Police officers fanned out across Eastern Kentucky on Wednesday to begin arresting hundreds of accused drug dealers, mounting an unprecedented attack on traffickers who allegedly bring pills from out of state to feed the region's debilitating drug problem.
The roundup was thought to be the largest in state history, with about 500 people to be charged. By late afternoon, police had arrested an estimated 200 people in more than a dozen counties, straining some jails.
"There is a large roundup going on in Eastern Kentucky, and every (state police) post in Eastern Kentucky is involved," said Capt. Kevin Payne, commander of the state police drug-enforcement unit for the eastern end of the state.
More arrests are expected Thursday. Most of the people are accused of being street-level dealers and will be charged in state courts, but some face federal prosecution.
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One key focus of the investigation is the pill pipeline between Eastern Kentucky and South Florida clinics. Police say it has become routine in recent years for Eastern Kentucky residents to travel to Florida, sometimes by the vanload, to get pain pills.
Florida is a key source of what Rick Bartley, commonwealth's attorney in Pike County, called a "tsunami" of pills into Eastern Kentucky.
It isn't the only source of pills coming into Kentucky, however. Addicts and dealers have brought in hundreds of thousands of pills from Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Ohio, Michigan and other states in recent years, according to records in various cases.
A federal indictment in the investigation that culminated with Wednesday's drug sweep charges 14 people with scheming to bring oxycodone and methadone to Johnson, Floyd, Pike and other counties from Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio starting in May 2005.
Those charged in that case include three generations of one family — James Marsillett Sr., James Marsillett II and James Marsillett III.
The total number of arrests Wednesday, as well as information on whether police seized drugs while making arrests, was not available from agencies involved in the roundup. Some officers said they'd been instructed to refer reporters to the U.S. Attorney's Office in Lexington.
There, spokesman Kyle Edelen said, "The U.S. Attorney's Office, pursuant to Department of Justice policy, can't confirm or deny investigations."
However, based on information from various sources, it appeared that about 200 people had been arrested by late afternoon.
State police in Pikeville said they expected to round up 75 to 100 people Wednesday in Pike, Floyd, Magoffin, Johnson and Martin counties.
At Three Forks Regional Jail in Lee County, Maj. Keith Combs said about 50 arrests were expected in Lee, Owsley and Wolfe counties.
In Rockcastle County, police arrested more than 20 people Wednesday morning.
Informants bought drugs undercover from people charged in the county, said Jeremy Bartley, assistant commonwealth's attorney.
"It's hitting these areas of rural Kentucky, Eastern Kentucky, the hardest," Bartley said of the pills coming from outside the state.
Authorities plan to release more information about the investigation Thursday.
The roundup capped an investigation that was in the works for more than a year. It was a major logistical undertaking, involving scores of officers from state, federal and local agencies.
The list of agencies involved was not available Wednesday, but Herald-Leader reporters saw officers from the Kentucky State Police, Operation UNITE, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, sheriff's offices and city police departments.
One sheriff said the FBI also was involved.
In Rockcastle County, dozens of officers began gathering before daylight in a parking lot across the street from the courthouse in downtown Mount Vernon. After a briefing, they split up and headed out with arrest packets in hand to rouse suspects from bed.
One reason the pipeline sprang up is that Kentucky has an effective system to track prescriptions, but Florida does not.
Physicians and pharmacists can use the Kentucky All Schedule Prescription Electronic Reporting system, known as KASPER, to figure out whether someone is going to multiple doctors to try to get drugs. Police use it to investigate people who divert legal pills to the black market.
Kentuckians seeking pills to sell or abuse leave the state to avoid that scrutiny, police say.
Earlier cases have documented the flow of drugs into Eastern Kentucky.
For instance, police found files on about 500 people from Boyd, Rowan, Carter, Greenup and Elliott counties when they raided the office of a South Florida doctor, Roger A. Browne, in April 2008, according to court files.
Drug dealers in Kentucky sometimes pay the way for people to go to Florida and get pills. The couriers get to keep some of the pills, while the dealers get the rest, according to records in other cases.
Doctors who ask few questions allegedly aid in efforts by Kentuckians to get pills in other states.
One man who admitted in an earlier case that he went to a Philadelphia doctor to get prescriptions said in a court document that the examinations there, "if performed, were cursory and fraudulent."
Florida has approved setting up a prescription-monitoring system but it's not in place.
The pill pipeline is to blame for deaths and crime in the region, police and prosecutors said.
In Montgomery County alone, there have been 20 overdose deaths in the last year linked to the type of drug trafficking targeted in Wednesday's roundup, Commonwealth's Attorney Keen Johnson said.
"We want to put a stop to the Florida pipeline," said Rockcastle County Attorney Billy Reynolds.