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Heroin roundup nets 19 arrests

Aug. 07, 2008 @ 12:06 AM

HUNTINGTON -- Police credit 19 arrests to a drug conspiracy investigation spurred by a series of fatal heroin overdoses last year, Huntington Police Chief Skip Holbrook said Wednesday.

Local, state and federal authorities arrested five suspects Wednesday and charged them with felony conspiracy to distribute heroin as part of the investigation, dubbed Operation Black Tar, Holbrook said during a news conference.

"We're using federal conspiracy laws to the nth degree to combat a local problem," he said. "It will not eliminate heroin use, but it is going to eliminate a particular supply of heroin here. We're not naive enough to think people will not find other connections, but we also think it will have a dent on how widespread it is distributed."

Wednesday's arrests bring the total number of arrests in the operation to 19 since September 2007. Police are still searching for four suspects, including the person Holbrook identified as the leader of the organization, which brought the heroin through Mexico to Columbus, Ohio, and into Huntington. Police are looking for Jose Hernandez Salazar, 23, who is believed to be in the Columbus area.

The investigation targeted 24 suspects, 19 of whom have been arrested and one who died while in custody last month.

Three of the arrests made before Wednesday include Jose Medina, 23, of Mexico, and Emery Williams, 40, and Robert Melrose, 33, of Columbus. Holbrook identified Medina as Salazar's second in command as well as Williams and Melrose as the organization's main conduits for heroin in Huntington. The Medina and Melrose indictment charges they conspired to distribute at least 100 grams of heroin in or near Huntington between 2003 and June 13, 2008.

The arrests also include Michelle Georgette Byars, 33, of Huntington, who was charged last month with distributing heroin that led to the death of her ex-husband, Patrick L. Byars. He died Sept. 23, 2007, at his residence.

Holbrook said Byars' death and others like it spurred an immediate investigation. His department reached out to other agencies, including the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Huntington Violent Crime Drug Task Force, West Virginia State Police, Cabell County Sheriff's Department and the U.S. Attorney's Office. They strategized and developed a plan.

He believes the investigation will eliminate one supply of heroin and charge more people with causing last year's string of deaths.

With about four heroin-related deaths between 2001 and 2006, the police chief said the 14 heroin-related deaths between 2007 and 2008 were "like a light switch" that alerted local authorities to the heroin epidemic. Holbrook attributed the heroin overdoses to large amounts of pure heroin in the mixes.

Typically, Holbrook said, pure heroin content ranged from 15 to 20 percent in Huntington. The lethal doses contained between 60 and 75 percent pure heroin.

Arrests from the investigation include:

Wednesday's roundup spurred the unsealing of four indictments charging 12 suspects in U.S. District Court. Those named are: Donna Allen, 42, Huntington was charged with distributing heroin twice during January 2007; Jackeline Ellis, 37, Huntington was charged with aiding and abetting the distribution of heroin twice; Donald Elba Hale, 48, Huntington and was charged with conspiracy to distribute heroin in Huntington between October 2007 and Dec. 15, 2007; Devon Keith Hale, 23, Huntington was charged with distributing heroin on Dec. 15; Wendy Lynn Keller, 40, of Barboursville, Brandon Matthew Williams, 30, of Huntington, and Brittany Heinrich of Detroit were charged with conspiring to distribute heroin in Huntington between July 2006 and March 3, 2007. Keller and Williams also were charged with distributing heroin on separate occasions.

A five-count, July 30 indictment charged Victor Hardaway, 40, of Detroit; William Caudill, 25, of Huntington; Brian Freeman; Rodney Johnson, 43, Huntington; and Kim LaGrande, 34, Huntington with conspiring to distribute heroin in Huntington between September 2005 and Feb. 20, 2008.

The same indictment charged Freeman with aiding and abetting LaGrande in distributing heroin June 19, 2006. Caudill, Hardaway and Johnson were charged with distributing heroin on separate occasions and were targets of the investigation, Holbrook said.

Preliminary charges were filed against LaGrande and Johnson in early July. Both were arrested at that time.

Freeman was not part of this investigation.

Holbrook said much of the diligent work happened in the shadows, away from public view. Doing so protected the integrity of the investigation, while some people may have questioned the investigators' efforts.

"We don't call people and say 'Hey, we're doing this case,'" he said. "We don't want to alert the bad guys, and we don't want to talk about something prematurely."

The intelligence tracking and special operations received a significant boost from the Appalachia High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area. The group disburses federal money to fund drug investigations. Holbrook would not release the group's total contribution, but said it was significant and appreciated.

"They have committed resources to us that is probably a little bit outside of their normal scope, and we recognize that," he said. "They're getting a quality investigation. It's bearing good fruit for them, but we couldn't have achieved what we did without them."

Holbrook said Wednesday's roundup was aimed at concluding the first phase of the investigation. Subsequent arrests could follow with cooperation from their targeted suspects.

Other names charged with heroin crimes this year in federal court are: Michael Shane Watts, 38, of Wayne; Paul Edwin Dempsey, 30, Huntington; Tina Simmons, 33, of Huntington; Ambrea Virginia Ragland, 23, of Huntington; Joseph E. Myers, 22, Columbus, Ohio; Tiffany Renee Horne, 21, Grove City, Ohio; and Michael G. McFarland, 51, of Huntington.

Watts, Dempsey, Myers and Horne also were targets in the investigation, Holbrook said.

Reporter Christian Alexandersen can be reached at calexandersen@herald-dispatch.com. Reporter Curtis Johnson can be reached at cujohnson@herald-dispatch.com.