Public Safety

Law Enforcement Arrest 16 in High School Drug Sales


On Tuesday, Sheriff’s deputies arrested six juveniles and 10 adults in a North County high schools undercover drug buy dubbed “Operation A Team.”

“If this makes some kid on another campus look over their shoulder and think twice when they’re selling drugs, then we’ve done our job,” said Sheriff Bill Gore. “The take-away from today is this: If you want to buy illegal drugs, you very well could be talking to a Deputy Sheriff.”

The undercover buys and arrests were the result of a yearlong investigation. The information gathered by deputies led to 19 warrants that were served Tuesday morning by members of the Narcotics Task Force, the North County Regional Gang Task Force, and deputies from the Poway, San Marcos and Ramona sheriff stations.  All were arrested without incident and three adults are still being sought.

“The arrests today are not the end of this investigation. The undercover buys are now being investigated by the Narcotics Task Force,” said Gore. “There will undoubtedly be additional arrests as a result of this undercover operation.”

Over the course of a year, three youthful-looking deputies posed as students and were “enrolled” at Poway High School and Abraxas High School, both in Poway, Mission Hills High School in San Marcos and Ramona High School in Ramona.

The deputies, who were not named, overheard conversations about using drugs off campus, specifically prescription drug use at parties and recreational use of marijuana. Eventually, they were able to buy drugs at all the schools except Abraxas, a model continuation school.

Deputies purchased marijuana, heroin, cocaine, oxycodone, and hydrocodone.

Gore said overdose deaths of high school-aged kids in North County led to the operation. The department wanted to be proactive in its investigation.

“We are going to learn from this,” said Gore.

The sheriff commended the school districts involved for their willingness to work with law enforcement to make their campuses safer. Gore said the real benefit from this undercover operation will come later as investigators sit down with high school principals and school administrators to share what they learned.   Deputies hope it will help schools improve their security.

Deputies will compile suggestions for schools based on the results of their investigation and share them with other school districts in San Diego County.

“It’s important to note, this problem is not unique to these schools. You could have run an undercover operation at other schools in San Diego County and had similar results,” Gore said.

The investigation confirmed that prescription drug abuse continues to be a problem in our communities, he said. So often, teenagers are getting these drugs out of their own homes, said Gore.

The San Diego Sheriff’s Department has been working to get the word out to parents that they can get rid of unwanted prescription drugs at any Sheriff’s station. The drugs are later destroyed.

Gore said parents are usually shocked when they learn that students are using and selling heroin.  But he says they shouldn’t be that surprised because heroin is essentially a cheaper version of the prescription drug oxycodone that teens might first find right in the medicine cabinet

Those arrested include three Poway boys, one arrested at his home, one at Poway High School and another at Mt. Carmel High School; a Ramona girl, arrested at Ramona High School; and two San Marcos boys arrested at Mission Hills High School.

Adults arrested include Johny Nguyen, 18, of Poway; Philip Silva, 25, of San Diego; Jesse Escalante, 21, who was already in custody on a fraud charge; Ramon Kelly, 45, of Vista;  San Marcos residents Kevin Meza, 18; Edwin Sanchez, 19; Milton Ortena, 19; and Ramona residents Christopher Payne, 18; Maxwell Gaffney, 19; and Skylor McGee, 20.

Sheriff’s deputies are still seeking to arrest Troy Gagliano, 22, and, Erik Johnson, 18, both of Poway, and Jesus Zurita, 18, of San Marcos.

The San Diego Sheriff’s Department also noted that one of the deputies reported a potentially dangerous situation to a School Resource Officer outside of the drug investigation. The deputy observed a freshman student being bullied before, during and after school and heard the student make a suicidal comment. After reporting the situation, the bullying stopped and the student was counseled.


Yvette Urrea Moe is a communications specialist with the County of San Diego Communications Office. Contact