Manatee County drug trafficker arrested as part of cartel bust in Sarasota

jdeleon@bradenton.comMay 10, 2014 

MANATEE -- A major drug trafficker in Manatee County was arrested as part of a two-year-long operation targeting a hierarchy of drug dealers in the Sarasota area, according to Sarasota police.

Operation Sarasota Cartel II resulted in the recovery of 14 kilos of cocaine, with a street value of more than $532,000; a total of 33 arrests; and the seizure of five vehicles, seven firearms and about $145,000 in cash, officials said at a news conference Friday.

Toborus Cunningham, 33, was arrested and charged with possession with intent to distribute 500 or more grams of cocaine and possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime.

Cunningham has been indicted in federal court. Investigators, pointing to his mug shot at the top of a chart of those arrested during the news conference, said they confiscated about three kilos of cocaine during his arrest.

"I know a lot of times drug sales are viewed as a victimless crime, and I disagree with that," said Lt. Pat Ledwith, commander of Sarasota police's Criminal Investigations Division. "I think our neighborhoods are the victims of this crime."

Violent crimes such as robberies, shootings and burglaries are all associated with drug sales, he added.

"Taking care of this problem not only eliminates drug sales, but it helps us decrease other crimes in the area," Ledwith said.

The effort was led by the Sarasota Police Department, with the assistance of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, Manatee County Sheriff's Office, Bradenton Police Department, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the State Attorney's Office of the 12th Judicial Circuit.

The second phase of the operation ended in April and resulted in 24 of the arrests. Investigators said they built the case with the use of video surveillance, search warrants and wiretaps.

Sarasota Police Chief Bernadette DiPino sent a warning to drug dealers in

the area: Don't sell drugs in Sarasota.

"We encourage our partners in the community to continue to trust us and send information about drug dealing and suspicious houses and vehicles in their neighborhood because we are not going to stop until our community feels safe and is safe," DiPino said.

Cunningham is no stranger to local law enforcement. His arrest record in Manatee County includes charges of obtaining property for a worthless check, possession of controlled substance and multiple counts of trafficking cocaine.

One Gillespie Park resident, Linda Holland, spoke out at Friday's press conference about the bust.

"Through the years we have cleaned up our neighborhood a lot," Holland said. "We have a great relationship with the Sarasota Police Department. These are the kinds of things that took a neighborhood that had a lot of drugs and prostitution and now is a much better place to live."

The effort is ongoing and must remain constant, however, she added.

"We have to be very vigilant about doing the same thing, reporting the suspicious activity," Holland said. "It is imperative if we are going to have our neighborhoods to continue to be safe places for residents to live."

Jessica De Leon, Herald law enforcement reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7049. You can follow her on Twitter @JDeLeon1012.

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