Massive Drug Sweep Nets 100 Indictments in Columbiana County

EAST LIVERPOOL — As daylight broke Tuesday, before the fog had lifted from the Ohio River, they began gathering in the parking lot of the American Legion post in East Liverpool: Law enforcement officers ready to round up almost 100 suspects in a drug trafficking ring in the largest such operation ever undertaken in Columbiana County.

Members of the Columbiana County Drug Task Force, Special Response Team, U.S. Marshals Service, East Liverpool Police Department, Liverpool Township Police Department and the sheriff’s departments in Columbiana and Hancock counties joined forces with Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine in “Operation Big Oak,” resulting in 756 charges filed against about 100 suspects.

Starting Monday, officers began serving arrest warrants in the Big Oak operation — short for Breaking Into Gangs/Opiate Addiction Knockdown — and on Tuesday morning, officers began bringing the suspects into the Legion post where they sat, handcuffed and shackled, waiting for transport to the county jail.

According to DeWine, “The amount of fentanyl and carfentanil that this drug trafficking organization allegedly put on the streets was enough to kill every single person in Columbiana County, plus every man, woman and child in 11 nearby counties.”

He alleged that 1.4 million “potentially fatal doses” of these drugs have been brought into Columbiana County as a result of this drug trafficking ring since 2014.

The attorney general related how East Liverpool Patrolman Chris Green — who was among those officers on the street bringing in suspects in this roundup — nearly died after coming into contact with a small amount of fentanyl during a traffic stop, saying, “This is how dangerous these drugs are, and that is why those charged as part of this investigation must be held accountable.”

It was reported during a press conference with DeWine that the two men involved in that traffic stop which resulted in Green’s overdose have been charged with felony assault as part of this investigation.

The drug trafficking ring is believed to have operated primarily between Cuyahoga and Columbiana counties since 2014, with DeWine saying, “We believe the vast majority of these drugs came in from the Cleveland area.”

Among those targeted during the round-up were four people called “ringleaders” by investigators: Allen Jackson, 25; Anthony Jackson, 30; and Tremaine Jackson, 28, all of Cleveland; and Jermaine Jackson, 46, Garfield Heights.

Two of the four, Tremaine and Jermaine Jackson, were in custody as of Tuesday’s operation. Officials said they believe three of the Cuyahoga County men operated the drug ring as part of the “Down the Way” criminal street gang.

These four, they said, allegedly sold the drugs to dozens of mid-level traffickers who then sold the product across Columbiana County.

DeWine commended the drug task force and other officers for their efforts, saying, “These officers are literally risking their lives to get these drugs off the street.”

Last week, the attorney general outlined a 12-point plan for addressing the opioid issue, among which was holding drug companies responsible for what he said Tuesday was misleading the public, saying he believes the vast majority of illicit drug users actually started by taking prescription painkillers.

He said the hope is ultimately to get help for these people, and, in addition to about 70 law enforcement officers on hand Tuesday, there were two people offering that help, one from Family Care Ministries and one from Family Recovery Center, who spoke with many of the suspects about possible rehab issues as they waited transport to the county jail.

Lt. Brian McLaughlin, drug task force director, said Operation Big Oak was the largest such investigation undertaken in Coumbiana County.

“Columbiana County has never seen a case of this magnitude. Even though we are here in East Liverpool, it has affected every part of the county,” McLaughlin said, adding the alleged drug trafficking suspects “knew no boundaries” and “went where the money was.”

Noting he has been the drug task force director for 11 years, McLaughlin said, “I have never had a group of agents like I did for this case.”

He gave much of the credit for the success of Operation Big Oak to former task force agent Michael Harty, who recently died, saying, “He was an absolute machine. He was a godsend.”

Agreeing with the attorney general, McLaughlin said education and rehab are needed, noting the presence of two counseling agencies at yesterday’s operation and saying, “If we can get a handle on education and rehabilitation, it will make the drug task force’s job easier.”

Columbiana County Prosecutor Bob Herron said the case was heavily dependent upon wire taps, as well as undercover buys and informant activity, saying wire taps are “manpower-intensive.”

Herron thanked DeWine for the considerable resources provided for not just this case but others that he said “got us where we are today.”

Also speaking at the press conference was Columbiana County Commissioner Mike Halleck, who said, “There are many heroes in this room today. I’m so darned proud of you guys,” thanking Sheriff Ray Stone and Prosecutor Bob Herron for all they have done to make it possible to fund the drug task force.

“It takes money, and it takes time. Hopefully, we can have a generation in the future who doesn’t have to go through this,” Halleck said.