NEW CUMBERLAND, W.Va. - Local, state and federal authorities have broken up what they called a significant drug trafficking organization in Hancock County, making nearly two dozen arrests in dramatic fashion on Thursday morning.
Of the 39 people charged with drug-related crimes, 22 were arrested in a massive, concerted law enforcement sweep in Chester and Newell. Seventeen suspects were still at large last night.
Hancock County Sheriff Ralph Fletcher said the arrests will "make a dent" in both drug crimes and property crimes in northern Hancock County. "I think it's going to help out quite a bit in Newell and Chester, where we've had so many problems in the past," he said.
Newell residents, especially, have been complaining since last summer of an increase in home burglaries and other property crimes in the normally quiet community. In his campaign for sheriff, Fletcher, who was elected in November, tied the rise in property crime to drug activity.
In February, Newell residents aired their grievances with Fletcher in a well-attended meeting organized by the Newell Community Improvement Coalition.
The investigation leading to Thursday's arrests began in September and included extensive surveillance and many controlled purchases of narcotics, U.S. Attorney William J. Ihlenfeld II said.
Nineteen of the suspects were charged by a federal grand jury in Wheeling, which returned three separate indictments with a total of 94 counts related to the distribution of heroin, methamphetamine, powder cocaine, crack cocaine, marijuana and oxycodone in the Hancock County area.
"All of this was sold in Hancock County," said a member of the Hancock-Brooke-Weirton Drug Task Force who asked not to be identified.
The investigation was spearheaded by the Drug Task Force, with support from the Ohio Valley Drug Task Force of Wheeling, the Marshall County Drug Task Force, the Mountaineer Highway Interdiction Team, the Greater Harrison County Drug Task Force, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the U.S. Marshals Service.
"I'm very pleased with what we were able to do with the cooperation of all these agencies," Fletcher said. "It's a good day for Hancock County."
Of the 39 people charged, six are from Chester, 10 are from Newell, eight are from East Liverpool, one is from Wellsville, four are from New Cumberland, three are from Weirton, one is from Colliers, W.Va., two are from New Brighton, Pa., one is from Aliquippa, Pa., one is from Georgetown, Pa., and two are from McKees Rocks, Pa.
Hancock County Prosecutor Jim Davis said such a cooperative effort across jurisdictions was necessary in an area involving three states.
"Hancock County struggles with the fact that our boundaries to the north, east and west are the commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the state of Ohio," he said. "This makes the transport of controlled substances relatively easy from Pittsburgh, Youngstown, Columbus, Cleveland, Detroit and even the New Jersey area."
DEA Special Agent-in-Charge Karl C. Colder said Thursday's arrests "brought a significant heroin and crack cocaine trafficking organization, operating in Newell and Chester, to justice."
Hancock County authorities, some of whom were deputized by the DEA for the investigation, were able to shed light on the nature of the organization. The Drug Task Force source said, "A lot of them were family. A lot of them were drug friends."
Hancock County sheriff's Sgt. Bob Connors said, "This is the result of several different cases. There were several different groups that we were trying to infiltrate, investigate and dismantle. There were several different suborganizations-some of which were centered toward heroin and some toward crack."
The arrests, made in an early morning sweep starting around 8:30 a.m. Thursday, involved multiple police vehicles and a law enforcement presence significant enough to attract attention from motorists and onlookers.
"I didn't know we had that many cop cars in Hancock County," said Sue Thompson, treasurer of the Newell Community Improvement Coalition, which called February's meeting with Fletcher.
"I really think this has got to be positive for the community," Thompson said. "The more of these people we shut down, the better. I commend the sheriff for keeping his promises. We appreciate him sticking to his word."
Most of the arrests were made without incident, but two people tried to flee, the Drug Task Force source said. "Scott Lamb was apprehended after we found him trying to get a ride out of town. We got a tip from the public," he said.
Lamb, 30, of Chester, faces a state charge of delivery of a controlled substance.
During the sweep, additional quantities of illegal drugs were recovered, and more charges may be filed as a result of those discoveries. One man, Tony Wolfe, 39, of East Liverpool, had a "large quantity of suspected crack" on him at the time of his arrest, the source said.
Wolfe is charged with 11 felony counts related to the distribution of heroin, cocaine, cocaine base (crack), oxycodone and marijuana in Hancock County.
Another man, Antonyo W. Johnson, 26, of East Liverpool, had a "small quantity of powder cocaine" on him at the time of his arrest, the source said.
Those arrested on federal warrants were brought before a federal magistrate in Wheeling on Thursday afternoon. Those arrested on state warrants were brought before a Hancock County magistrate in New Cumberland.
Some of the defendants were released on a personal recognizance bond, while others were detained based on their criminal record and their risk of flight. Those who were detained are being held in the Northern Regional Jail in Moundsville.
Thursday's arrests come at a time of increasing concern on the part of Hancock County officials over the growing number of drug overdose deaths, especially from heroin, in the area.
In February, after the arrest of two Brooke County men for the death of a Follansbee man from a heroin overdose, Ihlenfeld said, "The Northern Panhandle has suffered the loss of an extraordinary number of people to drug overdose deaths over the past several years."
In a recent interview, Chester fire Chief John Hissam said drug overdose deaths in northern Hancock County are on the increase.
Last summer, then-Hancock County Sheriff Mike White was instrumental in getting Hancock County designated as a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) by the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy. Such a designation makes more money and manpower available to local law enforcement for drug investigations.
The Hancock-Brooke-Weirton Drug Task Force, which receives funding from the HIDTA program, comprises officers from the Hancock and Brooke County sheriff's departments, the Weirton Police Department, the Hancock and Brooke County prosecutor's offices, the West Virginia State Police and the DEA.
The task force focuses on locally-based mid- to upper-level drug trafficking organizations with local, multi-state or international operations, according to a recent West Virginia HIDTA update.