In the last month, nearly 60 individuals have been charged by county, state and federal law enforcement officials during two separate WNC drug busts.
“We hope it sends a message that we are going to keep investigating drug sells,” said Ben Reed, chief of the Cherokee Police Department. The department was part of both multi-agency investigations.
The first drug bust focused on methamphetamine dealers from Macon County, while the second helped clean up Cherokee by taking out an oxycodone ring. Indictments for both were announced within days of each other.
On May 30, the U.S. Department of Justice charged 19 people in connection with the methamphetamine trafficking ring. The majority of those arrested were from Franklin, with others hailing from Canton, Bryson City, Cullowhee, Robbinsville and Clayton, Ga.
According to the indictment, each knowingly conspired to possess and distribute more than 50 grams of actual methamphetamine or more than 500 grams of a mixture or substance containing a detectable amount of methamphetamine, which has a street value of $100. All 19 defendants face a minimum prison term of 10 years, a maximum term of life imprisonment and a $10 million fine.
On the heels of that bust, 39 people were charged on June 4 with trafficking oxycodone — a two-year effort on the part of law enforcement.
“With these last arrests, with that many people involved in that same prescription pill drug case, it will definitely make a dent (in the drug trade),” Reed said.
Most of the individuals arrested in the oxycodone bust were from Cherokee.
In a news release sent out following the indictments, Reed vowed to continue similar investigations into drug trafficking.
“We go to work everyday and see the impact illegal drug use and sales is having on our community, and it’s sad,” Reed said in the release. “What we have done here, and what we will continue to do, is identify the drug dealer, the drug buyer, the drug user, and every person associated with them and go after all of them, no matter what jurisdiction or state they are in.”
Although such investigations take months or even years, they are worth it in the end, he said.
Once all was said and done, a federal grand jury indicted seven of the 39 on federal charges including one count of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute controlled substances, including oxycodone, cocaine, marijuana and alprazolam. Two of the seven have additional drug-related charges. Each federal drug offense carries a maximum prison term of 20 years, a $1 million fine, or both.
The remaining 32 face tribal or state drug charges.
Officials from the Drug Enforcement Administration, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the N.C. State Bureau of Investigation, the Cherokee Indian Police Department, and the sheriff’s offices in Macon, Jackson and Swain counties took part in both the methamphetamine and oxycodone busts.
The methamphetamine operation also included the Franklin Police Department, and Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Haywood County and the Graham County sheriff offices helped with the oxycodone bust.
Each agency was able to help the other, which allowed them to facilitate the large, regional drug busts.
“That is a key to being successful,” said Lt. Charles Moody with the Macon County Sheriff’s Office. “Very rarely do you have someone breaking the law in just one jurisdiction.”
The different agencies had to rely on each other to work to gather information. Unlike big cities, police in rural areas struggle to conduct standard undercover operations, which typically involve a confidential informant introducing an officer as a trusted buyer, because of the close-knit social networks.
“When you get in these smaller communities, it is really hard to do traditional undercover,” said Moody. It’s “almost an impossibility.”
What law enforcement hopes for is that a dealer will sell to someone who will turn him or her in.
“We are going to take advantage of that when it happens,” Moody said.