February 10, 2009
Retiring investigator named Lawman of the Year
Lt. Russell Phelps has worked as an undercover narcotics officer for Sheriff’s Department
Working undercover in narcotics investigations, Lt. Russell Phelps knew the job did not end when the buying was done.
“You always had to keep your eyes open everywhere you went,” said Phelps, who spent five years working as an undercover officer in the narcotics division of the Cortland County Sheriff’s Department.
He is currently a criminal investigator and has made more than 300 arrests in his career.
Phelps, 47, was named 2008 Lawman of the Year Monday night at the Elks Lodge for his 20 years of service to the Sheriff’s Department. He plans to retire in May.
Officer Rob Reyngoudt of city police and Trooper Jeffrey Carr of the State Police Homer barracks also were nominated for the award.
Phelps said his undercover work followed him nearly everywhere he went, even on family shopping trips.
Phelps said he recalls going shopping with his family several times and recognizing people in the store he was buying cocaine from.
He would immediately duck away from his family, and they would understand why, going about their shopping as if nothing were amiss.
For the rest of their time in the store, Phelps said he would ignore his family completely, making sure the dealer did not see them together.
Situations such as these, he added, were not uncommon.
“They couldn’t see me with them, it was a basic part of the job,” Phelps said.
Phelps, has two children, Anna, 18, and Anthony, 24. He and his wife, Teresa, have been married 26 years.
He added despite the apparent dangers posed by the job, working with a team is the only way to be a successful investigator.
“We don’t go into this fight to lose,” Phelps said. “One thing I learned a long time ago was the importance of surrounding yourself with professionals.”
He joined the Cortland County Sheriff’s Department as a patrol officer in 1989 and it took about seven years before he saw crack cocaine on the streets for the first time.
The reality of the drug situation quickly became apparent to him, and with Cortland being close to Syracuse it came as little surprise that dealers would be passing through town, he said.
“I realized it’s out there and readily available,” Phelps said. “You’re out there going into locations and situations you don’t always know about.”
Among his earliest narcotics investigations was a local chiropractor, Ed Bennedy, who was selling crack cocaine in the mid-1990s.
Phelps said this investigation proved difficult because Bennedy refused to accept new clients for his crack sales.
“We had no way to get in,” Phelps said.
Phelps eventually met with Bennedy and bought crack cocaine on three occasions before police arrested him. Bennedy was convicted and sent to state prison.
Narcotics investigations are something of a gamble, depending on whether the dealer will do business with the officer, he said.
“It’s about the first impression, if it doesn’t work the first time with a particular officer, it won’t work again,” Phelps said.
Phelps said he was never injured on the job, even when working undercover.
“I was very fortunate,” he said.
Phelps said working undercover in narcotics meant he and his family had to be able to adapt and recognize the reality of the potential dangers.
He said undercover narcotics work differs somewhat from other aspects of criminal investigation because of the value of the undercover officer’s identity.
After receiving the award Thursday he said he counted himself fortunate to have had support from his family in a career that was stressful on all of them.
“My wife never stood behind me, she always stood beside me,” Phelps said.
His son is a patrol officer with the Sheriff’s Department, who joined after receiving the top score in his class on the police exams.
Russell Phelps said retiring seemed like the right move, adding he was eligible for retirement this year.
Prior to joining the narcotics squad, Phelps was a road patrol officer for eight years.
A career in law enforcement was something he said he planned since childhood, growing up on Brook Drive in Cortland.
He said Monday he still recalls watching Mark Burns, a civil deputy with the Sheriff’s Department, driving his patrol car past his home while growing up.
Burns drove through the neighborhood daily and one of his primary duties was serving subpoenas. His presence left an impression on Phelps at an early age.
“I knew I wanted to be with that department,” Phelps said.
Phelps and Capt. Glenn Mauzy took the police exam in 1989, starting as road patrol officers.
Mauzy said he and Phelps have been friends for 27 years.
Although they did not work directly with one another, Mauzy said working with Phelps has kept them both motivated throughout their careers.
“We feed off each other,” Mauzy said. “That friendship has driven us both in this profession.”
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