Trafficking indictments, convictions on rise in county

The number of defendants indicted in Muskingum County on drug trafficking charges has nearly doubled in 2015 from a year prior, according to numbers provided by the prosecutor's office.

Grand juries indicted 48 defendants on trafficking charges this year, compared with 25 in 2014 and 10 in 2013, according to county statistics. The number of defendants appearing in common pleas court on drug-related felony indictments, including possession charges, has steadily increased as far back as 2011, those numbers show.

Indictments with a drug possession charge saw a slight drop-off from 2014 — 82 in 2015 compared to 103 in 2014.

"Obviously, we have an epidemic going on," Muskingum County Prosecutor Mike Haddox said.

Investigators see it on the streets of Zanesville, where low-level dealers sell $10 crack rocks to fund their own drug habits, Haddox said. And investigators see it in the high-level traffickers, who operate sophisticated operations throughout the county, efficiently pumping heroin, methamphetamine and other deadly drugs onto the streets, Haddox said.

As the problem worsens, the city becomes hampered with drug addicts and organized crime. Many turn to other crimes like burglary and theft to fuel their addiction.

"I've got to think 75 percent or 85 percent of our crime is fueled by drugs," Haddox said. "It really is behind a significant portion of our crime."

Police could arrest dozens of low-level dealers a day, Haddox said, but "you're not going to slow down the drug trafficking with that sort of game plan." So authorities instead have turned their attention to the top of the order, targeting those dealers whose networks are difficult to penetrate.

"We want an emphasis on targeting the major drug offenders," Haddox said. "I think we've been very successful in doing that."

It involves collaboration between Haddox's office and law enforcement agencies across the county. The Zanesville Police Department and Muskingum County Sheriff's have a joint drug unit. Those two agencies are also part of the Central Ohio Drug Enforcement Task Force.

To build a case against the dealers, authorities often employ confidential informants to make undercover drug buys from the targets. It's a difficult strategy, as high-level dealers only sell to those they know and trust.

Traffickers like Darren M. Reese, who was convicted in September on multiple drug-related felonies, employ strategies called "layering" to protect his operation, according to the prosecutor's office.

Under the ploy, Reese obtained his illegal drugs in large quantities from a regional supplier and distributed it to street-level dealers, according to a sentencing memorandum filed against him. The effect was to protect the higher-ranking dealers from arrest as the product moved down the food chain while ensuring an “extremely lucrative illegal business” for Reese.

But despite that, agents with CODE developed a confidential informant to build a case against Reese. And in July, he and six others were taken into custody during a massive raid  at two homes in which $120,000 in illegal drugs were taken off the streets.

All have been sentenced in common pleas court before going to trial.

According to numbers from the prosecutor's office, a total of 148 defendants were convicted on possession and trafficking charges in 2015, compared with 90 the previous year.

Of those, 93 received prison sentences in 2015.

Throughout 2015, sentencing memorandums filed through Haddox's office against alleged traffickers notes that many balance the profits they gain against the punishment they face and conclude that it's worth it. To combat that calculation, prosecutors have argued for maximum prison sentences in drug trafficking cases.

"We want drug dealers to know that if they're trafficking drugs in Muskingum County, they're going to receive long, harsh sentences," Haddox said. "We are striving to make Muskingum County as inhospitable to drug dealers as we can."

It's had an impact, Haddox said: Convicted dealers, as well as dealers under investigation, are talking about the prison terms they're facing. And even dealers outside the county are hearing about it, Haddox said.

"We work as hard as we can and we do as much as we can in fighting this thing," Haddox said. "We're trying to make a difference and we're never going to quit trying."

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