MOUNDSVILLE - What started as a tip from a observant postmaster turned into the successful federal prosecution of a drug ring spanning from Moundsville to California.
The Marshall County Prosecutor's Office and the Marshall County Drug Task Force were recently recognized by the U.S. Department Department of Justice Drug Enforcement Administration in a letter for using a rare wiretap order to follow the activities of a five-person drug ring charged with dealing over $17,000 worth of oxycodone a month.
According to Marshall County Prosecutor Jeff Cramer, the wiretap warrant was the first one issued in West Virginia in 23 years.
"Since the West Virginia State Police Superintendent is required to authorize all state wiretap applications, that's where we learned that no one had applied for a state wiretap in over 20 years," Cramer said. "My best guess as to why is the cost of a proper wiretap operation."
Although Cramer said he knew there was a chance the suspects would never be prosecuted, the time and cost in obtaining permission to tap were well worth the risk. The task force had been investigating the ring since 2011 after a postmaster informed them the suspect were receiving suspicious packages. Officials estimated those packages contained about 500 oxycontin pills being sent to Moundsville every month.
"When the DTF approached me with the idea of a wiretap and the possibility of being able to prosecute the source of the packages, I didn't hesitate," Cramer said. "I have every confidence in those guys and if they said it would help, I was in."
Cramer and State Police Sgt. Brian L. Allen made several trips to Monongalia County to present an application and 25-page affidavit detailing the investigative efforts of the task force and the necessity of a wiretap to proceed further.
In February 2013, Cramer and Allen were able to secure a warrant to tap from Monongalia Judge Russell Clawges, one of only five judges in the state authorized to consider a wiretap application.
The operation was funded by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, who provided the necessary equipment. The High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Program was used for the overtime necessary to man the wire equipment. The task force paid for additional expenses.
Officers from law enforcement agencies across the Northern Panhandle spent 13 hours a day for 35 consecutive days to listen into the phone calls of the drug ring members.
"Once DTF was up on the wire, it's value quickly became apparent," Cramer said. "They were able to ascertain not only where the drugs were coming from, but also when they would be arriving in Moundsville and to who they were being distributed once they arrived."
As a result, the U.S. Attorney's Office sentenced Moundsville residents Rocci Wade and Roque Garcia to 97 months and 18 months in prison, respectively. The sentences of Julia Joseph of Van Nuys, Calif. and Moundsville residents Diane Savage and Alisha Letts are pending.
In addition, $41,000 worth of money and assets were forfeited to the task force, with $50,000 in forfeitures pending.
"The case was like a well-run relay race begun by the postmaster's tip, carried forward by the Marshall County Prosecutor's Office and the Marshall County DTF," Cramer said. "When the U.S. Attorney's Office crossed the finish line, we all won."