Man in anti-drug ad charged in pot bust
HUNTINGTON -- A labor organization's voice for a drug-free work force found himself behind bars this week charged with cultivating a massive marijuana grow.
Wendell Aaron Searls, 56, was accused Wednesday, Sept. 9, of cultivating marijuana and possessing the drug with an intent to deliver, both felonies. He was jailed about 10 p.m. on a $52,000 bond.
Criminal complaints state Searls admitted to having the marijuana grow in his attic, which Huntington Police Sgt. Darrell Booth called a "marijuana factory." It included more than 100 plants and sophisticated tools needed to grow the crop indoors.
Searls appears in commercials as a hard-hat-wearing worker for the Affiliated Construction Trades Foundation. The commercial lists him as a member of Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 521. It has appeared on television and YouTube to promote the organization's drug-free message.
"Nobody wants to work next to anybody whose judgment is impaired by drugs or alcohol," Searls says in the commercial. "We don't just talk a drug-free work force. We do something about it. The union work force is a drug-free work force."
Steve White, director of the ACT, said his organization was shocked and disappointed. Those associated with the commercial were unaware of Searls' suspected behavior. He called the allegations unfortunate and embarrassing.
"Were we fooled? Apparently so," White said. "This instance, while it might be tragic and ironic, it is exactly what we are trying to prevent -- people who use illegal drugs being in the workplace."
The commercial belongs to a rotation of television advertisements. It was not airing this week, and White vowed it would be taken out of the rotation.
Wednesday's arrest followed a routine traffic stop and execution of a search warrant, both separated by approximately eight blocks along 8th Avenue. The complaints state authorities found more than 100 marijuana plants, or approximately three pounds, in Searls' attic at 2128 8th Ave. They also found a storage area used to dry the finished product and grow lights, along with heating and cooling devices to manufacture the drug.
Booth described the 8th Avenue discovery as "a highly sophisticated, efficient, well thought out marijuana production facility." He said officers later found more marijuana and documentation evidence at 17 Morgan Court in Hurricane, W.Va. The investigation, which could result in federal charges, continued Thursday.
"It was a level of sophistication we have not seen before," Booth said of the 8th Avenue site. "It was designed around a continuous production of high-quality marijuana."
Booth said investigators had received community complaints about activity at 8th Avenue residence. However, their intelligence had not progressed far enough to obtain a search warrant until Wednesday's traffic stop. He said a K-9 patrol officer stopped Searls' van for speeding and a defective tail light.
The criminal complaints state the patrolman stopped Searls' van in the 1300 block of 8th Avenue. He found three marijuana cigarettes and a .25 caliber pistol. Searls notified the patrolman he had a pistol stored in the vehicle.
Authorities then searched the 8th Avenue residence. It contained food and bedding, but Booth said its condition did not suggest it being a permanent residence. Those developments led investigators to the house at Morgan Court in Putnam County, where Booth said Searls lived with his fiancee.
Investigators confiscated a small amount of marijuana and documentation evidence. Booth declined comment when asked about specifics, but confirmed the documents were electronic and paper. He said the marijuana in Hurricane included plants and prepared joints. He said it was consistent with marijuana confiscated at 8th Avenue.
Searls talks in the commercial about the toll an accident can take financially and to one's family.
"I love my family and coming home safely to them every night is the most important thing in my life. The cost of providing a drug-free work force is nothing when you compare it to the cost of a lost-time accident," he says.
White said the arrest shows how serious and pervasive drug abuse is in the community. He said its a reality for all workplaces, especially in construction. His unions combat it with testing.
The ACT does not initiate or administer drug tests, but supports such programs. Many programs include pre-employment, cause, random and post-accident testing. White contends drug testing standards in the construction trades surpass that of some government agencies, whose test do not detect prescription drugs and opiates.
White was unsure as to how Searls may have slipped through routine drug testing. Court documents do not directly accuse Searls of abusing the marijuana that he possessed.
"It's not a paper policy," White said. "We believe it is a pretty vigorous policy, but people are ingenious at finding ways to defeat these tests."
The ACT also has supported legislation at the state level to ban some products marketed to defraud drug tests, White said.
The Huntington Police Department and the FBI's Huntington Violent Crime Drug Task Force participated in the investigation with the West Virginia State Police, the Putnam County Prosecutor's Office and the Putnam County Sheriff's Office.
Booth praised Putnam County officials for providing significant assistance. He also said the arrest was another example of the Huntington Police Department's counter-drug offensive enacted by Chief Skip Holbrook.