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Undercover officer in '21 Jump Street'-style bust did real homework

March 19, 2012 | 12:39 pm

The undercover police officer who posed as a high school student to aid in a "21 Jump Street"-style drug bust in Central California will begin his duties as a regular patrol officer this week, an Exeter city official said.

City Manager Randy Groom said that the operation's 13th and final suspect turned himself in to authorities Thursday following the arrest of a dozen other students accused of selling drugs at Exeter Union High School. The arrested students were between ages 15 and 19 and have been booked on various charges including selling drugs within 1,000 feet of a school, possession of a controlled substance, conspiracy and accessory.

With the operation now concluded, the 22-year-old officer will suit up for only the second time in eight months. Groom said the officer, whose posed as a student named Johnny Ramirez, was plucked out of the police academy specifically for the drug operation because of his youthful appearance. The real-life drama resembles the plot line of the "21 Jump Street" television show -- and now movie -- about undercover officers who infiltrated high schools. 

"He was very clearly a good choice for this," Groom said Friday. "He looks like he’s 15 years old. He still has braces on."

The city had been considering an undercover operation "for a while" after receiving complaints from residents about drugs on campus. Groom said the officer enrolled as a student, and only the district superintendent, school principal and one counselor were made aware of his identity. On the city side,  only two members of law enforcement and Groom knew about the operation.

The officer began work for the Exeter Police Department when school began in the fall, but appeared in uniform for the first time Wednesday when the dozen arrests were made. Groom said city authorities had to select someone from outside the 10,000-person town of Exeter to ensure no one knew the officer’s identity. They settled on a young man out of neighboring Visalia.

"We knew the only way to practically do it was to get someone in there and break it apart," Groom told The Times. "He will face some interesting situations when he runs into some friends from school."

The officer told students that he had been expelled from a neighboring school district and that he had to leave campus at lunch every day to help his uncle run a business. The officer would leave campus around noon and indeed report to work –- at the narcotics lab.

"He was going to work, and working on homework," Groom said with a laugh. "We limited his activities. Part of the reason we had him leave at noon was so that he would not get involved with the lunch activities or get a ride from someone else."

The officer got surprised looks from students when he and a group of authorities made the arrests Wednesday. Groom said the officer was able to make purchases within the first weeks of school, but his cover was almost blown on the first day of school when a teacher, who had no knowledge of the situation, pointed to the new kid and joked that the class had "an undercover narc officer" in the room.

Groom said the officer played along, and randomly pointed to another student in the class. No one suspected the officer until he arrived back on campus, in uniform, Wednesday.

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-- Matt Stevens

Twitter.com/mattstevenslat

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