I-Team: Most locals never see Strip's gritty underbelly

By George Knapp, I-Team Reporter , Matt Adams | madams@8newsnow.com

Published 02/08 2016 10:54PM

Updated 02/09 2016 12:26AM

If you haven't been to the Las Vegas Strip in awhile, be forewarned.

While most visitors and locals have enjoyable experiences at the hotels and restaurants, a new crime wave is underway, including an explosion of prostitution-related robberies, gangs, drugs, even pickpockets.

The I-Team was allowed to tag along with both uniformed and plainclothes teams who have their hands full trying to keep the Strip safe.

The first line of defense is the uniformed officers who project a strong police presence on the streets and sidewalks.

The more sinister and sophisticated crime groups are a whole different challenge. They have their hands in drugs, robberies, human trafficking, auto thefts and a range of often violent, highly-organized crime.

That's where the plainclothes detectives come into play. What they do each night is both impressive and unnerving.

"We are dealing with a mini New Year's Eve every Friday and Saturday night up here with the same amount of officers we had five years ago," said Sgt. Mike Ford, a detective with Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department.

Riding with Sgt. Ford is always an eye opener. A few years ago, when he headed up a uniformed squad, he showed us the gritty underbelly of the Strip, the part that most locals never see. He recently returned as head of a team of detectives with the flexibility to follow crime wherever it leads. There's no such thing as a slow night.

"There's so many more criminals on the Strip now," Sgt. Ford said.

George Knapp: "Predators."

Sgt. Mike Ford: "That's a great word for it."

The mob may be gone, but organized crime is alive and well on the Strip. The prostitution rings that are now prominent in most casinos with nightclubs are largely fronts for violent, high end robbery rings. Ford says there are five or more trick rolls per night and many more that are never reported because the victim doesn't want his wife to know.

"They show up, get to your room, spike your drink with a sedative and you wake up 15 hours later with your Rolex missing, credit cards, all that stuff is gone," Sgt. Ford said.

The same gangs have their fingers in human trafficking and drug sales on the Strip.

"We could walk a 100-foot area up here and be approached a dozen times by people trying to sell narcotics," he said. "Some of them are smut peddlers, the people who hand out the stuff. You go to buy some dope, the person walks up to the smut peddler and brings it to you, it's all pretty linked up in cliques."

Although dope is not a primary focus for Ford's team, they can't avoid it. During the briefing at the start of their shift, they outlined a plan for sending an informant in to make a controlled buy of methamphetamine.

"We're buying 20 worth?" Sgt. Ford said.

The detectives on this squad were handpicked.

"They want to catch bad guys and be proactive and want to be able to take someone who robbed somebody's mom, dad, grandpa. We take them into custody the same night," Sgt. Ford said.

The team targets some dope dealers because of the related crimes -- robberies and burglaries -- done to support the user's habits. As we waited outside a notorious apartment complex, three unknown men burst in, then left in a hurry. Ford's team ran them down within a few miles.

"Any guns, knives, drugs in the car? Sgt. Ford asked the men.

Guns and stacks of cash were found. One suspect was wanted in an armed robbery case.

Heading back to the Strip, Ford told the I-Team about rings of auto thieves who prowl parking garages nightly to pick out the exact vehicle they want to steal. And, a new twist, rings of modern pickpockets who target cell phones in crowded nightclubs.

"Really good pickpockets, and they're really coordinated. You might feel a bump and you look down and your phone is gone."

Teams of five or more thieves will hit a club and walk out with as many as 40 cell phones in a night.

"Absolutely it's organized crime. They fly out here for the sole purpose of doing that," Sgt. Ford said.

One of Ford's detectives spots a known drug dealer in front of a Strip hotel and snatches him up. On a table in the security office is a thick wad of cash and grocery store of drugs including baggies of fake cocaine. The suspect offers a deal -- information on the location of a dangerous fugitive. The team springs into action, regroups at a crime-ridden apartment complex off the Strip and collars the suspect, who's wanted for attempted murder in another state. All in a night's work.

"The tourists and the people at home don't come up to the Strip, they don't see it and they don't pay attention to it," Sgt. Ford said.

The I-Team has been working with Sgt. Mike Ford for the past several weeks in setting up the stories and has worked with him many times over the last 12 years on other stories. Early Monday morning, the I-Team was notified that he had died at home overnight.

One thing he wanted to see happen is for elected officials and maybe some casino bosses to a ride along and see for themselves what it is like out there at night. 

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