43 arrested with 316 prior convictions in Sarasota drug sting

SARASOTA -- More than 40 people with a total of 316 felony convictions were arrested Friday following a six-month-long undercover operation in Sarasota.

Operation Safe Neighborhood, which led to 43 arrests, targeted street-level drug dealers, according to the Sarasota Police Department. Undercover detectives bought drugs from people in the city based on community tips and police intelligence starting in December 2014.

"This is the most people we've ever arrested in a street-level operation," said Lt. James Rieser at a press conference Friday morning.

Charges include selling rock cocaine within 1,000 feet of a school, church or park; sale of heroin; sale of controlled substances; and the sale of designer drugs. Police said most drugs found were cocaine and heroin.

"No one was injured in any of these operations," said Sarasota Police Chief Bernadette DiPino.

Seven drug buys were conducted in the Gillespie Park area, nine in the North Tamiami Trail area, 13 near Central Avenue and Cocoanut Avenue and 15 in the area of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way.

Sara Scott has the most previous felony convictions at 19, which include cocaine possession, prostitution and escape from prison.

Johnnie Abner and Jo Lee Burke have the second most at 18 each, which include convictions for fraud, cocaine sales and living off the earnings of a prostitute. Other past convictions include various drug sales, intimidation of law enforcement, burglary, grand theft with a firearm and resisting arrest.

DiPino said it's a misnomer to say police should only go after big suppliers and not street-level dealers.

"It's the street-level dealers that the citizens in our community are having the biggest issues and problems with," DiPino said. "It's not about the money. It's about the crime, the safety and the fear that's going on in the communities with their behavior, and the people they're attracting to come into the community."

DiPino said they're working with four others caught in the sting with no records of violent crime to help them turn their lives around.

"Those are four worlds we might be able to change," DiPino said.

DiPino encouraged those going through addiction to seek treatment, reminded others thinking of experimenting with drugs such as heroin and rock cocaine that they're dangerous, and warned drug dealers the Sarasota Police Department would continue to pursue them.

"If you're going to sell drugs, don't do it in the city of Sarasota," DiPino said. " 'Cause we're going to get you. We're going to find you."

Kate Irby, Herald online/political reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7055 or at You can follow her on Twitter @KateIrby