NEW MARTINSVILLE - While increasing truck traffic, crumbling roads and environmental concerns are more commonly heard complaints associated with natural gas drilling, authorities are searching for evidence of prostitution in Wetzel County.
Stressing that no formal complaints or criminal charges have been filed, Wetzel County Sheriff James Hoskins said his office has received several reports of prostitution from what he called "credible sources." He said confirming those reports and catching individuals in the act has been tough, but the writing is on the wall regarding the validity of the claims.
"This is an issue that has never been brought up until recently, and it is coming from several different people," he said. "We hope it doesn't turn into a bigger issue."
Hoskins said there appears to be a direct correlation between the time when the reports of prostitution began coming in and when oil and gas drilling activity related to the Marcellus Shale began to increase. He added reports indicate the activity has been occurring in bars and hotels near New Martinsville, which serves as the central hub of the county.
"Our office has an entire county to cover, so we try to be out in the county more often because of the lack of law enforcement there," he said, adding there does not appear to be a particular time or day when prostitution is occurring. "We can't be in town all the time, and that has made investigating the claims difficult."
Hoskins said that while the complaints tend to focus on individuals from outside the local area, that does not mean there are not local residents engaging in the acts. Though he declined to give details about possible investigations and operations, Hoskins said his department is working closely with the Wetzel County Prosecutor's Office to determine what deputies can and cannot do.
"We don't want to give anything away," he said. "We are taking these claims very seriously and determining what we are allowed to do with our resources."
According to West Virginia law, engaging in prostitution, on either side of the transaction, is a misdemeanor charge. A first offense carries a sentenced of 60 days to six months in jail and a $50 fine, while a second offense carries a sentence of six months to one year. A person believed to be benefiting from the earnings made through prostitution is also charged with a misdemeanor.
Wetzel County Prosecutor Tim Haught said although his office has not received any formal complaints of prostitution, he has discussed concerns about an increase in such criminal activity with Hoskins. He said neither he nor the sheriff believes there is a large prostitution ring in the county, but evidence suggests there are incidents occurring.
"We do suspect there may be prostitution happening," he said. "It doesn't appear to be a large ring operating, but it may be some prostitution from outside the area associated with oil and gas."
Haught said he has advised the sheriff of possible tactics for investigation, and in the meantime anyone with information about such activity should contact the sheriff's office.
"Certainly it is against the law, and any information relative to it should be reported," he said.
In addition to the misdemeanor charges, Haught said new West Virginia human trafficking laws could come into play in cases of prostitution, though he was unsure what possible sentences those laws would carry. The bill was passed by the state Legislature in March and signed by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin on Thursday.
Although it is a concern of authorities in Wetzel County, law enforcement officials in neighboring counties said they have not seen or heard of prostitution happening within their borders.
Marshall County Chief Deputy Sheriff Kevin Cecil said his office has not received any information regarding such incidents, and the subject has not been something on the department's radar.
"Our guys haven't said one word about anything like that," Cecil said.