Renacci visits to see how federal dollars fund RISS
One of the state's biggest psilocybin mushroom raids prompted local law enforcement officials to reach out to Ohio's congressional delegation to ask members to restore funding to the Regional Information Sharing System Program.
Congressman Jim Renacci, a Wadsworth Republican who represents the 16th District, which includes Wayne County, was one of two members who signed letters of support in restoring the funding.
Wayne County Sheriff Thomas G. Maurer, Wooster Police Chief Matt Fisher and Medway Drug Enforcement Agency Director Dave Smith invited Renacci to Wooster so he could see firsthand how the federal dollars used to fund RISS, which includes the Middle Atlantic Great Lakes Organized Crime Law Enforcement Network, helped to make the raid, and subsequent arrests and forfeitures of weapons, ammunition and cash, possible.
The cases against Brian K. Brown, 44, Bert D. Underwood, 57, Justin R. Graham, 27, Shannon M. Yeagley, 29, Ilene M. Bennett, 68, and Harry Bennett, 67, developed through a cooperative effort of the Sheriff's Office, Wooster Police Department and Medway, Maurer said.
Operation Shroom Hunt was a six-month investigation, from January-June 2011. Brown and Underwood each received a total of five years in prison, and Graham was sentenced to two years. Yeagley was ultimately charged with permitting drug abuse, and her case is still pending.
The Bennetts, Brown's mother and father-in-law, did not get any jail time. Their role was largely permitting Brown to cultivate the mushrooms in the home they shared. Ilene Bennett was sentenced to 50 hours of community service, and her driver's license was suspended for six months. Harry Bennett received a $500 fine and six-month license suspension.
The convictions likely would not have been possible without the assistance from MAGLOCLEN, Maurer and Smith said.
The regional agency provided money to make drug purchases and special surveillance equipment. But, that kind of help could be hampered in light of a reduction in federal funding.
The amount appropriated for RISS dropped from $45 million in fiscal year 2011 to $27 million in 2012, said Maurer, who serves on MAGLOCLEN's policy board.
"We can't let those funds dry up, sir," Maurer told Renacci. "They are essential to our well-being in the communities and our help in serving the public."
An undercover agent began buying aluminum foil cooking pans containing mushroom spores in soil for about $300, Smith said. A pan of the mushroom spores would cost between $300-$500, and Medway would have run out of money quickly if its funds were used for the purchases.
Smith also told Renacci that once the mushroom pans were taken back to the evidence room, they had to be cultivated. Not having experience with cultivating mushrooms, he called around to other task forces, but no one really knew what to do. The mushrooms were grown, cut and dried out before being sent to the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification & Investigation for analysis.
The original spores were purchased online out of Tennessee, and Smith told Renacci it was not an illegal transaction.
During the investigation, Medway agents learned the goal was to have about 200 pans going at a time, and the anticipated yield would have been around $1 million a year, Smith said.
It was all possible because of the confidential buy money and high-tech equipment from MAGLOCLEN, Smith said, noting the organization responded quickly to his request.
With the reduced funding, safety measures become compromised, Maurer said, which is why he appreciated Renacci's support.
"We wanted you to get a grassroots feel of what we do here," Maurer said. The equipment allocation, money and training from MAGLOCLEN is essential.
"It's always good when you get a final chapter like this," Renacci said, as he looked over some of the drugs and weapons seized in the raid.
While it was important to get the drugs off of the streets, Fisher said it was also important to make sure weapons did not get into the wrong hands.
"This is a great example of collaboration of all of us working together to meet a common end," Fisher said.
"We wanted you to know we needed those funds," Maurer said, adding it was essential to bring funds back to proper levels.
When Renacci served as mayor of Wadsworth, he knew the police were involved in a lot of things, but he never saw the final results, like he did with Operation Shroom Hunt.
"We never had this kind of case," Smith said.
"I'm glad this worked out," Renacci said. "It's good to see the money was used for an ultimate conclusion like this."
Reporter Bobby Warren can be reached at 330-287-1639 or firstname.lastname@example.org. He's @BobbyWarrenTDR on Twitter.