NEW CUMBERLAND - Pointing to a correlation between drug abuse and property crimes, state and federal authorities arrested 22 individuals Thursday morning and were looking for 17 others who allegedly trafficked in heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, oxycodone and marijuana in northern Hancock County.
A total of 39 people face charges in federal or state court as a result of the investigation into illegal drug trafficking in the Newell and Chester areas, which officials close to the probe characterized as a "significant" network.
The probe began in September and involved "extensive surveillance and many controlled purchases of narcotics," U.S. Attorney William Ihlenfeld II said at an afternoon press conferencing announcing the crackdown.
Ihlenfeld said the investigation and subsequent arrests dealt "a major blow" to the drug activity that has plagued northern Hancock County, and credited interagency cooperation for the success of the operation. The sweep was spearheaded by the Hancock-Brooke-Weirton Drug Task Force with support from the Ohio Valley Drug Task Force of Wheeling, Marshall County Drug Task Force, the Mountaineer Highway Interdiction Team, the Greater Harrison County Drug Task Force and U.S. Marshals.
"The biggest problem in this area is heroin, we're seeing more people overdosing and dying," said Ihlenfeld, adding the number of teens and young adults overdosing is "shocking."
Hancock County Prosecutor Jim Davis said the problems aren't all home grown- of the 39 people facing charges as a result of the probe, nine are from Ohio and six are from Pennsylvania. The other 24 are residents of Chester, Newell, New Cumberland, Weirton and Colliers.
"We've always had drug issues, but it's gotten much worse over the last decade," Davis said. "A lot of people are dying. The problem is we have Pennsylvania on one border, Ohio on the other ... these aren't exactly home-grown people."
Davis said the arrests put a dent in the drug distribution network, "but I'm not naive enough to think this ends our problem."
Sheriff Ralph Fletcher, who has made drug enforcement a priority since taking office in January, said there's a reason property crimes have increased as drug abuse has spiked.
"All the breakings and enterings, all the people stealing copper throughout the Newell and Chester areas, it's directly related to drugs," Fletcher said. "It's all related to people looking to get enough money to make their next buy. I don't have exact numbers, but I'd bet you 90 percent of all the different property crimes can be traced back to some type of drug problem, some addiction ... drug addicts start out stealing from their families, but end up branching out."
Fletcher said the arrests will cut into drug activity in the community, "but there's still a long way to go."
"The fact of the matter is there's a lot more problems out there," he said, adding voters he talked to when he went door to door during his campaign made it clear they were concerned with drug abuse and vexed by the increase in break-ins and thefts. "I can't tell you how many people reached out. Everybody had a story, everybody had a very intense, very strong desire to get something done."
Capt. Tim Bledsoe of the West Virginia State Police-Bureau of Criminal Investigations, called it a "great day for Hancock County," while State Police Capt. James Merrill pointed out there's "an epidemic in West Virginia when it comes to drugs" and said the statistics, if anything, "are under-inflated, not over-inflated."
Also participating in the press conference were Scott Masumoto, Drug Enforcement Agency assistant special agent in charge, and Albert J. Galietti, DEA resident agent in charge/West Virginia.