518 in 34 counties to be charged in state's largest drug roundup

bestep@herald-leader.comOctober 30, 2009 

The largest drug roundup in state history continued Thursday as police aimed to cut the supply of pills flooding into Kentucky from other states. By mid-afternoon, officers had arrested more than 300 people in 34 counties.

Police obtained warrants for 518 people, so more arrests are coming. Most are from Eastern Kentucky and face state charges of selling drugs, but 36 are charged in federal court with drug and money-laundering offenses, officials said.

Hundreds of police fanned out Wednesday to begin arresting people.

Information from those arrested so far could lead to charges against even more people.

The investigation is an attack on what police say has been a growing problem in recent years: Kentuckians going out of state to get prescriptions from doctors, primarily for pain pills, then bringing the pills back to sell and abuse.

"There's no higher priority than this prescription-pill battle," Bob McBride, criminal chief for the U.S. Attorney's Office for the eastern half of the state, said at a news conference in Lexington.

The number of people charged, while eye-opening, still doesn't show the true extent of the problem, said Kevin Payne, head of the state police drug-enforcement unit for Eastern Kentucky.

State police have information on 1,700 other people going out of the state to get pill prescriptions, Payne said.

"It tells me that this is a huge, huge problem," he said.

South Florida has been a key destination for Kentuckians seeking pills because it has a lot of pain clinics and, unlike Kentucky, has no system to track prescriptions.

The investigation, in the works for more than three years, was called Operation Flamingo Road — the road from Kentucky to Florida.

Officials would not comment on whether doctors in other states are under investigation. Some out-of-state doctors have been charged in previous cases after allegedly writing prescriptions for cash with only cursory examinations of Kentuckians.

The impact of drugs coming into the state is sobering.

Statistics show Kentucky leads the nation in the non-medical use of prescription drugs. In 2008, there were 877 accidental deaths in the state from prescription drug overdoses, said Kentucky State Police Commissioner Rodney Brewer.

There were more overdose deaths than fatalities from car wrecks, Payne said.

Officials said there was an unprecedented level of coordination among various agencies in the investigation.

State police and Operation UNITE, which investigates drug dealing in Eastern Kentucky, had most of the cases. But the FBI, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, Attorney General Jack Conway's office and the Rockcastle County Sheriff's Office also had cases, according to a list provided by state police.

The Appalachia High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area task force provided $165,000 to help fund the investigation and pay for travel costs as police ran down information in other states, Brewer said.

The first major investigation in which police could track Kentuckians to a source of pills at an out-of-state clinic was in 2006, when state police and the FBI, acting on information from the DEA, identified a pipeline from Philadelphia to Eastern Kentucky, Payne said.

Floyd County resident Timothy Wayne Hall was charged with heading a drug ring in which more than 150 people went to Philadelphia to get pills.

The most serious charge in the current case is against 52-year-old James Marsillett II, who is accused of heading an operation in which more than a dozen people went to Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio to get pills to sell in Pike, Floyd and Johnson counties.

Marsillett is charged in federal court with operating a continuing criminal enterprise. He could face life in prison if convicted.

Brewer said at the news conference Thursday that the drug roundup should reassure citizens that police are acting on their concerns about drug dealing.

Roundups also cause people to seek treatment, said Dan Smoot, law enforcement director for Operation UNITE.

The arrests this week already are cutting the illegal supply of pills in Kentucky, officials said.

"I think we're striking a major blow here today against this problem," Conway said.

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