Task Force Formed

ELKINS – Nine agencies in three counties have joined forces to form the region’s first drug and violent crimes task force, U.S. Attorney William J. Ihlenfeld II announced Monday in Elkins.

The newly created Mountain Region Drug and Violent Crimes Task Force will specialize in the investigation and prosecution of drug-trafficking crimes in Randolph, Tucker and Pocahontas counties as well as the surrounding area, Ihlenfeld said during a press conference at the Jennings Randolph Federal Center.

“This is a great day for this region,” said Ihlenfeld, who was joined by local law enforcement officials, including Randolph County Prosecuting Attorney Michael Parker, Randolph County Sheriff Mark Brady and Tucker County Sheriff Brian Wilfong.

“It’s not such a great day for those who traffic drugs in the region,” he said, “and that’s because we have formed the Mountain Region Drug and Violent Crimes Task Force. All of us standing here today are both pleased, proud and excited to make this announcement today. It’s been a long time coming, and it’s something we put a lot of time and effort into pulling it together.”

The task force is comprised of the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of West Virginia’s Office, the Randolph County Sheriff’s Office, the Randolph County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, the Tucker County Sheriff’s Office, the Tucker County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, the Pocahontas County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, the West Virginia State Police, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the U.S. Forest Service. Its mission, Ihlenfeld said, is to prevent drug trafficking in the region, in the state and in the country.

Drug task forces work by developing what Ihlenfeld called a “subculture” of informants within the community who provide tips and information to various agencies, who are then able to solve crimes more quickly by pooling their knowledge and resources.

“The members of the task force recognize that by combining intelligence gathering and investigative efforts, the law enforcement assets of these agencies can be better utilized,” Ihlenfeld said. “And it’s the intent of these agencies to work together, to share resources, to be even more aggressive going after those who are trafficking drugs in this region.”

The ultimate goal of the task force is “to make West Virginia a safer place to live and a safer place to raise a family,” he said.

Although the task force will primarily be operating in Randolph, Tucker and Pocahontas counties, Ihlenfeld said he wanted to emphasize that it will have an impact across the Mountain State as well as the U.S.

“We see drugs coming into this region from all parts,” he said. “We see drugs coming from the western part of the United States; we see drugs coming from Detroit, Mich.; Baltimore, Md.; Pittsburgh, Pa.; and other parts of West Virginia, so when I say we’re going to have an impact regionally, statewide and nationally, I’m serious about that.”

For instance, if the task force identifies drug traffickers transporting pills from Detroit, Mich., to Randolph, Tucker and Pocahontas counties, Ihlenfeld said, “we’re going to go after those guys; we’re going to go after the source of supply in Detroit.”

The need for a drug task force here and now was never greater, the U.S. attorney added.

An October 2013 study Ihlenfeld referenced found that West Virginia is the number one state in the nation for drug overdose deaths.

And another study recently released by the West Virginia Board of Pharmacy found that the number of methamphetamine laboratories seized by law enforcement agencies in West Virginia in 2013 was more than 500 – almost double the number seized in 2012, Ihlenfeld said. Although most of those meth labs were seized in Kanawha County, Upshur County ranked fourth on the list, he added.

“Randolph, Barbour, Lewis and Greenbrier counties were also near the top of the list, my point being that you’re going to see a lot of meth manufacturing cases come out of this task force,” Ihlenfeld said.

“We certainly have our work cut out for us, but that just underscores why it’s important to have a group like this.”

While nine agencies are collaborating in the effort, the public is a “critical partner,” Ihlenfeld said.

“There are only so many sets of eyes and ears on this task force,” he stressed. “We can only see so much and hear so much, so we need the public to help us go after drug activity in our communities and neighborhoods.”

Residents who would like to report suspected drug-related activity are urged to call a special tip line that has been set up for the task force – 304-636-TIPS (8477). A website is being developed and will soon launch.

Parker said the Randolph County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office is proud to be a participating agency.

“I think there clearly is a need for this kind of task force in this area,” he remarked at Monday’s press conference. “This is something I’ve been contacted about by concerned constituents within Randolph County about forming. I look forward to having a good working relationship with each of these agencies and utilizing the shared information and shared resources to better combat and better investigate the drug problem in our area.”

Brady emphasized the importance of maintaining open lines of communication between federal, state and county law enforcement agencies when working toward the common goal of deterring drug trafficking.

“This common goal is something that the citizens of Randolph, Tucker and this whole region have wanted,” the sheriff said. “We listened to those citizens, and we will continue to listen to those citizens.”

Contact Katie Kuba by email at kkuba@theintermountain.com. Follow her on Twitter at IMT-Kuba.