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DEA Pilot's Eyes Are In The Skies For Drug Cases

June 19, 2012
SHSU Media Contact: Beth Kuhles

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Angela WarnerAs a military pilot, criminal justice graduate student Angela Warner came under enemy fire when evacuating wounded soldiers in Iraq. As the first female helicopter pilot and supervisory agent for the Drug Enforcement Administration’s aviation division, the door once came off her helicopter while doing surveillance of marijuana fields in Kentucky.

A 25-year veteran of the U.S. Army, Warner, who is based out of Houston, supervises special agent/pilots who patrol the skies to collect evidence in narcotics cases in South Texas, New Mexico, Mexico and Central America.

While continuing her work at the DEA, Warner enrolled in Sam Houston State University’s online master’s program in criminal justice leadership and management, hoping the classes will prepare her for the next promotional exam in the next highest civil service position with the agency, a GS-15, in 2014. Only the senior executive service, obtained through a selection process and appointment by the DEA administrator, is higher; the highest position with DEA is the administrator and is a U.S. Presidential appointment.

“I absolutely think I will pass, with as much writing and reading that I’ve had to do (in class), my critical-thinking skills have been sharpened,” Warner said. “SHSU is one of the top two or three criminal justice schools in the country and is right up the street. You can make this program as much or as little as you want. I am finding it very challenging.”

Warner constantly travels for her job and online courses are the only way she is able to complete a degree program. She is hoping in the future to pursue a doctorate online, preferably if a blended course can be developed at SHSU.

She joined the DEA in 1999 after spending 10 years as a deputy sheriff in Harris County, where she worked mainly in outlying jail facilities in districts two and four.

“The county was the perfect stepping stone into federal law enforcement,” Warner said. “You have the opportunity to network with other law enforcement agencies. I thought I wanted to transfer to the Houston Police Department Aviation Division, but the feds have more opportunities for helicopter pilots – DEA, FBI and Customs.”

Warner began her federal career on the ground in Anchorage, Alaska, where she worked on some of her most successful narcotics cases, before joining the aviation division in 2005.

“We do a lot of counternarcotics surveillance,” Warner said. “The South Central Aviation Resident Office includes Waco and South Texas, West Texas, New Mexico, all of Mexico and Central America.”

Using fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters equipped with surveillance cameras, the DEA special agent collects evidence in drug cases from above, much like a video camera captures it in a patrol car except that the equipment they use is much more sophisticated and is able to read documents, license plates and street signs from high altitude. The South Central Office has specially equipped aircraft, including fixed wing planes and helicopters.

Angela Warner“We film it and when the organization is taken down, we have the drug buy, their car, their license plate and their location,” Warner said. “It also captures GPS data and altitude too.”
The evidence captured in the field may include a drug buy, a marijuana field or a suspect fleeing police.

In November, when a truck driver was gunned down outside Houston by Mexican cartel members while hauling a load of marijuana, the shipment was being tracked by DEA pilots as part of its undercover operations, Warner said.

Flying also has its hairy moments—like in Iraq and Kentucky.

”We heard this tink-tink-tink, and we realized we were taking fire,” Warner said of the military mission. “After we had dropped off the wounded and returned to base, we looked through the panel and saw a bullet round had hit between me and the co-pilot and blew out a radio. It was one of those things (where) a little more to the left or right and we wouldn’t be here.”

In Kentucky, Warner was doing surveillance of a marijuana field when she heard a loud bang. After putting the helicopter in autorotation, she looked down to see the copter door in the middle of a field. She later would land and pick up the missing piece.

“Thank God we were out in the middle of Kentucky,” said Warner. “If we had been in Houston, it probably would have struck a car driving in the middle of rush hour traffic or a building.”

Warner is anxious to share her experience as a female supervisor in a male-dominated field with other women. She recently returned from the International Law Enforcement Center in Bangkok, where she was an instructor and panelist teaching leadership skills to 46 Southeast Asian female police executives.

“It was absolutely phenomenal,” said Warner. “In going to Southeast Asia, I assumed we would have to spoon feed these women basic lessons in leadership, but these women were already in leadership roles and were principals in law enforcement agencies. I was truly amazed and truly humbled by the level of education and experience sitting in that audience. I probably learned as much from them as they did from me.”

 

 

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