Even prior to the indictment of 29 individuals associated with the sale of prescription pills and other drugs at the New Martinsville Villa apartments, the number of felony cases in Wetzel County was higher than in recent years.
According to Wetzel County Prosecutor Tim Haught, the county typically handles between 60 and 90 felony cases a year. However, in 2012, Haught's office already has handled more than 100 cases with three full months left to go.
Haught said the types of cases range from DUI to battery to drug cases, the number of which increased with this week's new indictments. The 29 individuals indicted in connection with the New Martinsville Villa case were in addition to several more unrelated cases brought before a special grand jury Wednesday in sealed indictments. That came after 25 additional individuals were indicted on 107 charges earlier in the month.
The drug cases, particularly those related to prescription pills, are "an epidemic," Haught said. He was quick to point out, though, that the problem is not unique to Wetzel County.
"The prescription pill problem is an epidemic in West Virginia and, really, in the United States," Haught said.
In addition to prescription pills, Haught said the use of heroin is also increasing in the county.
"A lot of them start out using pills but then need to move on to something bigger," he said, adding there is still a perception among a great number of people that prescription pill use is not a problem.
During Thursday's news conference, West Virginia State Police Troop 1 Commander Capt. James Merrill confirmed Haught's assessment of the problematic nature of prescription pills, pointing to a recently established "High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area" designation for counties in the Northern Panhandle.
"When it starts affecting communities as small as New Martinsville, that tells you there is a problem," Merrill said.
Haught and Merrill said the key to curbing the problem is being proactive from both the law enforcement and prosecution standpoints. Being proactive, however, requires a great deal of manpower and time, which Haught outlined Thursday.
Haught estimated that over the six months the New Martinsville Villa case has been investigated, nearly 1,000 man hours were focused just on that particular case. He said that did not include the time and effort of those in his office who prepared the files and worked closely with law enforcement during the process.
"That also doesn't include the amount of time for the arrests, which involved undercover agents, confidential informants or the grand jurors," he said.
However, as Merrill pointed out Thursday, the payoff for the hard work, though not always as quick as six months, is apparent.
"In six months, we were able to get 29 indictments from one related case," he said. "In such a short time in a small community, that is huge."