WHEELING - Just as the Ohio Valley is emerging from a stretch of bitterly cold weather, it finds itself in the eye of another storm that is sweeping across the country - prescription pills and heroin.
Local drug task force arrests, guilty pleas and drug-related convictions in federal court have become commonplace during the past several months. U.S. Attorney William Ihlenfeld said the area's drug problem is growing.
"This is what we deal with on a daily basis in the Northern Panhandle and Northern District of West Virginia," Ihlenfeld said. "We have a prescription painkiller storm raining down on our region.'
File photo by Shelley Hanson
U.S. Attorney William Ihlenfeld, left, talks with Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Vogrin at the Federal Building in Wheeling.
On Jan. 23, news surfaced of Ritchie Elementary School counselor Kristyn Fetcko being arrested on federal drug charges after a Jan. 14 criminal complaint alleged that a confidential informant bought 10 oxycodone pills from Fetcko at her Webster Avenue home in Wheeling.
That case is linked to a much larger, 14-month investigation of prescription drug deals allegedly supplied by Brian Schultz, 37, of Triadelphia. Federal court documents allege Schultz supplied drug deals in Wheeling, St. Clairsville, Shadyside and Bellaire, and that he met with Michigan residents locally to receive shipments of pills.
In a separate case, on Friday, a federal jury in Wheeling convicted Rocci Wade, 59, of Moundsville on oxycodone-related charges as part of a five-person conspiracy that distributed painkillers between 2010 and 2013 in the Moundsville area.
In companion cases, Diane Savage, 49; Alisha Letts, 29; and Rocque Garcia, 54, all of Moundsville, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute oxycodone, along with Julia Joseph, 44, of Van Nuys, Calif.
Wade faces up to 40 years in prison while the others could each get 20 years.
Ihlenfeld said the drug cases have become business-as-usual for this region.
"Our region finds itself in the middle of a prescription painkiller and heroin-fueled storm that is moving west to east, from Mexico to Maryland and places in between," he said. "We are seeing a heavy volume of painkillers being trafficked in this area - and also an uptick in heroin."
Ihlenfeld said people are switching from prescription drugs to heroin because it is less expensive and provides the same effect.
He said local law enforcement is working with funds from the Appalachia High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, a federal funding source bringing hundreds of thousands of dollars into the region to fight against illegal drugs. As a member of the Drug Trafficking Area's board of directors, Ihlenfeld gets a good look at the entire region's drug problem.
"It gives me a broad perspective of problems we are facing," he said. "Through HIDTA funding, we can steer money for task force officers to work overtime, to pay for controlled buys by cooperating informants, to buy equipment and for training."
The area covered includes counties in West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee.
Brian Schultz allegedly supplied a number of drug transactions in the local area. A Jan. 16 criminal complaint filed against him traces deals Schultz allegedly supplied through his associates to several Ohio Valley locations, starting in October 2012 and running through Jan. 8, 2014. The investigation into Schultz includes work done by special agents, the Ohio Valley Drug Task Force, Belmont County Drug Task Force, Marshall County Drug Task Force and the U.S. Marshal's Service.
Following are highlights of the criminal complaint against Schultz. Agents used three cooperating informants during their investigations.
October 2012: an informant told task force officers that a person was distributing pain pills in the Northern District of West Virginia and Belmont County. The informant said that dealer was being supplied oxycodone by Schultz.
Also that month, an informant made a controlled buy of 20 oxycodone pills from the dealer in Bellaire, with officers observing the dealer traveling to a Shadyside residence to acquire the pills. The owner of the Shadyside home is a known associate of Schultz, according to officers. Another similar drug exchange took place in October 2012 in Bellaire, with the dealer again traveling to Shadyside to complete the deal.
November 2012: An informant bought five oxycodone pills from the same dealer at a residence in Wheeling. The dealer, being followed by task force officers, left the home, traveled to the Shadyside home and returned with drugs, according to the complaint.
January 2013: An informant bought five oxycodone pills from the dealer in Wheeling. Following the transaction, officers said they followed the dealer to the Shadyside residence. Also that month, an informant bought 15 oxycodone pills for $525 in Wheeling. After the transaction, officers followed the dealer to the Shadyside residence.
February 2013: Task force officers learned, through an informant, that the person who lived at the Shadyside residence was allegedly being supplied by "Worm," which officers said they knew to be a nickname of Schultz. The informant also told officers that Schultz allegedly was being supplied prescription pain pills by individuals out of Michigan.
April 2013: Officers followed Schultz to St. Clairsville, where he allegedly met with individuals in a vehicle rented out of Michigan. In a parking lot, Schultz entered the rear compartment of his car and then entered the passenger side of the white SUV rented out of Michigan. Schultz exited the SUV and left the area.
November 2013: Officers developed another confidential informant, who said he routinely bought oxycodone from the Shadyside residence. The informant told officers that the owner of the Shadyside home allegedly received her supply from Schultz. During a debrief of the informant, he said he has been buying about 200 oxycodone pills per week, which Schultz had supplied, from the Shadyside residence from June through November 2013.
January: After receiving information from an informant, officers said they witnessed Schultz visit the Webster Avenue, Wheeling, home of "KF." The informant said KF and another person at the residence were members of the group that Schultz supplied. (The initials and address implicate KF as Kristyn Fetcko, the Ritchie Elementary School counselor arrested last month for allegedly selling oxycodone).
Officers, on Jan. 8, watched Schultz enter the Webster Avenue home, leaving shortly thereafter. An informant that had initiated a drug transaction at the Webster Avenue home was contacted from the home 30 minutes after Schultz left saying that the drugs had been resupplied. The informant went to KF's residence where 15 oxycodone pills were purchased.
Schultz was released on bond shortly after his arrest last month by federal authorities. According to an Ohio County Sheriff's Department report, he stuck a box cutter blade into his chest two days following his release and then fought with a deputy attempting to assist him. He had been hospitalized, but his current condition is unclear.