, as is gaining the respect of law enforcement in the area.
“I’m nothing more than a facilitator. It’s all about these guys – they do the work, they deserve the praise,” Johnson said. “I truly enjoy this job and working with these guys.”