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Citizen-Warrior: Ohio Air Guard member fights drug suppliers

Staff Sgt. Alicia Stayonovich, a criminal analyst for the Ohio Counterdrug Task Force, tracks drug trafficking patterns as part of her work with Homeland Security Investigations, an arm of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, in Cincinnati. Stayonovich, who provides real-time intelligence and analysis for HSI agents in the field, takes a personal interest in helping remove drugs from the street as her brother died of a heroin overdose in 2015.

Staff Sgt. Alicia Stayonovich, a criminal analyst for the Ohio Counterdrug Task Force, tracks drug trafficking patterns as part of her work with Homeland Security Investigations, an arm of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, in Cincinnati. Stayonovich, who provides real-time intelligence and analysis for HSI agents in the field, takes a personal interest in helping remove drugs from the street as her brother died of a heroin overdose in 2015.

Alicia Stayonovich smiles for a photo with her brother, Travis Sparrow, in their parents’ home in Wapakoneta, Ohio. Now a staff sergeant in the Ohio Air National Guard, Stoyanovich works as a criminal analyst for the Ohio Counterdrug Task Force, a job she takes personally as her brother fought drug addiction for several years before ultimately suffering a fatal heroin overdose in 2015.

Alicia Stayonovich smiles for a photo with her brother, Travis Sparrow, in their parents’ home in Wapakoneta, Ohio. Now a staff sergeant in the Ohio Air National Guard, Stoyanovich works as a criminal analyst for the Ohio Counterdrug Task Force, a job she takes personally as her brother fought drug addiction for several years before ultimately suffering a fatal heroin overdose in 2015.

CINCINNATI, Ohio - Two men in an unmarked black sports utility vehicle sat idle, engine off, in a parking garage. They had been there long enough that their coffee had cooled from near boiling to room temperature. Traffic was brisk, but they gave it only a cursory glance. They were staring through tinted windows, focused on the occupants of a sedan one aisle over.

The crackle of the hand-held radio broke the monotony: "It's them, we've got a match."

Across town in an unassuming office building, Air Force Staff Sgt. Alicia Stayonovich, a criminal analyst with the Ohio National Guard's Counterdrug Task Force, put down her handset and sank back in her chair with a sigh. The work with the task force has always been rewarding, said Stayonovich, but sometimes it can be mentally exhausting.

As part of the counterdrug task force, she uses her training to assist law enforcement at the local, state and federal levels to fight drug trafficking by providing real-time intelligence and analysis for law enforcement agents in the field. She also identifies key information from observations and field reports, which enables agents to respond to events as they happen, with the best information available.

In her traditional National Guard role, Stayonovich spends her drill weekends poring over maps and geospatial reports as an operations intelligence analyst with the 178th Wing in Springfield, Ohio.

"They are on the move," the radio chirps, as Stayonovich continues scanning through files critical to the operation. "Units are following."

Stayonovich's role is to keep the information flowing. Her fingers fly over the keys of her computer, searching myriad law enforcement databases for red flags. Border crossings, prior arrests and lists of aliases all scroll down the screen. In a database of vehicles, one selection is highlighted. The vehicle is on a list of cars with a known "trap," a hidden compartment, typically used to smuggle illegal substances or weapons.

After passing on to agents the information about the potential hiding place in the vehicle her eyes drift, as they so often do, to the picture directly next to her computer. The frame holds a photo of her brother, Travis, who died from a drug overdose in 2015.

"I got the worst phone call you can ever imagine." Stayonvich said. "It changed my whole entire world."

Travis had used drugs for most of his adult life, and opioids were his drug of choice. His lifelong struggle with addiction is the driving force behind her desire to work in law enforcement.

"When I was hired on to work with counterdrug, he was still with us and not using." Stayonovich remembers. "When I interviewed, I was honest and told them. I said ‘It's a passion of mine.'"

Six months after Stayonovich started with the task force, her brother had a relapse. Three days later, he was found in a local hotel room, dead from an overdose.

"I woke up to my phone ringing," Stayonovich said. "I ignored it, but it rang again. It was my dad. I called work, because obviously I wasn't coming in that day."

Within two hours, a coworker was at her apartment with a bag of groceries and Lt. Col. Alexander Alston, the coordinator for the task force, was on the phone, telling her to take all the time she needed. At the funeral, members from both the 178th Wing and the task force were there, not just for Stayonovich, but also for her family. Airmen from the 178th Wing also raised money to help pay for funeral expenses.

Stayonovich wants people to remember her brother for the person she knew, a good man.

"He had a great heart," she said. "Everyone loved him."

While a 10-year age gap separated the siblings, they were extremely close.

"He was so proud of my service. At his funeral, everyone came up and told me how proud he was."

After his death, his family found journals stretching back more than 20 years, the day-to-day thoughts of a brother, son and father — vivid views that ventured from Travis' desire to get clean to his struggle with addiction and all the thoughts in between.

"What on Earth would possess a person to continue using any drug after that first throwing-up experience most people have on heroin," Travis wrote. "Who's honestly willing to throw their whole life away assuming you don't wind up dead? It's a pretty sad existence."

He wrote of the pain he knew he was causing his family and how he hated himself for his weaknesses, but that he wanted to be regain their trust and that of his community. Stayonovich said she channels those thoughts into her work.

"One of the biggest things I would like to see, is for people to realize not all addicts are low-lives." Stayonovich said. "It's a constant battle, if we don't get them the resources to quit, they aren't going to change. There is no typical addict."

The chirp of the radio breaks Stayonovich's train of thought. "We got it. Looks good."

Found in the vehicle was almost a half-million dollars worth of cocaine, a sizable bust.

"That's all I want, is for it to not be available for people to use," Stayonovich said. "I don't want what happened to me and my family to happen to anyone else. I want to be a part of the fight against addiction and getting drugs off the street."

In 2017, the counterdrug task force supported law enforcement operations that resulted in more than 14,000 pounds of drugs seized, valued at more than $50 million dollars.

Stayonovich knows it isn't the end of the drug war, but it's a victory and progress. Travis would be proud, she said.

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