Drug activity targeted in Memorial Day blitz - Beckley, Bluefield & Lewisburg News, Weather, Sports

Drug activity targeted in Memorial Day blitz

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Upper Ohio Valley law enforcement officials say the 49 felony arrests and 82 citations issued in neighborhoods in and around Wheeling were more than just a good weekend’s work.

A four-day Memorial Day enforcement “blitz” by the MMountaineerHighway Interdiction Team targeted hotspots — areas with high drug activity — in Ohio County, including interstates and secondary roads as well as neighborhoods and even packages.

“We wanted to make sure if it was a hotspot, we put some extra pressure and drove them, with apologies to our neighbors, not just out of Wheeling and Ohio County, but out of West Virginia,” U.S. Attorney William Ihlenfeld II said. “We want to keep drug trafficking and other (illegal) activity to a minimum.”

MHIT is a multi-agency collaboration, with four full-time officers — two of them K-9 handlers — assigned to combat drug trafficking in the Northern Panhandle, often in partnership with the Ohio Valley Drug Task Force. While its focus is drug trafficking, the task force will assist in other investigations including kidnappings, bank robberies, carjackings and Amber alerts to interstate theft, firearms and explosive cases, human trafficking, immigration violations and fugitive apprehensions.

The team receives federal funding through the Appalachia High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area initiative.

Wheeling Police Chief Shawn Schwertfeger said the four-day enforcement blitz keyed on the South Wheeling, Wheeling Island, North Park and East Wheeling areas, as well as pockets in the Elm Grove section. In addition to the arrests and citations, MHIT also recovered prescription painkillers, psilocybin (mushrooms) and marijuana and executed outstanding warrants.

He said the weekend’s arrests have the potential to be game-changers.

“Initially (we’re looking) at state-level possession and state-level distribution,” Schwertfeger said. “But there is some intelligence-gathering during these (blitzes), and it can lead to bigger and better things, larger scale investigations. The extra police presence is also nice; it lets people know we’re hearing their concerns.

“It helps set the community at ease, let’s them know we’re listening and we care.”

West Virginia State Police Captain James Merrill said the enforcement blitzes are an effective deterrent.

“We don’t have the resources as one agency,” he said. “But when you start combining forces and sharing intelligence ... we’re helping people, listening to people, focusing on what they’re telling us. We’re being proactive instead of reactive.

“The more proactive you can be in these types of investigations, the more you can solve. When we’re being proactive, you can investigate, put your heads together and do what’s right for the community.”

He said it sends a message that “we don’t want drug dealers setting up shop here in this area or (anywhere) in West Virginia.”

“Working together, we can get a lot accomplished,” Ohio County Sheriff Pat Butler said. “Every agency in the valley works hand-in-hand. Any time you can get additional manpower out there, it’s a bonus for the citizens.”

Ihlenfeld said their goal is “to stop the flow of drugs into and through West Virginia.” He said they followed up on tips from concerned residents as well as leads developed by police.

“I-70 is where we spend a lot of our time,” he said. “It’s a major thoroughfare for drugs coming from Colorado to Maryland and all places in between, so we focus on it but we also do secondary roads and neighborhoods.”

Ihlenfeld said during the first four months of 2014, MHIT logged 53 felony arrests, 67 misdemeanor arrests and issued 54 misdemeanor citations. A total of 79 searches were conducted during that four-month period, including 45 by the K-9 units. Drugs valued at more than $62,000 were seized along with more than $113,000 in cash that has been or is expected to be forfeited.